Tuesday, May 29, 2012

International Teaching-Choosing the Right School

Beware-the longest post in my blogging history...

 I rarely write about the 'w' thing.

Yet, I spend so much of my time there.

The world of International Teachers is a funny one.

It was only at a hockey tournament recently that I realised how 'we', the teachers, were at the peripheral of the Kenyan community. As I spent my Saturday rolling on balls and timing matches, I really felt, more than anywhere I had ever taught, that here I am the hired 'help'.

Many of the prep schools in Kenya pride themselves on the fact that they are not International schools, but, British prep schools that just happen to be in Kenya (hmmm). But this is not about schools here in Kenya...it is just a little check-list I use. In the Middle East, we talked of 'Mickey Mouse' schools. Schools that, from a distance, seemed like they ticked all the boxes (generally new ones, with amazing resources), but just were paying for their accreditations. Maybe this might help to source the right school for you...

A Mini Guide to International Teaching
Part 1- Choosing the Right School
(PS- I have no idea WHAT part 2 would be about...if there is one!?)

  • Do not choose the country over the school. Remember that you will be spending A LOT of time at work. You could be working on an idyllic island, but if you don't have time to enjoy the country then you will be very unhappy. You have to choose the school because it is where you want to work, a place that you will be able to grow and develop professionally and that can offer things  that other schools cannot.At the moment, my new phrase is, 'I love Kenya. I just don't have time to enjoy it'.(If you do choose the country over the school, NEVER complain about work, as that is not why you moved there.) Saying all that...take that advice with a pinch of salt, as I definitely chose to live in Uganda, rather than the school and I do not regret it for a second. I think you CAN choose the country if you are near the beginning or end of your teaching career...but only then.
  • Do your research on the school. This seems pretty obvious, but believe me it is the most important factor. I have never gone to a job fair, but I know that these schools are, of course, going to 'sell' their school to you. You need to do your own research into the country and school. It is best if you visit the school before you sign your contract. I have always managed to visit the school and it does help. Although you still won't know exactly what it is like to work there, you will get a feel for the dynamics of staff in the staffroom and you will get to meet pupils etc. Also, work out your 'take home' salary. On paper the salary might sound good and of course the school will say it is 'competitive' or 'good' , but is it really? Factor in costs like accommodation, petrol, household staff (yes-a perk of living as an ex-pat), security and food shopping. If you don't get to meet teachers at the school (before signing) ask about your colleagues. Are they single? Couples? Families? If there are many teachers married to non-teachers, it probably means that the salary is not very good, that it is hard to live off only a teaching salary. Once you have been on the international circuit for a while, research is mostly done by talking to friends/other teachers who have worked to tell you about their experiences. I have been teaching abroad for going on 8 years (ah! where has the time gone!?) and you quickly find out what a small world the teaching world is. There is always someone that knows someone in this school or worked in that. (That is why it is also so important to always do your best, work professionally and leave a school on good terms!) This all sounds so obvious, but really, when some young teachers rock-up to start their job, I wonder if they know where the country (that they have just relocated to) is located on a map. Worrying!!
  • Interview the school. Remember it is very important that YOU choose the right school. Every school wants you to say that you will work for them for a minimum of 3 years (just say it!!), but there is no way you can do that if you are not happy. Find out if you think you will be. What can the school offer you? I have had to teach lessons as part of the interview process in the past. This is understandable and if you are a good teacher, will enjoy being able to 'show off' and use all your teaching tools. But what about the leaders and management of the school. Ask them questions. Do they have the same philosophies on education as you? Are they up-to-date with new initiatives and encourage their teachers to stay uptodate?Look for little things like a subscription to TES  in the staffroom.What do they have in place for Professional Development?
  • Value yourself. Be confident but honest. A good school will respect the fact that you are driven professionally and if they employ you it is expected that they will help facilitate this. Does the school have positions of responsibilities that become available often?  If you want to grow and develop as a professional, you need to seek a school which has plenty of opportunities for you to do so and that values a teacher that has the drive to better themselves.
  • Induction. If you are taking part in the Induction (for new teachers at the beginning of a new school year), it means you have accepted a contract with the school. But before that, you will know if the school is experienced with having international teachers and is prepared to support them with the move to a (possibly) new country. Do they have a forum for new teachers (a Facebook page for example)? Do you have school documents (medium term plans, schemes of work..)before you arrive at your new school? These will help give you a clue how well set up the school is for new staff. At one school I worked at, we were bused about for the first week, taken to the supermarkets, to restaurants etc...there was no time to feel lost or lonely. Another, my accommodation was not ready for my first week, I was left to get a taxi to work by myself...which I had to pay for and I bought my own map (as in, we were left to it). 
  • Notice the small things. (Do this when you visit the school-if you can.) What is the attire of the staff like? If there is a smart dress code, then the school and its management team have high expectations on their staff and probably treat them like professionals. If it is casual, it may mean that leadership /management don't have much authority and professionalism is not valued.
  • Study your contract and the package carefully. Money is not everything, but remember that it is one way that you feel valued as a professional. Everyone has tough weeks, but they will be easier if you are paid well. (See above-about doing your own research). Check out which area you may live in, (note, if it is by a UN, it probably means accommodation prices will be sky high...just saying!!)
  • Think about what you want in the long term. If you are just in the international teaching circuit for the experience, then a year here or there does not matter. These teachers are called 'backpack teeachers'. But if you are in the for long haul, it does matter if you move from school to school frequently. Schools don't want to continually invest time and resources into recruitment. Choose a school where you can see yourself being for at least 3 years.
  • Follow your gut. Sometimes, no matter how many lists you make about the pros and cons of schools, you just have to follow your gut feeling and hope that you have a great experience working at that school. (I once, on a visit to a school, that I then worked in, met a woman, whom I knew I wouldn't gel with or work well with. I thought it wouldn't matter. It did. My first instinct was right.)   

And if it doesn't work out, know there are plenty of other schools and opportunities waiting for you. Life is too short to be unhappy at work.

 Is there anything else I should add on to this mini-guide?

PS- If you are still reading- thank you! I am not surprised if you skipped bits and bobs...I obviously just felt the need for sharing!


  1. This is all such great advice. Like you said, I think a lot of newbies go into it without even knowing where the country is on a map! It's important to do your research and to pick based on an informed decision, not a spur of the moment whim!

  2. Wow, love the insider tips! I think it would be hard not to be wooed by some countries - there are so many cool places to live. I admit to throwing a few ideas to my husband :)

    There will be Jubilee beacons lit in Kenya and Uganda. You can look it up on the Jubilee beacon website. If you attend, I'd love to post your photo of it on my blog! Thinking of you :)

  3. Laura-Just having a look now at the website!Thanks!

  4. Thanks for that Laura-but don't see anything happening apart from at Tree Tops...bit far. But I am going to try and have a little celebration!

  5. this is really valuable! i taught in india and it was one of the hardest yet rewarding things ive ever done in my life. many of your posts remind me of my adventure. please continue to blog post africa!

  6. Thanks Allie!

    liking the title 'blog post africa'...as feel i will have a BA and AA periods in my life (Before Africa and After Africa!)

  7. Great point! I had no idea how difficult it would be to live on the salary I was paid in Costa Rica. It was definitely only enough to get by...not enough to enjoy the country around me. :( Life lesson learned!

  8. och no-what a hame HappyDally - we live and learn


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