From Public School Teacher to International Educator

How do you make the transition from classroom teacher in Wichita to international educator in Doha and beyond?  A public school teacher from the US recently wrote ISR:

“I ‘m a veteran (19th year) elementary, public school teacher interested in international teaching.  I would very much appreciate some feedback on what qualities are advantageous to having a successful experience as an international teacher.  What helped to make your experiences successful….?”

If you’ve made the transition from public education to international teaching and have experiences to share with teachers entertaining the idea of taking the leap, we invite you to add your comments.

12 thoughts on “From Public School Teacher to International Educator

  1. After 25 years as an educator in Canada, I went overseas to Saudi Arabia – best move I ever made, both in terms of career and life opportunities. I agree with all the advantages listed above – most important is that you get to teach a reasonable load and are appreciated in most cases. You need to research carefully possible schools before you attend a hiring fair, and be clear on what qualities are most important to you. At different stages in life, these qualities can change. When our children (teens) were with us, it was important to us to have a larger school with a wide range of academic and extracurricular programs, esp in a limited country like Saudi. Now that our kids are in college, we have more options open and are enjoying a smaller school in South America. As a person who has a comfortable Canadian pension now and appreciates the advantages, I would caution younger teachers to be really sure that they can discipline themselves to saving/investing while overseas in a way that will provide for them in the future. It seems distant, but it will come upon you very quickly! Good advice from your accountant or financial advisor back home is worth the price.

    Also, be aware that the school is generally only as good as its leaders, and without being part of a larger “system” as in public school, the quality of a school can change very quickly. This can of course be either good or bad! ISR is a fantastic source of information for teachers thinking of going overseas – keep up the good work!


  2. Someone asked about retirement, so thought I’d throw in my experience. It varies greatly from school to school…I have been at a school that paid NOTHING for retirement, a school that matched up to 10% into an excellent TIAA CREF account (so I saved 20% a year), and a school that gave you cash in hand to invest as you saw fit. Of course none of these are as good as my Texas teacher retirement pension.

    I was fully vested in my state retirement fund when I went overseas (vesting can vary from 5 yrs to 10 years–in my state it’s 5). I left the money in there!

    After several years abroad, I came back to my state, returned to teaching here, and after being back a year could purchase my overseas years in the state retirement system, 1 year for every year I had in the state system. NOTE: They told me no a jillion times, but I read the rules carefully and found a loophole: if the school you work at overseas receives US State Dept funding (and it will if it has even one US Embassy kid)you can purchase those years back into your state system (at least here in Texas). I was lucky I had been in such a school. I got a verification letter from the US State Dept(very easy–they have a list of schools and are used to doing this) and purchased all my overseas years. IMO, there is no investment that is going to offer the same lifetime guaranteed return as my pension.

    Of course, the catch with this is you have to return to your state to purchase those years, and after experiencing the wonderful, motivated students abroad and discovering what it is like to actually TEACH 100% of the time instead of dealing with state testing and behavior problems, you may never want to come back!


  3. I taught an entire career in Canada before going overseas to work in international schools, and make the following observations:

    Students in international schools seem to be much more polite, more sophisticated, and usually more motivated academically, perhaps because of their socio-economic status and the high tuition their parents are paying. They are a joy to work with! I have heard that students in the Middle East are generally not as well behaved, and that students in Latin America are not as motivated as I have indicated.

    There are many positive aspects to working in international schools including the small classes, generally good resources and facilities, the support of the school in terms of visas, housing, banking, health care, etc. I had gorgeous condos provided that were much nicer than my accommodations in Canada. The faculties are usually dynamic, adventurous and a lot of fun as you form a temporary community together; there is always someone to play or travel with and to share your varied interests from symphony to golf.

    Because each school is an “island”, if you have worked in North American public schools then many of the issues and topics of discussion at faculty meetings have an aspect of “reinventing the wheel”, and administrators are not always aware of the obvious solutions or many of the current educational trends.

    International schools are actually communities with very active and usually very supportive parents. There are many family-oriented events and the schools are very sociable places. There is not the anonymity of public North American schools, and that can be a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective.

    One learns a tremendous amount about world cultures, histories, customs, geography, and more when teaching internationally; I became so much more aware, and loved the opportunities to travel and see more of the world. It is important to be accepting of and open to the differences in your new country and not to regret or miss or talk about things from “home”; presumably, the reason one would go overseas is to see and learn something new. All of the things you miss will still be there when you return home; meanwhile, vive la difference!!!


  4. I taught in Ohio, Florida, and Texas public schools. Also, I had the privilege of working in international
    schools in South Korea, Kuwait, and Thailand. Once I worked overseas, I did not have any desire to work in
    American schools again. My advice is to know exactly what kind of school environment that you want. Allow yourself one year to prepare and locate your school. You can find e-mail addresses and administrator names on the internet. Also, you can locate teacher e-mail addresses at the school. Send resumes to chosen school administrators in early fall. Communicate with teachers via e-mail. Then decide what procedure you will follow to interview. I try to find schools that have head masters from non-Western nations. Many administrators bring their attitudes and procedures with them. Once you have matched the school with your needs and wants, you are ready to go overseas. Leave your Western attitude at the shoreline of your country. I taught one half of the day and had the other half to prepare for class in Kuwait and Thailand. Meals are free for teachers at some schools. The school paid for my apartment in Kuwait and South Korea. Flexibility is very important. Do not bore the other staff members about your procedures in your Western schools. Culture is the glue that holds a country together. Many overseas children and teachers have a deep respect for their traditions, procedures, etc. In Muslim countries, I was not allowed to use stories that had reference to Christmas or other religious holidays. The Persian Gulf is the Arabian Gulf. Do not bad mouth senior government leaders in public. Know the culture. I keep a small tablet with me. I write various phrases which include school names and addresses. Also, I write where is the toilet, where is the bus tation, etc. These are written in English. Then on the first or second day, I will ask a school staff member or a clerk at a five star hotel to write the same thing in his/her language. You will eventually learn survival phrases in the foreign language. The last thing I think is important to mention. If you have children and do not discipline them, I would suggest that you should be cautious of taking them overseas. Good luck!


    1. Wow! This is the best, response I have EVER seen to such a question. You seem to have the maturity, perspective, and openness needed to respect and be respected. I would love it if my kids could be in your classroom one day!


  5. I was wondering if anyone could speak to the issue of pensions, retirement, investments, etc. How have you dealt with changing from a public system with retirement and benefits to, perhaps, one without anything at all.


  6. I went from an inner city public school to an IB two years ago. I was pleasantly surprised that most of my colleagues here have at least a masters degree. Continuing education is desirable,provided for, and is not seen as threatening.Workshops take place in Japan, China, Thailand or India, not the sleazy part of town. The students actually have school supplies, enough food to eat and decent clothes.The IB science department has a budget of 100,000 USD. My own budget is more modest, but at least I have a say in my own department.Parents give permission for psychological academic evaluations($2,500)without batting an eye.Instead of wondering if my car would be broken into in the parking lot, I can walk to work. I actually go to other countries during holidays.

    My opinions as a special needs coordinator/learning support person is well respected by colleagues, parents, and the commmunity. Instead of legal jargon, I actually get to help students.Instead of worrying about being sued, my parents bring me cookies or perfume.

    Don’t get me wrong, I honed my skills for years in the inner city and would not trade that experience for anything.Now I get to use my skills, am appreciated, and can actually save money for retirement.Withthe basic needs for the student provided for and education is seen as important by supportive parents, I truly feel like I am working with the future decision makers in the world.


  7. I taught in a very good, small public k-12 school for 15 years. I taught both English and science. The teaching load at international schools most often is smaller and you have more time to prepare. I was pleasantly astounded to have a lab assistant to prepare lab materials for my science labs. In many ways it is easier. I often found other teachers complaining about their stress from the teaching load and I smile because they obviously have no idea what it could be. Transitioning yourself can be difficult to get used to a new culture and new way of doing things. Being flexible, easy going and having a positive attitude is necessary for survival–really!

    One thing the international schools often don’t do is teach to the masses nor do they give special ed or learning support. This I find to be a problem philosophically. I am very much against elitism…and many private schools pride themselves in that. They may say they teach to the whole child but often do not and they ignore learning differences and differentiated teaching. They may say they do this but they don’t because they don’t have to…they have the cream of the crop in their classes. Which in a way could be an incentive to you.

    Don’t get me wrong; I am not against international teaching. In fact, I encourage you to do it. You are probably highly qualified and hard working and come with much experience. I love it and have had much success. But I do have the highest respect for public schools and all the initiatives they strive to live up to.


  8. The advantages will be different, it depends on the school. If you are looking to join a high quality school system than you will probably need experience using their curriculum. For example, many schools use the international Baccalaureate curriculum. Flexibility is another key quality. Stuff happens quite a bit, medical tests, fingerprints, lost passports, etc. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Be organized, get all your ducks in a row and bring extra copies of important docs.

    If you going for the adventure , well then all you really need is a professional work ethic, a positive attitude, and an open mind.


  9. Start with an open mind. Many international schools are willing to try new things without the beauracracy that a public school must go through. Because the schools are usually private with a board of directors you may have more freedom than your public school curriculum, although some schools hold very close to their tight curriculum.

    I had taught in public middle school for 3 years before heading to my current school in Mexico (ASFM) and it is the best change I made. I feel more vested in my student’s education and future. You learn to teach instead of discipline; you learn to have conversations with parents instead of defending yourself and your decisions; you have the full support of your administration (usually).

    I don’t know that I will ever be able to go back to public school after teaching in an international school. They are two different worlds.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.