Life as an international school chemistry teacher

Lowell - International School teacher

For this month's blog post, I was asked to share a bit of a narrative about my life as an international school teacher. So consider this fair warning: If you came looking for a direct connection to chemistry and/or related pedagogy, this month will be a bit different.

First, for some back-story. I was a public school teacher in California for six years, followed by 7 years in a small school district near Seattle, Washington. In 2006, I had a precocious toddler in the house and a wife that had wanderlust. I got certified as a SCUBA diver in 2005 and for our winter holiday in 2006, we were lucky enough to be on a cruise on the western Caribbean with stops in Mexico and Belize. I was out for a day of diving at Turneffe Atoll and had an amazing day underwater. As my "six-pack" boat of divers was headed back to the cruise ship my mind began to wonder. What if…?

I arrived at my cabin to wash my SCUBA gear and said - only half joking -  to my wife, Devin, "You know, we could just let the cruise ship leave without us and stay here in Belize." She had studied South East Asia as a minor in college, so she had something else in mind. "You know, Lowell, if we lived in Thailand you could go diving all the time too." So the wheels were put into motion. A friend of mine had just moved to Ecuador to teach at an international school, so I emailed him for some guidance. As I returned home from holiday, I started putting together my CV and cover letter - asking my supervisors for letters of recommendation. In February I hit the International School Service (ISS) Job Fair in San Francisco hoping to get hired by an international school - preferably in Thailand. Job Fairs like this are a whirlwind of activity and a roller coaster of emotions. You spend a morning queueing in line for interviews, followed by about two days of interviewing, all with the hopes of scoring second interviews and job offers. Since chemistry teachers are in high demand, I ended up with a few offers and chose to move to Thailand to teach at International School Eastern Seaboard. It's a small school near a major industrial zone in the province of Chonburi, about 90 minutes southeast of Bangkok.

My son started kindergarten there and my wife became a substitute teacher and an IB Exam Invigilator. And so my journey of teaching in the Diploma Programme within the IB became reality. We spent three years at this school in Thailand before feeling like it was time for a change. And while I signed up for a job fair in Bangkok in January, 2010, I ended up getting hired after a few Skype interviews with the American International School of Bucharest. Eastern Europe, here we come!

We spent four years on Bucharest - enjoying the four seasons, after three years in the heat and humidity of Thailand. My son started third grade in Bucharest, and my wife became the elementary book room manager and an assistant in the library. Four years later we decided to explore a new part of the world - only to end up back in Thailand at my current post: International School Bangkok. It is the largest of the international schools I've worked at, with about 1750 students this year. I teach four classes of IB Chemistry Higher Level, and one introductory chemistry course.

Without getting too personal about my own finances, I can say that international school teaching is a great way to go for teachers. Most international schools pay round-trip economy air-fare to your home of record each summer, provide fairly good health insurance coverage, and in some cases even pay into a retirement fund. Additionally many international schools also provide a housing allowance - the size of which depends on the cost of living in the nearby city.

The advantages of international schools vary by individual, but certainly the opportunity to travel and see the world is by far the most common reason teachers move overseas. Smaller class sizes are typical, along with fewer teaching periods in your schedule. As an example, I average about 20 students per class right now, teaching 5 of 8 class periods. This is certainly less than my average of 30-35, teaching six of eight class periods at my last public school in the U.S. That being said, the pressures are different as well. So I still work just as many hours - if not more - marking IB assessments. I really feel for my U.S. colleagues that have large class sizes to go with that role.

I now have a network of friends at various international schools on six continents. (I've yet to know anybody that teaches in Antarctica!) Due to the wonders of modern technology, I can keep in touch with many of them through Facebook and Twitter. Additionally, through Twitter (find me @ThomsonScience) I've managed to build a network of chemistry teachers and scientists around the globe as well. So when I'm traveling and people ask me where I'm from, it's actually a very difficult question. My passport says U.S.A. but my home address says Thailand.

There are some drawbacks to this lifestyle - which will also vary per individual tastes. Being far away from friends and family is certainly high on the list of issues with this lifestyle. I also truly miss my American sports. Of course the internet helps - but it's not the same as being able to call your friend up and hit a game on a Saturday. I no longer pay into social security, so saving for retirement is now almost exclusively my own responsibility. I say "almost" here, because a few international schools will pay into something like a 401k, or similar investment tool. But the defined benefit of a state retirement system from my public school teaching days will be quite small since I jumped between states and only have seven years in Washington.

The big question I often get asked is, "How do I get a job at an international school?" The first place to start is one of the many recruiting agencies for international schools. The two biggest are ISS and Search Associates. There are a number of smaller organizations as well. These recruiting agencies are hired by schools to help with their recruiting. As such, they typically hold multiple job fairs each year - starting earlier and earlier each year. These job fairs happen around the globe, from Bangkok to London to Boston to San Francisco to Dubai. At these job fairs, teachers sign up for interviews and schools can contact applicants that meet their qualifications. Interviews are had, jobs are offered and lives are changed forever.

And with many institutions interesting in saving costs, Skype interviews have become very popular lately - with my last two job offers happening after Skype interviews. The timeline for recruiting begins in September, and really picks up steam from November to February - with most hiring completed by the job fairs at that time. So if you're in a public school in the U.S you might even be able to have a job before resigning at your current school. The difference once you go international: There are no union protections, no tenure - and you must give notice to leave in June in order to attend job fairs and find a new job for the fall.

So if you're still reading and want more information, drop me a note in the comments. I'm happy to answer any clarifying questions you have if you are interested in taking the plunge.

And regardless where you teach around the globe, I hope you have a wonderful year with your students.