5 things you must know if you want to teach abroad

A seasoned international teacher outlines the major differences to working abroad that you should consider before applying

Paul Gardner

International schools: 5 things you must know if you want to teach overseas

The international schooling sector is growing exponentially and has been for the past 10 years.

The promise of better salaries, better work-life balance and greater autonomy in the classroom are alluring for many in the UK, especially on a dark night in February while marking Year 10 mock exams. But is it worth the jump?

Of course, thinking about a new job always comes with questions – career progression, school reputation, the commute time… But when looking abroad, there are more fundamental issues that you need to think about that you might not have thought of.

International schools: What I've learned teaching overseas

This year I will return home after having spent 10 years working abroad, and I would like to share what I have learned through my experience, as well as from what colleagues have said along the way.

1. Salary fluctuations

Depending on where in the world you choose to relocate, the salary can vary dramatically.

As a general rule, the more difficult a place is to live, the better the salary will be. The key factors that determine how difficult a place is to live tend to focus on cost of living, quality of living and accessibility/proximity to the UK.

Dubai is an interesting example of this, as many people would love to live in Dubai, so would question why the salaries are significantly higher. The reason for this is that the cost of living is higher than in the UK and this makes it a more “difficult” place to live, simply due to the cost.

When I worked in the south of Spain, the salaries were less than what a teacher would receive in the UK, but the quality of living was considerably higher. The Mediterranean lifestyle and cheap places to eat and drink made it desirable, so schools did not need to pay staff as much to be there.

One thing is for sure, you shouldn’t make the move for salary alone. There are many other and far more important factors when choosing your next move.

2. Working for a company

As state sector teachers in the UK, we are typically protected from the nature of corporate life. While we may feel that education leaders don't always make the right decisions, the decisions taken are always with the children in mind.

In the international sector, profit may become a factor. This isn't the case in all schools, as many are run as “not for profit”, but this is by no means the rule for all.

What this means is that you have an organisation that is ultimately geared to make money, and some of the educational decisions in some schools tend to focus on this over the quality of education.

If you are looking to enter the international teaching sector, ethically this is something you should be aware of, as some teachers genuinely struggle with this.

It's worth saying, however, that the vast majority of schools recognise that in order to create a successful business model, they have to create a successful educational product. So a lot of attention is spent on getting it right in the classroom. Just make sure to do your research and find a school that matches your values.

3. Shifts in direction

One of the benefits of international schools is that there are typically fewer roadblocks to change. Attitudes such as “this is how we've always done it here” don't tend to have the same credence as they would do at home.

There is much more autonomy and ability to try new things. However, something to also be aware of, and this is particularly the case in Dubai, is that leadership is very transient. Not so long ago, the typical tenure of a headmaster in Dubai was less than two years.

What this means is that the direction of a school can change significantly in a short period of time.

If you are someone who struggles with change or the idea that the relationships you build with your senior team and teaching colleagues are short- to medium-term at best, then you would need to ensure that you joined a school that had a history of strong staff retention. This is something that you can ask about during the interview process, or dig a little into the local community of teachers to find out more.

4. Living the dream – until the ironing needs doing

There is nothing quite like the first weekend in September when you arrive in a new country, are settled into your accommodation and head out to explore the new environment for the first time.

It's a great feeling, whether you are in the south of Spain, Moscow, Dubai or the Caribbean.

However, I can tell you that this feeling, though genuinely liberating and fulfilling, doesn't last forever. There is a reality to working life, such that you still need to make the children’s breakfast on time, pay your car insurance, go to the doctor and do the ironing.

I see many social media posts talking about the international teacher life as if it is a permanent holiday. It is not. When approaching your final decision, you need to be practical and realistic about the day-to-day life in your new environment.

5. Money can’t buy experiences

After 10 years, I am most certainly ready to move home and benefit from some babysitting from the grandparents and living within walking distance of the local chippy. These creature comforts that you enjoy at home become luxuries when you are abroad.

However, on balance, I am delighted with how the past 10 years have gone and my advice to anyone who is tempted to look abroad is to go for it.

Yes, it isn’t all “rainbows and butterflies”, but you will open yourself up to experiencing new cultures in a way that isn’t accessible on a two-week holiday.

If you do decide to go for it and find yourself strolling through Red Square, watching the sunset over the Mediterranean or climbing the tallest building in the world in Dubai, spare a thought for those of us back home marking Year 10 mock exams on a cold, wet February evening.

Paul Gardner is secondary school deputy headteacher at DIS Dubai. He tweets @DubaiDeputy

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