Teachers have become Scotland's finest export

22nd March 2013 at 00:00
Demand for British schools and teachers overseas is great, but those north of the border have the edge

In 1888, in Mexico City, the first American School was opened to provide a US-style education for those who had emigrated. It was, of course, claimed as the first international school in the world. Today, international schools proliferate and the recent growth has been staggering.

Many well-known independent schools in the UK, and companies, have opened "branch" schools around the world. The demand for such education, particularly the British version, has never been greater. Consequently, the demand for British teachers has also been exceptionally high - and so, for many areas, has the supply.

The qualities that make British teachers, and especially Scots, suitable are - top of the list - a sense of dynamism, enthusiasm and passion for teaching. It is this sense of vocation, the love of teaching and the commitment to young people and their success that drives the best teachers. Many Scottish teachers exhibit these traits, but so do other nationalities.

The requirement for flexibility and adaptability is also crucial, given that you may have to teach subjects from the local education curriculum that you have never heard of and never been trained in. Then there are the vagaries of local reporting systems and assessment procedures with no guidance and no criteria, and the threats of dismemberment from parents if their child has a low-grade point-average in your class. Even without local impositions, a teacher needs to grapple with early years foundation stage, key stages 1, 2 and 3, IGCSEs and the International Baccalaureate, to name but a few.

Creativity and innovation are equally high on the agenda of qualities sought. These are areas which many Scottish teachers have developed in recent times, as a result of the emphasis shifting and more autonomy being granted to them. None of this can take place without a command of the subject and the requisite teaching methodologies.

The Scottish higher education system and teacher-training programmes provide a high level and depth of knowledge not seen in many countries. While there are excellent examples in the rest of the UK, in England there has been growing concern that training focuses on stifling creativity and innovation by putting teachers in a straitjacket, working as automatons, meeting targets and following an Ofsted script.

Tolerance, inclusiveness and sensitivity to other nationalities' needs are strong messages in many international schools, since they can house a huge number of students from around the world (this can be restricted by local laws and cultural attitudes). Having the patience to teach classes from many different countries and backgrounds, while trying to develop effective groups and overcome longstanding shibboleths, is not an easy task. Nevertheless, Scottish teachers with an experience of English as an additional language (EAL) and of teaching asylum-seekers, for example, have a definite edge. There is also the famed Scottish sense of egalitarianism and communitarianism that may not exist within all of us, but still is there.

Commitment, dedication and resilience are key components of the person specification. Whether you are teaching in a poorly resourced school in the back of beyond or a modern, highly sophisticated IT centre, these still apply. It is a natural temptation, when teaching abroad alone, to devote yourself to your work, since language, socialising and local culture can be obstacles. By the same token, you need to be resilient in the face of local working practices and officialdom. Given our climate and history (spiders, caves etc), I would contend that these qualities abound.

Working with local staff and many from other countries around the world puts a whole new complexion on teamworking and communication skills. A camaraderie develops with the aid of sign language, a limited vocabulary and a sense of shared experience - what better description of the average Scottish staffroom or base? Making yourself understood with a broad accent is a challenge, but can also be a curiosity for local people.

Seriously, there has been considerable emphasis on these skills in Scottish education for some time and, not surprisingly, it shows in interviews.

For any teacher, strong organisational skills are a must, and probably even more so in an international school, where there can be many competing demands - space, parents with high expectations, lack of technology, to name a few. While this may favour those with obsessive tendencies, risk-taking is also a highly regarded - if often ignored - attribute.

The whole adventure of going abroad to teach involves risk taking - getting a work permit or visa, negotiating a flight that goes via the US, penetrating labyrinthine bureaucracy, trusting to luck in a health service, sharing accommodation with a stranger perhaps. But the advantages are also great - experiencing another culture, the food, the climate, meeting different people, learning new skills and knowledge - perhaps even another language.

This commitment to personal development and its continuous nature has been a hallmark of the Scottish education system for a long time. The opportunities for training and continuing professional development (CPD) can be enormous, if you recognise them. Relatively inexperienced staff can gain promotion much more quickly than at home and the quality of their previous training is often tangible.

A Scot abroad or an innocent at large, the tradition of Scots influence around the world - especially in education - continues unabated because of the quality of teacher training and curriculum development.

Brian Cooklin is former headteacher of Stonelaw High, Glasgow, and a former president of School Leaders Scotland.

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