You're Moving Where? – Brian and Lena

Why don’t you work in ________ (fancy country everyone wants to visit)?

Why would you live in______ ? (random country where we were offered a job)

Do you just send one application and then schools pick you? 

We get these and many other questions when talking to our family and friends in the US about living and working abroad.

Our parents are beginning to grasp the complexity and intensity of changing schools and countries because they serve as psychologists and babysitters during the crazy process. But to others, it is a mysterious part of our lives. The long story short is that we do not really get to choose to work in a specific country. We try to balance multiple factors regarding the school, community, and country. And ultimately, there are a lot more teachers than schools, so the scales are not tipped in our favor in any hiring situation.

Going through this lengthy and stressful search two years in a row is not an experience we would wish for anyone. To clarify a popular FAQ, we do NOT send our applications to a type of clearinghouse and wait to see which schools are interested. That would save us months of work. There are not international school districts (well, there are some companies that own multiple schools, but that’s a different thing). Anyone can call themselves an international school. It is up to us to find out which ones provide aligning pedagogies, solid packages, a supportive community, and a location that meets our family’s needs. This detective work requires a broad international network, access to recruitment databases, participation on Facebook groups, and some luck. 

Schools hire as independent entities, and they do not post openings all at the same time. The window is between October and March, and we can be at different stages of recruitment with different schools throughout that time. There are several recruitment platforms that we pay to belong to, but often positions are tentative or do not correspond with what is listed on a school’s website. So we sometimes spend hours meticulously revising a cover letter and applying to non-existent jobs. Additionally, schools are combing through thousands of applications for each open position. They are so overwhelmed that once positions are filled, updates on the databases and post-interview follow-ups are not always timely. It would be great if there was some way that international schools could set up something like National Signing Day when high school athletes declare their intent to play sports at a university. Maybe there could be a world posting day when all available jobs are announced at once, which might be overwhelming but would level the field. One organization is attempting something like this, but there are a lot of competing agencies and complicated factors.

Our professional website https://brianandlena.weebly.com

To stand out, we have a professional website and attend job fairs hosted by the recruiting agencies. They are expensive and stressful, but often prove effective because face time is so valuable. However, they are a huge financial risk and logistical commitment for educators – especially when we are unemployed. While participating in the fair doesn’t cost too much, the flights and hotel to London, Bangkok, Singapore or Dubai sure do. Not to mention taking time off work and arranging childcare.  Because we weren’t working this year, we opted to attend two fairs – Bangkok in November and London in January. However, Brian did accept a maternity cover and ended up missing two weeks of his four month gig for us to attend both fairs. The detour to Phoenix to bring our toddlers to their grandparents was also costly but necessary. The pace at fairs is so intense that bringing the kids is not an option (unless we brought a caregiver, but it would still prove a huge distraction). Last year, we had 14 interviews in two days with nine schools. While severely jet-lagged.

GRC Bangkok Fair, November 2019

The hardest parts of selling ourselves as a package has been that we are two elementary teachers with two dependents. Rightfully so, schools look to hire the hard to fill positions first, such as high school physics or calculus. Once they find the right person, her/his partner typically fills another open position…which often happens to be elementary classroom. So the positions we are recruiting for are frequently reserved for spousal hires, which leaves us waiting to see how schools’ “puzzles” are coming together later in the hiring season. Additionally, many schools allot a certain number of spaces for dependent students because these kids will attend for free. Most allow two kids, although some accept three. Either way, those spaces are often held for that physics teacher who might have three kids. One school told us that their board would not allow hires with dependents until after January. If we had a penny for every rejection email that talked about the “puzzle.”

Bug and Noodle mid-flight

Unfortunately, we were not lucky at the November fair. Perhaps our self-presentation was off or schools were just not ready to commit to two elementary teachers so early in the recruitment season. Who knows. Analyzing the experience of a job fair is a complete mindf%&#. We did reconnect with wonderful friends and network with recruiters at excellent schools. Plus, we ate a lot of Thai food, saw the Pope (his motorcade drove by our hotel!), and had an amazing 12 hour layover in Hong Kong. So it wasn’t a total miss. But it sure was expensive.

Mid-Levels, Hong Kong

After the fair, online recruitment took over. While Brian was working and commuting two and half hours a day, Lena was holding the household together and spearheading applications. The only common time to interview with schools around the world was in middle of the night. We would get the kids to sleep, take a nap, and wake up at midnight to put on our suit jackets (pajama pants stayed on). Or we would wake up at 3:30am for a 4:30am interview and then Brian would go off to work. We were exhausted. Thank goodness for the world clock function on our iPhones to keep track of all the time differences. We even had one night with 3 interviews in three different countries. We only made one scheduling error which was apparently forgiven because the school did hired us.

However, that school hadn’t hired us by early December. After months of pouring our hearts into applications, waiting weeks to hear back (and often not), and sinking into self-doubt when offers were not made – we were losing steam. Underlying this whole experience was the sadness that Russia would not materialize this year either (there had been a slight possibility). Losing our dream school made it hard to get excited about other opportunities. As Christmas neared, many international teaching friends were posting on social media about their exciting plans for next year while we were still in the trenches, so we decided to try the London fair again since we scored our (since lost) jobs there last year. We bought all the plane tickets, booked the nonrefundable hotel, and located the only two winter(-ish) jackets for sale in all of tropical Puerto Vallarta.

Airport Express from Paddington Station, London

Naturally, two days after we tossed a ton of money into attending the January fair, we finally landed an offer at a school that we were genuinely excited about. Since the money had been spent, we decided to travel to London for a kid-free mini-holiday. Although we did not attend the actual fair, we did support dear friends and further build our professional network. And see a West End show. And visit incredible museums.

Now that the huge pressure of finding jobs has lifted, we have entered the transitioning stage. Schools know they have elementary openings, but current teachers can opt to switch grade levels for the following year, so new hires need to wait to find out their actual grade assignment. Also, we are receiving mountains of information about obtaining visas, work permits, health insurance, finding housing, and sending an international shipment of goods – which involves all kinds of paperwork, official stamps, trips to embassies, and communication across timezones – and simply fills the space once reserved for finding the job.

From CNN: Best things to do in Uzbekistan, an unmissable gem of Central Asia

At this time, we are excited to announce that The Wandering Thomspers will be moving to Uzbekistan – a travel destination currently receiving tons of positive media attention. Lena will teach Kindergarten and Brian will teach Grade 4 at Tashkent International School. Given the current state of the pandemic, we have no idea if we will be teaching in person or remotely starting in August. At least this #YearOnNotOff has hammered home the need for flexibility and open-mindedness about all the possible life trajectories we might find ourselves on. We are just grateful for the opportunity to join a special community and grow in a new experience.

Anyone interested in more details about moving into international education can leave a message below or contact us via this website. We are happy to share what we have learned!

The Art of Starting Over – Brian and Lena

As international educators, we are well-versed in moving to new countries and starting a life from scratch. The idea of packing our bags and flying off into the unknown is nothing new. In truth, we were once addicted to it. However, it takes a huge physical and emotional toll to transition, and we were looking forward to putting down roots until the kids finished elementary school.

Moving to Mexico has been a dream of Lena’s for decades. But this was bittersweet. It wasn’t a move we had planned. We weren’t heading to new jobs. No one was waiting for us. No principal picking us up from the airport or new colleagues checking to see if we needed anything. No welcome picnic or tour of our new city. And certainly no settling in allowance. 

We arrived in Sayulita in an emotional fog with some vague expectations and a lot of questions. Where would we live? Would we be able to enroll the kids in school? How would we get ourselves around town or into the city? When would we start making friends?

The nervousness of not having answers was tempered slightly by the fact that we are familiar with Mexico. Lena spent summers during university conducting anthropological research and backpacking around the country. We even got married down the highway in Puerto Vallarta. Our challenges were softened by her ability to speak (rusty) Spanish and, as she says, Brian’s willingness to “learn with enthusiasm.” With minimal language distance, positive feedback from native speakers, and the immediate need to set up our life – this felt way more surmountable than previous experiences learning to communicate (with varying degrees of effectiveness) in Arabic, Vietnamese or Mandarin. 

Essential needs were narrowed down to the top three: a house, a school, and transportation. Further down on the list were food and friends (true sustenance). Eating was not an issue, as we could buy amazing street food, tortillas hot off the press, and fresh fruits and veggies for unbelievably cheap prices. And we knew friendships would develop once we were more settled. 

First step: House 

During our furious 48 hours of research prior to moving to Mexico, we uncovered a fascinating subculture of nomad families who trek around the world with admirable success. But we were hesitant. First, we were still uncertain about our budget. And second, during previous moves, the kids struggled much more than we anticipated. We had been bouncing around the US for weeks, sleeping on family members’ couches and living out of suitcases. Although we wanted to explore this amazing country, we knew that establishing a “home” was important. 

Most international schools either provide housing or a stipend, and some even assist with the search. Therefore, our first independent challenge was finding a last minute, long term rental in a tourist-centered beach town. We arrived during the “off season” when many businesses were closed and home owners were away. Nor could we locate any actual community bulletin boards. Plenty of short term rentals could be found through websites like AirBnB and SayulitaLife, but renting one of those for a year would have been prohibitively expensive. 

Our two-pronged strategy involved word-of-mouth and Facebook. Every time we met someone new on the street, at a restaurant, or in the park, we mentioned that we were looking for a place. Also, we got some leads by posting a plea on the community Facebook page. Unfortunately, we soon realized that Sayulita was going to be way more expensive than we initially thought. After looking at some very small and dark apartments in our price range, we bumped up our budget and got lucky. A single family house with a verdant garden, mountain views, and most importantly air conditioning in the bedrooms. It is round with a thatched roof, which reminds us of places we stayed in southern Africa. And it even has a name! Although a bit of a fixer upper, we hadn’t seen anything nearly as spacious or bright.

Signing a year lease was slightly scary, but it also released so much stress about immediate plans. Our luck and choice were reaffirmed after meeting several other recently-arrived expat families who couldn’t find long term places and will have to move around throughout the year. The trauma of our recent packing-and-moving spectacles is too raw. If we hadn’t found our house, we probably would have scrapped Sayulita and settled somewhere else.

Second step: School

School was a huge factor in our decision-making. We looked at a few other expat-friendly locations (San Miguel de Allende and Merida) but were not impressed by the schools. We also stumbled into the idea of unschooling and world schooling during our research blitz. Very intriguing but perhaps not what our toddlers needed. Definitely a tabled discussion for a future adventure. Despite debates about the institution, we felt strongly that Bug and Noodle needed to be in an actual school. And it needed to be a school that we believed in.

We shelled out tons of money in China for them to attend school and weren’t about to let go of that principle now. Creating protégées is not the motivation. What drives our conviction is the importance of socialization and the power of play. The kids needed to interact with peers, develop social-emotional skills, and engage in a stimulating environment. Plus, they were desperate for a routine. And mommy and daddy were desperate for time to quietly sit in a restaurant, swim without stress, and actually get some work done. Essentially, we all just needed space and time to grow beyond our tight-knit unit.

Another blessing of this year ON not off is that we can explore a completely different type of school than is our norm. As mentioned previously, we were excited about Costa Verde International School. The very small, low-stress, highly active vibe is exactly what we need. Bug and Noodle have 9 students in their joint 3-4 year old class. Their teachers are wonderfully child-centered in their approach. We have no doubt that they truly know our children as individuals and strive to meet their social-emotional, psychological, intellectual and linguistic needs. Moreover, the curriculum and community population is inclusively bilingual and 40% of the students are locals on scholarship. This is a place that is deeply committed to its community in terms of culture, language, and the environment. The sustainability focus is so compelling because this is something we are consciously modeling and always improving on as teachers and parents.

Third step: Transportation

Summers in Sayulita are beyond hot and humid. We walked around town for the first few weeks, but finally hit our limit on shlepping withering children and sweating through three outfits each day. The most popular mode of transportation is golf cart. However, rental prices average around $50USD per day. Crazy expensive. After finding our house, which is located at the top of a steep hill, we decided to blow a huge portion of our annual budget buying a golf cart. We ended up finding an advertisement for Riviera Golf Carts, which builds custom carts meant to handle the hills and cobblestones here. While the price was steep, we ran the numbers and it worked out to less than half the weekly rental amount if we spread the cost over the year. And it’s electric, so we are proud to be environmentally friendly!

We were feeling confident in our decision until we needed to rent a car to get to Puerto Vallarta (golf carts can’t go on the highway). We found a highly rated, superbly honest rental company in nearby Bucerias called Gecko Car Rental. The owner, Adam, mentioned he was selling low mileage 2014 cars for the exact same price we just paid for the golf cart. We’ve come back to that missed opportunity while riding the local bus over potholes for 45 minutes into the city or cramming Costco loot into an expensive taxi. But a car in Sayulita, where spend the vast majority of our time, is not necessary. The town is tiny, parking is limited, and cleaning sand off golf cart vinyl is super easy.

The wrap up

The list was complete. We were officially Sayuleros. Easy peasy. Just don’t arrive in a New York state of mind. We have cut our teeth in countries where there is no urgency to get things done and communication is indirect at best. Inshallah {God Willing} was often heard in the Middle East and basically means that the deadline is loose. Vietnamese has many shades of yes, and yes can actually mean no. Amanhã {tomorrow} in Mozambique and the cognate mañana {tomorrow} in Mexico mean that something might happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. This as a fact we know intellectually. But it was a shock to the system after living in a massively entrepreneurial Chinese megacity that evolved at lightning speed. 

While trying to sort our lives in Sayulita, emails would dangle without response for days…or forever. When searching for a house or trying to get the kids into school, delays and evasive responses caused anxiety. We wanted to know what our life would be like, and we wanted to know now. Hot tip: phone calls, WhatsApp or showing up in person are most effective. It’s not that people don’t care. They do. Actually, many people have been extremely friendly and helpful. It’s just that the sense of time and the order of priorities are different. Families are more important than mobile phones. And people tend to trust that everything will work out in the end. Two lessons that have been very good for us to embrace.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about the golf cart remodel, the joys of our charming house, making friends, and all the delicious food!

Simplifying Isn’t So Simple – Lena and Brian

We’ve always known that we have too much stuff. Every time we struggle with a million suitcases and spend thousands of dollars to ship our possession to our next port of call, we swear we will have less stuff next time. Our last two moves have nearly done us in. 

The issue of too much stuff compounded with the birth of our children. In Mozambique, we lived in a single family house with lots of space and storage, and even had a detached garage. We truly wanted it to be our home, so we invested in nice furniture and artwork. Living in a malarial country with limited resources also made us nervous parents, so we stocked up on “necessities” during shopping trips to South Africa every few months. This sense of urgency led to an oversupply of groceries, medicine and baby goods that we ultimately had to purge when we finally moved to China. 

The boys were 7 months and 2 years old when we departed Mozambique for China. Talk about a life change. Although we did our best to sell and donate much of our baby gear, kitchen supplies, furniture, camping equipment and old technology, we somehow ended up with 17 suitcases and a shipment of 62 boxes. And we were downsizing to an Asian apartment! 

Our parenting anxiety waned a bit in China, since the futuristic city of Shenzhen was essentially an enormous, endlessly stocked shopping mall. But considering Brian is an Eagle Scout (Be prepared) and I am a natural worrier (What if), we still held onto some of our vices. For example, strollers seemed to multiply in the entryway to our apartment. We had three. It was embarrassing but justified, we felt. First was the BOB, perfect for the broken sidewalks and unpaved roads in Maputo and jogging on Shenzhen’s beautiful boardwalk (which we each did maybe ten times total in two years). Second was the UppaBaby Vista, perfect for two kids at once, which we used enthusiastically for dinners out because the boys slept beautifully while we had a few more glasses of wine. And third was the Joie umbrella, the one we actually traveled with and used the most because it was lightweight and incredibly durable (cobblestones of Lisbon, hills of Hong Kong, and countless haphazard gate checks). We won’t even get into the Deuter Baby Backpacks which were hidden in the closet.

Unbelievably, our living space is actually quite tidy. We just seem to end up with stuff despite periodic purges and regular donations. Donating in Mozambique was wonderful because expats settled for longer and we had relationships with people who were extremely resourceful and eager to take our things. In China, expats were noncommittal in many ways and everyone wanted things that were shiny and new. As mentioned in our previous post, leaving China with toddling little people was a great opportunity to ditch the last of our baby gear. Moreover, we have always seen part of our responsibility as world travelers to help those who are less fortunate. Although the purge was a challenge, we did end up donating the money raised to an organization we care deeply about called Captivating International, which is committed to sending rural Chinese girls to school.

We also knew our apartment in Moscow would be smaller, and we wanted to create a more “European” lifestyle. To us that meant less junk and overall just being much cooler people. But how do you pack for a country that has a temperature range from 80°F/27°C to -40°F/-40°C? We were leaving China’s 90°F/32°C humidity, visiting family in the Phoenix desert (110°F/43°C) and San Francisco fog (60°F/16°C), and then not receiving our shipment until it would already be snowing in Moscow in October. So our streamlining was rather derailed. 

Art, toys, technology…what we decided was important to ship

When all that packing was rendered useless with the cancelation of our teaching contracts, Lena was ready to burn it all in a spectacular bonfire. Moving to Mexico without a plan forced us to strip our stuff down significantly because we really didn’t know where we would live or how long we would be there. The glitch was that Lena wanted to be in the temperate highlands and Brian wanted to be on the tropical beach. Due to proximity to an international airport, the presence of a great little eco/international school for Bug, and ample opportunities for community involvement – Sayulita won. But a few cooler weather pieces still made it into the packing in anticipation of side trips to Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic. Nonetheless, many items that were deemed necessities when packing in China didn’t make the final cut and were donated in the US. And it felt good. Which is the point of this twist – strip down and refocus.

The dream of arriving with only one luggage cart had always been there but never been realized. It finally happened!

We have acquired a lot of things throughout our travels and living abroad which are meaningful to us. Our life is international and our home is where we are living. We don’t have a location in US where we can display things we have bought, so they come around the world with us. For us, stuff is familiar – an identity, comfort for our children, and sense of home. What does your stuff mean to you? And how do you manage it?