5 things I learned teaching overseas for a decade

Embrace a minimalist lifestyle, respect your host country and its culture and don't be scared by the IB...and a whole lot more

James Tucker

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International education can be a life-changing experience if you go in with your eyes open, find the right school, the right team and have the right motivation.

I left the UK in 2010 on the advice of a deputy head who told me I should give it a whirl before settling in the UK.

Soon I had ditched my 5am cycle in the freezing cold and swapped my shared house in Brixton for an international school in Chile with a beautiful view of the mountains and free coffee in the staffroom.

It was a huge change and one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. The past 10 years have taught me a lot about international teaching that others considering the sector may benefit from knowing.

Here are 5 key things worth passing on. 

1. Non-profit private schools and for-profit schools are very different

Don't underestimate the difference between working in a private international school that operates as a charity or a non-profit and one in a profit-making corporation.

It is not small, and it will impact your day-to-day life. 

Notably, for-profits will be taking out a considerable amount of cash from the system, and this will impact your work. Trips, events, extra-curricular, all of these are money-spinners more than educational opportunities: the more people who attend, the more dollar for the company. 

This logic of bums on seats can be pervasive and means you are, in many ways, selling a service.

This changes the dynamics within the community, not least because you might feel the need to colour the potential advantages and hide the disadvantages to get good numbers. 

You might also be tacitly encouraged to get children excited about something without telling their parents the cost, for example. That can be a little unsettling. 

2. Workload, behaviour and money are great: but there are still issues

As a general rule, in international schools class sizes are smaller, the behaviour is better and the pay is good.

You can expect to teach four to five classes of 12 to 20 children, teaching 25 hours a week, and finish school at 3.30. What’s not to like?

However, there can be hidden costs: drastic changes in pay and conditions depending on how things develop, plus a very different school culture to navigate.

As such, get everything straight but accept that there could be changes because once you are there, you are there and moving countries (out or in) is not easy. 

And, while you will technically always be protected, to some extent, by employment law, the reality is more complex.

It can be harder to access justice as a foreigner; you might not have the contacts or language skills to know where and how to look for legal support. And big schools have expensive lawyers. 

Furthermore, leaders are often under pressure to respond to the whims of any number of aggressive parents who are often very powerful and wealthy.

As such, attempts to discipline children, criticise them, or give them bad grades are not always welcome.

Of course, parents questioning grades is common around the world but, when you are alone in a country, with no union protection and there are influential people around, the effect can be multiplied. 

No amount of high pay or shorter hours can make these situations any less unpleasant.

3. Be respectful of local staff and your host country

Too often, there is a big expat and local-hire divide. This divide is almost never deliberate nor because people don't want to engage.

Quite the opposite: most international and local teachers try to make some effort to make friends. But, ultimately, you are likely there for a couple of years to do some teaching and then leave.

The country is their home; they know and understand the culture of the school and are the standard-bearers for excellence. 

Good intentions are there, but they are not enough. The problems are practical, such as different cultural references and languages that mean it is always easier for foreigners to fall-into friendships with those who look and sound like them. 

Don’t let this happen: make an effort to sit with different groups at lunch. Learn the local language, the country’s history, read their literature, engage in cultural events.

4. A minimalist mindset is useful

Being comfortable with short-termism might seem obvious, but many teachers do not consider it carefully enough.

Teachers get to a new place and start buying stuff, wanting to make it "their home", only to move on in around three years and lose most of the value of that stuff.

Before buying anything always think: am I going to want to take this with me in three years?

For many, this minimalist living can be liberating.

5. Don't be fooled by IB terminology

Many international schools do not teach the British curriculum but the International Baccalaureate (IB).

This could seem daunting, but don't be fooled by the mystique of the IB; it's just teaching.

It can sound confusing with talk of global contexts, key and related concepts, MYP, personal projects, community projects and approaches to learning. You'll soon get the hang of it.

If you are a great A-Level teacher, you can be a great IB teacher. You just, like most great teachers, need to know your stuff and how to teach it.  

If you go in with eyes open, international teaching can be amazing, and it will be even more amazing if you think it all through first. 

James Tucker has been a senior leader in several international schools in Latin America 

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