Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Finding an Overseas Position: Do Your Homework!

Part onePart two; Part three

Once you find a position you're interested in, what should you do?  What any good librarian knows:


            While I’ve painted a rather rosy picture of overseas teaching, it is not without its hazards and drawbacks.  It can be hard enough dealing with culture shock that first year without having to survive a bad school environment as well.  Just as schools in the States vary, international schools can be good or bad, but carry the added baggage of dragging you away from your comfort zone into a culture where you probably don’t speak the language or understand how to work the system.  Thus, before accepting a position, you must spend time finding out as much as you can about the school and the country.

1) Think seriously about what type of environment you want.  Shaun Henriksen at I.S. Havana warns, “one person's 'amazing' place might not be another's and vice versa.  Some factors depend on whether you are married, single, have a family,  or want a community to get involved with.  If you love big cities and night life, don’t accept a position in Madagascar!” Also think about the schools.  Large schools usually offer great resources, but it’s easy to get lost in the crowd.  Small schools may have a bit less, but create a sense of family and belonging.  Know where your comfort zone lies.  Of course, you also need to be open to new possibilities. When I first started looking into overseas positions, I was thinking Athens, London, Paris.  I barely even knew Turkey existed! I ended up in Ankara, and loved (almost!) every minute of the five years I spent there.

2.  Start early!  The international hiring season kicks into high gear starting in January, then continues until June, though most jobs are filled by the end of March.  Thus, you will need to have your placement file, recommendations, etc. in order by November at the latest.  Schools start posting openings in October, and may even conduct Skype interviews in November and December.  Now is not too soon to start building your file with an agency.

3)  Once you find an opening of interest to you, peruse the school’s website to try to get a feel for its focus and values.  Check out the State Department’s website for any safety warnings related to the country (though be aware they do exaggerate warnings; there were frequent  “Do not travel” warnings during my five years in Turkey, yet I never once felt threatened or in danger, even though I often travelled alone.)

4)  Subscribe to the International Schools Review
As I said in the previous post, I am not a complete fan of the site, but it is definitely useful if you bear a few points in mind.  The site consists of two parts: a blog on topics of interest to ex-pat teachers, and a
 separate ($29) school review site where teachers anonymously write reviews and rate the schools and/or directors where they work.  As you can imagine, it has come to be a place where disgruntled employees vent, so you have to be able to read between the lines.  To further confuse matters,  school owners or administrators sign on and write glowing reviews of themselves.  Fortunately, those are pretty easy to spot:  just watch for a string of 9’s and 10’s and sometimes quirky English!  When I use the site, I’m basically looking for patterns.  One negative review out of many is not too worrisome; if a school has several negative reviews, that may be a sign of problems. Each post will list the school’s administrator at the time the teacher worked at the school; be aware of changes here.  Administrators can make a huge difference in a school, for good or bad. I also use these reviews to generate pointed questions during the interview process.

5) During or after the interview, ask your director for a list of the faculty emails, so you can email and ask questions.  If possible, try to avoid the director just giving you the name of one contact person.  You can bet that’s a person the director knows will give a good response.  If you can’t get a full faculty list, at least ask for several different addresses, allowing you some choice in whom you contact. Many school’s websites include faculty email addresses, so be sure to look there.  If the director will not give you email addresses, or keeps putting you off, drop the school.  The worst job I ever had, the director kept promising to get me some contacts, but always had a reason he couldn’t “at the moment.”  Like an idiot, I took the job.  I now call that school “The Hellhole.”  Lesson learned. 

Ask what the school will do to help you settle in.  At a minimum, the school should handle and pay for any visas or work permits. If housing is not immediately available upon your arrival, the school should put you up in a hotel for several days and assist with apartment/house hunting.  There should be a week's orientation for new faculty to familiarize you with the school, the community, help in shopping, setting up bank accounts, etc.  Finally, ISR recently reported on a new internet scam aimed at the international teaching community, so be aware that no reputable school will ask for money up front to pay for housing, work permits, etc.

            Once you’re overseas, you may never look back!  Of course there are the frustrations of culture shock and adjusting to a new job, but that is all part of the fun.  Ironically, people who return home after several years overseas often experience reverse culture shock, and have a harder time re-adjusting to “normal” life than they did to life overseas.   After ten years overseas, I did come back to the States; however, I found myself missing the international life more and more, returning after to it three years. Whether you live in Botswana,  Burma, or Bolivia, living in another country broadens your world view and increases your self-confidence in ways you’d never expect.  You learn that, as long as you have money and your passport, most problems can be resolved, and you actually learn to enjoy the rituals in haggling over prices or spending two hours working your way through the levels of the PTT just to pick up a package of stale Cheez-Its your well-meaning mother mailed four months earlier.

            More importantly, international education is a growing market, with over 900 American, British, Anglo-American and International schools worldwide and more added every year,  most of them hiring passionate, dedicated teachers eager for new experiences.   Whether you’re out of a job or just seeking something different and exciting,  looking into international schools opens a new world of possibilities.  Dive in!

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