As a teacher, the world can be your oyster. But without planning, that dream job can turn into a nightmare. Madeleine Brettingham tells a cautionary tale and suggests how to spot the warning signs
the advertisement looked promising. A prestigious international school in a rich Arab state. A decent salary with accommodation thrown in. The prospect of permanent sunshine and tax-free earnings. But Cheryl Meyrick's job in Qatar did not go to plan.
Classrooms without desks, pupils without books, high staff turnover and a curriculum that was "in a mess" are just some of the problems she says she encountered when she arrived at the Al Jazeera academy, in the capital, Doha.
Five years' teaching had not prepared her for the situation she found herself in, she says. After getting sacked for writing about the school in a local newspaper, she was left to fight in the local labour court for the rest of her salary and a ticket home. It did not help, she says, that the court officials and her employer wrangled over the details in Arabic.
Ken Darvall, head of the Al Jazeera academy, denied Ms Meyrick's account of events, claiming that she had "committed gross professional misconduct" by writing about the school. "My biggest thing I say to staff is: 'If you're not happy here, please go'," Mr Darvall told The TES.
He said that the lack of books was an inevitable part of working in a far-flung location, desks were plentiful, the international primary curriculum was "in the process of being implemented", and the school, which is advertising 11 jobs on its website, did not have a high turnover.
The fact that staff such as Ms Meyrick had to share accommodation, despite being promised their own flat, was an unfortunate side-effect of the school's expansion, he added. "She hasn't got her facts straight," said Mr Darvall. "Staff are upset by what has been said about the school."
With its leafy setting in an impressive building on the fringes of Doha, many would be tempted to stay at the pound;4,000-a-year academy. But in the end Ms Meyrick was given 24 hours to leave the country. "By that stage, I was glad to go," she says. Despite Ms Meyrick's experience, it is easy to see why an estimated 50,000 British teachers are working abroad. The advantages are obvious. With more than 4,000 international schools worldwide, and rising, it is a teacher's market, and an enterprising newcomer at one of the many London careers fairs can expect to leave with at least one job offer.
An experienced teacher in the UK may earn pound;32,000, resulting in a take-home salary of less than pound;25,000. In Middle Eastern schools tax-free earnings of between pound;15,000 and pound;26,000 together with free accommodation, utilities and bonuses, offer plenty of scope for saving.
Expanding economies such as China and India are desperate for teachers and popular with candidates eager for adventure.
Ian Classey, a self-confessed "serial international school hopper", said:
"I have taught in seven countries since qualifying, starting as a rather wet 23-year-old stuck in the West African bush. Now I'm 46, married with two young children and living happily in the suburbs of Istanbul."
Gavin Stone is similarly enthusiastic. "I had some bad experiences - major security worries during the second Gulf War while in Saudi, not being paid the pound;2,000 gratuity bonus at the end of my time in Europe, cronyism - but the good far outweighed the bad.
"My daughter was born whilst we worked in Italy and it gave my wife and me an insight into the wonders of the Italian health system and the fantastic family-orientated culture there."
However, it is important when aiming to teach overseas to weigh your priorities and choose your destination carefully. Life in a rich Gulf state has been described as "the death of the soul", with teachers housed in gated accommodation, overwhelmed by glitzy hotels and shopping centres and enjoying little contact with local culture.
"These places can be very flashy but quite shallow - be aware!" warns one poster on The TES online staffroom.
Andrew Wigmore, director of TIC Recruitment, agrees that research is important. He says: "In the Middle East, you'll often be in shared housing, sleeping and working with other teachers. In Asia, you might be expected to play a bigger part in the local community. Europe is popular because pay is high, but then so are living costs. The world is your oyster, but you need to look before you leap."
Some teachers do not prepare themselves for the culture shock. Social isolation, the unfamiliarity of a new city and the lack of faithful pick-me-ups such as Cadbury's Dairy Milk and Marmite can all take their toll. There is a whole thread on The TES online staffroom dedicated to wistful reminiscences about Branston's pickle and "the best fish and chip shop in Burnley". Homesickness is not something to be taken lightly.
Graham Gamble, another well-travelled teacher, lists some of the challenges as different operating systems, the strangeness of procedures abroad, apparently unscrupulous school management, homesickness and the "What am I doing here?" existential crises. His own nine years of teaching in Europe and the United States have included an anthrax scare at his Washington school and the September 2001 attack on the Pentagon.
Most international school classes will consist of local children plus a few expatriates. Standards of English are sometimes weak so that implementing the English national curriculum or an international equivalent can be a struggle. Some teachers report better behaviour than in British comprehensives, but inevitably it depends on the school and area.
Anne Marie Astbury, who has taught in Poland and France, says: "It's important to realise that teaching overseas is still a stressful occupation. The focus is different, parental expectations are very high and some parents can be demanding." She recommends writing a blog to keep yourself grounded. "It's how I recorded and understood my experiences and there are lots of expats who do the same," she says.
Choosing the school itself is the most important part of the process. Lack of research can lead to disaster. Unscrupulous managers, money-grabbing schools and problems receiving pay and bonuses are frequent complaints.
The protections afforded to teachers are weak compared with the UK. Only local-language contracts are legally binding and if the school fails to honour them, you are reliant on the local labour courts.
David Cope, of the staff agency Search Associates, warns teachers with the travel bug: "It can be a lottery if you go it alone. It's important you do your homework."
BE PREPARED WHEN THE TRAVEL BUG BITES
Seek advice. Employment agencies and website forums such as The TES online staffroom can give you an insider's perspective on local schools.
Is the school fully accredited? Organisations such as the Council of International Schools expect their members to meet certain standards.
What are your rights? Get a copy of your contract in English. If necessary, get the original looked over by a native speaker.
Is accommodation free and is it shared? Is dental and health insurance included? Will free tuition be provided for your children?
What will your salary buy you? Pay is higher in Europe, but so are costs, and you are unlikely to benefit from free housing.
Watch for warning signs. Do they take a lot of new and unqualified teachers? Are they clear about pay and conditions? Beware of phrases such as "seeking staff due to rapid expansion", which may be a cover for high turnover.