Welcome to the ChockaLife podcast. My guest today is James, an American teacher, now teaching abroad.
For those of you who hold a teaching certification, there are many incredible opportunities to take that experience around the world and have a satisfying and rewarding career in education.
Welcome, James! Tell us a little bit about where you’re teaching now.
JAMES: Hi, Ingrid. I teach economics and global politics at the International School of Panama, in Panama City.
How long have you been teaching there?
JAMES: This is my first year in Panama, but I’ve been overseas for 7 years teaching economics and politics and geography at the high school level: before this, I was in Morocco for 6 years, in Rabat.
I see. And what kinds of schools are you teaching at, then?
JAMES: They come under the heading of “international schools,” and there’s a wide variety. There are both proprietary and non-profit schools; there are schools that are tied to specific embassies; and then there are schools that follow certain national curriculums – so you would have British schools that would follow the British GCSE, or a Spanish school, or Australian schools.
The schools that are labeled “American schools” generally have a larger American clientele, and a teaching staff that’s American, and usually a director that’s American. Schools that are labeled “international” can have the exact same teaching staff, but they tend to follow a more international curriculum, where they don’t teach dollars and cents, or they don’t teach feet at the elementary level – and at the high-school level, for example, students are not required to take American History, whereas in the American school, they are. So I’ve taught in both types of schools – both at an American school, which was largely indistinguishable from the international school I’m in now.
So, basically, you’ve had two international teaching experiences, Morocco and Panama?
JAMES: Yes, exactly.
And how did you first get the idea to teach abroad?
JAMES: It was kind of funny – I sort of backed into it accidentally at a
Fulbright exchange from the State Department to go to South Africa, to teach
there. I ended up turning it down, with the mistaken belief that I could
find another Fulbright – I turned it down for a variety of reasons. And I was fully
prepared to leave the United States that September; I thought I’d be gone.
Then I found out in March that there was no second Fulbright coming. And so, in a panic, I did an Internet search for “international teaching”, and I found this headhunter organization called International School Services. I’ve come to find out later that there are basically two dominant players in the international teaching world: it’s International School Services, or ISS, and the other one’s called Search Associates. So I threw my resume up there, and they give you a list of schools that are still searching, and I was completely unaware - operating blind – not aware that March – in the international school world, March is basically when the hiring season is over. Really, the hiring season runs from December to February. So all that was out there were these few scraps of schools.
I ended up getting an interview in Brazil, and then my wife took a better position - since it hadn’t looked like we were going overseas, so she took a better position at a school in Oregon. So I ended up backing out of that. But, just the funniest side note is that, in September of that same school year, where I ended up staying in The States for that year, I got a job offer on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend: the phone rings, and it’s this long number with a bunch of digits I don’t recognize, and it’s the director of a school in Saudi Arabia, who’s asking me to start the following Sunday, in Saudi Arabia. And I said “I, uh, I probably won’t be able to take that position” (laughs). So, it can happen that even really late starters can get a job!
At that point I was committed to going overseas, and so we started the process earlier the next year, and I got a job by early February in Rabat. And this time we started the process even earlier, and I was hired December 1st, to come to Panama.
So, you used these two search firms – basically these headhunter firms - to secure these jobs?
JAMES: Yeah, short answer: I used the search firms. Those are subscription based; you have to pay. There are a couple of free options out there, as well. And then there’s a free newspaper online, called TIE Online, “The International Educator Online”, and they don’t really do anything for you, they just publish listings for you.
And did you have a teaching degree before?
JAMES: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. This is the misconception I had, that I operated under
for a long time: I thought that these international schools were basically like
schools for rich kids who didn’t really know what they wanted to do, who had
just graduated college and wanted to go teach internationally for a bit. I had
no idea of the caliber and the quality of these schools that were out here.
It’s actually incredible. Most reputable schools – although you can find a fly-by-night place – most reputable schools will require at least 3 years of teaching, at least a Master’s degree, and will absolutely require a teaching license. These schools that ISS and Search (Associates) and other places recommend, they’re looking for experienced teachers from the U.S. and from the U.K., and Australia. To be honest, the caliber and the quality the parents are expecting, if you were to walk in without any experience you would be in a lot of trouble. That’s not to say you can’t do it, but it is a difficult step.
So these are sophisticated kids, in other words?
JAMES: Absolutely, yeah.
What’s your competition like with the UK, and other English-speaking teachers: Are Americans liked more, less, about the same?
JAMES: I think that because of the changes that have happened in the U.S., with the defunding of public education, and the increasing levels of bureaucracy that’s being put on teachers, I think more and more quality teachers are fleeing the U.S., and so, internationally – I think it used to be sort of “free spirits” who would do this, teachers who, maybe, wanted to see the world, and now it’s teachers coming out of the U.S. who are dedicated professionals who just can’t work in the U.S. any more, and I think that’s raising the bar in terms of what the perception of American educators is like.
It also happens a lot regionally: countries that are former colonies, or have connections to the U.K., tend to have a higher number of U.K. teachers just because it has to do with peripheral regions, and their perception of places to go.
The last school I worked at was overwhelmingly American, 90% American, with enough Canadians to give a bit of diversity – but you know the Canadians and Americans are indistinguishable anyway.
Oh, don’t ever say that! (Laughs)
JAMES: Yeah, the Canadians hate that.
Overwhelmingly, the school here has a large number of Americans, a chunk of Canadians, one or two Brits and an Australian, just for fun. And there’s a bunch of Panamanians as well, who are native Panamanians or married to Panamanians.
You didn’t know Arabic, or did you know French, even, before you went to Morocco?
JAMES: I had high school French, and I learned Arabic when I was there. That definitely – if anybody’s considering – it’s not an obstacle to moving there, it is an obstacle to enjoying the place. Because you find, after a month or two, you get tired of asking people to translate for you. And it increases your sense of independence. So I picked up Moroccan Arabic while living in Morocco. And I had enough Spanish before I came to Panama that I could build on that base over the six months after I got hired that I’m pretty comfortable in Spanish here - although Panamanians don’t open their mouths when they talk so it makes it difficult to understand them.
Just curious: It sounds like you are competing with high-caliber teachers, so does that equate to better pay at these schools? Comparable to the U.S., less, more?
JAMES: It’s more. You have to really calculate pay based on cost of living, rather than the actual dollar amount. So while I may get paid $65-$70 thousand dollars to teach at the Overseas School of Rome, you have to factor that you’re living in Rome. Here, where I may get paid half that, the cost of living in Panama is significantly lower. Every school publishes an index where they talk about savings rate, and my wife and I are able to save almost a full salary between the two of us. And that’s the value we use. Because it’s a free market for teachers, and all the information is available to teachers, they can really price schools and say: “Okay, I don’t really want to go here, because I can’t afford it.” Generally, there are three factors: there’s the cost-of-living factor, there’s the quality-of-life factor, and then there’s the quality of the institution. So you can find a school that doesn’t pay a lot, but you get to live on the beach, or live in a nice city, or you can find a place like the International School of Bangkok, which pays a lot relative to the cost of living, but you work Saturdays, you work six days a week, and the expectations are extremely high. So it’s a mix of quality of life, cost of living, and quality of the institution.
That brings me to my next question about benefits, time off, and do you get to enjoy the lifestyle you’ve gone over there to explore?
JAMES: I think parents and administration are well aware that the teachers who’ve come, have come because they’re not just interested in working, they’re interested in living as well. And so we get a lot of opportunities to experience the culture through the school basically, the school organizing excursions with the students. In Morocco, I coached basketball, and we travelled to Barcelona or Lisbon every few years for a tournament. And I coached the model U.N. program, and so we were traveling to Rome or Germany. Most schools have a fairly robust international experience, also for the students: they want the students to be out there. In terms of time off, we run a 180-day schedule, just the same as we do in the U.S., and the vacations fall where they do. It depends. Europeans get a ski week, because that’s what Europeans do, and in Panama we get a week off for Carnival because that’s what Panamanians do. But we still get 180 days. I will say this: The one huge difference is that in the U.S. I was teaching the four different classes; I would teach government economics, economics, and two different history courses, while here I am able to specialize, so I teach economics and politics, which gives me a tremendous amount of freedom because my head’s in fewer places, prepping less material – I feel like I have more free time to experience the culture.
Speaking of the culture, what have you really enjoyed about being overseas and this lifestyle in particular?
JAMES: I love language and so for me I love learning new languages and putting them into practice. It’s not an academic exercise for me, it’s much more hands on because I do teach economics and politics, I really like being in other countries and seeing what’s going on beyond the headlines and being able to see, for example, Panama is experiencing a mild inflation rate right now and so I can go out and see the impact of that with people right here. That’s more of the geeky side of me and what I like. But for me absolutely hands down – in Panama and Morocco it’s the interactions with the local culture and the travel opportunities.
Last weekend I went diving in the Caribbean, an hour and a half drive from my apartment, I left the Caribbean at ten in the morning and I was back in my apartment in Panama City by eleven thirty having just done three dives the day before (laughs) where do you get to do that? I have a three-day weekend coming up and I’m flying to Bogotá for the weekend. You just don’t get to do that in The States. I feel like, in The States, I may have been able to do that, it just seemed so much farther to fly from say, Oregon down to San Francisco for the weekend. Where as here, I don’t have any roots here, so I don’t have any obligations here so I can fly off to Bogotá for the weekend. It’s just a different vibe. Space is formulated differently, there are no ties here.
That’s another thing, I’ve never been a big fan of owning stuff, it’s always been sort of a burden more than a pleasure, but when you move overseas you realize really fast how little stuff you need. We moved into an apartment where all the furniture is basically with the apartment and when we leave, we’ll leave all the furniture behind. We have a car that we bought here and when I leave we’ll sell it to somebody else. When we’re not here somebody else can use our car. Stuff becomes very unimportant, which is great because it’s not like I’m owning a house that I have a long term investment in – I’m residing here now and then I’ll be residing somewhere else later.
Along those lines – what kind of people do you meet and what is the social life like when you become an expat – do you only hang out with other Americans? How does it work?
JAMES: my wife and I try very hard to mix it up. Both in Morocco and here, we try to hang out with locals who are long-term residents as well as folks who’ve migrated here and have put down stakes. We’ve only been here a couple months but we’ve already made friends with other expats who aren’t American, like a Mexican friend, friends from El Salvador, Costa Rica and Columbia. So, that’s important – it’s like living on an island, all the expats know each other at some point and they all run in the same circles and run into each other. Panama City is a little bit bigger in terms of the expat life because there are so many expats down here. Whereas in Morocco, if you weren’t French, you knew all the other expats. The French tended to keep to themselves. All the other expats knew each other and people were very helpful as you transitioned in and were welcoming. It’s not hard to get invited to social events. We expected that we would have more entertainment from the embassy’s – The Dutch, Spanish and Germans tend to be very open, whereas the American embassy’s don’t tend to invite Americans to stuff (laughs) I don’t know what the deal is but…we don’t even get invited to Fourth of July.
I wonder if that’s a security issue – they’re just so paranoid.
JAMES: No, they invite other nationalities just not Americans.
Who knows – huh!
JAMES: Yeah, we thought we’d be going to embassy parties and wearing tuxedos and ball gowns…(laughs)
How do you hook in with people, meet people? Is there an online community or is it from the school? How do you hook up with other expats?
JAMES: we have an advantage because the school ties us in automatically. We had an open house and I met several parents who invited me out for a beer to talk about life here in Panama. For us it’s easy. For someone else moving overseas who don’t have the basis of the school, there are tons of Facebook groups, sports leagues like baseball, flag football and such – those are easy tie ins for people to meet. If you’re single there are all the online dating scenes, which I don’t experiment with because I’m married (laughs). And then you know, really it’s just people in your building, your neighbors…it’s interesting here though about neighbors. In the States you choose your neighborhood a lot of times based on your income and your personal taste – this neighborhood is known for this and that, etc. in the international world, you kind of just land somewhere and you decide if you like it or not. Your neighbors may not be similar to you.
What would you say are the biggest challenges of the lifestyle?
JAMES: I think the feeling of impermanence is the biggest challenge. I know I’m going to be here for a couple years and then I’m going to leave. I think, how many times am I willing to do this before I just get tired of integrating. Right now, I’m not exhausted by it at all but I can see that maybe fifteen years from now I might move to, I don’t know, Malaysia, and say you know what, I’m not going to learn Malay, I’m going to stick with English and stick with Americans and forget this. That’s a fear of mine that I don’t want to happen. So that’s one of the obstacles, I guess you could get really tired of change but you can always go back to The States if that happens.
The other sort of obstacle or problem is that you miss home but for different reasons. I mean, some people can get tied up in creature comforts and they miss Nestle Quick, for example, or they miss yellow mustard, but I’ve been overseas for seven years now and I’ve got nieces and nephews who I’ve met once – this summer. You’re kind of outside the loop. What’s interesting is that while a lot of your friends and family will express interest and think, oh that’s great you live overseas and that’s so exciting, really they don’t want to hear all the stories. Their lives are very important to them and yours seems like vacation and it’s really difficult to say how many awesome experiences you’ve had. I find myself censoring myself with friends and family about how amazing my life actually is because it is really incredible.
Right, because you’re constantly having new experiences and that’s not something you encounter as much if you live in the same place for all your life or stay in The States.
What would you say to someone who wants to teach abroad and follow the path that you’ve done?
JAMES: I would say three things. One would be to get started very early. September / October are when schools are starting to put out feelers. Asian schools tend to have a deadline of end of October for their teachers to announce whether they’re returning or not. Latin American schools tend to be November. European schools tend to be December. Usually for most schools around the world they tend to have a deadline of before their winter break. They want to know their openings for the following year.
Second thing would be to start gathering your letters of reference from your supervisors and co-workers. They’re going to play big in your hiring decisions. The last thing I would say is to digitize everything. I’m a history teacher by trade and so I have files full of crap, who knows where it came from and lugging that stuff around the world is really tiresome, so put everything in digital format. Make your life online – your bank statements, your credit cards…you need to have a nonphysical existence that you can just take with you. Facebook for contacts – you really want to be going as digital as possible to make yourself as flexible as possible and as mobile as possible.
The fourth thing would be to not limit yourself to a region. There are a lot of interesting schools out there in places you wouldn’t have even thought of. We almost considered moving to Tashkent, Uzbekistan this year just because the school was so incredible. But I have a real problem with cold weather so we decided not to but had I not, I would’ve considered Tashkent. So these places will pop up on your radar that two days ago I would’ve never considered. The director started negotiations with us and all of a sudden I found myself thinking about Tashkent Uzbekistan and thinking about it positively. There are options and keep an open mind as to where you could end up.
Has it been easy for your wife? Has it been easy for you both to find what you needed and, do the schools help you with that?
JAMES: Yes, for some reason when you rank the overseas candidates, married couples come in first. Then married teachers with spouses that are not teachers and then single teachers. I think they consider us more stable and they get two for the price of one. They pay for my airline ticket and if my wife were not a teacher they would pay for her ticket as well, so it works out for them if we’re both teachers. Single people get housing and married couples get about a little less than half as much more so they’re really saving on housing benefits for us. It’s economical for the schools. If you’re considering this as a teaching couple, there’s obviously all the things that go into it, but if your spouse is a science, math or special ed teacher, they are the more attractive of the two of you and you may end up getting hired as an add on – so your ego has to be ok with that (laughs).
This year, we stopped looking after December, but we basically had eight schools that we would consider going to in the world that had jobs for both of us. More might have opened up after that but we were done so early with the hiring process. If you’re one of the teachers with a trailing spouse or family that are not educators then other options are out there as well. There are a lot of opportunities for your spouse to plug in to the school community or to the local network, maybe working as a teacher’s aid or working in the office…we had a teacher here who came in and her fiancé as a trailing spouse and had no interest in working, he was going to take the two years off, and the school said, “hey, we need another guy in the PE department,” and he’s a really fit guy, so now he’s teaching yoga and enjoying working with middle school kids on fitness. That kind of stuff can happen as well.
A lot of the teacher’s aid positions are reserved for spouses. Good schools will integrate non-teaching spouses into the community in order to retain the teachers they want. Because too often the non-teaching spouse can say, I’m bored and I want to leave or I’m not happy here. Also, there are lots of opportunities if you’re raising a family, doing it overseas – it has it’s obstacles – but in a lot of ways it’s easier because there are a lot of options for domestic help and the cultural experiences. One of the two spouses could also stay home without the same financial burden that you would have in The States.
It’s also an opportunity for those with a trailing spouse to work independently. I know one couple where the trailing spouse is a graphic designer and he’s still able to do his work from where they are in Germany. I know another couple where the trailing spouse is an accountant and he’s able to consult online with his clients, so those options exist as well. Basically, with both spouses teaching, you’re limiting your schools. This year, there were about eight schools that were open to both of us teaching.
We’ve kind of covered this already a bit, but is there anything you would’ve done differently?
JAMES: other than digitizing everything, in the beginning, I’ve now learned that lesson well – have everything be much more mobile. I would have made a more concerted effort to be public, like having a blog or something like that where people could keep better tabs on me. I don’t know if people would read my blog but now it kind of seems too late. That’s something I definitely would have done. I don’t know, I feel like we’ve made most of the right decisions or we made the wrong decision and we got lucky with the outcome (laughs).
The thing I would’ve done if I’d known about this – I would’ve started this process twenty years ago. It’s just such an amazing thing that I feel like I’m a better teacher, I’ve learned so much as an educator, I’m teaching with other educators who are at the top of their game, teaching highly-motivated kids with parents who expect – they’re not overbearing – but they expect them to work hard and work well. I just feel like the level of professional development I’ve gotten…had I done this twenty years ago, who knows – it would’ve been an amazing option. Not to say that public schools in the US didn’t give me a lot as well but this is really helping me grow in so many ways that I can’t even quantify them.
Yeah, it sounds like the ultimate teaching gig to get motivated students and motivated parents – that’s a gift.
JAMES: Absolutely, it’s teaching amazing classrooms.
Do you see yourself moving back to The States at some point and do you prepare for that in any way?
JAMES: No – The States have lost me as a teacher, as an educator. There have actually been a number of articles about that in the US. The movement has gone so far away from being able to teach, that if I were to go back to The States now the frustration levels I would encounter – I love working with kids and I love teaching – from everything I know with what’s going on in The States, that’s becoming more and more of an obstacle. It’s unfair and it’s sad for the American students but teachers are dropping out of the public school system like crazy. I won’t go teach in a private school in the US because I believe in the value of a public education. I can’t foresee myself going back there any time soon unless the US gets its act together and they realize they need to fund public education to the level that it should be funded. That’s more of a political discussion than anything else (laughs). I don’t plan on going back. If I do go back it would be towards the end of my career and I’ll have to make some decisions then but I’m a long way away from that so I’m totally fine where I am bouncing around the world.
Well James, that’s fantastic, thank you so much for all of your great advice and I wish you and your wife the best of luck.
JAMES: I appreciate it – thanks for the opportunity to talk.