The Choice to Teach Abroad

Teaching overseas offers opportunity, adventure, and professional and personal growth

In the summer prior to entering middle school, I dove deep into the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. On page 11, as commander of a spaceship, I chose to put up the energy propulsion shields to try to escape a black hole; miraculously, though the propulsion system failed on page 22 and I ended my story quickly and happily in a sweet, new utopian world. Certainly, I appreciated that these stories allowed me to escape from my routine life amidst the cows and cornfields of mid-Michigan into castles, jungles, and spaceships. Even more significantly, I was enchanted by the act of making small choices that eventually led to entirely different outcomes. Simply by turning left or right, I might end up a hero or lost for dead.

Forty years later, teaching abroad continues to give me a similar sense of possibility and choice in life. Over the past 12 years, I have worked in international schools in Nepal, Morocco, and, currently, Austria. My choices—rather than an arbitrary turn to right or left—are now based on real-life considerations: financial, professional, and personal.

Twelve years ago, when I left a teaching position in the Oregon public schools to travel 180 degrees around the globe to Kathmandu, Nepal, I sought the mighty Himalayas and an immense distance from a fresh divorce. When I moved to Rabat, Morocco, I was drawn by a continent I’d never visited as well as a more streamlined teaching position. When I applied to Vienna, I knew that my rate of savings would diminish substantially, but I was certain the overall quality of life—working in arguably the world’s most livable city—would rebalance the equation.

Though the decision to teach abroad is intensely personal and complex, here’s a look into the opportunities and realities I faced living and working on three different continents, which may reveal considerations and insights to guide such a life-altering decision.

Exceptional Teaching Conditions

Our week without walls, mountain biking in the Nepali Himalayas.

The year I left a public teaching position in Oregon, my work was split between two small suburban middle schools. I called myself the quadruple head of department because I was the only Spanish teacher and the only ESL teacher at both schools. Somehow, I enjoyed teaching, guiding, and monitoring all 35 ESL students and 50-60 students of Spanish each day. Certainly, it was better than my previous position in Portland, in which I’d taught six classes of 30 or more students every day, changing all 180 students every quarter.

Today, as an international teacher, I teach just five classes out of eight. Because I am a specialist, my classes are limited to 12 students. Mainstream classes typically hover around 16 students, but rarely number more than 20. As a result of these remarkable teaching conditions, I am able to reflect, research, differentiate, and collaborate much more frequently and effectively than I could as a US public school teacher. Though I look back with satisfaction and pride on my years teaching in Oregon, I do not think I could endure current conditions with so many students, so many external demands, and so little freedom to act as a professional.

While teaching conditions are enviable in the three private international schools in which I’ve worked, it’s worth noting that I felt more ethically aligned and personally attuned to teaching in the inclusive and diverse US public schools. The students I teach currently are culturally and linguistically diverse, but socio-economically they are consistently the elite. Inclusion of those with significant disabilities is also extremely limited. In addition, I’m no longer teaching the fundamental language of my home country, but instead offering the opportunity to learn an additional language. My sense of essentiality as a language teacher is thus somewhat reduced; still, my responsibility to guide students towards ethical, balanced, and healthy life choices remains intact.

Opportunities Open

Kids are kids, whether Moroccan, American, Swedish, Korean, or Libyan.

Professionally, my 12 years on three continents have offered abundant, satisfying career opportunities. Perhaps because the schools I’ve chosen have been fairly small (300 to 800 students), and because there was rather high staff turnover in Morocco and Nepal, opportunities have regularly presented themselves. I have headed the National Honor Society, served as the IB CAS coordinator, coordinated service-learning efforts, represented my middle school in our regional professional organization, and served on four visiting teams for accreditation agencies. Rather than becoming career-teachers in a single school district, most international teachers change schools every few years. There is little to no stigma tied to changing schools as long as you complete your contract.

Teaching abroad also builds in numerous opportunities to travel. Travel supported by the school for coaching, service activities, cultural opportunities, and educational conferences is frequently both an option and a mandated responsibility. This year, for example, I will travel to Copenhagen for a conference, Zurich and London to plan an educators’ symposium, and to Kazakhstan as a member of an accreditation team. Bear in mind that these are school-sponsored trips, so there are work responsibilities and institutional rules to follow. Still, such opportunities to walk new horizons are frequent.

Of course, school vacations offer the freedom to pursue your own adventures. Each of my job locations has served as a useful pivot point to explore countries in the region. From Nepal, I visited Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia. From Morocco, I traveled to Malta, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Now, in Austria, I enjoy traveling up into the Alps and down to the Mediterranean coast of Italy and Croatia. My last passport was as thick as a wallet thanks to numerous visas and added pages.

Consider the Financials

There is no doubt that working abroad has increased my invested savings. Because the cost of living was so low in Nepal and Morocco, and schools in both countries covered housing costs, as a single person without debt, I was able to save more than 50% of my salary. In Austria, with housing unprovided and surrounded by tempting and costly experiences and products, my savings rate has dipped to about 30%.

The satisfaction (and exhaustin!) of cooking a meal for 200 at an Austrian soup kitchen as part of our service learning program.

While this savings rate is certainly higher than most teachers I know in the United States (and higher than many in international schools as well), it may or may not provide the same comfortable, predictable retirement that teachers with generous, consistent pension plans receive. Furthermore, my Social Security payouts will be substantially lower given that I have not paid into the fund for the bulk of my career. Finally, it’s worth noting that exchange rates introduce an additional variable. Both in Nepal and Austria, the exchange rate of local currency to the dollar shifted dramatically during my stay. When converted to US dollars, my paychecks lost approximately 20% of their value. For teachers who had dollar-based debts, this was equivalent to a substantial pay cut. For those with expenses only in local currency, the shift in exchange rate made essentially no difference.

Adventure and Invigorating Life Experiences

It’s true that I’ve trekked to Everest Base Camp, learned to scuba dive in the glass-clear waters of Thailand, and climbed high into the dunes of the Sahara. Smaller, more daily events are often equally memorable: haggling for the fisherman’s prized crab each Saturday morning at the beach-side market outside Rabat, jumping rope on my rooftop terrace in Kathmandu as the sun set over the Himalayas, or listening to a concert cellist busking in the streets of Vienna.

Browsing guidebooks and websites prior to departure, it’s easy to romanticize the adventures ahead. Miscalculations, missteps, and just plain bad luck are also a part of the experience. I was robbed, alone and in load-shedding darkness in Nepal. I was robbed again in Marrakech with a knife to my neck. I’ve been stuck several days between two flooding rivers in the Sahara without proper shelter or food. Similarly, even daily habits and routines abroad can be tiresome and disheartening. In Nepal, I used to lock myself in my bedroom each night because of the risk of burglary. Air and water pollution in Kathmandu turned tissues black and made my stomach churn. Even in charming Vienna, I daily struggle with the challenges of the German language’s three forms of “the” and four grammatical cases.

Still, though these misadventures and challenging living conditions generated fear and annoyance, I feel that I have lived a wider breadth of experience, and therefore I am stronger. I know myself better because I have been stretched further. As a girl who grew up in a peaceful, safe, rural setting, I would have predicted that experiencing a robbery, alone in a foreign city at night, would have induced petrifying fear. I’m pleased to report that in both robberies, I lost my bag, but kept my wits.

Culture Comes to Life

My students at the American International School of Vienna wearing hats I brought them back from Nepal. The handknit wool hats were part of a discussion debating the ethics and economics of their price: one dollar per hat.

Though perhaps not apparent on my professional resume, my time overseas has deepened my cultural understanding of the students, families, and colleagues with whom I work. With 40 to 60 nationalities represented within each of the schools I’ve taught, culture is no longer at risk of being presented at a food and flags level; rather, it becomes a part of daily conversations, practices, and choices. Like a wide-eyed sixth grader on the first day of middle school, I’ve entered each new position alert and curious about the unknown norms of the place. At the most basic level, I’ve learned to avoid certain cultural taboos: I always take my shoes off in an Austrian home or Gasthaus; I’ll never again step over a Tibetan’s outstretched legs, and I most certainly eat in private by day during Ramadan if I’m in a Muslim country. I’ve also learned to savor and adopt certain cultural practices. Like the Viennese, I keep my voice low in public places, and, most definitely default to discussion of vacations rather than work. Now that I live in Europe, I often keep a certain Nepali habit private, but I still love to eat with my hands. (A fork really does feel foreign, cold, and metallic in my mouth!)

As an ESL teacher, my experiences educating students from diverse language backgrounds have given me insights into the particular challenges students may face in learning English. Most Asians and Russians struggle mightily with articles, while many German speakers need focused practice differentiating their pronunciation of F and TH, V and W. The diversity of cultures in each school has also pushed me to question and justify certain teaching practices. Asian parents, for example, frequently ask me to justify a perceived lack of homework, while Scandinavians often challenge me to explain the importance of any homework. Such conversations help me clarify my own underlying beliefs rather than rely on unquestioned norms or habits.

These international experiences have also helped me look at my own culture through a lens perhaps reminiscent of my ESL students. I remember, in particular, one winter day shortly before Christmas when working in Nepal. Thais, Tibetans, Nepalis, and Japanese made up my class, and though none of them celebrated Christmas as part of their own culture, they were curious about the holiday. Off we went to the library to select some picture books on the topic. One student chose a book focused on the wonder of cutting and decorating the Christmas tree. One chose a book featuring the Three Wise Men and the birth of baby Jesus. And one chose a book on Santa Claus coming down the chimney. Needless to say, my students were even more confused about Christmas traditions after reading the three disparate books. What, after all, does Santa have to do with Jesus have to do with a decorated fir tree? Suddenly, I understood that, from an outsider’s perspective, my cultural traditions could look as convoluted and illogical as the abundant Hindu gods and their various incarnations did to me.

Wherever I Go, There I Am

Though living abroad has brought me deeper into a real-life experience than most tourists encounter, I remain a foreigner in my life abroad. In Nepal and Morocco, I was immediately physically recognizable as an outsider. In Vienna, sometimes I can “pass” but my first syllable marks me as an Ausländerin. Smaller actions also reveal my identity. Sometimes, I still speak too loudly, forget the obligatory “Prost!” before the first sip of any drink, and I always use a knife poorly. In those moments, I am subtly embarrassed for myself and the tell-tale signs of my American-ness.

It can also be surprisingly hard to sink into local culture and make strong local friendships. Every work day, I pass through the walled and guarded entry to school—into a “Little America.” Within these walls, staff members, textbooks, teaching strategies, conversations, grading criteria, and even the cafeteria food are all very much dominated by American culture. In Nepal, the contrast between the rutted dirt road outside the campus and the immaculate grounds within its fortified walls was so great that it made me feel that I was visiting an America Epcot Village each day.

Living abroad has also certainly stretched some of my relationships into dissolution. It has caused me to miss the funerals of my four grandparents, and to learn of my mother’s cancer on Skype. At the same time, those friendships that truly count remain meaningful and vibrant.

When I go “home” each summer to Oregon, I appreciate the solid, immediate understanding built into my conversations and actions. I am liberated from maps, translators, and TripAdvisor reviews. I immediately know what to do when I get a parking ticket, and I know intuitively when shops will be open or closed. I understand cultural references and historical influences. Back in the United States, I know more clearly who I am, and how I am interpreted and perceived. Old friends know me and our shared history is spontaneously resurrected. I feel a greater sense of ease, calm, and confidence walking through the streets of Portland than I suspect I ever will in another country.

Yet Still, I’ve Chosen This Adventure

Four years ago, I was ready to seek a new position. After struggling with the cultural differences and developmental challenges of both Nepal and Morocco, I was ready to relax into a lifestyle that gave me certain essential freedoms that were largely unavailable in Kathmandu and Rabat. I wanted to walk alone again at night without apprehension; I wanted to ride my bike without unwanted attention; I wanted to sit alone in a cafe and feel normal. With these basics as my guiding principles, I chose a position in Vienna. Now, four years later, it seems my choice may have been such a good one, that I will stay. For the first time in my career abroad, I have signed a contract for my fifth and sixth years.

For more than a decade, I have chosen my own adventure and watched the consequences of those choices unfold. As I make my decisions, I maintain only limited control over the actual outcome; indeed, living in a foreign culture arguably yields even less accurate predictions than those made in my home culture. It is perhaps this factor—the willingness to accept and even seek out the unknown—that is at the heart of my ongoing decision to remain abroad.