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The dark side of International Teaching

As thousands of teachers leave the U.K. for international teaching in the next few years, many will hit the jackpot in their search for teacher paradise. However, there will be equal numbers, drawn by big promises and sunshine, who will end up in a damp squib or worse still - a hell hole. It’s rare you hear about the dark side of the international teaching circuit, but I hope to introduce you to it here.

A friend of mine, an experienced international educator, popped into my messages a few months ago and said “Tom, international education is not as rosy as you sometimes portray it. There are many more dodgy and badly run schools than not, and sadly I find many teachers often don't do sufficient research before taking a job. They get excited by a website and a city, and don't actually find out anything about the school. Looking around I'm finding too many people are getting into international education thinking it's easier and pays more. Those things may be true in some places, but certainly not most. I honestly think international education is going to be the next big complaint from teachers as they believe they're being sold a golden egg when in fact it's just a rock sprayed gold.“

My friend has a point. Perhaps I have painted International teaching as Homers Odyssey in the past, particularly during my experience in Spain, but it’s a sad fact that some international schools, often operating under limited regulation, are making extortionate profits whilst working in ways that would see them shut down immediately in the UK for being below a floor standard of professionalism. Student behaviour can be very poor, with “leaders” caring more about profits than product. Parents can control schools, using their financial investment to dictate policies that would be best left to the professionals.

Of course, you could argue that this could happen in the average UK private school, but in the far reaches of the world, there are communities with very different ideas about what good education might be. In countries where the state education system is akin to something out of the 1890’s in Britain, many parents local to the school, might believe something to be ten times as good as the average UK trained teacher might believe it to be. The variation in what constitutes “high standards in education” can be variable. International laws vary, some for better and some for worse. Union access arrangements in many countries may be difficult, some countries simply don’t have them. If you don’t like something, it can often come down to “accept it or leave”. Leaving might be much more difficult when you’ve shipped all your possessions somewhere, with your family in tow.

With school leaders often venturing internationally on short term contracts, often 2 years, the temptation is to “manage the situation” rather than deal with it. If they have gone there to escape the rigours and pressure of the UK system, facing a major conflict or trying to make huge culture changes might feel beyond the remit. Keeping things “ticking along” and numbers of students ticking in, may be a better option. Turning a blind eye to the more difficult challenges might be tempting.

One thing that someone once said to me that's always stuck with me is "every international school is full of people who have run away from something". I think there is some truth in that. It certainly was when I ventured away from the UK in 2016. A combination of personal and professional issues led me down that path. In many international schools, you end up with a much more eclectic group of staff than in your average UK state school, this can be exciting but also concerning when you witness behaviours that wouldn't be acceptable in a more "normal" setting. I once had a conversation with an international educator who had worked outside the UK for a long period. He brought up with me that he had regular interactions with current students through Facebook. He didn't see anything wrong or problematic in this. His school was aware but it seemed they hadn't taken any action to address it. I have spoken to several international educators recently who have expressed concerns about "blind spots" on safeguarding in the international sector. As the sector expands rapidly, this could become even more of an issue.

Many international educators experience problems with their salaries. I spoke to one teacher who secured a role in a school in Eastern Europe only to turn up and be told they’d be paid less than they thought. Taxation can vary country to country and can be hidden from the layperson, who may get a shock when they get the first pay slip. This happened to a teacher I spoke to who moved to a school in Eastern Europe.

“(the principal) started to talk about pay. Everyone had been moved onto one contract, before they had been on two. I later found out this was because the system of contracts was illegal. Moving to one contract meant people were ending up with a 10% pay cut; this is because on two contracts, they were not paying the right amount of tax. I was told that this wouldn’t affect me because I signed a contract after the whole contract issue began so what I was told should have been final. This was not the case and after a fortnight of waiting for answers, the school agreed to stick to the terms that I had moved out there on. The new contracts seemed incredibly suspicious. One of their terms was that the full terms and conditions were confidential from the teachers.”

A lack of professionalism doesn’t end with contract disputes, the unique “family” atmosphere of many schools, coupled with a lax attitude to the teacher standards can lead to unpleasant results. Teachers often regularly socialise outside of work together, sometimes multiple times every week. This can be great, but the lines between work and play are often non-existent. With much less external and internal accountability, toxic confrontations, conversations and manipulations can happen. “The strangest thing I have witnessed was someone resigning during a staff meeting” said another teacher in the Middle East. “After the person left the room, the head proceeded to complain about their attitude towards the contract fiasco. Others contributed to the discussion. The meeting then carried on as if nothing had happened.”

I’ve already alluded to student behaviour. One myth is that because class sizes are smaller and most students come from privileged backgrounds, behaviour will be better. But children are children and each student profile carries its own challenges. In my school in Spain, I found a student population who were delightful to teach with superb attitudes to learning. I know that in other international schools that is far from the case, and not only that, teachers aren’t backed to deal with issues.

One teacher in Latin America told me how he struggled with the laissez faire attitude and lack of organisation; “I came from a very policy driven school in the UK; especially when it came to behaviour. We had a pen policy, silent work policy, hanging-out-in-groups-larger-than-five policy. Therefore, moving to a school where there was no behaviour policy and no school-wide reward/sanction policy was a shock. This might sound liberating but as a classroom teacher I find myself constantly having to make decisions about behaviour. Rather than focusing on teaching and supporting students, I’m spending my energy deciding what to do about students not meeting expectations. Add to this that SLT do not come near classrooms and therefore don’t know what is going on, there is no reinforcement or input from the top about expectations. You can imagine the daily battles with low level disruption. There is no support for staff who struggle with behaviour or celebration of our many fantastic students.”

Now, I think it’s important to highlight here *no behaviour policy and no school wide sanction policy*. I know of several other international schools where either this was the case or still is. This goes beyond teachers and students not following a set of expectations, this is literally a free for all and putting a huge reliance on the individual teacher in their silo. That’s something that comes up time and again talking to international educators and chimes with some of my experiences too; teachers are “left to it” which is what many coming out of the UK crave, but when you are “left in the jungle”, if you don’t have any of the familiar tools, structures and support to get you out, you can start to feel very stuck, very quickly. As COBIS now enables teachers to complete their NQT programmes in international schools, some newly qualified teachers may be in for more (or less) than they bargained for. I’d recommend any teacher making this kind of move to ask questions about mentoring, professional development opportunities and what day to day support is offered.

All in all, when you speak to international teachers, more often than not, you will hear positive tales. My experience in Spain was positive. But a “bad” international school can be worse than even your wildest dreams (or nightmares).

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