International Teaching – A Word of Warning


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!

10 thoughts on “International Teaching – A Word of Warning

  1. The best method I’ve found for weeding out “rogue schools” from awesome schools is talking to the teachers who work there.

    If you’ve been given an offer, it is not uncommon or imposing to ask the administrator for references of his/her own. In the past, if a recruiter has been hesitant to provide me with teacher emails, or if I never hear back from the emails he/she provides, the deal is OFF. Sometimes the director will hook me up with a “favorite” teacher who will have only nice things to say, but why not? We teachers do that with our references too. In any case, a school with nothing to hide will be happy to provide one or several contacts for prospective hires – a great way to get up-to-date, unfettered access to the information you really want to know.


  2. “The rogue schools” should be exposed. I was responding more to the previous post and the paranoia that sometimes prevails on this website. There is seldom a discussion about education or best practice amongst colleagues. You would think a review of International schools might some time address the teachers themselves and their abilities or lack thereof to meet the needs of students. Seems sad that the focus is always on some administrator. its a blame game. I agree with you– Research is imperative, mostly because then the teachers must take responsibility for their own choices instead of making it personal about administrators or schools. Like any other aspect of life it is about taking an educated risk. To walk around and be a victim, blaming others for our choices seems the antithesis of what we try to teach our students.


  3. reesa says “Fortunately, some schools prefer to focus on the needs of students.” Nobody could object to that statement. Unfortunately, there is a third category of school that focuses exclusively on the owners’ bank balance. These schools are chaotic and under-resourced, short-changing students and teachers alike. These are the rogue schools that I wished to target.Caveat emptor.


  4. At one job fair I went to a school interviewing me said there was a teacher who just happened to be on vacation in her home city, where the fair was taking place and was willing to “volunteer” his time to speak with prospective teachers at the fair. At the time this seemed like a great indication that the school was a great place to work. This guy was taking time out of his break to help the school! I ended up taking the job only to find out later that the person had been compensated in some way for their time (perhaps with a plane ticket) and that the job of talking up the school at the fair had been shopped around until a teacher without scruples was found at the school. Upon arriving at my post that same teacher who spoke so highly of the school at the fair had nothing but hostility and negative things to say about the school and his bosses. Needless to say this set off warning bells and confusion for me, and those bells were right.

    This, I hope, is a rare occasion on the international school circuit. I suppose the lesson I learned from this is to ask to speak to whomever you wish at the school, not a designated person.

    On another note, my agency and representative have been very supportive of me finding a new position as my current post has not lived up to there end of the contract many times over. If you do make the wrong decision keep a cool head, be professional and let your rep know what has happened to you. Many people are scared that they will be completely blackballed if they leave a contract, but this is not always the case. If you have to, you have to, just be sure you have all of your ducks in a row, be honest and hope for the best. Oh yeah, and PAY ATTENTION TO THE ISR REVIEWS!!!!!!!!!!


  5. and some teachers who are using the system in a disingenuous way lie on these forums and on ISR to hurt teachers and administrators who have the integrity to give honest feedback on poor job performance or negative attitude in the classroom and in the community. ISR remains a forum focused on the needs of teachers. Fortunately, some schools prefer to focus on the needs of students.


  6. Some teachers who are using the system in a disingenuous way lie on these forums and on ISR to stay in the head’s good graces and get ahead. also i have had conversations on the phone and via email with teachers at schools (before taking or not taking a job) who reported directly back to the school what i asked or what was discussed. —even those teachers who were not currently working for the school but had left 1 or 2 years before. I have also heard stories where teachers lied to the prospective candidate to make sure they didn’t take the job because they had a friend waiting in the wings whom wanted the job—and they got it.


  7. ..I do not believe that any of the international school placement agencies (including the”big three”) pay much attention to the schools they represent when teachers’ contracts are not followed or particular superintendents are totally unprofessional. Unfortunately these international teacher organizations kiss the director’s “behind” in order to get their membership association dues and patronage. If you are a “newbie” don’t think the most well known or established overseas educator agencies will take action against a school for its negative reputation, or all the schools have the same standards as in the States. IF you are new into the overseas scene and are interested in a particular school, go to the forum on this website and ask about the pro’s and con’s of a school. Once you teach overseas, then you will have all kinds of contacts from fellow teachers that will have knowledge of an overseas school.


  8. As another voice of experience, this advise is golden. Two points need to be stressed: don’t ignore negative feedback from a school – it is there for a reason. And, the reality that a great location and great package are seldom in one place. They are out there, but you often have to choose one over the other.


  9. I cannot agree strongly enough. Research, research, research! That time you take now will save you a lot of pain later. The school at which I currently teach has horrible reviews and imposes many penalties on its teachers… for a reason. It is simply not a good place to teach.

    I only wish I wasn’t job searching during the height of the economic crisis so I wasn’t forced to come here out of desperation.


  10. This is a valuable article that I wish I had read before taking a job. The importance of doing extremely thorough research on a school before accepting a contract is paramount. Many schools have what appear to be very good packages which are sold by very charming and persuasive directors and recruiters. Another thing to look out for is the school that puts pressure on you to sign the contract before leaving the fair. You should be given at least a few days to look over the contract and make an informed decision.

    Also, on campus housing is not for everyone. If you have a family and the international staff is very small, think twice.


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