From Renfrew to Riyadh

31st July 2009 at 01:00
Newly qualified but nowhere to teach? Don't despair - the world can be your oyster

Douglas Blane has been finding out from teachers who are working abroad and keen to stay

It's a tough market out there for newly-minted Scottish teachers, with too many chasing too few jobs. Recent vacancies in far-flung parts of the country make "get on yer bike" look like good advice. But "get on a plane" might be an even better idea.

It's certainly one that's occurring to increasing numbers of Scottish teachers, says Andrew Wigford, director of Teachers International Consultancy, in South Wales, which finds jobs for teachers in international schools all over the world.

"In the last couple of years, we've seen a huge increase in the number of Scottish teachers on our books. We get around 2,000 registrations a month from teachers in the UK. At the moment, over a third are Scottish. The reason? No jobs at home, is what they tell us," he explains. "Basically, they finish their probationer year and then are kicked onto the streets. They're competing for jobs with anything up to 500 people. We find it easy to place them abroad."

Good teachers from Scotland are highly valued, he says; they do well on the international circuit, and once they get the idea of going abroad, they're enthusiastic and committed. "Many get promoted and, therefore, stay longer."

Modern languages teacher Anna Coquelin, who completed her probationer year in Edinburgh last July and has just done a year's teaching at the British International School in Riyadh, intends to stay, she says. "I applied for jobs in Scotland but got nowhere. I came here on a two-year contract, but I love it and want to continue if I can."

The biggest asset for a teacher going out to one of the 80 or so schools TIC serves is adaptability, says Mr Wigford. "They need to be open-minded and flexible. They don't have to be young. Many are, but we also have a lot of older teachers whose kids are grown up and they feel like doing something different before they retire."

Anna is unmarried, which makes some aspects of life more difficult in Saudi Arabia, she says. "You need to understand and respect the rules of the country. You do have to be adaptable. Single women, for instance, are not allowed to drive.

"I live in a compound with 400 other people, expats from around the world. It's a beautiful place with swimming pools, bowling alleys, gyms, saunas and lots of other sports facilities, and coaching. What I like is that it's a real community. There are 50 other teachers, none of whom has family with them. So we act as family for each other. You feel very supported."

For primary teacher Patricia Reynolds, from Renfrew, the support she needed while teaching abroad was less social and more practical. "I didn't get a probationer year in Scotland, because I did my training in England. I needed to get fully registered the old way, through supply teaching - except I couldn't get any, not a day for three months from last August in Glasgow, Renfrewshire or Inverclyde.

"By October, I had to do something. I went on the web and within a week I was teaching in Holland on a two-month contract as a substitute teacher. I'm still there and they want me back after the holidays. It was amazing," she says, "because I knew international schools usually want teachers on two-year contracts and I was looking for just a few months, in case something came up in Scotland."

While events moved fast, the Holland job was more than a short-term expedient, says Patricia. "My big thing was that I wanted it to count for full registration. I made sure of that before I went, by speaking to the General Teaching Council for Scotland. They said that as long as it was a primary school, instruction was in English and I was teaching right across the curriculum, it would count.

"I also needed people in the school prepared to support me, with observations and so on, as you'd get in a probationer year. I'll still need to do 60 days' teaching in Scotland, they say, but that's a big difference from having to find a full year when there's no work."

Finding teaching jobs abroad is not difficult, says primary teacher Kevin Gallagher, from Glasgow, but a first-timer has to be careful. "My wife Lorna and I had done teaching English as a foreign language in Italy, South Korea and Poland. So when we came to the end of our probationer year in East Renfrewshire, and realised there were hundreds of applicants for every job, we were disappointed, but we chose to see it as an opportunity.

"The TES website has a good overseas jobs section, and there are several agencies which specialise in placing teachers abroad. TIC was recommended and has been fantastic - lots of time and support, even after we'd got the positions.

"Not all agencies are that good. We had a bad experience with one which asked us to London for interview. After paying the costs and not getting any response to phone calls, it turned out they hadn't any jobs although they'd told us they had."

Lorna stresses some important points that applicants need to bear in mind. One of the most important is how to separate the good schools and agencies from the bad. They advise teachers to get a recommendation, if they can, from somebody who has used them, and take a look at the standard of their website.

"One of the main things," says Kevin, "is that reputable schools which ask you for interview will pay something towards your expenses. Call them up, talk to them, go with your gut feeling."

Working in one of the thousands of independent schools around the world which teach in English and offer a UK or international curriculum is a very different experience from working in Scotland's schools, say all the teachers.

"Class sizes are small, which makes a huge difference to what you can do with them," Patricia points out. "I had only eight kids last year and 12 this one.

"The children are different too - much more independent and worldly-wise. They're coming and going all the time as their parents move jobs. They accept each other's languages and cultures."

The 20 pupils in Anna's class come from all over the world, she says. "I love the fact that I've a kid from Karachi, one from Sydney, another from Islamabad, another from Beirut - a classful of children from different countries and cultures. They think it's normal. They just get on with it."

There is not much difference in youngsters the world over, says Kevin. "Kids are kids. You get your characters everywhere and your wee, quiet ones. Because of the culture of family values and respect for teachers, in places like South Korea, there are fewer behaviour problems.

"One of the big lessons, which makes you a better teacher, is not to assume all the kids understand what you're asking them. You need to keep checking and give simple, clear instructions. We all use unnecessary language.

"Don't rely on words. Show them diagrams of what you're asking them to do. Or get a pupil to demonstrate every step. It helps. If they all know what they're supposed to be doing, it reduces behaviour problems - not just with English language learners, but with the kids back home in Scotland."

That element of professional growth and development is the positive side of an exodus of teachers which seems to be benefiting other countries, schools, parents and children at the expense of Scotland, says Andrew Wigford.

"Some of these teachers will return, if and when there are jobs for them in this country - and they will return better teachers for the experience they've gained in the international schools."

International schools

"British education outside the UK is exclusively in private hands; the British Government does not support schools outside the UK (with the exception of a handful of schools for the armed forces, for example). There is, therefore, a wide variety of British schools worldwide varying in size, and age-range, and particularly in managementownership structure (some are founded as companies, others as charities; some are owned by individuals, others by groups of parents and teachers). Since the British Government plays no part in monitoring these schools, the quality of education offered in these institutions can also, unfortunately, sometimes be variable."

Council of British International Schools:

View from abroad

"We're both going to be teaching at the International School of Bologna this year. A couple of nights ago the city set up a cinema screen in the main square and 1,000 people sat in the sunshine, watching a documentary in English. It was unbelievable. We kept looking across at each other and smiling." - Kevin and Lorna Gallagher

"The shopping in Riyadh is fantastic. There are no pubs, clubs or cinemas, so that is the big social event. Malls are massive - like little towns - air-conditioned and spotless. In the compound, we wear European clothes, but in public I dress from head to toe in a black cloak called an abaya. Working in Saudi is maybe not for everyone, but I love it." - Anna Coquelin

"The agency keeps in touch and asks how you're getting on. It can be lonely at first but it wasn't hard. The other teachers helped, and the school was keen to get me, so arranged accommodation with a young Dutch couple who were great - they introduced me to their Dutch friends and lent me a bike. I'm enjoying the work and my social life is good. I'm not thinking about the future but I might stay in Holland. I don't think there will be any jobs in Scotland for a long time." - Patricia Reynolds.


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