World traveller and veteran international teacher, Bob Barlas, has long experience with the ins and outs of teaching in international schools. Barlas has taught in Singapore, China, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and the UK. He is the author of the Teaching Overseas Handbook and is also a senior associate with Search Associates—a company that helps teachers, counsellors, librarians and administrators find positions in international schools around the world.
Verge caught up with him to find out who makes a good international teacher and what a teacher needs to know if they’re thinking about applying for a position at an international school.
Verge: As a recruiter, what are some reasons that you like to hear from applicants for wanting to teach abroad? Are there any red flags?
Barlas: Good motivations are wanting to broaden one’s career experience or wanting to experience teaching in a cross-cultural environment. The more flexible you are as a teacher candidate, regardless of your age, the more opportunities you will get and the more attractive you will become to a school that is looking to hire someone.
The biggest no-no is going into an interview and saying, “What am I going to get paid?” That’s a relevant question, but not the first question you ask. But you’d be surprised about the number of people who are more concerned about that than anything else. [Also], you don’t go overseas to save the world.
Teachers that are inflexible, in terms of their methodology, their attitude—they don’t work very well in a cross-cultural situation. If they’re too set in their ways, that can be a problem.
Are there certain teaching specializations that are more in-demand?
Yes, it’s harder to find people like computer teachers and physics teachers, because there are fewer of them. There are fewer jobs but also fewer teachers. Whereas English teachers, history teachers or elementary teachers—there is a fairly ample supply.
How competitive is the field? How hard it is for a new teacher to get a job in an international school?
The overseas market is as competitive, if not more so, than it is here. It’s a common misconception among teachers that it’s much easier to get a job overseas. Schools want teachers with the most experience, the most qualifications, so sometimes it’s hard for a new teacher to break in. Some of the schools maybe pay less and are less desirable in terms of their location. They have a hard time getting teachers, so often you find a new teacher going to a country that they’re not mad about, at a salary they’re not mad about—but that’s just getting their foot in the door.
What educational or experiential backgrounds, abilities or skill sets are advantageous for teaching overseas?
A Bachelor of Education [degree] is usually fine, but not just by itself. We’d like to see some experience as well. The biggest thing is some kind of cross-cultural experience, even if that’s travelling or doing an internship in another country—something that shows you have worked, gained experience and are comfortable working in a cross-cultural milieu.
What’s different about the hiring process for an international school compared to a North American school?
There is a difference in the kind of interview that an international school head would do. A principal [here] is primarily interested in the qualifications of the teacher, the methodology—the professional side. But the head of an international school is hiring someone to be a part of their community. They are much more interested in what that person is like as a person, how flexible are they, how culturally aware are they, how well would they fit into the culture of the school. So the interviews tend to be much more personal.
What professional differences might one expect when working in an international school?
If you go to an international school, most of the students you teach are not going to have English as their first language. You’ve got to be very conscious of your English skills. Some subjects that you might touch on as part of your teaching [in North America], you might need to avoid in another culture. You need to be aware of cultural sensitivity in your classroom.
In international schools, you are much more a part of the school community. The school is not a place that you go to at 9:00 am and come back home at 3:30 pm; it’s your social community in many cases, as well as your workplace. Most schools expect their teachers to be involved in their extracurricular program. Some require it.
What are some of the professional, practical and personal challenges teachers should be aware of before accepting an overseas position?
Culture shock is inevitable. Even if you don’t think it will be. Suddenly you’re coping with a new school, a new place to live, you’ve left your support network behind, so inevitably there’s going to be culture shock. The degree that you experience it will depend on how much experience you have in the first place. Whenever you go overseas, you can research, you can do your homework as much as you like; there’s always going to be that leap of faith when you go there, something you’re not prepared for and you need to be flexible. One of the biggest no-nos that you can do in international teaching—and I can’t stress this enough—is to accept a position overseas and then renege on it, or break the contract. If you break a contract unilaterally, you can get blacklisted.
What other overseas opportunities are there for teachers once they have in-school experience overseas?
I have a lot of candidates who started out as teachers and they’ve just stayed there and worked their way up the ladder the same way they would here. Now we do place people who are principals, superintendents, administrators, directly in administrative roles overseas. But that’s tough. The competition is tough. A Master’s of Education or specialization helps.
How far ahead should teachers be planning if they want to work in an international school?
I encourage people to start in the September before they want to go overseas in the following September, so a year in advance. Most of the recruiting is done in the months of January and February. It’s done earlier overseas than here. Candidates require the fall to build up a dossier—letters of references, etc. We start placing people after Christmas.
This article originally appeared in Verge's Winter 2017 issue.Add this article to your reading list