Who am I?
I’m an American teacher about to start my 13th year of teaching abroad. The first twelve of those were in Korea, 11 at international/foreign schools. As I type, I’m preparing to start my first year teaching in China. **NOTE: this post is based on my experience and observations. I’m sure there is still a lot I don’t know, and if you’re reading this and have something to add or fix, please contact me and let me know!
So, the basics:
There are three basic categories of teaching internationally:
Teaching English—this comes in all sorts of shapes and forms, from local public schools to universities to private academies.
- Note about hagwon teaching in Korea: There are lots and lots of blogs about this. The only thing I'll add here is that most international schools do NOT consider hagwon teaching as teaching experience. This can be important during the hiring process if you don't have a lot of other teaching experience and also when a school determines where to bring you in on the pay scale.
DODEA (for Americans)—this is teaching on US military bases overseas. You apply for this via the Dept. of Defense. Good luck. I had an application in with them for 8 years and nada…
International/foreign schools—this also come in many forms, but this is where I’m going to focus my attention in this post. Also, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use the term “international school.”
In Korea, there is a difference between international and foreign schools, but it’s not one that affects the teachers & hiring. It’s mostly about who can attend. As an FYI:
- Foreign school—100% of the students need to be “foreign.” The rules for what makes someone “foreign” change from time to time, but basically the students need to have foreign citizenship and/or have attended school for 3 years or so in another country. MOST “foreign” students in Korea are ethnically Korean (more on this later).
- International school—a percentage of the students (as determined by the local dept. of education) can be “purely” Korean, i.e. no foreign passport or experience. The % varies. The only real difference for teachers is how many students are coming out of Korean schools and require some retraining on how to be a student in a western system.
- NOTE: The name of a school has nothing to do with its status, since this classification system is only about a decade old. For instance, Seoul International School is classified as a foreign school.
- NOTE 2: The name of the school and its classification under Korean law also have nothing to do with the curriculum. Some foreign schools have IB curriculum, and some have a national curriculum. Same for international schools.
- NOTE 3: WARNING!!! Not all schools that call themselves “foreign” or “international” schools are either. As international education has become more popular in Korea, more and more “hagwons” or private after school academies have started calling themselves “international” or “foreign” schools. The first question to ask is what kind of visa they require. NO legit international school will require an E2 visa. It’s illegal! (More on this below)
- You need to have a 4-year degree or more.
- Larger schools require your degree to be in the subject you teach. Smaller schools are more flexible.
- For Korea, you MUST be certified in your home country in order to qualify for the E7 visa that international school teachers are required to have. If a school is telling you that you can teach on an E2 visa, RUN AWAY! No legitimate international school will try this. (For more on this, check out this article about a school that tried to skirt the rules. Trust me, there’s still fallout).
- You must have a clean criminal record. Korea requires an apostilled FBI background check for any and all foreign teachers. The school should help you through this process, but it takes some time, so be prepared. The FBI has made it faster, though, by making it possible to apply online. If you do that, once they receive your fingerprints, they have the check done within days.
- Experience: Depends. Most international schools say they want at least 2 years of experience. Smaller schools are less demanding. Larger schools might be flexible if you’re certified in a high-need area like math. Some schools have internship and/or student teaching programs and sometimes will hire former interns/student teachers to full-time positions.
Once you’re certified, there’s no one way to get a job. I got my first international school via my university’s job page because the owner happened to have attended the same university.
Some resources to help you get started:
Job Placement Organizations—there are a few of these and many schools use more than one.
- Tie Online—this is the least expensive one. Most smaller schools and some larger ones will advertise here. It’s $40 per year. It’s worth getting a membership right away, even if you’re a year or two away from job hunting so you can see what’s out there.
- ISS & Search—these two are much more expensive, although ISS has slashed their fee (word is, they’re losing ground to Search). Both host job fairs around the world. Usually, the fee includes one job fair for free, but then you’d pay for any additional fairs you want to go to.
- Fair warning: even though you've gathered all of your info (letters of rec, job history, resume, etc) into one of these websites, you may still have to apply directly to the school or even submit another profile via Schrole (I think this is actually a part of ISS now).
- UNI Job Fair—I’ve met a lot of people who found their first international gig this way. It’s a little late in the season, but it’s great for people still in the States.
From there, the process is not much different from job hunting back in the States, except you’re as likely as not to have an interview by phone or Skype.
A few final things:
- The international hiring season starts EARLY—jobs will be posted as early as August and hiring starts as early as October.
- Be flexible—I never intended to stay in Korea, but I found jobs I liked and stayed for 12 years. So, you never know.
- Having said that, figure out what your “musts” are and hold out till you find them.
- My musts (for example):
- Housing: either an actual apartment or a housing allowance. If there’s an allowance, ask if it will cover a decent apartment near the school as well as utilities. This is especially important in Korea where you’d need at least 5,000USD “key money” (kind of like a deposit) to get into an apartment.
- Airfare: Schools should also provide round-trip airfare every year to your home of record.
- Insurance: In Korea, this is a requirement, either using the national healthcare program (which is great!) or private insurance. Ideally, a school will provide worldwide coverage, but not all do. My last school provided travel insurance for every trip we took.
- Location: for me, this was mostly access to an LDS branch or ward and proximity to a temple that allowed for 1-2 day temple trips. The school I taught at the longest was great for me. I had easy access to a ward, and the school was on the edge of the city, so it was relatively quiet. I had colleagues who HATED it because it was on the edge of town and it took awhile to get downtown to the night spots. To each her own.
- My musts (for example):
- Do your research. Ask to speak with teachers who are at the school or, better yet, some who have recently left.
Finally, a warning:
In 2007, I decided 4 years abroad was enough and moved back to the States. I lasted 4 years before heading back. It’s really hard to deal with American public schools when you’ve had the freedom of international schools. The expat lifestyle is addictive. Every holiday, my colleagues and I scatter across Asia and beyond, because why not? Very few of the people I’ve known who’ve taught abroad and have gone home have stayed at home or in education. Either they leave teaching or leave the US again. Just some food for thought.