Thursday, February 9, 2012

International School Job Fairs: Fast and Furious Part One - Getting Our Feet Wet

There is a niche of international educators that go through the experience of hopping through 2-year contracts in different parts of the world and I've realized that the process is probably not known to many of our readers, so I decided to post some memoirs of my personal experience with the international job search for teachers.

Marisa and I are currently working at a school in Frankfurt, Germany because three years ago we said that we wanted to take the opportunity to go and travel, live abroad, and hopefully take some steps towards a goal that we have of opening schools in developing countries.  I should emphasize the word "step" in the previous sentence because I completely realize that Germany is not a developing country and no, we're not thinking about opening a school here.  So the dream was in place during my third year of teaching at my old high school in Georgia......the illustrious East Paulding HS in Dallas, GA.............and we started figuring out how one goes about moving abroad to teach.

Like many things in life - there's a hard way and there's an easier way.  The "hard way" would be to individually research international schools in countries that you have a desire to live in and send your resume to all of them as you would in the U.S. when looking for work in a public or private system.  The "easier way" consists of joining one of several hiring agencies such as:  SEARCH Associates or International Schools Services.  Both are similar in that you pay them a couple hundred dollars, put up your personal information, resume, references, etc. onto their online databases, and search for member schools that have openings posted.  Your registration fee gives you access to the database until you are hired, or up til three years (for SEARCH anyways) - whichever comes first.  The registration also typically covers the fee to attend one of several job fairs for international schools that are held between January and April in various cities across the globe.  In this day and age you can do quite well by finding schools on the databases and contacting them and/or having a skype interview if geography is prohibitive of having an in-person interview or if that particular school won't be attending the same job fair as you.  So your best bet is to contact schools that you're interested in and try to be at the job fairs that they will be attending to get an in-person interview.  In a nutshell though, hundreds (if not a couple thousand) of candidates and recruiters converge on hotels in major cities over the course of a single weekend and may go from initial conversation to accepting two-year commitments to pick up and move yourself and family to another country.  Needless to say, there can be an awful lot of anxiety taking place over a short amount of time at these job fairs.  That's the overview - now back to my experience.

  In 2009 I signed up with ISS and started contacting schools.  I registered for a fair in February in Philadelphia and as the time approached I didn't have a great feeling about the list of schools that would be in attendance.  However, I had some interest from a school in Berlin that was excited about me, but wouldn't be at that fair.  Instead, they would be at a fair a couple of weeks earlier in Boston.........with the other hiring agency (SEARCH).  I made a game-time decision to register with SEARCH (so paying both agencies) and attend their fair in Boston.  I flew up on a Thursday night and checked-in to a hotel to prepare myself for interview sign-ups the next day.  Marisa would be flying up to meet me on Friday.  Friday at the fair is very similar to speed dating.  After you register and meet your "associate", who is basically your agent that gives you the scoop on any schools that you're considering and helps you process everything, you have a period of 1-2 hours for "interview sign-up".  Imagine walking into a large conference room with tables set up around the perimeter.  Every table is a school (alphabetical by country) and there are large posters that have the positions listed for which they are hiring.  You walk around with a stack of resumes in hand and when you see something you like, stand in line and meet the recruiter for about 2-minutes to determine if they want to put you down for a 30-minute interview slot for later that day, Saturday, or Sunday.  At this fair I had a range of responses from taking me to the side and saying "we're looking for someone with a little more experience than this", to "let me hold on to this resume and I'll let you know", to "how bout 2:30?".  In this time frame you're trying to fill up your time sheet with as many opportunities as possible.  After the sign-up I looked down at my list of interviews:  Khartoum, Sudan; Cairo, Egypt; Belgrade, Serbia; Frankfurt, Germany; Berlin, Germany; Trinidad and Tobago; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  You're encouraged to keep an open mind with these things so that you'll have a better chance at getting a position, but I definitely had some initial doubts.  So after a quick lunch the interviews begin.............at the hotel..............in the recruiter's rooms.  You don't have to tell me that it's kind of weird, but this is how it's done because there aren't many hotels that have a couple hundred meeting rooms in order for each school to conduct interviews.  The interviews go about like you'd expect them to go, with the exception that in many cases the recruiter would ask for Marisa to come for the follow-up interview, since she would be making the move as well.

The interview day is exhausting because you're constantly trying to dig up info about the school/country that you're about to interview, reflect on an earlier interview, and send/receive written messages through a job fair mailbox system with prospective schools.  There are big mind games here because you typically aren't sure where you stand with a school or where that school stands with you.  You don't want to shut doors too soon, but you don't want to lead people on either.  Each school has their own timeline and agenda too - some want to make offers and seal deals that weekend, while others are attending other fairs and aren't in a rush.

The one constant seems to be sudden turns of events at these fairs.  After our first interview day we had met with the school that I came for.........the JFK School in Berlin.  The recruiters were super nice and very interested in offering me the position...........except they had one more candidate to interview the next day, but it seemed to be more of a formality from their standpoint.  So Marisa and I end Friday talking about how much we're going to like Berlin and how we would be taking that offer the next day.  I stroll into the candidate lounge and check my mailbox the next morning and find out otherwise.  "Dear Justin, I am terribly sorry to have to tell you that we interviewed the other candidate and didn't expect it, but he was more qualified and we don't really have much else of a choice.  The offer was made and accepted.  Good luck with your search."  Curveball #1.  We then quickly discuss what our second choice would be and decided on Trinidad and Tobago.  The director was really cool and living in the Caribbean couldn't be that bad could it?

I talk to the director and he's pretty interested in me, but admits that I don't have as much experience as this other candidate that he's going to see at a San Francisco fair the following week.  I basically tell him that I will take the job on the spot if he offers it.............he takes us to the bar and buys us a drink while he tries to call this guy in California.  Eventually he gets in touch with the guy and tells us that he accepted the job over the phone when he knew that if he didn't then it would be ours.  "Ummmmm.  What was our #3 again?"  So in less than 24 hours I go from moving to Berlin, to moving to Trinidad, to staying in Georgia.  The stress starts to sink in.

On the following day we had to mentally sort through three offers on the table......Cairo, Egypt; Belgrade, Serbia; and Frankfurt, Germany.  The director in Serbia was hot for us and he seemed to be a great guy to work for - the only downside was figuring out what Marisa would be able to find for work in Serbia.  Cairo sounded exotic, but the school didn't have a very sound reputation and in hindsight thank God we didn't make that choice with all of the ruckus going down in the past year.  The only sensible choice was Frankfurt, which would be comfortable for me having taken some German, and would offer a high standard of living with more job opportunities for Marisa.  So on that Sunday we prayerfully made that decision and signed the 2-year contract to seal the deal............in the director's hotel room of course.  Weird.

That weekend in February will always go down as one of the most stressful times of my life.  It's not that I thought I would screw it all up with our choice because I knew that God would open and close doors to guide us to where He wanted us to be.  It was more just the tension between excitement and anxiety of not knowing what the hell is going to happen and where you're going to be six months from now.......for the next two years of your life.  Now, I would say that you can do anything for a year............and almost anything for two years - the time flies by.

We definitely don't regret the choice and we've had a very rich experience over the past three years.  This year, however, we decided to take the plunge again and reactivate our SEARCH account.  We updated the resume and registered for a job fair in London in January.  In the next post with this title I'll elaborate on that experience and the events that are leading to our next assignment...........

--Justin

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