Thinking of working in an International School?

There has been a proliferation of International Schools in recent years. The international sector has expanded especially 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 the move overseas. That is not to say that life in the sector doesn’t come without challenges, and international education is definitely not for everyone. One must think long and hard about leaving ones 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 difficult to cope. Life can be very lonely when you make the 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 the move there are numerous recruitment agencies who can help you find a job. I have reviewed many of these on this website and on 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 in 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. Gratuities are paid by most international schools. These tend to vary between 10% and 20% of your basic salary earned during the course of your contract. Sometimes these gratuities are linked to performance management so ensure that you find out. Also be aware that if a gratuity 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 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, you should enquire 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 own way or does the school cover their expenses to? Finally, be sure to know what insurance package you will have. Medical Insurance is ridiculously expensive in some countries, so if you are traveling 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 in. 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 great and it 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 important to choose a school where you’ll get some sort of 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 really eats into the budget), and 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 and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the sector to anyone who asks. But I recognise it isn’t for everyone!