Abroad: the final frontier

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Fancy travelling? Gerald Haigh weighs up the pros and cons of teaching overseas.

Having to pay the bus driver extra to put his headlights on as he tackles tropical forest roads at night is only one of many unanticipated expenses that may face British teachers who opt to work abroad. My daughter Liz told me about the headlights. She spent 1993 to 1995 teaching with Voluntary Service Overseas in St Lucia, where the rural bus drivers are keen to conserve their expensively imported bulbs and batteries. They pursue this cost-saving strategy until passengers lose their nerve and pass folding money forward.

Liz told the story to illustrate a universal truth about teaching abroad: though the experience is exciting and often life-changing, there will inevitably be surprises, some of which will cost money. In the words of Brian Clegg, a senior officer with the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers who helps members who get into difficulty while working abroad: "Teachers are trusting folk on the whole. They assume that everyone in the world will do the right thing by them. Sometimes they don't."

A teacher working in the state sector in the UK takes several things for granted - state and teachers' pension rights, medical provision, a clear salary structure, a proper contract of employment. A teacher going abroad must ask detailed questions about such things, and a lot more besides, and accept that plugging the financial gaps may eat up some of that attractive tax-free salary.

For example, not only is it terrifyingly easy to have a road accident in some countries but the consequences of doing so, or of falling ill, can be expensive. Not all hospitals in the developing world have the same skills as those at home either. "They're usually very good at diarrhoea," said Liz. She had some dental work done at the local hospital in St Lucia ("by American volunteer doctors, who fitted it in between surfing") but the treatment left her in pain. "So VSO paid all over again for me to go to a specialist in the capital." Would other institutions, or private insurance do the same?

So, with such hazards to face, how to deal with them? Get a copy of the contract early. Read it carefully. Subject it to legal scrutiny if necessary, with the help of your professional association or family solicitor. Even then, do not assume that its terms will be scrupulously adhered to. John Williams (not his real name), who taught in the Middle East for some years, said: "Although there are some difficult contracts in the UK, we do have safety nets. Abroad, I was totally reliant on my headmaster for all aspects of my life. "

One consultant who works with overseas schools suggests trying to reduce risk by talking to someone with direct experience of the job. "Ask if you can have the name of anyone who is back visiting the UK. If you will be working under a head of department, ask if you can phone them."

Martine Udall took a popular route into overseas experience. On graduation she took a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualification, and went to work for a year in an English language school in Greece. Underlining the point made by John Williams, she warns that: "Your boss is God and the government rolled into one. You should check your contract very carefully. If you're not sure, see a lawyer."

In Udall's opinion, teachers contemplating working abroad should ask the following questions: How easy is it for the boss to sack you? How easy is it for you to leave? Do you have to pay compensation to get out of your contract? Do you have to pay any taxes or does your boss pay them? Are you paid per calendar month or per hour? Do you get sickness pay? What are you expected to do outside contact-teaching hours.

Many teachers, says Udall, are lured to the Eastern Mediterranean by "Greek myths - idyllic islands, lazy sunshine, turquoise seas". All the same, if you are careful, "it can be a very rewarding experience and you will certainly learn a lot both about yourself and another culture".

John Williams closed his UK bank account "to save charges" but now believes this was a mistake. You may need the financial link with home, and will be asking for the bank's help when you return.

Do not, though, do what Dawn Fardon did. She went to teach in the Kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayas - one of the most inaccessible countries in the world. She inadvertently left an overdraft of a few hundred pounds behind and the bank did not approve. "They wrote to me by surface mail; it took three months to arrive. I explained I was a volunteer worker, not paid in hard currency. I said I would be home for Christmas in six months and would do some supply work to pay off the debt. But they wrote again to say this was unacceptable and I would have to pay immediately or face legal action."

Ironically, a thief came to her rescue. "I had a camera and other stuff stolen on a visit to India and had to use my insurance money to pay off my overdraft. " But it was a painful experience.

The lesson is don't go abroad owing money and, if possible, save up a lump sum to cover unexpected expenses. Such as bus headlights...

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