Teachers compete in Atlanta for attractive jobs overseas

Heather Peisel has been looking for a teaching job in Atlanta for more than a year with no success.

And now, Abu Dhabi beckons.

In an economy of budget cuts that let go thousands of teachers across Georgia and beyond, Peisel, 30, counted herself among 60 candidates being interviewed in Atlanta this week for teaching positions in the United Arab Emirates.

On Friday, she learned that her first full-time teaching job will be in Abu Dhabi, instructing Arab-speaking kindergarten students in math, science and English.

“I think it will be a great opportunity to teach on the other side of the world,” Peisel said. A 2004 graduate of Georgia Southern, she was a substitute teacher for years and earned a master's in education in 2008 from the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Her husband, Cory, is an operations manager for a logistics company.

Incentives for teaching in Abu Dhabi are attractive: There's the international experience, a tax-free salary of up to $72,000 a year, free housing and free medical insurance. Teachers with families can take a spouse and up to three children under the age of 18 with them. The two-year contracts also include airfare so the families can spend their summers back at home.

Peisel had never considered teaching abroad until the economy turned downward.

"Everything I've heard says for the next two years it's supposed to be worse," she said. "Now sounds like a good opportunity to go somewhere else and teach and come back."

Abu Dhabi is the capital of, and the second-largest city in, the UAE.  It is converting its education system from Arabic-based to English-based, which is why Teach Away Inc. was in Atlanta looking for teachers.

In fact, of any city in the world, the most contracts for its overseas teaching jobs are being written in Atlanta, the Toronto-based company's director of overseas placement, Rene Frey, said.

The company recruits in hub cities such as New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Atlanta, where people can fly in cheaply or drive to easily. "But the majority of applicants being offered contracts in Atlanta are from metro Atlanta," Frey said.

Teach Away also recruits in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and South Africa seeking  English-speaking teachers for overseas jobs. Teachers are placed across Asia and the Middle East, including Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and other countries. Some jobs require teacher certification and others are open to native English speakers with college degrees.

In addition to the large number of out-of-work teachers, Atlanta also is a good place to hire, Frey said, because it has "well-trained, open-minded teachers who are willing to make a change."

Other businesses place teachers overseas, but Teach Away is among the largest.

“Last year we sent 550 teachers; this year we will send more than 1,000," Frey said.

This week's visit was the company's third recruiting trip to Atlanta since March for jobs in the UAE, Frey said.  The company was formed in 2003 to help teachers find jobs overseas.

“We’re looking for an adventurous spirit, a person that’s adaptable with an attitude that they want to be part of it,” Frey said. Teachers will leave in mid-August for orientation, which includes familiarization with the culture.

Frey said they will learn, for example, that “sitting with the soles of your shoes showing would be the ultimate insult.”

In Abu Dhabi, schools are segregated by gender, so male teachers are being hired to teach boys, and female teachers will teach girls, Frey said. When they finish high school, the students will be bi-literate, he said.

Teachers will learn that classroom attire means women cover their shoulders and knees. “Long-sleeve blouses and long skirts are appropriate,” he said. Men wear shirt and ties.

Plus, “small talk and talk about family is extremely important before beginning a conversation,” he said. “You never go straight to business.”

Classes are held from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays. Class size is capped at 25 students in elementary school. There are two teachers for each kindergarten class, which would have 20 to 22 students, Frey said.

The Atlanta interviews drew teachers from across the country interested in the prospect.

Jenelle Lewis of Tucson, Ariz., drove to Atlanta with her parents, Zeannie Lewis, a teacher for 17 years, and Amos Lewis, a pastor.

The 2010 graduate of the University of Arizona was looking for her first teaching position.

“I looked in other places, but I really want to go abroad,” she said.

Her mom said she was a little nervous about an overseas  job, “but I know this is her life. It will be a new adventure for her. Plus, we have a family member over there.”

Her father, who served in the military and was stationed in Turkey, agrees.

"Now that she knows someone over there, I think she will be fine,” he said.

Another applicant came to Atlanta this week from Oklahoma, a state that has also eliminated teaching jobs through budget cuts.

But Alan Gordon was interested, even though his teaching contract had been renewed.

Gordon, 29, has been an elementary teacher in Tulsa, Okla., for nearly five years but said he wants to teach “somewhere else in the world.”

He was excited to learn Friday that he had landed a contract to go to Abu Dhabi.

“I view it as a chance to expand my horizons, and come back and help my school district,” he said. “I work with urban students. They don’t have a lot of male role models at the elementary level.”

With the Abu Dhabi job, he said, “I’ve got a new career.”

If he hadn't been hired, “I got a chance to explore Atlanta.”