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Thousands of U.S. teachers are taking their talents abroad. Here's why. USA TODAY

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Correction: This article initially misstated the percentage of local vs. international students at Academia Cotopaxi.

QUITO, Ecuador – Kip Mapstone has lived a double life as a science teacher.

When he worked in Oregon’s public schools, he taught six classes, each with between 30 to 40 students, plus homeroom. With little downtime during the day, grading and lesson planning happened at home most nights.

Today, Mapstone teaches five science classes, each with no more than 17 students. He has ample time to prepare and to collaborate with colleagues during the day, leaving his evenings free to spend time with family. He also receives a housing subsidy, plus free private-school tuition for his children.

Mapstone didn’t just move to a new school for these benefits – he moved to a different country. He teaches at Academia Cotopaxi, an international K-12 school in Quito, Ecuador, where high-quality U.S. teachers are in high demand.

While teachers in America face stagnant wages, a divisive political environment and continued pressure to boost test scores, an expanding marketplace of international schools stands ready to capitalize on their discontent. The schools offer a host of benefits to attract experienced teachers, including two coveted ones that don’t cost a penny: autonomy and respect.

“The need for teachers is massive,” said Madeleine Maceda Heide, director of Academia Cotopaxi.

In Quito alone there are five international schools, but Cotopaxi, which is named for one of the country's most famous volcanoes, is one of the best known. Its colonial-style campus stretches across almost 10 acres, with a backdrop of the Andes mountains. Like most international schools, Cotopaxi is private and charges tuition – the equivalent of about $18,000 in the U.S. for high school – and teachers conduct all instruction in English.

Now for the middle class

Historically, international schools were located in capital cities and educated the children of parents working in the foreign service or on corporate assignments. But now the schools are popping up in all kinds of cities where a burgeoning number of middle- and upper-class parents are seeking to opt out of public schools and pay for an American-style private education.

At Cotopaxi, about 60% of students are foreigners. The other 40% are local Ecuadorian students. 

"Locals want an international education for their child," said Heide, the Cotopaxi school director. "They want English and multiple languages. They want their child to work in the international world. It’s true in India and China and the Middle East, where the local school systems may not be what parents want."

All of that growth in international schools means more opportunities for U.S. teachers, particularly ones with certifications in specialty subjects such as special education or math or science. 

The number of international schools has doubled over the past decade, from about 5,000 to more than 10,200 this year, according to International Schools Consultancy, a company that provides data on the schools. Those schools employ more than half a million full-time staff; the consultancy predicts the institutions will need at least 896,000 teachers by 2028.

"These schools are resource-rich," said Rajiv Bhat, chief operating officer of Search Associates, a recruitment company for international schools. The organization helps place about 3,000 teachers each year.

"The parents are affluent," Bhat added. "They can pay the kind of fees that allow these schools to pay teachers a good salary and good benefits.

"Plus, they have a small student population. That’s one of the greatest benefits for a teacher: 15 to 20 kids, rather than 30 to 40 kids."

Why leave a $90,000 job?

Teachers who want to work in an international school commonly start by submitting an application to one of the recruitment firms that help match educators with schools abroad. Semi-annual fairs allow teachers to meet with representatives of the international schools, where the exchanges can be a little like speed-dating.

More interviews follow, and when teachers are offered a contract, it's usually for two years.

For some teachers, the courtship process happens even faster.

Nate Bowling is a high school social studies teacher in Tacoma, Washington, with a list of accolades, including a 2016 state teacher of the year award. He's an outspoken education policy critic with more than 17,000 followers on Twitter, and he writes extensively about race relations and the need for equitable resources for students.

Bowling said he's well-compensated and will earn around $90,000 this year.

And he's leaving it all.

On April 9 Bowling announced on his website that he's moving to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to teach Advanced Placement government and global issues at American Community School. His wife will come, too. She’ll teach English at the same school.

"I love the school, the staff, and especially my students," Bowling wrote on his website. "But I realized at some point this year that in order to stay in the classroom, I needed to do something different."

In an interview, Bowling said he and his wife submitted their applications to a search firm last fall and were contacted almost immediately by schools abroad. He interviewed three times over Skype with a school in Shanghai, which didn't work out. Then he interviewed four times with the school in Abu Dhabi.

The political environment in the U.S. played into his decision to leave.

“The American school model as it was practiced in the past is the envy of the world, and everybody wants to copy it,” Bowling said.

“The American school present is not. And it’s driving out effective people because the work we ask people to do, particularly at low-income schools like my school, is unsustainable.”

What about low-income students?

For American educators accustomed to working in low-income schools, the resources available at some international schools can seem luxurious. One day at Cotopaxi in March, a classroom of fourth-grade students were puzzling over a writing exercise. There were only 15 students in the class, but a teacher and an instructional assistant were available to help.

Elsewhere in the school that afternoon, high school students were working on advanced math and kindergartners were painting in a glass-walled atelier.

As for testing, Cotopaxi teachers use Measures of Academic Progress, which students take three times per year to measure their improvement. Many U.S. schools administer that exam or something similar, plus annual state standardized exams and other mandated tests.

Cotopaxi also has a deep bench of support staff. The school employs two doctors and five counselors. Two of those counselors only work with the high school, which enrolls just 160 students.

Meanwhile, in the U.S.: Schools often lack nurses as kids' health problems like suicide, allergies soar

Kourtney Wessels, Cotopaxi's English-language learner coordinator, said she appreciates all the resources at her school. Parents are dedicated and support the school financially. Students arrive at school fed and ready to learn, and misbehavior is rare.

But sometimes she wonders if she made the right decision to leave the U.S.

"I went into teaching with the idea of social justice," said Wessels, whose parents were both public-school teachers. "Here you're kind of living in a bubble. I still struggle with that." 

Several teachers interviewed at Cotopaxi said they valued being treated like professionals and having autonomy in the classroom.

They even applauded their professional-development sessions, a common target of U.S. teachers' complaints. At Cotopaxi, the sessions are more relevant and robust, teachers said. 

Teachers also said they felt like administrators of international schools listened to them and incorporated their feedback more readily than principals in the States.

Almost everyone said they enjoyed the close kinship that occurs among teachers in international schools, likely fueled by the fact that virtually all of them share an adventurous spirit.

Housing benefits help save money

International school teachers sometimes earn less than what they earned in the States. At Cotopaxi, salaries range from about $26,000 to $56,000, depending on a teacher's education and experience.

But other benefits – such as free housing, free tuition for teachers' children to attend the school, and a free plane ticket home once per year – help teachers keep more of that pay in their pockets. Some schools throw in other benefits as well.

“I get a transportation budget to get to and from work,” said Vanessa Weber, a special education teacher at The International School of Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia. 

“Our housing is covered, I have the best health insurance I’ve ever had, and it covers me in every part of the world," she added. "And we get an amazing retirement: My school pays 17% and then I can contribute to it as well.”

Weber, who is from Wisconsin, taught at Cotopaxi with her husband before they both got offers to work in Malaysia. The biggest downside now is that home is a 30-hour flight away.

Still, international teaching jobs in Asia are coveted because salaries are high. Weber said base salaries at her school range from the equivalent of $25,580 in U.S. dollars for a teacher with no experience to $80,000 for an experienced teacher with a doctorate degree.

Then the benefits: a housing allowance, retirement plan, transportation allowance, flights home, tuition for teachers' children (at the Kuala Lumpur school, that's about $40,000 per child) and also shipping and settling-in allowances for new hires.

In her five years overseas, Weber said she's noticed more-experienced teachers from the U.S. joining the international circuit.

“Usually you start doing this kind of teaching when you’re young, and you do it for part of your life,” Weber said. “Now I’m meeting people in their early 40s who are teaching abroad for the first time. It’s clear that there’s a greater exodus than there was before.”

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

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