International Teachers Are Not Educational Revolutionaries!

Our ten years teaching overseas have been wonderful and enriching. My wife and I have had the pleasure to met warm, interesting people, visit exciting, exotic locales and enjoy our years in Turkey, Poland and the Bahamas.

While our experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, one negative aspect regularly surfaces that pertains to a mistake foreign-hire teachers frequently make, and often without even realizing they are making it. This mistake can make such a strong impact on host country nationals that your tenure may depend on how you approach this sensitive topic.

As a teacher with extensive experience in Canadian classrooms, I am always motivated to share my knowledge and practices with local-hire teachers in my new host-country school. In many cases these teachers are receptive to my alternative teaching suggestions and methodologies. For the most part, local teachers are thrilled to learn from their foreign colleagues.

The owners or directors of the schools, however, did not always share the same enthusiasm. More than once I heard the concern stated that foreign hires may be overstepping their roles when they begin suggesting changes to local school practices, curriculum, discipline and methodology.

Local educators and owners of local schools are sensitive to foreign criticism of their educational system. Most of these people graduated from the very school system the foreign hire has determined is inadequate and in need of major overhaul. While a foreigner’s observations reflect their pride in the North American system, other countries are equally proud of their local educational systems.

A common topic of discussion among foreign staff was, for example, How the Turkish educational system could/should be improved. Finding considerable consensus among themselves, the foreign staff would lobby to make the local school more “North American”. Their progressive and endless suggestions were often received by those in authority with a polite smile, and then discretely buried, almost immediately.

It’s easy to understand the disregard for our wonderful suggestions. As a one-time Canadian school administrator, I knew that if a few Turkish teachers on my Canadian staff suggested we utilize Turkish discipline techniques and a more rote learning style curriculum, I would be insulted. Just who do they think they are?

Suffice it to say, foreign teachers are hired to teach. They are not hired to restructure or reorganize the local educational community or be critical of local practices and curriculum. Foreign hires are temporary guest teachers who will soon move on to another adventure.

In the meantime, try not to offend your host country by attempting to change it drastically during your two-year contract! An international teacher is a good-will ambassador, not an educational revolutionary!

10 Responses to International Teachers Are Not Educational Revolutionaries!

  1. reesa says:

    I think there needs to be a differentiation between ‘local national schools’ and ‘International schools.’ The former types are responsible for blending local culture with a single international perspective.(US/British/Italian etc..) The focus on a bicultural/bilingual community can be a balancing act to say the least. It can be a difficult collaboration that often feels like a game of identity tug-of-war. Many students will not be going on to Universities in North America, Europe, or Australia, so parents are in fact looking for their own educational values to be represented.

    However, I feel that the latter- international schools- owe it to their Third Culture Kids to move beyond a local or US perspective. They should have access to best practice teaching strategies and material that is not bound by the prejudice of local culture OR an obsession that some US trained teachers have about ‘how it is done in public US schools back home.’ Local thinking is local thinking no matter where it is located or who is doing it. A true international should focus on creating that 3rd culture–a community that draws from a multitude of curriculums, strategies and perspectives. To standardize international schools to go beyond a bicultural perspective into a multicultural one,so that TCKs can move seamlessly in and out of learning communities, would be a worthy goal.


  2. Anon says:

    Very interesting article. I find myself conflicted on the issue, as I think most of the other responses reflect. There is such a balance to be struck. Perhaps the most important aspects to be considered are the country one is in and whether or not the school is truly “international.” If a school is international the staff and student body reflect that and so goes the school’s culture, most likely one of progress and open-mindedness. If the students and staff are made up of mostly to all nationals, the situation will be much less welcoming to suggestions, no matter how tactfully made.

    The author mentions teaching in Turkey, which I think was probably the main inspiration for this article (please correct me if I’m mistaken!). Turkey’s educational system is notoriously rigid and controlled by the central government. For one to make real changes to a lot of the aspects in schools there he would have to be in a very high position of authority, and certainly not a foriegner. I, too, have taught in Turkey and found the experience frustrating to say the least, but not because I couldn’t impose my beliefs and methodologies on the school. I was frustrated by the importance placed on appearances rather than substance. It didn’t take me long to figure out that what the school (administration, parents, local teachers) said they wanted and what they really did want were not in line. So I stepped back, did my job to the best of my abilities with what I was given and allowed, and waited for the time to pass by. I did a lot of listening and observing and looked at the situation as a valuable learning experience.

    So for me this article serves as a bit of a validation for the approach I took to my years there. I served as a Western face at parent meetings held solely in Turkish. At times I felt like a decoration but the experience taught me a valuable lesson that has colored every professional decision I’ve made since.


  3. Martha says:

    There are two sides to this scenario, in my view: one, to allow everyone to run their schools as they choose. the other, to look at alternative, maybe more ‘international’ standards for schools. I think it’s important not to get stuck in the mentality to let other schools function as they will… according to the culture in which they reside.
    I have seen how corrupt International Schools can be in some situations. Maybe we should start to evolve as an International School culture, with International Standards. There is such a thing as right and wrong; we need to analyze these concepts, and decide where they are in practice.
    So, in short: I don’t think it is always right to nod, smile, and let things go as they are. We should be always questioning and analyzing present practices, in order to improve upon them. Is this not what International schools should represent?


  4. Jeanne says:

    These points are well-taken. Perception, though, is reality. Any new-hire, regardless of occupation and locale, would be wise to watch and learn for at least the first year. After that, I would refrain from “contributing” my opinions unless I were asked to contribute something. One can learn a lot from simply listening and observing fellow teachers and administrators. Yes, teachers are hired to teach specific skills and subjects, but we are not potted plants, either. WAIT to be asked and beware of malcontents (another reason for listening, not speaking). Consider the educational product the administrator(s) wants from you, and then provide it the best you can. That’s why you were hired from myriad other “worldly” candidates. There’s a time and place for opinions (sometimes masked as suggestions). This may sound naive and possibly wimpy to some readers, but this approach can’t hurt you. And NEVER write anything down you would not say to someone’s face. That’s just cowardly. Timing my fellow teachers …


  5. Mike Walker says:

    A very enlightening article and one that all International Educators should be aware of.
    I think failure to ignore this common sense advice often leads to frustration and an early flight home.Teaching in Japan one often sees certain educators come in who are utterly shocked and surprised at the Education system they have here,especially in tertiary establishments. Many are fresh off the planes,FOPs,and try to impose their standards and techniques that they were exposed to,often recently, back home. A -Why cant they be like us(me)? -attitude.
    A few cynics have pointed out that they often impose the rallying cries of an occupying army with utterances like these are Mc Arthurs Rules and must be obeyed. Not very culturally sensitive behaviour!!
    Another point I would like to make is the article does not mention the disparity in renumeration and incentives that the foreign hire often receives,which is often a huge difference.This can often lead to serious problems especially when the so called foreign expert starts being critical of the guest country.Im sure if they were offered the local hires pay and conditions they would probably up and leave.We are often under the microscope when working in another country and our actions can often been greatly magnified.
    Of course it also begs the question that if the host country does become more and more like the country we have left then there would be very little point in travelling or taking positions overseas.Its the difference that holds the allure and excitement and the assault on our assumptions that makes for a challenge.


  6. John B says:

    Ken, I did understand what you are saying in your initial article. As an international educator, I find the same (by the way not all white faces are from the North American system). I listen to conferences where I hear key note teachers sermonize on about how we should be passionate educators and make change, try new techniques etc. Ha! Try dealing with local supervisors in most developing nations to do that and see how long you last before having a “discussion” with the administrators. What’s amazing is that many of these administrators are FROM the same developed nations we hail!

    The reality is that many international schools are in developing nations and although I find kids are willing to look at new ideas as they have less cultural, social or religious boundaries as adults, hence enabling them to accept new ways to develop skills or think openly; certainly the fee paying parents are NOT! One must be very careful in what one says in any country outside of developed nations. Sometimes the most innocent of comments or approaches can end up in great turmoil. Remember the story of the lass who named the class teddy bear Mohamed? (Geez was that scary or what?) Though for most part we won’t reach that extreme, many of us will certainly be “re-educated” about our role.

    Unfortunately many foreign nationals want white faces in front of their children to teach them but then don’t realize it’s not just about getting their kids good qualifications to go to A class universities in Australia, North America or Europe, but rather the kids come home with new ideas, and often begin to challenge locally held beliefs or ideologies! The reality is good teachers encourage kids to think to higher levels of Bloom’s educational taxonomy, in the latest triangle Evaluating and Creativity. Ouch! Evaluating and rethinking old accepted ways, making judgement calls on local ideologies is not what most parents really want. They want their kids taught in traditional ways with an emphasis on English and the prominent thrust to pass tests for overseas university entrance; not this ridiculous notion of creativity or challenging our local ideologies!

    What comes along with “farang” ideas is change, not quite what the locals want! They want their rich kids to be rich like them with a clear accent being on materialism and social prestige, not what passionate educators may consider as true education, or the ability to think for oneself outside of socio-cultural religious boundaries. Unfortunately many administrators will adhere to what parents perceive as education. Clearly these supervisors are often receiving huge incentives to pull white faces into line with what most “Mickey Mouse” international schools want. Of course some schools will support forward thinking educational philosophy but suffice it to say they are in a very small minority.

    No Ken. I get your point. We may want to change the World, but especially in developing nations, this can be quite a challenge! Though I think we can try a little to make change, international teachers should be acutely aware of how easy it is to upset the apple cart and therefore striking a balance between how you attempt to make change and comply with local school philosophy is the real trick.


  7. Lennerd says:

    Memorization and rote learning have received a lot of bad press in N. American schools — for decades now.

    Probably the pendulum has swung too far in that direction. New research on the brain — how it makes connections one neuron to another (dendrites!), how the brain creates maps through which the performance of all sorts of tasks, mental and physical are routed or “templated” — supports the inclusion of memorization and rote learning in the education of children.

    Please read (books) “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin and “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge to get a view of the cutting edge of very exciting and compelling research on the brain. These books show how rote learning and memorization makes those maps in the brains of children.

    It also might change your perspective and mind about pooh-pooing rote learning and memorization!

    (US citizen with 20 years of life experience outside the USA, 37 years inside the USA; loved my international experiences, all in Asia)


  8. Sara Rich says:


    I so deeply appreciate your note. Your follow up completely clarifies the intensions of your article. After my first read through, I think I interpreted your message of caution to the extreme!

    It seems we both agree that foreign hired teachers should be respectful of local teachers and local schools, whether it be informal commentary as pointed out in your article, or more formal collaborative undertakings like I am working on.

    I guess in the end, we were seeing the same issue, but within the context of our own experience. My apologies for being so quick to judge!!

    All the best,


  9. Ken Bobrosky says:

    Dear Sara,

    I obviously have failed to communicate clearly in the above article. I am not advocating discouragement, lack of cooperation, one way sharing or unilateral expertise when it comes to working in an overseas school. I fully agree with your position of collaboration, professional sharing and working in close conjunction with local educators. That is what all good teachers do!I somehow communicated the wrong impression to you.

    My point was, that very often foreign teachers are often critical, often informally and in casual conversations with peers, about their perceived shortcomings of the local educational scene. They are entitled to their opinions and observations but I find it offensive for them to be openly critical. Their criticisms are hurtful and this is the situation that I feel should be avoided.

    I hope I have clarified my message as I can sincerely say that I agree with all of your above comments and never intended to imply that “teachers collaborating is revolutionary”, if in fact I did!



  10. Sara Rich says:

    Dear Ken,

    There is absolutely nothing revolutionary about teachers collaborating. The issue you identify, about offending local teachers, stems from your notion that working with them is a one way exchange. That you are teaching them how to be good teachers. So because your approach and attitude scream, I AM EXPERT, YOU KNOW NOTHING, I can see why your personal experiences have been frustrating- but I think it’s a HUGE mistake to completely discourage this foreign-local interaction among teaching professionals.

    Your interaction with local teachers and local schools should and could have been a TWO way exchange. It IS ridiculous for an outsider to come into any new school and say, “Recreate what I’ve experienced elsewhere!!” It just doesn’t make any sense! I would hate for you to come to The American School of Kinshasa in Congo and attempt to recreate your schools in Poland or the Bahamas- it would be just plain… irrelevant, not to mention ineffective.

    Your article encourages maintaining the division between foreign and local hire teachers, with the undertone of superiority, which of COURSE is offensive. I’m disappointed that your article discourages international educators from getting involved in the local education systems of their host countries. Making this effort is not revolutionary at all, and CERTAINLY not a mistake! It’s actually quite intuitive- working together to improve the quality of education a school offers. With the right attitude and respect for partnerships, this interaction can be a mutual exchange and a collaborative process among teaching professionals.

    I hope you will reconsider the message of discouragement you are spreading. I am actually working on a project that sends the total OPPOSITE message to international educators. Check out my website for how international educators in Kinshasa are getting involved to collaborate with teachers in eastern Congo, one of the toughest environments on the planet.


    Sara Rich
    Middle School Coordinator
    The American School of Kinshasa


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