Toxic School Avoidance

More than ever before, the success of your career as an International Educator hinges on thoroughly vetting any & all International Schools you may be considering for a career move.

In this age of corporate chain schools & entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the business of International Education, we as educators need to stick together. Knowledge is power & Sharing that knowledge in an ISR School Review can help us ALL find the great schools & avoid the Toxic ones.

ISR Members comment:

“I think a big part of what makes so many International Schools toxic work environments is that many administrators simply don’t have the qualifications or did not receive the vetting and/or training they would have had back in the US or UK.

For example: a PE teacher being suddenly promoted to Head of School simply doesn’t happen at home. Too many International Schools are run by people who are not suited or qualified for their posts, and these people have a weird kind of absolute power, without union checks or inspections.

Consequently, we have poor leaders who then similarly promote their friends or others they feel will help solidify their power and snuff out dissent. And the cycle continues. In the toxic environments I have seen, I don’t even think the leaders realized how different their management methods were from what they should or could be. Let’s not forget how dependent we all are on receiving positive references from each post, and that most schools require us to give up our job before we have secured a new one if we want to move on.”

“ISR is needed more than ever in a pandemic economic climate or sadly, war-torn. Let’s stop belittling people’s experience as negative or whinging and just plain accept that there are many practices that are unacceptable and unchallenged on our circuit.

In every other profession on our home soil, we are allowed to freely post experiences. Being far away from home, not in a union and unfamiliar with local legal practices means we are extremely vulnerable. Let’s begin to challenge and fight back a lot more and use our right to speak out, just like the rest of the workforce!”

“In my opinion it goes with the territory. International Schools are the equivalent of the Wild West, where management can act as they please with little recourse. One of the very few places we can find a little accountability for toxic management is ISR and that’s why we need to help those who request information on any schools we have details on.

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26 thoughts on “Toxic School Avoidance

  1. Try working at a school in Thailand where the admin. verbally tells you that you will have a new contract but nothing is given in writing and no contract is produced. Neither is there a warning of no contract renewal. Teachers at this school are left to assume they will need to seek a new position.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL, I feel your pain. I will NEVER work in Thailand again. Is a great place to visit? Yes. Is it a possible future retirement destination for me? Yes. Is it a good place to be a working expat? No. I have never been treated worse (by employers and government) as when I worked in Thailand. They treat all expats like they are migrant factory workers.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yeah. I hear you and am at the same school I believe. Already got a new job lined up. Anyone who stays is a fool. The latest rumor is that the university might abandon the school section completely due to running costs. Good luck!


  2. A problem I am experiencing now is that my school has no competition in the city. It is the only English-based education so the school can be/do whatever they want because if families want their children to be educated in English, this is the only option. This is not the case for many international schools, but in the case of mine, I believe this is why they are lacking.


  3. Steph, that has been my experience as well. Mike, while you note that letters of commitment/intention are not legally binding in China, the missing variable that does apply for people in more desirable locations or better schools is that school administration can and will sabotage the references of a teacher who signs a letter of intention to stay and then continues to search for a job. I have seen this happen several times. In one example, a couple signed a letter of intention to stay at our school in Western Europe, then continued to look for a better job. They didn’t list our current admin as references, but when they finally found their dream school and seemed to be on the brink of an offer, the new school phoned our current principal, who told him that the couple had signed a commitment to stay. The new school told the couple that this was the reason they were not receiving an offer. This couple is now in the unfortunate position of being forever unable to use that school as a reference, and in Europe, there is a good chance that other schools will phone them anyway. This is a strong Tier 1 school, so little chance that future employers will decide not to check with them before an offer. This is the risk you take by signing a commitment to stay and then doing what you describe, Mike. It might work in third tier schools in China (maybe), but it is risky and not something I’d advise teachers to do.

    The other example of this I saw was when a single colleague signed an intention to stay, then proceeded to send his CV to every other school in our country. More than one director turned out to be on speaking terms with our director, and several of them spoke to our director. This teacher ended up with no job for the next year.

    Finally, I disagree with your dismissal of SEARCH. There are many top schools who only hire via SEARCH, and I have been told this by administration at my current school. Yes, you can apply directly, but they aren’t going to interview you. SEARCH, for better or worse, is trusted by many admin because of the anonymous collection of references, but also police checks, licensure, etc all in one place. If you aren’t on SEARCH, they will wonder why.


    1. My whole point was that I did not sign the letter since I had not agreed to the terms offered for the next year. Sorry, I thought I was fairly clear about that. And yes, I did start at a 3rd tier school when I first came to China. My 2nd school was 2nd tier. At one point I later accepted a 3rd tier bilingual HS simply for better working hours and a promotion to head of department (they couldn’t compete financially with a 1st tier offer I had, so they asked what it would take and I said no classes/work before 9:30 and they happily agreed since). I stayed 5 years, only agreeing to a one year contract each year, just in case I found something better (I did not, mainly due to not wanting to give up my 9:30-4 schedule that no other school could match). I finally had a kid who was turning three, and then had a real reason to want a1st tier PK-12 school, which I got by finding the Head of HS on LinkedIn (who was a contact of my contact) and talking to him. Maybe SEARCH is helpful for some people but I highly doubt I could have done any better over the last 13 years with it. It also helps that I teach AP and IB DP math and (since 2020) that schools in China prefer teachers already in China due to Covid policies. Of course, my situation and needs are different from many other teachers, especially outside of China, but I think someone out there may benefit from what I have to say.


  4. Rather than focus on the recruitment practices, which by design create fear and a reliance on the same unqualified educators described in the original post, I agree with the poster who insists that changes need to be made in the structure in the relationship between employers and educators.

    Too little is also being said about accreditation and it’s relationship to this. I was a WASC coordinator, and I can say first-hand that not only is little to no attention paid to the qualifications of leadership, but also that what are clearly opaque budgets and board membership lists are not grounds to deny or recons accreditation.

    If schools were genuinely threatened with the students not being allowed to apply to a U.S. or UK/EU college or university from accredited schools, and secondary institutions actually rejected applications based on accreditation, these practices would stop, because parents could not be lied to about how these schools allegedly kids into the top colleges and universities.


  5. Toxic or not teaching internationally is a great experience as to the people you meet and the excitement and adventure of being in a new country and situation. A school is what you make it. Do you want a “safe” school at home and relive the same experience year after year or go off to an adventure into the unknown and really experience being alive? Your choice.


    1. It is a great experience. However you are not building any retirement with Social Security or a state pension. That retirement bill sooner than you think.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Comments like this can really paint such a false dichotomy. “A school is what you make it”—a bit overly simplistic. There’s a difference between challenging and rewarding and challenging and demoralizing. Obviously, you have some control over your teaching situation, but there are limitations, both abroad and in the US/UK/our home countries. And it can’t be denied having the protections of union and status as public-sector employee are advantages of teaching in one’s home country. It’s up to each individual to decide what they’re willing to live with, and why not try to land a job in a location full of “adventure” with a school that treats its employees right, honors its contracts, aligns with one’s values as an educator? It’s not totally either/or.


    3. Yes, too simplistic. I’ve been at schools where I had problems getting paid, or didn’t get paid what I was owed, and left. How is this ‘what you make it’?


    4. A school is “what you make it”? I am so curious as to you international school experience. Clearly you haven’t have the experiences so many of us have faced because they can’t basically get away with whatever they want –even nonprofit, well known “good” schools with great reputations. You try teaching your heart out through a pandemic, economic collapse, uprising, etc and then not get paid what you are due in your contract. There are so many NOT what you make it situations that thousands of teachers experience every year. I have have experience several in my 5 intl schools. Not to mention of the unethical and unprofessional things that happen daily under poor leadership or board of trustees that would NEVER happen in my home country. Are there benefits to teaching internationally – definitely. Can you be totally screwed over by even a good school – definitely. I 60,000 dollars in salary in 2 years to prove it. Saying the choice is between staying home at a “safe” school vs having adventure is condescending and lacking complete awareness of the realities of long term international experience. You want to go have a 2 year “adventure” away from home, don’t worry about the risks. You want to have a career teaching internationally where you retirement is dependent on it – very different.


    5. A school is not what one individual can make it. Everyone should be accountable for ethical practice. If you are trapped in Shanghai or have had to flee from the Ukraine, I am not sure you could ‘make’ it a positive experience on your own.


  6. This article highlights three essential steps if we are to secure our futures as international educators:

    1) The creation and promotion of a mandatory International Teachers’ Union,
    2) Subsequently holding abusive, illegal or corrupted administrators and owners/Boards accountable for their actions, even if it means a long ,painful and costly political and legal process,
    3) Finally negotiating a fair and firm standard international contract which protects educators and guarantees them the promised benefits, compensation package and protections afforded any professional.

    I realize that many skeptical educators will find countless reasons why none of the above can happen, but it cannot happen simply because too many educators see their careers as a process of short-term hopping from one school to the next and have an attitude that abandons actions that support their colleagues (current or future). Their own self-interest, need for “adventure”, willingness to tolerate crap because they can take a flyer if it gets too bad, indifference to their colleagues needs and even “fear” of being blackballed (or intimidated) supercedes any fraternal interest in the profession.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve quite mixed feelings about this comment. I come from a family of union activists. My father was the local school board union rep and an uncle and an aunt were union negotiators. Workers’ rights are often violated in the international school circuit. I’ve seen and experienced it first hand in my decades teaching abroad. But I think it’s wise to exercise caution when calling for any kind of centralized, mandatory oversight. There are babies in the bathwater.

      I have enjoyed considerable, unexpected benefits from all that disarray and administrative incompetence out there that has nothing to do with skipping out on contracts. One silver lining is autonomy in your classroom choices. For example, there’s certainly something to be said for the inattentive eye of the Chinese managers. Hang cameras in the corners and dangle your microphones. No one is manning the panopticon. They do more for free expression in the classroom than the spectrum of politically correct to rabid, right-wing micromanagers that haunt the curriculum of American classrooms. At least in my experience. All the careful oversight of administrators and parents who claim to know better, yet from their sardonic (sometimes ignorant) heights straightjacket career teachers working in the trenches; teachers who try in the very least to stem the flood of boredom by introducing unexpected, even controversial content and at their best inspire critical, unfettered perspectives. What happens to this when everything is negotiated and controlled?

      One of the ironies in the high-minded presumptions of these others in deciding what is culturally appropriate in educational practice is that their tut-tutting and tinkering as often leads to the impoverishment of the youthful charges we claim to be liberating from the over-authority of old ways. Teachers are the vanguard and should enjoy more independent choice. Less standardization, not more is what I’d advocate. This might actually attract more competent teachers to the profession. And what about how this affects the students? Is ‘student-centred’ education that empowers learner choice (remember teachers are learners too) just another of the expected, empty platitudes mouthed by a profession blind to its own prejudices one might ask? Independent teachers make for independent students. I do understand it’s complicated, but it certainly has me reflecting on and doubting the claims the western model makes about its boasted freedoms.

      Two examples of prohibited materials I’ve recently taught in China should serve. How could one properly undermine the CPC’s best efforts to manage the fluid currents of disinformation in the internet age without at least a passing reference to Milton’s thundering Aeropagitica whose battle cry for freedom of expression was one of the many that beheaded the state’s kingly Hydra, inviting relevant comparisons with similarly detached headcases of state in the modern era. And speaking of death and kings and upended authority, what more fitting a close to the term than the play within the play device of Farewell my Concubine with its emotionally rending string of confessional betrayals performed for all to see, framed in the passionate red of China’s youthful red guard on the public stage of the national tragedy they refer to (generally without the hint of irony it deserves) as the cultural revolution? Some of the most meaningful classroom work happens by flying under the radar and you need a bit of good, old-fashioned undersight for this.

      Though I’ve a master’s in my subject area, I’ve been partly limited by my lack of a teaching certificate. Rather than choosing, I’ve often had to accept the teaching jobs that came my way and be grateful for them. Perhaps because I’ve had to struggle some to work my trade, I’ve come to be regarded as a very good teacher by students and colleagues alike. I would have been excluded by the system you suggest. And, I hate to say it, but unions can lead to entitlement, complacency and sloth as well. We certainly don’t need more mediocrity in the classroom and setting bars often means lowering the bar.

      For most of my career, especially early but even later, I have made most of the decisions in the classroom because I’ve worked for institutions that were driven primarily by money and were run by people who knew very little of education. What I sometimes refer to the sweet spot of tier three and four schools. I have been left to my own devices and have luxuriated in an enviable freedom. I have worn the yoke of modern education very lightly (I’ve known plenty of embittered colleagues who’ve escaped to the relative freedom of the international options). This has led me to presume that this license was the norm and that it was my right to practice it and more, my responsibility to defend it. Teaching is a revolutionary act. Full stop. The wild-west model is dangerous but brimming with opportunity if you can sidestep the mechanistic thinking of established, ‘credible’ systems. I would playfully like to suggest a new platitude for a new educational age: If it’s already broken, don’t fix it. As I’ve moved from place to place, I’ve cultivated a rebellious nature that casts a cold eye on the middling meddling of authority that most career teachers I’ve known are too fearful to practice. I for one, am more fearful of the order and control than the chaos. These days, my feeling is we need more of this than ever.


    2. Love this idea! Wish it were a reality. Unfortunately you are correct when you say that it can’t happen because of our fellow educators. I have seen this attitude of abandoning colleagues without a second thought if it meant they were to benefit.

      One of my schools decided it couldn’t fulfill its financial obligations to us and when suggestions of organizing ourselves would come up, the majority would freak out and refuse to get involved in anything like that. Instead those same people would go cut deals individually with the leadership. The group of us that refused and continued to push for things that benefited all of us, were instantly marginalized. The school then offered to let Americans max out their 401K contributions, so they would get 3/4 of their salary in USD and 25% in local currency to live. They all jumped on it. The non-Americans get 5% of their salary in USD. The fact that there was 95% devaluation of local currency and it couldn’t be transferred out of the country meant those 5 were screwed over and worked for $200 a month. Their colleagues didn’t care, because they were getting their money and that is all that mattered. It was absolutely shocking and appalling to think a school would do this to divide and manipulate its staffs, but also completely disturbing the American teachers would throw their nonAmerican colleagues under the bus so easy. It showed where peoples ethics and values truly lie.

      Ironically, a similar thing had happened at a Canadian school, and we all united and the owner compromised and paid us a fair amount given the currency devaluation. No one even questioned taht we organize ourselves and demand what is in our contract. Most teachers were Canadian though, and came from a unionized public school teaching experience, so the mindset was much different. I think teachers who haven’t come from strong teacher’s unions, are scared of the concept and feel safer with the “each one out for themselves” approach.

      Would be amazing if some how we could do any of your 3 points. Count me in!


    3. Spot on. I do think (sorry to us these labels) the ‘millennials’ and so called ‘snowflakes’ are making changes in the workplace in the US. Their move to wanting leadership that is ethical and ‘kind’ over monetary rewards, will filter through internationally, somewhat.
      Even if some of the big accreditation organisations actually started to ‘need’ and demand more ethical practice. Schools need to be attached, where else can they go?
      I also think most international teachers live in a bubble. It will never happen to me… There are serious stories out there and yet many still sit tight and zo not make a move.


  7. Wild west indeed! Schools can get away with not paying you (whether in or out of country) and there is little recourse due to a number of factors- and some recruitment org. are not much help. They are on the side of the schools because that is who pays them. You have to know what you are embarking on and prepare yourself for anything and everything that could happen.


    1. The fact you posted what amounts to a blurb from a recruiting agency, and refused to even take the time to come up with a fake name, says all we need to know about why this as posted.


    2. Buyer beware. As an international teacher, you have little recourse apart from leaving if you end up in a toxic school. However, a teacher of color at AIAN in China was unfairly terminated, sued the school and won a generous payout. However, usually this is too time consuming, stressful and expensive.


  8. I agree with some of this except I should mention that I have worked at 6 different schools in China over the past 13 years and I never had to give up my current job before securing the next one. As long as the next job started after the current contract ended, I don’t see how a school could do this except by asking teachers to renew contracts really early. Even if you were asked to renew in October, you could say no and then still have a good chance of renewing a later anyway if you didn’t find a better job (assuming they like you and your position hasn’t been filled yet). If for some reason I am ever asked to sign a contract that says I cannot secure a new one for right after that contract ends, then of course I would not agree and would look elsewhere for a job.


    1. Mike, that might be how it works in China, though I have a hard time believing this is the case in the better schools there. In many (most?) schools, they ask for a commitment or letter of intention just before the main recruitment season begins, and the school aims to fill the position as soon as possible as well. Schools know that the strongest candidates traditionally get jobs by the end of January, and they are going to actively try to recruit by then. Furthermore, teachers need to start as early as possible too, and they need to let their admin know that they will be using them as references, and probably asking for SEARCH references.

      Even many schools in the EU, where labour laws dictate that teachers only need to give 3 months notice, often ask for letters of intention earlier in the season.


    2. Yes I had a couple schools ask me to sign a letter of commitment as early as November and I asked if they were ready to negotiate my salary for the next year. Both said it was a fixed amount for all teachers and I didn’t like the amount mentioned so I still asked for more. They couldn’t give me an answer right away so that effectively gave me time to look. I was honest about this and even asked for a letter of reference in case I needed it and got it. And both times I did find a better job and there were no hard feelings since I was honest and I did my job well until the end (until finals were done and grades were submitted anyway). I also know that letters of commitment are not legally binding in China anyway (only an actual contact signed by both parties is binding) and I think most admin know this. And I never use SEARCH which is not too helpful when you know where you want to work based on contacts and research.


    3. Schools in Europe generally ask for your letter of intention by end of October or early November and then you have to sign around winter holiday. I’ve never taught in China and likely never will but most places will ask you quite early so it does put a bit of pressure on staff to make decisions.


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