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You Just Know

I don’t know about you, but when I arrive in a new country or city I just know if I could live there or not. I knew about Florence, I knew about Munich, I knew about Bangkok, and now I just know about Japan.

I’ve wanted to visit Japan for a looong time, but for some reason I never managed to organize a trip there. Maybe it’s because I thought it was too expensive (it’s not as bad as I thought), or maybe because I thought it might not be as “exotic” as some of the other places we’ve been traveling to (it was), or maybe because I was worried that it would be too cold (it was absolutely perfect). But somehow, finally, last April, Alex and I went to Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe and Yokohama for our spring break.

It was amazing.

Really. In every way. It was one of those experiences where you don’t even have to leave the airport to realize that you could be happy living there forever. Literally.

As soon as we left the baggage hall, we could see the carefully marked signs pointing us in the direction of the public transportation. Oh, the joys of public transportation, such sweet relief after having to cajole taxi drivers all around southeast Asia to cart us here and there. No stress about watching the meter or wondering if you’re being taken on the “scenic” route. No haggling about the fare. No barely-functional jalopies that look like they might actually fall apart en route.

But that’s not all, when we actually lined up to buy our tickets, for the bus mind you, there were porters. Wearing gloves. Gently cradling the baggage into the underbelly of the bus.

And of course, there was a system. Buy a ticket, get a baggage tag, tag your baggage, put it in line, handy digital display tells you in multiple languages which bus is arriving and when, when your bus arrives the guard tells you to get on, and the handlers put your luggage on the bus.

And everything runs on time.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. This sounds a lot like Germany, and thats true. But, really, these are the things I loved about Germany. Plus, the country is full of Japanese people. Adorable, respectful, quiet, geeky (in the cool Japanese way) people.

I mean look at this:

What other country in the world would have something like that?

So, long story short, here’s hoping our next move is to Japan (whenever that may be).

And, by the way, the fun didn’t stop in the airport bus terminal. We had a great time the rest of the week too. We:

discovered soba noodles (how had I lived without soba noodles?):

Soba Restaurant Dinner

wandered among the cherry blossoms:

Blossoms

pondered the serenity of a zen garden:

Path

gawked at the stunningly beautiful, traditionally dressed ladies in Kyoto:

All Dressed Up

learned that everything tastes good when it’s pickled (well, just me, really):

Pickled Eggplant

saw some lovely couples getting married in both Kyoto and Tokyo:

Married

contemplated the meaning of life in temple after temple:

Pink & Red

strolled in the many green spaces of Kyoto:

Alex

and Tokyo:

Gate

slept in a room with a view in Tokyo:

Tokyo by Night

hung out with lots of friends, new and old:

Tweet-up Dinner

geeked out on the subway (it is Japan after all):

Geeking Out

crossed Shibuya:

Crossing

and found my true favorite ramen (I only wish I knew what it was called in Japanese or the name of the restaurant we found it or basically anything about the ramen aside from it’s deliciousness in the hopes of someday enjoying it again):

Spicy Miso Ramen

I can’t wait to go back!

Have you ever been to a place where you just know you could live there?

The Next Level of Luxury

Always in search of the perfect beach, Alex and I splurged on two fabulous beach holidays this summer.

Ironically, what I realized is that while I do love looking at the beautiful sea, I much prefer swimming in the chlorinated pool. No pesky sand to get all over everything, no sticky salt left behind after drying off, no coral to slice up my feet, and never any slimy seaweed-covered bottom.

Thankfully, I also discovered the sheer bliss of the pool villa.

Our first trip of the summer was to Koh Racha, an island south of Phuket, here in Thailand. When we were booking the trip, we were thinking that it would be our only “vacation” of the summer and the rest of the time would be in the US or here in Bangkok. So, we splurged on a fancy hotel with our very first pool villa:

Our Pool Villa

Private Pool

Yep, that’s our pool – just for our villa, with the view of the ocean through the door.

Now, that’s not to say that the beach on Koh Racha wasn’t up to standards, because it was beautiful:

Perfect Beach

But, I have to admit that I didn’t swim in the sea at all the whole time we were there. It was more than enough to be able to watch and listen to the waves from our private pool.

And now I guess I really am a fancy pants. Because I pretty much only want to stay in pool villas from now on. In fact, I’m so dedicated to my new goal that I actually bought a book called Thailand Pool Villas (clearly a ploy from the Thai Ministry of Tourism, and only available here in Thailand, but one that will serve me well, I’m sure).

As if that wasn’t enough, our second trip of the summer (after spending 3 weeks back in the US) was here:

Beach & Restaurant

The Maldives. Basically, paradise on Earth. Sadly, no pool villa for us here, though (I booked this trip before I knew just how much I was going to love the pool villa).

Each island in the Maldives is so small that the country has a policy of one island, one resort. Our little island was so small that we could walk around the whole thing in about 15 minutes.

Our villa was adorable:

Our Villa at Dusk

with basically our own private beach directly in front:

Relax

I actually made sure to document the most crowded beach day:

Two

Two people.

I’d wanted to go to the Maldives for years, but what finally pushed me to actually go this summer was the fact that Bangkok Air (“Asia’s Boutique Airline” according to them) flies directly there and it’s only a 4 hour flight from Bangkok. I guess summer is the “worst” time to go, so flights were relatively cheap and hotels were offering pretty major discounts. Having said that, I would love to go back again, but I might try a different hotel next time.

Maybe one with a pool villa…

When I tell people back home in the US that I’m teaching in Thailand, they usually assume I teach English to Thai children. When I try to explain by saying “no, I teach at an international school”, I’m often met with a blank stare.

Understandable enough – before moving overseas, I never realized that there was a network of English-speaking American (or Canadian, Australian/New Zealand or British) curriculum schools all around the world. I have now worked at three international schools in three countries – Germany, Malaysia, and Thailand – and I often receive questions about where I work and how to start working overseas.

So, I thought I’d share some very basic information about this type of school for those who aren’t familiar with them.

What is an international school?

International schools are private schools serving mostly expatriate children (diplomats, multinational corporation executives, NGO staff), and usually some local families (that can afford the steep tuition). Student population is usually diverse, with students from many different countries. Most schools offer grades PK – 12 (ages 5 – 18), but some are restricted to high school or primary school, depending on the needs of the population.

International schools usually choose to follow a curriculum model from the US, UK, Canada or Australia/New Zealand. Sometimes you can tell by the name of the school (like the American School of Dubai) but others are more ambiguous (like the International School Bangkok). Still others choose to pull from all different curriculum options, finding the mix that best suits their student population.

Many international schools also choose to run the International Baccalaureate program, which consists of the IB Primary Years Program, IB Middle Years Program and the IB Diploma Program. Schools which run all three are referred to as IB World Schools. Usually students from international schools attend top universities around the world due to the high quality of their education, advanced placement and/or IGCSE course offerings, and test preparation (for US universities).

The language of instruction is usually English, but you can often find German, French, Japanese or other international-style schools in major capital cities as well. There is usually at least one international school in the major cities of every country in the world. Here in Bangkok we have over 90 “international” schools, although, as I will explain later, some are less international than others.

International schools are usually affiliated with other schools in their region by the following associations:

What are the differences between schools?

Every international school (with a few exceptions) is its own entity. Even though I’m using the term “network” here, they aren’t really connected to each other. What might be common practice in one school could be unheard of in another.

One of the biggest differences between international schools is their management/ownership. There are really two types of schools: non-profit, board governed schools and privately owned (usually for-profit) schools. It’s well worth checking in detail which kind of school you’re investigating as the management/ownership can have a huge impact on educational practices within the school.

It’s also worth noting that schools labeled “international,” “American,”etc, are not always such. It’s common practice in many countries (especially developing countries) to label privately owned, for-profit schools, “international” to secure native-English speaking teachers and to provide a high standard of education to local (usually wealthy) children. Although these schools often do provide a more international-style education, the student body is not usually as diverse as you would find in true international schools.

Who are the teachers at these schools?

Teachers in international schools are very diverse, as schools often make an effort to hire a mix of nationalities and ages. Most are native English speakers, but certainly not all. You will find teachers who have been overseas almost their entire career working alongside teachers who spent many years teaching in their home country before choosing to move abroad.

Interestingly, schools usually prefer teaching couples, where both spouses work at the same school, so it is quite common to be working with families where both parents are your colleagues and their children are your students. This helps build a close community, ensures that teachers have some stability in their lives (moving to a new country is stressful), and provides the most economic method of hiring and employing foreigners.

Teacher contracts are usually for 2 years initially, and then will be renewed on a year-by-year basis (though some also renew for two years). It’s fairly common to stay at a school for just two years, although plenty choose to stay much longer.

How do teachers get jobs in international schools?

This is rapidly changing due to technological advances (Skype, anyone?). It’s worth noting that the “traditional” method of finding a job is still effective, and may be the best choice for teachers new to the international school network.

In the past, the majority of teachers would be hired at a job fair, the two major fair operators are International School Services and Search Associates (also COIS operates a fair as well as UNI and several others). Each company provides pre-screening for potential employers by requiring a detailed application process (plus fee). The companies then provide detailed listings of available jobs via a database. Finally, they organize “job fairs” in several locations around the world beginning in early January (usually Bangkok, Dubai, London, NY/Boston, San Francisco, and Philadelphia – but the locations change year by year).

The job fair is an intense experience, usually resulting in an emotional rollercoaster from moment to moment. You can walk in on the first day expecting to land a job in one region of the world, and walk out on the third day heading to an entirely different country (or, sometimes, without a job at all). 

Most of these schools operate entirely independent of each other (though there are a few that are connected), so getting hired at one school does not ensure that you’ll be hired at another. Each school is privately owned and operated and some are more highly respected than others, so it’s worth investigating a school’s reputation before accepting an offer. However, it’s also worth noting that many school directors, principals and teachers move from school to school, bringing their previous connections with them.

What are the benefits of working in international schools?

The main benefit of teaching at an international school is going to work every day in a diverse and stimulating foreign cultural environment, with the chance to explore new places during every holiday break. As if the travel were not enough, there are tons of additional benefits to teaching overseas.

For starters, the less developed a country is, the more benefits schools usually offer, including: free (often furnished) housing, utilities paid for by the school, free tuition for children of teachers, annual flights to your home of record, shipping allowance, transportation allowance, Cost of Living Allowance (COLA), and local taxes paid for by the school.

Most schools offer comprehensive health insurance, transportation at the beginning and end of your contract, and a professional development fund. All of these benefits vary widely, usually dependent on the location of the school (for example, most schools in Italy offer a limited benefits package because so many people want to live there).

On the professional side, most international schools are very learning focused and provide extensive professional development for teachers, expectations are usually high, as is support for teachers. These schools are usually very well resourced in terms of both technology needs and teaching supplies and resources.

Of course, all of this is very general and should not be viewed as fact for every international school. This is just my opinion/perception of teaching overseas and working in international schools after 9 years abroad.

What other questions do you have about international schools? International school teachers, what did I miss in my basic overview here?

A Patron of the Arts?

Over the last few years Alex and I have been working on collecting art, specifically paintings, on our travels. Nothing fancy, but Alex now likes to refer to me (sarcastically) as a “patron of the arts.” Whenever we’re on a holiday, we tend to look for paintings by local artists as our souvenirs. Of course this also includes selecting special pieces here in Bangkok.

So, last week, we headed out to Chatuchak to pick up our second painting by a local artist:

Bodhi

This one is a Bodhi tree, the tree that Buddha meditated under, and a common site around Thailand and southeast Asia. I love the heart shaped leaves, a shape which is reproduced in all sorts of temple decorations around the country.

We had our first painting made (by the same artist) last year:

Swirls

This one is more of a modern twist on a similar style. I love the swirling style and flowing writing across the bottom. The three panels make it super easy to transport and gives it a more distinct feel than the single panel.

Both paintings have a dark reddish background with the trees and leaves pressed on in gold leaf. They are so shiny and soothing to look at. I love them!

What do you like to purchase as a record of your travels?

Sunset Over Bangkok

Today begins our three week semester break! We started celebrating in style last night with a hi so (a cute Thai nickname for “high society) evening of drinks at the Banyan Tree’s Vertigo, dubbed the highest open-air bar in southeast Asia, and dinner at the Suan Lum night bazaar.

We arrived just after five, in time to see the cloudy gray skies over the city:

Gray Skies

Got to watch the beautiful sunset, while enjoying our drinks:

Sunset

Ben and Chrissy

Enjoyed seeing the evening lights slowly brighten:

Dusk

And eventually headed back down to the city for some tasty Thai food:

City Lights

Along with our lovely friends:

Celebrate

The perfect way to start a holiday break, if you ask me!

What are you doing this holiday season?

You Are Powerful

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What are you doing to spread the word?

Stranded?

This has been an interesting week. On Tuesday, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), began protesting at Bangkok’s international airport, Suvarnabhumi, which resulted in the closure of the airport when they “stormed” the airport control towers and stopped allowing planes in and out. It’s now Saturday morning and both Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang (the older, domestic airport) have been closed for days. Hundreds of thousands of travelers are now stranded in destinations around the world while this major hub of travel in Asia is non-functioning.

Oddly enough, life seems to be going on entirely as normal here in the city. The streets are calmer than usual – less traffic, less people out and about – but that’s about it. We continue to go to school and work every day, ride the BTS, and enjoy living downtown. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that something critical to the county’s future is happening just on the outskirts of the city, but having absolutely no effect on our daily life.

I wonder when all this is going to end? Technically, I suppose I’m stranded in Bangkok, but if Bangkok is home, does that really count as stranded?

Treasure Island by Aaron Escobar

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