I have struggled as a teacher abroad.
Not many people will be bold enough to admit this publicly but it’s true; I have been pushed to the depths of my misery in toxic work environments. And if you read my blogs and followed me on Instagram, you wouldn’t always know it. I have always encouraged others to pursue their dreams teaching abroad just as I did. But there were days where I came home from school everyday and cried. I dreaded going into work and I lived for payday- the only day I felt appreciated at my job. For the longest time I thought it was me- that I had chosen the wrong career path and I just wasn’t a good teacher.
I thought I wasn’t strong enough to deal with the challenges this profession forced me to encounter.
I thought I wasn’t evolving fast enough to adapt to all the new things that were constantly being thrown at me at the very last minute.
And so I stopped teaching for a few months..
While I had no regrets about walking away, I used the time away to evaluate what had gone wrong. That’s when I wrote this post outlining all the very painful and triggering reasons I had to stop teaching in the gulf as I tried to heal in a sleepy seaside town off the coast of Oman. Hundreds of people reached out to me recounting similar experiences in many different countries.
It wasn’t me- the system was so incredibly flawed.
As chance would have it, I was put in a position to start teaching here in Qatar (you can read about that here) and I second guessed my decision every evening from the time I accepted the offer to the day I walked into the school. Was I walking into another fire that would leave me scorched and lifeless? I was petrified.
It’s been 2 months and I am surprised that I enjoy going to work. I am constantly learning and amazed at how seamlessly things can be when teachers are given the tools they need and freedom they deserve to just teach instead of being bogged down by paperwork or having to beg for resources.
While no school is perfect, all I’ve ever wanted is a pleasant environment with supportive people who actually care about education rather than parent pleasing or profit mongering.
It’s taken me a while to find such a place ( I wasn’t sure they existed in this region) but I am glad I have.
The hardest part for any teacher going abroad is wondering, “Have I chosen to work at a good school? Will I grow professionally? Will there be support and access to the things I need?” So I am going to share a few telltale signs that that helps when choosing a good international school (or 1 that you should be asking questions OR running FAR away from). The list is not exhaustive but this is what I have noticed from my experiences.
If you’re a teacher currently teaching abroad, treat this as a quiz. +5 for every criteria that your current schools meets. At the end, tally up your score out of of 35. Lets see how your school measures up!
Note: This guide to choosing a good international school is primarily aimed at people of colour who have historically had to deal with more discrimination while working abroad however, it’s still relevant for everyone. Also, this post is written for teachers who are moving to work in one of the gulf countries but can also prove useful for international schools all over the world.
You have access to a payscale- people are not paid according to their skin colour or nationality
Yes I said what I said. You should receive a transparent pay-scale for teachers where you can calculate what you will earn based on your years of experience & qualification level. Additional benefits should also be clearly outlined. In the best case scenario, you receive this before the interview so you can decided whether you want to actually move forward with the job application procedure or not. If you’re thinking that it never happens in the gulf- it does and it can. It was one of the reasons I even agreed to interview with the school I currently work at.
Paying people what they’re worth determined by experience & merit- rather than race or nationality- puts everyone on an even keel. You may not realize it, but you can become resentful when you realize certain staff members are paid more than you simply because they’re white or have a privileged passport. Resentment left to fester makes for a horrible work environment. Not to mention that well, its FAIR and is the RIGHT THING TO DO!
For me, this is a critical point when choosing a good international school. If I don’t receive a pay scale in future jobs, I am not accepting those positions. Also note that you may receive a slightly lower salary than other schools because when you pay everyone equal wages, you don’t have people who are earning A LOT and people who are earning A LITTLE. Everyone is equal. Personally, I’d rather have fairness and equality for all than a bigger paycheck simply because of what I look like and where I come from.
A good school that sends you a pay-scale will most likely also pay you a salary thats relative to the cost of living in the country you’re moving to. There shouldn’t be a need for negotiations. If they don’t give you a pay-scale, ASK FOR ONE. See how they react to that. This is a huge factor for me when choosing a good international school.
You are able to have a look at current staff, learn about them and communicate with any of them
In the initial stages of you interviewing or anytime BEFORE accepting an offer, you should have access to details of other staff members working at the school. This should include photos, bios where their years of experience & qualifications are outlined and their contact details. This doesn’t have to be for every teacher in the school but should be at least for heads of department or grade level leaders.
Now pay attention to:
–The diversity of the staff. Have they hired a majority of people from 2-3 countries especially for management positions? This may indicate a bias towards a certain nationality. For a proper INTERNATIONAL school experience, a diversity of staff should be present (regardless of the school’s population).
–Racial inequality. In my experience, being the token person of colour in a department is never fun. A huge problem in workplaces in gulf countries is hiring an abundance of white teachers because the is a perception that white people are more educated. I discuss my experiences in this previous post. From what I have noticed, the people of colour are usually highly qualified and very experienced and thus, expected to do all the work and carry the department along while your white counterparts are the ‘face’ of the department. Beware. For further reading on the topic, here is a relatable article from an Aboriginal woman and another one about how tokenism is detrimental to a positive working environment.
–How qualified & experienced everyone is. Established schools usually hire experienced teachers (5 years+). If you are less experienced, this can be a huge help so that you can learn from others! If you are the most or only qualified person when compared to other staff, it might be another warning sign that you’re about to be the dogsbody. I have noticed that many schools will happily employ newly qualified teachers or those with minimal years of experience so that they can pay them less. To counteract this, they hire 1-2 experienced individuals to ‘train’ and ‘nurture’ everyone else so that they only have to pay 1-2 larger salaries. While many would be happy to mentor new teachers, it can be emotionally exhausting so it helps to know what to be in store for.
When I had accepted the job at my current school, they sent me an e-book with photos, a little write up and contact details of the female grade leaders (since I only teach in the girls section of the school). I was free to ask any of them anything. I didn’t need to (because I already knew someone working at the school) but I could’ve reached out if I wanted to. Speaking to someone currently working at the school is something I ALWAYS recommend when choosing a good international school.
The school management cares about your life and is concerned about you liking the school
One of the major differences I have found between a good school and an apathetic school is that right from the interview stage, the interviewer is as interested in your circumstances and personal life as you are invested in getting the job. This not only helps to foster fantastic relations but also makes you feel valued and cared for. If the interviewers show no interest in you as a person- as opposed to you as a teacher- then there is a chance that they don’t really care about staff members. For many schools, you’re just a number to them.
I don’t want to move to a country across the world to just be a number to someone.
A good interview should last around 40 minutes where they tell you details about the school and you talk about your life IN ADDITION to answering the questions they will throw at you.
They keep in contact with you constantly and answer any questions you may have
When choosing a good international school take note of how correspondence and communication with the school is handled. Sadly the most common occurrence is that once you sign that offer letter, you never hear from the school unless its about your documentation, flight or start date. This is anxiety riddling because if you’ve never moved abroad before you will have A LOT of questions not least relating to where you will live. When you’re ‘just a number’ to a school, HR’s function is primarily to get you into the country and into the school.
They don’t care that you have no idea what clothes to pack or whether the healthcare system will meet your needs. If HR is ignoring your emails with questions then that’s a huge red flag to cease and desist with moving forward. Ideally the school would- once you have accepted a position- send you a lot of reading material they’ve crafted specifically for new teachers covering topics from religion, phone coverage, photos of the accommodation etc. They should also respond to your emails and not leave you hanging!
Their online presence is strong- both the school website & social media platforms
A small but impactful factor is that the school has a functional online presence meaning- they exist! You would be surprised at how many times I asked people who were choosing a good international school if their chosen institution has a website or accounts on social media and they didn’t even check! Now I’m not saying this is a surefire way to gauge a positive working environment however it can prove to you that:
-Your school exists and is isn’t some sort of scam (these things to happen!)
-Parents and the community are kept aware of events and important school information
-They care about the reputation of the school and are technologically up to date
A poorly designed or outdated website usually gives the impression of a mismanaged school especially since we are in an age when the digital impression is as important as face to face.
You can expect an induction/orientation with adequate training
Starting at a new school can be just as overwhelming for new teachers as it is for new students. While it’s exciting for you to envision the year, it can also be overwhelming. The new things you will need to learn range from cultural sensitivity to HR to curriculum. Having a solid teacher induction program can eases transition for new staff, giving them the time, support and relationships they need to thrive.
Just so we are clear- I don’t mean a couple of lectures and lunch the end of it. I mean days of structured training with topics to be covered outlined and addressed. You should have an agenda just before you start at the school.
During this time you will be able to understand the school’s grading policies, the software used, the materials you’ll be given and many other pertinent questions can be asked and answered even about non school related matters.
YOU SHOULD KNOW WHAT SUBJECTS AND GRADES YOU ARE TEACHING BEFORE YOU START SCHOOL. I might need to say it louder for the people at the back.
By the time you actually start the induction, you should have an idea of what you will be teaching so that the new knowledge you will gain can be applied to your specific grade levels & subjects.
While certain classes may be swopped and things might be tweaked, you should overall go in knowing what you will be expected of you. Schools that have no schedule or can’t pinpoint your grade level until the very last minute usually have no clue what they’re doing.
No amount of accreditations, organizations and member bodies make a school a healthy environment for a teacher to work in
People wrongfully consider this to be the most important factor when choosing a good international school to teach at. Some schools have certificates upon certificates from various accreditation boards which will look oh-so-impressive on their website or in the reception area. But what does this actually mean for you as a teacher?
Very little unless you are specifically keen on experience in a particular teaching system for example [International Baccalaureate, the Council of International Schools’ International Accreditation, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the Accreditation Service for International Colleges (ASIC)]. While accreditation is supposed to help determine if an institution meets or exceeds minimum standards of quality as well as creates goals for institutional improvement, encourages institutional evaluation and planning, all of these things can be faked in order to obtain the important certificate. Oh yes I have seen it happen!
Let’s be real- accreditation certificates will not help you pay off your loan when your salary doesn’t appear in your bank account.
So beware of schools trying to impress you with all their accreditation credentials in an attempt to divert you from other, more pressing issues.
Many people have asked me if consulting websites that provide reviews of international schools are an effective way of evaluating a potential school. I have mixed feelings about this. Its common practice (in the gulf at least) for schools to ask their teachers to write good reviews on these websites. Of course they vet the reviews and will question you if its negative (aka truthful).
I’ve never written one even though its been asked of me. Also with the high turnover of staff and constantly changing rules, many reviews can be obsolete and not reflective of current situations. I highly recommend asking someone currently employed by the school. These websites probably have their place but I wouldn’t advise that they be your ONLY source of information the same way one review site isn’t enough to trust when choosing a hotel for your holiday.
teachers- how what did your school measure up? What’s your score out of 35?
When choosing a good international school, there are certain factors that separate the good from the bad and for all the time I had my fingers badly burned, I. HAVE. LEARNT. The hard way but still.
Please understand that until the flight is booked, you owe the school NOTHING. You can back out at any stage if it feels like the school isn’t meeting your needs or if there’s no communication.
Until they give you something tangible (a flight, a salary), there is no onus on you to follow through with the job (despite what they may say). Always remember:
NEVER be afraid to ask for what you want- staff members’ contact details, a pay-scale or anything else
No salary is worth your mental health
You don’t owe a toxic working environment loyalty
Any money lost in the decision to leave a bad job can be recouped
Go where you are valued!
If you are thinking of moving abroad to teach, you may be interested in my older posts:
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If you’d like to share your experience working abroad as a teacher or add in a criterion to the list, please feel free to leave feedback in the comments below!