Friday, April 8, 2016

international teaching: making decisions amidst many options


I have been abroad for so long now that I feel really out of touch with my before life. It seems like it was far longer ago than four years that I was living in America. For the most part, I still very much think moving abroad was a good choice. There are certain things I question and there are some regrets, however, I think those are just part of the human experience. 

I don't consider myself an expert on moving abroad or being an expat or international teaching, but I do have some advice to share that could smooth out the process of becoming a career international teacher-- meaning a teacher looking to stay abroad long term. Like:

 It's not actually easy to just pack up and go back home. 

You won't have a job or a place to live. You probably won't have much stuff either. You probably sold your car and your furniture and you probably donated a lot of other things. Don't just do it-- it being move overseas-- unless you are pretty sure moving abroad, with all of its immense ups and downs, seems like the right choice for you and your situation. Also, know:

A life of endless choices does not simplify anything. 

Take a moment to wrap your mind around this: if you are an international teacher, every two years or so you will be faced with this question-- to stay in X country or go to X country or go home? That's because most schools have two year initial contracts, then year-to-year after that. There are international schools all over the world. You could literally find yourself with job offers from schools on five different continents. Having so many choices can make decision making exceptionally difficult, and the truth is, regardless of how much research you do, you never know what situation you're walking into until you arrive. 

So this brings me to the most important thing I've learned:

Know what really, truly matters to you,
 and make sure you are grounded enough to recognize it when you find it.

International teachers come and go all of the time. In my opinion, international teachers are some of the least committed and hardest to please people I've ever met. There is this mentality that life should be perfect since they moved abroad and are sacrificing their homes to be in X country, where ever that happens to be. But that is totally unrealistic.

We are currently in the going phase of the school year. Colleagues who are leaving are starting to sell their belongings and are eagerly awaiting their greener patches of grass at their next schools and destinations. 

But I've come to find the grass is rarely greener elsewhere. 

One set of problems is usually replaced with another set. That's where this saying comes from: the grass is greenest where you water it. That's why it matters so much to evaluate what really matters to you, so you are not stuck in an endless loop of dissatisfaction, literally crisscrossing the globe every few years trying to find a slice of goodness.

I was sure I wanted to move on to another school, but Sean insisted that before we even considered recruiting again, we hash out exactly what we are looking for in a new school and location. He wanted to do this so we were not aimlessly wandering, looking for something that we weren't even sure of. Once I actually did this--evaluate clearly and specifically what matters to me-- I realized that I already have most of it in my current situation.

And be sure to consider more than just professional values. 

When I made an earnest effort to identify my values and rank them in order of importance, I was surprised to find that most of them were not about work at all. But I guess I should not have been surprised at the same time because I will be the first person to tell you that I am not my job, and my personal life is far more important to me than my professional life. Of course, certain professional things matter to me a lot: functional classes, adequate materials as well as a reasonable workload and expectations. 

But many other things matter a lot to me too. Short commute. Reliable schedule. Plenty of time off. Easy recreational opportunities. Friendly environment. Great savings potential. Easy travel opportunities. Plenty of adventure. Diverse food options. Ease of day-to-day life. An average package. 

Bizarrely enough, it was only after making this list to help figure out what to look for next that I realized I already have these things where I am. I just never thought about it clearly before, so I never realized it and just plodded on with the herd mentality of so many international teachers: where to next?

Here:

I genuinely enjoy spending time with my classes. My students are well behaved and most work hard. I have the materials I need, and my school allows me to request additional materials I want. My commute is one minute long. I leave school when the last bell rings every day and rarely work on weekends. We get three months off every year and half a dozen long weekends. There is a track for me to run around, a pool for me to swim in and a tennis court for me to play on, all within a 1-5 minute walk from my apartment. We can save what we think is an absurd amount of money each year. We just got back from a surf trip in southern Taiwan, and we are heading to Japan next month for a long weekend. Our package is actually above average in some regards-- completely free and decent housing, annual flights, good healthcare, generous professional development funds, and an average salary. We have great friends and colleagues, and we are living a pretty good life here.  

So why on earth was I so eager to leave?
Really, truly it was because everyone else was!
Which brings me to my last point:

Remember that you don't have to drink the Kool Aid.

It's okay that my colleagues-- and many international teachers as a matter of fact-- have different values and priorities than me. What spurns many of them to leave my school is more money, a western calendar and working for a school with prestige. I think this accounts for a lot of staff turnover at many international schools. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but that is just so not me, or us as a couple. 

And that's okay.

It can feel uncomfortable sometimes to look around and realize you are fine with someone else's Choice B, but I am the one who has to live my life, not them. Our major focus in life is not our careers, it is our personal lives. Do we sacrifice some professional values here? Probably. However, we are likely to sacrifice personal values at a school that meets more of our professional values. We prefer the way our scales have been balanced here, so we can live with certain sacrifices.

Had I gone into international teaching with clear values and my head on straight, I really could have saved myself a lot of mental anguish over the past few years trying to decide where to go to next. And while I am not suggesting that we are staying in Taiwan forever, I am saying that I don't have much interest in tearing up our lawn when our grass is already looking pretty green.

Some people want adventure, so moving every two years is what they should do. Some people want a lot of money, so moving every two years on to schools that pay them better is what they should do. Some people want to work at the most renown schools, so moving on every two years until they are satisfied with the prestige of their school is what they should do. Some people want to live in certain countries or regions, so moving on every two years so they can is what they should do.

Our goals are not any of those.

Sean and I, for how simple it sounds, just want to live the good life. Enough money to live well. Enough free time to live it. Work that we don't hate. Good friends and satisfying hobbies. Lots of fun and laughter. One of a kind experiences.

I am sure one day, for example when we have kids or when we are 10 years or so out from retirement, our values will change. We will want certain qualities in a school and location, not for ourselves but for our kids or our financial future.

But now?

Now I am looking down and realizing that our patch of grass is pretty green exactly where we are standing. And I am happy to have realized it before blindly moving onto another school and situation that may not align so well with our values.

With so many choices all around you, 
it's so important to hash out what you're looking for so you know it when you find it!


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