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K-12 and University Teaching Abroad

Travel and Teach Abroad

Trade Your Concrete Jungle for a Real One

By T.J. Fournier

As I gather my books for my day at school, I look out the window at the snow-capped Andes. Smoke curls from the chimneys of houses some 1,000 feet below and church bells ring in the barrio. On the bus to work I eat a warm, buttered arepa while we twist through the hills.

Trading my U.S. classroom in the concrete jungle for one in mountainous Colombia was not a hard choice for me. For many educators, though, teaching abroad seems only something to dream about because they may not be aware of the real opportunities to travel and teach.

“Many foreign schools have a very significant need for well-trained North American teachers,” says Joe Fuchillo of International Educators Cooperative (IEC), an agency whose goal is to match teachers and administrators with South American schools. “Most U.S. teachers are unaware of the opportunities available worldwide for both short- and long-term contracts.”

“Traditionally, the contracts for foreign teachers run from two to five years,” he notes, “so there is constant turnover, a constant demand for new staffing.”

IEC is one of the smaller headhunting agencies serving international schools. (See list of recruitment agencies and fairs.) Most fairs are held in late February while large numbers of North American schools are closed for vacation. Attendees include administrators, teachers, and school service professionals. Many are veterans of international education. Others, like my wife and I were, are novices.

Just recently married, my wife and I began our journey over a cup of coffee. We are both former Peace Corps volunteers and perpetually afflicted with wanderlust; we were discussing whether to continue teaching in the Detroit public schools or to take a leave of absence and travel. It was evident before the coffee got cold what we were going to do.

We began by canvassing university schools of education, the Peace Corps office in Washington, and our colleagues for information regarding international schools: where they are, who hires, who gets hired, the average salary, etc. We were sent brochures, pamphlets, and applications.

The choices seemed endless. Instead of pursuing every lead, we decided what region of the world we wanted to focus on and what type of population we wanted to work with (urban or rural, native or expatriate, poor or wealthy). Our choice was South America, partly because I am fluent in Spanish. We were determined not to teach in a capital city as we were already accustomed to large populations in small spaces. Finally, we preferred teaching a native population.

Selecting an Agency

These criteria allowed us to hone our choices to a few selected agencies that deal specifically with South American schools. IEC, as a small agency, was very accommodating in responding to our questions and concerns. With our resumes and dossiers in hand, we flew to Houston for a weekend of interviewing, trading information with other applicants, and undergoing intense soul searching.

The fair began on Friday evening with an ice-breaking cocktail hour. We mingled with teachers, administrators, and conference coordinators. We were fascinated with our competition—attendees came from all parts of the world. On Saturday morning we met in a large conference room in which each school had its own table. The school directors had already reviewed our applications and posted the names of potential applicants at their stations. We were to find our names and wait in line to be interviewed. If our names were not posted anywhere, or if the school in which we were interested didn’t post our names, we became second priority and were to stand in line until the preliminary interviews were finished. We were each given six interviews and received as many job offers.

Upon deciding on the Colegio Granadino in Manizales, Colombia, we returned to Detroit with new contracts in hand. Our principals accepted our announcement with good cheer, pleased that their staff members were looking to broaden their experiences. We were both offered unconditional leaves of absence and support in linking our schools in Detroit with Colombia through email pen pal exchanges.

As we begin our second term teaching at elementary schools in Manizales, we can hardly believe our luck. New experiences, new challenges, and a new perspective are benefits we find here that even the strongest of unions back home could not bargain into our contracts. Do yourselves and your classrooms a favor. Take a risk and do what few dare to do: teach abroad.

T.J. Fournier writes from Manizales, Colombia.