Well, my 14 month vacation is almost over. Tomorrow, I board an Air France flight from Portland, through Detroit and Paris, to my new school in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where I will be the Head of Ed Tech for at least two years.
I know a lot of the folks who read my blog have asked about my work and my lifestyle…like, how can I afford (professionally and financially) to take a year-long hiatus during my strongest earning years, and how is it that I can travel the world so much, and exactly what is it I do and how did I get into it. So for their benefit, and the benefit of those who happen to stumble upon this blog, here’s a little summary of the Big Picture, as well as an honest chronicle of my thoughts as I embark on an adventure into the heart of West Africa.
I work in International Schools, and have made that my career for the past 20 years or so. I was a teacher in Flagstaff about 25 years ago, and wanted a bit more adventure and travel in my life, so I registered for a job fair and got hired to teach overseas. And I seem to have gotten pretty entrenched in this lifestyle and have stuck with it for all this time…and probably will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
There are several hundred ‘International Schools’ around the world, although there is no clear definition of what qualifies a school as an ‘International School’, and there are a lot of institutions that call themselves that but serve mostly locals and teach the national curriculum. Most bonafide International Schools are in capital cities, and serve children of diplomats, or businesspeople, or rich locals who want their kids to have a western-style education. They exist in almost every county on earth, and in places like Hong Kong, there are quite a few (something like 24 in HK alone). For the most part, each school is an independent entity, not belonging to a larger organization, and each contract I get is a brand new arrangement, without any grandfathering as per salary, benefits or retirement. Contracts tend to be for two years, with yearly renewals after that.
In the past, I found jobs by going to Job Fairs, managed by several organizations who host Fairs at different locations around the world, starting in January. But lately, more and more jobs have been sourced and secured through social media and word of mouth, and the method of finding new employment is becoming more and more complex and diverse.
For the most part, these are reputable schools (although they vary in quality) and only hire teachers with certification and experience. When I hear people talk about ‘going to Japan to teach English’ and who have no credential or prior experience, I realize that they are not working for the same type of institution that I am interested in being associated with. While those opportunities do exist, they seem to be more for the backpacker-type of person looking for a fun ‘international’ experience with low pay and few benefits…something very different from the schools I work in. My package includes housing, airfare (at each end of my contract, and often in the summers between), professional development, retirement benefits of some sort (usually a cash award) and a respectable salary that comes with a tax exclusion in the US and often immunity from local taxes. And my colleagues are always experienced educators, with varying degrees of international experience, and who are highly motivated and creative. The students in our schools are almost exclusively achievement-oriented, hardworking, motivated for success and ambitious, and enjoy full support of their families. In general, it’s a fantastic model of how education is supposed to work.
That being said, there are some real pitfalls to this lifestyle. This blog entry from an expat teacher identified some of them quite well…she mentions the following:
— It’s a selfish choice. You are removing yourself from the lives of people who love you and would enjoy having you in their lives, and this can devastate them.
— You feel guilty all the time about missing important events in others’ lives…like weddings, funerals, births, etc.
— You feel really, really lonely. You are living without the deep meaningful connections of old friends, of familiar environs, and are always ‘the new kid on the block’. This one hits me particularly hard.
— You lose your ability to ‘fit in’….either in your ever-changing homeland, or in your new location. And you can’t get this back again.
— You lose dear friends, because you grow apart. Life happens.
In addition to these, there are also some other pitfalls I have learned from 20+ years of living this way:
— You don’t live with your stuff. Either because local housing is too small (like in Asia) or it’s too hard or expensive to ship stuff to places (like most of Africa) or because you don’t need winter things in a permanent summer environment, you find that most of what you have collected in your life ends up sitting in storage for years at a time. I have had a storage shed in Maine for 13 years straight, with boxes that I have not gone through in all that time, containing clothes that will never fit me again, souvenirs that would feel trivial and kitschy to me now, and worst of all…real treasures that I don’t get to keep in my daily life.
— You don’t get to see your life ‘mature’. Friends with houses get to work on them and slowly add to them, building a sauna, or a walkway, or planting fruit trees that they see bear fruit, or clearing a back field to make a view and watch it develop. They see their neighbors grow older, they show their kids their favorite fishing hole, and watch them show their grandkids, etc.
— You have to manage your own retirement. You cannot invest in TIAA-CREF, and your ever-changing employers do not offer long-term retirement pension plans, so it becomes imperative that you learn how to invest in mutual funds, or stocks, or something. And no one really teaches you how to do this.
— Most people have no idea about your lifestyle, and that leaves you in a bind. You get asked “where do you live” and there’s no easy answer. Websites require an address and zip code to order things, but your country doesn’t have one. The most mundane things like buying a SIM card becomes hopelessly complex when you are asked for an address, or contact number. And you can’t even explain your situation without sounding like you are from Mars.
Don’t get me wrong…there are tons of great things about living abroad. Vacations and weekends are things that people imagine are trips of a lifetime. You get exposed to cultures that others only dream of, or see in pages of National Geographic or something. You have friends and acquaintances worldwide. You get to work with the most amazing kids and adults anywhere, and you get to do amazing things in your career: growth and advancement opportunities are abundant, and you are exposed to the newest and best practices in education. You also make pretty good money, especially when you consider that your housing and taxes are taken care of. But it comes at a cost, and the worst part is that almost no one in your life really understands that cost.
With all that being said….tomorrow I embark on my next adventure. I fly to Ouagadougou, and as is usual, I really don’t know what to expect (it’s pretty common that new hires have not been to the school, or even country, before). I have some fears…I know it will be VERY hot there (in the dry season, daytime temps get into the mid-40’s (C) which is in the 110°-115° F range) and I don’t really like heat, even a dry heat. The country is quite poor, so I won’t have a lot of comforts I enjoyed in Hong Kong, like nice sushi bars, massages, Sunday brunches, etc. I expect the school budget will be considerably less flexible than it was at HKIS, and I know it gets dusty with severe sandstorms. I also dread going through ‘culture shock’ again….its an unavoidable aspect of international living, and takes 3-5 months to really pass. During that time, its agonizing trying to live with systems you don’t understand, like where to buy food, how to fix things, what to do, etc. And the fact that the entire country (with the exception of the expats) speak only French means I need to up-skill my languages very quickly.
But there are some things I’m really looking forward to, also. I get to oversee the technology development of an entire school, I get to explore a new part of Africa, and I get experience in Admin (which keeps more doors open for me in the future as many schools cannot hire teachers once they are 60 years old, but they don’t have such restrictions for admin), the school has rented me my own little house, and I’m looking forward to earning some money again, after this year of no income.
So I’ve re-read my blog post about my fears before I arrived in Kinshasa 13 years ago, and I’m reminded that I survived a move into third-world Africa before. And from everything I read, Ouagadougou is much more stable and developed than Kinshasha was. I look forward to being there in 48 hours, when everything will make more sense and I can report on what I see. So hang in there with me…the roller coaster is starting up the big hill.