Teaching beyond boundaries

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Everyone has an opinion on those teachers who pack up and head abroad to work, and many British teachers don’t realise the educational opportunities that are available to them around the world.

Here are the stories of three teachers who can speak from experience about why they took the decision to leave to work abroad and what was involved.

Mary Van Der Heijden - from shy nursery teacher to educational consultant.

“I’d always wanted to work overseas. This was back in the late ‘70s when there was no internet or much advertising of international jobs. I wanted to travel and I wanted to teach and at that point I thought it was either/or. With two years of teaching experience in the East End of London, I took a late ‘gap year’ and did some travelling and at that point realised the teaching opportunities available to me. I went to work at the British School of Amsterdam, setting up a new nursery unit. It began with four children but grew rapidly and we had enough for two classes by the time I left. I was doing everything from resourcing to dealing with new parents as well as teaching and it was a great experience.

It was while I was there meeting teachers from different parts of the world that I began to realise all the international teaching opportunities available to me. It’s not about teaching English as a foreign language; it’s about taking your teaching skills and using them in English-speaking schools including British schools overseas and international schools.

Before I left the UK I didn’t really know these existed. It’s different today with the internet and more advertising but I still think many British teachers don’t realise the serious educational opportunities that are available to them around the world now.

After teaching in Holland I had the opportunity to teach in Africa and Borneo and then to take a deputy head post at a new bilingual global school in Jakarta. The opportunity was amazing as I was a crucial part of the building and of the whole fabric of the school. Opportunities there grew for me, from being deputy head to head teacher. Looking back it was an amazing time: I had a four-year-old and, at one point was having another baby and learning to manage and lead a school! But I had some great mentors and would talk to everyone I could to solicit help and advice.

A couple of years on, a job was advertised in a Shell school in Brunei and I just couldn’t resist it! You get the bug for a certain environment and, as a family we loved south-east Asia. Brunei was a wonderful environment for children; very multinational, very accessible, and safe.

For my girls who were two and six years old at the time, there was massive exposure to 25 or more nationalities. They were opened up to the world and that’s stayed with them ever since. They can talk to anyone, at any level and both have friends from all corners of the globe. It was an amazing experience for them, and for me I got the headship working in a much more corporate environment, a very unique experience! I’d originally left the UK as a shy nursery teacher but my international teaching experience gave me the confidence and ambition to lead and manage quite diverse schools.

I’ve maintained connections everywhere I’ve been. I’ve left every country with at least one very strong friendship and many good colleagues, all of whom have remained in touch. That friendship and camaraderie grows with you over the years and can be incredibly powerful in work and social situations. It’s opened up doors and new opportunities that I could never have imagined.

I was then offered a unique opportunity to train about five hundred teachers in Qatar which really led me into the next phase of my career as an educational consultant. My international teaching experience had exposed me to so many things from curriculum, leadership and management and training to architecture and business strategy, and it gave me the experience and knowledge that I needed to do this. I was able to put to use all that I’d amassed over the years and this gave me the opportunity to share that wealth of experience that I’d been fortunate enough to gain. I’m constantly using my past connections and am frequently linking back up with old colleagues around the globe for professional as well as social reasons. I also find it hugely valuable to refer to past experiences and the very different school environments when making decisions and recommendations; looking at similarities and differences and what works in some environments but not in others.

Those incredible experiences never go away. The links keep growing and getting stronger. They’ve opened my mind and my world like I could never have imagined when I first trained as a teacher.”

Dominic Crompton – developing personally and professionally in Colombia.

“It never occurred to me to teach internationally. Sarah (Dominic’s wife, also teaching primary at the time) wanted to go and I tagged along! She knew what she wanted far more than I did. I thought it was VSO or nothing.

We were interviewed by the head teacher for the Colegio Anglo Colombiano School in Bogota, Colombia. He wasn’t interested in the languages we spoke or very much about our teaching experience - we had two years’ experience teaching in Britain at that time. He was more interested in our attitudes to living in a different culture and our robustness of how we would cope if things got tough.

Once we were there we realised just how important the right attitude was. We were amongst a lot of young teachers from many countries including Australia and New
Zealand, but they all had a great approach to teaching, really positive attitudes and open minds. Working with these teachers was an incredible lesson for us both. It’s very easy as a British teacher to have a self-inflated belief that the whole world follows our lead. That is absolutely not true. The New Zealand systems in particular impressed me greatly. I was amazed that a country so small and insignificant culturally could be so dynamic and innovative.

The knowledge of the Kiwi teachers was incredible. And because we were having to think about what was right for the school curriculum, we were forced to consider the relevance of what we were teaching. Working as a team, sharing ideas, teaching skills and different perspectives was an amazing opportunity and really encouraged you to be innovative.

Working internationally was also a good wake-up call. Even though we were working in a very prestigious school in a capital city, the resourcing was very hit and miss. Most schools in Britain were far better resourced. It forced you to act and think more creatively.

We knew we wanted to return to teaching in Britain. We came back for friends and family but there is no doubt that it was a fantastic three years away which altered our outlook permanently. We’d both developed professionally through high quality in-service and great team teaching and we’d made some phenomenal contacts during that time. There is no doubt that it’s shaped the way I teach and the way I view life in general. And it gave me far more confidence to look at opportunities further afield.

For example, I decided I didn’t want to go back into a primary setting when we returned and instead chose to go into an EBD environment which I felt would give me more freedom to teach, to carry on being creative and to think on my feet. Now I am deputy head teacher at Skilts special school in Redditch, Worcestershire and love it.

Looking back, the whole international teaching experience was a great way of opening our eyes to other people, to other situations totally different to those we grew up with. As a teacher it completely changed my opinion of what’s best. No one knows the right way; it’s an amalgamation of experiences and knowledge. You go out there with one mindset, you return with another that’s broader, far more open to the rest of the world. And, without doubt, it’s an experience I would recommend to anyone. It is impossible not to bring something back that is of great value, professionally and personally. Professionally you are so employable, especially if you are returning with experience of developing curriculum and with leadership and international links.”

Jeff Burt – fourteen years teaching across the world.

“In 1989 I did an exchange year teaching physics in Australia. Once the year was up, I returned to my old school; Sedgehill Secondary School in Catford. But by then I had realised that there were lots of opportunities for teaching abroad and knew I wanted to try somewhere else.

A year later, I grabbed one of those opportunities and headed out with my family to the Brent International School in Manila, the Philippines. Fourteen years on, I’ve since taught in the British International School in Istanbul, Turkey and am now in Sri Lanka at the Overseas School of Colombo. I’ve had memorable experiences in every place that I’ve worked and have taught some fantastic students. Looking back, the whole international teaching experience has been amazing. I’ve taught Australian and
American style curriculum, IGCSE (International GSCE) and International Baccalaureate (IB). You have to be prepared to adapt to new content and assessment styles, as well as look at your teaching methodology. The IB programs are substantially different to the National Curriculum for England and Wales and can be quite demanding when you first start them but they are very interesting to teach and incredibly good for your professional development.

The career path may not be as obvious as staying in the UK, but every time you change jobs, that’s another major step in courses, cultures and positions. It’s a great opportunity to experience different approaches to teaching from all over the world.

My wife, Jax, is a biology teacher, and our two girls were aged two and four years old when we moved to Manila. Travelling with young children was very easy and in a lot of places childcare for primary age kids is easy to arrange.

Most international schools have very good primary sections and children are well catered for with lots of activities. As a family we have grown up with international life; it’s a very positive and rewarding experience. It’s given our children a more mature and compassionate outlook.

What advice would I give? Well you have to be a little adventurous! Things are not the same as you find them at home and you should be prepared for that. Flexibility and adaptability are definitely great assets to have. But what you get back is so much more; experiences that will enhance you personally and professionally for the rest of your life.”

Mary, Dominic and Jeff are three of more than 150,000 teachers who are teaching in international schools around the world. “And they’re a growing number,” says Andrew Wigford, director of recruitment specialists, Teachers International Consultancy. “200 new international schools were opened last year alone. This massive growth, incorporating over 1.6million attending students and with an expected increase of 8% each year (according to the International School Consultancy) means that these schools are crying out for staff. And the first place they turn to is Britain. Not only is English the language of choice the world over, dominating industry and commerce, but the skills of British teachers are highly valued through the international school system. Once you’ve taught for a few years in the
UK, you can literally work anywhere in the world that you choose; the opportunities are limitless.” Andrew himself had many years experience teaching, alongside his wife, in international schools in Germany, Columbia and Austria. “We’ve worked in some fantastic schools and travelled to some amazing places. With so many new schools opening, getting a job is easier than ever,” he explains.

Many international schools not only offer competitive salaries and accommodation as part of the package: they can also be a fast-track to career development as Mary,
Dominic and Jeff have experienced. But it isn’t just young, ambitious teachers who are taking up foreign posts. “More and more experienced teachers including those from areas where multiple schools are closing, as well as those on sabbatical, those taking early retirement and even those with young families are grabbing the opportunity of travelling the world this way,” explains Andrew.

International schools are renowned for their small class sizes, good student behaviour and exceptional facilities. But many teachers in the UK simply don’t realise the opportunities available to them. “Many teachers don’t know that there are short-term contracts and the chance to move on to another post in another country after two or three years,” says Andrew. “We also find many teachers haven’t applied sooner because they were under the misunderstanding that they needed to speak a foreign language or that these schools are about teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL). That is not the case. It’s their subject or age group teaching skills that are valued.”

Andrew offers advice for any teacher considering international placement:

  • Work through a reputable recruitment agency when searching for foreign teaching positions. There are a few school recruiters who do not take the appropriate procedures to ensure that foreign teachers have the correct visa back-up, health and safety coverage, or suitable accommodation. Teachers have been known to find themselves in grave difficulty a long way from home. So working with an established organisation to oversee your placement will give you the security you need.
  • Make sure that the organisation helping you with your appointment selection works with accredited international schools, or personally vets non-accredited schools in advance of your interview. Ensure that the agency you work through cross-checks your contract and working conditions once an appointment is offered to give you the peace of mind you need when taking up a new foreign post.
  • Work with an agency experienced at recruiting for the international school market as they will be able to give you all the advice and expert support that you need.

For more general information about opportunities at international schools, visit the Teachers International Consultancy (TIC) website at www.ticrecruitment.com or call TIC at 02920-212083

Taken from School Leadership Today (formerly Managing Schools Today).

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