The #1 Key to Teaching Abroad

Years ago, when sitting as a first year teacher in Las Vegas on a professional development day, I came to a decision. I had just heard dozens of teachers complain for nearly eight hours about almost everything the presenter—a local employee with 20 years of experience as public school teacher—said. Furthermore, many looked unhealthy, exhausted and bitter. If I ever get to this point, I said to myself, I will leave.

Six years later, after running the twelfth-grade English PLC at my school as well as its drama and journalism programs, burned out by admin decisions and burdened by an alarming sense of ennui, I did just that.

A sunset from my last year in Las Vegas.

Now. Is that fair? Did I maybe have some naivete going on, in 2008, or some arrogance, in 2014, when I left? Did I have everything figured out as a first-year teacher in North Las Vegas, NV, with one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, one of the highest rates of transience and teen pregnancy, and less than half a teaching degree under my belt?

Hell no! In addition, I’d be blind if I didn’t admit a certain level of privilege was not inherent in my ability to leave how and when I did. Despite the tough area of town, I had supportive administrators and colleagues. I was single with no kids to worry about, either. Yet believe it or not, having kids, being single or married, or having traveled a lot or not, are not the greatest determining factors of success or failure abroad. The vital trait—the ONE thing that has yielded success, in addition to the more commonly-praised and cited attribute of resilience and/or determination, in my life—is flexibility. And the same thing that enabled me to up and leave the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia in 2008, move to a city I’d never seen, and teach in a difficult environment for six years is what enabled me to succeed teaching in Beijing, China; Kuwait; and now, Fuyang. And if you want to teach abroad, you should embrace it.

Road less traveled, and all that. Or in this case, the road I used to jog in Cenntennial Hills, Las Vegas.


Here’s the thing: teachers are complainers. Or perhaps workers are? Maybe every work environment has those who whine and express exasperation every step of the way, but you know what? They don’t exactly have the highest life satistfaction. Even worse, I might venture to say that they don’t necessarily earn the best raises, opportunities, or other perks.

For those who teach abroad with such an attitude, I would add that they perhaps did not go into the next phase of their lives with both eyes open. To be blunt: research is important. I’ll never forget stumbling across a blog from a woman who took a position with ADEC (Abu Dhabi Education Council) weeks after seeing Sex and the City 2 (I AM NOT KIDDING), without ever checking to see if the U.S. had a military base at which her spouse in the military could work (they did not).

She left a few months into her contract, bewildered and alarmed by what she saw.

But I digress.

The truth is that I don’t think this trait of flexibility is only needed as a teacher abroad, or in a failing school where you have little control beyond the walls of your classroom. I’d guess that my sisters, passionate mothers to kiddos and both teachers themselves, would say that flexibility is key to parenting, too. And that CEOs and successful entrepreneurs and others in many different careers would suggest the same.

But here’s the thing. If you actually want to live overseas and teach in a new culture, you have one of two choices. You can moan and complain every time something does not go your way—which will happen A. LOT.—or you can decide, up front, to laugh it off, to share it with a trusted friend BRIEFLY, and then move on.

I think it’s pretty obvious which approach is more fruitful.

Beijing in 2014: Closet? Stovetop? Separate area for shower from the toilet? Who needs ’em?!

I’ve been postponing a series on teaching abroad, as well as how it compares to teaching as a licensed teacher in the United States, for months now. There is more than one reason for this, in part due to how other respected writers have written similar things already. But much of it has come from this highly variable trait, and trying to decide how to nicely say it, before I jump in to the nitty gritty of similarities and differences.

But I can’t.

Thus, now, for perhaps the first time, I am being a little sassy. A little blunt. With one–well, maybe, two–caveats.

If you enjoy complaining about every decision that your administration makes in your current school…

If your feathers get easily ruffled when someone says something that you find offensive, and you find it difficult to find common ground with people whose opinions differ from you…

If snow days or schedule changes or last-minute “decisions from on high” about curriculum in your school bother you for days…

If, even, you are so accustomed to a certain lifestyle, culture, weather, administration, sleep pattern, and day-to-day life that small disturbances in these things seriously impair your ability to function…

Then teaching abroad may not be for you.

Which step is right for you? (HAHA, GET IT?!)

And THAT’S OKAY! Wonderful, even! There are MILLIONS of teachers in the United States who show more stamina and dedication to their home districts than I ever could. They will stay for their twenty years and raise children and I may one day even be one of them.

For now, though, I am not.

Part of me knew, that day in 2008, that I was not destined to retire in Las Vegas. While I did start teaching with Teach for America, I stayed longer than the average teacher did there, so my conscience is clear regarding the common two-year controversy that encompasses TFA instructors at times.

Rather, as I have said to people, that kind of stability is not my gift. I have never longed for a house with a white-picket fence. While I am no longer married, my lack of a vision for my own wedding day once frustrated my then-fiance; I was not the typical young woman, I presume.

I have always been a “free spirit,” studying abroad in Argentina, majoring in English because I liked to read, going to Russia because I felt “God was calling me” to this very random place, even though I knew I’d always wanted to live in China. And that’s worked for me.

Birthday card from my mom… she figured me out pretty early.

But the good news is that you don’t have to be a vagabond to teach overseas. One of my most enlightening conversations of my own research before moving to the Middle East was a phone chat with my mother’s neighbor, in which she happily discussed the many downsides of life in Abu Dhabi.

“You’ll never get a positive performance review,” she said cheerily. “It’s just not their way. Also, the local women who co-teach are not as invested. You may do twice as much work, while they come in late, clock out as soon as the clock strikes 3, and challenge you instead of supporting you. Also, the students aren’t terribly motivated, but they’re sweet! Oh, and you might get changed schools mid-contract. It’s just how it goes.”

By this point, she had already blithely listed enough reasons to avoid the country than I needed to decline the offer, and I haven’t even shared all that she said. (I should IMMEDIATELY note that I’ve had other friends who worked there whose reviews varied greatly; much depends on which school and neighborhood you get, to say the least.) But the most remarkable part of this is that until this position abroad, this woman had never left the U.S., AND she had three kids and a husband who willingly packed up and came with her!

Yup. This remarkable person, whose bubbly personality positively rolled across the air waves during our talk, had never even left the country before she moved her entire clan to the Middle East. Yet she LOVED her time in Abu Dhabi and only left because they couldn’t afford to pay for private school for three kids (an admitted challenged that can be ameliorated by posts in different kinds of schools than ADEC). Yet she found the entire experience worthwhile, valuable and rewarding. Totally good.

After speaking with teachers who have worked in more than a dozen countries, and teaching in three total myself (including the U.S.), I have realized that age, marital status and certification do not matter nearly as much as adaptability. Positivity and the neighbor of these two in resilience and determination matter, too, but you can be positive and also in denial about the bracing depression that is dawning on you as a lack of control dooms you to anxiety day-to-day in a foreign realm. You can be determined as all get-out, but if that stubbornness would be better served in a country where you can drink water from the tap and go to the bathroom sitting instead of squatting, there’s no shame in that. And it’s very different than being a flexible person.

At the end of the day, for the best combination of job AND life satisfaction, take an honest look at yourself. If you are considering teaching abroad, ask yourself, first, are you happy teaching? Because in a foreign country, you won’t have other go-tos like hobbies, family or lifelong friends, easily accessible. Your job, and the other teachers who are your colleagues, will be your whole world, and social group, although there will be ways to rebuild your usual supports.

Picture from a time I was stranded at the Madrid airport due to a strike in Paris to represent the loneliness you can feel abroad. 😉

Secondly, as part of that flexibility, are you open-minded? If you grew up in the Bible Belt and not being able to have Christmas off is a deal-breaker, then life abroad—or at least, in China’s more public schools—may not be for you. Will you bristle at having to cover your shoulders in Kuwait, or at not being able to visit families on normal holidays? All of these are signs that you may be best-suited to remain home. And, again—that is okay. I don’t have the same kind of fidelity as you, to stay in one place (at least, not now).

If, on the other hand, you find that you aren’t really bothered by snow days, or when the county school board demands yet another curriculum change, or you at least find quick ways to deal with it, and move on without lasting frustration—you, my dear friend, may be a prime candidate. Because at the end of the day, teaching may be a calling…but teaching abroad is a choice. A drastic one, one that requires a commitment to shedding expectations, and being content to step forward into a joyful but complicated unknown.


That choice represented here by a picture of me (wait for it) leaving Las Vegas…

Now, two disclaimers:

1. I am not saying that you cannot be successful teaching abroad if you are not open-minded or flexible. I am saying that you may not be happy. In other words, I’d suggest that your quality of life may be decreased by teaching abroad, as opposed to just staying home. 

2. Note that I did not say that you should have an insatiable curiosity about the outside world, or even a desire to learn and explore different cultures. Those certainly help and enrich the experience of teaching abroad—and are indeed a powerful reason that many teachers choose to work overseas—but they are not the determing factors as to their success, in my humble opinion.

Further, as I am speaking mainly to licensed U.S. teachers, I would suggest that loving the ability to learn and appreciate other cultures can be utilized just as effectively over our long summer vacations, to great effect. In my experience, teachers have been just as successful here in China or in Kuwait, South Korea or other countries when they are flexible, whether or not they speak highly of their host cultures or try to learn much about the local language or culture. 

Of course, if you hold views that are generally racist, xenophobic or hostile to people who look or act differently than you, it’s also best that you stay home.

Teaching abroad has been one of the best decisions of my life, and I look forward to diving in to the weeds in the coming posts. We’ll cover:

1. The visa process, how to obtain a job overseas, and how to choose a country or region of the world as it pertains to many factors including religion, dietary restrictions and health concerns;

2. The kinds of packages offered to licensed teachers from the United States, and the kinds of jobs you can get if you just have a bachelor’s degree, and no experience in teaching;

3. The different types of international schools and teaching;

4. The settling-in process, the general arc of teaching abroad in the first year, and how to cope;

5. And the more general joys and travails of life overseas, including how a country’s government can affect what you are allowed to teach; how the schedule may change based on a country’s holidays, and how they compare to those in the United States; and anything else you suggest by then, since this fifth post will be closer to summer.

That is all for now! If you have taught abroad, do you agree with my conclusions, or is something other than flexibility and open-mindedness required? What other attitudes or personality traits are vital? Let us know in the comments below!

3 thoughts on “The #1 Key to Teaching Abroad

  1. It’s interesting to hear from the perspective of someone who has taught in the US first and then went to teach abroad! I feel like it’s usually the other way around lol I enjoyed reading your post 🙂


  2. Wow, it sounds like flexibility really is key to being able to enjoy yourself (really, at home or abroad) as a teacher. I think I’m far too rigid for that, so I can’t imagine it’d be for me. I’ll just have to start traveling more on my own and experiencing other cultures that way. But I’m glad teaching abroad has been such a great experience for you.


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