Longing for a List

The irritating, understanding, omniscient they claim that experience is the best teacher.

Newsflash: They’re right.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I have a weak spot for lists of ideas, books, movies, sayings, and experiences that will purportedly change my life. You’ve seen them: 100 Places to Visit Before You Die, 50 Ways to Beat Stress, 20 Things You Wish Your Mother Had Told You, etc. Real Simple magazine, which I love dearly for its, well, simplicity, provided a list of 50 Books That Will Change Your Life that is tacked above my desk. I’ve been working my way through them and they’re excellent.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that I wish someone had shoved a list of Things to Know Before Leaving Your Home to Teach Abroad under my nose and forced me to read it. But deep down, I know that even if they had, there’s no guarantee I would have listened. If you’ve been following my blog for any time at all, you’ve probably gathered that I’m ambitious and adventurous and that I’m bad at risk assessment. (No, I don’t jump off cliffs. I’m adventurous, not stupid.) I am, however, a dreamer and I like to test myself. I get ideas into my head and can be rather single-minded in instances when I should talk less, listen more, and think before I act. If I had put together a list of what I was told and how I was warned before moving to Malaysia, I would have had my very own list of Things to Know Before Leaving Your Home to Teach Abroad. I wish I’d done that. Instead, I turned what I heard on its head and heard what I wanted to hear.

I heard, but I didn’t listen; I thought, but I didn’t consider.

It’s hiring season now for international schools around the world. Most hiring fairs will be over by the end of February. This is shockingly early in comparison to the US, when talking about “next year” generally waits until after April Break. In light of the 2015 hiring season, a recent Facebook post from a friend considering teaching abroad, and my own reflection of 6 months (6 months!!!!!) worth of experiences, I bring you . . .

12 Things to Know Before Leaving Your Home to Teach Abroad*
*I take no responsibility for personal happiness, self-fulfilment, or the quality of advice provided. This list is meant to be purely informational based on my (relatively limited) experience, career path, and personal situation. You can’t sue me because you made a poor, uniformed decision tough choice and are unhappy. Capisce?

1. You are not an objective thinker. My friends have always told me that I give good advice because I look at situations from all sides. When you yourself are involved in making a huge decision, you will lose all objectivity. No one considering a career change or huge move is completely impartial.

2. Considering the above, listen to what others have to say. There is a difference between hearing and listening. I heard a lot of people say things like, “Wow, that’s really . . . wow” and “The only way you’ll regret this is if you die.” (Real statement from a real person.) Neither of those are ringing endorsements for the idea of giving up an apartment lease, selling a car and possessions, packing everything else into boxes, quitting a job, saying goodbye to everyone, and moving 12 time zones away.

3. Relatedly, ask people who know you well for advice. Mitch and I asked literally everyone we knew for advice. Those who knew us were much more cautious and concerned when saying what they had to say. The others, the ones who we listened to, ironically, heard words like “travel” and “experience” and told us to go for it. Most of those friends spend about 50% of their waking hours drunk or high; we would never listen to them under normal circumstances, but we made the mistake of listening because they told us what we wanted to hear.

4. If you don’t want a career change, don’t change careers. I really wanted a job in Europe teaching social studies, which is what I taught back in the US (and love teaching and miss teaching). I ended up with a job teaching elementary school in Malaysia. Journalists don’t end up working for NBC, CNN, or anything we’ve ever heard of right out of school; they write weekly columns for local papers about upcoming yard sales, but that’s still journalism. I should have waited for a social studies job. I miss social studies and secondary students every single day and what I’ve found here wasn’t worth changing educational areas.

5. Look for concrete evidence. The school where I teach is brand spanking new. It opened far too early with no resources. The school has a lot of plans and that’s what they advertise. There are no real photos on the website because nothing looks the way management have imagined it to look. Promises are everywhere but evidence is lacking.

6. Pay the $30 membership fee for access to International Schools Review. ISR publishes anonymous reviews of hundreds of schools around the world and even includes a guide of what to look for to make sure the reviewer is telling the truth. Treat this like you would review on Amazon – not everyone has the same preferences and not everyone looks for the same things, but the information is valuable.

7. Buy a guidebook and read it. A quick Google search of the city where I live told me that there’s a Starbucks here, loads of restaurants, and 14 sights on TripAdvisor. I assumed that meant this was a “real place,” by which I meant a place like home where I can walk around, explore different neighborhoods, and have things to do over the weekend. I didn’t learn enough about Malaysia before arriving to know that cities are poorly planned, rarely include sidewalks, traffic is horrendous because roads are narrow, shopping malls are in every city and full of chain restaurants and popular Western stores, and temples listed on TripAdvisor are places of worship, not places to visit. All of the above accurately describes where I live; a description of other places in Malaysia would be very different. I didn’t know enough about where we were going. A quick glance at a Lonely Planet guidebook would have told me exactly what I needed to know – “nothing to detain you here.”

8. Learn about local history and culture and know a few words in the local language before arrival. This is something Mitch honestly did quite well. I didn’t, so thank goodness for him! Knowing the political history of Malaysia helped us make sense of what we saw when we got here and what we have seen in our travels. It also helped us understand what to say, what not to say, and a little bit about the shared histories of different groups of people.

9. Don’t rush into a contract. International school contracts are not exactly binding. Breaking contract is really common and really easy. Mid-year hiring occurs when teachers go home for Christmas and don’t come back. International school contracts are also complicated, because sometimes they’re company contracts and not your typical teaching contract. Read carefully and get everything in writing.

10. Unfortunately, we’ve learned over and over don’t trust anyone. I can count on one hand the number of promises that have been fulfilled when and as expected – 1. That was my flight here. Everything else that we were promised has either been brushed aside, changed, altered, or pushed back . . . even though it’s in writing.

11. Watch the signs. The person who hired me and was supposed to be my boss quit, our moving date was changed because the apartments weren’t ready, the school calendar wasn’t finalized until after arrival, and the school couldn’t provide photos of the building’s interior in July when it was supposed to open in September. I should have known.

12. If you still decide to go, travel. I hate living where I’m living, I hate the school and people I work for, I spent four months in a hotel, I’m still working illegally, I have no passion for teaching elementary school, I desperately miss Mitch and my friends and family. However, the travel opportunities and life experiences that we’ve had and the amazing people that we’ve met make me feel that choosing to come out here has not been an utter failure.

Before I left the US, my parents tried on numerous occasions to convince me to stay home, work for another year at my previous school, and take another year to look for social studies jobs in places where I wanted to be. I told my dad that I had to see this fail before I would get teaching abroad out of my system. I don’t want to be here anymore, but I’m not 100% sure I’m ready to go home. Some days, I’m this close to looking at flights. Other days, I just want it all to work.

3 thoughts on “Longing for a List”

  1. Could ‘feel’ this when reading. Totally relate to most of it too, of course. Miss you. July is in sight. You have certainly done exceptionally well with number 12 – so many experiences!! 🙂


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