What Defines Us as International Educators?

My interest in what constitutes an “International School Teacher” was sparked by a  discussion with colleagues in my international school staff room. We couldn’t agree if there was something “special” or “different” about us. We had all left our home country for some reason, and some of us did not want to, or could not return home. In one respect some of us were trapped in international teaching, moving from one school to another.

Some teachers thought that just teaching in an International School was enough to be an international educator. I have worked with colleagues who clearly were, and some who were clearly not “international educators”.

But what is it that makes us “international?” Why do we leave the security of our home country and move to a similar job in a different country, sometimes half-a-world away? Is it a chance to live and work in another environment, a chance to learn another language, better pay and conditions, smaller class sizes, easier discipline, or something else? Why are we not content to stay at home, and why are we often treated with suspicion by colleagues back home?

After 10 years overseas, I returned home for an interview in a UK school, and was asked why, if conditions were so good, did I want to return? Also, I was seen as out of touch with recent developments and advised to retrain!

I would welcome any comments from international teachers, especially if you have a definition of an international educator or, like me, have found it difficult to adapt back home, and have left to go abroad again.

27 thoughts on “What Defines Us as International Educators?

  1. I had taught in Ohio, Texas, and Florida public
    schools. I was fed up with weak principals that
    were unable to manage discipline in their buildings. Thus, teachers had to manage their own classrooms and manage building problems. I was tired of students who were unable to fucntion at grade level placed in regular classrooms. Thus, I looked overseas.
    I knew from experienced overseas teachers that
    there were three tiers of international schools. The bottom tier always seemed to be schools for profit. That is, the schools had no vision and accepted any child if the parents could pay the tuition. I worked at international schools in Kuwait, South Korea, and Thailand. I enjoyed my overseas experience.
    When I returned to the United States, I had a difficult time obtaining a teaching position. The domestic teachers did not really want to hear anything about overseas schools. Since I am conservative, I did not wish to indoctrinate my students, teach hate of America, or junk science.
    I sat in on some college classes this year. The course materials were exactly like the classes I had thirty years ago. However, the IT courses that I completed were worth it.
    The secret is to read the school district’s philosophy and review the required curriculum that is being taught. Then build your resume typed on word around the reviewed information. Make sure this includes current courses.
    With your overseas experience, the administrator may feel threatened because you have more teaching knowledge than he/she has. Finally, I was able to buy retirement years with my overseas experience because the schools were accredited by Western agencies.


  2. Teachers choose to leave the “safety” of government/state/district systems to pursue international jobs for a variety of reasons. I would suggest that the range of abilities and degree of professionalism displayed by teachers and administrators is pretty much the same when you compare most international settings to government systems. I say this, based on my experiences of more than thirty years in education as a teacher, consultant, advisor and administrator – roughly 50% in a government system and 50% in international settings. But to the question of “What makes an ‘international educator?” – I was once told that international educators all fit the M,M,M category. That is, by leaving our homes and looking overseas we are all, to varying degrees, missionaries and/or mercenaries and/ or misfits. A little honest reflection will reveal that we probably are all motivated by the desire for good packages (mercenary), and/or the belief that we have some unique skills that surely will help our international colleagues and students(missionary) and/or we all leave family and friends who simply can’t understand why we do this, thereby making us misfits. ‘Misfit’ should not be taken in a purely negative sense. It’s just the label used and you could possibly use the tag ‘risk taker’ but that doesn’t fit nicely with the other two “Ms”. Having said that it’s been my experience that the term misfit, in its strictest sense, could certainly be applied to many of the people working on the “international circuit”.
    Check out your staffroom and apply the M,M,M theory to those around you. However, I suggest that you don’t share your judgement with any but your closest friends or at least those colleagues who display a sense of humour and/ or don’t take themselves too seriously.


  3. Im sorry to hear about your experiences Loretta.For the large part I agree with you its a mine-field out there and it shouldn’t be down to luck your experience.

    For what its worth I have been teaching on the international circuit for about 20 years and have felt or experienced most of the feelings put forward already at one time or other.

    But I must add that the main reason I decided to work overseas was I realised that what I was feeling in the UK state system, which was a mixture of sadness for those who wanted to learn, anger at those who didn’t and frustration for education initiative after initiative that missed the point, was that it was also being experienced by my own two kids in class day after day. I felt betrayed by the system.

    So I left and took them first to Borneo, then Africa and they were saved! Just. They had a very special life growing up there and are now two of the most beautifully well-adjusted kinds of young adults you could hope to meet. Fresh, open and internationally minded. All anyone had to say before we left was along the lines of, ‘wow, you’re brave, I’d really worry about upsetting their education’! Yeh, right and that was the best reason for leaving.
    If they are a product of a good international school education they can meet anyone, have an open-minded discussion about almost anything and have an acute awareness of the problems facing our global family then it was everything I could have hoped for.

    My only problem now is they have grown up, I still work overseas and I miss them.

    I have recently encountered more and more despotic CEO’s however whose education credentials are suspect and who seem to pander more to the(often) influential and rich parents than they protect and provide for their teaching staff. Furthermore the mission statements of all international schools now come out of a jargonised world phrase-book and I now find myself more cynical and questioning than ever about so many young nouveaux-riche parents who just want the badge of elitsm for their kids.


  4. As previously stated by several contributors, there are varied reasons why many pursue the international teaching arena.

    I wish there was an international authority or governing body that had the responsibility for the objective rating and ranking of international schools against defined, stingent and universally accepted criteria.

    Most international schools are able to be very selective as to the students they accept, most, whose parents are well off. Many of the students have serious behavioral issues and learning disabilities, that would be addressed somewhat more appropriately back in our home countries.

    Also, in many countries, the students and their parents have the upper hand in terms of clout and power. They can have you blackballed, ruin your career and in some extreme cases, get you arrested or worse.

    I have found most international schools to be complete shams and someday would love to see the public educational sector worldwide, so improved, that at least 96% of the international schools would close and remove the ungodly parasitic profit motive from the realms of education.

    It borders on obscenity, what many of these international schools are able to do to teachers and in the process, harm students’ future academic lives, with impunity and get away with it.

    I have taught at two international schools and both have been horrific experiences.

    Again, if objective criteria were available to educators, many of these schools would dry up, because teachers would know in advance, and not just from ISR, where the cestpools are and avoid them; unless they are really DESPERATE to escape from their home countries.

    One day, I hope the teaching profession and the environments needed that truly enhance learning will be established in the majority of schools worldwide, be they public or private, so the teaching profession gets the respect it deserves. It is truly, one of the most difficult professions around.

    I know of no other profession that locks one human being in a room, with sometimes up to 40 students, few resources, no enforced discipline policy and expects Einsteins to be developed.

    Parents are just BUYING grades.

    All the luxuries and benefits of living overseas as an educator means absolutely nothing, if in the end, teachers don’t develop creative, problem-solving, thinking, reasoning people, who can use and apply what we teach them, to maintain and save the future this planet.


    1. Loretta has said it all. It is interesting to read about Indonesia above where teachers seem to be respected and contrast that with most schools in the the Middle East, where we are very literally, baby-sitters and giving grades for money. The society gets the education it pays for.


  5. I would like to think that my experience isn’t the norm. My husband is teaching at an international school with higher standards that he likes very much. After a sufficient recovery period, maybe I will try it again – this time with eyes wide open and taking the advice of Domhuaille MacMathghamhna “get everything in writing”.


  6. Lack of respect, rudeness, anti-learning, threats of violence, apathy….and that’s just the parents at state schools in Australia! Now in my second International school in Indonesia and enjoying it very much- motivated kids, polite, respectful of teachers and learning, great collegiality on the staff, terrific community….why would I want to go back?


  7. I have been teaching in Japan and China, as well as Papua New Guinea (not an international school) for the last nine years. For me, International teaching was “what I signed up for” when I went to teachers’ college. I get to teach kids who are disciplined (relatively!), polite, and have a thirst for learning. Classroom management has been minimal and this may be arguably one of the main things that drives many out of the system.

    I really couldn’t return to the public system, and so, in a sense, I am “trapped” in the international scene.

    It’s not all roses. Sometimes schools may be poorly resourced, and admin may be very inexperienced. However, being in different cultures has been great for my two boys who are truly “third culture” kids. One son says he misses his friends, but feels it is very cool to learn about new cultures, and make new friends.

    When I go back to my home country, I will not enter the public teaching system. I will probably take a drop in pay and move to adult or college. …and at 60 years of age at the present, I don’t relish the idea of haunting job fairs again.

    I have no regrets.


  8. I entered international teaching for all of the above reasons and thought I would be teaching internationally-minded and motivated students in a school culture where learning was valued above all – wrong! Back home, I had the benefit of working in a public middle school for five years and a private prep school for six years. Now I work in a corporate for-profit school – basically a high-priced alternative school. I teach six grade levels with five teaching preps during an IB authorization year,so I am creating middle school and high school curriculum and assessments from scratch (I was hired for middle school, two grade levels only). I also have to cover for absent colleagues during my precious prep time. We have no formal discipline policy, no electronic grading program, and no real attendance policy. What I do love is living in a multicultural society and teaching a diverse student body – a true joy! I haven’t been able to travel much, and I’m making $8,000 less per year than back home. I have asked to be released from my contract after one year, and I am planning to leave the profession altogether. It is encouraging to see that most of you have had positive experiences, because if my experience is the norm, I don’t know why anyone would do this.


    1. I really empathise with your recent experience. I taught a school in Latin America where I was in a very similar situation to you. It was my first job in an ´international´ school which turned out to be an expensive monocultural elitist private business. I had taught in the public systems in Australian and England prior to this and found it difficult to come to terms with educating young people who knew their future was secure and did not take educational seriously on the whole. Many teachers did not have teaching credentials and those that stayed had local partners and were never going to risk losing a ´well paid´ job. But, after working back in Aus for a year I found that I missed living overseas. On a personal level I had learnt so much about myself and relished in the selfconfidence and independence I had gained. So, now, after a period of travelling I am working as a casual at a nice small international school that appears to have it´s heart in the right place. Try before you buy. Two year contracts in a school where you are unhappy is two years too long. Please don´t give up teaching. There are good schools out there, both private and public. Word of mouth is the best indicator. Good luck!


  9. I have had the opposite experience of several people who’ve previously posted. My experience abroad was extremely positive. I taught in Latin America for 3 years and then returned to Canada. I was immediately scooped by a major school district and offered a permanent contract within one year (usually takes 5-7 years). My international experience was an asset and almost revered. I however, did not adjust well. I missed the “international life”…I missed the joie de vivre and the opportunities I had had abroad. As well, I missed the prep time and better working conditions. While the pay might have been less, I worked far fewer hours and was actually afforded a life outside of my job. I returned to Latin America for another 2 years stint and once again returned to Canada (family reasons) only to discover that once again, I can’t stand it here. So alas, I am embracing my true nature as that of an International Educator and am returning to Latin America. From there…who knows where this journey will take me. The world is our oyster.


  10. Well, I just returned home after 6 years abroad and finding a job was easy, as I had taught in a division that was accustomed to having people return from other ventures and they welcomed me back. PTL. We’ll see how long I stay “home” before my wife, kids and I head back overseas. It wouldn’t be the traveling that would attract us, but rather the good students, school resources, and savings potential in addition to providing top notch education for our children in an environment where students value learning that would be the biggest carrot.

    It is a little shocking how much int. teachers have to offer the public school system, and yet how little their perspectives are valued. People really don’t give a rip what your life/job were like in country X.

    Why the self righteous attitudes? If people teach internationally to travel, let them!

    Perhaps what “daunting” was referring to was that it sure feels nice to be wanted when it feels like you have to grovel for work in some tight teaching markets.

    my 2 cents.


    1. “top notch education for our children in an environment where students value learning that would be the biggest carrot.” My husband and I brought our 10 month old abroad. We teach at an awesome school in Thailand. Our son is getting the best care. He starts kindergarten next month…. he’a little older now… like 18 months! We can’t offer him this life back home in Canada. I am a high school art teacher and that’s all I teach here, not French, social studies, planning 10, etc… just my specialty. I can’t do that at home either. This is the life. We love the international life. We’ve been doing it for a while and we just can’t get enough of it!
      I like what you have to say canuk!


  11. Great discussion! I am Argentinean working abroad since 2003. May be I am more far away from home than any of you but my feelings are the same.You already said why we are abroad and why we cannot be back and I agree. I adopted a child 1 year ago and he became an overseas boy! I do not know if I am doing well or not bringing my child abroad but we have a happy life together.


  12. Yes, I find it a bit disheartening that the second commentor found “the qualifications for teaching at home…too daunting” but found a job overseas. There are too many schools that will take any warm body (I once sent a letter of interest to a school in the ME, and received a contract by return email! Yikes! Needless to say, they did not hear from me again.), but also too many teachers who see this is a cheap way to travel.

    Having said that, there are teachers at home who teach for the vacations, so why should the international circuit be any different?

    I taught overseas, came home for four years and worked in a great east coast prep school, but got itchy feet and left again. I definitely think it’s something that gets in the blood and the ex-pat truism, “If you don’t go home in five years, you never will” is probably true.


    1. I think it’s interesting that you came home and taught at a private school-where the qualifications are not as stringent as they are in the New York State and city public schools. No one ever emailed me a contract after a letter of interest and I am certainly NOT a “warm body”, so you must be hot stuff indeed.

      If you had to deal with the Byzantine burocracy and infamous politics of the New York City school system you wouldn’t be so snide (see Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man”). Many teachers do it only as long as they have to and get out as quickly as possible. I didn’t see the point of going through all that and found it simpler to test the waters overseas.

      Thanks to those of you, who see no crime in wanting to travel as an incentive to teach abroad.


  13. The list provided by Domhuaille gives one hope that there must be some teachers on the international circuit who are there for the right reasons and with the right qualities. Unfortunatley there are too many there for other reasons, consequently when things go pear-shaped they have no incentive to be part of the answer rather than the problem. It is saddening to hear from other posts that international educators are not well regarded back in their home countries as they have so much to offer in terms of life experience. Making your way successfully in a foreign setting, working with colleagues from all over the world can only be a positive – surely one would have to be very closed-minded not to see the potential for enrichment in terms of a school and it’s staff, curriculum, students etc. that such people are able to offer. They have far more than subject knowledge and ‘national’ knowledge to contribute, why wouldn’t a school/college/university want to capitalize on that? In todays ‘gobal village’ other professions value such people and the education sector which does so has the potential to reap rich rewards in terms of recognition and status on the world stage. To all you great, professional, international educators out there hold you heads up and sell yourselves as the assets you truly are.


  14. A truly International Educator is a person who, among other things, should:

    1)Be overseas to educate first and travel second,
    2)Be extremely open to new ways of thinking, behaving and new cultural norms,
    3)Be capable of living without their traditional or personal wants,ie: cheap peanut butter, English spoken fluently or at all, their country’s values and politics, etc.
    4)Be humble in word and behaviour and Non-confrontational. One can be assertive but NOT aggressive.
    5)Be open to learning a new language and trying to use it, even if you sound like a cow giving birth…
    6)Avoid religious or social judgments based on what they KNOW is better.
    7)Appreciate that they represent their countrymen and their culture to their hosts, and act accordingly.
    8)Maintain a healthy sense of humour but be discreet in its use.
    9)Realize that they are on their own in whatever school they work in since the owners/administrators often see them as a commodity that can easily be changed.The recruitment agency is often the same.
    10)Make as many friendships and connections as possible with the locals and with fellow educators as these memories/relationships will last a lifetime.
    11)Get everything in writing and have it vetted by an expert on the country of destination if at all possible. Naivete is the enemy of security.
    12)Finally, have a plan B for any eventuality in their host country…that means registering your presence with your Embassy or an English-speaking country’s Embassy, having your passport and some USD (since this is kind of a universal currency) and local money and a local contact person you can call in an emergency. School admin. can’t always be relied on to act quickly or on your behalf in the above case.


    1. That first one is key. I love my school and I love where I live, but I would say more than half the teachers I work with are here not because they have any desire to teach, but because they enjoy the lifestyle. It can be a little deflating. While I enjoy teaching my scholars, I find that I miss the challenge and sense of worth that I had teaching back home in the public schools.

      That being said, I don’t see myself going back any time soon!


    2. I, too, think that working with colleagues from different backgrounds is a great part of it.
      However, we shouldn’t assume that those of us who do the job primarily for the travel opportunities are at fault. As long as the job is done well, does that even matter?


    3. No judgment intended….however the priority still has to be on education first and travel second, but both have their merits!


    4. Awesome!
      My husband and I have been in the international scene for 5 years and I agree with everything you’re saying. Well written!


  15. Great topic. I went overseas to teach, because the qualifications for teaching in my state or at a college level were too daunting, and because of terrible working conditions in local schools (violence, overcrowding, long hours/low pay, etc.). Also, to be honest because I love to travel and here was a chance to get paid to do something I love.

    I found the reality very different. The working conditions were just as bad, I had little time to travel and the students in one country were verbally abusive and unmanageable on occasion. Still…I did manage to experience some of what I love about living in different cultures, and in some cases save a great deal of money on rent.

    However, like the others, I have not found my international experience to be a plus in looking for work in my own country. I too am regarded with suspicion. One person said, “China! What were you doing in China?” and when I hear “Oh, I’d love to hear your stories about working in Iraq”, I know I have lost the job.

    There was a time when travel (“the Grand Tour”) was considered an essential part of someone’s education, but I guess those days are long gone!


  16. Just going to a different city within the country to teach at an international school was a big change. Then, when I returned to my former school it was difficult to adapt again to the environment.
    I mean, teachers did not have the experience of teaching to students from different cultures, working with colleagues who came from all around the world and shared various approaches, methodologies and ways of teaching in general.
    I returned home because of the family but definitely working at an international school is a gratifying experience which develops your profession in ways no other xeprience can.


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