An International School Student Looks Back

I grew up in an International teaching family and for the bulk of my formative years travelled the world. I chose not to follow in my parents’ footsteps and am no longer a part of the International Schools community.

However, when a wave of nostalgia hits me I like to go on ISR and read about the schools I attended back in the 90’s. Over the years, I’ve noticed a startling theme running through many of the reviews of these schools.

It seems to me life in International Schools is no longer the fun-filled adventure of my youth. It looks to have become a life of drudgery, ongoing war with manipulative admin and hitting the roadblock of money-grubbing owners. I see an increasing rift between leadership teams and teachers culminating in an ‘us-vs-them’ mentality.

When I look back, I see my experiences through the rosy lens of childhood. I acknowledge there was probably a fair amount of workplace drama that I was not privy to as a student. That being said, I remember attending work functions where admin and teachers mingled. There were trips to see pyramids where the principal came along, not as a boss to my parents but as a family friend. I was dragged along to mountain retreats where, though I was bored senseless, the teachers seemed to delight in bonding through professional development, and frankly, a few too many drinks. I have trouble reconciling my mostly positive childhood experiences with stories I now read on ISR.

I know people tend to mostly write reviews when they have something to complain about instead of to share a great find. I know it’s easier to be inspired to write when you are full of vim and vinegar. But is the International School world of my childhood really this far gone?



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19 thoughts on “An International School Student Looks Back

  1. I started my overseas teaching career in the mid-90’s, and something else that I found changed over the years was the kinds of teachers attracted to International teaching. The people I worked with in my first two schools were predominantly driven by a love of teaching and a search for adventure. Schools felt like families because people looked out for one another.
    When I returned to International teaching after a two-year gap, however, I unfortunately came across a new type of teacher – the nakedly ambitious back-stabber. Teachers who were into self-promotion had discovered International education, and the workplace hasn’t been the same since. I find many schools are full of cliques and there is little if any sense of community in the schools I have worked in since the early 2000’s.


  2. Yes the world you describe is mostly gone. It existed because there were more international jobs open than there were teachers available to fill them. Thus teaching packages were fantastic, admin had to treat teachers well or risk losing them, and teaching was often a respected profession in the local communities.
    Enter into this scene a glut of available teachers, international schools targeted towards local national children (instead of expat kids), and crumbling packages and you have the current situation.
    It is truly sad and the abuses of teachers are many. Employers simply fire at will and often without cause to be able to hire cheap, young teachers or even interns! There was even a well known school in Asia that lowered it’s mandatory retirement age to offload many teachers who had faithfully served at that school over years. Shame on them!
    There is also a tremendous influx of teachers willing to work cheaply. They are from Philippines, India, Taiwan, and South Africa. Many, not all, have heavy accents on their English. Before this would be unthinkable, now it is common. Lucky for me I will retire soon because the days of having nice teaching conditions, good packages, and respect seem mostly over.


  3. I wonder why International Schools want to employ foreign Teachers? It is not only because of the English, that is a load of hog warts – things have changed, people have changed, technology has changed, in fact most things have changed and with change comes these results. There is not a chance that I will sit in a hall until 9.00pm at night for peanuts. I would have reported them, gone to my Embassy and caused the school to be investigated. Never mind that, I think our new generation need to do research about the schools they are going to (51 from South Africa hoax teaching position in China), it is not funny when you take teaching passionately and the schools abuse your services. Name and Shame Them. Although I have to add, I taught in the Middle East and there was no way I was allowed to teach in a government school, only International – American or British where many different nationalities attended. It was a great experience until I left Egypt for Sharm El Sheikh. Home is definately where the heart is. Also you must not just take any teaching job, I cant teach young children, I prefer Grade 12, College, University level. This is how I changed over the years. Life is like that. Good luck, be vigilant and always stay on the right side of the law. It amazes me that the USA, Canada and UK dont call for teachers. Hmmmmm wonder why that is?


  4. I think things have changed. International education is now blighted not only by the corporate chain mentality but also by a wave of new, young (and relatively inexperienced) heads who come in to a school for a 3 or 5 year contract and whose priortity is to introduce the latest gimmicky initiatives in order to build a CV and move on to the next, bigger and better job. They don’t stay at a school long enough to see the consequences of the changes they have made. They are the careerist, rather than vocational, educationalists and leaders. When the older children talk to you sadly about how their school has changed, how the ‘family feel’ has gone and how now it’s all about image, there is something seriously wrong. And yet these schools get glowing reports from inspectors because inspections rarely see beyond the superficial.


  5. International Schools used to be community schools; serving predominately Western expats and being a hub of this community. This model has been gradually replaced by ‘new management’ ideas based on a business model throughout education in the West and administrators have tried to use the same business inspired managerial techniques in overseas contexts where it is inappropriate. There has been a rush to present overseas schools as modelled on UK private schools without any of the cultural basis as these international offshoots are run solely for profit and merely bear the name of their famous counterparts only. Because these schools exist in countries that do not have the same cultural and legal backup this has led to unethical and immoral treatment of teachers on the international circuit that would be scandalous in the UK. For instance sacking teachers at a moments notice, having 4 months previously signed an extended 2 year contract and then threatening to have them deported in the middle of their children’s formal examinations should they dare to complain!

    Of course I speak from bitter personal experience, however I don’t write because I have ‘an axe to grind’ – this is the reality of the International teaching experience nowadays: employers act with impunity. We are reliant on our previous employer for our next job and so in the event of a dispute, the employee is basically ‘cornered’.

    The divergence of opinion in the thread does not exist purely in the mindset of differing contributors, the fact is that things have changed and there is dramatically unfair treatment of teachers occurring routinely, such that employees live in fear of losing their job/reference. There are those that cannot imagine this, because they have been fortunate to find themselves in better situations.


  6. 20+ years teaching internationally, I have loved my adventure. I am in my 5th school, and would not be happy if I moved back home to teach in a public school. This is my life now. Yes, there were good schools, and mediocre schools, but none I would call really bad. I was able to take something positive away from every experience.


  7. I love the school I teach at. International teaching is so much fun. You meet open minded individuals who love exploring the world around them. I have always loved my overseas experiences filled with flavor filled memories.


    1. It is fun but you never build a lifetime retirement from a pers or social security system. You will probably be standing on a corner some day with a sign asking for money.


    2. That is not true. Teachers in the Far East and the Middle East tend to be paid very well. I could always save at least $15,000 per year, sometimes even $20 – 25K Canadian.

      I have built up a nice nest egg.


  8. As teachers we try to conduct our professional duties to the best of our abilities both to the students/ parents and the management. However, i cannot say the same of the owner(s). They suck every breath out of us but pay peanuts in return. I will not forget this instance when we were supposed to prepare our lesson plans for the next term during the holidays till 9pm everyday till we finish. All the doors in the school hall where we were based, were chained up. If we did not finish our task for that day, the owners’ henchmen will not free us. OMG! I’m no longer in that zoo anymore


  9. Dear Third Culture Person,

    What a delight to read your comments. Your experiences sound like my experiences. Never have I been witness to the exploits of what is reported on ISR.

    I believe your parents worked at excellent schools just as I have. That’s just one of the reasons why we enjoy living overseas. There are many other reasons as @Nick Catalano points out.

    If I had never left my home country, I would have never travelled around the globe countless times; never been able to live in places that National Geographic became famous for (by the way, I have former students who now work for the NGS!). If it hadn’t been for the fine educational institutions for which I worked and continue to work at, I would have never have owned homes in places most of my compatriots don’t think twice about: Thailand, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Russia and now the US.

    Yes, the international life is an amazing journey if one is willing to learn from it. For those who don’t, I do not feel sorry for them, mostly because I’ve never met them, but partly, I feel they’ve gotten themselves into a mess because they didn’t prepare well before hand.

    Keep your positive spirit alive and pass it on to your children for it is that third culture charm that makes you special.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve been traveling with my wife and children for 9+ years now.

    My children are living exactly the life you are talking about. It still exists but people online mainly complain. (What value can I add talking about the fact that I am mainly happy)

    It hasn’t been perfect and some schools are better than others but on the whole we are happy and still teaching overseas.

    Also, I work for Nord Anglia one of the largest for-profit education companies. Just because a company is for profit does not make it bad. I get on well with management but at the same time you need to find balance. Not everyone can find that balance.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. There are, like everything in life, good and bad experiences,employers and people in international education. Some of the principal reasons such inequalities exist are;

    1) No accountability to anyone but the owner in OM schools or the board in non-profit schools,.
    2) No union protection except in some countries like Germany where the betriebsrat ( works council) has quite a bit of power,
    3) Failed or incompetent administrators and some teachers can find safe havens in far too many schools,
    4) Fear of parents who are the principal financial resource for schools,
    5) Lack of consistent and manageable curricula other than IB or AP in far too many schools,
    6) Poor resources and facilities in for profit and some non-profit schools,
    7) constant changes to management and staff over the 2 year cycle,
    8) political and economic influences from locals and government officials,
    9) refusal of management to listen to the staff concerns and suggestions,
    10) Far too rapid growth of international schools and lack of proper and detailed supervision by chartering associations.
    11) Downright lying and failure to respect contractual agreements,
    12) Too many non-educators running or owning schools as cash cows or hobbies.
    13) Unscrupulous recruiters who serve the schools and not their candidates,
    14) Staff who arrive expecting the assignment to be a paid holiday or just like back home.

    I am sure there are more reasons for such negative results but if anyone can add more…..more power to you!


    1. I would also like to add that in the 80s and 90s, the number of international schools was much lower than it is now. So many new ones are popping up which leads to increased competition for students to populate your school, migration of students from one school to another if it offers different curriculum or if the fees are less expensive. I see this happening where I live – more IB schools are popping up with lower fees than the main ‘international’ school that had been well-established in the country for a long time. Now that school is losing students to the other IB schools, and sadly, the Admin is showing its desperation by some of the unscrupulous behavior they engage in.


  12. I don’t believe this feeling of adventure and pioneering spirit has gone – maybe one just needs to look more carefully.
    I have worked for big corporate international schools and yes, it can become a drudge to comply with all the standards and values etc but you can also still find smaller international schools.
    I am currently VP of a family owned group of schools and have never felt happier. we have excellent relationships with all members of our school community and often have evenings out and weekends away – all on the same level whether in admin or general teaching staff.
    However we do work hard at forming and maintaining these relationships – nothing happens by chance.
    A true positive mental attitude, fostered and encouraged is still the key ingredient.
    Don’t lose hope – this international school world can still be what you make it.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I was only just today talking about this. I wonder if it’s the ‘for profit’ mentality? The quality appears to have gone.


  14. My wife and I, with our two boys, have been an international schools family now for eight years. We have traveled through China, Western Europe, the Middle East and Eastern Africa. When we started, it was my hope to provide my children with a global experience that would open their eyes to the world and give then a formative experience that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. I envy those who experienced the international schools of the 80s and 90s primarily because of the very reason discussed in the article above. Often we are faced with some of the very problems the author has identified. That being said, it has still been a wild adventure and one that I never trade for staying ‘home’. My boys, and indeed my wife and I, have flourished.

    Liked by 1 person

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