Working abroad? Don't assume you'll be paid more

Teachers working internationally often get paid more than local staff – but it isn't always the case, says this teacher
3rd November 2020, 4:00pm


Working abroad? Don't assume you'll be paid more
International Schools: Don't Just Assume You Will Get Paid More Teaching Internationally, Says This Teacher

It is a truth universally acknowledged that international teachers get paid more. Right?

The answer really isn't as simple as that. Theoretically, regardless of the educational system or the country that they are teaching in, teachers should be paid by qualification and experience level.

In places like the UK and US, there is a standard pay scale for teachers, based on their experience and qualification level, regardless of nationality.

However, in the international market, this is often not the case, particularly in the Far East, where salaries can be temptingly high.

International teachers paid more than local staff

It is common practice for Western-qualified teachers to be paid more than locally qualified staff in a huge number of countries: Thailand, China, South Korea, El Salvador and Malaysia, to name but a few where I know this to be common.

This can cause issues, one of which is the inevitable staff schisms within schools.

Local staff understandably resent the foreign international staff, and the international staff have a vague feeling of guilt that can prevent them from properly integrating.

This also breeds the assumption that "Western" teachers must be better than their local counterparts because they are paid more, and this assumption feeds on itself. 

I have had colleagues who have worked in China and they have told me of their local counterpart teachers, who often do the lion's share of the work but are paid so little they are barely above the poverty line.

One colleague explained it like this - if they were paid the equivalent of £2,000 a month, the locally qualified staff member would be getting as little as £200.

A colleague who now works in Malaysia says the salary disparity in international schools there can be as much as double.

In both instances, the international staff in these schools said that knowing they were being paid significantly more was awkward and made them feel uneasy. 

Paid less than local staff

It's the other way around in Sweden. There, Swedish-qualified teachers - those teachers whose qualifications were gained at Swedish institutions, not those teachers who are native Swedes - are automatically paid more than international staff.

This is because Swedish qualifications are more respected to the point that even a PGCE and master's in education does not guarantee you will be trusted to grade your own classes without having your decisions signed off by a Swedish-qualified teacher.

The pay problem starts with the lack of Swedish accreditation but continues with a practice with which most international staff are unfamiliar.

In Sweden there is no standard pay scale, so you must negotiate your basic pay. International teachers are at a specific disadvantage as this practice is often alien to them.

Furthermore, if they do not speak Swedish, it is very difficult to find information as to what a "normal" starting salary would be. This leaves the door open to prejudices like sexism and ageism, both of which have definitely happened in my school.

Those who shout the loudest are paid more, as opposed to those who perform the best or who are the most qualified or experienced.

Unknown waters

It is also incredibly difficult to convert your qualifications into Swedish. You are essentially required to qualify all over again but in the Swedish language.

Obviously, this is impossible unless you learn Swedish. One specific department where this disparity is most keenly felt is in modern languages.

If you teach modern languages in Sweden, you are exempted from being given a permanent work contract if your qualification is not from a Swedish institution.

Instead, you are only given year-long contracts, which make it almost impossible to get a mortgage or be paid a reasonable amount as contracts reset at the start of every year.

You could be a native Spanish speaker with a teaching qualification in Spanish and several other degrees but this would be weighted as less valuable than being a native Swede with a Swedish qualification in teaching Spanish.

While Sweden may be something of an outlier, it is a good example of why international teaching - wherever you go in the world - should not be entered into lightly, and why taking time to understand the issue of how much you'll be getting paid is worth its weight in gold.

The author is a teacher at an international school in Sweden

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