Teaching overseas

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Did you know?

* 'International' usually describes any school which offers the curriculum of a different country from its host

* There are more than 3,000 international schools around the world, most of them English-speaking

* Most are private. Some exist to make money, while others are not-for-profit organisations founded by the church, the military, the local British embassy or parent co-operatives

* Many offer free accommodation; some a company car as well

* The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand recognise UK teaching qualifications and experience

Ever fancied teaching maths in Malaysia, geography in Jakarta or history in Haiti? It's possible. The jobs are out there in international schools around the globe, in the state schools of Australia or New Zealand, or as a volunteer in the developing world. How do you go about getting one?

Wonderful world

As an English-speaking teacher you are in a privileged position when it comes to finding work in almost any corner of the globe. Working overseas offers a chance to experience new places and cultures in a more profound way than is possible on a two-week holiday. A short stint abroad can be a welcome challenge if your career has gone stale, or you're fed up with routine. Your motivation might be sunny beaches, authentic Thai food, or a philanthropic desire to help a developing country. Some teachers spend virtually the whole of their careers overseas, moving countries or continents every few years.

Stash the cash

Not everyone is motivated by the spirit of adventure. It's no coincidence that two of the most popular destinations for UK teachers are Hong Kong and the Middle East, the two places which have traditionally offered the best financial rewards. In Hong Kong, salaries for experienced teachers can be more than pound;40,000, with a bonus paid at the end of your contract, though employers are revising pay and conditions. In the Middle East, salaries are lower - usually below UK levels - but living costs are also lower and, crucially, your income is likely to be tax-free. Many schools also offer free accommodation, and even a company car, meaning a large proportion of your monthly pay cheque can be tucked away. For young teachers, it's a chance to clear student debts and get a deposit together for a house back in the UK. The plan is often to do two years and then "get out". But be sure to do your sums. It's tempting to simply check out the exchange rate and see how the pay compares to the UK. You also need to consider how it stacks up against the cost of living in the country where you'll be working.

What are international schools?

Unless you're fluent in a foreign language, employment opportunities abroad essentially fall into three categories. You can work at a mainstream school in an English-speaking part of the world, in an international school, or as a volunteer in the developing world. "International school" is a fairly vague term usually used to describe any school which offers the curriculum of a different country from the one in which it is situated. There are more than 3,000 international schools around the world, most of them English-speaking, at least in part. Some are genuinely multicultural - the International School of Geneva has pupils from more than 50 different countries - while others cater predominantly for children of one nationality. Some offer an English curriculum, others the international baccalaureate.

Most are private. Some exist to make money, while others are not-for-profit organisations founded by the church, the military, the local embassy or even parent co-operatives. International schools tend to be in big cities, to serve the families of businessmen posted overseas by their companies. In a number of cases it's the company itself that establishes, funds and administers the school. But in parts of Asia and the Middle East, international schools are aimed at wealthy locals who see an English education for their children as desirable and are willing to pay for the privilege. Some of the UK's best known public schools, such as Harrow and Shrewsbury, now have "franchises" in the Far East.

Where to head?

Where you choose to work is a matter of personal choice, and every school is different. But if you're looking for generalisations, here are a few sweeping ones. If you fancy the Middle East, be cautious about Kuwait: more teachers seem to have bad experiences there than anywhere else. When the Iraq war broke out in 2003 many teachers who left on Foreign Office advice were promptly sacked. A recent court ruling deemed the sackings illegal. In any case, living costs in Kuwait have risen in recent years and there are also complaints that schools are under-resourced and parents over-demanding. But some Kuwaiti schools have a good reputation, and most teachers value the fact that they can be home at three in the afternoon, so have plenty of leisure time. Even so, if you're after tax-free income, Dubai may be a better bet.

Meanwhile, working in South-east Asia generally offers an excellent standard of living, and salaries can now exceed those in the Middle East.

South America also gets consistently good reports from ex-pat teachers.

There are a surprising number of international schools, well-established, with good academic standards, and often paying close to UK levels. It's said to be possible to live extremely well and still bank around pound;1,000 a month.

The international jobs market

Jobs in international schools are usually filled in one of three ways. Many schools advertise in the educational press. As with the UK jobs market, January to March tends to be the busiest time, with The TES typically carrying 80 or more overseas adverts each week. You apply in the usual way, the only difference being that any interview may take place over the phone or by video-link, rather than face-to-face.

A growing number of agencies now specialise in recruiting staff for overseas schools. The agency will keep you on their books and pass your details to appropriate schools. "We visit the schools who use us, so we know what they are like, and we know the kind of teacher who would be suited to them," says Simon Dweck, director of recruitment at Gabbitas.

"That's a big advantage to both the school and the teacher."

The third option is to send your details directly to schools, and ask for them to be kept on file. International schools may be thousands of miles apart, but it's a surprisingly small world and vacancies are often filled by word of mouth.

However you go about finding a job, don't think that just because it's on the other side of the world you'll be the only one interested.

International schools report strong levels of competition for vacancies, so there's no room for sloppy applications. One head of a school in Switzerland says she often receives letters from teachers who are doing the international job rounds and claim to be "very excited about the chance to work in the Middle East".

Half-built hotels

International schools are sometimes run purely for profit, and are not always regulated. So it's scarcely surprising that the world of overseas teaching is littered with hard-luck stories. Most revolve around crumbling schools and bouncing pay cheques, or luxury accommodation that turns out to be infested with cockroaches. Others are more disturbing, such as the head who motivated teachers with the promise that "bullets are cheap in Thailand". Or the teacher who was refused leave to attend his mother's funeral. Or the despotic owner who locked staff in the school and ordered guards to keep them there.

But like all travellers' tales, the anecdotes are best treated with a pinch of salt. Those who have unfortunate experiences tend to be vocal in telling others about them. Thousands of teachers thoroughly enjoy their time overseas. "In many international schools standards are brilliant, and results bear comparison with any school in the UK," says Simon Dweck.

"Schools that are in it purely for financial gain usually don't last long."

So be cautious, by all means, but don't be put off.

Look before you leap

The best way of avoiding a bad experience is to do your research thoroughly. The TES website staffroom has a thriving Teaching Overseas forum - and though posters are discouraged from naming and shaming schools, you can often read between the lines. Your union may also be of help. The National Union of Teachers, for example, says it is not general policy to offer comment on specific schools, but admits that it sometimes warns members if a school has a reputation for not fulfilling its commitments to employees.

Going through an agency should also offer reassurance. Gabbitas says it doesn't do business with unscrupulous schools, while the Council of International Schools has an accreditation process which it claims is "extremely rigorous, and a reliable guarantee", though only 100 schools are currently accredited.

Failing that, you'll have to do your own digging, or rely on intuition. One symptom of an unhappy staffroom may be a rash of job adverts in The TES, all from the same school. But temper your suspicion a little: international schools, by their nature, have a high turnover of teachers. School websites are an obvious starting point. And if it's an international school you're interested in, several online databases offer varying amounts of information (see resources). You can also approach schools directly and ask for contact details of current or former employees willing to vouch for the place. The website of the Overseas Schools Information Database also allows you to send questions to schools anonymously, so you can find out exactly what's included in that "generous tax-free package", without being exposed as a dinar-driven mercenary.

Suspicious minds

Many of the problems experienced in international schools revolve around contractual misunderstandings. Read the small print and assume nothing.

Things which you take for granted here, such as pension provision, maternity leave, or an incremental pay scale, are not always standard overseas. Contracts are usually for set periods, but there may be an option to renew: be sure to clarify.

Also watch out for any probationary period. This can give you an escape route if your new job doesn't meet expectations, but if you're moving halfway across the world then it's not unreasonable to demand some job security. Be clear about whether healthcare and accommodation are part of the deal. Most overseas schools are reputable and trustworthy, but some of the more profit-driven ones can be penny-pinchers. For example, one teacher was surprised to find that the offer of free flights to the UK every year didn't include the airline taxes. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, don't hand in your notice until all visas and work permits are in place.

Coming home

Will it be difficult to get back into the UK jobs market? "At interview, heads often comment on the two years I spent working in Spain," says one teacher who returned to the UK last year. "But the subtext is always 'did you have a nice holiday?' It's not taken seriously as part of my career profile." Other teachers report more positive experiences, saying employers have been pleased to see evidence of an adventurous or independent spirit.

Simon Dweck points out that experience of teaching the international baccalaureate could be valuable, if, as expected, many UK schools adopt a similar diploma in the future.

In any event, you might one day have to convince a sceptical head that you still have your finger on the pulse. Try to keep up to date with educational developments back home and if you return to the UK for a holiday, consider squeezing in the odd day or two of professional development. The European Council of International Schools also organises CPD for teachers abroad, often in the form of distance learning.

Green cards, red tape

A job in an English-speaking part of the world is an alternative to international schools. The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand will all recognise your UK qualifications and experience. As in the UK, overseas teachers have a better chance when schools are struggling to fill vacancies with home-grown graduates. In Canada, the profession is currently quite competitive and non-Canadian teachers are unlikely to get work. In the US, there are plenty of job opportunities but that's partly because teachers aren't paid all that well.

Getting your green card can be a struggle, but one option is to apply for work through the Visiting International Faculty (VIF) programme (see resources) which will give you a "cultural exchange visa" to allow you to teach for three years - they even fix you up with a school. Bear in mind that in the US the academic year starts in late July, so if you move straight from a UK post you may have to do without a summer break.

Australian immigration laws are also strict, but teachers count as "skilled migrants" and are better placed than most when applying for visas. Each state has a different recruitment procedure, and a different attitude to overseas applicants. For example, in New South Wales, there's a shortage of maths and science teachers at secondary level and the education department is happy to accept overseas teachers with at least four years' experience.

Be warned that some states award teachers a "suitability rating", and those with the highest rating get the pick of the jobs. So if you score badly, perhaps because of your lack of experience in the country, you may end up in a difficult school.

Also, there are a large number of Catholic schools in Australia, and they struggle to fill posts with Catholic teachers, so if you're a practising Catholic that's another avenue worth exploring.

In New Zealand you have several visa options. If you're under 31 you could apply for a "working holiday" visa, then head out and do some supply work to build up a good reputation. It means you'll be well placed to apply for permanent posts and attend interviews. Otherwise, you'll probably need to receive a job offer before applying for a work visa, but the opportunities are certainly there. Secondary teachers are in demand, particularly in maths, physics and chemistry, and the Teach NZ website has a dedicated section aimed at attracting overseas teachers. As in Australia, most job vacancies are advertised between August and October.

A better way?

Working as a volunteer in the developing world won't make you rich, but it can be hugely rewarding in other ways. VSO now focuses on recruiting senior teachers with management experience who work with schools, government officials and teacher training agencies to help raise standards. Placements are for one or two years, so there's even the possibility of treating it as a sabbatical and your school holding your job open for you. You'll be given a decent monthly allowance, which usually ensures an excellent standard of local living, and there's impeccable back-up in the form of training, medical insurance and national insurance payments.


Useful organisations:

* Gabbitas (www.gabbitas.net)

* Council of International Schools (www.cois.org)

* European Council of International Schools (professional development) (www.ecis.org)

* VSO (www.vso.org.uk) General information:

* www.osid.co.uk

* www.internationalschools.net

* www.iscresearch.com

* New Zealand: www.teachnz.govt.nzpathwaysoverseasos-demand.html


* US: www.vifprogram.com; www.britishschool.org

* Australia: www.det.nsw.edu.auemployment teachnswukteachiatinsw.htm; http:education.qld.gov.auhrrecruitmentteaching apply-1.html

www.tes.co.ukfriday has direct links to these websites

Main text: Steven Hastings

Illustration: Patrick Lewis

Additional research: Sarah Jenkins Next week: School nurses

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