It’s the start of year surprise that all international school principals and HR departments dread: that excellent young teacher who was so keen to move abroad and join the team has just phoned to say that she is now not coming.
There’s a week until the pupils return, you’re a teacher down and there’s no supply agency within 3,000 miles. The post-mortem questions flood one’s mind: “Why did this happen?” “What could we have done to avoid this?” “Where were the signs that this could happen?”
Soon, however, these are subsumed by the pressing concern, “What are we going to do to solve this crisis?”
This was not the start of term that we wanted.
Catastrophes and cold feet
September nightmares broadly fall into two categories.
First, there are changes in personal circumstances: such as the break-up of a relationship or the close relation who has an accident or is diagnosed with a terminal illness.
With changes of this nature, it is quite understandable that a teacher might not want to be embarking on a new adventure thousands of miles from home. It’s just bad luck for all concerned.
Second, there are times when the teacher simply gets cold feet and either doesn’t get on the plane or they head straight back home after a week or so in the school.
These occasions should be avoidable. They are usually due to poor communication, a lack of due diligence on one side or the other or unmet expectations.
Sometimes the school has not conducted a sufficiently rigorous interview process to check that the teacher has thought through what is entailed in moving abroad; at other times teachers can have a romanticised view of what it is to live and teach abroad.
One common area of contention is that the standard or location of the accommodation provided by the school falls short of the teacher’s expectations. For some, this is a deal-breaker and they vote with their feet and head to the airport to go home.
International recruitment is expensive at the best of times (adverts, visas, repatriation packages), but the cost of a no-show goes well beyond the financial. Having to find a replacement teacher at the end of the summer often means compromising on standards or the existing staff teaching over allocation.
Either way, it is not good for morale and stops any beginning-of-year momentum dead in the water. So, how can schools dodge the bullet?
How to avoid the September nightmare
The initial stage of moving abroad is an act of faith on both sides and there needs to be a transparent, open dialogue. Here are four ways that schools can ensure this:
1. Don’t oversell your location
There is a tendency in international education for schools and recruitment agencies to over-sell locations. We see it all the time: the pictures in overseas teaching advertisements that focus on iconic skylines, five-star hotels and sun-kissed beaches give a false impression of what it is to be an expat working in a school in a suburb.
Yes, there can be beach days and it’s possible to dip into the holiday life, but the reality is that staff won’t be living in five-star accommodation and that the daily routine is far from a holiday experience. Schools would be well-advised to dispel the romantic notions at an early stage.
2. Be transparent
Schools should be as open as possible about what the job entails, how much holiday entitlement there is, the quality and location of any accommodation provided, and especially how the package works.
They need to be clear about what costs are covered fully or in part by the school. It’s easy for teachers to look at a higher-than-UK tax-free salary, not realising that the cost of living in the city is much higher and that there may significant expenses that they haven’t thought through.
One reason for a no-show is undoubtedly that, on reflection, the sums just don’t add up. Packages vary around the world so schools are best advised to be clear about any contribution that teachers will have to make to school fees, medical insurance and travel costs for the family.
3. Caveat emptor
Schools need to do their due diligence as part of the interview process, probing key issues such as the candidate’s motivation for working abroad.
Will the candidate be able to cope with living at a significant distance from family and friends; and have they done their homework about some of the challenges that they might face? It is perhaps not surprising that things go wrong when a school appoints a teacher who has never lived abroad before or even visited the country or region.
4. Deliver on promises
One of the reasons that things go wrong is that schools move the goalposts and do not deliver on the promises made at interview. Sadly, this happens, often as not, when the owner goes over the head of the school principal to enforce cost-cutting measures to balance the books.
Relocating a teacher to an apartment in a different part of town or providing smaller accommodation may be allowed within the letter of the job contract, but it can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Schools often turn to their extended community in a crisis situation. There is sometimes a suitably qualified parent or a retired member of staff who is willing to step into the breach on a short-term basis. If all else fails, and in absolute extremis, the only solution is to draw on the considerable expertise of the senior leadership team and put them to task until a suitable replacement is found.
Mark S. Steed is the principal and chief executive of Kellett School, the British School in Hong Kong; and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets at @independenthead