A Comparison Between Teaching Chemistry in the United States and Internationally

Instructors View of Classroom

Whenever I’m asked where I live and what I do, I answer with “I’m a teacher overseas.” The immediate response from people is “English? Peace Corps?” Teaching subjects other than English in remote villages is a pretty foreign concept to many people in the United States. I am a high school science teacher at the American School of Dubai where we are implementing the NGSS curriculum in a Standards Based Learning School. This is my tenth year of teaching, and my seventh year of teaching overseas. Before picking up and heading to the unknown, I taught at a high school with over two thousand students in Texas for three years. Often times I’m asked what differences there are between teaching in the states and teaching in a foreign country, and this might be the hardest question for me to answer. There is a misconception that teaching somewhere else in the world is drastically different than teaching right in your backyard, and it really isn’t. With that being said, please keep in mind that my perspective is from teaching in the Middle East. These differences will vary between regions of the world. Here are a few differences you might experience if you decide to pack up and move across the ocean.

Full-Time Lab Assistant

If you were to ask me the one reason that would keep me from teaching in the states again, it would be the loss of a lab assistant. As science teachers, such a large majority of our time is taken up by setting up and breaking down labs. If you didn’t have to do it yourself, could you find more valuable things to do with your time? I am able to spend more time troubleshooting lab ideas, planning the next unit, and grading the stack of papers on my desk. This is a luxury that no matter how long I keep my career overseas, I will never take it for granted. Walking in on a lab day and having my lab already set up is one of the most satisfying feelings. When I’m doing a lab that is a little more detailed, I can also book our lab assistant to be in the room with me to serve as an extra set of eyes.

Availability of Resources

One of the aspects of teaching overseas that isn’t as glamorous is the difficulty we experience when trying to obtain various materials for class. One resource I really wanted to get to start this year was whiteboards, and I started this search as soon as I touched ground in Dubai. At first, I was searching for shower board or something of the sort, then had to just search for whiteboards. The best I could find that was close to the size I wanted was 60cmx90cm, and it was a board that is meant to be hung on the wall. Can you imagine the kids trying to maneuver those around the classroom? I settled for a 60cmx70cm sticky whiteboard poster stuck to a piece of plywood and wrapped in duct tape. Needless to say, I’m regretting not investing in a box of them in the states as one of my checked bags. Your thought might be, “Why don’t you just order them?” This isn’t easy either. International orders can take up to 6 months to get here. Our orders for the following year must be finished in February and they’re still arriving piece by piece well into September. We are fortunate in Dubai to have a laboratory distributing company on speed dial, so our labs are always fully stocked. A prime example is when we did a gas collection lab last year and we didn’t have enough for two classes to do the experiment simultaneously. We were able to order these one day, and they were delivered as soon as that afternoon. This isn’t something you’ll find in any country, but as a high school science teacher, I absolutely love it.

“Unlimited” Budget

I say “unlimited” even though we do actually have a budget, but it’s big enough to where we don’t feel we are restricted by it. There are investigations that we are limited to because we can’t find the supplies in Dubai, but if it’s available, there’s never a question of if we can afford it. Last year we performed the lab with copper wire and AgNO3. Instead of recycling the silver, we were able to give our students little vials to keep forever. I even had a student ask if she could come in and make more to make jewelry out of. I told her if she could show the stoichiometry for how much more she needs, she could make as much as she wants. Sure enough she was in my lab the next day ready to go. Can you imagine how much more you can do if you weren’t limited by a district budget?

Flexibility and Freedom with Curriculum and Planning

Most private international schools are not part of a larger entity. There are definitely some organizations that oversee a number of schools, for example GEMS and OSI. For the most part, international schools function as their own school which allows teachers more flexibility in planning. Our school adopted NGSS a couple of years ago, and this is our first full year of implementation. This did not come from a district office, nor did someone else write what we will be doing. We do, of course, offer the same experience in our classrooms that a student would get if they were next door, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t flexibility in what those experiences look like. We are standards based, and as a department chose what we put in as our standards in our gradebook. We do have a Director of Teaching and Learning who is involved in a lot of our decision making, but his role is only to make sure we are cohesive with other divisions and provide the best education we can to our students.

Availability of Professional Development for Secondary Science

One of the most frustrating parts about living overseas is the difficulty in finding quality professional development during the school year that is specifically catered to high school science teachers. There are several organizations overseas that offer professional development, but it’s rare to find something that is only high school science. Most conferences try to cater to a wide variety of educators and are located in other countries. A science teacher might find 2 or 3 sessions that are relevant to his/her specialty. Although most schools offer a professional development stipend ranging anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a couple thousand dollars, most of the professional development science teachers choose to do is during summer break in the states.

Class Sizes and Prep Time

Class sizes can vary just as they do in the states, but very rarely will you find science classes larger than 24. Most classes will average around 20-22, and you might find

Most classes will average around 20-22, and you might find some as small as 14 or 15.

some as small as 14 or 15. This is different for every school, but in the region I’m in, it seems like 25 is the cap in most schools. In the states, I taught 6 of 8 class periods, and one of my periods off was considered my lunch. There was very little time to collaborate, although I was fortunate to be in a school that valued collaboration and made sure my whole team was off at the same time. My schedule internationally consists of teaching 5 of 8 and a separate lunch. I can usually get all of my planning done during the school day and only have to take grading home in the evenings.


School Year’s Alignment with AP Timeline

This is something that is more relevant to the part of the world I live in. My school follows both the American holidays as well as the Muslim holidays. As of right now, the way Eid and Ramadan fall during the year, we are starting later and ending later. In future years, this will not be the case, as Ramadan and Eid move up 2 weeks every year. Because of the late start, the AP classes are extremely crunched for time to cover all of the material before May. Not to mention, since we end at the end of June, there is a lot of time with AP classes after the major exam has been taken. We have a high population of students who take at least two AP courses, and a significant amount of students who are taking three to four or even five AP classes. You can imagine the difference in their schedules after the exams as opposed to before. This causes our students to be under a lot of stress due to losing so much time at the beginning of the year to learn new material. We also have a travel week for students, along with a three week Winter Break and a two week Spring Break. A lot of schools in Far East Asia and South America start before most schools in the states, so you’ll find that this isn’t something you would experience in those parts of the world. Europe typically starts one week before the Middle East.

Standardized State Testing

Overseas, the only testing the students will experience at the high school level are the SAT and ACT. There is also a test called the MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) test that the students take every other year in order to show growth, but this is not something the students stress about. We don’t even prepare the kids for it in order to make the data more authentic and reliable. This test actually loses its validity after about grade 8 or 9 because of the level of questions being asked. As a high school teacher, I might lose one day of class a year with my 9th graders for this test. Other countries might have different tests, but if you’re teaching in a truly International or American school, your kids are normally exempt from taking the tests specific for that country.

Global Awareness of the Students

If you were to ask your students tomorrow how many of them hold a passport, what would you predict your numbers would be? When I taught in Texas, several of my students had not ever left the state, let alone the country. A question I ask at the beginning of every school year at my school overseas is “Where did you go this summer?” I’m not the least bit surprised when the list includes multiple countries. Travel is a common thing for my students, which naturally makes them more aware of what’s going on globally. Often times, they are more in tune with what’s going on in the world than I am. Travel is even integrated into our school’s culture. At the 6th grade, students begin traveling to countries like South Africa, India, Cambodia, and Thailand to immerse themselves in a different culture and serve the people of different countries. At the high school level, we send our students on a wider variety of trips (around 30) in order to inspire our students to pursue their passions. For example, a group of students who are passionate about leadership recently went to Switzerland to attend a leadership retreat, and a group of students who are passionate about conservation went to Bali to dive and collect ocean pollution. You might not find these programs at every international school, but as the years pass, more and more schools are including a service component to their graduation requirement, which includes an international trip. You can imagine the global awareness of the students I teach.

A Pictorial Comparison Between Science Classrooms in the United States and Science Classrooms in the Middle East


Figure 1A - A science classroom/lab in the Middle East. No flame retardant desktops. This is meant to be a biology lab but serves as a chemistry lab. This is a view from an open window looking in. Notice the A/C units at the top of the room.


Figure 1B - Teachers’ children love to come in after school for fun little activities like this. Aprons and goggles are shipped in from the states. Notice that every single outlet can be turned off at it’s location. This is extremely helpful for safety reasons.


Figure 1C - Chem prep room. We distill all of our own water in this room. There are three prep rooms in this school, each connecting to two different labs.


Figure 1D - A classroom/lab. You can see a lot of Vernier equipment in this lab. Windows line the wall to the left. You see no desktop computers because every teacher has a laptop. This is also a one-to-one school. Students use their laptops daily in labs and lectures.


Figure 1E - A view from the instructor’s table. A fume hood can be seen in the back. Propane is used in the labs in this part of the world, which restricts us from some basic demos. A document camera is in the bottom right corner.


Figure 1F -Like in some US high schools, we have a department office with our own desks.


Figure 1G - The AP students are filling the science rooms with tiles. A handful are made every year.


Figure 2A - A view from my teacher’s desk in the U.S. from 8 years ago. There is a desktop computer and a document camera. Lab stations line the perimeter. No windows in this lab.


Figure 2B - A classroom/lab. Notice only two regular desks. The students sit at the lab benches for both lab and lecture. No document camera in this lab.


Figure 2C - Classroom Lab with desktop computers available for students.


Even though there are differences in teaching in a public high school in the states, and a private international school overseas, there is still one common theme. We are all serving as mentors to the next generation of our world. Kids are kids wherever you might be, and the best part of our profession is that we get to have a hand in their development. Lowell Thomson, who is currently working in Thailand also wrote the article, “Life As An International School Chemistry Teacher” and has great insight on teaching in Thailand. I encourage you to check it out if you’re questioning what it’s like to take this leap with an entire family. If you’re interested in exploring the world of teaching outside of your borders, I have provided a few tips and resources in the next section.

What to look for when choosing a school:


  • For Profit vs. Not For Profit - When you’re deciding on a school to teach at, you’re going to want to research if it’s for profit, or truly not for profit. There is a big difference when it comes to budgets, benefits, and culture. Not for profit schools typically have larger budgets with better benefits for teachers. Some of these benefits could include flights, all-inclusive housing, and retirement plans. Most for profit schools will also offer these benefits, but at a much lower cost to them. You might also find that a not for profit school will offer more professional development opportunities.
  • American vs. International American schools will follow American curriculum most of the time, or some sort of international version of an American curriculum. A lot of the American schools overseas have adopted NGSS and Common Core, so you would be very familiar going in. International schools usually follow the IB Curriculum and require special training before teaching it. You can find international schools that accept teachers that have taught AP with no IB experience, but they typically are looking for experienced IB teachers.
  • Local vs. Expat -  Some private schools will have a larger population of locals than others. I have experienced both types and loved both. The school I am currently at was founded by the expat community for children of families working in the oil business in the 1960’s, and it still prioritizes providing a quality education for American expats. Therefore, most of my students are North American with very few locals.
  • Location - Before you choose a school, research the location. Get familiar with the cultural norms, the lifestyle you’ll take up, weather patterns, etc. Things like visa requirements, taxes, getting a driver’s license and buying a car are also important details you’ll want to know.

Placement Services

There are several services out there that can help you find what you’re looking for. When I first went overseas, I went in completely blind. In hindsight, I wish I would have known more about the teaching community that exists in the international world. As far as getting help finding a job, there are free agencies, and there are agencies that require a membership fee. In my experience, I recommend paying a little.

Search Associates - there is a fee to join this service, but your profile is active for three years after the payment. They will not accept payment until all of your documentation is complete. It’s a great place to consolidate all of your documents for schools to seek you out. There is a requirement of confidential references from both supervisors and parents. I used this service for my current job and was very happy with it. They have fairs all over the globe which require an entrance fee. These fairs are pretty intense, but very few people leave them without a job, so get ready to make a huge life-changing decision on the fly.

International School Search - this is similar to Search Associates in the sense that there is a fee, fairs, and a place to store documents for schools to see. The major difference I saw when doing my research is that you pay upfront as opposed to when your profile is complete, so there seems to be more of a commitment from the start.

Teach Anywhere - this is a free service. Although they are very diligent and you’ll have no problem finding a job, I’m not sure you’ll get exactly what you’re looking for. This is the service I used to find my first international teaching job.

Global Recruitment Collaborative - this is specifically for people who are already overseas at the schools within this group. This group was founded to create a network between reputable schools to help each other find quality teachers. If you’re not already in the international circuit, this isn’t going to be helpful for you.

Good luck on your journey if you choose to try the international route. Did I miss something you have a question about? Please let me know in the comments.~ Lauren