What you need to know before you get your first international school job
…and the stuff that no one really tells you
Working abroad is fantastic. You may be able to live (and be paid to live!) in a country that millions of people visit each year on holiday. You get to learn the culture, the language, and get to enjoy the food.
I know it’s great as I have now lived in seven countries, across 3 continents, and have visited probably 20 more. I certainly never intended that. I expected to go abroad for 2-3 years then back home where I started. Like playing a game of Monopoly, I expected to head out, then after some events, I’d make it back to Go and be back where I started. 16 years later I haven’t.
So given the appeal of working abroad, why is this article all about the hard stuff? Well, that’s because it’s not easy at the beginning. However, if you know that before you start, you are much better prepared for the culture shock of moving to a place where nothing is quite as you’d expected…
You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but…
You know that old card, or new meme, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps”. That’s a bit like the world of living and working abroad.
If you’re already abroad, you’d decidedly odd. I mean it! Only 1% of the world’s population are expats, i.e. living overseas outside their home country. So, whether through opportunity, inclination, or ability, most people don’t take the leap. It is worth leaping, but it can be hard and frustrating.
As I mentioned above, I have lived in 7 countries, meaning I have had to set up home in 7 countries. It’s the beginning that is the hardest.
Get all your documents ready
When you live in someone else’s country, they want to know all about you. In your adult life you don’t normally need to face paperwork-heavy tasks all in one go. Perhaps you were a teenager and you got a driving licence. You went to university and opened a bank account. You got a degree and received the certificate. You got your first job and shared your ID with them.
When you move country you need all of these documents, and possibly more, all on one day. You will need original documents most of the time, but I would also recommend:
Scan and save all your documents in the cloud
Photograph or scan in all your important personal documents. If you don’t have access to a scanner, use a free app such as Microsoft Office Lens to make neatly cropped images.
Scan and save all of these documents before you move abroad:
- Birth certificate
- Marriage certificate (if applicable)
- Driving licence
- Degree certificates
- Photo ID
- Police/clearance letters (if applicable)
(Do this for you, and any spouse or children too. For children you will also need recent school reports/records, and likely a list of all vaccinations received).
For photo ID, you will need actual passport sized photos for everything from your school ID card, to the local driving licences. However, it’s worth keeping a good image saved into the cloud: you might want it – and have that to email over – rather than risk suffering the blurry backlit image from someone’s phone in reception. (I speak from personal experience!).
Then, once you have them scan and save your local documents:
- Local ID
- Local driving licence
- Local resident visa passport sticker/stamp
You’re a happy, confident person. You have boldly set foot on your overseas adventure, and you have popped to the shops. You know how shopping works: you make a list, go to the shops, buy it, go home. What could be simpler?
Well, shopping can summarise everything about your new country and moving abroad. You think you know how it works, but you don’t. I call this the washing powder moment.
When I left England, I knew how to buy washing powder to wash clothes. You decide if you want to wash only white clothes, or not. You then choose the relevant washing powder (I left England before liquid wash was really a thing). If you wanted handwash it was probably a liquid, or perhaps a really small box of powder.
In, say, Thailand or Vietnam, that’s not the way it works. There, a lot of people still do handwashing – so there are big boxes of powder only for handwashing. Helpfully they might be labelled as such. However, how good is your Thai? (อ่านภาษาไทยยากถ้าคุณยังใหม่กับประเทศ!). If you realise that, then you might also be confused by the fact that there are two types of washing machine. In England most machines are front-loading. In other countries this is not the case. Trust me: don’t buy a powder for top-loading machines when you have a front-loader: they make far too much foam!
The problem is you don’t realise this: in your world you think that washing powders are for whites or non-whites. You don’t realise they’re for hands, top-loaders, front-loaders, or more.
Imagine the same experience when you go shopping for fresh food. Again from personal experience (in Vietnam) it took me quite a while to work out where I could buy fresh chicken near my house. In some markets I could buy it so fresh it was still moving around, but in many shops it was only frozen (and not always brilliantly if the bottom shelf of the freezer cupboard was out of action). This is where you need your friends: they will know.
It can be intensely frustrating having to learn everything about a new country all in one go. Be prepared for that feeling. You will come out more adaptable and resilient than you could ever have imagined, but it can be frustrating when even the simplest things that you take for granted become a new learning experience.
As a teacher, this isn’t a bad experience though. What if you have a child in your class who has just moved country and speaks no English? Your potential to empathise is now on a whole new level!
Your personal belongings get shipped but…accidents happen
Things can go wrong. This IS rare, but on my first move abroad, we shipped some of our personal belongings, and a substantial amount got damaged. So, on top of all the confusion and frustration above, then our prized possessions were dented, snapped, broken, or destroyed. Imagine how that feels. It’s not great. You may end up, far from home, asking, “why did we do this?”
However, if I left home again, I would still take what I could with me. It means that home feels like home even in a new location. And, if you’re like me, you might expect to leave for a couple of years, but never make it home again!
It’s an incredible experience
Living abroad is incredible. Getting settled is the hardest bit.
I would highly recommend moving abroad. The worst part is the beginning. At the start you don’t know how to do things, where to find things, and don’t necessarily have a support network to help you out. In three months’ time you will! So remember that the frustration passes really quickly. Then you can start to take full advantage of your time abroad. (See our tips here on making the most of your teaching job abroad).
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