With the cumulative effect of the rejections there at the fair and the lack of response from many schools I’d written previously, by day three I started to feel like an amateur Mixed-Martial-Arts fighter going up against a seasoned pro. Upper cuts, jabs, hooks, roundhouses, leg kicks, chokes, and leg lock attempts came from all directions, and I didn’t know how to react. Trying to live the maxim of “when life gives you lemons,” I generally bounced back from the aforementioned maelstrom of negativity and rejection during the process, but it was, admittedly, challenging, for so much was riding on the outcome, especially because I had reassured my wife when we ended our contract in Switzerland in 2011 that I/we could go to next season’s fair to land positions abroad. Like a Neolithic hunter returning from a challenging venture far from his family’s dwelling, I desired not to return empty handed to my toddler daughter and pregnant wife.
At one point later in the fair, I went to see one of the Search Associates staff for a shoulder to cry on (not that bad, but you get the point). I hadn’t spoken with anyone from the organization personally yet, except for at the sign in or to ask directions to the bathroom, but because I had paid so much money for their services, I figured I might at well take advantage of it. Admittedly, to me, he had seemed a bit aloof—or simply too busy—when walking around the venue the few days prior, quite busy I am sure. However, upon approaching him, he was open, helpful, and intent on listening. We spoke for about 15 minutes. I let him know that we’d been rejected left and right–more than a dozen times there, over the course of a mere two days (not including the “failures” via email before coming to the fair–and the plethora of no responses) and that some schools had said my wife didn’t have enough experience and that others stated that her lack of IB PYP is the issue. I also simply didn’t know if I was the one being rejected—not knowing if there was some red flag in my inaccessible reference files, yet it was ostensibly primarily based on the complete package as a team. He revealed something that helped put things into perspective a bit more, if this issue does indeed exist. He explained that perhaps some schools, especially China-based or Korean-based schools might even be against the idea of a Taiwanese applicant, which my wife is. The fair itself is open to all nationalities, but schools may not be, especially if a human resources person is Chinese and has some personal animosity towards a Taiwanese. He gave the example of his wife, a Japanese-American, who was born in America, for when she taught in a school in China, some Taiwanese parents said they didn’t want their children taught by a Japanese woman! He also speculated that perhaps some schools could even think that a teacher coming from Taiwan may not have a western educational approach or education him/herself–which I assured him was wrong, for she went to a British international school overseas and studied in the UK for uni, but it is still a possibility someone narrowminded may feel that way. Sadly, I entertained the idea that the next time we go to a job fair, we’ll give her an English name and use my surname, instead of hers, and see what happens. How superficial would it be if that actually changed the course of things? Troubling it is.
On top of that, as I have always known, I am an ELL/ESL teacher, not chemistry or physics or counseling, i.e., high-demand fields. That could be part of the equation, too, he described, in that some schools hire ESL teachers locally, and that the cost of hiring an overseas EAL teacher doesn’t make sense, especially if the spouse isn’t working or is also not a high-demand teacher him/herself (elementary teachers are a dime a dozen). If I were an AP/IB chem teacher and had a spouse who could fill an ES position, to boot… voila, job secured! Moreover, he said that having her present would have been best, and always is, which is a besides-the-point issue because she was pregnant and not able to fly. However, I wished they had explained that before the fair—and before we had paid for all the associated expenses.
He also explained that besides the above variables, schools aren’t feeling pressured at this fair to hire since there are so many more fairs to follow: UNI, Boston ISS & Search, Toronto, San Fran, etc., and even a Bangkok spring fair. Again, I’d heard that from others beforehand (see the first few blogs), and I did meet a few people who hadn’t gotten jobs yet based on that explanation from respective recruiters, but there were surely a few who did get jobs already! The woman I had met in the candidate’s lounge who is in Egypt currently got a job in Bangkok, and she has a trailing spouse and dependent (which many schools don’t even consider)! The way the puzzle pieces fall into place seems a mystery–or, at least, one helluva complicated process, and everyone has a different perspective on this based on the conversations I had with other candidates.
We further talked about what exists next, if nothing avails itself at the fair, or immediately following–which is what happened at Search London two years ago–with me getting a job in Switzerland a week after the fair (because things weren’t going very well, I tried to keep it in mind that I had come away from the Search London fair two years ago with only slight hopes–but no definite offers, a very daunting prospect at the time because I had spent so much money getting there, etc.). I brought up attending another fair, and he said that it could work for Search San Fran in mid February. That was an option, so my interest was piqued. Having paid the registration fee for Search already to be active, it would be $50US to attend (and of course the flights from Taiwan, hotel costs, time off from work, etc.). He said that San Fran has mostly Asian and Middle Eastern schools, with a handful of South/Central America and Europe. I also, in the back of my mind, started considering going to UNI, for that is where I landed my first overseas gig in ’04.
He did think that we would be better off in San Fran because many attendees there haven’t been overseas yet (which is advantageous for me), or that candidates there are new grads more often, which puts Pei Ling in the same boat, at least. Again, at that point, that was something I wished I had heard before coming to Bangkok. Otherwise, the later Bangkok fair in the spring, which I proactively asked about because in my mind a late fair such as that would just be schools and candidates scraping the bottom of the barrel for less-in-demand options, is attended by more lower-tier schools who are more willing to hire less-experienced teachers, but that that could have been an “in” for my wife since she is a newbie teacher. Something to consider, I suppose.
I also told him that we could teach at my wife’s cram school and do well financially, so it isn’t like we are without any options, but it is still not a priority to be away from mainstream international schools for too long for me, for I fear that lapses in my career will be detrimental. Because schools don’t look at cram school teaching as “real” teaching, I felt it was best we stay in the pack and land positions in an accredited, established school.
About an hour after meeting with him, I went for a meeting with a school in Luxembourg, my last interview for the day–of the three I’d had for Monday–whose reviews, by the way, were all negative on International School Reviews, a website that allows one to read reviews for many schools abroad, and even the newest ones for ISL, for various reasons, were negative, but mostly because of financial difficulties. With all things posted on ISR, you have to take everything with a grain of salt! Nevertheless, I felt at that moment that we needed to be open to all options! Naturally, living in Luxembourg wouldn’t be too challenging in many ways, except financially, especially if only one of us could land a position. Having gone to their presentation the day before, I did think the facilities are attractive enough and, the headmaster was rather pleasant, and it is in a fully developed nation with a strong economy and standing, separating itself from the locales of the other four schools I’d interviewed with beforehand, all in developing or very-different-than-what-we’re-accustomed-to nations (which is still totally fine for me!). We met. He seemed open to considering what I had to say. He listened to my explanation about my experiences, and asked what my former students would say about me. At that moment, I had my Prezi-based teaching portfolio set on a video clip of a former student of mine on my iPad, so it was perfect timing to let him watch it (I’d shown him the basics of the Prezi a few moments before), and he also was willing to watch my video resume, too, saying he liked the use of technology, etc. He nodded in agreement to a lot of my ideas about approaches, pedagogy and vocab instruction–so I was actually very satisfied with the interview. Later, I did talk about my wife’s experiences more and explained how we were hoping to get her foot in the door. He sympathized and said “there has to be someone out there who’d let her in” (which got me a little worried, for it didn’t sound like they would), which is similar to what he had said the night before at the sign-up session for interviews (the round robin it is called at UNI) when I said a few schools had rejected the idea of her not having PYP. He thought a lot about the issue and repeated that we’ve just got to get her into a place that we’ll let her shine, adding, though, that they usually hire folks with 2-4 years experience. He has already hired the ES EAL position, but had the MS EAL (tentative posting) as an option, but the gal that is there in MS only wants to get into one other European school, so she “may stay on board if she doesn’t.” Without being too pessimistic, I got the gist of what he said. We should “keep in touch,” he suggested, and he even took the time to write that at the top of my Search-generated printed data sheet, prompting me to feel that he was genuine, and then stated that I should email him in a week or two; however, he left it at “Pei Ling could possibly substitute teach or tutor on the side, if there is something for you in ESL.” Focusing on us landing two teaching positions, especially in a country where the cost of living is so high, I felt when I walked out the door that I knew the outcome already. (After returning to Taiwan a few days later, I sent a follow up email, but I haven’t heard back from them yet, two-plus weeks later.)
After dropping off my thank you note in ISL’s hanging folder–which all candidates should do after any interview, I left the hotel at 5:30pm, really needing to get out of there even though there was a social event at 6:30. After a long day, I needed some fresh air. Earlier in the day, I was happy for the woman from Cairo and congratulated her while she was texting her husband and kid–smiling and saying it was her first choice–but inside I was struggling a bit with not landing anything. Another bloke from New York, currently in Beijing, a really pleasant guy to chat with, landed a job in Luxembourg. And the Chinese teacher in Indonesia, with whom I stood on line before the sign-up session, had gotten a job in Korea. Of course, it was satisfying to know that they’d met with success, but I felt there was a need for a long nap back at my hotel, having awoken at 5:30am and going non-stop all day. Somewhat unfortunately, I later woke at 9pm at my hotel, missing the mixer back at the Sheraton, which some say is a good way to rub elbows with prospective employers, possibly landing a position somehow. However, in the back of my mind, I wondered how that could happen after having been so proactive before the fair to make contacts. Instead, I went to a wireless cafe to spend another three hours researching schools, sending out more emails to ask for consideration, and to follow up on a few of the meetings from earlier today. Knowing that Tuesday, the day to follow, was the last day, and that I had only two interviews left (for a school in Vietnam and one in Myanmar), I also spent time reading up on their respective schools. To give up yet wasn’t an option. My head spinning with options, worries, internal debates, and the slightest sliver of hope, I went to bed that night, wishing I could hug my daughter and wife.
On January 12th, the last day of the fair, I spent most of the morning in the candidate lounge, sitting at a table with four other teachers who were commiserating about not finding a job yet. One was an Australian kindergarten teacher in China, and she seemed rather depressed about all prospects and the interviews she had had. Another couple, now teaching in Vietnam, had many stories to share about interviews they’d had, still holding out hopes for a school in Korea to get back to them. I found it a joy to speak with them–and we sat together for two to three hours, but in the back of my mind, I was forever contemplating what to do next. Another wonderful woman at our table, teaching in Malaysia, was also at a loss on what to do next. Her perspective that the universe has its plan already in store for each of us was refreshingly inspiration, yet, with fingers on my keyboard as she talked (and I was engaged in doing both), I started writing schools that weren’t even at the fair, asking for them to consider a teaching couple.
On the last day of the fairs at UNI in ’04, Search London ’10, and this fair, there weren’t nearly as many candidates or recruiters milling about as the first and second days. The feeling of the place was completely different, too. The first few days were full of excitement, energy, eagerness. The last day was somewhat sullen in tone, with a touch of despondency in the air. As a result, her sarcasm in full-throttle it seemed, the kindergarten teacher at our table commented that the candidate’s lounge at that moment must have been the saddest place in the world, prompting a much-needed laugh from all of us. Looking around the room at the mostly bedraggled leftovers, haunched over their laptops, clenching rosary beads, prostrated on the ground begging to whatever god they believed in, or frantically scribbling interview request slips, I wondered if they were ready to give up or keep going.
There were many more people lingering here than on the last day of Search London, as I recall, but still a fraction of the folks present the first two days. Those who had landed jobs already were most likely not there, instead choosing to be poolside at the hotel, sipping a pina colada, reveling in their success, or they were the ones I saw walking around in shorts and t-shirts, congratulating others in shorts and t’s. For a short while, another couple came to sit with us at our table, a table full of still-waiting-with-fingers-crossed hopefuls, and after writing some thank you notes, admitted that they’d already had some offers, at least, but that they were still holding out for a school in Singapore, a top-tier school that has long been a dream post for me, yet another one on the growing list who declined to offer us a chance to interview. At first, I had simply thought they were there to commiserate with us! Bastards! Because she was a counselor, which I’d heard that is a shortage of overseas, it didn’t surprise me too much that they’d had a few offers. To have such options as they did would have surely picked me up emotionally at that moment. Yet I was still hanging in there.
At 8am that morning, I’d had had an interview with a school in Vietnam. Nice guy. Seemed like a regular bloke, not a haughtier-than-thou administrator, but it appeared that he had his stuff together. They were interested in my experience, for they were looking to expand their EAL program which, hitherto, hadn’t existed for some reason. All seemed to go well, but after I had explained that we had left our last post (after a one-year contract) because of financial considerations, he responded that if we had one income there, too, it might be very tight for us, which prompted immediate focus on landing my wife a position, too–our overall goal (yes, she could be a stay-at-home mom again for our two kids, but we had our hopes high that she could get her career rolling since her MEd teaching practicum was already 1.5 years in the past–and also for financial reasons). I admitted to him that I felt like the character Red in the movie Shawshank Redemption, getting rejected, rejected, rejected, and then finally getting approved–and that their Search data sheet gave us real hope because it listed it as “possible” that they would hire a teacher with little to no experience. However, he explained that it is ‘possible’ because if an MBA small business owner came to teach business, they would be willing to hire, or if someone, as he explained, was a private school teacher in America (where certification isn’t always needed), but who’d been the PYP Coordinator and trainer… well, they would give her a job without delay. With my writing class experience seeming impressive–for they want strong writing support for EAL’s at the HS level, the prospect seemed like it was still there. However, the lack of experience for my wife was an issue for him, saying he usually looks for 2-4 years under one’s belt. As others have said, he also is not on a fast track to hire since it is so early in the recruiting season, with London and Boston to follow. They weren’t going to make a decision at the Bangkok fair, he admitted, but that I should “keep in touch” and contact him again. After 25 minutes, we ended it on that note. (Three weeks after, I still haven’t heard back from them even though I’d sent a follow up email upon return to Taiwan.)
A short while later, I went for my last interview. As had been the case for all the previous meetings, it took place in the director’s/administrator’s hotel room–which was the same at UNI in Iowa. Arriving early is important, naturally, and for the interviews prior, I’d given myself 5-10 minutes out in the hallway to review notes about the school, to straighten my tie, to do some deep-breathing exercises, and to uncross my fingers before knocking on the door. As is practically the case at each fair, there were other candidates going to and fro other recruiters’ rooms, or sitting outside someone’s door, waiting to be called in or their time to come. Typical “whom are you interviewing with?” or “good lucks” were exchanged on my way to my last scheduled meeting, one with the director of a school in Myanmar. Unfortunately, I went to the wrong room! Actually, it was the room of one of the school’s principals, which was one of the two room numbers listed on the sheets given to us by the fair organizers; with my luck, I’d chosen the wrong one, requiring another elevator ride up a few floors, making me five minutes late.
A real personable guy he turned out to be. Very soft personality, insightful, interested, and he listened to what I had to say. He has been there for four years and loves it. They were looking for MS EAL, and he (and I) thought that my experience would be a good fit. He felt that if my wife didn’t work, it might be tight depending on our budgeting, but stressed that it could be doable. On the topic of Pei Ling, of all eight interviewers, he was the first and only who said they sometimes hire people without experience, and that he had hired a few folks in four years who have worked out to be good teachers even though they were newbies. Because they did have a lower ES position open, I salivated with anticipation that something could avail itself for Pei Ling. He was willing to consider it, but said that he’d have to get back to me, for he had another appointment to get to after our 25-30 minutes. Uggh. Was that bad news? Good? How does one react to an excuse that the interview has to be cut off? Doubts lingered. Hopes faded. I left his room with my curiosity piqued, but hopes challenged, and went to drop off the requisite thank you note in his box, unsure of what was next.
My interviews completed, I practically crawled on hands and knees into the candidates lounge for the last time, feeling like Sisyphus, tormented by my lack of success, and that’s when I spent time with the other down-on-our-luck souls at the let’s-commiserate-together table. Of course, beforehand, I checked my now-dust-covered hanging file to see if someone had made a mistake and put an interview invite in my folder instead of Josh Brown’s folder behind mine. Of course, neither Josh nor I had anything waiting for us.
While sharing let downs and listening to other woes from folks at our table, I then wrote my wife an email to ask her to considerate Myanmar, if we were even given the option–for it seemed like the only option that could possible work out besides Nepal and India, stemming from this fair. Although I am the type of guy who can still rent out a $5-per-night hostel room in a questionable neighborhood in Nowhereville, and I could see myself teaching at a school just as easily in Sweden as I could teach in Togo or Ecuador or Kazakhstan (eager to actually be in any of those places), my wife had expressed some concerns that I didn’t even consider after my first interview with Nepal three days prior, for she is more worried about the environment of our new home/school for our three-year-old daughter and soon-to-be-born son. For me, practically anywhere is possible; for her, that wasn’t the case, another issue that teaching couples need to consider.
At the same time that I was writing my wife and new emails to schools found on other recruiting organizations’ websites, the New Yorker in his 50’s, the guy that’s heading to Luxembourg, commented that sometimes life takes you down a path that leads to more roads, not roadblocks, which I threw into my email to Pei Ling. Yes, Myanmar might be a developing country, and, yes, they may have had a complex sordid history and a tenuous-at-best current climate of hope and change, but it is all about opportunity. As a newbie teacher, she, I felt, needed to consider all options, not just the distant hopes of teaching at a Tier-1 school. Naturally, both professionally for me and to build her resume more, working at a place like the well-known schools in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Moscow, or Santiago de Chile would bring many benefits (though all schools have issues, good and bad), but for a newbie, it is necessary to keep one’s mind open to all options. I urged her to do just that. For me, because I’d been to Myanmar in 2009, I was open to the idea even if I have countless questions about life there on a daily basis. At first, she wasn’t, but she then gradually opened up to the notion of living there.
My first fair at UNI back in 2004, while still in my MEd program at the U of M(N) in K-12 ESL teaching, entailed something like 10-12 interviews set up at the round robin session, but after the first seven meetings that first afternoon and next morning, I had three offers: Taiwan, Egypt and the UK. After a solo lunch to sort through all my thoughts the day after the sign-up session, I cancelled the rest of the scheduled interviews that afternoon and the next morning and opted for Taiwan, eventually staying there for six years.
At Search London in 2010, I only had seven interviews, rejecting one option in Mongolia because of the terrible air quality, and being rejected myself by countless others for not having IB MYP or PYP or IGCSE experience (and for having a “trailing spouse,” the term for having a husband or wife who isn’t teaching). I flew home from London to Taiwan with my head held low, though trying to keep my chin up because I’d at least had three meetings with a school in Switzerland, and I’d even had a Skype interview with one of their coordinators while at the airport in London on my way home. Within a week, I’d received their offer after another Skype interview–and accepted, and we completed a one-year contract there, a very good experience–and at a place we actually miss.
At this fair in Search Bangkok, there were only the eight interviews. Numerous rejections. Countless contacts without response. However, having received a “great interview” email back from Myanmar on my last evening in town, I returned home to my wife and daughter the next day to say we need to keep our minds open and that it wasn’t time to throw in the towel. Though I’d hoped to take a break from the preceding three months of preparations, which I’ve partially detailed in my first blog, I got back online that first night back and accessed the schools-in-attendance list at UNI’s fair in Iowa. Flying to Waterloo in mid-February (actually flying into Minneapolis and renting a car to get to Iowa) from Taiwan, going through the process again, with all the associated fees, wasn’t my preference, but one can’t give up on one’s goals. Having already sent out a dozen emails to newly discovered schools in places like Bahrain, Brazil, and Ghana, a few days later, we decided to pay $310US for UNI’s registration, sadly to discover that for that cost–a non-refundable cost–there were no high school ESL positions listed, only three for middle school (two of which were at Christian schools that hire only of-the-faith teachers), and four for elementary ESL, in which I have no experience yet (and of three of the four, one was faith-based, one was combined with special needs, and one was in Turkey, a place that requires an under degree in the same area of teaching, which I don’t have). Essentially, there were less than a handful of options for me alone (though I’d heard back from a school in the Middle East and one in eastern Europe that were willing to meet at UNI). Though positions are fluid and things open up at the fair, which UNI wrote in their follow up email to my query about the availability of positions, we didn’t feel going to UNI would be worthwhile, putting us further in the hole financially.
Actually, at the same time that we were researching and contemplating our other options immediately after the fair, well, a couple of days later, the school in Myanmar contacted us with an offer, two positions for the both of us. After ample deliberation, some tension-creating discussions about our professional future, and much pondering, solo and together, we decided to accept the offer, and in a mere six months, we’re heading to our new home, Yangon. Opportunities await us. Whether or not the school (its facilities, programs, atmosphere, etc.), housing provided, daily life in Yangon, or any other aspect of living abroad in a new country, one that is completely different than the States, Switzerland, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, the UK and Germany, places where one or both of us has lived hitherto, will be what we need to have a good life or not, has yet to be seen. Nonetheless, that’s part of the excitement of living and working abroad as an overseas school teacher, an excitement that comes about as the result, more often than not, of attending an American/international school recruiting fair.
“Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.” Helen Keller