Take off for foreign climes

14th January 2000 at 00:00
The idea of teaching with the sun on your back may appeal, but be warned if one long holiday is your aim. Gerald Haigh reports.

Thinking of working abroad? You may think schools are the same everywhere - teaching is teaching and children are children. Why wait for a bus on a cold wet Monday when you can cycle to school in sunshine?

This is true up to a point. However, the experience of teaching abroad can be suprisingly, sometimes disturbingly, unfamiliar.

Teachers should not assume that because they are well looked after in the UK, things will be the same in a private school in, say, Greece. In a local authority school, no matter how dismal your work or overbearing your headteacher, you have the safety net of a sensible contract, a right to professional training, a union officer if things go wrong, a friendly local authority adviser, a governing body to keep watch, and a payslip that tells the whole story. In good schools abroad, you will have all of these. In some you will have none - and just to make it tricky, some schools are excellent in some areas and deficient in others.

Teachers have written to The TES with accounts of sackings without notice so their schools can balance the budget. One wrote from an otherwise good school in the Middle East: "Staff were regularly sacked at the end of term, the middle of term - in fact, any time the headmaster thought it appropriate."

It is not unknown for heads to be the owner, writer of the contracts, signer of cheques and sole hirer and firer. The other side of the coin is that in good international schools, staff development budgets are high and there is more non-contact time than in the UK. And reputable schools generally offer sound contracts.

It is difficult to generalise. There is no one teaching abroad experience, and the best advice is caveat emptor - the buyer beware. Here, based on the experience of teachers who have worked abroad, and consultants who work with the schools, are the main things to watch for:

* Don't go abroad until you are on top of your teaching and able to prepare and deliver your own work confidently. You are going to be living a different life, and can't afford to worry too much about the basics of teaching. Some of the aid organisations - VSO, for example - will not take you without experience. Even then, there will be a rigorous selection procedure. As a rule of thumb, you'll need at least two years' teaching in the UK.

* Take nothing for granted about the school you are considering. Ask if there are teachers you can e-mail for questions and discussion. If the school won't help with this, daw your own conclusions.

* Try to talk to former staff members who have returned to this country. Again, the school ought to be able to help with this.

* Get your contract looked at before you sign. If you are in a UK teachers' union, they will usually take a look at it for you.

* You will want to be able to come home if things go wrong, but it's also reasonable for the school to want commitment from you. So don't sign up for more than two years. Additionally, there may well be a "get out" for both sides at about three months - ask about this if you can't see it in the contract.

* If you have been paying into the teachers' pension scheme, will you want to cover the period you are abroad? Consider health insurance. Take advice from your union about these things, which can eat into an otherwise attractive salary.

* Take care over accommodation. Find out what your money will buy. This is something to discuss in your e-mail conversations. Don't kid yourself that you can survive in poor conditions.

* Do your homework on the country. For example, if you are a single woman, can you travel freely on public transport? Again, talk to people who have been there.

* Why do you want to go? Are you going to be footloose for several years, moving from country to country, catching the surf, seeing the world? Or do you intend to develop your career during your time abroad, moving back to a better job in the UK? Either is valid. The former means that you may not be too worried about conditions. The latter makes it important that you choose a well-run school, take advantage of career development and return to the UK for courses in the long vacations. This will give you valuable credibility when you apply to schools in the UK.

* If you aim to go abroad in a couple of years' time, start to control your finances now because debt could ruin your plans. In fact, you really ought to have some spare money available to get you out of trouble - an unexpected need to fly home for a family bereavement, for example, or hospital expenses if you are ill or have an accident.

* Don't assume that a glamorous location will have glamorous schools. Your job and your accommodation are more important. A VSO volunteer, returned from working in a fishing village in the holiday paradise island of St Lucia, says: "No holiday can ever be like going to live and work in a place. The two experiences are entirely different."

* Do make the effort to see the country or the region. Some people become so wrapped up in the school and the social life that they see hardly anything, which seems a pity.

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