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The Myth of the ‘Trailing Spouse’

By Jesse Howe, 5th Grade Teacher, The Columbus School, Medellin, Colombia

This international education hiring season, I find myself in an unfamiliar position compared to past fairs I attended (June 2013 with ISS and December 2014 with AASSA). I have what the industry has labeled, somewhat derogatively, a ‘trailing spouse’. One might think that in 2018 with the explosion of digital nomads, telecommuting, and the plethora of companies that do not own office space in the physical sense, the ‘trailing spouse’ label would no longer be in vogue. My colleague Benjamin Light, 5th grade team lead at The Columbus School, succinctly criticizes labels as “Trying (and failing) to simplify very complex things. We have partners, we make decisions together, we believe in equality. No one is trailing. To say so is completely incorrect.” Yet there lies that box each candidate must check on their application, with the possible consequence of one’s CV placed into the virtual garbage can by many desirable international schools. The AASSA FAQ even has a section titled, ‘Accompanying Spouses Not Seeking Employment’, with the dire warning at the end, “Know that your situation may make it more difficult to be hired.”

I do not have to look any further when playing the blame game for this moniker than my own alma mater, George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, USA. The campus lies just outside the nation’s capital, Washington, DC, and fittingly has long been training grounds for the US State Department, as well as intertwined with national politics.

FAST TRAIN (The Foreign Affairs Spouses Teacher Training Program) began in 1990 as a collaboration between George Mason University, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Overseas Schools, and the State of Virginia’s Department of Education. The idea behind the program was simple yet visionary, spouses of Foreign Service members stationed overseas were trained to be teachers in international schools, able to receive a work visa and legally labor in their host country. Over the past 28 years the FAST TRAIN program has graduated over 1,200 students, the majority not affiliated with the US government (myself included). The program has undoubtedly been a success over the past 3 decades, yet the idea of the ‘trailing spouse’, which appears to have originated with FAST TRAIN, lives on (per gmu.edu).

Currently my partner and I live and work in Medellin, Colombia, a hotspot for the modern digital nomad, praised for its reliable and fast internet connectivity, quantity of public workspaces, recent uptick in private co-working spaces, and low cost of living. Thankfully, The Columbus School has rejected the label ‘trailing spouse’, as Superintendent Ruth Allen calls it, “Outdated and inappropriate, implying that the person concerned is an inconvenience or even a burden.” Miss Allen continues, “As recruiters, we need to be open to the idea that in today’s world, a partner may be economically independent and could provide a level of financial and emotional support to the teacher which results in greater commitment and higher rates of retention.” Despite the forward thinking mindset of many recruiters and school administrators, the pejorative term lives on. Many recruiters refuse to schedule an interview with a potential candidate who, according to school policy, is saddled with the burden of a ‘trailing spouse’. Trisha Nikrandt, director of learning at the Columbus School, states, “It would be helpful as I search databases to know if a person has a partner and if the partner is able to work and support themselves while living abroad. As a school this information assists us in sorting candidates and understanding the context within which they would be living while working at our school.”

There must be another way; we live in a digitally interconnected world untied to conventional office norms. It is time to retire the term ‘trailing spouse’ and open the conversation between candidate and recruiter to the realities of the present-day workforce, and the inherent advantages and limitations.

Jesse Howe teaches 5th grade at The Columbus School, in Medellin, Colombia with his fully employed, digital nomad partner Amanda and baby boy Julian.

School email = jhowe@columbus.edu.co

Personal email = jessekhowe@gmail.com

Twitter = @MrJesse_Teacher

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