International Educator Interviews: Andy and Steve in Ho Chi Minh City

In this week’s interview Andy and Steve talk about life as a globe-trotting teaching couple, balancing ex-pat life with family back home, and how they discovered just how small the international teaching world is.

Where are you now and what are you currently teaching?

Andy: I am currently teaching grade 6 Humanities at Saigon South International School, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. My husband, Steve is teaching grade 8 Humanities. I have previously taught grade 5-8, and Steve has taught high school up to this point.

Is this your first international post or is this one in a string of many international posts for you?

Andy: SSIS is our second international post; we spent two years at the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon. Before that, we were in our hometown in Northern California.

Andy in Downtown Beirut, May 2013

Andy in downtown Beirut

What made you decide to teach internationally?

Andy: Funny story, actually. We spent a month in Europe for our honeymoon in 2007, and since then, we had been trying to figure out a way to get back, and–if possible–to spend an extended period of time abroad. But, life goes on and you get caught up in the day to day, and before we knew it, three years had passed.

I had been a fan of the show House Hunters International, and one night, there were back to back episodes featuring teachers working at international schools, one in Rome, and the other in Abu Dhabi. It was a lightbulb moment for us. It became clear that we could take our current professions abroad, and that night, Steve and I started the process of registering with Search Associates.

We had hoped to attend the Cambridge job fair, but with less than 48 hours to go, our flight from Sacramento had been canceled due to a major storm in Boston. We were devastated as Cambridge would have been our best bet for getting hired at a European school. However, our spirits picked up when we attended Search San Francisco and had several offers. With no international experience, we hadn’t expected that to happen. We decided to sign with the school that had the best reputation and seemed most established, and that was ACS Beirut.

When we arrived for our new hire orientation, we met all the other members of our “class.” Standing across the room on that first day was a girl who looked familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. I asked my husband, but he couldn’t figure it out, either. Then, it hit me: this was the girl from the House Hunters International episode that had inspired this whole adventure in the first place! I couldn’t believe it; crazy, eh?

In the international teaching world, being a part of a “teaching couple” is often seen as very advantageous. Can you talk a little about that for people who may not know about the international teaching scene? How was it for you in terms of recruiting and then working at the same school together?

Steve: There’s certainly more to it than being married, but if you are a competent teaching couple, with good references and solid CVs, it presents an advantage for heads to hire couples. There definitely is–on the schools’ side–the idea of hiring a teaching couple as “two birds with one stone.” The schools save money on housing and moving expenses for couples over two singles. Plus, we have had heads tell us in interviews that they prefer teaching couples because they are more likely to stay, as they have a built-in support network.

However, perhaps the biggest drawback to being a teaching couple is that you are looking for a fit for two people instead of one. This can really narrow the field and presents limitations.

We have had two different experiences working together at the same school. In Beirut, Andrea was in the elementary, and I was in high school, and we only saw each other at all-staff meetings and in passing. In HCMC, we are both in the middle school and we see each other all the time, meetings, hallways, classrooms. We teach some of the same students. We tend to talk shop together anyway, and it makes it convenient for us to be able to discuss the curriculum we are both teaching.


What’s challenging about teaching at a new school in a new country?

Andy: One of the great things about international schools is the lengthy orientation period at the start of the year. Having that extra week before returning staff come back to school really helps you settle in and learn about your new environment. Personally, I haven’t thought about the “new country” part of this question, because that’s also the greatest perk of this lifestyle. For me, the challenges are with teaching at a new school, period; they would be the same if I were moving to a new school back in California. They are normal challenges that all educators are familiar with: learning about your student population, obtaining teaching materials, understanding the procedures of the school, working with new teammates, and–most importantly–finding out where the coffee is kept.

How is teaching internationally different from teaching in your home country?

Andy: We were really fortunate to work at great schools in California. Steve was at a large public high school, and I spent time at both a large K-8, and a small, but growing, charter school. We both had colleagues that we learned from constantly, professionals who were truly dedicated to student learning.

That being said, we both also worked with our fair share of teachers who tossed worksheets at the class then sat down for an hour. International teaching tends to weed out most of these types of teachers. Since going international, we have been surrounded by educators who are committed to professional growth and will do whatever it takes to maximize student achievement. To be honest, the lack of tenure, the small community of international schools, and knowing that in two, three, four, or five years you will be back on the job market helps motivate you to be at the top of your game all the time. Also, the nature of expat life means that you form a much tighter community with your coworkers than you are ever likely to do back home.

The students are not as different as you might imagine. It’s wonderful to have such diversity in the classroom, and the students thrive in a culture of open-mindedness and mutual respect. However, many of my current crop of students are not that different from my grade 6 class in Stockton, California: hard-working, independent, curious, respectful, and appreciative.

Andy in Angkor, Cambodia, October 2013Andy in Angkor Wat in Cambodia

What do your family and friends think about you teaching abroad?

Andy: My parents understand the appeal of international teaching, as do our closest friends. We have had some visitors, which is great. Our favorite part is showing friends and family what our day-to-day life consists of: school, our neighborhood, our favorite haunts. I get the feeling some people consider this a phase and are waiting for it to end, but this is a long-term lifestyle decision we have chosen, and we are so glad we did!

What’s it like living in HCMC? What’s your favorite thing about being an expat there?

Andy: We are really enjoying life in HCMC; it’s a huge city and there’s definitely something for everyone! Our school is located in a newer part of town, popular with expats, and with all the amenities you could ask for. It’s a very suburban area, with wide, tree-lined streets and lots of open green space. There are restaurants specializing in nearly every type of food, great happy hour spots, and even a big, very modern mall. However, a short taxi ride away (15 minutes if there’s no traffic), is the heart of Saigon, crowded, loud, chaotic, and full of energy. We frequently head to District 1 for dinner and weekend afternoon excursions.

HCMC is a pretty easy place to be an expat, despite a far greater language barrier than in Beirut. We bought a motorbike, and Steve drives us to and from school every day. When we do take taxis, they are consistently metered–which is nice–and quite cheap. I am learning to deal with the weather, which is not my favorite. I love seasons (and cool weather clothing), and HCMC is 90 degrees and 75% humidity all year round.

Our favorite part of expat life is the amazing community we have found at SSIS. This city can be completely overwhelming without a seasoned buddy to show you the best spots and hidden gems!

Steve, Debbie, and Andy in Paris, June 2013

Andy and Steve in Paris with Andy’s mom

What is a myth about your adopted country?

Andy: I think there is a misconception that there is lingering resentment from the Vietnam War (or “American War,” as it is called in Vietnam). However, that could not be further from the truth. The Vietnamese people are warm and welcoming, and being here, you really get the feeling that the past is the past for the Vietnamese. Of course, living in Beirut, people often expressed surprise upon hearing how warm the Lebanese were to Americans as well.

How do you spend your holidays? How often do you visit home?

Andy: Since going international, we have spent every Christmas and some time in the summer with my family. Our first Christmas abroad, we met them in Rome, the second year, we went home to California, and this year, they spent the holidays with us here in HCMC. We traveled with my parents, sister, and brother-in-law through France and the British Isles last summer, and so we are really looking forward to getting back to California (read: “Mexican food”) this summer. One of the biggest draws of international teaching was being able to have amazing travel experiences with my family. If we see each other so little during the year, then the time we do get to spend together should be amazing and memorable, and so far, it definitely has been!

Sometimes it’s overwhelming how many great travel opportunities are within two hours of us. We spend shorter holidays and long weekends exploring destinations in Southeast Asia. Our first break of this year, we visited Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which was top priority for us. We have also been to Singapore, the beach in Vietnam, and will be in Thailand for spring break.

The regional travel was also great when we were based in Beirut, and we were able to visit Jordan, Istanbul, and Rome (again!) while there.

Andy at EARCOS

Andy presenting at EARCOS Teacher Conference

When you are looking for a new job, what do you personally look for in a school and country? Has that changed from when you first started teaching?

Andy: We look at the school before we look at the city or country. At this point, we know to look for school leadership, current turnover (and reasons why), opportunities for growth/professional development, student demographics, and really, just the overall culture of the school. Is it someplace we feel like we would fit and be able to contribute? At this point in our careers, if not, then we would keep looking.

When looking at a new country, we consider stability, travel opportunities, climate, and proximity to home (i.e. one, two, or three flights away). We look at the cost of living and savings potential as well. Also, it sure would be nice to have fast internet!

I think our list of criteria has developed because we know better. Now, we see what a difference leadership, school culture, and travel opportunities make in the decision to accept a new position. Further, the international teaching world really is small, and after having taught at a couple of schools, one needn’t look too long to find a friend (or friend of a friend) who knows a little something about a school you may be interested in, and those insights and opinions can be priceless.

How do you go about making a new place your own? (That is, both your new accommodation and your new country.)

Andy: For me, the first priority is making my home feel “homey.” In both Beirut and HCMC, I have yet to feel as though I have made the country “my own”–and that’s okay–but fairly quickly, I felt at home in our new accommodations. For me, it has to start at home. It really is your haven, and after a long day or week, you have to feel like it’s a place you can recharge your batteries. Buying household items, decorations, getting books on the shelves, and having food in the fridge all contribute to the warmth I need to feel in my home. We also have a pug who has gone with us from California to Lebanon to Vietnam, and having him around goes a long way to making a new place feel like home.

I still completely feel like a visitor in Vietnam and the only way to combat that is to get out and explore, and we are working on that!

Andy and Steve in HCMC, December 2013

Andy and Steve in Ho Chi Minh City

How do you know when it’s time to leave?

Steve: There are push and pull factors for every location. Perhaps you feel as though there is a ceiling on growth and you’d like to take on something new. Likewise, if there is a school that offers you a chance to challenge yourself or add to your repertoire, it’s a huge pull. Certainly, there are financial factors to consider. Sometimes a school’s culture changes and it is no longer appealing. We want to be part of a school where everybody is growing and learning. It is important for us to be part of a school we believe is educating students the right way and creating a positive environment.

What has been your favorite teaching position/location thus far? Is there anywhere you are hoping to land a position in the future?

Andrea: This is such a hard question! There are so many things we loved about Beirut, and I was in tears our last week there. Now, we are enjoying HCMC but think (very) frequently and fondly about our time spent by the Mediterranean. I miss my former teaching team terribly. We miss our balcony view of the sea, and we definitely miss Lebanese food! We found a great restaurant (appropriately called Beirut) our first week in HCMC, and ordered a table full of mezze, but it’s just not the same.

After teaching upper elementary homeroom in Beirut, I am happy to have returned to middle school. I enjoy the independence of middle school students, although you have to work a little harder to form the teacher-student bond that occurs so naturally in elementary school, due to the amount of time you spend together.

As for the future, we would like to continue to work in high-quality schools that are innovative and student-centered. We are open to where in the world these schools might be. Since the bulk of our time is spent at school, selecting one that shares our educational philosophy is of the utmost importance. We have a short list of dream schools, but we aren’t in a hurry; the journey is much too fun!

Andy and Steve at Singapore Zoo, February 2014

Andy and Steve at the Singapore Zoo

What tips or advice would you give to others thinking about making the leap to a career in international teaching?

Andy: My advice would be to take the plunge! There are always so many reasons to not do it. We lived near my family, both worked at great schools, and owned a home, but these were not reasons for us to stay where we were. Family can visit, there are so many other great schools out there, and homes can be rented or sold.

We have had so many opportunities in the last three years that we never would have had if we had stayed in our hometown. We have grown personally and professionally, and met amazing people. In our first three years abroad, we had the opportunity to travel extensively for PD and school trips. We met my family in Europe. I am about to begin an EdD program for international teachers, and Steve is working on a second Master’s and COETAIL certificate. None of this would have been possible if we hadn’t made the move to go international.

Find the full series of Interviews with International Educators here.

If you are an international educator and you would like to be featured on The Present Perfect, contact me at thepresentperfectblog {at} gmail {dot} com.

3 Comments on “International Educator Interviews: Andy and Steve in Ho Chi Minh City

  1. “I miss my former teaching team terribly”.. Yeah Andy, we do too!!!!!!

  2. It sounds like teaching in Ho Chi Minh City is quite the adventure! Although I can imagine that it would be incredibly difficult to deal with such a big language barrier on a day to day basis!

  3. Thank you for teaching me at SSIS! You were one of my favourite teachers, and everyone still remembers you 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: