Don't be an island in the sun

31st January 2003 at 00:00
The expat lifestyle brings its own problems, especially for the younger teacher: it's easy to become cut off by language and cultural differences, writes Martin Whittaker

While some schools in Britain struggle to fill posts, an international school in Oman has job applicants queuing at the door. And most go there in search of expat paradise.

"The life here is very good," says Dr John Scarth, principal of the British School-Muscat. "When we're doing interviews, that's something most people pick up on.

"We're just recruiting for a new head of our primary school. In the UK the average number of applicants for such posts is six. We have had 40 and two-thirds of those are from the UK. Oman is seen as such a desirable location - people are looking for a better quality of life."

If you've been looking out on a grey winter's day and contemplating the weekend marking, you may not want to read this. The Sultanate of Oman is warm in the winter and hot in the summer, with very little rain. It has mile after mile of deserted sandy beaches where you can see dolphins frolicking in the waves. The country also has mountains rising to 3,000 metres with spectacular views.

Teachers have the use of facilities at luxury hotels, including swimming pools, tennis and squash courts.

Most crucially, teachers at the British School have a disposable income.

Classroom teachers earn pound;23,000 sterling, tax free, have free accommodation and most of their bills paid, while the cost of living is generally cheap.

"What it means is that when you're not teaching, you relax," says John Scarth."And there are lots of things you can do to relax."

But living the expat lifestyle isn't all gin and tonics at the tennis club.

Such communities vary enormously country by country. Those applying overseas for the first time need to be adaptable, says Brian Garton, an expert on overseas recruitment.

"Sometimes there are problems," he says."The cultural perspectives of the expat community and the teachers at the international schools - their attitudes on international issues may not be the same."

In some countries an expatriate community might consist almost entirely of teachers. In others it can be people of diverse nationalities and occupations. Agencies recruiting teachers to work overseas often try to ensure that the candidate is likely to fit in with the community.

Teachers going abroad for the first time can find life is too insular for their liking. "Many teachers make an important point of getting to know the locals, which quite often expat communities don't do," says Brian Garton.

"Often they are little islands, keeping themselves well insulated.

"But many international schools have active community service projects, and sports fixtures. If you want to play football, you have to find local schools to play against. So there are significant differences."

The British School-Muscat has some 700 primary and secondary pupils from 52 nationalities. The city has a relatively small expatriate population across a range of occupations including teaching, business, banking and diplomats.

Dr John Scarth, the principal, insists the foreign community there is anything but insular. "Those expats who want to make an effort can. I'm going to Arabic lessons, and since I've come here we have forged links with Omani schools.

"If you make that step - and lots of expats do because that's why they come abroad - you will find it's easy to live both the expat lifestyle with the expat group, but also to have host nation friends."

But such communities aren't always large and cosmopolitan. Lilian Clephane recently took a post as head of The English School of Kalba in the United Arab Emirates after 23 years abroad. "I think people going abroad have to look very carefully at the place. This is a very small town and I don't want a teacher who's 23 or 24 because there's nothing to do.

"Kalba has a cinema, a bowling alley, a hotel and a couple of bars. But alcohol is prohibited, and the nearest decent nightlife is an hour and a half drive away in Dubai.

"And I think that's important. You have got to be happy where you are, so that's something else to consider - does the place offer what you're looking for in life?"

The small school opened six months ago and its staff are nearly all over 40. But its PE teacher, an Algerian in her thirties, finds there is too little to do.

"It's very cliquish here," says Ms Clephane."Everything you go to - it's always the same people. There's no way for anybody who's young to meet people and socialise."

Since starting teaching in Spain aged 24, Ms Clephane has lived the expat lifestyle in Madrid, Cairo, Bulgaria and Saudi Arabia. "It depends entirely where you are. Once I got a bit of Spanish I mixed with the locals, and in Madrid I didn't socialise with Brits at all.

"But in Cairo it was a very big expat community. Because of the differences in culture, we tended to steer clear. In Saudi we didn't know any locals."

She advises first-timers to ask for staff email addresses to get the inside story on the lifestyle.

Gabbitas, the long-established educational consultants, advise teachers going abroad to learn at least enough of the local language to get by. Many schools offer a free language course to new arrivals.

Candidates moving abroad with a family should also consider employment for a partner or spouse. Are they likely to be happy if they can't find a job? And is work readily available if you are not fluent in the local language?

Meanwhile, Nancy Morris, who coaches individuals and businesses on acclimatising to a new country, warns that people moving abroad for the first time can feel isolated.

She says teachers should approach it with the same sense of wonder and willingness to learn as they would like to see in their students.

"People need to understand themselves really well to be able to make the most of that experience. Teachers are pretty good at that. Their beliefs about the culture they are going into will have a huge impact on their expat experience."

For free tips on reducing stress when moving abroad, see Nancy Morris's website www.puddlejumping.com

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