International Teaching – Is it for you?

The decision to be a international teacher can be a difficult and daunting prospect, particularly if you are a teacher who has no experience of what it is like living and working in a different country. Before I talk about if it´s right for you I will tell you about myself to give some background information of BEFORE I first moved.

Age: 28 Gender: Male Living status: living with parents

Reason to move : To make a long distance relationship work, enjoy the better weather while being a PE teacher.

Previous teaching experience: 1 year in the Scottish education system.

Since then,  I have taught 3 years in Monterrey, Mexico and will begin a new job of working in Milan, Italy in the following weeks. During this time, I asked my girlfriend (Mexican) to move in with me after 9 months living there, which helped me a lot to adjust my life of moving away from everything I knew in Scotland. It was worth the effort as we recently got married before our move to Milan.  International teaching can be a challenging, but rewarding endeavour if you are aware of what is necessary for you to enjoy the experience. At the end of each section I will list a pros and cons for each entity I feel is important to make your decision. The location of where you move to will require you to have an open mind and for you to have the capability or willingness to be more independent. No matter where you move to, these factors will be universal.

Language

The national language of the country you move to will unlikely be English. Was I able to speak Spanish before I moved? Absolutely not! However, your school is not hiring you to teach in their language.

They are hiring you to teach in English!

While not knowing the national language may seem like a disadvantage, the school will likely help you to learn it with private classes and likely employ a bilingual leader who can translate the necessary information while you are learning the language. If a parent requests a meeting with you about their child, then you are not expected to speak in the national language. You should speak in English and let the bilingual person in the room translate it for you. After 3 years of living in Mexico, I am able to speak Spanish proficiently and understand almost everything as long as the person does not speak too fast or use slang terminology. Regardless of having learned the language, I spoke in English, because when speaking with a parent you don´t want to use the wrong terminology or use a word which may offend the parent.

Furthermore, if you move to an international school were there is a low percentage of international teachers (in my school it was only 5-10% over the 3 years), then you have the advantage of being one of the experts in the English language. Despite the national teachers being very good at English, there are always some phrases or inaccurate words they use, though this varies from teacher to teacher. This is where you can help other departments by making yourself available and allowing other teachers to view you as a valuable resource who can help them through any doubts or questions they might have relating to the English language.

Pros: The fastest way to learn a new language is to live in the country. Especially if you end up finding romance, how much more encouragement do you need?

Cons: If you are not fluent in the national language, then some, if not all your school meetings can be in the national language, which will require extra patience and question making from your part. Sitting for hours each week and not understaning can be tedious and difficult to accept if you like to be involved in the decision making process.

Culture

Culture will play a major part in wether or not you are able to enjoy living and working in your country that you have chosen. Having an open mind to different cultures is maybe the most important part to consider. If you are expecting everything to be the same as your home country or expecting people to revolve around what you know then you will struggle and likely want to go home. Try to embrace the differences and block out the frustrations.

During my 3 years in Mexico I´ve developed a love/hate relationship with the country. I love the food, the cheap beer, the weather and the history of the country. However, they are things that I did not like. From my British perspective, were being on time and agreeing deadlines make for a good character trait, you find in the opposite to be true in Mexico, where that trait isn’t valued much. I grew to hate the word “ahorita”. This literally means “soon”, but in Mexico it could literally mean today, tomorrow, next week or in some cases, never!

Regarding cultural differences in the workplace,  it’s very common for staff to show up late and delay the start of meetings, use cell phones and have side conversations while another person has the floor.

Finally, the culture in Mexico is that if you arrange to meet people for a meal or drinks at 8 p.m., expect an arrival time of, at the least, thirty minutes after that time and don’t be surprised if you have some no shows, despite confirmation of their presence earlier earlier in the evening.

Therefore, remember to be open minded, as I´m sure some other countries will be like this or you may have the other extreme of Germany, where everything is supposed to be done efficiently and do not like any lateness on meetings or deadlines.

Pros: Working in a different country helps you to realise the fantastic parts of your own culture that you can share with the school and your new friends in that country.

Cons: When that culture does not fit well with your culture. I had a lot of moments trying to explain the element of respect, but for them it is not about disrespecting you. That is their culture and that is the way it works, so after some time, I let the small things go. I still have to mask my frustrations when people do not turn up to a social gathering, or are 30 minutes late without even having the courtesy to send a text.

Lifestyle

The lifestyle you will have in a foreign country will potentially improve, in comparison to that which you have in your home country (strictly from teaching salary). Salaries obviously vary by country, and it’s likely that you’ll be earning less money than you would be in your home country. This happened to me in Mexico. I was earning less money than I could be making in Scotland, but, being an international teacher, I received benefits that the local teachers didn’t. For example, my school paid for my amazing apartment, arranged daily transportation to and from work, and paid for return flights home each Summer so I could visit my family. After all these benefits, the comparatively high salary for Mexican teachers and the low cost of living, I was actually able to save more money than I would have being a teacher in Scotland.  So the more difficult it is to attract foreign teachers, the more benefits you will likely receive. The new contract I have accepted in Milan comes with fewer benefits, but with a good salary that should allow me to save slightly more money than I would in Scotland.

Pros: You will potentially have a better lifestyle than what you do for a normal teacher in your home country (do your homework first about cost of living).

Cons: Being away from your friends and family may make you spend more money than you think on going home during the holidays. The further you move away, the less people will come visit you. I had 3 visits from different people during my time in Mexico due to the long distance travel and high cost for my family and friends to fly over.

Curriculum

An international school is there to blend mixtures of different cultures. If you have an important cultural event from your country, speak in advance in your meetings to see if it will benefit the school or if it will be a fun educational activity to include in your class(es). You may be teaching the same curriculum from your home country in that school, which will be an advantage, but the cultural differences at that school mean you will likely need to amend some resources or change the wording of certain things so the students in the country will understand the significance of the event more clearly. If you will teach a new curriculum, then get as much professional development as you can. Thankfully in my case, my school sent me to courses in Mexico City and Chicago so that I was able to accelerate my understanding of what was needed for my curriculum of the International Baccalaureate (IB).

Pros: Teaching your existing curriculum or new curriculum really helps you to reflect on the necessary core aspects of what your students should be taught. A lot of areas for reflection, discussion and improvement on important subject/school matters.

Cons: Learning a new curriculum can be challenging and take patience, particularly if there is not another subject matter expert to help you through the paperwork required or to debate with you about what structure to implement in your classes.

In conclusion, I would recommend international teaching to people who have an adventurous spirit. Schools will generally offer you a 1 or 2 years contract with them. That will be more than enough time for you to consider staying or going. I´ve heard of teachers who have worked at the same school in their home country their entire lives, which of course is comendable. But why not take a risk for a year or two? After all, your home will always be there for you. You can always go home knowing, “I gave it a chance, I learned a lot about myself and my work”. For me, I´ve earned this fantastic opportunity to work in Milan and I´ll need to remember to open my mind to their language and culture, and embrace an entirely new lifestyle.

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