Beyond Borders: An Insider’s View on International Teaching

Beyond Borders: An Insider’s View on International Teaching

By Simon Gauci

My wife, Jill, and I have been teaching overseas for eleven years and have taught in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Below is an account of our overseas teaching experiences. Read on to find out why you should travel overseas, how to apply and what to expect.

Photo: S. Gauci

Who Teaches at International Schools?

There are thousands of K-12 international schools around the world that cater to local and transitory families. There are two groupings of teachers in international schools: local hires and foreign hires. Foreign hires can be a part of a teaching team such as husband and wife or same-sex partners, while others are singles or single parents. An initial two-year contract is the standard for international schools, although some one-year contracts may be offered under exceptional circumstances.

Benefits of Teaching Internationally

International schools have superior teaching resources and facilities, equal access to information, are up on the latest technology, are generally non-profit, have a written curriculum, reside in stimulating cultures, and attract students who, on the whole, are motivated and polite. Most schools go through rigorous accreditation assessments to achieve a program status that will attract certified, skilled, and adventurous teachers and clientele. “Being accredited means that the school meets a fixed set of external quality standards and reassures all that there is a basis for claims of a quality program based on criteria that are readily available,” says Dr. Bill Johnston, director of Academia Cotopaxi.

Salaries are equal to, if not higher than, Canadian standards. Imagine taking home your gross salary – it’s all yours, tax-free. Some governments might demand that teachers pay tax on salaries and cash-related benefits, but this tax percentage is low. Tax-free status is more common in Asian or Middle Eastern regions. South American and European schools are less likely to offer tax-free status; in Ecuador, for example, taxes are approximately 8 per cent.

Foreign hire benefits usually include paid housing and utilities or a generous housing stipend, and yearly flights home for the teaching team (including dependents). Medical/life insurance is standard in most packages, as is a subsidized retirement/severance plan. Supervision of extracurricular activities is expected and paid. Most overseas teachers also receive “settling in” and “shipping” allowances,
free tuition for two dependents, paid sick days, bereavement leave, maternity leave, and reimbursement for visa acquisition fees and medical exams. Benefits are related to varying factors such as school location, financial position and administrative structure.

As a cautionary note, beware of for-profit schools run by a single entity without a board of directors – these schools are businesses and may have priorities other than education.


A great school can be a poor experience and a poor school could be the best match of your career. This depends on the country you are in, the school that employs you and your attitude. My family lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a strict Muslim capital, for four years. Riyadh is moderately cosmopolitan with a plethora of restaurants, cafés, boutiques and sprawling malls juxtaposed with more traditional souks and shisha coffee houses. And although there are progressive buildings with the façade of western amenities, there are no public movie houses, theaters, nightclubs or other such forms of entertainment.

When we first arrived in Riyadh (shortly before 9/11), the expat community was rife with activities such as dramatic productions, sports tournaments, a Terry Fox Run, music festivals, trips to museums and other “expatish” things. Due to political disruption, attacks on housing compounds and the continued threat of terrorism, however, thousands of expats (mostly non-working spouses and dependents) fled the country.

Consequently, a typical week in Riyadh consisted of going to the school campus and back to the housing compound with occasional trips to the supermarket, bookshop, hardware store or, more rarely, a café. Weekend camping trips in the desert with other families were enlightening events and provided respite from the monotony of campus- to-compound life. Nothing compared to lying in the warm, dark sand with my son, Riley, looking up at a brilliant starry sky.

Intimate friendships are hard to develop due to the short-lived nature of the international community. People come and go quickly, students included. Yet the friends Jill and I made are unique – together we experience incomparable hardships and joy. A deep bond develops between people who journey into the unfamiliar. Strangely, when I return with my family to southern Ontario every summer, it’s a challenge to leave again. This contradicts our need to get back to our home – our real home – in Quito. But the longer one stays overseas, the further away the memories of home become. Familiarity is organic. To me, home is where Jill is; it’s where our children sleep and do their homework, and where our belongings get unpacked.

Life Overseas

Teaching overseas is a choice one must be willing to make with a sound spirit. When adversities are encountered, either culturally or politically, you can remind yourself that as a Westerner, you’re blessed with choice. I can go back to Canada anytime I want – however, denizens picking up scrap for a living in Quito’s Zambiza Dump have only that option.

Denizens picking up scrap for a living in Quito’s Zambiza Dump. Photo: S. Gauci.

Riley sees people as people; it’s that straightforward for him. We come home from work to a clean house, hot meal, laundry done and a happy, two-year-old daughter who attends a morning daycare program. Zoë (born in Riyadh) is already speaking Spanish – of course, we have no clue what she’s saying!

We have travelled the Middle East, Northern Africa, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Western Europe. My family has had countless positive interactions with incredible people from diverse cultures. Now residing in Ecuador, we’ve already had many stimulating experiences such as the hot springs in Papallacta and Banos, seeing the Pichincha Volcano from the top, the Otovalo Artisans Market, Old Colonial Quito City, and, of course, hanging out in cafés, cinemas and taking wonderful Sunday strolls throughout the capital. Quito, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1977, is one of the most family-friendly cities I have had the pleasure of living in.

Want to Teach Overseas?

Teaching abroad is as demanding as it is here in Canada. “Teachers and administrators in (overseas) schools are high-quality professional educators with a hard focus on young people,” says Johnston. If you’re up for the challenge, the rewards are boundless.

International recruiting generally starts in December and ends in June. There are many teacher-recruiting options, including private agencies in cities all over the world. There are dozens of recruiting agencies vying for your business. Most of them are excellent and well intended on facilitating contact with a school where there is a match.

Job fairs are competitive, professional environments that necessitate considerable openness. The ability to navigate a lot of unfamiliar information about diverse cultures, varied pedagogy, educational programs and self-awareness is, unquestionably, an asset. Each school will likely have a booth where you can visit, pick up pamphlets and ask questions. The school representatives are professional,
relaxed and forthcoming, and are more interested in getting to know you as a person than engaging in “teacher talk.” This is not to imply that the latter is not important, but as Johnston says, “The main question is teacher quality and ability to successfully adapt to the individual overseas school environment.”

Teachers applying to a recruiting fair must go through credential and reference checks prior to registration. The application process varies from agency to agency, and the paperwork may be frustrating and time consuming. An agency rarely allows applicants to attend a fair without being qualified, or where there are no potential jobs. Agencies want a sound pool of teachers for potential employers.

Prior to the fair, the recruiting school representatives read through the applicants’ files given to them by the agency. At the fair, the school may contact you by phoning your hotel room or posting a message on a designated bulletin board for registrants. At this time, you and the school recruiter will set up an interview, usually in the hotel room of the school delegate.

Photo: S. Gauci

Jill and I went to our first job fair at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) in February 1999; we were as green as the gables of Anne and ended up teaching in Kuwait City. If you do decide to go to a job fair, my advice is to keep your eyes, ears and mind open. When you meet a recruiter, you might be talked into going somewhere you never thought possible. But that’s what international teaching is all about: chance encounters to meet extraordinary people.

Can you contact a school directly and get an interview? Jill and I did, and we got lucky. After corresponding via e-mail with Academia Cotopaxi in November 2004, Jill and I were eventually given phone interviews. Days later we were offered a two-year contract. Jill is now teaching IB/HS (International Baccalaureate Diploma/High School) Drama and I am teaching IB/HS Art. We’re enthralled about our move from the desert sands of sunny Saudi to the Andes Mountains of elevated Quito.

Take some time to visualize teaching somewhere other than Canada. The opportunities are endless – your worldview will be transformed and your teaching will be educated. After all, says Johnston, “Seeing the world is a bonus, a special experience that helps make really good teachers great teachers, and facilitates the work of those who are already great.”

Simon Gauci is an artist, art educator, and writer. He has just completed his first novel, White Falling. He currently lives in Quito, Ecuador where he is teacher. E-mail Simon at

International Teaching Agencies

International Schools Services
The International Educator

Council of International Schools

Search Associates

Association of American Schools in South America
International Supply Teachers