When Do Circumstances Overide Contracts?

Posted May 20/09

Dear ISR:  I am an American teacher working in X– (withheld for privacy).  I am under contract for next year and I signed this contract over six months ago. But many things have changed since then – not the least, my nervous system and ability to overlook headlines like “X–, One of the Most Dangerous Countries in the World”.

I love my job and truly want to stay, but I have this nagging idea in my head that says, if something big happens and the  school closes, people will say, “Well, surely you knew that was coming.  Why didn’t you prepare for it?”

When I tried to prepare for the school closing  by sending my resume and cover letter out —  explicitly stating that I am under contract, but would like to be considered ‘in the event’ something happens, I have been replied to with,  “You better not do anything dangerous – like break contract” (from recruitment officials) , and “I can’t touch you as long as you are under contract” (from administrators of schools).

So, my question becomes, at what point do circumstances override contracts? And, who decides when circumstances are such that a teacher should be able to break a contract without being blackballed for it?

Please don’t use my name as this is a sore subject in these parts.

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10 thoughts on “When Do Circumstances Overide Contracts?

  1. Hi there,

    I just found this discussion and think it is interesting.

    Only you can know personally and morally what you are prepared to live with. If the circumstances have change a lot since you signed the contract, then the school should be reasonably understanding with you, but also remember that you put them in a difficult position because they then have to recruit someone at short notice (and recruitment is tough at the moment!)

    If your main worry is that if the school has to close you will be left high and dry without a job, then you need to also consider different options. As has been said several times, schools will not offer you on an in-case basis but there are different routes you may want to consider if you find yourself afloat without pay (not every school can afford to pay you while they wait to re-open) One is international supply for which there is a certain demand. There are two agencies which deal with this. Another is to return to home base (or depending on passport) the UK (where there is huge demand) and do supply from there until something comes up.

    Furthermore many schools do recruit during the year for varying reasons, so if push comes to shove you don;t need to worry, you will find another job.

    As regards to breaking a contact, advice has already been that notice is better than no notice. I’ve had to break contract in the past, and it hasn’t held me back, it’s noted on at interview, and the explanation I offer has always been accepted. It is whether or not you behave in a professional way that counts. I also recently went through recruitment with a high profile recruiter and they also had no issue with my story.

    At the end of the day, what you owe the school depends on how they treat you. If the school keeps you apprised of the situation and has security/evacuation measures in place, that is one thing, but if they are laissez-faire about it and pooh pooh your concerns, that is another thing altogether.

    hope this helps a wee bit!


  2. Many teachers in Kuwait, working at a ‘big’ school
    ( BSK I believe) were promised that their contracts would be held open for them when they were given an option to leave during the last Gulf war ( remember the embassy had ADVISED leaving ). However, when they returned, they discovered not only were they fired, but they were given no salary either.
    Be careful.


  3. I’ve taught at seven international schools, and, of course, dealt w/ the personal fears that civil disputes and/or neighbor-lobbed bombs can cause in several of these countries (DR Congo, Pakistan, Guatemala). But, let’s face it — where in the world at this point in time can a person feel totally and eternally safe, personally &/or in job security? For that matter, where in the U.S. can you even feel a sense of job security? And, considering Columbine, et al, where can a teacher even feel total and undeniable personal safety?

    So, my thought is that each of us needs to do our extensive homework before our move to an internat’l school, and commit to this contract as much as possible throughout the (usual) 2-year contract period.

    No one can feel particularly surprised by administrators who reject consideration of a candidate who is already committed, can we? Of course they have to reject you as a candidate out of respect for the person to whom you’ve already contracted to. And, what would lead them to believe that you’d feel all safe and snuggly, warm and toasty and fully invested in a contract that they might offer you?

    It was a mistake to send out your resume to other schools, and it’s a mistake to think that ANY school would consider hiring you (“just in case”) while contracted by another school. Realistically, that’s not just ‘behind the scenes good ole’ boy’ mentality — that’s good business! I wouldn’t hire you in a heartbeat! You might have blackballed yourself already!


  4. BSK (Kuwait)is considered a “good” International School, but have you read about some teacher’s experience during the Gulf war at that school? If you don’t feel safe where you are, leave. You also do not need recruitment agencies to find another job. Market yourself and you will also have the opportunity of explaining your actions to an employer yourself. If they understand your situation, that’s a good sign, that’s your next “happy” job.


  5. I think there is very good advice for you above.
    The news can make you and your family at home more nervous than need be. I was also evacuated from Kuwait in 2003 so I understand where you are coming from.

    Are there only random headlines and published statistics or are you in a part of the world that has changed drastically in the last 6 months? If you are baseing things only on the media- turn off the tv and talk to local hires.

    1. Does your school have evacuation insurance?
    If so, what are the terms? When is it effective?
    Is the school reputable and will follow the terms
    and pay you?
    2. Do you definatly need/want to stay overseas when
    you eventually leave this school?
    3. Do you have a place you can afford to crash if you
    evacuated for several months? Would you be
    comfortable going to a third (cheap) country to
    hang out while the situation improves?
    4. What do the local hires say about the situation
    in general and if there is an added danger to you
    as a foreigner?
    I think you are smart to be proactive. I agree that you need to be organized and have some backup plans.

    I think putting out feelers is ok, but they are just that. You have to fish or cut bait. No one is going to hire you away or encourage you in this decision.

    You may or may not have problems if you choose to break your contract. I think there would be more understanding for leaving Pakistan at this point in time vs Sri Lanka, Dominican Republic or Sudan for example. Giving short notice and leaving your school in a bind in probably not as good as giving them time to re-organize or hire for your position.

    I think that most Admin and recruiting agencies are very understanding and helpful if there is a real crisis or evacuation. ISR put out the word for all the people who needed to leave Damascus for example.
    Good Luck, I know this is difficult time for you.


  6. Lucky has given you sound advice. I have lived in places that the press and internet research was very outdated, accurate but sensationalized …to sell the news or bias it. Whatever… Getting registered with your country’s Embassy is only a small step. Since you are not a USAID or UN employee we are not prioritized. Having all your exit papers available and US or Euro currency is helpful. Keep a small packed bag handy like they say. Local staff will often know before the embassies that something is amiss. Keeping a low profile but making connections with Embassies can help. I have not been evacuated yet and would like to avoid that but no country is predictable for that. Build a network of contacts outside of your school community so you could get a cell call if something is changing.


  7. Normally a good International school will evacuate (at their cost) and ” look after” their foreign employees, including teachers and administrators forced to leave because of a school closing, either temporarily (in which case you return when they reopen) or permanently. If the school is closing temporarily (like I saw in Kuwait during the 2nd Gulf War) then you are expected to respect the contract when they reopen. You are also normally paid flight costs and your salary until the school reopens and quite often other expenses as well. In the event that it does not reopen, you are usually legally entitled to some recompense and to accept another offer, as soon as the school officially informs you (in writing on school letterhead only, not by e-mail)that they are ceasing operations.

    There are many caveats to the above but generally this is best practice and proper treatment of staff for an international school. If you are nearing the end of your contract, then it perfectly legitimate for you to start inquiring from other schools about potential openings, after all that is why we have Job Fairs BEFORE the school year ends!

    Your “nagging voice” is telling you false and useless illusions. Most school administrators and recruiters will understand that if a crisis happens and you have to leave for your own security, then it is entirely legitimate for you to look for another job once the status of your former employment is clarified.


  8. You could ask for a RIF (reduction in forces) a polite way of breaking a contract; however it is at their whim. What you need to do is come up with an exit plan (passport, money and other important documents/stuff in one safe place. You need to make contact with Embassy staff; call the Ambassador, make an appointment (that is what they are there for, not just the free food and drinks), share your concerns and ask what are they going to do to get you out safely. Make friends with the Canadian Embassy folks and any one else there.

    I was caught in the Coup in Cambodia in 97 and it was the Thai government who took care of us. Also, remember no where is safe and the media loves to make things look worse then they are…it sells papers.

    Further, if your school closes because of X, you won’t be held accountable and your potential employment won’t be compromised. You might also try some anti-anxiety medication…see your doctor.
    Good Luck


  9. This is a tricky question because if the school does close this leave you unemployed. On the other hand, I don’t see any school making a firm commitment to you because where does it leave them if your current school remains open? It seems something should be written into contracts outlining what will happen should a school be forced to close. This may be a helpful piece of information when considering a school in a “hot spot”.


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