Teaching Traveling: Dream of teaching internationally? Chris Polley has become an expert in the topic.
Chris, tell us about your background.
Chris: I’m from Long Island, New York and I’ve been a School Counselor for 8 years. This is a second career for me; I worked in the financial industry in NYC, at a couple of brokerage houses. After being way too close for comfort on 9/11, I quit about 8 months later.
I became a School Counselor in 2005 and got a job in historic Charleston, South Carolina (where I went to college). It was an interesting job because I had a caseload of ninth grade repeater students. Some were eighteen and nineteen years old and still in the ninth grade. It was challenging and eye opening but overall a great experience.
That first year, the Choral Director asked me if I wanted to chaperone the choir trip to Germany, Czech Republic, and Austria in the summer, but I would have to pay my own way. I remember thinking that the total price was more than I made in a month (the pay in SC is dismal) and there was no way that I could go.
I have some Czech blood in me and I’ve always heard how beautiful Prague is and have always wanted to go. I didn’t go on that trip because I had a second job at a bar on the beach.
Then in 2007, I had a desire to snowboard in the Rocky Mountains so I moved to Colorado and got into a great school but in the fall of 2008 the budget didn’t pass and I was in danger of getting laid off.
I didn’t know what I was going to do but I thought about another career or moving back home to NY. A friend mentioned that I should look into working at an international school and I had no clue what he was talking about. I tried to apply the Department of Defense system one year but that was a pain and nobody ever retired from those jobs.
I went to a recruitment fair and got three offers at schools in London, Kenya, and Japan. I took the job in Japan and have never looked back. I worked there for three years and now I work in Shanghai, at one of the top schools in Asia. It is an amazing school.
I never realized that international schools need everything that American schools do. They are looking for excellent teachers that teach at the Elementary, Middle, and High School levels (including Administration, PE, ESL, Librarians, Drama, Art, Music, Speech, School Psych etc.)
TT: Fascinating! Tell us more about your travels.
C: In the summer of 2010, I purchased my first ‘Round The World ticket. Two very amazing and serendipitous things happened to me that year. In March, my school had a fundraiser and I won a year’s supply of rice in the raffle. The organizer of the event, who was my student’s mother, asked me if I liked what I won in the raffle.
I said that I would have loved to win the 4 day stay at the luxurious hotel in Bali. She said “you wanted that trip to Bali?” I said “OF COURSE I wanted to win that trip!!” Then she left my office laughing.
She came back to my office a few minutes later and said that the lady who won the Bali trip would be willing to trade the trip for the rice!! The kicker is that she is the heir to a soy sauce fortune (you’ve heard of them, go to your grocery store) and had been to Bali many times and her kids were now grown so they weren’t going to go. AND, I would imagine that she had a ton of soy sauce at home, so the rice was a natural choice.
Also that year, I played on a local Ultimate Frisbee club team and they got invited to play at the World Ultimate Club Championships (WUCC) in, of all places, Prague!! See, in Japan, they are not very tall and they would be competing against taller Western teams so they asked me to play on their team.
I am not awesome (was one of the last few picked for the team) and would have never been chosen if I was in the U.S., but they used me for my body and I was just fine with that. So, the RTW ticket had me going to Bangkok first, then Bali, then Prague, then a conference in Boston, NY (home), then throughout the US to see friends (Colorado mountains, Austin, California redwoods), then back to Japan. I knew I was going to all of those places and the RTW ticket was cheaper than booking those flights separately.
It was one of the most amazing trips of my life, and the Ultimate team came in 16th in the world in the mixed division.
TT: Totally amazing! How did you find the money to fund this travel?
C: I used savings. The school in Japan paid very well so I funded the RTW flight with cash. The Bali resort was free. The apartment I rented in Prague was only about $200 for the MONTH. Here’s how I got that deal. I went to a conference in the fall of 2009 in Munich and met a school counselor that worked at the International School of Prague.
When I found out that I got selected to play in WUCC I contacted her and asked if I could rent her apartment for the month that I was there. She said that if I watched her cat that she would only charge me utilities. So yeah, I paid her about $200 for that month and I’m glad I did because the players lodging was a dirty old Communist looking dorm.
When I arrived in Prague, I had no money at all because my debit card didn’t work for some reason. The lady whose apartment I was renting gave me a bunch of cash until I got a new card. People are very nice and trusting.
TT: Wow. Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.
C: The Japanese earthquake in March of 2011 was a particularly powerful ordeal. I was in the teacher’s lounge getting water and felt a small earthquake. The principal got on the PA and told everyone to get under their desks as a precaution.
Then the building started really shaking so I got under one of the ceiling beams. Our building was one year old so I was fairly confident in standing where I was. Then the shaking got even worse and went on for over 2 minutes. I started to ask myself “will this end soon?”
The whole building just creaks and groans and it’s like being shaken in a shoebox. After the shaking stopped, we all went to the field and it was cool to feel the seismic waves ripple underneath us. The swimming pool flooded the aquatic offices and the kids had to go outside all wet and in bathing suits.
I then rode my bike to my girlfriend’s apartment because trains were not running. There were about fifty aftershocks that night. The following Tuesday, I got on a plane to Melbourne, Australia and stayed there for three weeks (that’s an expensive country).
TT: How have your travels impacted you as a teacher, and in your current career?
C: Oh Em Jee (OMG), it has profoundly expanded my skills by leaps and bounds. My college counseling knowledge has grown tremendously as a result of working overseas because you have to know the application protocols in many more countries and you go visit different schools in different countries as a perk (I went to Switzerland last year, paid for with professional development money from the school).
The people I work with at the school in China are amazing and it forces me to step up my game and keep current in my knowledge. It also helps you see the world in a different perspective and what people do to be able to send their kids to our school. The students I come into contact with on a daily basis teach me new things all the time.
TT: Well said. How have your travels impacted you as a person?
C: I have grown to have a healthy disregard for the unknown now. I don’t know what’s around the corner and I love that. I also have learned that figuring things out for myself instills a great deal of confidence in me.
When I didn’t have money when I got to Prague, I couldn’t find the lady who I was renting from and had no way to get in touch with her, I eventually figured it out. I travel alone, for the most part, and you learn great people skills this way. It is easier to smile and go up and talk to someone. It also allows me (or forces me) to say YES! to things, which makes for great experiences.
TT: What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?
C: Teachers in the U.S. do not realize that they have the international school option available to them. Many times people ask what I do, and I say that I work at a school in China and they say “oh, you teach English.” Ummm…. no.
Many think that they have to speak the local language to work at an international school. I used to work in Japan and do not speak Japanese, now I work in China and I do not speak Chinese (but I’m learning). The medium of instruction at 95% of international schools is English.
It is very easy to live abroad. Sometimes the frustration is in the details but the hardest part is just saying yes to a contract. However, people think I live this exotic life with new experiences everyday. Well, holidays are wonderful and I go to a different country each time. I’ve been to about 15 countries in the three years that I have been doing this and that is more countries than in the first 30 years of my life. One thing that I am most proud of is that I’ve paid off over $50,000 in student loan debt in those three years too!!
However, it can still get routine with respect to the day-to-day stuff. I just went grocery shopping and then cooked an omelet. I proctored the SAT yesterday (boring). I live in a very western enclave of Shanghai so I don’t really have to speak Chinese if I don’t want to. I get up for work at 6am and have to ride a bus for forty minutes to get to work.
People ask me all the time how I came to work at an international school and I tell them it is easier than one would think. I helped my friend with the process and she mentioned that I should start a little side business advising people on the ins and outs of the recruitment process.
So that’s exactly what I did. I tell them all about regions of the world, the pay scales in each region, types of schools, the best schools to work at, what their chances are at getting hired, and recruitment fairs to attend.
If anyone is interested in exploring this option, do check out my e-book, How to Teach Internationally. [Lillie’s Note: The Amazon link is an affiliate that provides a small commission upon purchase at no cost to you.] Feel free to contact me in the comment section below because I check back and will respond. Give it a shot!
TT: Thanks so much, Chris! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?