Borneo: A teaching experience

A lucky date
After months of planning and preparing for the big move, the day finally came for us to fly out to Brunei, and a very lucky day it was for us too if you believe in Chinese superstition, the 8th day of the 8th month, 2008. We certainly hit the ground running as we were whisked off from the airport to organise essential health checks, bank accounts and other essential bits.

Big names for small children
The first major difference on the day the children arrived was when I got my attendance register; I had never heard such big, long names for such small children before. How on earth was I supposed to remember, or even pronounce, all of these names? Thankfully, the rest of my year team pointed out the abbreviated list of names in the next column, which were the names I should call the children by, and I took a deep sigh of relief as I realised the first hurdle of the day had been negotiated.

Thankfully, the curriculum is broadly familiar as it is the same as the UK up until GCSE when the international baccalaureate  takes over.

Silence in class?
My other major hurdle became apparent as the week wore on. In the UK, I had always prided myself on my behaviour management skills, but it quickly became clear to me, however, that there was no need to try and get the children to sit quietly and pay attention; my challenge in the first few weeks with my new Year 4 class was trying to get them to speak at all! A combination of cultural differences, shell-shock at seeing and meeting their new teacher for the first time and generally very well behaved children conspired to make the first few weeks in my new classroom decidedly quieter than they had ever been in England, and I had to hurriedly get to work to try to work out some new strategies to make my classroom noisier, not something I had had to worry about before!

Excellent work life balance
More and more small differences came up as I started to get used to my new life in the tropics. Starting the school day at 7.25am and finishing at 1pm, with only a thirty minute mid morning break, certainly took a bit of getting used to, but within just a few days, I quickly realised how much extra time this timetable seemed to create for extra curricular activities, planning and generally getting both work and social activities done after school. Being able to do two hours of work after school and still make it down to the pool for an afternoon swim in the tropical sun definitely seemed better than leaving school at dusk and getting stuck in south London rush hour traffic.

A great quality of life
Although teachers’ salaries are low in comparison to the UK, the cost of living is generally lower.  Highly subsidised petrol was one of the nicest surprises coming straight from a country in the throes of the credit crisis, which seems to have largely bypassed Brunei so far.  We worked out that we would be financially better off before we moved as the package included a four bedroom detached house.  As long as I could handle being hot for the next two years, (the temperature rarely drops below 24 degrees even at night,) I would be alright, and to be frank, this didn’t seem like too much of a hardship to me in the grand scheme of things.    

A once in a lifetime moment
So far, the best thing about moving to Brunei came exactly seven days after we moved here and had popped into the supermarket for some shopping. We had noticed lots of cars in the car park, and men with cameras excitedly gathering in the doorway, so we wandered in to have a look. I asked the checkout girl why everyone was excited, and she told me that the Sultan was here! Unbelievably, as I was about to turn away and do my shopping, sure enough, one of the richest men in the world came into view, casually coming down the escalator towards me. I scrambled for my camera and rushed to the front of the crowed to get a photo of this once in a lifetime moment. As I was snapping away, a funny feeling began to creep over me. I slowly lowered the camera, he was standing right in front of me with his hand extended and a friendly smile on his face. In a daze, I shook his hand, and he asked me what my name was and what I was doing here in Brunei. I was almost speechless, but I managed to splutter a reasonably intelligible answer before he continued on his way. Now, I reckon that was a pretty fantastic way to start life on the expat teaching circuit, don’t you?      

Useful organisations
The Council of international schools
Gabbitas, international recruitment consultants
ISC research, useful facts and figures on teaching overseas
TES Connect overseas jobs
Centre for British Teachers

Charlotte Baird is a Year 4 teacher in her third year of teaching, currently working at an International School in the capital city of Brunei, Bandar Seri Begawan. 

For more advice on working abroad, visit Teaching overseas