International Schools Recruiting Fair: A Bit of Insight–Part I

For the third time in eight years, I was an attending candidate at an overseas school recruiting fair, for in mid-January, I flew to Bangkok, Thailand (from Taiwan) to attend the 2012 Search Associates job fair.  Having been to Search’s fair in London in 2010, which is where I landed my position at TASIS (The American School in Switzerland), and the University of Northern Iowa’s overseas teacher placement fair in 2004, where I obtained my job teaching at Kaohsiung American School (KAS) in Taiwan, I am no longer a newbie to these types of events; nevertheless, so much has changed over the years that in many ways I felt like an inexperienced teacher attending for the first time in regards to professional experience and our marketability as a teaching couple (more on that later).  However, I had one, and only one, slight advantage in being more experienced, well, at least compared to the first timers that were present, and that is simply that I knew that it was going to be, in advance, a whirlwind of excitement, energy, stress, hopes and let downs.  That these fairs can be competitive, intense affairs is no secret.

To detail every specific about the experience here would be like describing every form of life in the sea, but giving some insight into such a process might be appreciated by family and friends, especially since it is an integral part of teaching abroad–which is, with fingers crossed, bound to be what our lives entail for the future umpteen years.

Both aforementioned events in 2004 and 2010 allowed me a wonderful combined seven years of living and teaching abroad, details of which would themselves fill pages upon pages upon pages of blogs or journal entries, but the focus for this entry is the experience of going to said fairs–which are seemingly all the same, I assume, or are at least similar for the most part.  Whether it is CIS, UNI, Search or ISS, the main organizations that run job fairs for teachers to land employment abroad, the ongoings are roughly equivalent each time and at each venue, and I feel I can say that from stories I’ve heard from others and by comparing Search (with my two ventures to them) and UNI, the University of Northern Iowa’s fair, which they say is the longest running and oldest of such events.  Yes, somewhat surprising it is that an overseas recruiting fair for international schools would be in such a hotbed of multiculturalism and internationalization, Waterloo, Iowa.

For both Search fairs in 2010 and 2012, as it was for UNI in 2004, I spent months before each sending out emails and endeavoring to attract attention to our applications–with hopes for these latter two fairs that we could get the ball rolling before attending each, and also with the slightest hope that we could actually interview via Skype and not even have to attend in person, an expensive undertaking, to say the least.  Having heard stories of others gaining employ without needing to travel to the fair, we, perhaps foolishly, entertained the notion that the same fate would be ours, yet we persisted, from the first shot-in-the-dark contacts back in October, to the it-is-getting-busy period of late November and December, into the our-hopes-are-fading-fast late stages at the end of December and the start of January.

To contact schools with a simple e-mail introduction is one thing, and in retrospect, that is what we should have aimed at doing–for I felt after the 2010 fair that I had put in considerably too much time, all to no avail (though I did land a position, it came from a school contacting me at the fair, not as a result of all the effort and energy invested beforehand); however, my mind was continually focused on toiling endlessly so that we could stand out from the crowd, knowing that schools at this time of year are bombarded with incoming queries about the potential of working there.  Separating ourselves from the mass hordes, I felt, would require impressive, personalized cover letters (as compared to generic ones) that mentioned something about their program or philosophy, resumes that mentioned potential positions and schools by name, and email introductions that would help prompt administrators and HR staff to read our attachments.  Somewhere halfway through the oft-overwhelming three months of preparation, I decided to at least save steps by creating a generic resume objective for both my wife and me, instead of going in each time to saved folders and personalizing them each and every time, saving a few minutes of work each attempt.  In addition to all that that entailed, I also had to learn on the fly how to combine PDF’s into one file, how to use Pages on my MacBook–creating an introduction to my wife and me that we included in our PDF package of materials, and how to do a Prezi for the first time, which included learning how to convert one format of a movie file into another so that my iMovie could accept it.  The latter step involved downloading a number of converters, learning along the way that one doesn’t complete the audio files when converted, all of which included watching YouTube video tutorials for said programs, etc.  Needless to say, nothing was as simple as writing a school an email to see if it had positions for the two of us, my wife and me.  Though I could cut and paste the main body of most of the email introductions, things such as position titles (varying between elementary, middle, and high school English as a Second Language, for me), administrator names, and country names (How many times did I write, “We’d love to live in Laos… Poland… Ecuador…, etc.?).  Moreover, instead of merely sending such queries to human resources personnel, I had it in my mind that we should Cc headmasters/directors, relevant principals for whatever level we were applying to, and, at times, department heads; naturally, that required going into each school’s website to learn names, more often than not discovering that staff emails weren’t revealed on a site. However, through LinkedIn, PDF’s from some administrators conference, or personal blogs that I found through a Google search, I could come up with valuable contact addresses.  Indeed, each individual mail, including the document updates, tweaking attachments, Internet searches, etc., could take 30-45 minutes.  Over the three-month period leading up to the fair, it goes without saying that I invested much of my time in this search.

However many emails were sent out during those months has yet to be determined, but suffice it to say that it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 60-70.  Each time, I would document to whom we sent said materials, what positions were available, etc., for it quickly became apparent that it was impossible to mentally keep note of all the details of each.  Continually, we’d ask ourselves, “Did we write that school in Beijing or another out of the five there?” Though the list of ongoing outbound contacts continued to grow, the responses trickled in only periodically, more often than not with discouraging news, e.g., your wife doesn’t have the full-time American school experience we look for (though she has taught at a self-owned English-medium cram school in Taiwan for six-plus years), you don’t have IB Middle Years Programme experience, we don’t have that position open any longer, you aren’t handsome enough to apply to our school (not a real example, but you get the picture: things weren’t looking good for us).

Receiving rejections from time to time wasn’t necessarily daunting to us, though at times it became so, but it was more the lack of responses that got under my skin.  Knowing that it is a hectic time of year for recruiters/administrators–and candidates, having experienced similar trials and tribulations in 2004 and 2010, I tried to maintain a sense of levelheadedness about the dearth of responses, but at times I found it challenging.  If I had put in so much time, why couldn’t they merely write back an acknowledgement of having received our documents?  Every now and then, I’d get something personal back, or a canned message from HR–with some schools sending the exact same message they sent two years ago, such as a school in South America, a dream post I’ve wanted for more than five years.  I didn’t need a lengthy response; just a “thank you” would have sufficed.  Actually, the rejections were easier to receive than no contact at all, for at least with a rejection, one knows to write back to say thank you for their time, yet without any response, it is hard to judge how much follow up is necessary–or too much.  Certainly, a fine line exists between being persistent and being annoying.

With that said, I leaned more towards being persistent, prompting me to follow up with a second message to a school roughly 10 days after the first.  Later in the search, there were also third follow ups sent, all requiring documentation as to whom we sent repeated attempts and when so that we didn’t overdo it.  Befuddled by the continuing dearth of responses, I also tweaked such things as the subject line as time went on, for perhaps the “A teaching couple is interested in applying to Timbuktu International School” wasn’t intriguing enough. Instead, for a span, I went with “Our three-year old said we should live in Shanghai!”  or something to that effect.  To no avail.  Countless hours, and perhaps even totaling countless days all in all, were essentially wasted–for none of those efforts resulted in our getting a Skype interview, as we’d foolishly hoped for.  Nevertheless, there was still the promise of getting to the fair with some hopes of having interviews set up beforehand.

(One noteworthy aspect of these fairs is what kind of carbon footprint we are creating by having 500 candidates, 150-plus administrators/recruiters and organizers, etc., fly from one country to the next to attend these fairs.  In this day and age, one would hope that the transition to Skype and telephone interviewing will come about sooner than later.  And the above numbers are just one fair!  Each of the aforementioned organizations has a multitude of fairs in places like Boston, Toronto, the UK, Australia, San Fran, and Bangkok.  That adds up to too many folks traveling for these fairs, a major impact on our environment just in the flights alone.  Then there is the issue of costs for all involved.  Schools send admin teams, sometimes five or six folks at one time, which requires airfare, accommodation, per diem, and transfer costs.  Candidates have to possibly take time from work, leaving schools to pay substitute teacher fees.  Moreover, the costs for each candidate can be astronomical.  To get to Search London two years ago, paying for flights, a hotel in London, transportation while there, food, etc., all racked up nearly $2000 in bills alone! On top of that were the fees to attend the fair and be a registered candidate, this time costing $250US in itself.  Just to find a job!  Absurd. Thankfully, with Bangkok being only a four-hour flight from Taiwan, this time around wasn’t as expensive; however, the costs are enough to make one wonder if there isn’t a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to do this.)

Though the above is tainted with a little pessimism, there were some schools that actually wrote us back with semi-promising news.  By the time January 8th arrived, the day of the fair, I’d annotated that around 8-10 schools had written back “See me at the sign up session,” or “Look for me at the fair in Bangkok,” with even a “you have very interesting backgrounds.”  Nonetheless, though I tried to remain optimistic, we had received over 15, perhaps 20, rejections up until that point, too.  They didn’t stop there.

When I arrived in Bangkok on Saturday morning, after figuring out the fantastic new Sky Train connecting network to the airport, I was downtown in no time (erstwhile visits to Bangkok for an EARCOS fair, layovers on trips to Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and vacation there, once, required expensive taxi rides or an incredibly cheap ride into town on a dust-coated, jalopy of an ancient bus).  My first hopes, based on email contact with a school in Nepal, for whom the elementary school principal is a woman my wife and I took out for coffee once after a conference two years before in Taiwan, were to interview with the director, so I made a beeline to his hotel, which is where the ISS fair had been held a few days before.  As I arrived in the lobby, I noticed a woman wearing some sort of identification badge, like a recruiting fair attendee might wear, so I asked if she was indeed with ISS as a candidate.  Over the course of a five minute conversation, she told me how stressful it had been because many recruiters had told her, “Sorry, but we aren’t pressured to fill this position now because we’re heading to other job fairs in the next few weeks.”  One has to wonder how much of that excuse is legit, and if they are using that at a polite way to say, “We aren’t interested,” or if they really don’t plan on hiring at the first fairs of the season from the get go.  If the latter is true, I both understand it and am frustrated by it.  Individuals are flying to a different country, with all the sacrifices that that includes, only to find out that they may not even have a chance!  Really?  Shouldn’t they be told that from the onset, even before paying for the fair (though all fairs have disclaimers about how one might not find a position yet–and not to give up)?  Naturally, I see both points of view, for administrators would naturally want to find the best potential employee, and that isn’t guaranteed at the first fair, but to have it pre-planned to not hire for a spot simply because plans are to go to two or three more fairs all seems a trifle unfair.  On the other hand, if you are good enough, you’ll get a position, I suppose.  Actually, that isn’t all that simple to say, for it really depends on a number of variables, perhaps the most important being your teaching field.  If one teaches Advanced Molecular Biomedical Biology for Standford-Bound Students, IB Complicated-Beyond-Your-Comprehension Physics for Geniuses,  or AP Sequential Statistics Solely for Seriously Scholastic Students, well, then you’ve got the job before sitting down for the interview.  Those of you who teach English, Social Studies, or Elementary School, or similar positions… take a number.

Anyway, the woman I chatted with heightened my sense of concern for a few moments, but I had my interview to get to, so I departed after a cursory “good luck.”

The head of school and I met for about 30 minutes, and I certainly thought it was a fine interview.  However, one of his concerns was employing Pei Ling, for she doesn’t have full-time American/International school experience yet.  If I were single, who knows, but as a teaching team, schools play their cards differently, understandably so.  Because they need to juggle positions and fill certain slots, it isn’t any easy process for them, either.  It is a small school, which could have been a good starting point for Ling’s career overseas, but one of the issues that Ling expressed worry about afterwards (and even beforehand) was the fact that Nepal is developing/underdeveloped, and during the interview, the head had mentioned water shortages in the capital city—and power outages that sometimes last 12 hours, even though generators kick in from time to time.  Though I had it in my heart that there would be a grand adventure awaiting us if we could land two positions there, and I would have taken it if given the chance, I knew that Pei Ling had already had it in her mind that it wouldn’t be what she wanted, so although I wanted to hear back from him, at least to give me, admittedly, a boost of confidence in starting the actual Search fair the next day, I wasn’t too disappointed when he stated that they would have to be in touch, for he needed to check with his admin team back in Nepal.  Chalk it up as another learning experience.

The next day, early in the morning, I paper clipped our resumes and requests for interviews together in the hotel room so that I could later drop the paper copies off in recruiters hanging-file mail/message boxes, and then did more last-minute online searching on schools to at least be prepared to be semi-knowledgeable about a school or its programs.  Imagine being in an interview and saying “Who are you guys again?”  or “I really like that you have a Week Without Walls program,” when they don’t!  Preparation is surely key, but being that there are sometimes back to back interviews or, if one is lucky, five or six or seven in a day, borders between schools start to blur.

Around 9am, I finally made it out and went to the fair location, the Royal Orchid Sheraton.  There at the Sheraton Hotel, recruiters and organizers were milling about, but we couldn’t check in officially until 10am, which really just meant getting our name tags and lanyards.  In the meantime, the candidate lounge was open, a large room with near countless tables for writing interview request slips, doing paperwork, checking computers (it is wild how many people have tablets these days) and, most importantly, for viewing and checking poster-board lists of all schools and their available positions, which are posted around the room for all candidates to see.  Like Search London, they hang them on the walls in alphabetical order by country name; teachers then walk around, noting what positions are open, etc.  The organizers provides pre-made yellow interview requests for us, just like they did at UNI in 2004, stacked on tabletops, which tons of folks were using, attaching to their resumes, some of which looked fantastic, some of which appeared plain and mundane.  I was happy with the appearance of ours, and I liked having the invite cards I made with Pages and had printed, in color, by a Kodak shop.  Going that extra step was previously viewed as worth the extra expense, but the reality is that it didn’t get us much in return.  Regardless, I would still recommend using such handmade or self-made notecards just in case it helps distinguish you from other prospective teachers.

For this fair, I only had 15-20 resumes, and I actually ran out very quickly.  By that I mean when I walked around the outside main hallway between all the conference rooms, along a wall where hanging file folders are placed for both candidates, all 550 or so of us, and school administrators, in separate areas of the main corridor.  I placed our resumes in schools that had positions for us both, but not necessarily the ones that had requested to see me via email these past few weeks, for if they’d asked me to see them, I figured I didn’t need to waste our good resume copies on them (for we’d sent them all electronically anyway).  However, after running out, I decided to go get more copies made, for I didn’t want to only submit the ubiquitous yellow pre-made slips in another 10-15 hanging folders for other schools, and for the ones who’d said they’d wanted to meet–as a reminder that I was still interested.  But the hotel staff couldn’t print color, nor did I have higher-grade paper, so I just opted for the plain white copy paper from their copy machine to make do.  Not great, but perhaps, I had hoped, better than nothing.  I then proceeded to do hand written notes (because I’d run out of the invite cards I’d made, after 20) to ask for interviews for 10-15 more schools, some of which were shots in the dark.  Lesson learned: Bring plenty of resume and notecard copies (however, at Search London two years prior, I had a surplus of resumes after the fair finished, so felt it was a waste of paper).

For most of the mid-morning, I stayed in the candidate lounge, surfing schools on the net (free wi-fi), looking for updates on the poster boards posted around the room, and having small chats with a few folks seated at the same table.  Met a nice Australian lady who works in Dubai, who is leaving after three years, and a funny group of guys from a small international school here in Bangkok entertained with their jokes at another table.    It was an interesting mix of people throughout, some dressed in suits and ties, yet some in shorts and casual shirts. One could easily debate that dress to impress and for success is ever important, but at the same time, if there weren’t any actual meetings arranged for that day, why not go casual?  As with everything in life, it depends on perspective.  Regardless, the candidate lounge is a fantastic learning experience, for you get to hear about other schools, network with others who are in the same boat, and bounce ideas back and forth with others.

There were many teaching couples there devising strategies to see the most schools possible, and a whole array of races and creeds, ages, teaching fields, etc.  The upshot is that each candidate brought their own complex approaches to the fair.  Some looked intent, serious, and determined, whereas others were, at least on the surface, relaxed and nonchalant about the whole process. Maintaining a sense of levelheadedness and a roll-with-the-punches mentality is, it should go without saying, the best approach.  Getting stressed out isn’t going to help, and it could surely prove detrimental.  Yet that could readily prove to be easier said than done.

Starting at 11:30am., there was a candidate meeting in a large ballroom, with somewhere near 300 teachers present, it seemed.  The Search Assoc team were introduced, and then they talked about fair expectations for about an hour.  I was amazed to see how many teachers raised their hands as first time fair goers, when asked, for it was at least half, if not around 60% who were virgins to the experience.

At 2pm, individual school presentations started in various ballrooms and conference rooms, so I went to learn about a school in South Korea, an amazing ultra-modern school still being built at this time, with high hopes for what it “should” be like.  Architectural plans reveal a vast, gorgeous campus.  They’d be good to get into because they hope to set up PYP/MYP, etc., so if we could get training from the start, grand!  Lofty goals they touted, but one should be wary, for brand new schools are tons of work to get going, planning curriculum, getting resources, implementing programs, and reinventing the wheel.  I planned to go to their interview sign up session the next day, but for the aforementioned reasons, I remained skeptical. However, I was still intrigued by the prospect simply because their ambitions are so high and the facilities so new.  Apparently, I was not the only one, for there were a good 80-90 people there in the information session, too, the largest turnout I saw for one school!

I also attended the presentation for a school in Luxembourg right after, a growing school of over a 1,000 students now.  Surely piquing my interest because of the location of central Europe again, i.e., stable for now, comfortable, clean, safe–and very expensive!  Following that, in the same room, was a small school in Erlangen, Germany–a town I know quite well, which didn’t have any EAL/ESL openings, but they had one ES position available, which is what my wife needed.  I submitted an interview request in their box afterwards, saying that if you could work, I’d be a full-time stay-at-home dad, just as an option of trying to get another school interested in Pei Ling.  Finally, to round out my day at the hotel, I went to a 5:20pm presentation by a major school in Moscow.  Wow!  They had various videos running continually around the room on monitors, snacks and water bottles to give away, chocolates on all the tables, etc.  Unlike other schools that had one presenter, which  was usually the case, they had their whole admin team there (ES, MS, HS principals, director, HR staff, etc.) to give their impressive spiel.  The director was very articulate, and all they presented was grand and fabulous.  Far and away, they seem like the upper most top-tier school at the fair (after establishments in Singapore and Shanghai), and the packed conference room with eager teachers there to hear their presentation attested to that.  At my table was an older couple who’ve been in Jakarta for 26 years (before that, they’d been in Syria, Pakistan, and somewhere in Europe, they explained). What a fantastic career they’ve enjoyed!  Envious of their experiences, I imagined that we could do the same as a career, experiencing places far and wide (with eight years at three schools overseas so far, including my one year teaching in Japan through the JET Programme, we’re off to a good start).

After the presentation ended, I spoke with the high school principal of the school in Russia, for I’d been in touch before–and they were one of the eight that had said, “See us at the fair,” about getting work visa status for my wife because they’d mentioned some difficulties with some nationalities, another consideration.  All seemed okay for those first few moments.  However, I then went to talk to the elementary school principal to explain that Ling didn’t have PYP experience, but that she’d done her student teaching practicum at Kaohsiung American School and had an MEd from the USA.  He said, “To be honest, we probably can’t consider her because PYP is very demanding, and it wouldn’t be fair to her even to throw her into it midstream without experience and training. Uggh.  When I asked if getting PYP training or MYP training on our own would make us more marketable (of course it would, Mike), he responded that they have plenty of PYP-experienced teachers contacting them already.  Images of our plane crashing and burning instantly filled my mind.  Their school seemed the most impressive, indeed, and it would have been a great opportunity.  The next morning, however, I discovered a hand-written note in my hanging file folder, stating “Sorry we cannot consider you.  Your wife’s lack of experience and PYP is not a good fit for our school.”  As I stated earlier, one needs to roll with the punches at these fairs.

More to follow…

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13 Responses to International Schools Recruiting Fair: A Bit of Insight–Part I

  1. Henriette says:

    I was very delighted with your level of detail. If others don’t want to indulge in it, they can just scan and ignore the parts that do not interest them. My son will be attending his first London Job fair in London, England (to teach Science in Kenya, Uganda, or Tanzania).
    After reading your article, I felt like I had attended the fair with you. I think you should write a book. There are plenty of other resources out there for people who only want brief memos. And then there are the more juicy and informative blog posts, such as your own. Thank you for taking the time to write it, to share with your friends and family, and those in the public who are interested having a more in depth “behind the scenes” overview of what’s involved in an International Job fair, from someone who’s been there and learned to tell the tale !

    • vagabondwithfamily says:

      Thanks for much, Henriette, for replying to my posting. I appreciate that, greatly. I wish him the best of success in getting what he is looking for!

    • vagabondwithfamily says:

      Wow, that’s really nice of you to have taken the time to write comments about by Recruiting Fair experiences! I appreciate it!

  2. plexar says:

    Hi, we wanted to say we loved the details of your posts regarding the job fair! It was not “long-winded” at all! I honestly can’t believe how rude people are – those who thought it was “long-winded” should just move on and read something else. We thank you for taking the time out to describe your experience at the awfully-stressful job fairs! Although, we’re not attending the job fairs, my husband who has a PhD and Mathematics teaching certificate with years of undergraduate economics/mathematics AND high-school mathematics teaching experience, along with my elementary teaching certificate and years of elementary ed, are getting severely cold shoulders given the lack of IB experience. Here’s crossing our fingers for a post at an IB school…

    • vagabondwithfamily says:

      Yes, without IB experience, many are bound for frustrating results, plexar! I heard plenty of similar responses (i.e., “Sorry, you don’t have IB…”) at the Search London fair four years ago, but after getting some training and experience in Switzerland, then it was last year at Search Bangkok hearing about my wife not having IB. Uggh. Also, lacking IGSCE experience hurts, similarly. Gotta keep up with the pace somehow! Best to you and yours! And thanks for feeling the details were worthwhile and not “long winded”! ; )

  3. Anthony says:

    Any chance you could elaborate on the “invite cards” and/or “interview requests” you write about? I’m not quite clear on the concept. Are they the same thing? What size are they and how exactly are they used?

    By the way, I truly appreciate your posting. I plan to attend my first fair in February and can use all the help I can get.

    • vagabondwithfamily says:

      Hi, Anthony. Darn, I just wrote a lengthier response, but then hit a key on my Mac that lost it all! Anyway, I’d said that the interview requests range from (based on what I saw of others’) hand-written notes, the basic run-of-the-mill fair-provided sheets and greeting cards to hand-made cards and elaborate computer-generated, colorful notes with photos included. I’d suggest that the more interesting or unique, the better. However, if one is an in-demand, experienced, IB Physics teacher whose lived abroad before, and he/she only uses a hastily-written hand-written note card, he/she still may have a better chance for an interview than a less-in-demand newbie elementary school teacher. With that said, I wouldn’t scribble a few words on a ketchup-smeared Burger King napkin! I’d still aim for more unique/attractive. If a school then wants to meet with you, they’ll leave a note in your box to ask you to meet them at the sign-up session or, if fortunate, to schedule something before the sign-ups, i.e., an earlier interview.

      Best of success at your fair, Anthony!

  4. Paul says:

    I love the detail. I attended the fair and am about to read part II!

    • vagabondwithfamily says:

      Thanks for reading, Paul. If you’re headed to a fair, best of success!

      • Paul says:

        Thanks! I experienced a similar roller-coaster ride of emotions at the fair…with not such a positive outcome…trying again this January!

      • vagabondwithfamily says:

        Again, best to you! It is never fully “fun” to attend, but the challenge is enticing, nevertheless.

  5. Elizamina says:

    Could this be any more long winded? It shouldn’t take NINE paragraphs for you to even vaguely get to the point of this article.

    • vagabondwithfamily says:

      Oh, I am sorry I wasn’t concise enough. I used the blog originally to explain the process to friends and family who have no clue as to what my experience on the international school recruiting circuit is like, so I was perhaps aiming for some details. Thanks for the insight, though. I teach conciseness as part of a writing class, and we even practice whittling down paragraphs to meet word limits, etc. Again, it was detailed for completeness.

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