Few places are more excitingly diverse than the classroom of an international school, and this is where many expats choose to earn their living while exploring the world. There are now thousands of such schools offering opportunities to live and work for an academic year—or longer—overseas.
Your position will typically include a housing allowance… travel back to your home country at least every other year… bonuses…work visas…sometimes health care…a nine-month work schedule…free education for your children…and other perks.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than a literature class with students from 15 different countries,” says former teacher Nick Daniel.
“Imagine the range of perspectives when we studied Orwell’s 1984 at a school in China…or discussed women’s rights at a school in Thailand. The best international schools are a beautiful flowering of openness and cultural diversity. They celebrate differences and foster kids with a tolerant, global outlook.
“Sometimes I’d remember what I’d escaped from back home: oversized classes, low salaries, de-motivated colleagues, low savings and— very often—students who couldn’t care less about learning.”
Anyone with a teaching credential can apply to work in an international school. In fact, even if you don’t have a credential but have a college degree, you may be able to apply for temporary credentials and take continuing education courses while teaching. (See International Schools Review)
The school really takes care of everything. One Thai school actually arranges a lunch party for the visa officials to come out to the school. The teachers just sign the forms on the spot.
Salaries for less experienced teachers can start at about $20,000, but more experienced teachers can earn in the $60,000 range. Administrators earn even more. Teachers have been known to return to the U.S. after long careers, with considerable savings…and wonderful memories.
It’s no secret that international schools offer some of the most sought after teaching positions abroad. Every year, thousands of teachers gather at recruitment fairs in Boston, Vancouver, Toronto, London, Hong Kong, and other cities around the world.
Run by Search Associates (SA) and International Schools Services (ISS), they are proof of the high demand for great teachers in every corner of the globe. At the last count, Search Associates was recruiting for over 600 schools in more than 160 countries: 70 in China, 23 in Germany, 18 in Saudi Arabia, and 12 in Brazil. And that’s just the tip of a very big iceberg.
Les Olson and his wife, Jane, who are now in their 60s, only turned to teaching when they were 39. They knew of the Rewarding Income with International Schools Continued from page 1 potential for an overseas life working in international schools and, after teaching in California for three years, they decided to try it.
“That particular year, the ISS Hiring Fair was in San Francisco, just up the peninsula from where we were teaching,” recalls Les. “We had secure positions for the next school year but had not signed contracts yet, so if we came away from the recruitment fair empty-handed, we could choose to stay in our present jobs. We received several offers and ended up accepting a contract to teach in Romania at the International School of Bucharest.”
Three years in Romania was followed by stints in Saudi Arabia, China, Indonesia, and Nigeria. “China was the most welcoming country in our overseas careers,” says Les. “Shopping was fun. Good music was easy to find, along with great food. And incredible historical sites were very accessible.
“While we were in Saudi Arabia the Red Sea became our entertainment with some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world, as our posting in the Kingdom was in the western province, right on the Red Sea in Yanbu.”
Their salaries during that time ranged from $30,000 in Romania to $90,000 in Nigeria, which included a 30% hardship payment for the security risk of living in the West African country. They generally had live-in maids to look after their homes and take care of their West Highland terrier.
“When you work overseas, you receive a foreign income exclusion for federal income tax purposes, up to $99,200 as of 2014,” says Les. “The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion when we started in 1993 was $62,000. As teachers we never met that income criteria, so in our 20 years overseas we never paid any federal taxes on our salaries. This became part of our savings plan for retirement.
“Additionally, depending on the cost of living for the various countries in which we lived and worked, we were able to save one complete salary—or up to one-and-a-half salaries. We also received a retirement bonus from most schools, paid in cash, which we faithfully saved and invested because the down side of this type of employment is the lack of a pension plan at the end.”
Moving around the world can be stressful and requires a good deal of flexibility and a sense of humor, according to Les. “There were no perfect schools in our 20-year experience,” he says. “But there were some aspects of all of them that we absolutely loved. The bottom line here is you need to do your homework and investigate all the various options available to you.”
Most hiring for international schools takes place at fairs that begin in December and continue through to March at various venues around the world. There are fairs on both coasts of North America—in Canada and the United States—and also one in Iowa.
The two aforementioned companies, ISS and SA facilitate the majority of these fairs. Several new companies as well as ISS and SA are now doing interviews via Skype as well, but this often depends on your educational specialty.
However, global traveler Suzanne O’Rourke, 56, didn’t go the route of the hiring fair. As an expat child, she grew up in Asia and learned to love travel at a young age. She was actually overseas— touring Central America with her husband, John—when the opportunity to teach in an international school arose.
“We were living on our sailboat in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico when someone knocked on our hull,” she remembers. “The director of the local international school, Colegio Americano, in Puerto Vallarta introduced himself. Through a mutual friend, he knew my name and that I had a teaching credential.
“He offered me a two-week substituting job. I jumped at the opportunity. A week later I started substitute teaching third and fourth grade. I loved the job, they loved me, and I was offered a permanent position.”
Suzanne describes her teaching experience as extremely positive but has this advice for anyone contemplating it: “Get hired outside the country you wish to teach in. Because I was hired locally, I was paid local wages and benefits which were significantly lower.”
She also noticed that couples have an advantage in being hired because, from the school’s point of view, they get two employees for one housing allowance. And coveted assignments like Western Europe, Singapore, and Japan are typically won by veteran international teachers. You have to earn those with a good resume and reputation.
The best salaries, according to Suzanne, tend to be in the Middle East. And the specialties most in demand are math, science, foreign languages, and computer skills.
“I have friends who taught in 10 countries over 30 years, raised their children with a global view, traveled the world, and retired well,” she says. “Another teacher I met in the U.S. was thinking of ditching her 20 years as an educator to become an air stewardess because she wanted to travel.
“Instead she and her husband and young son moved to the Middle East for seven years. Both taught in three countries. They traveled all over the world during their holidays. By the time they returned to the U.S. they had an impressive savings account and had enjoyed the time of their lives.
“The friendships made in these schools seem to last a lifetime and possibly are the richest benefit of all. If you love kids and want a great career that is mobile, teaching abroad could be your ticket to adventure.”
Comparisons with Home
Twenty-nine-year old primary school teacher Katie Doyle has always been passionate about travel. Now she has taken a sabbatical from her position in Dublin, Ireland to pursue a teaching opportunity in San Juan del Sur, which is on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast.
For Katie life in the classroom at San Juan del Sur Day School is miles apart from south Dublin, both literally and figuratively.
“Coming from a school where there was a laptop for every student and interactive white boards in the classroom to a place where it can be challenging to source regular teaching tools and supplies has definitely required me to become more imaginative with my teaching,” explains Katie.
But with only 14 children in her classroom—instead of 25 or 30—she has a lot more individual time to give to her students. Katie’s students range in age from 4 to 8 years old.
“A mixed age class is a new experience for me, but I am really enjoying the challenge of having such a variety of ability levels within one group,” says Katie.
Katie’s work days are much shorter in Nicaragua. With classes starting at noon she has mornings free to study Spanish, practice yoga, and surf—a pastime for which Nicaragua is particularly well known. School days finish at 4 p.m., leaving plenty of time to catch sunset on the beach with friends—one of the great benefits of living in a beach town.
With the low cost of living in Nicaragua, Katie’s salary is enough to cover her rent and day-to-day living expenses while allowing her the freedom to enjoy her desired lifestyle. She shares a two-bedroom, one-bathroom furnished apartment with her roommate from New Zealand, who is also a teacher at the San Juan del Sur Day School. Their combined rent is a mere $300 per month.
I may not have a whole lot of disposable income, but I do get to live in a beach town, which would cost a small fortune elsewhere. —Katie Doyle “I may not have a whole lot of disposable income, but I do get to live in a beach town, which would cost a small fortune elsewhere. And if I want to take a special trip somewhere I just cut back on my spending a few weeks beforehand,” says Katie.
Since living and traveling in Central America was nothing new for Katie she had a relatively good idea of what to expect when she arrived in San Juan del Sur. Nonetheless small town living took some getting used to.
“Working at home in a big city, I would rarely, if ever, see my students or their families outside of school,” she says. “Here I bump into them everywhere I go—sometimes at a pool, at the beach, or even at a bar. Feeling like there was no separation from work life and personal life was strange at first, but once I realized I didn’t have to have my ‘Teacher’s Hat’ on 24 hours a day things got easier.”
When asked what advice she would give to someone contemplating overseas teaching Katie answered without hesitation. “Do your research. Decide where you want to live and what type of school you want to work at. Don’t accept a job just because it’s the bestpaying one.”
Just eight months after her arrival in San Juan del Sur—with some great adventures already behind her and a whole lot of the country left to explore—Katie is thrilled to be teaching in Nicaragua.
“I love the people and their way of life. I love the laid-back atmosphere and the lack of materialism. I love the fact that I can be relaxing on a beautiful deserted beach one day and take a one-and-a-half-hour drive to a beautiful colonial city the next.”
The Asian Experience
Countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian nations are full of opportunity for teaching. Ross Tague, 42, from Columbus, Ohio, initially became interested in teaching abroad when a friend got a job at an international school. “After doing some research, I got very excited,” says Ross, who has also taught in schools in Honduras and Turkey.
Currently a middle school counselor at an international school in Bangkok, Thailand, Ross appreciates working with students from all over the world who respect and value education and their teachers. “Students come to school ready and excited to learn,” he says.
And a lucrative compensation package means that Ross’s salary as a teacher abroad is higher than what it would be back in the U.S. “I can live a comfortable life here and still have enough left to save,” he says.
Pursuing his passion for teaching while exploring new cultures is a dream job for Ross, who has a U.S. teaching certificate and has lived in Thailand for nine years. “I keep extending my contract,” he says. “Asia is an easy place to live…you have the vibrant cities, the welcoming people, and some great travel opportunities.”
On his downtime, he explores the temples and parks outside Bangkok, or spends time at the beach with his young family.
Susi Pucci, 43—who has taught at schools in the Dominican Republic, Lesotho, and Thailand, and currently teaches in Bali, Indonesia—agrees that the rewards of international teaching are numerous.
“Teaching abroad is a whole different system of its own…there are students from many different cultures learning from each other…beside each other,” she says. And, according to Susi, the learning is not limited to the students. “I find that opportunities to learn from Asia are endless, and I feel fortunate to have the eastern mindset expand my cultural roots of western thinking.”
Susi also appreciates that her employer takes care of the paperwork necessary for her Indonesian visa and work permit. “Thank goodness the school handles this,” she says. “It’s part of the benefits package.” Living in a sleepy beach community outside Bali’s capital of Denpasar, Susi takes advantage of the local lifestyle, where she enjoys long walks on the beach after work. “I always count my blessings for being able to experience the expatriate life, and Bali is no different.”
Nick Daniel began his global travels by teaching English as a foreign language and then started teaching at international schools around Asia in the late 90s, making a career of it. “In seven years I progressed from classroom teacher to head of department to diploma coordinator for the International Baccalaureate—the fastest-growing curriculum in the world—running high school academic programs. I became a workshop leader and examiner for the IB, which meant frequent trips to Hong Kong, Japan, Sydney, Singapore, Cambodia, India, and Indonesia.
“I also became a consultant for the Council Susi Pucci really appreciates how her school handled all the paperwork for her Indonesian visa and work permit for International Schools, advising schools in Asia on curriculum and learning. None of it would have been possible without the strong philosophy of ‘lifelong learning’ I encountered at every school that hired me. And the opportunities for growth are phenomenal. Many schools offer a professional development fund. I used mine to the hilt.”
Non-teachers, he observes, also have opportunities for working in international schools. But while teacher-librarians and guidance counselors are hired internationally, business managers, lab technicians, teacher assistants, and secretaries are usually hired in-country.
Nick used the opportunity to travel extensively and relished every moment of his free time by searching for wild pandas in China…horse-riding on the Mongolian plains…meditating at a temple in Kyoto… and more.
But his time inside the classroom was equally rewarding.
“Teaching at an international school is pure joy. The kids are highly motivated (mostly). And the diversity is great. Every year as I watched my high school cohort graduate, I’d think: ‘the world needs more kids like this.’”
The Perks of Teaching Overseas
There are some serious advantages to teaching in an international school. You might want to consider them if you want an overseas life.
Regular Income: You can make great savings by living in a low-cost economy on a good wage. Many teachers find themselves in an excellent financial position at the end of their careers.
Accommodation: Your housing is provided, so you don’t have to worry about trying to find a place to live when you get there.
Visas: The school takes care of all your paperwork and cutting through all that red tape is a great bonus.
Cultural Interaction: You’re going to meet so many nationalities when you join an international school. It opens up your world to friendship across borders.
Career Prospects: You’ll find lots of opportunity for progression and, as you become more experienced, your options for moving around the world are enhanced.
Great Students: Many experienced teachers report a greater willingness to learn among international students. It brings you back to what you hoped teaching would be. In our 20 years overseas we never paid any federal taxes on our salaries. —Les Olson
How to Prepare for an International School Career
• Be prepared to go anywhere! Job fairs are full of surprises—you may even get offers from countries you know absolutely nothing about.
• Make an impression. Research the schools before going to a job fair. Bring photographs or even a short video of yourself teaching or working with students, as well as samples of student work so you can talk through your teaching process and highlight best teaching practices. Make a list of the ways you contribute to school life outside the classroom.
• Up your game. Teach a second subject. Get leadership experience by, for example, running field trips or coaching a team.
• Get International Baccalaureate training. The IB offers three-day workshops in all subjects for experienced teachers. The workshops are an introduction to the IB curriculum and philosophy, the assessment process, resources, and best teaching practice. They prepare an already-experienced teacher to take the next step in becoming an IB teacher.
• Show total involvement in school life. Coach a team, volunteer to run a community service project, offer to take students on field trips, become a teacher member of the school band. It’s a competitive world out there, and you need to stay on top.
Different Types of International School
There are generally two types of international school, and your experience will be different in each, so check out how they are set up as part of your research.
• Schools that service overseas diplomats, expat business people, and, in some locations, rich local business people. These schools have school boards and are not for profit.
• Schools that service the kids of expat business people and well-off locals, do not have school boards, and are for profit.
Both types of schools generally provide housing and health insurance, as well as pay for all or most of the utilities, in-country taxes, work visas, and transportation to and from your home of record. Not-for-profit schools provide home-of-record transport yearly, but many for-profit schools are every two years. The for-profit schools are businesses first. If you have been an educator for some time in a non-profit organization, you haven’t had to make monetary decisions when it comes to your teaching style.
The pay at the non-profit schools can be pretty lucrative depending on the cost of living for the country. The for-profit schools are not as lucrative. The teachers live well but are not able to save as much.