International Schools

Posted on: October 15, 2011

Tonight I was asked some interesting questions by a contact on Twitter (who will remain nameless because I do not have permission to use it), that made me realize that, although there are a lot of international schools in the world, and lots of teachers in them, there are a lot that do not know what the situation is with us. So this is tonight’s blog. What is it like to teach in an international school abroad? I can’t tell you all the facts, but I can give you my experience. I also won’t be telling all the facts – don’t want to scare you. Just kidding. Please remember as you read this I have been in international schools in one form or another for fourteen years – and I am not planning to change that any time soon.

Most teachers start on the international trail as their first teaching job. Either fresh out of college as a qualified teacher (as I did) or fresh out of college as an unqualified teacher. I left the UK straight after Uni because I did not fit in. I had been brought up overseas in military schools and quite frankly did not understand the mentality of those I went to Uni with. It’s sad but true. But that was years ago and I am who I am. I left Manchester on a plane to Moscow and never looked back. I have worked in the UK and Ireland since but only as interim gaps.

So what makes working abroad and in international schools the thing or me?

As a twenty-something year old it was to get away from UK politics and to explore the world. Salaries were paid to offshore accounts in those days with local pay as pin money. You were paid what you would be in England before tax and your accommodation was free. Having a local pay that you spent wherever you were and a salary that was paid into a bank account that you couldn’t touch meant that you saved. And saved. And saved.

It was an adventure. A new and different country to explore. Extra long holidays for trips to exotic countries. Opportunity to see things you would not get the opportunity to if you were back at home. And the money to do it. Our new batch are no different. Come half way round the world so that you are closer to all the places that you want to see. Twenty-something and can rule the world!

Times have changed. I am no longer twenty-something and quite frankly thank god for that. Schools are now paying what you would get after tax, but still with the free accommodation. Prices have risen around the world. And most of all you have to check the exchange rates on a regular basis cause most schools pay locally these days not offshore. Most people come abroad to still see the world but less about the saving of money. (I saw what our lot are getting paid this year so I can guarantee its not for the money).

If you can get a contract like “the old days” it’s now cause the school is somewhere most people would not choose to go. I’ve worked in these places. Moscow, Kuwait. What the military would call hardship postings for one reason or another. I am not going as far as to talk about Saudi – which I refuse to go to no matter how good the pay is.

But I’m not here for the money. Let’s face it, no one got rich in teaching. God knows we tried. The experience is different. The kids are different. Kids are the same, I will always say that. They are different too. International Schools are at the end of the day fee paying – and the more British, the higher the fees. They are businesses. A lot if teachers these days that come to our school cant get their head around the fact but its true. And those teachers don’t stay too long either.

I know what you are thinking about my kids. These kids are spoilt. They go to the best cause their parents can pay for the best. True. These kids know more than your average student – forget it. They are truly the empty vessels that we are warned about. Parents are paying for the education. You must educate! I don’t quite see myself as too old but… Before I went to school my mum taught me to read and write my name, numbers, and alphabet. These kids arrive with nothing. Nothing. And not because they are second language English. They know nothing in their first language either. But they are cute. And if you are up for the challenge they are yours! They are a lot more innocent in a lot of ways than you are used to, more insular. That is not to say that they won’t lead make you go grey though. Trust me on that one.

As I said, I am no longer the twenty-something year old that wanted to get away from the UK politics and see the world and make money. I am here to stay though. Why? Its the challenge. And it’s the lifestyle! It’s sunny and warm every single day. I don’t need to lock my door at night. How many of you can say that? Well, that may have something to do with the two dogs I have. We will have managed to pay off a mortgage in ten years. Everyone more or less is polite to you, especially when you say that you are a teacher. They look up to you. They are in awe. A teacher wow you must be someone worth talking to. We still have status!

I have worked in schools that charge the earth and have no resources what-so-ever. I have been given a piece of chalk and been told to get on with it. No National Curriculum, no social workers. No photocopies, no computers. Only kids. And me. I have also known teachers who have worked in schools that on the first day of the year every student is given their own laptop (and that was twelve years ago). This is something you probably wont know until you get there, so if you have favourite resources consider taking them with you.

Schools abroad are different to what you are used to in the UK (or the US or anywhere else you are reading this). Kids may be kids and schools may be schools, but you will be working for a business. I am giving you the opportunity to go into the move with your eyes open. Make sure you understand what you are getting yourself into before making the move. Do your homework – especially if you are thinking about coming abroad later in your career rather than as a newbie. You will have a year or two year contract that will be very hard to break if you decide you don’t like it. Please do not do as many do and go home at Christmas and simply don’t show up after it.

Read up not only about the school it about the country as well. No where is what you think it’s going to be. MAKE THE MOST OF WHEREVER YOU GO! As I said, it’s not like home. Your family and friends aren’t just down the road. Your local isn’t your local anymore. You have to work at international living. You cannot expect everyone to like you, or even talk to you, when you arrive. The reason people leave quickly is because they have not put any effort into it. Some schools have great staff clubs that ensure that everyone is doing something (especially in those ‘hardship postings’ that I mentioned) others expect you to be adults and run your own lives. My advice to every new teacher I meet is to make a life outside of the school walls. And quick as possible. It is too easy to lose yourself if you don’t. Most places with expats have a rugby club, a Hash group, women’s groups, choir, church. The list is endless. But you have to go out and join!

So, real practicalities. You will be employed through a telephone call or in a swish hotel in London (New York, Sydney…) you will be given the same prospectus that parents are given which are all glossy and pretty. You may be given some information about what it is like wherever you are going as a member of staff. It will give you an idea on what to take with you, dress code of the school, electricity voltages etc, and how much money to take with you for the first month or so.

Usually you are expected in country mid August for set up and training etc and you will not get paid until the end of September. A few schools will stock your fridge for you, some allow you to take an advance on your September wage, but remember that if you take that you will have less to live on in October too. Conservatively plan on a thousand to fifteen hundred pounds. There will be things that you will need for your house however good the school is. The kettle could be on its last legs, no drying frames (always on my list for the first trip to Carrefour) and an endless list of creature comforts that you realize that you cannot live without. A credit card isn’t a bad idea either. If you are bringing a family especially you will probably want to rent a car if it’s a country that doesn’t have that good a public transport system!

Expect upheaval when you arrive to. Remember, YOU are starting from scratch in a foreign country. The school will do what it can but most of it is up to you. Again, it is dependent on which country and region of the world you move to but there will be certain red tape wherever it is. The school will have banking organised – they have to pay you. Most of the paperwork is filled in for you, you just have to sign on the dotted line. Dependent on what you are getting paid and on the kudos the school has with the bank you may be offered a credit card straight away but will not be able to use it until your first pay goes in. Most banks will also give you a loan for a car – but not until you have shown wages going into your account for at least three months.

Working-Visa requirements are something else that you will have to achieve. The school will take you through the process but expect some sort of police check, fingerprinting to iris scans, and health check. AIDS tests are standard in the Middle East. And probably the Far East too. They will do a full blood work up. Some countries, I remember in Kuwait it was the case, chest x-rays are taken for TB. Females may have to have a pregnancy test (that was Kuwait too). You will be given medical insurance paid for by the school. Depending on the size etc you could have an international scheme such as BUPA or you could have a local scheme for that country only. Either way the cards will be valid for private medical care and you will be given a list of hospitals and doctors you can use.

You will also have to hand in certified copies of all of your education certificates to prove that you are entitled to the job that you have accepted. Your school should give a list of things such as this to ensure that you arrive in the country with everything you need. If they don’t, ask. Trying to get certificates from the UK after the fact is a headache. If you are married and/or have children that will be accompanying you, marriage certificates and birth certificates will also need to be certified. If you are taking family make sure that the school sponsor them as well. If you join on your own and then bring your family later you may be told that you have to sponsor them and although the school will help you, you will be financially liable for the process. Also if the school sponsors your family it will pay for your annual flights as well as giving discount for schooling (as long as they go to your school).

Some other things that you will have to jump through hoops for after all that is done. Your UK driving license will be acceptable up until the day you have your visa stamped and residence card in your hand. After that you will need a local one. This is usually a formality if you have a “major” license, a quick eye sight check, photo taken and hand over some money. Some licenses are not accepted though and you will have to sit a test – even if you have been driving longer than the instructor has been alive. But that is another story completely.

Here in the Middle East you will also have to get a liquor license if you want to have booze in the house. This is usually ten to twenty percent of your salary per month. And you are not allowed to buy more than that. Don’t worry though it is cheap enough! You do need the schools permission for all these things and a letter from them describing what it is you want, but if they are organised there will be someone in the office that only deals with the millions of things staff want. Again, remember that you are starting afresh. You are unknown in that country and have to create your life there.

During this time you are thrown into the classroom with your new class and you focus on that. If you survive the red tape and processes of the first couple of months then it’s plain sailing. Until your visa renewal when you have to go through the whole process again. Yep, including the AIDS test. After that you can really settle into the school and enjoy the teaching and learning experience.

A few other things to think about before taking the plunge. Some countries, all in the Middle East, have gratuity packages where you are give a percentage of your salary per year on successful completion of your contract. Some schools have schemes where they will invest a part of your salary and top it up. But you will need your own saving or pension scheme in place because there isn’t such a thing. If you want to continue paying National Insurance contributions that is up to you to organise. Your salary is tax free and so needs not be declared, but if you are paying a mortgage the tax man will want to know where the money is coming from – unless you are willing to rent out your family home. Make sure your will is up-to-date. Obviously the twenty-something’s that rule the world have just ignored this paragraph, but those who are older and more sensible will take heed. My dad ensured that I had a pension and investments before leaving the UK and thank god he did. Working where there is no employer contribution system means that you have to pay more than you would at home. Of course, a lot of people do not do this or, like my husband, do it later after lots of convincing. It depends on how long you are planning to stay abroad. If its just for a few years then heh. But be warned, there are lots of teachers that plan to go abroad for just a few years and spend the rest of their career there!

I hope I haven’t put anyone off making the move. However, it is probably the biggest decision you will make and there’s little chance of going back on it once it’s made. Most countries have a three month probation period after which you are entitled to submit your resignation without financial penalty but most schools try to ignore this. At the least they will not repatriate you and some have been known to charge for the initial flight if you do not fulfill your contract.

After fourteen years and half a dozen countries and schools this is the life I have. My next move will be home, but that’s Cyprus not the UK and so I guess I am a life-long expat. I will be working there too and no doubt will hit some of the red tape that I have done else where. And I am more than willing to jump through those hoops.

I hope you would be too…


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