Sun, sea, sand and a hearty dose of freedom: whether for the sake of their sanity or for a giant pile of cold cash, more than 100,000 teachers have, in recent years, boarded a plane and landed at an educational institution away from these shores. From Dubai to Bahrain, from Beijing to Kathmandu, from Prague to Paris, British educators are plying their trade.
With projections suggesting that demand for teachers in English-speaking international schools is set to rocket in the next decade to 750,000, we are really looking at something akin to a great migration. But what is driving it? And what are the experiences of those who have taken the plunge?
My good friend Dai is one of their number. Born and bred “in The Valleys” and equipped with the lilt that follows and five years’ experience teaching business studies in Wales, he headed off towards the bright lights of Hong Kong in the summer of 2013.
He has never looked back. He teaches at one of the many prestigious British international schools in the territory. “I was tired of the same old routine; wake up in darkness, drive home in darkness, spending 25 per cent of contact teaching time on behaviour management (as opposed to “pure teaching”), the monotony of a heavy workload which resulted in a social life that revolved around school,” he tells me over a Skype call.
“I wanted to break that routine, teach students with a passion for learning, immerse myself in a new educational culture and have rich experiences outside the classroom.
“In other words, I wanted to have a life.”
His desire to teach abroad grew slowly over several years until he made the leap. So what made him finally book the flight? “One factor that didn’t impact on my decision was money. I have never been motivated by it but I had no idea of the potential to thrive financially as a teacher in Hong Kong," he says. Dai talks of lower taxes, a salary broadly 50 per cent more than in the UK, a housing allowance, a 20 per cent bonus payment every two years, free private healthcare and world-class CPD opportunities.
He goes on to describe his work in Hong Kong as “pure teaching”. “In three years I have not had to raise my voice once, not a single second of behaviour management,” he says. “I'm working with students who appreciate each other, appreciate you as their teacher and are passionate in wanting to improve at any cost but have some fun along the way."
'The best move I ever made'
Of course, he misses his family and the capacity of UK students for “banter” but from an educational standpoint, he insists he misses nothing. “Moving to Hong Kong was the best decision I ever made,” he says. “My advice to the suits in charge; forget the idea of 'golden handcuffs', release the shackles and set teachers free; autonomy, mastery and purpose.”
Another friend, Sean, is not so far away from him in another top international school destination: Vietnam. He was a drama teacher and a highly successful one, heading up the leadership scale with professional development qualifications to boot. “[But] the opportunity to purely teach and not get bogged down with the bureaucracy was irresistible,” he says. “The idea of a work-life balance appealed. I wanted a break from the intense pressure, much of it I was putting on myself. I did, however, love teaching in the UK."
In common with Dai’s experience in Hong Kong, Sean talks of students who “live to learn”.
“I find behaviour management much easier here. My students are all Vietnamese and they really enjoy their learning. They often learn after school too, whether in other language schools or with an external tutor," he says.
It’s not all easy street though. He does flag up the challenges of being a key stage 4 coordinator in Vietnam. “There is little you can do for a child who is being beaten up at home other than offer support,” he conceded. “There are no social services per se. Although our own relationship with our social services in the UK can be derided at times, I have learned how crucial our relationships with our outside agencies in the UK are."
Again, Sean talks about smaller classes, a slightly higher salary than in the UK, free gym membership and very good complimentary housing. “I want to return to teach in the UK again one day but being politically minded as I am, I don’t think we can until we have a reasonable education secretary who listens to teachers and a government who support teachers, especially in the state system, rather than deride them," he adds.
It was on my second day at the Bett conference in London earlier this year when I was approached by a recruitment consultant offering me £60,000 a year tax-free on the leadership spine in the United Arab Emirates at a school of my choice. According to him, the demand for British professionals out there is growing by the day. I was seated next to a 20-something primary school teacher to whom he offered the same deal, proving that age and experience is no barrier to career advancement in the Middle East. She politely declined, as did I, but the message was clear; there is an abundance of opportunity for anyone with a taste for adventure and travel.
Sir Michael Wilshaw is right about the excessive departures but wrong in his reasoning for them. This isn’t about money. His plan to use financial incentives as a bargaining chip will surely backfire when dealing with a group of people who are collectively much more interested in serving a higher purpose; the education of children. Unless something changes significantly, not even a Trump-style wall would stop the exodus.
Dai and Sean are pseudonyms