International Teaching – A Word of Warning

October 19, 2009

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by Hugh Mitchell, The Netherlands

First, let me say that I have been teaching internationally since 1979. I have had some great experiences and made friends with wonderful people – both teachers and students. I have worked in schools, technical education and universities in seven different countries in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, including the Gulf. It’s a great life and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

As a member of International Schools Review, however, and from personal observations, I am aware that teachers, particularly those sampling the international scene for the first time, are exposed to a variety of risks. It’s great that there are adventurous teachers who are curious to expand their horizons, but considerably less good that there are people out there who are willing to exploit them and expose them to physical and psychological dangers.

I cannot stress enough the need to research your destination thoroughly – both the country and the institution. Some countries are notorious for political and financial instability and you should avoid them like the plague. If a school is offering a chauffeur-driven car, common sense tells you this is not normal for a starting teacher. The real function of the ‘chauffeur’ is probably to act as bodyguard, without whom you would be in peril in your neighbourhood.Treat long contracts with suspicion – they may indicate that the institution has trouble keeping staff, and is seeking to solve this by imposing penalties on those who want to leave early. Never ignore a negative write-up on the web. Recruiters will tell you that it was written by a “disgruntled” teacher who was out-of-step with everybody, but this is not always the case. Somebody has gone to considerable trouble to write it, usually out of a sense of responsibility to others. Use your judgment. Similarly, if there are ten negative reports on a school and one full of glowing praise, it is not hard to spot which one has been placed by a management stooge.

Now a word about agencies. There are some very good ones which take the trouble to find out about applicants and place them in an appropriate location. These agencies routinely refuse further co-operation with schools about which there have been negative reports from previous clients. However, there are others whose moral integrity is nowhere near as high. Their operatives, many of whom appear to be young and inexperienced, send details of vacancies to a computer-generated list of job-seekers, irrespective of suitability. They routinely fail to answer questions which potential teachers are justified in asking. Of course, these operatives sit in an office with computer and telephone and would never dream of even visiting the locations to which they consign others. The agencies for which they work seem to have no sense of responsibility and no interest in job-seekers beyond the cash that they generate. To my mind, these agencies are as guilty as the rogue employers whom they are happy to represent.

In conclusion, teaching internationally can be a rewarding experience. You may find yourself in a fascinating location or a place where you can make a lot of money quickly (seldom both together). Since the establishment of MA programs in international education, the career structure is much better than it used to be. Most institutions have a moral commitment to their students and their staff, and may be relied upon to play fair. A small minority are cynical and exploitative, hoping merely to trap a teacher for a minimum of a few months. Exercise your judgment and your common sense. Look out for warning signs and drop the job like a hot potato if you find them. Above all, do your research thoroughly. Check the institution’s website and everything else you can find. You will need to be adventurous, open and flexible. You will also need to be a bit street-wise. Good luck!