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Career for a Year: Teaching Abroad

By Sarah Thomas

Looking for an entry-level job that involves hiking in the Andes? Here's what it takes to land a position teaching abroad.

Landing an international teaching job may seem like an art, but there is some science to the process.

Recent college graduates face a nebulous future, but with uncertainty comes possibility. The years just after college are the best time to take advantage of one-year career opportunities that can ease the transition between the hallowed halls of academia and the buzzing world of work.

Teaching abroad is an adventure that attracts an average of 3,000 Americans every year. About 450 international schools pepper the globe from Paris to Katmandu, offering both a chance to live abroad and an opportunity to gain teaching experience. The staffs at these schools are mostly American (75 to 80 percent) and teach a mix of British and American expatriates and local children. Most classes are conducted in English, and the curricula are similar to what you would find in American grammar schools.

Undoubtedly, most who apply for these jobs are motivated by the allure of living and working abroad. Not many entry-level jobs give you a chance to go hiking in the Andes for the day or take a weekend trip to a Prague music festival, and no vacation abroad can provide the kind of in-depth international experience that you gain from living in a community. Not only do the schools provide proximity to appealing destinations, but they usually make it financially viable to visit these locales. Many schools hire recent college graduates as interns and provide the recruits with room and board; others pay well enough to allow for travel or modest savings.

Teaching abroad also offers the excellent on-the-job benefit of flexibility. Because the main language at most schools is English, teachers can teach classes related to their fields of study, rather than sticking to English as a Second Language (ESL). "One of the best aspects of my job is that I teach a subject related to my degree," says Rebecca Berman, an intern at the American School of Milan. "I appreciate the chance to utilize some of the knowledge I gained in college."

While teaching at an international school clearly has its perks, it is not a free ticket to a year of weekend getaways - these jobs are hard work. Interns may be assigned to assist other instructors or to teach a partial course load on their own. In addition to teaching and tutoring, interns often coach sports or assist with extracurricular activities. "Schools are looking for versatile individuals," says John Magagna, founding director of Search Associates, a service that matches applicants and schools. "They want someone who can coach a sport, sponsor the French Club, or advise the school newspaper." And if you're working at a boarding school, you may also have dorm responsibilities.

When you're seeking an international teaching position, the best strategy is to start early and look at all your options. "Be flexible about where you're willing to go," says Magagna. "There are some great schools in areas you wouldn't think of. The more flexible you are about location, the more likely it is that you will get a job." You will also improve your chances by being open to teaching a variety of subjects.

Several companies facilitate meetings between schools and candidates. These organizations, including Search Associates and International Schools Services, sponsor job fairs where school representatives and candidates can meet and assess each other's needs and interests. For a small fee, you get a chance to meet with school representatives, sell yourself in person, and possibly even walk out with an offer--representatives from many international schools hire on the spot.

If you decide to take the independent route, you'll need motivation and ingenuity to land a teaching job abroad. Most schools require an interview, and an independent applicant far from the school may have trouble arranging a meeting. Start as early as November for a position the next fall, and be persistent about following up your application with calls and letters. Once you pinpoint the schools that interest you, send cover letters and resumes to start the process. Express your eagerness to meet with a school representative face to face, and try to set up an appointment as early as possible--before your application gets lost in the hiring frenzy of the job fairs.

Landing an international teaching job may seem like an art, but there is some science to the process. Be sure to emphasize any experience you have had with children. If you don't have teaching experience, focus on other activities related to kids, such as tutoring, volunteering, or working as a camp counselor. Given the rigors of living in a foreign environment, you should also highlight experiences that have developed your adaptability, like previous travel experience or working as part of a team.

Once you make contact with a school representative, find out as much as possible about the school and the position. If the job is an internship, it's especially important to know what degree of autonomy you will have: will you teach your own classes or work as an assistant? Are there other interns or young people on the faculty? Will you live at the school? If not, will the school assist you in finding housing? Ask as many questions as possible, and talk with a current faculty member to get a balanced idea of day-to-day life at the school.

Finally, use your interview to emphasize your enthusiasm for teaching and working with young people. The qualifications amount to a tall order, but the upside is worth the effort. As Berman says, "What could be better than living in an exciting international locale and gaining substantive work experience?"

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