The highs and lows of a new life teaching overseas

The international school scene no longer resembles the wild west, but you still have to overcome differences of language, humour and the price of salad ingredients

Passenger airplane flying above clouds during sunset

There has been a four-fold growth in the number of international schools opening around the world in the last two decades, to the extent that China alone now contains 857 English-medium international schools. Such mushrooming of opportunities for educators to explore a new culture – often in sunnier climes and with the possibility of financial uplift – means that more UK teachers than ever are packing their bags and heading for international schools.

Following five enjoyable years of headship at North Bridge House School in London, I recently arrived in Zurich for a second stint on the international school circuit. Back in 2011, when I moved to Zhuhai (China) for my first experience, international schooling felt a bit like the last days of the wild west; I knew of one school whose recruitment strategy was to employ tourists as teachers. This had the advantage of keeping recruitment costs and bureaucracy to a minimum, set against the minor disadvantages of ensuring an unqualified staff body and being entirely illegal.

Thankfully times have changed. Many prestigious UK independent schools are carefully building their presence abroad – particularly in the Middle East and Asia – while global schools’ groups such as my own, Cognita, have responded to this challenge by investing heavily in academic research and workplace conditions. Consequently, the educational standards and professional development opportunities in leading international schools now rank among the best in the world.

The international school experience is shaped by the type of school you work at and the location where you are based. Zhuhai 2011 is a different ball game altogether to Zurich 2019, Switzerland being one of the world’s most stable countries with a mature independent school sector – counting Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea, as perhaps its most (in)famous alumnus.

Whichever country you choose, there is inevitably a degree of "culture shock" and necessary readjustment. Liz Cloke, Head of Tenby International School in Malaysia, recently contributed to a Tes podcast providing tips for teachers arriving to their first international posting.

A good chunk of the advice centred on "settling in" and becoming accustomed to your new lifestyle. I would add that some attempt to understand the local culture and language prior to your arrival is invariably worthwhile.

It can, though, also backfire. Having read that the Swiss never joke at work, I took this to heart and have already experienced several cringe-inducing moments as a consequence. A local PA told me that she had worked for her boss for 11 years, then jokingly added “since I was 13 years old”. My earnest response of “How interesting” led to a bemused look and a few moments of awkward silence. Though I hope she was pleased that I’d knocked at least 10 years off her age.

Similarly, no matter how much advance knowledge you possess it can sometimes dissolve in the face of cold reality. I know Switzerland is expensive but…I’ve twice unsuccessfully tried to buy a bag of lettuce at the local mini-mart. On both occasions I found myself afflicted by a brief paralysis when confronted with the prospect of having to pay the equivalent of £3.50 for a selection of shredded leaves. One day I’ll make a healthy addition to my sandwiches but sometimes the northerner inside is hard to shake.

While focus inevitably tends to centre on the differences, starting a new role overseas is much the same as starting at a new school in your home country. Everyone spends the week before the pupils arrive fussing about classroom displays, excited by the prospect of their new classes, and committed to grand plans that will often be in tatters before half term. Trying to get to grips with where in the school things are located and how the IT equipment works is a universal problem. And while I’d like to blame it on culture shock that I locked myself out of the school on my second day in post, my capacity for such incidents is so legendary that my best man made it a central element of his speech on my wedding day. You’ll be the same character, with the same flaws, wherever you are in the world.

I’ve been in Switzerland for three weeks now and I’m already delighted with my decision to relocate. Teaching is one of the very few globally mobile professions, affording those with an appropriate qualification the opportunity to live on any continent of their choosing. Indeed, the facilitation of such opportunities is one of the advantages of working for a global schools’ group. I can personally vouch for the manifold benefits of swapping the cheddar for the gruyere – even if you have to consume it sans lettuce!

Jonathan Taylor is principal of the Cognita school International School-Zurich North. He tweets @JTaylor_swiss

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