Black Teacher and Black Student

3 Questions To Ask Before You Teach Abroad

Last updated on January 9th, 2021 at 03:30 pm

The original version of this article was published in December 2016.

The temptation to live abroad can be a strong one.  Perhaps, you’re at a point where you need a career change or just tired of where you are current living. Maybe you’re seeing social media feeds and you’re thinking it might be fabulous to live somewhere different for awhile. And the more you see these images, the more you may start to believe you can do this.

Unless you’re independently wealthy, it can take a little fearlessness and some resources to move abroad.

And that reality only expands exponentially when you have a partner or other dependents.

For some, becoming an educator may seem like the easiest way to get abroad and still make money. The need for teachers, especially from Western countries, has been extensive for decades and this has fueled the impression that just about anyone can get into the education game. However, the market is tightening up and the ease of becoming an international educator is changing. So before you start figuring out how you can get yourself to the next hot location, you need to ask yourself some fundamental questions.

Are you an educator (or just a wanderluster in disguise)?

This may be seem basic, but it is doesn’t get asked enough. As someone who has taught, counseled and mentored students ranging from school aged children to adults, I have no doubt in my mind that I am an educator. I’ve worked in a variety of settings. While still in college, I led English learning classes with adults. I’ve taught social studies at the high school level. I’ve been a college counselor and helped navigate high school students through the post-secondary process. Now, I am a student affairs professional in higher education.  While my jobs have been both in and out of the school setting, I’ve never doubted that I enjoy helping students and families. If you haven’t seriously thought about what it means to be an educator, you may need to start there first.

Also as the product of international schools and a former Third Culture Kid,  trust me when I say your motives will also be apparent to your students. If you are a foreigner teaching in a host culture — there’s certain a level of expectations that families have for the type of education their student receives. Students at international schools often pay amongst the highest tuition and fees in the city, if not in the country. That means expectations are high. Subpar or mediocre education delivery is not going to cut it.

Some of my best memories from my middle and high school years are remembering the love and passion my teachers had for educating students. It has been almost <gulp> twenty years but I haven’t forgotten the knowledge that my teachers imparted.

I can single handedly trace my love for geography and history to the work of my middle school social studies teacher. My English teacher intentionally developed a curriculum that not only taught us the “classics” of Western literature but wove in regional, African writers to ensure we understood the corner of the world we inhabited. My French teacher’s words, with her distinct, sharply tinged delivery, still ring in my ears as I always try to put additional effort in hitting my pronunciations just right; because if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it all the way.

Clearly, life and circumstances led these teachers to my schools. Many certainly had a desire to see the more of the world and took the opportunity to teach in sub-Saharan Africa. But they were educators first. They had been educators long before they left home and they continued to be educators when they were at my schools. And that drive to educate, to teach, to help their students see and engage in their world — it was evident.

Are you qualified (or faking it till you make it)?

This is very simple. You are either qualified or you aren’t. If you aren’t qualified to teach in your home country, you may find it increasingly hard to find opportunities abroad. Many schools, whether English language institutes, prestigious international schools or universities, require a combination of education and experience. This should not be surprising. Just because it’s not New York, doesn’t mean that other countries don’t have standards and regulations. In some cases, the rules may be more stringent than your home country for the simple fact that you are an expat and some host communities have been burned by shoddy teaching.

Argue if you may, but it’s not a bad thing. As a counselor, I tell my students not to force themselves into a square peg just because they are trying to match a specific opportunity. Opportunities happen all the time, but not all are the right one for you.

Don’t let your desire to live abroad actually cloud your judgement in regards to whether you have the ability to teach well. Working at a school is hard work in your home country. It doesn’t change abroad.

You have a specific educational background. Logically, you should attempt to research your field and try to find opportunities that match that. Your background is computer science. Trying to update your profile so that you can teach English, with no teaching experience in that subject, may be a terrible idea. It is detrimental to the students and their learning process.

Plus, would you want to have been taught by someone who doesn’t have a full grasp of the subject matter they are trying to teach you? If it’s not acceptable for you and your family, it’s not good for other people. Besides, you’ll be out of your league. And you’ll know that real quick. Being an educator is a calling.

Have you done the research (or are you just throwing caution to the wind)?

If you really, really, REALLY want to live abroad and teach, do the hard work. This can not be stressed enough. And I don’t just mean hopping on social media and hoping strangers will be able to give you the right information. Understand that everyone and every country’s situations are not the same, and you need to dig deep to start on the right path.

Not all educational opportunities are the same. Learn the options. Know the difference between going abroad to teach English (which caters towards helping local populations learn English as a second/foreign language), teaching at an international school (which caters towards expat families and, often, has a Western based educational curriculum), teaching at a local school with an international curriculum (which host nationals with a Western based curriculum such as American, British or French) or working at the university level ( a local university, a foreign university with a local/auxiliary campus or a Western style university in a foreign environment). Yep, that’s a lot. There are differences. You need to know them as many an international educator will tell you.

As I mentioned earlier, I attended international schools (read: private schools). That means 100% of my teachers had higher education degrees and certifications in the subject matter they taught. All of them had undergraduate degrees, the majority had Master’s degrees, and a few had Ph.Ds. Every single one of them had extensive teaching experience long before I became one of their students. So if education is the route you want to go, you need to plan accordingly.

Your desire to live abroad should not override common sense.

For example, your chances at getting hired at a country’s more elite, international schools are rather bleak if you are not coming with your A game. If you have zero education in the subject matter and no experience teaching it, you probably won’t get a job. At least not at the more desirable places.

Connect with professional organizations and learn more about the hiring process. If possible, speak with current teachers, counselors and administrators about their experiences and learn about the jobs. If you specifically have graduated with an education degree, see if you can connect with your alumni office on your undergraduate or graduate to campus to identify alumni who are currently in the field or individuals who have experience with international education.

Then determine what personal, professional and educational choices are needed before you jump in the game. Do not assume that you are a hot commodity, if you have nothing to back it up. That may sound harsh. But it is true. Recognize that there are many internationally based educators that have spent hard cash, time, and effort honing their craft and teaching others. They are professionals. As an educator, you would want to be the best you can for the students you serve.

The truth is, if you choose to be an educator abroad, you must remember that your ultimate goal is to impart, share and translate knowledge. That’s what you’re hired to do. It isn’t to collect the stamps in the passport or the breathtaking photos. It is to help shape the minds your students, whether they are preschoolers or adults. If that isn’t your cup of tea, no worries. Just find something else that works for you.

No student deserves an educator who is not fully invested in their future. Do not pursue a job in education just to get that perfect shot for the Instagram feed. Because your impact — good or bad — will last long after you’ve moved onto the next location.


The original version of this article was published in December 2016.

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