Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad    
As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine

How to Work on an International Teacher Exchange

The Fulbright Program is a Great Option

By Sarah McGregor

Kindergarten teacher

A teaching exchange is an excellent opportunity to work abroad. Assignments are generally for a school year, with a few shorter terms. The U.S. government, through the Fulbright program, currently offers exchanges to several destinations, but the countries vary from year to year. There is also a program that facilitates independent teacher exchanges.

The Fulbright Exchange

To apply for a Fulbright Teacher Exchange you must be a full-time teacher or administrator in the U.S. or its territories, a U. S. citizen, hold a bachelor's degree, and have at least three years of full-time teaching experience. Elementary through 4-year college teachers are eligible, although actual available positions vary. There is a written application and an interview with a 4-person team of Fulbright representatives in November. Deadlines are October of the year before the year you actually go on exchange. Complete information and an application are available at the Fulbright teaching exchange.

Several countries currently participate in the Fulbright teacher exchange; this varies from year to year. Naturally, the greatest competition is for posts in the English-speaking countries, where there is no second-language requirement, there are opportunities for teachers in a variety of subject areas (you would teach a level and subject similar to what you teach at home), and the cultural differences are much less.

Exchange Posts and Housing

For most exchanges, partners exchange posts and housing. That is, you teach your partner's classes in your partner's school and he or she teaches your classes in your school. Usually, you also exchange housing. You continue to receive your salary from your home school and your partner from his or hers. Sometimes, because of big differences in costs of living and salaries, an exchangee (usually the teacher from abroad) receives an additional stipend. A very pleasant surprise for me was that I was able to exclude nearly half my salary from income tax for two years. The IRS allows you to exclude a significant portion of your earned income provided you are present in a foreign country, or countries, for at least 330 consecutive days during any period of 12 months in a row. Since the school year runs September through June, this meant I got this exclusion during two different tax years.

Program Requirements

When you apply for an exchange you will be asked to name your top three country choices. Where you actually end up depends on the availability of exchangees from abroad, but Fulbright does consider your requests when placing you. Consider these questions: Do you want to work in an English-speaking country? Do you speak another language? Is it important for you to be in a developed area, such as Europe, or are you looking for the challenge of the third world?

There is certainly less competition for posts that require a second language. In my opinion, immersing yourself in a completely new culture and language is more valuable both for you and for the people you meet abroad. Unfortunately, much of the world now views Americans negatively; if you conduct yourself with integrity and diplomacy, you can actually become a sort of ambassador and do much to improve our image abroad. And don't be intimidated by fluency requirements; an intermediate level is adequate. During my exchange in Spain I found that immersion in a new culture and using my second language daily was a fun challenge and literally opened up a new world for me. Many people I met also expressed their pleasure that an American could be intelligent and refined and speak their language well. Several people at first took me for English or Polish, which, although a sad commentary on their opinion of Americans, demonstrated to them their own prejudices.

Another consideration is whether you prefer a city or small town. I had never lived in a smaller city and was surprised to find that Pamplona was more provincial and conservative than I thought it would be. While it was still a great experience, I think I would have been happier in a large city, or in a port city, which also tends to be more cosmopolitan—not surprising since I prefer large cities in the U.S. as well.

Living in a third world country can be quite challenging—from finding items to which you are accustomed to just getting simple things done—but it can be truly educational and broadening. I had lived in Mexico previous to my teaching exchange and knew that at this time in my life I preferred a different setting. Be aware of your wishes and comfort level in this regard.

Making Your Teacher Exchange Successful

While exciting, adjusting to a new culture and working, especially in a field like teaching, can be difficult at times. The more prepared you are, the better. Here are a few hints for making your exchange a success:

  • Communicate regularly and honestly with your exchange partner. Obviously, some partners are better than others. My Spanish partner was wonderful—flexible and open-minded. We had no problems and are still friends. Communicating with your partner, getting to know him or her, being flexible, and making sure agreements are clear and acceptable to you will go a long way toward making your exchange successful.

  • Be prepared for your teaching assignment. Understand that the educational system and teaching practices in your new assignment may be very different from what you are used to, and be respectful of that. Ask a lot of questions of both your partner and the other teachers in your school. Adjust your style to theirs as much as possible, but always be yourself. Part of the value of the exchange is the new ways you bring to the students, the different culture that you represent. But remember that the students are probably far less flexible than you or your partner, so introduce new teaching strategies slowly. In most countries, students are used to taking notes while you lecture, so at first your lessons should be mostly lecture-based. However, as you learn more about the system, don't hesitate to experiment by adding short interactive methods a little at a time. Many American methods are at the forefront of education and there is value in introducing them to other cultures.

  • Be aware of challenges. Some cultural differences are difficult to understand and can be irritating. It irritated me to be stared at in Spain, but I understood that, unlike the U.S., there is less diversity and the older generation especially has little experience with anyone who is even slightly different. It can be stressful to use another language all day every day, even if you are fluent. Sometimes you just want to relax and talk your native language with someone; expat groups can help you get a dose of home. Find out about these before you go, usually from your best source, your exchange partner. Fulbright also provides an orientation.

SARAH MCGREGOR taught English at a Basque language secondary school for a year and recently retired from public school teaching in Denver, CO.

Related Topics
Teaching Abroad: K-12 and University

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