A Well-Kept Secret: How to Become an International School Librarian
03/10/2011 § 17 Comments
As my fellow Hacker Zack Frazier pointed out in his most recent entry, many library school students experience considerable anxiety about their job prospects upon graduation. We all know (maybe too well) how tight the job market in North America is. That’s why, whenever a classmate expresses an interest in school librarianship or working abroad, I ask if they have considered international schools.
I have to preface this primer by admitting that I have never worked as a librarian at an international school. However, I did work from July 2008 until June 2011 as an English Literature teacher at Gyeonggi Suwon International School in Suwon, South Korea. So I can comment on the hiring process, work environment, salary, and benefits, which are similar for both positions. It continues to amaze me that the international school circuit, which provides incredible employment opportunities across the world, continues to be such a well-kept secret. Nobody ever told me about it; in fact I stumbled across it quite by accident. So I’d like to share information with you about how to get in the loop.
The campus of Gyeonggi Suwon International School, where I worked from 2008-2011
What is an international school?
International schools have adopted either an international curriculum (such as the International Baccalaureate Programme), or the national curriculum of another country (for example, the Ontario Provincial Curriculum). The majority of international schools are privately run institutions that cater to children of diplomats, embassy officials, foreign businesspeople, missionaries, or other expats. Students may be quite worldly and multilingual, having lived in multiple countries, and are usually planning to attend university in a Western country following graduation. Teachers, librarians, and other faculty at international schools represent a variety of nationalities and must have the relevant professional certifications from their home countries. Most faculty are on two-year contracts which can be renewed as long as they and their employers are mutually satisfied. You will not be expected to be fluent in the language of the country you are going to, although you’ll probably want to learn the basics on arrival. It makes life easier. And it’s fun.
Where can I work? What kind of salary and benefits can I expect?
Honestly, this varies with the school and the country in which you find yourself. Unfortunately, jobs in Western Europe are nearly impossible to obtain if you do not hold an EU passport. Even if you do, there is stiff competition for these jobs, which means that that schools feel less compelled to entice you with strong salaries/benefits and good working conditions. However, if you are willing to go further afield to places such as Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, you can generally expect the following:
A) Housing (either provided for you directly or through a housing allowance)
B) Competitive salary (most of which you can bank, depending on the country – I lived very well on 40% of my salary and saved the rest)
C) Round-trip airfare to your home country at the start and end of your contract for you and your dependents
D) Free or reduced tuition fees for your children
E) Funding for professional development and conferences (for example, in 2008 I was flown to Mumbai for a conference. The school covered airfare, hotel, conference fees, and all other costs)
E) Ample vacation time to travel (but expect to work your butt off during the school year itself – working abroad is not a vacation!)
These are the most common benefits. Depending on the school, you may also receive others such as free or subsidized daycare for children under school age, cafeteria lunches, stipends for extra-curricular activities such as coaching, and transportation to and from school.
What is the work environment like? What will be expected of me?
Again, this depends on the school. At a new school, you may arrive to an astronomical library budget, but nothing on the shelves. At an older school, you may find that no qualified librarian has been in the stacks for a long time. Most international schools, however, put a great deal of money into their libraries and into ensuring that students have access to the most up-to-date technology. Where I worked, all students from 6th-12th grades had Mac laptops, and I was given a laptop for my own use in the classroom. Generally, you can expect to teach library classes, assist students in locating resources, work closely with teachers to integrate information literacy into the curriculum, provide teachers with ideas about how to use the library, oversee library assistants, coordinate parent volunteers, organize extracurricular activities, maintain the collection and databases, shelve, weed, repair…in short, a little of everything!
What kind of challenges might I face?
I’m not going to lie: while international school life is cushy in some ways, it’s extremely tough in others. Students are often trying to function academically in their second or third language, in a cultural environment that may be unfamiliar to them. Depending on how your host culture views libraries, you may have to put a lot of effort into creating the sort of library atmosphere you want. Parents may have unrealistic expectations of what you can provide. You will have to order and organize materials in languages you don’t speak or even read. Your administration will work you hard. However, you will also receive incredible opportunities for professional development that you might never come across at home. You will be experiencing a new culture and way of life. If you are self-directed and motivated, you will go far. My amazing students made the challenges more than worth it, and I feel blessed to have had such a great experience working in South Korea.
Okay, you convinced me. How do I look for a job at an international school?
Many international schools do the majority of their recruiting at job fairs. Bear in mind that while these fairs are primarily aimed at teachers, schools will be looking to fill library vacancies as well. Be prepared to accept a job before you walk out of the fair – and not necessarily in the first country you had in mind, either! Here are the most popular fairs:
Queen’s University Teachers’ Overseas Recruiting Fair January 27-29, 2012, Kingston, Ontario.
University of Northern Iowa Overseas Recruiting Fair, February 3-5, 2012, Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Search Associates: an international school placement service that holds its own fairs in cities across the world. This organization screens both jobseekers and schools in advance, so apply early if you would like to attend a fair through this organization.
Don’t worry if you can’t make it to a job fair! Many positions are posted on The International Educator, a great resource for any educator looking to work abroad. Most administrators are happy to interview candidates by phone or Skype. If you think you know what country you’d like to work in, just Google international schools in that country and contact them directly. That’s how I got my job!
But I just finished library school and I have no work experience yet. Can I still find a job?
Absolutely. You may be accustomed to a tight North American job market where there are hundreds of applicants for a single position. But despite all the perks of international school life, the pool of qualified people willing to uproot themselves and move abroad is actually quite small. You will not be facing nearly the same amount of competition for positions as you would at home. Of course, you may not be able to walk immediately into the exact job you want, but if you are flexible and willing to head where the opportunities are, you’ll soon have the work experience you need to get that dream job.
I was just offered what seems like a great job! But how do I know this school isn’t sketchy?
While finding a job overseas can be a thrilling experience, don’t get so caught up in the excitement that you forget to ask the important questions. International schools sometimes struggle to fill all their positions, which leads some to misrepresent themselves in an attempt to hire the best candidates. Don’t just take an administrator’s word for it; do your research! Ask to be put in touch with other faculty members who can give you an honest assessment of the school environment, housing, and amenities. If the administrator hesitates to do this for you, that may be a bad sign.
A good online resource is International Schools Review, a website where employees anonymously review their schools. Although you have to pay for membership, in my opinion the cost is well worth it. Pay closest attention to the most recent reviews, as the work climate at international schools can change quickly due to high staff turnover. Also, check your school’s accreditations. Schools that have been accredited by external bodies such as the International Baccalaureate are usually more legitimate than those that haven’t.
And of course, if you have a bad feeling about a particular school, it’s best to go with your gut.
Working overseas was a fantastic experience that has shaped my life in ways I never could have expected. In fact, it was observing all the great things that my librarian colleagues at my international school got to do that inspired me to attend library school. I hope to find employment as a librarian at an international school in the future, and heartily recommend working abroad to anyone.
If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me at lauramariesanders [at] gmail dot com, or contact me via Twitter at @laurainthelib.