The grass isn't always greener

7th August 1998 at 01:00
Sun, sea and a tax-free income are great incentives to teach abroad. But be warned, say three 'TES' readers, there are plenty of drawbacks I SO YOU are thinking of dumping the Office for Standards in Education report and the national test regulations in the bin, and heading off for a life of small classes, tractable students and job satisfaction in the sun? Think twice. The downside may be more than a lack of Marmite.

Before you go for an interview, do not expect a job specification in advance, or much of an idea of the criteria the appointment is to be based upon. Do not expect a set of questions, worked out in advance, and the same set for everyone. You may not get any questions at all, but just be invited to ask questions or partake of an easy chat.

Do not be surprised if the interviewing head shows scant regard for the culture of the country where his school is situated. The average duration of an international headship is two years - little time to get well acquainted. You may wait weeks to be told whether or not you have the job, and a long delay does not mean you haven't. When you do not get the job, you will not be told why.

If you attend a recruitment fair, talk to the old hands and take any warnings about schools seriously. Many international schools are private business ventures, intended to make a profit. They are not always scrupulous. Friends of mine were sacked from a school in the Middle East a month after moving there with their family; no explanation was ever given. I have known people promised houses, but stuck in appartment blocks; promised cars, and stuck in the desert with no transport to town.

Be careful over pay negotia-tions. The strong pound is wreaking havoc on the pockets of teachers who are paid in local currency and have financial commitments at home. Employer's contribu-tions to a pension fund may be promised, but local law may require them to be made into the local scheme. Try to get a reloca-tion package - even basic requirements cost a lot to transport.

Once you've signed your contract, expect frustrations of delayed baggage and bureau-cracy hassles. Expect culture shock but also to be excited by the country. But what sort of place is this new school likely to be?

Without the constraints of government and unions, all decisions are made by the head, or the board, or the owner. You may have less say in what you teach rather than more. For example, you cannot refer to the Falklands in Argentina, or teach The Color Purple in Jordan.

There are racists and sexists knocking around the inter-national scene, and many of them are there precisely because they cannot stomach the equal opportunitiesmulticultural ethos at home. Be prepared for sexist ribaldry in the staffroom, and disproportionate numbers of men in positions of responsibility. Don't be surprised by insensitivity towards the locals. Be prepared for the "they" conver-sation. "They don't understand time." "They drive badly."

You may be paid considerably more than the local staff, which also strains relationships. Or, you may find that the prime purpose of your school is the provision of an exclusive education to the rich locals, maybe even the descendants of past fascists, responsible for dastardly deeds.

In locations where the culture is more alien, you will be thrown back on your colleagues for your social life. This inevitably leads to endless talking shop at parties. It can also lead to levels of bitchiness and scandal-mongering unimaginable in a workplace where colleagues bid each other farewell at 4pm.

The locals may be difficult. It may be unsafe for your child to walk to the shop for an ice cream. A lot may hinge on your trans-cultural skills. Knowing a bit of the language and practising local customs about greeting can make the difference between a friendly band of idlers and a hostile one in the road outside your house. But in some places the crime rate is so high, it makes Brooklyn look bland, and you have to live in a condo with an armed guard.

Teachers' kids have a hard time adjusting. International schools may be looking for the best, but there are a lot of dinosaurs out there, chalking and talking and demanding utter silence. Cross-curricular activities, projects, role play may be thin on the ground. The facilities for sport or information technology may be poor.

Moreover, your child may feel at a disadvantage having humble teachers as parents, when some of his schoolmates will be seriously rich. To make it worse, you teach in their school. This means they are under pressure to prove themselves to their peers by becoming chief teacher baiter or class clown. You may find that you are denied the right to speak to your child's teachers on parent's evening because your role as a teacher comes first.

Despite all, going home can be hard. Try to negotiate leave of absence with your local education authority. Otherwise, remember, the longer you stay away, the harder it will be to find work when you get home. You may be signing yourself up to a globe-trotting track with no branch lines.

Rest assured, you won't find all these problems in one school. And by asking the right questions, you may avoid many of them.

Vicky Grant has taught for 25 years and has worked in international education for the past seven years. Vicky Grant is a pseudonym

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