Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Beyond Thailand: Coming to the Fork in the Road

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the drama I'd been going through the past few months in applying for a teaching position here. Well, it all finally, and quite suddenly, resolved last Wednesday. A week after my interview, S emailed me and asked for a reference. Then, a day later, she asked to meet with me. Ugh, another interview?! I thought. We arranged to meet after school last Wednesday (which was a half day).

So after school that day, I tutored a student, then went to S's office with my son. Of course, I had to wait 20 minutes before S showed up. Then she spent 10 minutes explaining to me why this process has taken so long, and then the next 10 minutes telling me about all the hardships she's had to endure recruiting for the school and whining about how much work it was. Then she asked me a couple of stupid questions about whether I planned on returning to teaching (for a recruiter, she is really bad at interviews!). Then, suddenly, she stuck out her hand and exclaimed, "Well, congratulations!" Um, what? Then she immediately moved on to discussing a meeting with HR to discuss the contract, which will be for one year, what I wanted (though she said it in a tone that suggested I would be upset and disappointed about not receiving a two-year contract), so at that point, I realized I had been offered the job. The entire thing was strange, to say the least.

Then just the other day, I reviewed the contract and signed it, so now it's official!

Now, time to move on. Yes, already, before my job has even begun.

Even though we still have a couple of months left before we finish our first year here in Thailand, we are already having to begin thinking about and planning for two school years from now! We didn't think we'd have to until this fall, but a conversation with the elementary school counselor and her husband told us otherwise. The thing about living this kind of life is that it forces us (and many people in the same boat) to constantly re-evaluate our lives and think about what we want out of it, which is good in a way because we hardly ever did that when we lived in the U.S. Still, it's a bit much to have to think so far ahead so frequently.

The elementary counselor and her family are moving on to Kuala Lumpur after two years at our school. This is also their first international teaching experience. They have two kids, one a rising first-grader and the other a rising sixth-grader. They know they want to stay abroad for five years total and that they want their older daughter to attend high school in the U.S., so because she will be going into middle school this fall, they want to move before school starts again so she can start and finish middle school at one school. They're also looking for a more international experience (the majority of students at our current school are Thai, even with 25 or so nations nationalities represented, but that is still a lot less than the number of nationalities represented at my son's public school back in the U.S.!). Their thinking is very similar to ours, so we decided to pick their brain when we met up with them in Kuala Lumpur over our break last month.

For their second international teaching experience next year, they targeted and applied to only a few top schools in Asia and South America, some of which we've been considering as well. They also tried for the Saudi Aramco Schools, which are schools operated by the Saudi Aramco oil company and where many people want to teach because of the incredibly high salaries and amazing benefits. For example, our elementary school psychologist and her husband are headed there next school year. She will be working 20 hours a week and paid $90,000/year, while her P.E.-teacher husband will be paid $120,000/year for a full-time position. They will be flown to a resort of their choice, anywhere in the world, every six weeks. If they stayed for 10 years, they will each receive $1M from the school and have international health insurance coverage for life. If they decide to have children, the school will pay for their children to attend any boarding school of their choice where their children are admitted because these Saudi schools go up to only the ninth grade. And they can pretty much save their entire salaries because the school pays for everything for them.

But all these benefits also come at a cost. Aside from the horrible treatment that women receive there, there are also many restrictions on women there that are required even of female expats. For example, a woman who's part of a couple (we're talking only male-female couples, of course) couldn't be head of household there; she can work only if her husband also is working. Divorced, single women with children aren't allowed. Everyone lives in communities (I've heard them called "compounds") built by Saudi Aramco. Moreover, we hear that teachers aren't allowed to return to their home countries during the summer because they have to stay to watch the children of Saudi Aramco's employees.

Despite their years of experience and being a teaching couple -- which is generally preferred over a teacher with a non-teaching spouse -- the elementary counselor and her husband received offers only from the school in Kuala Lumpur. We also learned that the application process begins much sooner than we had thought -- the counselor began interviewing with schools in September of last year, which is at least two months sooner than we were expecting. This is because many top schools begin their search for teachers early, and some of them don't even attend recruiting fairs because they don't need to -- these schools are so sought-after and competitive that they receive hundred of applications for every position available, and administrators can just screen and interview applicants from the comfort of their schools. Open positions at these schools also are few and far between because they all have very low turnover rates. Teachers know a good thing when they see it; when you get a position at one of these schools, you don't leave until retirement.

To say that this is discouraging is an understatement. Add to that the grueling application and interview process and the fact that there is a part of us that really misses home -- the part of us that thinks about resettling back into our life there, being closer to family and friends, and doing all the things that we used to love doing -- and it is all we can do to keep ourselves from packing up after next year and going home for good. Back home, my husband still has a guaranteed position with a reputable school system, and we can easily settle back into our "old" life.

But there's also another part of us that is not quite ready to go home yet. We are still just a little bit curious about what it's like to live in yet another part of the world, to be part of a more-international community and school (our current school has students from 25 nationalities, but is still at least 85 percent Thai and much less diverse than my son's elementary school in the U.S., ironically). Then there's our little boy to consider. When I think about where he was when school started last August and where he is now, I realize what a wonderful, well-rounded education he has had this year. He has become quite a writer and artist; he has been exposed to so many different sports in P.E. class; he can now speak some Thai (he is able to order food and drinks in Thai now); has been exposed to many types of music and musical instruments, and knows about the art of performing, acting, and dancing.

Besides a formal education, my son also has been getting an amazing global education abroad -- traveling and see and learning about other cultures and world history, and meeting people from the world over. Hearing multiple different languages daily is the norm rather than the exception, and many kids younger than he is are bilingual, if not tri- or quadrilingual (or more!). We all really love being part of an international community. My son also has really taken to living here. Despite all that the kids do at school, they still have plenty of free time to run around and play. There's not as much academic pressure for kids his age here as back at home. He also fits in better with the Thai boys, who are more soft-spoken and much gentler than most American boys (the American kids here, on the other hand, are some of the most spoiled and wildest kids I've ever known). It's also been really nice to be away from the sports-centered, gender-stereotypical American culture.

The counselor's advice to us was to begin gathering and putting together resumes, application documents, and letters of recommendation this month, so when we return to school in August, we can begin the application process immediately. But there's an additional layer of complexity now that I'll also be teaching next year -- do I submit my own application for special education positions or do we just have my husband apply (since he's much more experienced) and have him mention my availability to work? Just thinking about navigating all this again makes me tired. Is it worth the trouble?

So, what do we do? On the one hand, we can put ourselves out there again, see what schools have positions available, and maybe give it one more shot. If we don't receive any offers, we will go home knowing we tried. On the other hand, it would be so nice and easy to just end the school year, pack up, go home, and look forward to living in the U.S. again.

One thing we know for sure about the upcoming school year, though, is that we're going to be using every single one of our school breaks next school year to travel as much as we can, just in case this is our last chance. Our travel wish list is growing ever longer, and it currently includes Taiwan, China, Japan (currently planned for July!), Laos, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand. Then, of course, there are still places in Thailand we want to see. We are also going to look for professional development conferences in countries we want to visit as a way to travel (already have one picked out in Hong Kong in November...). And if we do end up going home for good next summer, we will have a longer summer break (because our school here ends early and our school system in the U.S. starts later than here), which we will be using to travel all over at least Asia and Europe before heading home.

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