"Would you ever go back to the UK to teach?"
"Too much bureaucracy, archaic ways of working, Ofsted…"
From Cairo to Caracas, the above discussion echoes around staff room walls the world over among ex-pat Brit teachers.
The interesting part, though, is what is often said next: "In the UK, we used to…"
Such a line highlights the complex, almost love and hate relationship we British teachers abroad can have with our professional backgrounds and current places of work.
For there is a big difference between a truly international teacher and a teacher merely working abroad; a difference of mindset, of culture, and comfort with where they find themselves.
At some point, the teacher working abroad either stops bemoaning the lack of baked beans in the supermarkets and Marks and Spencers adverts on the VPN and becomes an international teacher. Or, they continue to bemoan and remain a teacher working abroad.
What makes the true international teacher, then?
They value their host country’s culture
This is different to reading about the culture, or even understanding it; to value another culture is different to just buying the latest Lonely Planet guide, spending an afternoon at The Great Wall of China or a morning at Petra – this merely scratches the surface of a country, its culture, its identity.
No, to value another culture is to allow yourself to compare it to your own and maybe even threaten your own sense of belonging; to feel a connection with ‘the other’, and not feel nationalistic guilt over it.
It is to see and then acknowledge that in Oman, for example, bank holidays mean the country almost shuts down as families spend quality time together or that the Malaysian state pension system is more equitable and profitable than the UK one.
It is to compare the way a small, relatively young nation such as Singapore or Estonia can transform their educational quality and output in under 50 years by, among other initiatives, centralising teacher training and recruiting top graduates whilst historical behemoths such as my dear UK, France, the US and Germany lag behind.
And perhaps that’s the rub of this point; it is about humility.
Can the UK or US-trained teacher look dispassionately at their own country, their own systems, and say "Singapore/Finland/Estonia/Canada does it better – what can I learn from them?"
The importance of self-awareness
This can be tough, just as all living abroad can be tough; baked beans do transport me back to my childhood and a safer time.
Teaching internationally is different, and different is scary. So when a teacher working abroad prefaces 60 per cent of their conversations with "In the UK, we used to…", we must control the urge to yell back "But you are not in the UK" and instead recognise that person is probably scared.
For the phrase "In the UK" is a crutch, a safety harness. The UK connotes history, gravitas, weight; an educational stamp of validity from somewhere sage and experienced.
It reminds them of something they know and understand, and that will keep them safe as they chafe against the new and diverse. All of these things are natural.
A truly international teacher deals with all of the above and is aware of it. They know that "In the UK, we used to…" is code for "You are pushing me out of my comfort zone here, let me take it back to something I understand".
And at some point, that last italicized quote becomes an actual sentence delivered by the international teacher – and the receiver ‘gets it’: “No problem Andy, we have all been there,” they say. “It’s a big shift but it’s good you can see the root of it...you’ll adapt.”
The need to adapt
What does a fully adapted international teacher look like, then? Firstly, they see the differences, even challenges, in teaching abroad as things to learn from.
I always think a good acid test is an international school’s history curriculum.
When you see a history curriculum built around a set of British textbooks, meaning young Emiratis, Thais or Argentinians learn about nothing but the Battle of Hastings, the Tudors and the Second World War (the bits that took place in Europe, mainly), you know the architect of that curriculum has not adapted.
I have experienced this peculiar cognitive dissonance myself when teaching in Qatar. A quirk of timetabling led to me, an English teacher by trade, teaching a Year 7 history class. What followed was a class of 17 Qatari students being taught why King Harold lost The Battle of Hastings and the subsequent Norman rule of England.
Though they enjoyed the blood and guts, I often found myself staring into mid-distance reflecting on what on earth any of these lessons had to do with their own history, which is frankly fascinating; a country that has sprung from nothing but sand and pearl diving to become one of the region’s smallest superpowers in under 50 years.
The fully adapted history, or English or geography teacher can bend and shape their curriculum to acknowledge, no value, the story of their host country.
In short, the fully adapted international teacher learns about where they are, and has the curiosity to look beyond what they already know.
You may think I have written this because I despised teaching in the UK and now spend my time pontificating on how the Western world’s time has been and gone, like an English teaching version of Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves.
Wrong on both counts (although it is Costner’s best work).
But I also love what true international teachers gain from truly integrating into their new country.
It’s about leaving that can of baked beans where it sits for something new, exciting and maybe even a bit scary – and immersing yourself.
Andy Bayfield is the teaching and learning Leader at an international school in Malaysia