American dreams

11th April 2008 at 01:00
With smaller class sizes, less paperwork and the opportunity to enjoy a tax-free salary, could teaching in the States be the answer to your prayers? Mary McCarney reports

The Big Apple, Vegas, Hollywood. From skyscrapers to beaches, deserts, mountains and prairies, the US has it all. And with smaller class sizes and less paperwork, teaching in America has its attractions, too. But before you start packing, bear in mind that making a career move to the States is not without challenges.

Emigration to the United States is notoriously difficult. Teachers may apply for a so-called speciality occupation visa (a H1B), but this must be sponsored by an employer. Public school districts are often reluctant to take on the expense and paperwork involved, so it can be Catch 22: without a job, you can't get a visa; without a visa, it is difficult to get a job.

However, New York, with its acute teacher shortage, is a rare exception, actively recruiting international teachers. Currently, there are around 15 UK teachers employed in the city, and demand is generally for shortage subjects such as special education, maths and science. Vacancies also tend to be in the city's most challenging schools, with high staff turnover. The NYC school district sponsors visas for foreign teachers, who must then pass state exams within two years to become certified to continue teaching.

The No Child Left Behind act of 2001 requires that every public school teacher in the US has state teaching certification as an additional qualification. For many American teachers, as well as those from overseas, this means extra study and examinations to become certified locally. However, private schools don't always require this, and may also sponsor applicants from abroad.

For those interested in a short-term option, the process is less complicated and teacher exchanges are a good way to test the water across the pond.

With the British Council's Fulbright programme, you can swap jobs with teachers throughout the US for up to one academic year, and a three-year cultural exchange programme is offered by the Visiting International Faculty (VIF).

Chris Stephenson and Jane Higginbottom were both VIF teachers in North Carolina, and now run Hig and Wee's VIF Hot-tub forum on The TES online staffroom ( Jane, 28, from Manchester, taught at an elementary school in downtown Raleigh. "I had a real mixture of students in my class - some were from poor backgrounds while others were from comparatively affluent homes.

"At first, I felt I was constantly playing catch-up. Getting used to all the different jargon required a period of adjustment. But I loved my school and the amount I learnt about the sort of teacher I wanted to be was fantastic; I always felt I was growing and being professionally challenged," she says.

US class sizes are comparatively small, and many teachers also report that workload is significantly less than in the UK. "I never had more than 22 students, which made classroom management and marking easier," Jane says.

"I also liked the fact that I could just be a teacher - I was not personally responsible for a curriculum area across the school and I wasn't expected to have all the answers. In the UK, teachers have to wear too many hats, and it all contributes to making the job more stressful and frustrating."

But for Jane, teaching in the US wasn't all plain sailing. "I had a real problem with the system of testing and retentions. I feel that making failing students repeat a grade is wrong. When you have a child who is almost 12 in a class with those turning 10, social problems begin to emerge. The first time I put a child up for retention caused me sleepless nights."

But on the whole, Jane enjoyed her American experience. "I had a great network of friends and a fantastic social life. I achieved the work-life balance that had proven elusive when I was teaching in the UK."

Since returning to Manchester, Jane has completed a masters degree in education. "Going for an MEd was an idea influenced by friends and colleagues in the US. 'Doing grad school' is the norm and is supported by employers," she says.

Chris Stephenson, a geography teacher from Northern Ireland, enjoyed her three years with VIF. "It is a good programme for those wanting to experience another culture and teaching system. However, VIF is not for anyone planning a long-term move to the US, and is not marketed as such."

Chris, 34, is now back in the States and teaching at the Atlanta International School in Georgia, a private school that sponsored her visa. "It really is a great place to work and there is great support for career progression. I hope to be staying here for some time."

Wages, conditions and standard of living vary greatly across the US. There is no national pay scale for teachers; salaries are set locally by each state and school district. Teachers in the south earn significantly less than those in New York or California, for example, where the cost of living would be comparable to the UK.

An average salary of $46,000 (pound;22,750) for a teacher in Texas may seem low, but an apartment in a luxury complex with a pool, tennis courts and gym can easily be rented there for around $700 (pound;350) a month, while a meal at a decent restaurant is unlikely to set you back more than $15 (pound;7.50). And thanks to a treaty between the UK and the US, British teachers can receive their salaries tax-free for up to two years.

For those looking to make a permanent move, some independent organisations, such as British Schools of America (BSA), will sponsor visas and ultimately Green Cards, allowing teachers to remain indefinitely in the States.

BSA currently employs 150 UK teachers, including Simon Bird, 51, from London, who is teaching English and film studies in Washington DC. "Living and working in a bustling US city, the lifestyle is fantastic," he says. Since taking up his post in 2001, Simon has sold his UK property, bought a downtown apartment and applied for a Green Card.

"I have managed to jump through a few hoops by showing that I have the skills they need here," he says.

Overcoming the immigration hurdles may be a challenge, but for teachers willing to give it a go, the opportunity to experience life American-style can be worth all the hassle.

"I have gained immeasurably from the move, personally, professionally and socially," Simon says. "To anyone thinking about teaching in the US, I would say definitely do it."


Short term

- VIF programme lasts one to three years. All visa processing, certification and medical insurance is provided, along with return air ticket and assistance finding housing. VIF generally places teachers in the southern states. Visit Hig and Wee's VIF Hot-tub on The TES online staffroom ( for informal advice and information. Recruitment for the 2008-09 school year continues until May.

- Fulbright teacher exchange programme - spend a term or one full academic year on a job-swap with an American teacher. The cost of the exchange is covered by the programme and you will continue to be paid by your employer in the UK. Apply by November 30 for 2009-10 exchanges. www.britishcouncil.orglearning-fulbright

Long term

- Contact local public school districts or state education departments. For New York, visit Have your qualifications evaluated by an approved foreign credentials agency. If you can find a sponsor for your visa, ask which tests you will need to pass to gain state teaching certification. This whole process can be lengthy and complicated.

- British Schools of America - independent schools in Chicago, Houston, Charlotte, Boston and Washington DC following an international curriculum. Benefits package includes flights, accommodation and medical insurance. State certification not required.

Other independent and international schools. For the Atlanta International School, visit

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