Is International Teaching a Career or an Adventure

The recent blog topic of whether or not teaching overseas is a good career decision prompted me to reflect more on my own desires and motivations to continue teaching overseas. A few people posted on this thread that teaching overseas was “just a job, not a career,” at least not a long-term one.  Among other worries, some expressed concern about the lack of job security, a pension, or a plan for retirement.
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Like many other people who posted, I share a love for travel, adventure, and learning about other cultures. While many of my stateside friends might not understand this love for adventure (note their eyes glazing over as you tell them about your recent safari or hiking in the Andes), I would not trade my experiences for anything. Well…maybe until now. I DO have fears about whether I will face age discrimination, whether professional opportunities and growth will be limited, and whether I am doing the right thing for our family and young child.
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My wife, also a teacher, and I are in our early 40s. We are at a stage in our careers where we don’t plan to ‘bounce’ around the world teaching at different international or American schools every 2-3 years. We have been at our current school for over six years, but plan to recruit next year. While international teaching has become more popular and while schools have grown and multiplied, I feel there are far too many schools that are “international” or “American” in name only.
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This all leads to my never-ending reflection and stress when I weigh adventure, lifestyle, and happiness with job security, pension, and retirement. What would life would be like if we returned to the U.S. to teach? How would our international experience be perceived by potential employers in the U.S. and would it be valued? Most importantly, would we be happy and would we miss our lifestyle?
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I am living my dream NOW – touring world-famous museums, hiking in the Himalayas, relaxing on beaches in Southeast Asia, learning new languages, and seeing things the average citizen of my own country could only dream of seeing – all things I am very grateful for!  How long can this go on though and is this idea of teaching overseas a career, an adventure, or a pipe dream?
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21 Responses to Is International Teaching a Career or an Adventure

  1. Anonymous says:

    This blog topic has been a very interesting read. I am currently in my 4th year teaching in Singapore. My school offers a 10% salary bonus each year after the 3rd. I am a bit tired of living in Singapore and I have travelled most of Southeast Asia, as well as Japan, China, Australia, India. I am 29 and single, and except for a retirement plan of $500 USD a month, I don’t have any savings. A recent visit home made me want what one blogger has called “the american dream bubble” of the white picket fence. I am trying to figure out if I want an international teaching career or if I want to move back with my savings in 2 years and buy a house, meet a nice North American gentleman, settle down not too far from family etc….i’m not sure I want to stay in Singapore one more year although the money is very attractive. I would love to live and travel in Europe, become fluent in Spanish or maybe even live and teach in South America. It’s a tough decision! I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I need to decide soon……

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  2. Anonymous says:

    I purposely obtained my teaching license to become an international teacher….because I was brought up this way. I grew up in many different countries and was educated in international schools myself in three continents. For me, it would be quite ” unnatural ” to stay put and search this lifelong goal called ” security “. One has to ask what ” security ” is in the global context now ( is it political? emotional? mental? financial? ). I also ask as to why “security” has to be equated with staying in one place for the rest of your life. I think, in essence, we forget how to live…and traveling to explore this massive, fascinating world IS what living is supposed to be ( with or without family ).

    This brings me to the question of ” Is international teaching a career, an adventure or a job? “. Well, to me, it’s all of the above…and yet, something much more. I honestly believe myself to be a great teacher. I can connect with different students from different cultures because I actually LEARN from them. I get satisfied with the knowledge that students enjoy learning in my classroom. I relish the moments when I see their eyes show understanding when I teach them something new and difficult. I don’t think that I would be the teacher that I am today if it WASN’T for traveling while teaching. I put all my best material and influences in my lessons because I was inspired by this travel or that travel during my times abroad. As an individual who is constantly exposed to different cultures, I become wiser, stronger as a teacher in the classroom.

    Also, my upbringing as a child of corporate parents who enrolled me in international schools allowed me to see a lot of interesting things from a young age : How politics, neoliberalism and ideologies shape school curriculum……how demographics affect what people are actually studying….genuine meaning of global mobility….how I can use my international education to be a “chameleon” wherever I am….my ability to pick up languages and be an acute people reader….to blend in or stick out at the right times…how to SURVIVE globally with resources and skills that I learned growing up all over the world.

    So, when I say that international teaching is something “much more ” than just adventure or a career…..what I really mean is that it was something that I was placed into from a very early age.

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  3. Peter says:

    The original post points out a couple of things we may be overlooking: the writer states, “I feel there are far too many schools that are ‘international’ or ‘American’ in name only.” This speaks to an underlying dissatisfaction that increasingly the field of international schools is becoming dominated by for-profit institutions that are not truly driven by a love of learning but by a profit margin – and that is a valid argument. Consider the trade-off, however: in America, the for-profit variable would be replaced by public and administrative demands for higher test scores. Old school teachers have had to revamp their instructional approaches and curriculum and comply with these demands, often trading off what should be taught with “only what the test requires.” American schools and school districts are not the same places that you may remember from your high school days – MUCH has changed in the past ten years due to the No Child Left Behind act. Many American teachers have left the field or taken early retirement just to get out of the fray which is growing ever more nasty as each year goes by.

    A second major assumption comes at the end of this statement: “This all leads to my never-ending reflection and stress when I weigh adventure, lifestyle, and happiness with job security, pension, and retirement.” As I originally responded in the first note to your beautifully written missive, job security and pensions are under attack in America in many states. Tenure and teacher unions are no longer to be taken for granted. Your so-called “pipe dream” may be a much, much better alternative to what you could be facing back home. I am optimistic that things here will change for the better, but right now is not a good time to expect to fulfill what the prior writer stated about the American dream of the white picket fence. And yes, the “bubble” has already burst for a great many of our now unemployed teaching brothers and sisters in the States. Be happy with what you are doing and continue to do it well.

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    • Annette says:

      You bring up some very good points about teaching in the U.S. Peter. With each passing year things seem to worsen. Shrinking budgets, larger class sizes, and increasing pressure from administration and government to accomplish more with less resources. As much as I love where I am teaching, the allure of all an overseas position has to offer is pretty overwhelming. I take most things in stride and try not to stress about what I cannot change. However, each spring we wait on pins and needles to find out not if, but how many cuts will be made to our budget and which co-workers will have their positions cut.

      I believe teaching anywhere will be what you make of it. Why not combine your career with adventure! Plan wisely and don’t overspend. Save for retirement yourself. Bottom line is that we are responsible for ourselves and the choices we make.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    It comes down to really how YOU want to live and define your life. If you want the “cookie-cutter” version of “life as a teacher in the US”, then by all means, quit international teaching and everything that the world has to offer. But I am biased because I love this world so much and love international teaching. To me, all the wonderful experiences and challenges that define me as a stronger, wiser and much more interesting person were obtained from my years of international teaching…and to me, THIS is what is life is about. Taking care of one’s retirement funds can be done abroad too..and not just in the home country. As for children, you are showing them what life really is about….to experience this world as much as possible…not just through books but travel.

    I personally believe that we have been stuck in the ” North American bubble of reality “….to the point that any alternative type of lifestyle ( even if it’s much more exciting and better ) is STILL questioned by us because we have been led to believe from a very young age that the ” golden American dream with the white picket fence ” is the ONLY dream.

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  5. mlesurf says:

    Worrying about the future is perfectly normal and good. But thinking that moving back to the states will solve that problem is naive. You need to take charge of your retirement whether you are working overseas or in the states. Find a good broker and start building a retirement/educational fund. You will need money to send your kids to school too!
    There are more than a few brokers going round the international circuit now; at each of the recruiting fairs and also coming to the schools during the year. Personally I am using Raymond James and quite happy with their service. As we tell our students you need to learn constantly, and we need to do the same, no one is taking care of your future – it is up to you, don’t let this stop you living your dream.

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  6. JMS says:

    After twenty years of teaching internationally, I still believe it is the best career in the world, at least for me. In addition to having the freedom to be more creative in the classroom, I am able to play an active role in the school growth and teach a variety of subjects. I have motivated students with involved parents, and colleagues who enjoy working as a team. In addition to the work, the lifestyle is full of adventure and, let’s admit it, some degree of luxury. I can live and travel much more comfortably on a teacher’s salary overseas and still put aside enough for retirement. Of course, every situation has its flaws, but the nice thing about teaching overseas is the flexible nature of it. If a particular school or country does not suit your style, you can move on in search of a better fit.

    I have to agree with many of the others who have posted here: even though international schools tend to take care of a lot of your daily living concerns, you are ultimately responsible for your own future and have to deal with the changes as they come along. I’m sure there are many teachers (and others) in the U.S. who had thought their jobs (and futures) were secure until recently. In teaching overseas, we may actually be better equipped to handle sudden changes on the job front due to the flexible nature of the career.

    The greatest challenge I have faced is finding a place to retire when it eventually comes time to. I do not really fit in back in the U.S. anymore, and I have yet to find a country where I would want to settle down at the end of my career. But then again, that just adds to the adventure of it all!

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    • Anonymous says:

      Amen! Hallellujah! THIS is what life is about. As I mentioned in one of my posts, it’s the 21st century and it’s time to break out of that whole ” North American Bubble of Reality ” where the N. American way ( in terms of career ) is considered the goal of all things.

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  7. jimbo says:

    Career or Adventure? I would say both, keeping though a healthy balance.

    On money: Don’t only save but INVEST! INVEST! INVEST!

    Consider mutual funds, government bonds/securities
    pension plans, buying STOCKS! interest earning insurances, diversified currency deposits.

    Use the 60/40 financial rule. 60% goes to daily sustenance fund and 40% goes to liquid or fixed asset investment.

    Now why 40% goes to investment? Because an average worker is likely to experience a 40% summative inflation rate in his/her life time. Ergo, we do not only prepare to retire but we prepare to face inflation.

    No school will financially secure our future, its only us who could do it for ourselves and our families. Simply put, rainy days will surely come and yet it is possible to stretch our legs and sip a lovely cup of espresso.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    We have just had 12 months in our home country after 13 years OS. Each school we taught at had either a retirement plan or end of contract gratuity. We travelled extensively, sent money back and came back with enough to live comfortably for a year, renovate our home and have savings left over. We have also added to our retirement fund. We are in our 60s and are off next week for two years (or more!) in an excellent international school. Planning for retirement is paramount, but to me is no more difficult when OS than when in your home country. Besides, after years away, you might decide to retire somewhere exotic! We have colleagues who have bought property in Asia, Europe …. An agency we are enrolled with sent a single, 70 year old woman off to China on a two year contract, so work is out there for us golden oldies (think experience, flexibility, tolerance, youthful curiosity …). We will continue on this path until we really, really can’t find something interesting to do. Besides, friends and family couldn’t bear missing out on visits to exotic locales!😉
    Enjoy, but prepare for rainy days.

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    • Anonymous says:

      I totally agree with you after teaching OS for most of my career,over 25 years- yes, it was /is a career, definitely. I would not change anything, good or bad and have learned so much about the world and met so many wonderful people. My daughter enjoyed good schooling and is now at university.
      I did make the mistake of not planning retirement but luckily have investments and savings. After an 18 month teaching break, we have bought a “home”. It was difficult to decide where that should be as we had no real attachments to anywhere any more, and the luxury of many countries to choose from. My husband and I are currently both employed again at another very good school-I’m 61. We now happily spend all the school holidays at home, something we never did before when we were busy seeing the world. I’m sick of airports!
      The break has provided a new perspective. International schools have changed a lot and there are many more, some of which are definitely dodgy, so one must choose carefully where one goes . We always use a reputable recruitment agency.
      The only negative aspect of my career is that retirement is a somewhat scary prospect. We are very happy with our adopted country and the challenges presented but it is hard to settle after spending a life travelling. Aging parents living far away has been another cause for concern.

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  9. China Teacher says:

    Job or career? You choose this yourself depending on your goals and decisions. There are plenty of international schools — usually the ones with the best reputations and most selective hiring practices — which include pension payments in their packages, and you can invest or spend these as you see fit. There are many other schools who don’t offer a pension lump sum as such, but whose pay scales are generous, allowing you to save a significant portion of your salary if you so choose.

    In my own case, I live well, save about half my salary (which is tax-free in the US), and have an annual pension payment in addition. It is a much better deal than I would ever get in the USA, but the work is much more intense as well.

    Bottom line: as in all jobs and careers, you are not a victim of unjust pension practices unless you choose to be.

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  10. Sinead Dunigan says:

    I definitely agree there is fun, travel and adventure in working in international environments. I really would not have it any other way. So what are the advantages? A real chance to be creative with one’s teaching, meet people of other cultures and learn their customs, languages and a different point of view. I recently completed three years in Turkmenistan and I know more people who speak Russian and Turkman Than English, and I learned a lot. This Fall, I will be working in Ankara, Turkey, and it will be another positive experience.
    Disadvantages? Yup, your subject to another countries laws and sometimes the tax system. Also, if you are a single female there are places to stay away from for your own safety. Another writer mentioned age…that discrimination is there. I know because I have experienced it…a number of countries will not grant work visas to people over 59.
    I am single, sometimes an advantage, and I would not trade these kind of jobs for anything in my home country.

    Sinead

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  11. Anonymous says:

    It is true that many schools do not have retirement plans, but many schools also pay well which means that you can easily save money. My last school paid one months pay extra a year for retirement (which most people spent on hoildays). The main problem is it’s up to you what you spend the money on.

    There are also many good schools that pay money into a retirement plan of your choice. My new school pays 5% if you pay 5%, which then goes up to 10% after 3 years. This I think is a good example of what schools can do to keep staff for longer periods of time.

    As such, it’s really up to you if you make a career out of it. Many people who have been on the international scene have a retirement plan where they may put $500 USD a month into a tax free savings plan overseas. I almost did this but was not sure of where I would be working next year (which I now do). Unless the school has a good suggestion, I’ll use something like this as it allows me to save for retirement just like I was back home (I’m only 28 but it’s never to early to save for retirement).

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  12. Anonymous Woman says:

    I enjoyed your reflection as well. After returning to the US last year I mistakenly thought I’d be able to jump back into teaching in my home state because of my multiple certifications in high needs areas. When I think back at my world travels I am glad I saved money.
    Live your dream but pocket one of your salaries. The jobs may become more scarce even as you have fined tuned your craft. If you have a job now, savor it. Plan for a ‘worse case scenario’.

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  13. Anonymous says:

    What a great reflection. I do have to agree with the first response regarding teaching in the US as I also lost my job due to a budget cuts. It is everywhere and education fileld in the US is not what it was before in terms of tenure and job stability. Before deciding to come back to US I would also suggest researching a school district unless you teach math , science or sp.ed since those areas are always in need of teachers.
    I missed recruting season for international schools for year 2011/2012 so I am seriously considering going back to school to be a physical therapist. I don’t know of single physical therapist that got laid off (LOL) Very sad what is happening in the US public schools. Thanks for letting me vent on this board!
    Good luck with what ever you decide!

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  14. OSMarsupial says:

    What a lovely and well written passage of reflection! A* Sir!

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  15. Peter says:

    Living such a dream is quite lovely … and for many reasons you name I suspect that you may not be happy teaching back in the states. My main concern which you seem to be skirting is what about the not so distant future – do you and your wife have retirement accounts? Things are getting increasingly more difficult for teachers in the US, in regards to job security, salaries and accountability (tenure and teachers’ unions are under attack by many politicians). As you probably know, a great many teachers in many states have been laid off which is filling the job market with younger/cheaper teachers. You may find the perfect job setting if you are lucky, however you will need to look far and wide and investigate each district before you commit. I taught in a California public high school for 23 years before working for four years as an administrator at a public charter high school – and got laid off last month due to budget cuts. I am now turning my focus abroad for work because things are so difficult in the golden state.

    I wish you and your wife all the luck in the world.

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    • Anon says:

      It is an important question but it boils down to what kind of life you want to lead and I suspect many international educators (including myself) live and want a life much different to that of “regular teachers”. My international experience has led to a permanent move overseas, as while working in the UAE I fell in love with a South African and now live and teach here in Cape Town in a government school not an international school but I would like to get into an international school because of the great diversity of teachers and pupils and career opportunities available. I do sometimes worry about a pension back in the UK and also family matters etc but I would still much reather have a life full of amazing experiences than to have slogged away my whole life to pay a mortgage and have a pension wondering what could have been.

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