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The personal cost of teaching abroad

Principal and chief executive Mark Steed discusses the price teachers pay for living away from family and friends, and the tough decisions leaders are forced to make when staff request a leave of absence during term time

A teacher leaving home

Ask any expat and they’ll tell you that the greatest downside of working abroad is the distance from loved ones.

This is thrown into sharp focus at times of celebration (births, marriages and anniversaries) and especially when testing times come.

Distance and the cost of travel mean that it simply is not possible to have the same level of contact with family and friends as we had before. The personal price we pay is not Fomo (fear of missing out): we are missing out.

All teachers are used to the problems of not being able to take planned annual leave during term time but the issue is much more acute when differences in time zone and travel times mean that returning to the UK for a day is likely to mean taking several days off work.

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Guilt and fear 

The hardest times to be abroad are when a loved one is taken ill, having an operation, or approaching the end.

Long-term illness can be a real challenge because you simply can’t be there for more than a few days at a time.

Guilt is the norm and it’s debilitating. But, above all, you fear that you will not be there to say a final goodbye. Guilt and fear are part of the personal price that we pay for working abroad.

In my experience, international schools are very supportive of staff when times are tough and will do everything they can to help on these occasions without penalising the teacher financially.

Schools have policies about taking leave in term. Typically, schools will allow a certain number of days of paid compassionate leave in the case of serious illness or death of a close family member.

The policies also allow unpaid leave to enable staff to attend weddings and significant anniversaries (such as a golden wedding) and graduations, again, for close family members. 

Inevitably there are events that fall outside those allowed in a school policy (best friend’s wedding/a favourite great-aunt’s funeral) and this is one of the greatest causes of angst in an international school community.

Consistency is key

The hardest part of the week when I was on the executive at JESS, Dubai was considering requests for leave that fell outside the terms of our policy.

On the one hand, it was understandable that those teachers who were in their 20s and 30s wanted to attend their friends’ weddings.

On the other, we had only 175 teaching days a year and there was no supply agency to provide cover. Surely missing friends’ weddings was part of the price that staff pay when they opted for the tax-free sunshine of Dubai?

One of the most challenging aspects for school leaders on these occasions is not only to be consistent, fair and transparent but to be seen to be so. As an executive, we were conscious that any deviation from the norm was setting a precedent that would go around the school community within minutes.

For a short time, we took the view that we would exercise our discretion and allow staff to attend weddings if they were to be best man or maid of honour.

But when literally every request received during the next term was to play a significant role in the wedding, we reverted to a hard-line approach.

And then there was the debate about leave during Inset days, and whether the practicality of allowing a teacher to miss training days was tantamount to admitting that these were optional and even a waste of time.

Few realised the pressure that the senior team felt to ensure that an Inset day was worthwhile, knowing that the teacher on the front row could have been at the wedding of a best friend from university.

A test of leadership

Absence requests in an international context are a real test of school leadership. In many ways, these decisions are some of the most difficult and emotive ones that senior leadership teams (SLTs) make.

Having to make tough decisions is never a route to popularity. So, if SLTs are to navigate the difficult waters of when to grant leave during term time, they need to have a published policy on staff absence that they follow in a transparent and consistent way.

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

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