Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Itchy feet. Less-than-ideal work environments. Hyperinflation of currency. Disagreements with policy or administration. Being closer to family. Safety and security issues. Dating opportunities…or lack thereof. Stability for the kids. Desire to try something new.

No matter your reason for wanting to move on from one international teaching post to another, there comes a point when you feel it is “time to go”. But what constitutes an optimal length of time to stay at a school?  Most international educators sign initial contracts for two years, with the opportunity to stay beyond that contract if both parties (teacher and school) are willing. Is that enough? Or do schools expect more than that without requiring it outright in the contract?

This has been a topic of conversation amongst many of my international colleagues recently; one which has stirred up many differing opinions and experiences. The question we’ve been trying to answer? “What do schools think about [hiring] a teacher that has stayed two years at 2-3 schools in a row?”

The answer is complicated, obviously. It depends on the school itself, the views of the administrators who are doing the hiring, the resume of the job-seeker, and his or her reasons for leaving schools after only an initial contract, among other factors.

Schools generally want to see some longevity in their faculty. Sure, many of us are travelers by nature who want to explore the world and try out new countries, cultures, languages. But when we sign a contract to teach overseas, our primary responsibility is to our school and our students, not sticking pins in a map.

Only since this conversation began with colleagues a few days ago did I first hear the term “teacher tourist”, but I immediately knew what it meant. In fact, I’ll admit that when I first went overseas in my mid-20’s, I may have fallen into this category. I was excited to see the world and didn’t want to become stagnant in any given place. I signed my first one-year contract not even considering the possibility that I’d want to stay for a second year. I was eager to gain experiences, but at that time, professional growth was not my primary goal.

It wasn’t until an interview in which I was specifically asked about my 1-year, 2-year, 2-year resume that I realized maybe it was time to stay a bit longer in a place. After all, the administrator said, “Staying longer doesn’t just show that you are willing to commit, but it shows that the school is willing to extend your contract.”

Of course, there are often solid reasons for not extending a contract. When personal safety is a concern, or one’s host country is experiencing political turmoil, even the best-laid plans may take a rapid turn. When a family member at home becomes ill, or financial concerns take precedence, a teacher may decide that it is time to move on, even if their intention had been to stay a longer period of time.

If a resume shows a pattern of short-term stays in several different countries or schools, administrators are likely to mention this during an interview. By providing a strong rationale, a teacher may be able to convince the administrator that this does not reflect a lack of commitment; rather, that extenuating circumstances contributed to leaving. However, there is also a chance that an administrator may not even be willing to interview a teacher with such a pattern on their work history. Some teachers who chimed in on this conversation said that their administrators would simply discard resumes that showed multiple short stays in schools or countries.

International schools make an investment in their teachers, monetarily as well as for the program in which they work. Dee Norman, a theater teacher who spent eight years working in Mexico before recently relocating to Dubai had this to say, “If you are not going to stick around for long, then why would they invest the visa money, housing, and PD time to work with you, when they can find an equally qualified candidate who will give them 3+ years? I am not admin, but it sounds like good business to me.”

On some annual government reports on schools in the United States, one of the indicators of stable and higher-quality schools is faculty retention. While some international schools are places of high turnover–for faculty and students alike–many schools pride themselves on the average number of years their teachers remain at the school. When faculty stay longer than their initial contracts, it provides much-needed program continuity, which in turn helps student learning and staff morale.

On the other hand, if teachers are not invested for the long-term, it is very challenging to create any long-lasting positive change.  As many of us are well aware, during the first year of a contract, a new teacher is settling in, becoming acclimated to the school environment, curriculum, and expectations. If that same teacher is already seeking a new job in the second year (often within the first two months of the school year), he or she has never truly had the opportunity to settle in before they are already on their way out the door.

Because the key decision-makers in the hiring process are school administrators, I asked my current principal, Jonathan Johnson (known by many as Zeb) his perspective on this topic. He told me that “recruiters are definitely looking for teachers who are committed, and teachers who are successful.  When people stay in a school for just 2 years, it usually signals that something didn’t work out.  Either the person just saw the opportunity as a chance to live in a new place–which is important, but is not why people are hired, or they didn’t feel they could fit in the school’s community–also not a great sign.”

Ultimately, teachers need to determine the course of action that makes the most sense for them, their family, safety, and finances, as well as consider the school and students for whom they are working. Job-hunting can be emotionally exhausting and moving is expensive, but deciding to stay in a difficult or unhealthy environment may not be the best choice.  Weighing the pros and cons of this decision can be extremely challenging. However, teachers who have had a few short “stints” at several consecutive schools may strongly consider signing on for an extra year at their present location.  Doing so helps demonstrate commitment and shows that the school itself is willing to continue a professional relationship.

Leaving a school after an initial contract is often a difficult decision, but there is no question that longevity among faculty is better for the consistency of the school. Moving every 1-2 years just for the sake of moving, without strong reasons, can eventually cause challenges for a teacher in search of a job. Administrators in international schools are generally understanding of the desire to travel and gain new experiences, but they also have to consider what is best for their programs. According to Jonathan, ”Wanderlust hits us all, but we have to weigh the desire to see the world with the desire to make a difference in a school community, which tends to happen after the initial year(s) of the contract.”

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3 Responses to Should I Stay or Should I Go?

  1. I beg to differ. Teachers that bring diverse life and cultural experiences, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to take risks, are often those that move around seeking diversity of experiences and stick to 2 year contracts. If international schools are so concerned with this then we should expand the length of the contract offer (say to 4 years) and provide other longer term guarantees (e.g. better retirement packages) that show a two way commitment to extended professional contracts. I’ve always felt that given the mix between international and local teachers (who stay longe term) its actually healthy for my schools to have a certain percent of turnover. Fresh ideas, experiences from other schools and cultures, always greatly enrich our schools.

  2. Laura F says:

    Thank you for this perspective, Shannon. I would like to offer an alternative perspective. We know that the world is changing at such a fast rate. We know that education tends to be a conservative field. I think a teacher who has a very vast background, working with so many different students in so many different places could be a tremendous asset to a teaching team, classroom and school community. I am an administrator, and I would much rather have a teacher on staff who is not only engaged with the school community, but also genuinely interested in connecting with the local culture and community resources and bringing these resources to the classroom, subsequently improving the student learning experience. In theory, a teacher of this caliber would also be efficient in communicating with families of varied backgrounds and could also bring an authentic multicultural perspective to the classroom.

    In the past, I have worked with colleagues who had been in the building/city for eight, nine years, which looked great on paper and for their resume, but these colleagues had never connected with the local culture in all those years and had been living in the expat bubble.

    Just as we expect quality, rather than quantity from students, I think we should expect the same from teachers and admin. Our years on this earth are limited to one lifetime. There is so much to learn, and so much opportunity around the world; I would never hold it against any candidate that had a genuine interest and desire to make as much of a difference around the world as possible. We are fortunate to be in a profession that allows us to do so.

    From an administrative perspective and generally speaking, I think more can be done to help facilitate deliberate connections to the local culture, which in turn, could influence a teacher’s decision to stay longer. We as administrators can do more, like guarantee language classes for our teachers, organize ongoing cultural events and celebrations, maintain relations with the local schools and universities to share both human and capital resources. If the school culture does not embrace the local culture, than a teacher can feel rootless, and it’s unfair to automatically assume that the teacher is ineffective because they only stay a year or two. Some cultures are more welcoming than others, and it’s important not to underestimate that factor in one’s ability to live in a foreign country.

    • Laura Branam says:

      I agree with the valid points you are making as an administrator. I am one who has a varied and diverse resume. As a counselor my professional experience has reached beyond educational settings and I can whole-heartedly say, every school in which I have worked has benefitted from the depth of all of my work experiences. International schools with large numbers of transient students and parents, especially need the type of support I can give with my broad clinical background. There are many international schools in locations which lack English-speaking mental health professionals to serve the expat families. Their needs are many as they are simultaneously grieving the loss of country, culture and their support network, while adjusting to a new school and advocating for their child with special needs, emotional or academic. My path into international schools has been quite different than the majority of school counselors who were primarily trained as teachers, then took additional courses to become “certified as a school counselor.” I have a BS in Psychology and English, a MS (58 hrs.) in Clinical Social Work including 2 years of internship prior to graduation, 3 years of post-graduate supervision while employed full-time, passing two separate State Board exams to be licensed as: LMSW and an LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor). Every two years, I must have “30 hours of qualified P.D. which must include 6 hrs. of professional Ethics, and then, I must pass an online J.D Exam in order to have each of my licenses renewed. These requirements are rigorous and at a very different level from most school counselors. Who do you think reaps the benefit of my diverse professional experiences?

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