How to Become an International Teacher
While I worked with local NGOs and universities in Pakistan, my husband Duarte took a two-year contract as a Physics teacher in an international high school. By connecting with other foreign teachers in the school, we quickly learned that making a career out of international teaching would be an ideal way for us to sustain long-term travel and life abroad. After going back to the US to pick up the relevant teaching licenses and qualifications, we are now in our third consecutive year teaching at an international school in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
International vs. National Schools
There are scores of schools that are international in name, but what teachers often call a “true international school” is a school that enrolls students from a variety of countries. These schools tend to be located in major cities, diplomatic capitals and international financial centers. Students include ambassadors’ kids, expat kids, teachers’ kids and local children whose parents can foot the bill.
Other schools may be internationally accredited but enroll primarily local students. Teachers refer to this type of school as a “national” school, although both types hire foreign teachers. Some national schools hire only foreign-qualified staff; others hire most teachers locally but employ foreigners for certain subjects like English. The ratio of foreign to local faculty at schools can vary widely even within the same country or city.
Many dubious schools, who claim to be “international,” will also have neither an international student population nor any type of international accreditation. Be wary of these ones.
When Duarte and I first moved abroad, we had no idea what O-Levels and A-Levels were. Since he was teaching in a school that offered both the British system and the American system, he had to learn how to teach two different curricula.
International schools usually belong to one of the following systems: British (IGCSE/GCSE), American (often offering AP classes), or International Baccalaureate (IB). Nowadays, many international schools are making the move to IB. The IB program includes the Primary Years Program (PYP), the Middle Years Program (MYP), and the Diploma Program (DP). Certain schools may offer American curriculum up through grade 10, for example, and then offer the DP for grades 11 and 12.
In some countries, schools are also required to teach a national curriculum in conjunction with these other programs. For example, in Vietnam, students are required to complete Vietnamese History, Geography and Literature courses in order to get their Vietnamese high school diploma.
There are schools that will hire teachers without formal qualifications, but to be a competitive candidate you need at least two of the following: a Bachelor’s degree, a valid teaching license in the subject you plan to teach, and two years experience.
In the U.S., each state has its own process for teacher licensing. Many undergraduate education programs provide routes to state certification, but you can also find post-baccalaureate programs aimed at career changers.
The majority of these programs require a one-semester student teaching practicum, a series of education courses based on classroom observation, and a set of exams.
Massachusetts is one state that offers a five-year preliminary license without requiring student teaching or the completion of special course work. You can apply for this license by passing two exams: MTEL communication & literacy and MTEL content area. For either elementary or secondary teachers it costs about $230 for the exams and $100 for a one-subject license. Your license is valid for five years of employment in Massachusetts, so if you never teach in Massachusetts it can remain valid for your entire international teaching career.
Most schools offer two-year renewable contracts, although some offer one-year contracts or require a three-year commitment from new hires. Prime hiring season is from January through April, although hiring is done all the way through August for the upcoming school year.
A lot of hiring is done at international job fairs organized by school placement organizations. At job fairs, dozens of school administrators and hundreds of teacher candidates converge in a major city for the purpose of lining up jobs.
The biggest job fairs are run by Search Associates, International Schools Services (ISS) and University of Northern Iowa (UNI). To attend a Search or ISS fair you need to apply and become a member.
Before the fair, candidates are given a list of schools that will be represented and current job openings. Larger companies like Search and ISS have online databases with detailed information about each school and salary package. The best way to prepare is to research every school, city and country that you might be interested in.
Once at the fair you will sign up for interviews with different school administrators. Between interviews you can go to school information sessions or network with other teachers.
Factors to Consider
Attending a job fair can be expensive, especially if you need to factor in travel and hotel costs. It is worth contacting schools ahead of fair season, in November and December, to see if you can interview via Skype.
Not all schools, even those listed by placement companies, are legit. Before applying for a teaching position, read what other teachers have said about it on International Schools Review (ISR). It costs $29 per year to be a member of ISR, but this will put you in direct contact with other international teachers and expat parents. Reviews posted on schools and directors are anonymous, so be aware that some feedback may simply be venting by teachers or propaganda by school administrators.
When you compare salary packages, compare the cost of living and the local tax rate as well. Annual salaries range from about $15,000 through $70,000, but you can live much better on $20,000 in India than you can on $40,000 in Switzerland.
European schools tend not to offer housing or utilities as part of the salary package, although many other schools around the world do. Benefits to look for include round-trip airfare, medical insurance, life insurance, free tuition for school-age children, daycare for younger children, moving allowance, professional development training, transportation allowance and retirement funds.
Look at the number of contract days and the number of teacher-pupil contact days required per year before applying. An average number of contract days is 180-190; this is the number of days per year teachers are expected to work. An average number of contact days is 170-180; this is the number of days you will be expected to teach. A few days more or less aren’t anything to raise concern, but I was once looking at a job in a new international school that required 250 contact days. Yeah, no thanks. I’d like to keep my summer vacations and my sanity. A side note said that teachers would be required to arrive early in order to create the school curriculum from scratch.
The teaching culture of a given school can vary markedly. Some schools are isolated; some are set in urban centers. Some cater to a young-single crowd of teachers while others prefer hiring couples or pensioners.
For Duarte and I, international teaching is a combination of career flexibility and stability. Once a contract is completed, we can choose to stay or move on to another destination. Currently we’re back in the U.S. pursuing further education, but we’re psyched to find out what opportunities the next international job fair will bring about!
This article was originally published on August 19, 2010 Matador Abroad. It has been revised to reflect changes in the job market.