How does combining a passion for education with a love of international travel sound? Pretty great, right? Teaching abroad at an international school may be the right choice for you. Fortunately, today we’ve got a real international teacher to share how he successfully landed an international teaching job!
I had the pleasure of featuring JJ in Educator on FIOR interview #25. I was thrilled when he offered to share his advice on getting an international teaching gig. He offers his experience, reviews and recommendations for search companies, and real-word examples. Reading this made me ready to get into the job hunt.
If you’re considering becoming an international teacher, this post is for you!
Table of contents
- Step 1: Prepare For Your Job Search With Your Current School / District
- Step 2: Sign Up With An International Teacher Recruiting Agency
- Agency Reviews and Recommendations
- Step 3: Put Together Your Application
- Step 4: Go to a Hiring Fair
- Step 5: Weigh Your Options and Go
Step 1: Prepare For Your Job Search With Your Current School / District
Take a Leave if Possible
As soon as the inkling of teaching internationally strikes you, you should probably make an appointment with your school’s or district’s HR person. In some cases, you can be granted a leave of absence for a year or two while you teach somewhere else; in other cases, you might need to resign totally. If you have the possibility, a two-year leave of absence would be better. Contracts for international schools are often two-year commitments, so you’d have a great backup plan in place.
Consider your Pension
Another topic to ask about is the retirement plan from that job – are you already vested? If not, how many years until you are? Any other restrictions or bonuses you have to deal with as you prepare to leave? When I first started in the international school scene, I encouraged my cousin’s wife to think about going abroad, but as she explained, she would have been giving up a large amount in her state’s retirement system. Check what your situation is.
Keep in mind throughout this process that the international calendar is several months ahead of what is typical for American school districts. One friend who used to teach in Nevada had to give notice to her district by April – at the school we’re at now, you give a soft indication of your intention by October and a final declaration by December. You’ll hear about colleagues declaring and landing jobs in September, and by the time winter break rolls around, some schools are done recruiting for the year. If your district’s declaration day in April is what prompts you to start your international school search, you probably won’t find much and might mistakenly assume a weak job market. There may have been great jobs for you on the market, it is just that they got filled earlier. That being said, there are always random events that can prompt an international school to hire in May or June.
Step 2: Sign Up With An International Teacher Recruiting Agency
There are several avenues to take to land a job. Once you have been on the “circuit” for a few years, you’ll find the most job search success by tapping into your contacts: friends at other schools, administrators from your school that have since moved, word of mouth in the staff room. You can also try contacting schools directly, and this can work, but in many cases, the schools will just ask if you are working with a recruiting agency and ask that you submit your materials to the school via those agencies. Schools can be a bit suspicious of candidates who contact them out of the blue since it is hard to vet those applications and there is no network for administrators to rely on to know who they are hiring. Until you have that network in place, it is best to work with a recruiting agency.
Agency Reviews and Recommendations
Search Associates is the biggest and most established, and in my survey of eight colleagues who have been on the market recently, it was the runaway winner for what people said they would use if they were going on the market for the first time. It was also the one I used when I was on the market ten years ago. They have the widest reach and attract the most schools, so therefore, if you register with them, you’re making sure your resume gets seen by the greatest number of hiring decision-makers. The downside of Search is then somewhat predictable – it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. When I went on the market way back when, I wasn’t the strongest candidate, so there was little incentive for Search to work that hard to place me. They definitely put in way more effort finding jobs for their strongest candidates, since they get faster and easier commissions that way.
ISS-Schrole is their biggest competitor. They also have a large reach, though not as wide as Search Associates. For whatever reason, they seemed to have a larger profile when I first started, and in asking around, I couldn’t find anyone who had worked with them in the past few years. For pros and cons, I haven’t heard as much, though really, they would be susceptible to the same tendency to work harder for teachers who were easy to place compared to hard to place. That’s just the nature of the business.
There are two other smaller alternatives. Global Recruitment Collaborative is a newcomer on the scene and has the benefit of a different business model – free for schools and free for candidates. The catch is that it is geared towards teachers already at one of the member schools when they want to go to another of the member schools. This is great if you have several years of experience internationally and want a different challenge, but not geared towards teachers who haven’t been abroad yet. Still, keep them in mind for the future. Carney Sandoe works mainly as a recruiter for independent schools in the US, but they do have international schools that hire through them as well.
As for fees, the last two are free for candidates, but the first two have a fee: Search charges $225 and ISS charges $75. Search’s fee is good for three years, though, so this can be a good option if you feel you might be tough to place, or else if you feel that you might be a bit picky when it comes to actually accepting an offer.
The fees may seem like a lot, but they shouldn’t stop you – the rewards for teaching internationally, in both financial terms and not, make the fee a bargain. If you are dead set on landing a job, I would even recommend signing up for both Search and ISS. You’d be guaranteed of having your application available to the entire market.
Step 3: Put Together Your Application
Skill in Education
Once you’ve signed up and paid the fee to the recruitment agency, you have to assemble your materials for your profile. You’ll need a resume and a statement about your teaching philosophy, and need to complete the rather lengthy application forms. You may also want to prep some evidence of good lesson plans or unit plans, since schools may ask for these, as well. I remember when I went on the market it seemed like a lot, but to view it from a school’s point of view, the application form is crucial since its not practical for you to pop on over to Dubai for a follow-up interview.
Ability to Work Internationally
As for hints with your application, do your best to convey your suitability as an educator and your suitability for living and working abroad. International schools are looking for great teachers, of course, but they also want teachers who can handle the challenges of teaching internationally – dealing with the inevitable culture shock, dealing with differences in how an international school might be run compared to a public school in a large school district, dealing with separation from friends and family in the US.
International schools are very wary of hiring a teacher from the States, settling them in, and then him/her breaking contract by leaving for winter break and not coming back. Use your application to highlight your flexibility and adaptability to new situations.
Step 4: Go to a Hiring Fair
Highly Qualified Candidates May Be Able to Go it Alone
It is quite possible for you to arrange Skype/Zoom interviews with a school, receive a job offer, and then sign a contract just based on your application. If you are a highly prized candidate, say someone with ten years of experience teaching AP Chemistry and Biology, you’ll find schools emailing you soon after submitting your materials. Your recruiter will help you with that process and provide advice on what questions to ask the school, the details of your contract, and importantly, what possibility you may have of landing a better job later. For some candidates, the application is enough and you can complete the process of going on the market and landing a job in a matter of weeks.
Choose a Fair Location
For the majority, however, and especially for teachers with less experience, those in more common fields (elementary school teachers, middle and high school English/Language Arts, etc.), or those who have never lived abroad, you should definitely plan on attending a job fair. These start in November and run through March or so. Some of the fairs are abroad (Dubai, London, and Bangkok especially), but there are also fairs held in the US in Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, and New York. You can find all the details on the agencies’ respective websites. There’s even one in January in Cedar Falls, Iowa!
When you sign up with a recruiting agency, you should definitely have in mind which job fair you will attend. If you land a job before then, then you don’t have to go, of course, but as you get closer to the fair, you’ll find schools reaching out to you and asking if they can interview at the job fair you’ve indicated you are going to. That’s their way of meeting you face-to-face.
What To Expect
Job fairs themselves are intense and chaotic affairs that can be very trying, but also very enlightening. Search Associates has made a nice little video that hints at what you can expect. Generally, they start off with some kind of evening social event and time for schools to meet with specific candidates.
Then the first full day, tables will be set up in a huge hotel ballroom or something, then doors will be opened and you and several hundred other candidates will file in to visit the representatives from the schools. Behind each table will be a huge poster with the positions each school is looking to fill, and then the schools will have their brochures available to you to take.
Encounters there are only 5-10 minutes long – enough time for the candidate and school to gauge whether an interview is necessary. Those take place in the afternoon and evening. Also in the evening are presentations by schools about themselves. If you’re really interested in a school it is a great idea to go to those, as it shows the school you are interested in them.
Advice For a Successful Job Fair
Some random advice for those attending a job fair: One, if you can afford it, I would definitely stay at the hotel where the fair is taking place. If you need to change your shirt, take a quick nap, or get ready for an interview, it is definitely helpful to just have a room a few floors up instead of a ways away. The year I went to a fair, I played it cheap and stayed at a different hotel nearby, but that was definitely a mistake.
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Two, you are interviewing the school as much as they are interviewing you. This is the best time to get a feel for the school, the location, and your administrators before you go.
Three, stay flexible (actually, this is the overarching advice for the whole process). You’ll find schools at the fair in places you might not even know existed, and just seeing what is out there is one of the most exciting parts of any fair.
The wrong approach for a fair is to go in thinking, “I’m only interested in the major capitals of Europe,” and actually, that’s probably the best way to ensure your disappointment. You are far more likely to land a great job if you go in with a very open mindset. You may not have ever thought about Bangladesh before, but that could be a great job for you.
Step 5: Weigh Your Options and Go
If you managed to get job offers before a fair, they generally come in over a few weeks or months, but if you get multiple job offers at a fair, that process is super compressed. You might have 4 hours to weigh three different offers on three different continents.
Either way, you’ll be faced with a dilemma: take the bird in the hand or wait for the two in the bush. We all know what the proverb suggests you do, but in the international job market, it can be very tough to decide.
You may have a job offer from a school in Vietnam that looks promising, but you recently also interviewed for a job in Argentina that is perfect for you, except that schools can’t make a formal offer just yet, even though they have hinted very strongly that it’s yours if you just wait for two weeks for things to shake themselves out.
Meanwhile, the school in Vietnam has given you 48 hours to decide yeah or nay. I wish I had the perfect advice for you, but really, every situation is different. I would say that if it is before a fair, you can be patient, but if you have good offers at a fair, don’t turn them down in hopes of finding something much better afterward. Hiring is still centered around the fair calendar and that’s when offers are probably easiest to get.
Do Your Research
As for deciding, one thing that may help is if a school has made an offer, ask the school if they can put you in touch with a current teacher on their staff in roughly the same situation as you. Try to find out some of the basics of the living situation – what the housing is like, how teachers get around, where to go jogging, etc. For all that schools talk about their school’s mission or their educational philosophy, a lot of why you may like a teaching situation comes down to the daily experience of living in that place.
Another way is to search the school on social media and see what people are saying about the school, and there are Facebook accounts for international educators that you can check in with.
Finally, there is a website called International Schools Review which works like an internet bulletin board for teachers to share their experiences with international schools. It costs $29 to sign up, but it allows you to search by school and by the administrator.
Do take what’s on there with several grains of salt, however. There was once a scathing review of my school by someone who was unhappy and wanted some revenge on the way out. But, if you knew the teacher, then you would have known the review was more about him than actually about the school. If you see a pattern in the comments, that would be more of a red flag.
If you are good/lucky enough to have several offers to choose from, you may want to have some criteria prepared to help you make the decision. Sometimes you’ll get a situation where you have an offer from a school that looks perfect, but you’re not as excited about the country it’s in, versus a school in a location that thrills you, but the school, or maybe the fit there, is not quite right.
Some international educators prioritize the job, and some the location. Before getting too far into the process, you may want to reflect on what your mindset is and how you might respond to different scenarios. As mentioned, though, the more flexible you are, the more successful (and happier) you’ll be with the entire process.
Others prioritize the money in their job search, which is a whole other layer. When thinking about the financial side, definitely try to get a sense not just of how much teachers make, but how much they can save.
You’ll see jobs in Switzerland offered for $75,000 a year, but you’d probably end up with way more in your bank account after a year in Bulgaria pulling down $55,000. Housing is also a tough area to gauge. Some schools pay you more and expect your housing to come out of your salary (as would be typical in the States, of course). But, many schools give you your salary plus a housing benefit, and some schools even have school-owned housing so you never even have to think of your housing costs.
You may want to check out the website The Earth Awaits which compiles rough estimates of living costs in other countries.
For the teacher going with a mindset of furthering their path to financial independence, be extra vigilant with becoming familiar with the salary, benefits, housing, and tax situations of the schools that you are looking at.
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If you have multiple offers, that is an invitation to negotiate a little, mostly in terms of what step on the salary scale you are coming in at. Once you are at a school, your leverage for negotiating salary on an individual basis lessens.
Also, as you start off on your new adventure, keep in mind that it can prove pretty difficult to save once you get to a new country and are tempted by all the new travel options. One can sign up to teach in Jakarta and think, “I’m just going to put my head down and save, save, save,” but a long weekend in Bali can prove very hard to resist. At the same time, if you are pursuing FI because you want to travel, then travel.
Get In the System – Then Optimize
Keep in mind that your first international school job will likely be the worst one you’ll ever have – once you are in the system, you’ll find that the process for finding your next job is easier and results in higher-paying jobs at better schools in better locations. The first job is tough, however, and if you are new internationally, you likely won’t have any references that the head of school in Kuala Lumpur, for example, will have heard of.
If you get on the international job market and find the pickings slim, you may want to adjust your mindset that it is a chance for you to get your foot in the door and build your network. Once you have that first job internationally, you’ll find that the possibilities for that second job multiply. By the time you get to your fourth or fifth job, you’ll find that the world is your oyster.
Flexibility Is Key
Finally, flexibility is key. The cliché in the job search is the teacher who comes in saying something like “I’m looking at Paris, Rome or Madrid, but will take Barcelona if the pay is at least $70K a year.” You may land a job at $70,000 a year but it’s in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; you may get offered something in Barcelona but it’s for $28,000. Still, that job in Jeddah may be great and will pay you enough to take your spring break in Barcelona or wherever.
Be open to situations you don’t anticipate and you will, in fact, BE happier in situations you didn’t think about going in.
Really helpful right? Thanks to JJ for providing us with real-world guidance from an international teacher. Now, get out there and teach abroad!
If you’ve got anything to add or additional questions, feel free to drop a comment below.