Thinking of working in an International School?

There has been a proliferation of International Schools in recent years. The international sector has expanded significantly in China, India and the Middle East, but it is a truly global phenomenon. Subsequently, opportunities for teachers and administrators now abound in the sector with thousands leaving their countries of origin every year to take up jobs in international schools.

Our Podcast exploring life in an international school in greater depth.

I’ve worked in the international sector for over a decade and have no regrets about making a move overseas. That is not to say that life in the industry doesn’t come without challenges, and international education is not for everyone. One must think long and hard about leaving one’s own country to venture into the unknown and living in a foreign land.

The first piece of advice I’d offer to someone thinking of working in an international school is to make sure the pull-factors outweigh the push-factors. Leaving one’s country for life overseas is a life-changing decision and should not be taken lightly. If you are considering a move to escape a situation in your life, or because of dissatisfaction with life in your country then you might find that your problems only follow you. Many people consider moving overseas after the breakdown of a relationship, a divorce or even after the death of someone significant in their life. The danger of moving because of these negative factors is that you are moving away from your support network and friends, and if things don’t work out in your new school, it might be challenging to cope. Life can be very lonely when you make a move to a new country. It is possible to reinvent yourself in a new environment, but this is unlikely to be easy.

airplane over world map on blackboard
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

If you want to apply for a job in an international school, then do so for positive reasons. Do so because you want to experience life in another country, or because you want to grow and develop as a professional. Other pull factors might include the potential for travel opportunities, although these are significantly curtailed at the time of writing, or the chance to develop your language skills and embrace a new culture.

Once you have decided to make a move, numerous recruitment agencies can help you find a job. I have reviewed many of these on this website and YouTube. Whether you use a recruitment agency or apply directly to a school, be sure to do your due diligence. The quality and standard of international schools vary considerably within almost every country on the planet. Some are well-established, well run, serve their local communities positively (sometimes beyond their own student body) and make positive contributions to their host country. Others are fly by night organisations, run by charlatans, and seeking to make a quick buck. Choosing the right school is an essential part of the process and will have a long-lasting effect on your international experience. If the opportunity arises, you should take the chance to visit the school before signing a contract, but this is not always possible and can be costly. Instead make sure you read as much of their documentation as they are willing to share, check their presence on social media, read any reviews you can find, and use a search engine to find out as much about the school as you possibly can. I hesitate to recommend ISR (International Schools Review) as most of their reviews are written by disgruntled teachers with an axe to grind. Finally, it’s worth watching for what schools repeatedly advertised for teachers. If a school is recruiting vast numbers of teachers every year, they are either expanding rapidly or have significant issues with staff retention. 

Image from Global Services in Education

Once you have been offered a job in a school, you think you would like to work there are many questions that you need to ask your potential employer before signing a contract. Salary is the obvious starting point. Be sure to know how much you’ll take home each month after tax. In some countries you may be paid a tax free salary, this often the case in the Middle East, whilst in others, taxation rates may be markedly lower than in your own country. Most international schools pay gratuities. These tend to vary between 10% and 20% of your basic salary earned during your contract. Sometimes these gratuities are linked to performance management so ensure that you find out. Also, be aware that if a bonus is linked to your basic salary, this will not include any stipend that you might receive. Receiving a considerable sum of money as a gratuity at the end of a contract is one of the most attractive features of working in an international school for many teachers. Housing is another crucial element of your package. If possible, get the school to put you in touch with one of your future colleagues, or find someone on LinkedIn, so that you can ask pertinent questions about your housing. Whether or not your bills are included in your housing allowance is definitely worth asking your new HR department. Similarly, it would help if you enquired about flights to and from your new school. Are you entitled to annual flights? Does your contract include a flight home at the end of your contract? Are family members expected to pay their way or does the school cover their expenses too? Finally, be sure to know what insurance package you will have. Medical Insurance is ridiculously expensive in some countries, so if you are travelling with a spouse or family, be sure to check the cost of insurance if the school don’t provide family insurance.

Think carefully about the type of school you wish to work for, as some international boarding schools can be quite remote. In these schools, the chances are you might end up living on campus. Campus life can be tremendous, and there is usually a strong sense of community. You would be living in a bubble though, and there is little “escape” from work. Should you choose to work in a big city, you’ll probably end up living in an apartment, and if it’s a metropolis, then you’ll be surrounded by concrete and little open space for children to play. It’s essential to choose a school where you’ll get some work/life balance. Of course, you are going to have to work hard, but you will also want a release from the pressures of work. We are all looking for different things, so search out something that best fits you, and your career.

I’ve experienced the rich tapestry of life in the international sector. I’ve lived on a boarding school campus in Blantyre, Malawi, in college accommodation in Francistown, Botswana, a private house in Livingstone, Zambia, a privately rented apartment in Paris, France (renting in Paris or a similar city eats into the budget), and a school provided apartments in Port Harcourt, Nigeria and Shanghai, China. I’ve worked with the English National Curriculum, American Standards-based education, the Chinese National Curriculum, and other local curriculum models. I have grown and developed as a person, a teacher and a leader in the international sector. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the sector to anyone who asks. But I recognise it isn’t for everyone!