Debunked: Reasons you could never work overseas

Here’s an excerpt from my coming how-to book, Around the World on a Teaching Certificate. I’ve been working on this thing longer than I can remember, but it’s starting to feel finished. I’ll be releasing bits of it ahead of publication, so my readers can get a feel for the voice and hopefully provide me some feedback. Enjoy. 

“No, I couldn’t do that.”

Reasons people give me for not going overseas

I hear it all the time. I explain, to awestruck admiration (or resigned envy) of teachers back home, how I’m essentially paid money to travel the world and effect positivity on tomorrow’s adults, many of whom, given their family backgrounds in international politics, business, and charity, will actually be in a powerful position to effect positive change themselves.

The responses have become utterly predictable.

“But I can’t. I only speak English.”

Oh, I don’t mean to laugh, but this is the most common misconception about what’s required to teach internationally. Granted, it never hurts to learn some local language, but if you speak English. You’ll be fine. Learn a few “survival snippets” in every new host country (e.g. Where is the bathroom? What does this cost?) but seriously, you’ll be fine. Even in situations where you don’t understand the other person, there will usually be someone on hand to help. Worst case scenario, you play charades.

“But I can’t. I’m not an ESOL teacher.”

Here’s a situation I deal with every time I go home and people ask what I do. I tell them I teach overseas at an international school.

“Ah. So you teach English,” they conclude, their last two syllables descending haughtily, rife with the presumption that I’m a gap year student on his tenth year.

“Yes, I teach English. And science and math and history. I teach it all.”

What follows is a long pause, as the other person digests the information.

“It’s a regular school,” I try to explain further, “like any school you see in America…”

Their eyes light up with familiarity.

“..except it’s overseas, and most of the kids aren’t Americans. Also, the students are respectful and eager to learn. Plus I have better job security and a higher salary.”

The light from their eyes fades as their grey matter short circuits.

Listen, I get it. We all have a cousin or an old college buddy who did the Teach English in Exotic Lands program at some point. Probably for a year, no more than two years. They returned home, and got on with “real life.”

This is not that. International teaching is for actual, credentialed teachers who are certified to teach in their home country. You do not need any sort of ESOL or TOEFL papers to do it. I mean, it won’t hurt, but international schools will be mainly concerned with your state-issued teaching license.

Will you work with English language learners? Absolutely, yes. However, a decent school will have a strong language support program, perhaps one better than the program at your current school. Further, many of the students will speak their mother tongue at home, but they often speak English at home too. You’re unlikely to meet so many bilingual and trilingual students in one classroom.

“But I can’t. What would my partner do for work?”

Explore opportunities, you may be surprised. Can your partner reinvent their job description a bit? Maybe transfer to an international office? Sometimes the host country’s work visa situation is restrictive, but I know plenty of “digital nomads” who moved their office to a laptop and now work anywhere with an internet connection.

On a more cynical note, are you happy in your current relationship? Just a question.

“But I can’t. I have children.”

Oh please. I lost count of how many friends and family members live and work overseas with their children, from toddlers to teenagers. Good schools will pay for your children’s travel, shipping, and tuition. Cities with sizable expat communities will have social groups that facilitate play dates, fun clubs, and family events. You’ll find in many foreign countries that a housekeeper or even a nanny is affordable. You’ve got this.

Moreover, living overseas may be the best thing you could do for your children. Expose them to different cultures and languages. Learn with them as your family discovers different foods, visits historic sights, speaks new languages, and overcomes challenges of life abroad. They’ll make friends from all over the world who will be in their lives forever. Their classmates will challenge them to shoot higher academically, not settle for the lowest common denominator. Think of how much an international diploma could strengthen a university application letter.

“But I can’t. I have debts.”

Debt can be a limiting factor, as far as jobs in expensive countries is concerned. You probably shouldn’t rush to Paris or Stockholm. However, cities throughout Asia, from Dubai to Beijing, are cash cows if you find the right school. Land a job at a school with a generous salary in a city with low cost of living, then subtract the cost of rent (many schools will provide housing or reimbursement). While you’re at it, take away other expenses like your car (you’re unlikely to need one) and health insurance premiums (100% covered by the employer).

Now send that windfall back to the States. You could be free of Citi, Wells, and Sallie Mae in the space of a few years. 

“But I can’t. I have a house here.”

Your house seems like a big deal… because it is. I bought one just months before taking a recent overseas job (going back overseas wasn’t part of the original plan, but life happens). It’s a little stressful, thinking about my house while living a hemisphere away. I do feel better knowing that it’s under the watchful eye of a property manager and occupied by a nice retired couple. All I need to do is watch the monthly rent checks arrive. Bonus: no longer need to mow the lawn. 

Of course, you could also sell it.

“But I can’t. My home is here.”

This one I hear the most often. People think of their friends and family, their neighborhood with all its quaint quirkiness, the postman who they know by name. Can’t leave that behind, right?

I would argue that if you’ve read this far, you are at least considering a life less ordinary. I would ask you to also consider that your family, friends, neighborhood, and postman aren’t going anywhere. You’ll see them all in the summertime. Furthermore: imagine yourself decades from now, in your autumn years. Would you rather think back fondly on all the years you spent in your comfortable neighborhood, or the years you spent adventuring around the world? I’m not saying one is better than the other. However I do know which choice I prefer. 

“But I can’t. I’m too old.”

International schools value skills and experience. I’ve yet to work for an international school that doesn’t employ teachers in their 50’s and 60’s. Yes, there are some who will not hire older teachers, but that’s true in the US as well. Your chances are good. Get overseas, and you may discover you’re not as old as you thought.

“But I can’t. I’m physically handicapped.”

Say what you will about America, the facilities and accommodations we have for people with vision, hearing, or mobility impairment are some of the best in the world. You may find the quality matched in similarly developed countries, but few other places.

That said, your scope for international schools could be limited, but not drastically. Practice due diligence when researching potential host countries, especially in the developing world.

“But I can’t. I’m scared.”

That’s good. That’s what this is supposed to feel like. At least you’re being honest. As this book will reveal, there are some parts of overseas teaching that are inconvenient, unhealthy, and at times even terrifying. But so worth it.

I believe the best person to respond would be the late comedian-philosopher, Bill Hicks.

The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while.

Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.”

Footnote: Working abroad with your children

Too often, my friends back home say, “Gee. I’d love to work overseas one day. But I’ve got these damned kids.”

I say back, “You can still work overseas, man. I know plenty of families that do.”

Then my friend develops a subtle scowl across his face and changes the subject because he thinks there’s simply no way it could ever work out with his family.

Yes, I’ve known overseas families with kids. Three, four, five kids sometimes. Newborn babies, teenagers. Kids with medical problems. Kids in wheelchairs. Kids with specific learning needs. Kids who are little assholes. Kids who are freaking saints. Trust me on this: it is possible to teach overseas with kids in tow.

But you’ll never hear me say it’s easy. I asked a few of my kid-carrying colleagues what advice they had for prospective international teachers with children. Here’s what I heard:

Make the children stakeholders. As appropriate, talk about the prospective countries and schools. Will they be kid-friendly? Solicit and acknowledge their opinions. 

What will be required when your family arrives at customs? What papers are needed for the country’s healthcare and social security system, if applicable?

Balance the expat life with reality. In many countries, foreigners live better than locals. Ensure the good times (e.g. nice meals out, household help, weekend holiday jaunts) are measured against humility, hard work, and service to the community.

Foreigners encounter unique hardships. Do not reward children for “surviving” those hardships. They’re part of the family; they should enjoy and suffer what the family enjoys and suffers.

Encourage friendships. The most wonderful thing about overseas work is the lifelong friendships we build. Play groups, sports, and other extracurriculars help transition children into their new community. Such activities are also a help to the parents, who are learning their way around too.

Make regular visits home so they don’t lose touch of who they are.

Think university. If you start working overseas permanently (as many do), how will that affect your children’s tertiary education? Of benefit: academic paths like the AP, IB, and (for Brit schools) IGCSE strengthen a college application. Of detriment: fees are higher without state residency. But then, if your child doesn’t attend high school in the US, why go there for college? Europe may be a good alternative.

Drunk Richard Dreyfus, portrait of an expat

Drunk Richard Dreyfus: an expat species that most commonly lurks in those corners of the world that are plagued with political unrest, food shortages, and natural disasters. No surprise then, to find a prime Drunk Richard Dreyfus specimen in the darkest corner of the Hotel Summit lounge.


Dramatic reenactment

It was my first night in country. He sat perched on a stool, adorned in typical Drunk Richard Dreyfus plumage: Desert khaki cargo pants. Blue button collar cotton shirt, emblazoned with the logo of some NGO or another. Canvas vest festooned with pockets for all the gear his cargo pants can’t handle.

The Drunk Richard Dreyfus diet consists primarily of alcohol, which should come as no surprise, but while in their natural habitat — hotel bars — their specific choice of alcohol tends to hail from the Bordeaux region, lightly oaked, with a finish of dark currant.

Drunk Richard Dreyfus eyed me with suspicion as I sat down a few stools away, but he approved of my order: a gin and tonic, another major staple of the Drunk Richard Dreyfus diet.

“Sorry for staring, friend,” he began. “It’s just been so long since I’ve seen another American.”

Drunk Richard Dreyfuses are notoriously patriotic.

I confirmed my American-ness (sometimes mistaken for Canadian-ness) and proceeded with the ritual expected amongst all Expatis Americanis.

“Which part of the States are you from?” I asked.


“Ah yes, Michigan.” I quickly scanned my database of state trivia, then held up my palm. “Which part?” I  asked.

Drunk Richard Dreyfus smiled at my apparent encyclopedic knowledge of the Great Lakes region, and pointed at my thumb. “Just outside of Detroit,” he said.

Now I was in. I had gained his trust. Time to explore the mysterious world of this Drunk Richard Dreyfus.

“What brings you to Kathmandu?” I began.

“Oh, a little bit of this, a bit of that,” he responded cryptically.

Fascinating! His ambiguity suggests so many possibilities. He could be an aid worker. He could be a missionary. He could be a spook for any one of several governmental agencies. He could be a dirty old man who perpetuates the traffic of human beings, thus necessitating the presence of those aforementioned aid workers. Really, when it comes to Drunk Richard Dreyfus, he could be all of the above.

“And are you based in the city, or does your… organization keep you  here at the Summit?”

He smiled, this time showing his teeth, dyed in tannic purple. “I just stay wherever business takes me. That’s the grand thing about this life, you know.”

With that, he emptied the remainder of the Château Louriol bottle crudely well past the halfway mark of his wine goblet, and promptly requested another bottle. Excellent. His defenses would soon crumble.

He took a mighty swill, and changed the subject. “Tell me, friend. Have you explored Thamel yet?”

“No, I’m still pretty new here.” I confessed. “What is this ‘Thamel’ of which you speak?”

“Ah,” his eyes lit up, reflecting fond, perhaps decadent memories of years past, “Thamel. Thamel, Thamel, Thamel. I tell you what one does in Thamel, friend. One goes to Thamel to get lost. To forget. To remember. And then to forget once again.”

More wine. Then he continued.

“Do this for yourself, friend. Go into Thamel. Don’t pay any more than 500 rupee for the taxi. Then go into Thamel. Go into Thamel, find an alleyway, walk down. See what you find. From there, find another alley. Then another. You can thank me later for this advice.”

Side note: Thamel is indeed a place where one goes to lose oneself, as I learned shortly after this encounter. The hub of tourism in the Kathmandu Valley, Thamel teems with rug shops, incense makers, bad Korean food, sweatshop souvenirs and sportswear, drunk Dutchmen, holy men, disoriented Christian missionaries, and hawkers of all wares from local hooch to hashish to human beings. And that’s all before one gets lost wandering down alleyways. 

I thanked him for his advice, eager to drive the conversation back to his elusive origins. He was nearly ready for the next bottle of Bordeaux. I had to act fast. He might fall unconscious soon.

“It looks like you’ve just returned from the field,” I remarked, noting his rugged attire with its many cargo pockets. “How was it out there?”

“Oh yes.” A long, ponderous gulp this time. His eyes glossed over, wandering off someplace distant. “The Terai.”

Placing an article before then name of a place. Another trait of the Drunk Richard Dreyfus. See also: The Sudan. The Ukraine. I allowed him some time to drift away, to go back to that place.

“The Terai is…” he began, now surveying me with hesitation and a degree of paranoia, “..another place entirely. It is not Thamel, friend.”

Was that terror I read on his face? Or remorse?

I would learn later that week civil unrest in the Terai had recently hit a boiling point. Protestors beaten, arrested, and sometimes disappeared. Cops killed. Fuel, food, and other necessary imports blockaded at the border. Maoist insurgents calling for nationwide strikes.

Ten years ago, I’d have headed right back to the airport, but like Drunk Richard Dreyfus, this was not my first rodeo.

“Let usss talk instead of pleasant things,” he said, now slurring slightly, “You mussst try the hotel buffet, friend. Their tikka masssala is the finessst in Patan.”

Drunk Richard Dreyfus was eager to move on, and I was happy to oblige. We clinked our glasses and drank to happier days, eyes locked in that way two men’s eyes lock when they’ve seen some shit.

I never did learn what exactly this Drunk Richard Dreyfus did for a living, what horrors he had seen, or for all I know, what horrors he had perpetuated. Such is the nature of the Drunk Richard Dreyfus. I wish him well, in his lifetime of sleepless nights ahead.