The travel section of The New York Times calls your name. You’re always first in line to try new restaurants. You see those lone backpacker photos on Instagram and wonder if it could be you. Maybe it’s time you packed up for a job teaching abroad.
My husband and I were engaged when we accepted jobs teaching abroad in Sofia, Bulgaria. Our friends thought we were crazy to leave our comfortable positions in Southern California, especially since we also received an offer from a prestigious school in Vienna.
But we didn’t listen to them. Instead, we began studying Cyrillic, learning the history of Communism, and figuring out where in Europe we could cheaply fly from Sofia. So began our two-year, 22-country honeymoon. We’ve never regretted our decision, though there were some harrowing moments here and there.
We learned quite a bit along the way, so here are 10 things you might not know about teaching abroad that will help you decide if it’s right for you.
1. You don’t have to quit your American job to teach abroad.
The main international hiring dates are before the American teacher contract period, so it’s easy to browse for listings without jeopardizing your job. You don’t risk anything by checking out the opportunities.
2. Teaching abroad is easier than you think.
When you use one of the big international placement agencies like International Schools Services or Search Associates, you upload your materials one time and let the agency do the rest. Your agent will send your file to every school that might be a good fit. All you have to do is follow up with an email to say you’re interested and why. Since the schools are spread across the globe, you won’t have to attend interview days at each one, which brings us to …
3. The interviews are all on beds. It’s weird but funny.
One of the best things about the international application process is the job fair. You can attend one in a variety of major cities around the world. We went to Boston and interviewed with schools from Britain, Dubai, Austria, Bulgaria and Peru in just 24 hours. Every school has a hotel room for its base of operations. After signing up for time slots, you float from room to room, sitting on king-size beds as you talk about yourself.
By Saturday night we had received two offers, and by Sunday we were flying home with the knowledge that we’d soon be moving to Bulgaria.
4. Teaching abroad is professional development.
We learned about the history of the Balkans so we could understand our students’ politically charged comments and the Cyrillic alphabet so we could get around. We loitered through the Picasso museum in Paris, the Communist museum in Prague and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. And we toured Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and attended midnight Christmas Eve mass in the flooded center of Venice. Our understanding of the world broadened with each conversation in our classrooms and each trip beyond them.
We were thrown into totally new professional opportunities too. I started a new faculty orientation program to help new teachers adjust to life abroad, and my husband got certified in teaching ESL because he wanted to work with our school’s newest (and most enthusiastic) students. I taught new electives, judged my first translation contest, coached my first softball team, advised my first cooking club, and published my first major article in a teaching magazine. Being in a new place prompted us to pursue new opportunities, and we loved that.
5. Your colleagues will be your new best friends.
When you’re thousands of miles from home and most people don’t speak your language, you quickly turn to your colleagues for companionship. Our group of international faculty held Sunday-night potlucks, Cinco de Mayo nacho-making competitions, Canadian Thanksgiving extravaganzas and much more. We went to Morocco and Austria with colleagues and still keep in close touch with several of them, even traveling to Paris recently to meet up.
6. Cheap flights are a major job perk of teaching abroad.
Though our Bulgarian salary was lower than our American one, the cost of living there was just as low and suddenly every European capital was within range. Skipping the giant flight over the ocean made our tickets cheap and our travel quick. Discount airlines abound and we discovered we could easily afford to take frequent international trips.
7. You learn how to roll with the punches.
Teaching abroad is a great way to increase your flexibility. You never know what’s around the corner.
There were fun surprises, like the time we stayed in a huge luxury hotel in the Bulgarian mountains. We discovered we were the only guests and could literally order anything that came to mind at the hotel restaurant.
We also had to adjust to some unusual situations. For instance, when Russia shut off the gas pipeline to the Ukraine in a political squabble and our school had no heat, or the day we realized the police pulled us over constantly to check our papers because we had “foreigner” license plates.
It’s a bit harder to phase us these days. Once you’ve had to fight someone to get into a public bathroom on the Turkish border (true story, my first fight), everyday inconveniences seem less intimidating.
8. You’ll have a lot of new holidays to celebrate.
You never know what holiday it will be in a new country. In Bulgaria, many Saints days are celebrated with public holidays and the government is always trying to increase its popularity by linking midweek holidays to the weekend. We constantly had long weekends available to zip away.
9. Oh, the stories you’ll tell.
We celebrated New Year’s at a torch festival in Slovenia, drank tea in a floating cafe in Belgrade and discovered the best pizza we’d ever eaten in Budapest. We love to remember our years teaching abroad and to tell stories to our friends and family. I bet you will too if you take the plunge.
10. Your résumé gets a gold star.
When we returned to the United States after the standard two-year contract abroad, we received substantial raises and were soon promoted into new positions. Clearly, leaving and working in a totally new environment had made us more attractive professionally.
Teaching abroad just might be for you. The biggest hurdle is a mind-set one: Can you put your worries aside and your stuff into storage? If so, new vistas await.