Going Home

The difficulties of finding employment when a teacher returns to the USA

For expatriates living in Thailand it might be hard to remember it, but for some of us living outside the Kingdom, and in the right locale, it has returned. Spring, that is.

It's light now until about eight thirty in the evening where I live, and the flowers and leafy trees are budding and blooming. Every day I get to see hummingbirds at the flowers on my balcony. For me, this spring marks one cycle of the seasons since I left Thailand and returned here, to my hometown, of Seattle, Washington, USA.

Coming home

After four years in Bangkok (and prior to that, five years in Tokyo, Japan), one day last April I stepped off a fourteen hour United Airlines flight and into a perfect Pacific Northwest morning.

The sky was cloudless, it was warm but not hot with a gentle breeze, glorious Mount Rainier was looming tall in the background, and the air was dry and clean, so clean it felt like it'd been filtered. This is going to be good, I thought then. No more smog, no more humidity, and no more waking up by hacking up green gunk from my lungs.

Leaving the airport with my folks, the traffic was free of jams. At my mom's house the neighborhood was quiet. What a joy not to hear the cacophonous riot of scooters, motorbikes, screeches of vehicles slamming on brakes, and the incessant chattering of the street's millions of voices.

The sidewalks were clean. Moreover, they were mercifully free of sleeping dogs, potholes, scooters, not-sleeping dogs, food vendors, sellers of sundry goods, and more vendors of food. I could actually walk freely - or even go jogging! - on the sidewalks. This is definitely going to be good, I thought. And mostly the past year in America has been good.

It's also been much harder than I'd anticipated.

Recession

A large part of the trouble has been due to my underestimating the extent of America's economic recession. The economy is indeed functioning like an alcoholic's ailing liver. This has been headline news for several years, but seeing it in the news and experiencing it first hand is quite different.

What I've witnessed here is that due to companies' vast lay-offs and their reluctance to engage in re-hiring, there is terrible competition for jobs, even entry level ones. Those stories you see on the news about graduate educated Americans working at McDonald's are real. I've personally had a terrible time finding a decent job.

I've had two jobs so far, and am starting my third now. The first was as a Case Manager for develop-mentally disabled adults at a nonprofit organization. It was the best job I've had here, but I didn't appreciate it at the time because I'd just gotten back from Thailand, and was still spoiled about my working conditions.

The only reason I got that job was because of luck and timing. Management discovered the previous staff, an African, didn't have a work visa, and fired him immediately, so they needed a replacement. My mom was a nurse there, she recommended me, and I had a cakewalk of an interview.

Unfortunately, Washington State, like most other states, has been hit by a huge budget shortfall, and funding for this nonprofit org. was slashed, which in turn led to a lot of staff getting laid off, including me.

'Job for immigrants'

I spent a bit over a month unemployed, then I got a job at an upscale brand hotel, as a "houseman." This job was for immigrants. "We don't usually hire educated white people for this position," management candidly told me at the interview.

As houseman I drove the shuttle taking the guests to and from the airport, I cleaned the hotel, and I helped the housekeepers to do their job, by supplying their carts with fresh glasses, and changing their garbage. I was at the bottom of the food chain; everybody could tell me what to do. The schedule was bad, too. I worked both day shift and night shifts, so my daily routine was constantly changing.

Moreover, I always worked weekends. On top of this, management made our schedules week by week, so I only knew the very next week's schedule, which made planning trips very hard. All staffs (except management, of course) often worked through their entire shifts without even a meal break.

I possess ten years of classroom EFL teaching experience, plus a solid education, and this was the type of work available to me. There were many moments, such as when I was cleaning a toilet bowl, or when a housekeeper ordered me to do something, that frustration welled up inside me.

Unemployed

One day the management was unnecessarily chewing me out, figuring, I guess, that because I had an immigrant's job they could treat me like one ("I know you need this job, you have a wife and bills to pay," my manager once said to me), so I quit. Back to the limbo land of unemployment I went.

It's the first time in my life that I've been to an unemployment center. In Washington State they're called "WorkSource." Now I've practically set up camp there. I've spent hours participating in workshops on resume building, job hunting skills and interview techniques, and speaking with "employment counselors."

'Humbling'

It's such a strange, humbling feeling to be doing those things. As an EFL teacher in Asia I had it made. The demand for good, qualified EFL teachers far exceeded the supply, so for me, with a Masters degree in English Literature and Language (ELL), plus a decade of classroom experience, along with a pleasant and responsible attitude and a well-groomed appearance, interviews were usually only for form's sake.

Never before did I have to seriously worry about finding a job, about not being able to pay rent and bills.

My work situation is still tenuous. I have managed to get a position as a substitute classroom aide within the south Seattle school district, though. Hopefully lots of teachers will get sick (all apologies to them), and I'll get loads of work.

Having unsteady work is troubling. There's this constant nagging. It's like you think you've merely got a hangnail, only to look at your finger and find it's broken.

Reasons to be cheerful

It's a beautiful morning, this morning, though. It's a cloudless day, warm, and the air is so dry and clean. The fir trees and the pine trees and the leafy trees rustle and chatter in the breeze. On days like these I feel so glad I've come home.

I look out my balcony window at the pink and purple flowers, and I think of all the places I've lived: Japan, Thailand, both the East and West coasts of America. I've found that wherever I go, it's always possible to be dissatisfied. There's always something to complain about.

Just a couple months ago at the hotel I had more to complain about than at any other time in my life. Truly. That experience's changed me. I guess I'm starting to realize there're lots of things I can't control and getting negative about them and overwhelmed by them doesn't do any good.

As I sip my cup of java and admire the flowers, a hummingbird flits up, hovers for a moment. Things could be worse, I think, at least I'm not cleaning toilet bowls anymore.

Jesse Sessoms


Comments

Jesse, very good comments however I would like to add one more point. I worked for eight years at a big government organisation in Aus through a number of large system implementations and restructures. I took a redundancy last year and nearly all feedback I have had is I worked too long in one company. Employers here like people who have moved around ever couple of years. Trouble with this I find is people have not been anywhere long enough to have really understood how things operate. It also shows a lack of commitment given high re-employing costs. If you worked two years probably add 10% cost to the salary, although this I have never seen measured.

Teaching English in Thailand for ten years may not seem to qualify you to jump up the corporate ladder. However, as you point out, if you keep your skills up to date, if I was an employer (used to be) I'd be asking about experiences of living in a different culture and look at the person who has the ability to learn and adapt in various situations.

Hopefully in Thailand July / August to start looking for teaching positions.

By David, Melbourne (5 years ago)

I managed to survive my share of recessions without pain and I felt the same way as Matt. However this is a bit like being on a merry go round. Everything is great as long as you stay on and the machinery is working correctly. But fall off or get on the wrong horse and it is far more difficult to get back on. The economy on the west coast has been quite dreadful thanks to the housing collapse and the recession. It is difficult to have sympathy for someone have a plight we are unfamiliar with. The problems are quite real, though, as is homelessness, cancer and global warming. Don't blame the problems on the media. They just report it. As a radio show used to say, if you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own.

By Roy Florey, Bangkok (5 years ago)

My God! :) Virginia is a teacher's paradise according Matt, Loudoun County, VA on 2012-06-01. I'm happy for Matt and wish him the best :)

I moved to San Diego in August, 1998. At the time I held a teaching certificate in H.S. English (Massachusetts). An M.A. in Professional Writing & Publishing. I completed required courses in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English (3.73 G.P.A.). I did not take exams, complete a dissertation or earn a Ph.D.

Nevertheless, I was the top student in my program of study.

By 1998 I'd taught in colleges and universities in Thailand, Massachusetts, and Arizona, racking up 15 years in the classroom.

I tried in vain to obtain a "public school" teaching position in San Diego for years. Finally, a state official said off the record an applicant should be fluent in Spanish to teach H.S. English in San Diego :)

Land of fruit and nuts :)

The San Diego job market in general is in bad shape, has been since 2006.

12% unemployment was reported in the news a year ago in San Diego. In reality, it was well over 15% not including full-time workers knocked down to part-time and losing their benefits in the process. A job market where a CEO of a major company lost his job only to end up working in a hardware store (reported in 60 minutes). Seems like things are getting worse in San Diego if anything.

Teachers get laid off in San Diego all the time. It's been going on for years. Seven school districts are in danger of not paying their bills or are in default.

Yet Virginia's booming! :)

I'm happy for the folks in Virginia, and I wish them the best.
Most every where else in the states is a tough nut to crack.

Understatement is rich :)

My last two teaching assignments were on Navy Warships.
I flew out to meet the U.S.S. Russell in Singapore in 2006. The Russell was a day out of Hawaii, the end of the trip, when it suddenly did an about face heading for North Korea. (The Russell was the navy's #1 missile hunter.)

In 2007 I flew to Yokosuka, Japan to teach on the U.S.S. ... Just can't seem to remember that ship's name :)

I'll be flying into Thailand soon looking for a job teaching English :)

I've washed my share of toilet bowls in my day in the army and getting through grad school. No complaints :)

I'm in my late 50s.

Good luck! :)


*Started my first career teaching H.S. English in northern Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

By Mike Young, San Diego (5 years ago)

Really? I've been here in the USA for the entire 10 years you've been in Thailand. Other than listening to the media hype people up about how bad the economy is, I don't see it at all. Life as normal. My house is still worth the same as it was 4 years ago. I've had regular raises over the past several years, and our local economy and school system is growing by 3,500 students per year. We're still hiring many new licensed teachers each year. I think it depends more on your qualifications and ability to sell yourself in an interview.

By Matt, Loudoun County, VA (5 years ago)

Guess I am better off than many here in Thailand after returning over 25 years ago. Have taught English in a college and Language Schools many which are a joke, but entered the hospitality industry and have been up to the top and now just happy to ease it and move down the ladder rather than up.
Originally from New York, and California I now only miss some of the food that was available, now love Thai food.
Teaching is OK for some but I can not deal with the young students and have always worked with adult levels which is OK.
My hats off to all of you who can stay and teach here and hope things are good when you return to the states.

By MCY, Bangkok (5 years ago)

Jesse

Sorry to hear about you situation, tough. But there is a lesson here. While being in Thailand one should not assume it is a permanent vacation, instead one should to keep up one’s skills and qualifications. Having a year or two of ESL teaching abroad on one’s resume might not hurt much, and could even be a benefit for someone seeking an entry level job early in one’s career.

But 10 years of teaching English is generally going to be a hindrance to finding a job back home in mid-life. If one is not qualified as a teacher back home, teaching one’s own native language is unlikely to have produced the skills most employers are looking for. Unless one is an English teacher, having the ability to explain ‘went’ is the past tense of ‘go’ is not the type of qualification most employers are looking for when searching for managerial staff.

Teaching English in Asia provides many benefits, but most of these benefits are intangible and are not financial. Those thinking of teaching English abroad should go into it with eyes open and a realistic understanding of the industry and how engaging in this professional will affect one’s future.

By Jesse, In a room (5 years ago)

Sad commentary on how completely f**ked up the economy is in the USA. Don't believe the news media...the economy really isn't much better than it was 4 years ago. People going back there really have to brace themselves for a bout of misery.

By Matt, thailand (5 years ago)

I read your story with bemusement. In January, I left Seattle (Federal Way, actually) to come to Thailand with my Thai wife in hopes of regaining employment after a year without a job. I completed my TEFL and am now in the process of finding work. Thailand, though, hasn't really gained a piece of my heart yet, as it has all the problems you mention above. I miss the states and have considered returning. Your letter, though, reminds me of what I left. I took my first trip to Worksource, as well, and met guys my age (57) from my same career (auditing) who have been out of work for a couple of years or more. Reading your story reminded me that perhaps I should work harder at getting used to Thai traffic, dogs and running chickens, and even take joy in teaching kindergarten. Thank you.

By Roy Florey, Chiang Mai, Thailand (5 years ago)

Being an ESL teacher was a means to an end for me. I wanted to get overseas and that job could get me there. At the time it was a fairly smart move. I was making about the same that a recent college grad could make in the U.S., and in 2007 the economy wasn't great so I could weather that storm. It was when I tried to make a career for myself that I ran into trouble. There just wasn't much for me with my degree outside of ESL. I made the decision to come back to the U.S.

Someone really should make an idiots guide to the current U.S. economy for overseas ESL teachers. I heard about how hard it was for some people, but I had a degree and 4 years of work experience. Worse comes to worse, I could have been an admin assistant. I was blindsided.

No one told me that as an unemployed person I would have a harder time getting a job. No one told me that as many as 500+ people can apply for a job on a company website in one day. No one told me that if I applied for more than one job on a company website, the system would flag me as a risk, making my application passed over. No one told me that the time I spent on those applications would simply be a waste.

I did finally get that administrative assistant position and was earning only a little more than minimum wage. I felt depressed and embarrassed with myself. I knew I was a great worker and definitely management material.

Later I decided that maybe I could use my education experience to get a job in higher education. That actually worked out quite well and I am a program manager at a top-50 university.

I don't know what is the best advice to give others...being an overseas ESL teacher is tough because the skills don't easily transfer here. The longer you do it, the larger of a black hole you get on your resume. That being said, dealing with reverse culture shock, living a life extremely monotonous compared to your overseas one, and feeling worthless because you cannot get a job is quite tough. It might only get tougher and that extra year spent weathering the storm might put you in the thick of it.

My advice to returning teachers:
-Do not waste your time applying on company websites
-Seek positions in higher education, primarily in staff-related positions
-Use an employment company or 5 to help you snag an interview
-Contact EVERY person you know who is employed and ask them for help. Suck up your pride and just do it.
-Simply having a BA or MA does not qualify you for a position, even as basic as an administrative assistant.

Hope this helps some people.

By Brian, Houston, TX (5 years ago)

Wow, this is a humbling and honest entry! It is so easy to become disenchanted living in Asia and feel the urge to head home, as I am currently feeling. The only thing that reminds me why I live here is reading and hearing about others in the same situation and their difficulty back home as well. I have far less experience and education than you and come from Washington as well (wanting to work in non profits when I get there as well.) I want to move home so badly some days but I know life isn't peachy there, just because there are dishwashers and English speakers.

Good luck to you on your journey at home! It sure is a crazy world we live in where it is harder to find a good job in our homeland....

By Elizabeth Frantz Larson, Bangkok, Thailand (5 years ago)

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