Here’s a question for all of the music education majors on this site: how many of you have heard of or know of someone teaching abroad – not the English language lessons used to fund backpack trips though foreign countries or the Department of Defense Schools at US military bases overseas? Have you heard of the the American School in Singapore, London, Tokyo and Paris. What about the International School of Bangkok, Beijing, the Hague, Prague, Quito and Manila? Have any of your professors mentioned the thousands of schools throughout the world that hire US teachers? Probably not. It seems like it’s a secret club that very few educators know about…including your professors. My wife and I stumbled upon it by chance and our lives were changed forever.
In 1998 after my second year of teaching high school band, we were on a backpacking trip though Europe. In a little village outside of Innsbruck, Austria we ran into another American teaching couple and shared classroom stories over a few beers. It turned out that they were teaching at an international school in Narobi, Kenya (http://www.isk.ac.ke/). Their school had over 700 students and offered the American as well as the International Baccalaureate diplomas. They also told us that there were schools like this all over the world. We had no idea.
We did research over the next few years and decided to make our move in the fall of 2003. By that July we were living in Singapore and working at the Singapore American School (SAS); a pre-k through grade 12 campus with 3900 students. I currently run a middle school band program with 230 students grades 6-8. We have five general music teachers that work with the K-5 students, we have band, choir, and orchestra in both the middle and high school as well as AP music theory. There are over 800 students in our performing ensembles taught by thirteen music teachers.
I have made friends with music teachers from all over the world through my involvement in the Association for Music in International Schools – AMIS (http://amis-online.org.uk/ ). Through this organization I have been able to take students on festival trips to Beijing, Shanghai, Manila, Bangkok, Paris, Rabat (Morocco), and Jakarta. I have been invited to guest conduct international music festivals in Beijing, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur.
When I was in university, I would never have dreamed any of this was possible. At this point in our lives, we don’t ever plan to work in the US again…and neither do most of the other teachers I talk to who are currently working abroad. Teaching abroad is that good and I can’t believe that it took us so many years to find out about the international teaching scene. I have been doing my best to tell all of my friends in the US about it and when I was invited to post on this site, I jumped on the chance. I want you to know about it so that you have more options. Teaching abroad is not for everyone but for those that have a sense of adventure, I believe that you must look into it. Below I have provided some information that I hope will be useful for you.
This list of pros vs. cons is based on my personal experience and I have only worked at one school. I know many teachers at other schools and tried to provide anecdotal evidence from discussions with them.
Salary: Many international schools pay extraordinarily well but it depends on the school and the region. Schools that are for private will pay a lot less than those that are non profit. The best places to make an exceptional salary are in Asia and the Middle East. Most western European schools have low salaries with very few benefits. There are a some that pay well, but job openings at those schools do not come available too often. I’ve been told that many schools in South America are for profit so the salaries are low, but then again, the cost of living is also very low.
It’s hard to compare salaries when you know nothing about the cost of living in a foreign city. What you have to look at is the benefit package the school offers. For example, at my school, besides the basic salary, we receive an overseas salary supplement each year (extra money for working overseas), a monthly housing allowance that pays for our condo plus we get that balance back in cash of we don’t use the entire amount, a flight to get you to the school when you sign your contract and one home when you contract ends, flights to the US once a year for each family member, free tuition for your dependents, moving allowance, and the annual wage supplement- an extra paycheck in December. This seems unreal, but, international schools are private schools that need to attract clients (students). They best way to do this is to hire great teachers and one of the ways to attract teachers to move overseas is with great hiring packages.
Travel/Culture/Diversity - Working overseas has allowed me and my family to experience so many different cultures. The traveling we have done during holidays to over fifteen countries is something I would never have been able to afford while working in the US. Secondly, we have over forty different nationalities at my school. I have learned so much from my colleagues and my students about their home countries and cultures. With students and friends I have had the chance to celebrate Hari Raya Pusa, Deepavali, Hari Raya Hajii, Chinese New Year, Singapore National Day, and The Hungry Ghost Festival. I’ve trekked though the Indian Himalayas chatting with sherpas about their home in Nepal, attended a traditional Indian wedding, built lanterns for a festival in Thailand… The list goes on and on. Growing up in a small town in Illinois I never dreamed any of this. I am truly a global citizen now because of my choice to work abroad.
School Climate – At many international schools the arts are completely supported and the constant worry of having your program cut is not a concern. For many schools, a quality arts program is a great recruiting tool when it comes to getting parents to enroll their child. The students are usually quite motivated and work very hard. If you think about it, many of the international schools cater to foreign businesses that have their executives overseas. These are highly motivated and successful people and their children tend to be the same.
The parents are usually very active in school and support their children in any way possible. They are also usually well off financially and this has increased benefits for your classroom. For example, at the end of each year I send out an email asking 7th grade parents to consider upgrading their students beginner model instrument to something better. I often see the 8th grade students the next fall with Bach strads and Buffet clarinets.
Private international schools can also be quite financially independent. At my school, I have a substantial budget that allows me to purchase enough rental instruments (the larger ones) to give every student one to have at school and at home. Also, we are not allowed to fund raise at our school and there really isn’t a need. When I took my students on the trips I listed above, I told the parents the price of the trip, and they wrote a check. No fund raising period! Based on my conversions with other teachers in AMIS many of the schools are similar in this aspect.
Oh and by the way… there is no marching band ( I consider this a “pro”). Marching band is a product of the US and is not widely accepted overseas. Even if you wanted to have one, you can’t have a summer band camp because everyone has gone back to their home country for the summer. I can only think of one intentional school in all of Asia that has a pep band. Your Friday nights are free to enjoy as you wish.
Stress on the family- If you are very close to your family, living overseas can be stressful. You will miss everyone’s birthday parties and holiday gatherings or you will have to be a long distance observer through Skype. Again, it depends on the school and where it is located, but if you want to work in Asia making it back home is a long and arduous process. It takes my family 22 hours to get to Chicago from Singapore. The jet lag is awful and lasts a week. Conversely, there is a great school in Monterrey Mexico where many teachers can take a road trip to Texas to do their shopping. Location, location, location.
Transient nature of Teaching Abroad – There are two cons in this category. The first is that most teachers that teach abroad move around often. Should you work overseas for any given period of time, you will have to say goodbye to many of your friends. There are some schools where teachers stay put, but that is not the norm.
Secondly, and this applies mostly to music teachers and coaches, it’s tough to build a program. Companies can decide at the drop of a hat to move an employee and when that happens, their whole family is relocated too. You may lose your 1st chair violin or best trumpet player over the Christmas break. However, this also means you may gain new students at anytime too. One year when I was thinking I was going to have a weak trumpet section, two new good players moved in over the summer and the section turned out to be one of the strongest.
Retirement/Contracts/Tenure- Many schools abroad do not have any forced retirement savings plan. There are no 401K’s or teacher retirement systems. At our school we are handed a lump sum each month for retirement ( I forgot to mention that above in the salary “pros”) and we have to figure out what to do with it. If you are not good with money…this could defiantly be a “con.” This could also be a “pro” because you are allowed to invest your money however you wish.
Initial contracts at most international schools are given for two years and if you are unhappy at a school and break a contract after a year, you’ll have a hard time getting a job at another international school. While there are thousands of schools around the globe, it’s a tight knit community and all the heads of schools seem to know each other. You’ll be blacklisted. When you complete your initial two year contract, for each year following you will probably be offered one year contracts based on your performance. There is no tenure and there are no government regulations to protect you. You work hard because you may not get invited back if you don’t.
You Might Wear Many Hats – I have the luxury of working at a very large school that has enough students to support separate band choir and orchestra programs. I only teach the middle school bands. Many international schools are small and you may have to wear many hats. I have a colleague in Aberdeen Scotland that is the music teacher at the school. It’s a very small school and he teaches all of music classes from K through 12. This is not a “con” for him and he loves it. However, you need to be prepared that you might be asked to teach just about any music class.
How to Get Started:
If you are interested in teaching abroad, recruiting for happens very early. We found that out the first year we started to look for jobs overseas. We began the process in March and by then, most of the positions were already filled -especial the music positions. Many international schools have a December 1st deadline for current employees to notify administration if they are returning the following year. Recruiting fairs happen in January and February. A late one occurs in the summer to fill all the left over positions that couldn’t get filled earlier.
I would start by buying the online guide at the “Joy Jobs” website. We started here and found it incredibly useful. http://www.joyjobs.com/ This is a comprehensive guide to finding positions overseas. Next, sign up for a recruiting fair. Many schools will not accept cold emails and only recruit through the fairs. there are two main recruiting firms. Search Associates http://www.search-associates.com/ and International School Services- http://www.iss.edu/education-careers/for-educators/ host the largest fairs. The University of Northern Iowa also hosts a fair http://www.uni.edu/placement/overseas/ . Be aware that there are fees involved to get invited to the fairs. To get an invite, you will have to submit a CV and letters of recommendation to your chosen recruiting firm. Please note: many recruiting firms may tell that they don’t offer invites to a fair unless you have a minimum of three years teaching experience. Don’t let this deter you. This is sometimes overlooked for music teachers because these positions can be hard to fill.
The biggest key to getting hired for a school abroad is to be flexible. If you get invited to a recruiting fair, don’t go with the hopes of getting one specific position or with the idea of working in one specific country. Schools want to save money and sending administrators overseas to recruiting fairs is expensive. If they can fill the position in advance the will. The job you see posted on sites like TIE Online (you can sign up here- http://www.tieonline.com/ to receive immediate notices when jobs are posted) may be filled before you even get to the recruiting fair. Don’t get stuck on teaching in Europe.
There is also a hierarchy to who will get hired first at an international school. If a school is paying for your housing, wouldn’t it save them more money if two teachers lived in the same house? Teaching couples get hired first before single teachers. You may be more qualified than a competitor for the job you want, but your competitor may be more affordable. Be flexible. If you are single, con your friend into teaching abroad and tell the schools you interview with that you will live in the same house. Just make sure your friend is not another music teacher. Your options will be severely limited if you are looking for two music positions at the same school.
I hope I have provided you with some useful information to help you get started with your career teaching abroad. By no means is the information above comprehensive. As stated before, this is my experience based on my career overseas and discussions with my colleagues. Every countries laws are different and every international school is different. Do your research, expand your possibilities, and go to the fairs with an open mind. You won’t regret it.
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