4 ways to assess a school beyond the glossy photos

International schools may post adverts with pictures of beaches – but this is far from the reality of teaching abroad

Mark Steed

International schools: Why you need to look beyond the glossy photos if you're considering teaching overseas

We have all seen the online adverts of a sun-drenched beach or the iconic skyline of a Middle Eastern or Asian metropolis beckoning you to quit your post in a cold and damp UK and move to warmer and more exotic climes.

These adverts promise adventure, sunshine and high salaries in low – even zero – tax regimes. What’s not to like? 

Of course, though, the pictures don’t really tell the true story.

International schools: The reality of teaching overseas

For example, I recently saw a job post for Dubai that used a stock picture of the Burj Al Arab hotel with part of the private beach of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel.

It bears as much relation to the day-to-day reality of teaching in a school in Dubai as posting a picture of the Houses of Parliament does to working in a school in Romford. The reality is that most schools in Dubai are a few miles inland from the coast and that teachers spend most of the day indoors.

True, the beach is there at the weekends, but it’s highly unlikely that any teacher is ever going to stump up the £1,500 per night to stay at the Burj Al Arab.

In fact, I am yet to see an international school feature in any of these tourist board stock photographs, for the simple reason that schools tend not to be in the centre of these great cities.

This is because most international schools are found in suburban residential districts: Dulwich College Shanghai is 12km from The Bund, Harrow International School Beijing is 24km from Tiananmen Square. Many are even further out.

In reality, the day-to-day routine of schools is the same around the world as it is the UK. There are children to teach, activities to run, parents to appease and marking to be done.

Skylines are better than building sites

Yet the skyline pictures persist, of course, because they are appealing and catch the eye. And if the school is still being constructed, it is better than a photo of a building site, of course.

But for job hunting teachers – especially those dipping their toes into the international recruitment market – the message is simple: look beyond the pictures and do your homework.

Here are four tips on how to do this:

1. Connect with current teachers

Often the most reliable source of information are teachers who are working at the school. The school should put you in touch with some, but it is also worth trying to track some down independently via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

It can be surprisingly small world in international teaching so ask people you know if they know someone at the school or city you are considering – the chances are that someone will have a connection.

2. Ask the right questions

Anyone moving abroad is going to want reassurance about the quality of life they will experience living and working in a new country: the salary package and what this means in terms of living costs and how much you can save; and what it is like to work there.

These things matter more than how good your nearest city or beach may look on Instagram.

See my Tes article "10 questions from candidates for overseas schools" (9 December, 2019).

3. Pay a virtual visit to the area

Google Maps, Google Earth and Google Street View can provide an enormous amount of information about the location of the school and its environs.

You can walk the streets virtually and see what the local area is like and what services are available.

Be aware, too, that new schools tend to be in the vanguard when establishing new middle-class residential areas in expanding cities around the world – so 10 minutes online can help you avoid living and working on a building site for the first couple of years. 

4. Research travel times

It is worth researching what transport is available – is there a local metro station or bus service? What times does this run? Is there a reliable, safe taxi service available? How long does it take to get to and from the airport? And how much does it cost?

Many cities have transport apps – it worth downloading these as they can help with planning. For many countries, it is possible to research the cost of taxi travel using Uber or a local app.

Google Maps can also provide useful information about travel time from the school to your residential area and to the historic centre, major shopping malls or the nightlife.

Make sure that you do this at times when you are likely to be making the journey – rush hour can be quite brutal in most major cities.

The decision to teach abroad is a significant one and it needs to be made in an informed way, evaluating all of the pros and cons.

So, when you’re hugging your cup of tea to keep warm in the staffroom on a rainy Friday lunchtime, don’t be seduced by pictures – remember, it’s not a week’s holiday that you’re signing up to, it’s relocation and two years of your life, at least.

Mark S Steed is the principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British School in Hong Kong; and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead

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