If I Only Knew Then What I know Now

Handsome young man in shirt and tie writing something in note pad and looking over shoulder while sitting at his working place

…..No one will dispute that “hindsight is 20/20.” As such, looking back on your International Teaching career (assuming you’re already teaching overseas), what important lessons have you learned through experience that you wish you knew about at the beginning of your career? To put it another way, if you had it do over again, what would you do differently?

…..From colleagues in the “newbie” stages of International Teaching to seasoned veterans with years of overseas experience, we’ve all had revaluations & experiences that led us to say, “Oh, if only I had known!” All of us can profit from lessons learned. We invite you take a few minutes to share with colleagues something you know today that you truly wish you knew earlier in your career. International Educators Keeping Each Other Informed is what ISR is All About!

37 thoughts on “If I Only Knew Then What I know Now

  1. Potential pitfall. When the Director / Head of School has a spouse in your team.

    I am certain not all couples conduct themselves in this manner, but this is the situation my teaching colleagues and I are faced with.

    We are navigating a tight-rope because of a rigid, emotional, intelligent individual with a string of degrees who does not like change, dismisses those who are perceived socially inferior, rallies those who are weak & lazy and is married to our Head of School.

    The persons conduct is divisive, in most places a termination worthy offence. This person has the lazy old timers protected and the enthusiastic hard workers picked on and penalized. Morale is shocking as no-one is prepared to take it up .

    Our colleague, married to our Director, does have a superior attitude and approach to all things at our school. Whilst we were all told not to befriend parents of students, we all know that Director and Spouse are social friends with a member of the board and their family.

    Result: There will be a high “good” staff turnover and even though we have strong, more than capable middle management (who will be unfairly assessed on staff turnover) this it out of their control.

    Important take away: If you are recruiting for a middle management position with teams or a team to manage ALWAYS work to finding out if the Director has a family member who will be reporting to you before you make your final decision.

    Possible topic of ISR : Family, Spousal Conflict of Interests – Middle Management looking to recruit need to consider this pitfall.


  2. The thing I wish I had known is: things are not going to be the way you expect them to be, or the way they “should” be, according to you. Deal with it! If you try to recreate the situation you left at home (in my country, we do X or we would never do Y), you will just be frustrated and probably unsuccessful. So, it means adapting by teaching things a different way, or by using a program with which you are unfamiliar, or having to do things someone else’s way, or even just accepting a situation for what it is. Yes, it can be hard, and it can be a lot more work, but you’ll likely find that this opens your eyes to new ways of thinking and can greatly enhance your current expertise. You’re probably not as flexible as you think you are the first time you go overseas, so you really have to make an effort to have an open mind. But it’s worth it!


    1. Oh so true! No one wants to hear “well, in X we used to …”. Leave your suitcase at your old school and learn to adapt and help grow the program at your new school, not try to just replace it with your suitcase for a couple of years.


  3. New teachers?

    Read this whole thread! There is solid and wise advice throughout. Nice to have that kind of support.

    I’m probably not adding much, but here is what I can say, mid-career on the international circuit:

    1. You’re a diplomat. It’s just that no one might have told you that yet! Whatever you say and do, people will think that it’s not only you saying what you say, and doing what you do–No, it’s your ENTIRE country! It’s silly, but it’s human nature: People will think of you as the prototype of everyone in your country. If you don’t care, fine, but know that others from your country will follow in your footsteps. Do you want those people to have a hard time because you represented your country badly? Probably not (unless you are a sadist…)

    2. NEVER–repeat NEVER–repeat and read all the other posts here: Never accept a job offer without in-depth research! There is a good reason that most countries have intelligence/secret/news services to prepare their diplomats before going abroad. In the most extreme cases, getting this type of information will make the difference between life and death. Even for teachers. And no, this is not to scare anyone. Not at all. But being a risk-taker doesn’t mean being foolish.

    3. Wherever you go for a teaching contract: You are NOT a tourist in that country. You are a temporary local. You’ll be forgiven the occasional blunder. You’ll unwittingly make yourself look like an idiot plenty of times. But you are there to learn new cultural practices, new thoughts and ideas, a new language. It’s field research, and only rarely a beach holiday!

    4. Have an exit plan! Even the best school in the safest country may figuratively or literally implode in the blink of an eye. Plus, you WILL deal with medical and family emergencies, just like you would at home. Keep a house/apartment/storage space in your home country–some safe space you can return to in case things go downhill too quickly. You should keep a contingency fund of around 5000USD per family member–money you can access immediately in case it becomes necessary. Chances are, if you’ve done your research, you’ll not need the money, but you cannot afford to be unprepared!

    5. Don’t bring all of your stuff–that’s why you have a house/apartment/storage space in your home country. You do have that, right? We brought our entire household to one of our earlier posts in a hardship location. It was not fun: We dealt with water damage, burglary, and sneaky housemaids. We would have felt much safer if we’d had some comfort items to return to in our home countries.

    6. Have legal support in place. Both private support (e.g. a lawyer, barrister, paralegal) and support through your embassy. Try to have someone from your home country, and get someone from the host country (the embassies will give you appropriate addresses). Yes, I know, many people will say “It won’t help”, but our experience is different. While there are no guarantess, it CAN help and has helped. In some countries, people get very nervous and suddenly very supportive if you ask them to consider possible political, diplomatic, and business consequences of their misbehavior.

    7. Have fun! Keep a sense of humor!


  4. In hindsight, I would have planned to teach in several countries abroad–and not gotten tied down to the idea of sticking it out in one country. It is difficult to integrate as fully as one would like in another culture. Try to be and feel as a citizen of the world.

    Also, set aside money in several different countries, by land in one’s homeland and abroad. Contribute as much as you can to local economy and try to have more impact that what others expect of you in all you do.


  5. It’s very important that the right questions are asked when working overseas. Since a grievance process, unions, educators’ advocacy groups are non-existent, it’s important that one understands what he/she is getting into. For those individuals of color, find out how many people of color make up the faculty and staff in that building. Find out if a code of ethics is in place and what steps are taken should problems associated with race come about. The experience can be an uncomfortable one if the aforementioned are not in place and carried out.


  6. I’m going to tell it as it as, so here goes. Some of you may know these things already, some of you may not, some of these things you may agree with, others things you may not. Either way, I hope this information benefits you all in some way.
    1. Check out the school, because they check you out thoroughly. The microscope is always on teachers these days, so put the school under the microscope as well.
    2. There is a big difference in regards to non-profit and for profit schools.
    3. There are top tier schools, second tier schools, third tier schools, bl-lingual schools and shingle schools. A shingle school refers to a school that simply says it is international in its name and on its logo, but in practice is not.
    4. Some cultures and countries are not suitable for or are uncomfortable for single women.
    5. Some cultures and countries are not suitable for or are uncomfortable for people other than heterosexuals.
    6. If you show fear many schools will bite you. Many schools are like a mongrel dog, if you show fear they bite, if you stand your ground (with tact and wisdom) they may not eat you alive and allow you enough time to finish your contract, build your resume and get out.
    7. You are a commodity, you are expendable, but at the same time remember that the school is also expendable. You are experienced, qualified and hard-working. Never lock yourself into one school.
    8. Try to stay away from schools that have headmasters and directors who are from the host country i.e. if you work in Kuwait, stay away from schools with Kuwaiti headmasters and Kuwaiti directors. There are always exceptions, so this is a general rule of thumb.
    9. In regards to point 8, it is now clear that there are many foreign headmasters and directors who follow a path that purely enriches themselves or builds their own resume at the expense of teacher rights and sanity i.e. they follow the local owner’s line in return for job security, a higher salary or their non-teaching partner being employed at the school or the school increasing their tuition allowance i.e. they can send all their children to the school for free.
    10. There are no unions, and never will be.
    11. Students, particularly if they are very rich and from the host country, can be very rude and basically demand grades. They will think nothing of forming a group with other students and parents to lie about you to administration or defame you over social media.
    12. Single ladies, if you like international teaching, please note that it can be difficult to find a suitable partner and marry if you are always teaching abroad. I have known some very good single female teachers who lament not going home in order to find a partner.
    13. Give the middle-east a wide berth. It is going to explode very soon. Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq are in full blown civil wars. Egypt and Lebanon (north Lebanon and some parts of Beirut) suffer from many political and security issues and the local populace in many gulf arab countries are becoming fed up with their monarchs. Go there at your own risk. The arab spring was a blip on the radar. There are very turbulent and violent times ahead. And before you say, “What do I know?”, I know a lot without giving myself away. I am integrated into arab society and am from a politically aware family and background. I know things that you, as a foreigner, will never truly and fully understand. I say this not to elevate myself, but to advise you. Please heed my advice as I worry about teachers who make career decisions that are not based on enough information.
    14. Do your best to stick to your principles but if you are not supported by your school and have had your job threatened inflate the grades. This is not a reflection upon you, but the school in which you work. Before people say, “stick to your principles” WAKE UP! Be a realist!
    15. Don’t come with your western background and culture and impose it upon your host country, school or students. I find many teachers have this air of superiority about them, even if it isn’t a conscious thing. If you work in a conservative society or country for example don’t promote LGBT issues at work especially in your curriculum. When in Rome, do as the Romans do is a saying that often rings true.
    16. Always have an exit plan if you live in a volatile country.
    17. Always carry a photocopy of your passport on your person.
    18. Regularly update your embassy and your family with your contact details, both at work and at home.
    19. Support ISR and contribute reviews and reply to threads as information is power.
    20. Don’t post sensitive political information about your host country on social media that is clearly traced back to you. This is quite a silly thing to do. Do not visit other countries, during your holiday period, that you know your host country currently has problems or issues with (entry and exit stamps will be in your passport).
    21. I advise you not to make property purchases in your host country unless you have a strong grasp of the language and local law.
    22. Travel light and often conduct spring cleaning to throw or give away unnecessary items. The more things you collect the more stuff you have to move for your next post.
    23. Don’t reveal too much of your private life to your school or colleagues. Don’t trust your foreign colleagues, simply because they are foreign. Some reveal your information or thoughts to administration simply to promote themselves within the school.
    24. Try to live by yourself rather than with another colleague as if things go wrong in the home or flat that can affect your professional life.
    25. Just be aware that some of the local staff at your school may not be totally honest with you i.e. will push you to rent their flats and homes for inflated prices etc.
    26. If you date a colleague at school and it goes south that can make quite a problem as teachers, parents and children gossip.
    27. Don’t expect your school to keep you up to date in regards to security information. Subscribe to your embassy’s email list. Some schools will actively lie or distort the truth because they don’t want you to get scared and leave the school.
    28. If you are a teaching couple or have children enrolled in your international school you generally have more currency with the owner and administration. Sole teachers in the school i.e. with no teaching partner or children enrolled at the school, tend to cop more heat. In my case I’ve seen some very inept and manipulative colleagues stay at school because admin is afraid to lose the other teaching partner. Also because parents are customers, if you are a teacher and a parent you have more power.
    29. Enjoy your overseas jaunt but go in with your eyes wide open, enjoy the food and culture and build your resume.
    30. I don’t mean to be negative, but I’ve found many of my colleagues simply hope for the best and this is quite foolish. You are smart, educated, a professional, somebody’s loved one, someone’s child. This is why I’ve posted this information. Teachers are human. Teachers have rights, yet in today’s international teaching climate they are often left confused, bewildered or not protected. Protect yourself through research and information.


    1. I cannot thank you enough for this thoughtful and informative post. Thank you again from a relative newbie married IT couple.


    2. You are both welcome. Most of it is common sense and yes, you will be given some slack by the locals for making the odd cultural mistake. The key is to read, research and network with other teachers (very important). I got burned a couple of times not doing my homework, I hope that you can avoid my errors.


    3. Thank you so much for your post. I have been heartbroken by my experience in the UAE. Was told it was going to be amazing, and although the culture shock was something I was prepared for, and have been fine with, the culture of the school (their rules, procedures, protocols, lack of management and crazy decisions) has taken me back. I’m a long time teacher who knows better. Not sure if I should just keep my head down for the year and power through, or go home with my sanity. I love the kids here, but don’t want to lose myself for them.


    4. I know exactly how you feel! I was prepared for the culture shock of being in the country and learning the language, but the protocols, lack of curriculum direction, very heavy documentation/work load at my school…as well as the attitudes of some privileged students (who sent me hate mail and demand inflated grades) and parents, is what I did not account for. No union means you get no apology, and the act gets repeated.

      I have always had great rapport with parents because they see how much I care and love their kids and that I am skilled at what I do. Here, none of it matters. If the kid feels the work is too much to try and learn guess what…. you lose. As a teacher with years of experience, proven track record and skills I have decided that it’s not worth it anymore. I’ll continue to enjoy the lessons I’m learning about the country and culture, but this job is not worth my sanity or health. Going home.


  7. I sympathise with those female teachers who were so keen to travel abroad and enjoy the lifestyle of international teaching in their 20’s but didn’t find a life partner. You saw a great opportunity, a lot of fun let alone more affluence! however I agree it is not always easy to meet someone abroad but it can happen.I found someone who was teaching at the same school and we are now married with two kids and still living the international life.It just came naturally. So you too can meet someone. But make sure that you have the same goals in life and agree on how long you want to live abroad. If you come from different countries this is very important to discuss.I have seen couples split because one wants to go home and the other does not.

    Remember,it is never easy to find someone in your home country either!


  8. One most important lesson I have learnt during my teaching overseas is that there is no pay scale. What you get as a Dakar or package is up to you and your negotiating powers. Never sell yourself short! I have worked alongside teachers who were highed locally and their package was half of mine.They were told they were not entitled to flights, transport allowance or even free school places for their children etc.I have been hired locally in some countries and received a top package. Never work for less than your colleagues.If schools need you they will offer more.Be confident and believe in yourself.There is nothing more demoralising than knowing an NQT is in the next door classroom and earning more!


    1. I second this notion; I’ve come to learn in my second year that I make more than most veteran teachers and administrators. My wife and I did some great negotiating using the leverage that we were offered positions at competing schools in the same city. I highly recommend this strategy.


    2. A very valid argument. I pushed in regards to a few contractual things and my school accepted when they say the quality of my work. I also know of someone who was hired locally but still received the overseas hire package with all the retirement benefits, plane tickets etc. This was due to working at top tier school, the school was desperate to secure a competent teacher in this particular teaching area and also, to be fair, the Director was pretty fair with the contracts. Also, on a personal note, my school increased my pay more than other teachers when they got a whiff that I was a little disgruntled. Great point April.


  9. I wish I would have known that teaching overseas in my 20’s meant that meanwhile everyone back home was getting married. So when I decided to go home at 35 there were not too many options for getting married. Sure a few lucky people find husbands overseas but that is not the norm. Men who work internationally have an easier time of getting wives if they wish to go local.

    Just something to consider.


  10. Ultimately we are responsible for our own choices. Lets always all do our homework and background checks thoroughly. We have the means to do so; online and speaking to existing and departing staff. Lets make 100% sue we are a good fit, not just for the school and the country, but socially, culturally, financially. No matter how good the pay or the perks or how nice the head seems, if you are working hard (and we all do) yet are socially deprived this leads to zero balance and burn-out. As with everything in life there is a balance. Happy at home equals happy work at work and vice versa. As for proprietary schools, those just do not seem to be happy places point blank. In my experience, avoid where possible.


    1. Strong second to doing one’s homework by really talking to current — and FORMER — employees. I’d only done the former and regret that.

      I’m very happy and fulfilled at work — lonely and socially frustrated by the local culture.

      What is a proprietary school?


  11. When you are interviewed by the principal, follow your instinct on whether you will get along with this person. If he is a 24 stone slob who never stops talking about himself and has no interest in what you have to say then offers the job immediately, that gives you a clue as to what he’ll be like to work for. Obvious but………yeah, you can get vibes even over Skype.


  12. Don’t go into schools that have a bad reputation, a procession of ever changing directors and a high staff turnover thinking that YOU will be the one that changes matters for the better. You will end up being disillusioned, demoralized and wish you did not have such a school on your resume.. Select your schools with care and don’t grab a job ‘in case nothing else comes along.’


  13. 1. The difference between a non-profit and for-profit school. You wouldn’t understand or believe some of the behaviors and attitudes, unless you experience it.

    2. That moving to international teaching is likely to be a one-way choice. The difficulty in having your experience OS considered ‘credible’ on your return. In your home country, teaching internationally will not be seen as a ‘professional experience’, it is likely to be viewed more like ‘holiday in Bali, not interested in your slide night’. Incidentally, I met an aid worker (a medical doctor) who had worked OS in for Doctors without Borders managing a recent epidemic who was having similar difficulty. Make sure that where you go, there is a person there who is able to provide you with a professional reference, a written testimonial, and who will be contactable by email or phone; not a colleague but a line manager. You should have a right to this, if you have acted honorably.
    Otherwise, don’t go, you may as well jump off a cliff for your career.


    1. I agree with you. Nobody cared that I spent 4 yrs overseas as a counselor. It never helped my career in Cali.


    2. On the other hand, many American teachers who take the international route have no desire to return to teaching in the US. When you teach at a good international school (which is not difficult to land if you are halfway smart about it), the level of professionalism, respect, salary, benefits, and student relationships is far better than “home.” When I’m back in the US talking with local teachers, listening to their bitter and adversarial stories, I end up shaking my head and walking away. I have been out 15 years and will never go back to a US school.


    3. I actually disagree — or rather, I disagree that the potential for OS experience being seen as a negative should deter us from taking this life-altering opportunity.

      The truth is, there’s just SO many ways to stay relevant and connected while abroad: participate in iEARN, LinkedIN, Twitter. Blog, host a YouTube — become an expert in your field.

      Being marketable is up to us.


  14. If only I had known:

    1. That having a good match is not only about the school vetting you but also about you vetting the school.

    2. Setting aside cultural differences for a moment, there are some basic standards of kindness, respect and civility that one should expect.

    3. No teacher unions, very little employee protection and firing of faculty can/will and does happen quite suddenly.

    4. How amazing the students behave – in general. Most schools are well resourced and progressive.

    5. Work hard at developing a life outside of school. Cultivate your personal interests with others who do not work at the school. Have something to offer i.e., book club, hiking, cycling, cooking, music, photography etc. It takes time but you will feel more balanced.

    6. Tax implications of repatriation – now that I’ve been over seas for so long, it needs serious thought, education and planning. SAVE MONEY!

    7.Too many rude and incompetent administrators YET, many, many amazing administrators. The incompetent ones can easily hide in int’l schools because for the most part they are only accountable to one other person, the school director.

    8. How to better manage demanding, spoiled and interfering tuition paying parents.

    9. How to better network so as to secure a job in the supposed “A” list top tier schools. And, wish I knew how snotty the top tier schools can be. These items were quite alarming to me when I first went overseas – not so much anymore.

    10. Always work toward having the school secretary, tech staff, copy room staff and school procurement staff on your side. Developing those relationships will make or break your school life. They know how to get stuff done and will save you much headache and pain.


    1. Wow, well written! I completely agree with all of your points. I would add learning a moderate amount of the language and a great deal of the cultural norms. Have several friends from the host country can really be fun and shine a light on the cultural norms.


    2. What a terrific post! Yes – and, of course I resonate with all of it.

      Regarding snottiness, though, I’m currently considering shooting for this “A-List” in my upcoming search.

      Can anyone speak to the pros and cons of these “A-List” schools?



    3. A list schools – pros – better pay, better package (retirement pay, flights, transport costs etc), better behaved students, more tech support and lost of educational resources.
      A list schools – cons – lots of pressure from parents, admin and owners, work incredible hours and many weekends, heavy extra-curricular load, spend many hours covering your @ss via email i.e. complaints, and often have to spoon feed parents and students via school sanctioned internet forums.

      Still, I would say working at an A list school is much better, even with the heavier workload.


    4. I don’t think that’s always true. At least not at my “A-list” school. Our admin works to protect us from overzealous parents, and we don’t have “owners”–just a very good board and Director. It IS very, very busy and the pace never slackens. But good admin, good package, good peers, fun students and a fun city to live in. I’ve been lucky to be at mostly good schools (with one glaring exception), but kind of have my dream job now, so wandering days are over!


  15. Not to sound like a cheerleader for ISR but I wish I knew about your web site before I took a job at this school. This is my first overseas position and most everything I see that has been written about this place has come true. Live and learn. You are right that hindsight is 20/20 vision. Looking back, if I had it to over again I would have done a lot more research than I did before taking this job. If I’ve learned anything that I can pass on to other ITs, it’s research, research, research and then do it some more.


    1. **And** — go the extra mile — get in touch with already departed teachers via LinkedIN yourself.

      In my case, the director put me in touch with his good old boy network. I know what red flags to look for now, but I didn’t then, and trusted the teachers who praised the director.

      Live & learn.


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