Is America Safe for International Educators?

flag22588370Cher Monsieur, I have been offered a job at a French International School in California but I am worried about my safety in the United States. Every time I see BBC TV the United States looks like a country of civil unrest and a people divided. Is this true?

I’m a French national with advanced degrees in science. I am teaching in my home country of France. I’m French/English bilingual. Coming to the United States to teach will be an international experience but I am concerned it could turn out to be a bad one.

When I watch the News I see police shooting and beating people in America, and especially men of color like myself. A woman is raped on the beach in broad daylight in Florida and people do nothing but stand and watch. The Boston Marathon is bombed. Everyone has a gun, there are lots of shootings. Racism looks strong. I have read school reviews that criticize the Middle East for human rights violations but there is not much written on your web site about American hatred for each other and for foreigners.

If you would be so kind and display this letter to your readers for comments it would be quite helpful to me so I can decide if I should accept this job. 

(name withheld)

ISR invites readers to respond to this letter with pertinent information

I’m Not Cut Out for THIS!

..Our previous
Newsletter featured a letter
from a school Admin asking that teachers seriously consider if they’re really cut out to live & teach overseas. He asserted that when a teacher’s preconceived ideas & fantasies turn out to be in sharp contrast to reality, they may become frustrated/disillusioned & thereafter post awful Reviews to ISR. He stressed the following points & suggests teachers ask themselves, Am I Cut Out for This? (click here to see full article)

“…If you are going overseas for an international experience, let it be what it is and experience it with all its ups and downs, its occasional discomforts and daily delights. No one suggests you have to like everything about it, but if you feel the need to reshape your school and community to conform to your perception of what’s ‘best’, you’re plainly not going to enjoy it overseas.”

..How very true! But at what point does a teacher’s personal code of what is ethical & moral dictate they can no longer stand idle on the sidelines accepting injustices in the name of ‘adapting to a new environment’? One comment brings this point to light:

“…Most of the teachers I have met overseas are incredibly flexible but also professional. It’s when the administration, who are also expat, bow to local custom of allowing bullying by students, assaults by students, and cheating by students that really upsets me…When teachers challenge the accepted behaviour and are told to just ‘go along’, I believe that to be wrong.”

..Another educator further commented:

“…It is important they (teachers) bring with them the educational practices and ethical expectations received in their training and experience from whatever part of the globe. School cultures that accept classroom disruption, bullying, patronizing contempt for teachers and their contracts, abuse and assault as normal behaviours must be rejected outright and changed by legal intervention.”

ISR asks, At what point should you speak up? What do YOU consider the dividing line between failure to adapt & what’s morally/ethically right? How do you handle a situation in which the school Admin bows to parental pressure, leaving you completely unsupported & expected to do the same?

Are YOU Cut Out for This?

Problem And SolutionDear ISR: I’ve been an ISR member for several years now. Based on what I’ve read, I’ve concluded that a percentage of reviewers go overseas with preconceived ideas and expectations. When reality doesn’t meet the fantasy, it seems they became frustrated and embittered, and then the next step is that they post awful reviews about their experience.

Let’s be honest — International teaching is not for everyone. For educators who think life overseas is going to be a typical teaching job similar to theirs back home, but transposed into a wildly exotic setting, there are some harsh realities to face. For the benefit of those of us who love the challenge of teaching internationally, I would ask teachers to consider the following before recruiting….

I often hear the phrase, “You need to be flexible to teach overseas.” This is true, yet I would say most people already consider themselves perfectly “flexible.” However, to make it as an international teacher you must truly be capable of accepting different ways of doing nearly everything, even when you know there is a better way. You must be “flexible” enough to remember you’ve been invited to educate students, not bend a culture to fit your ingrained ideas of how things should be. Real change starts from within an organization and until you accept what IS, you are not in a position to effect changes. If you can’t accept this philosophy and think everyone should jump to institute what, you, the great educator from the West is proposing, the answer to Am I cut out for this? is a resounding NO!

I hear teachers complain that their opinions are not taken into account when administrators make decisions. They feel belittled, unappreciated. The bottom line is this: Teachers are hired to teach. If I, as an administrator, wanted a mentor I would find one. I do listen to my teachers but anyone just coming into my school has little understanding of the community we serve. Their perception of what needs to be done, while appropriate and valid in their home country, may be completely out of place here. My job is to administer to the overall needs of my school, making decisions that take into account elements of a situation to which teachers are not privy. Again, if your ego tells you that you, as a teaching “professional,” should be consulted on every decision made at the school, the answer to Am I cut out for this? is a resounding NO!

Finally, I want to mention that housing, roads, school materials, transportation, communication, water/air/electricity quality, level of corruption, construction quality, and just about every other facet of life internationally may never, ever be like it is back home. If you are going overseas for an international experience, let it be what it is and experience it with all its ups and downs, its occasional discomforts and daily delights. No one suggests you have to like everything about it, but if you feel the need to reshape your school and community to conform to your perception of what’s “best”, you’re plainly not going to enjoy it overseas. Ask yourself the hard question and be honest: Am I cut out for this? Hopefully, the answer will be, for YOU, a resounding YES!

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Also see the sequel to this topic: I’m Not Cut Out for THIS

Schools In Dangerous Locales


    In response to our previous article, What Would it Take?, ISR asked international educators to weigh-in on the topic of salary packages attractive enough to get you to overcome your resistance to work in a country previously on your ‘no-go, no-way, no-how’ list of places to work.

     Signing on to a school in a local that doesn’t meet your criteria for language, geographical location, political and social outlook is one thing. But when rampant crime and the potential to get hurt are a very real possibility, that’s an entirely new ball game

     Of course we all have a different tolerance for dangerous situations and some people seem to thrive on danger. One thing I’ve noticed for certain is that school directors seem to have the highest tolerance for such situations and can even make light of them, especially when they are trying to sell me on their school.

     Lets stay safe and help each other avoid unforeseen dangerous situations. We’ve started a list of Crime Ridden Locations and encourage you to add locations and personal experiences. International Educators Keeping Each Other Informed is what ISR is All About!

We’ve started off the conversation with excerpts from ISR  School Reviews, Forum and Blog posts from ISR members and site visitors:  We invite your comments:


It’s not safe to go out after dark, and during the day most people keep their phones hidden and carry “rob money” just in case. 

My friends have been robbed in so many different parts of the city at any hour of the day.

When I walk outside, or when I take the bus or even when I take a taxi, I am always alert. I know who is behind me at all times and constantly taking precautions no matter what I am doing.

A young college student in my guarded condo complex was robbed at gunpoint at the bus stop right outside our gate.

I was only robbed once and it was only for some small change. I consider myself lucky.

I worked there for years and left because I knew too many people who had been shot, kidnapped, or had their homes robbed at gunpoint. No one is safe there anywhere, especially not if you’re a Gringo!

My wife was mugged and I was nearly gunned down just outside of our flat. And we lived in a rather posh area.


I was robbed twice in 4 months! If you go there you will regret it.


I had two people pull a gun on me, and one was just outside a mall. So it is dangerous enough, and even more so if you were actually involved with drugs.

D. R. Congo

They broke in and tied up the teacher. Then they ram shackled the house and took everything of value. She wasn’t hurt and her maid found her still on the floor with her hands and feet bound with rope.


When my husband left the bank the teller must have had accomplices waiting outside because at the first traffic light he was approached by two men with guns. He had no choice but to let him in. They had him drive to a secluded area and tied him up in the back seat. Then they used the car to rob two houses. They left him tied up in the back seat of the car and fled. This sort of crime is not uncommon here.


About half the expats I know have been mugged/held up at gunpoint/pick-pocketed etc. But the number of ways in which your personal freedom is curtailed in societies like these gets old

When they can’t get ring off your finger they will cut off the finger. These robberies happened on the city busses. Don’t wear jewelry and if you do, make sure you can get it off.

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What Would it Take?

calculator6923345There’s more than a few places in this world where many of us would not be willing to live & teach. I had my reasons for wanting to avoid Pakistan, but the salary/package was so attractive I could hardly say YES fast enough. I loved Pakistan & my bank account literally grew exponentially. The Congo wasn’t on the top of my list, either, but the package was so absolutely alluring I couldn’t say NO, and again, I banked a ton of moohla & got in some outstanding travel adventures.

When I did finally land a job at my top-pick school, I took a 60% pay cut for the “privilege” of working there. It wasn’t long before I started to feel I was being taken advantage of, especially since the cost of living was far, far from cheap. I went from banking thousands a month to putting away a measly few hundred, if I was lucky. As a trade-off, I had completely derailed my progress towards financial security.

While money isn’t my top priority, it’s an important factor considering international teachers have no pension plans like teachers I know back home. So, while I want to see the world & live internationally, I do need to continue planning for the future.

Would I go back to Pakistan today? How about Kuwait, Liberia, or Egypt? From the comfort of my desk I will say NO. But, sitting across from a recruiter & in the excitement of the moment, bolstered by the promise of a great salary? I have the feeling I would say YES!

I think it’s fair to say we all have a figure in our head of what constitutes a great salary. Of the places in the world where you would not be willing to live & teach, what sort of salary/package would it take to get you to change YOUR mind?

Name your place & package:

Alcoholic in the Room Next Door?

drinking45647596Without a doubt, life overseas can be lonely at times. Being single at a small school, especially, may lead to feelings of isolation & possibly the need for a “little something” to lean on. Likewise, teachers may be tempted to “wash” away the stress & strain of a week at school if they’re in a party town where bars, clubs & cheap liquor are the norm or the only opportunity to socialize.

We all enjoy a drink off-and-on, be it wine, beer or spirits. But when liquor starts to affect teaching & on-the-job performance, there’s a problem. ISR is dotted with Reviews that complain of teachers who drink to excess & the effect this has on the teacher &/or their school.

We recently spotted the topic of alcohol on the ISR Forum. To expand the discussion, we’ve transplanted the topic to you, our Newsletter readers. Here’s the original post:

“At my current school, a disproportionate number of my colleagues seem to have very serious drinking problems. I’ve heard stories from teachers at other schools about colleagues who enjoying drinking quite a bit, but at this school it really seems to be a very big problem. Since it’s a small school and not easy to just distance yourself, I looked up Alcoholics Anonymous to see if there is a local chapter. No. These teachers seem like decent people, but their behavior – both outside and inside of school – seems to be effected by their alcoholism and its associated problems.
Has anyone experienced anything similar and have you seen it dealt with in an effective way, either by the individuals themselves or by administrators? I am seriously expecting to walk in some morning and hear that one of them is dead . . . it’s that bad.”

Whether you’ recognize this trend in yourself, a colleague, or simply hoping to realign your school environment toward a healthier situation, what can you do when confronting the dark reality of alchohol abuse? Should you mind your own business, look the other way? Or, face possible ostracism by finding a way to bring help to others, even yourself? The international teaching community, or maybe even the teacher sitting right next to you may be seeking answers to just this question. Go to Blog

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American Experience – International Backdrop

egypt49516232Dear ISR, I’ve read the many comments teachers sent in reply to your article, Is Paying for Grades the Norm Grades the Norm? My observation, as owner of a school in a developing nation, is that your teachers really don’t want a true international experience. I think what they really want is a teaching experience just like in any school in America but with an international backdrop.

Teachers come over here with perceptions of how things should be, and when reality doesn’t meet their expectations they try to tailor the experience to an American criteria. When that plan is meet with opposition by the owners or administration, they post angry comments and reviews to your web site.

We don’t have much in the way of enforceable labor laws here. And it’s true (in many nations) that rich people can buy their way through life, laws are for poor people, contracts are often of little value, and schools are what the students (and parents) make of them. No, not everyone is equal here. We don’t do things over here like you do in America. So instead of wasting time and energy complaining about every, single perceived injustice, why don’t these teachers ‘go with the flow’, as you say in your country, and get a real international experience?

Teachers may see me as dishonest because I negotiate with parents, but in this culture I’m respected. I know your culture. I went to university in your country. If teachers want an American experience transposed into a different culture, I recommend they just stay home because it is not going to happen. At least not at my school!

Wishing you all the best,


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Is ‘Paying for Grades’ the Norm?

payingforgrades49910573Dear ISR, I have a troubling question that has been eating at me. I wonder if you could solicit your readers for their opinion and experience in regards to this topic?

I am American and my husband is not. This year we moved to his home country and have two high school aged sons. We’ve enrolled them in a rather expensive international school here and our boys just received their first-quarter reports. Their grades are good, not great, but definitely above average.

I was on the campus yesterday and ran into the mother of one of my son’s classmates. In a braggart sort of way, this woman brought up the topic of grades and gloatingly told me her son got all “As”. My sons have told me her son is a class trouble maker and I’ve heard about some of his unpleasant antics. They also tell me he never does a lick of work and basically just hangs out and gives the teacher a bad time. I have to admit I was confused.

After my boys gave their report cards to their dad, I told him I learned that their classmate with a reputation for doing nothing in class had received all “As”. Our boys, who I know work hard, got mostly “B” grades. This is when I learned grades can be purchased.

My husband tells me the ultra rich here have the power to use their money to purchase favors, from law authorities on down to superior grades for their children. I suppose I shouldn’t be so naïve, but what about this boy? I really feel for this kid. It seems to me he is being set up to fail for the rest of his life just so his mother can boast the kid is an “A” student and look good to her friends and the community.

How common is this practice and can a school truthfully call itself an international school when it’s really just a supermarket for grades?

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Also see the American Experience – International Backdrop blog in which
a school owner writes in regards to teachers comments found in this blog.

Is This an International School?

international-kidsIf you ask a school owner what makes their school an International School, he/she may tell you it’s the international mix of the student body. Others may say it’s the recruited Western-educated teachers. Still others will point to their American or British curriculum.

If you’re teaching in what is termed an International School, you’re sure to have a different interpretation of what makes a school truly international than does the owner/director. Chances are you’ll question a school if the student body is composed of 98% local kids (some/many with dual citizenship)–does this influx of duel-citizenship passports qualify it for International status? Likewise, you have to wonder if an English-language curriculum is taught in strict lock-step with 3 other classrooms (same grade level), is this considered International Education? When all the kids on the school yard converse only in the local language, are they really international students?

From time-to-time we get letters from ISR members telling us that their current school, although represented at the conference as being an International School, has turned out to be nothing more than a glorified local school masquerading as something it is not. These same teachers tell us they would not have considered the job had they known at interview time that the term International was being used as nothing more than a thinly veneered part of a sales package.

In an effort to arrive at the definition for the term International School, we invite you to visit the Is This an International School? Blog and share your thoughts on the topic. With so many new teachers entering the field of International Education, here’s an opportunity for seasoned overseas educators to help newbies discover what they should be questioning at interview time.

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Please do not use this blog to comment on/evaluate individual schools
Click Here to tell colleagues about the international status of a specific school

Staffing Problem in Hot Spot

Dear Dr. Spilchuk,
I would like to get your professional advice on a ‘catch-22’ situation. In fact, I recently built a state-of-the-art Grammar school in a small city of Pakistan. I intend to hire one Principal, two Administrators (Entry Level) and two English teachers from abroad, and advertised in different newspapers. However, all the interested candidates are very much concerned about the security of Pakistan. I tried to the best of my ability to convince them that the city where the school is located is very peaceful and people are friendly and there is no security problem. Furthermore, the school building has been made in such a way that it fulfills all the requirements (e.g if you close 3 main gates of the building then nobody can enter into the school building.) If it is possible, please check the website for further information.

In conclusion, please help me in this matter.


Makhdoom Nazar Hussain
Tel: 0333-4225259 / Off Tel: 042-36665077


Hello Makhdoom Nazar Hussein
I can certainly understand the concern of the ex-Pat teachers you have been in discussion with already in accepting a contract to teach in Pakistan at this time. World news does not encourage ex-Pats to travel and/or work in Pakistan. One of our staff members lived and taught in Lahore from 1999 – 2001 and absolutely loved it. In general, the world changed since then and I can understand teachers’ hesitation.

Here are some things you can offer to encourage Western Administrators and teachers to come to your school.
1. Offer a strongly competitive pay package.
2. Include housing in a secure area in the package
3. Include medical insurance in the package
4. Include professional development funds/opportunities in the package
5. Include flights for immediate family members to and from Pakistan as well as on land transportation to your small city in the package
6. Include free school registration for children of the administrators/teachers you recruit in the package
7. Include a clear and comprehensive evaluation plan that includes immediate land and air evacuation for the administrators/teachers and their families, paid for by the school in the event of hostility, in the package
8. Offer serious prospective teachers the opportunity to travel to your city in advance of signing a contract to check out the security and safety situation for themselves, prepaid by the school. (At their expense but reimbursed upon the commencement of work, either in full or partially)
9. Be open to other individual clause negotiations with potential administrators/staff
Note: Our ISR staff member reports that his contract in Pakistan included all of the above, except #8. The contract additionally included a vehicle provided by the school.
It is very difficult for me to carte blanche support International teachers traveling to teach in Pakistan without seeing the situation myself. An additional suggestion I would make to you is for you to offer to bring an executive member of ISR or a teacher recruitment agency to your city in Pakistan to observe firsthand the situation. From that experience he/she might be able to report on the safety of the location, with some credibility, to the international teaching body.
Best of luck to you,
Dr. Barbara Spilchuk
Online Teacher Consultant
International Schools Review
Do You Have Anything to Add In Regards to Dr. Spilchuk’s Advice – Particularly Point #9 Above? 

How International Teaching Changes You

changes53641333Dear ISR, I’m a faithful member and have been for many years. I’m writing today to say that some of your members seem to have forgotten why we go overseas. I agree, there are schools out there that take advantage of their foreign hired staff. That’s just the way it is. If I had wanted to simply teach kids, I personally would have stayed home and avoided such treatment. But I went overseas for the experience of immersing in a different culture and I refuse to let anyone ruin it for me.

Putting aside the aggravation of a poor school, I’ve been reflecting on how living and teaching overseas has changed my perception of myself and the world around me. I went overseas for just such an experience.

Being in the presence of wonders like the great pyramids, famous museums, renown archaeological sites and incredible landscapes of history has certainly played a big part in altering my perceptions. But for me, the impact of these places eventually runs together into a collage of faded memories.

I’ve had the good fortune to see some fabulous places, but they only get partial credit for influencing my perception of the world. For me, it’s the people I’ve met overseas who have had the greatest influence on me — people who befriended me, dined with me, shared experiences, talked politics, laughed, sighed, and welcomed me to more than just a glimpse of their culture. You could say my main motive for going overseas was to get to know people of different cultures. Here’s one such experience:

Sorin, my neighbor who lived across the hall from me in an old communist block building in Romania, had been active in the movement to dispose of the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, just a scant few years before my arrival. His stores of hiding from government soldiers, or finding himself living on the streets after his home had been domineered by the military, put my stories of life growing up in New York into perspective.

Sorin and I came from two distinctly different worlds, yet we connected on many unspoken levels. The stark contrast in our backgrounds actually created a prominent backdrop through which we each realized things about ourselves and the world around us. Had we not met I don’t believe either of us would have had such realizations. 

I’ve had the good fortune to teach in 9 countries and travel in 50. I won’t go into the details of other relationships that strongly influenced my life but they are many and the people I’ve met remain clear and bright in my mind. I’m very curious to hear about the experiences that influenced international educators in ways they would have missed out on had they stayed in their home country. If you would please post this as a blog topic I would very much appreciate it.

Scroll Down to Share Your Experiences

Please stick to the topic which is”How International Teaching Changed Your Life” –  All off-topic posts will be removed.


Janitor at Al Rabeeh School Abu Dhabi Sentenced to Death

Sunday, November 10th: An ISR Member has just made us aware of the following emergency situation.  We ask you to review the following information and act as your conscience dictates.

The following is quoted from the Huffington Post:

Mr Ezhur Kalarikkal Gangadharan was, until this summer, a caretaker at Al Rabeeh school in Abu Dhabi (for 30 years). It was a school that had been set up by Brits, and has many British expat teachers working at it.

Mr Gangadharan had not seen his wife and three daughters, back in his home country of India, for two years. Each month, he sent most of his wage packet home. He volunteered at a local community centre, during what little spare time he had.

One day in April 2013, he was arrested, taken to a police station, and beaten for three days. Terrified and in agony – he signed a document thrust before him by the police. The words were in Arabic, a language he could not understand.

The crime he had supposedly committed – the rape of an Emirati schoolchild at Al Rabeeh school.

The South Asians working at the school that day, so-called “house boys,” had also been arrested, tortured, told by police that only a confession would end the pain. Mr Gangadharan had simply been unlucky, he had broken first….

For whatever reason, nobody at the school is prepared to comment on the case. Many of their jobs rely on good will from the Emirati. The Royal Group are not returning calls from myself or from Human Rights Watch. Even the Indian Embassy, swamped with similar abuses and not wanting to upset their diplomatic relationship with the Emirati, simply commented “we have complete faith in the UAE legal system.”

Read entire article on Huffington Post web site.

An appeal against Mr Gangadharan’s rape conviction is happening this Monday 11th November.  You can sign a petition calling for a fair re-trial of  Mr Gangadharan. Click Here to Sign the Petition  (To be delivered to: Ambassador of UAE to the UK, H.E. Abdulrahman Ghanem Almutaiwee &  President of the United Arab Emirates, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan)


If you wish to comment or discuss this incident,
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When Safety Comes First

danger-2-50398103..When I lived in Guatemala City, military helicopters landed on my street one afternoon. On another day, two cops were shot dead just down the block from my house. In October, students protested for a week by firebombing buses, causing businesses to shut-down. When things got really bad, the embassy evacuated and that was my signal to leave the capital. I headed for the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, Livingston. Surprisingly, people in Livingston had no idea anything of consequence was happening in the capital.

..In Pakistan, I learned a friend who lived in Karachi never went grocery shopping without a school-supplied bodyguard. In Lahore where I lived, it was the opposite. Things were calm around the clock. At least until 9/11, and even then I felt no impending threat.

I think we’ll all agree that just because one area of a country goes off-kilter, it’s more than likely other areas will be safe and sane, at least relatively so. Were travel advisories issued for the whole of California during the Los Angeles riots?

ISR readers recently wrote:

I’m wondering about safety. Not petty crime (which you can find in any large city in one form or another), but safety as in “you have an actual chance of getting killed”. I suppose with the recent events such as those in Kenya and Nigeria it is important to evaluate this. So, off the top of your head, what are some places international teachers should probably avoid due to safety?

Keep in mind that I’m talking about “you might get killed” safety, and not “you might get mugged” safety, which happens in my hometown in the US all the time.

Is Egypt safe? What about countries like Bahrain? Bangladesh? Which countries in Middle East can be dubbed as “safe”? Which African nations are safe? What about Asia? Latin America?

..It could be possible for an entire country to be unsafe for foreigners, but I’ve yet to visit one. Before relocating to Kinshasa in the D. R. Congo, friends and family conjured up visions of Rwanda. Everyone warned me of the dangers to which I would be subjecting myself. Kinshasa turned out to be a wonderful experience, except for the school director, but that’s a different story.

..Given that entire countries or continents don’t normally drop into chaos, we invite ISR readers to take advantage of our When Safety Comes First Blog to ask questions and share information related to safety at various International School locations around the globe. Stay safe!

International Educators Keeping Each Other
Informed is what ISR is All About!

School Daze in China

Dear ISR, I just moved to China and have to tell you that this is my very first experience out of Australia and I’m in over my head. I came here expecting one thing and got another. Nothing is as the director said it would be at the conference. I feel super deceived and don’t know what to do.

My apartment is small and in a not-so-good part of town. No one around me speaks a word of English and they stare at me as if I were from another planet. Actually, I’m starting to feel like I am from another planet. The food is strange, the air stinks, my eyes hurt and I already know this isn’t going to be good for my allergies.

The director painted a picture of a garden spot–this is a hell hole. Now what? I’m sure my experience is not unique. I wish I had discovered your web site before I took this job. Has anyone at ISR been in this position? I could use some advice!

The Fatal Faux Pas


  by Michelle / ISR Columnist

Universal consensus has it that our world is rapidly becoming smaller and smaller with communication and news now available to everyone, everywhere at every single moment of our lives. But for international teachers, new locales and near continuous worldwide travel sets us up for some truly susceptible and embarrassing moments where it might take days for the blushing to stop. Here’s one such story:

The school year was about to begin at this, my second international school. A few days earlier the board arranged a PR event (with newspaper photographers and reporters) to introduce new students and their families to the community, while also spotlighting the new faculty. All of us new teachers joined the families on stage to present our brightest and most eager smiles for the photographers before the social activities to follow.

As everyone was getting situated on stage I noticed a child who looked to be about a second grade student hidden behind the adults. Gently but firmly I ushered this child toward the front of the group, thinking that surely the parents and this shy child would want to be included in the photo. I looked up, smiled and said to the parents standing nearby, “Your little girl is so lovely. I’m sure you’d want her to be in front, yes?” My comment was met with deadpan stares and silence as the photographer continued his clicking racket without pause. The child moved forward and looked up at me with gorgeous eyes and a slow, easy smile.

Once the photographers were finished we left the stage, back to the front rows of the gathering to listen to the congratulatory speeches as another teacher leaned forward to hiss in my ear, “That is a boy. His family is Sikh. The covering over his hair is part of their religion.” Oh. My. God. At that point I wanted to melt into my seat, hoping desperately for a nearby hole to crawl into.

His long hair, gathered into a topknot and enclosed with a small elasticized bonnet, along with those long, wickedly beautiful eyelashes had completely fooled me. For days I remained embarrassed, thinking my colleagues must be positive I’d just fallen off the cultural turnip-truck. It was a rocky start to a new country, a new school, and new set of colleagues.

Whether it’s awkward social situations, miscommunications in the local language, or a world of other hurts large and small, we’ve all experienced the occasional embarrassing situation. Stay in touch with your colleagues around the world to compare notes on how to keep yourself out of fatal faux pas disasters, here on ISR!

Scroll down to share an experience or
to comment on colleagues’ experiences

Censorship in U.S. Schools?

nomorewar3310920bigDuring the past weeks ISR has featured articles focused on schools that don’t stand up for teachers who are confronted by wealthy/powerful parents and/or over–privileged children. Of the many teachers who commented on this topic via our ISR Blogs, most were in agreement that living and teaching in the Middle East could leave one open to unforeseen problems due to cultural differences. See: Schools That Throw Teachers Under the Bus and Guilty Until Proven Innocent.

To our surprise, it looks like the United States school system, at least in Washington state, has engaged in censorship that resonates loudly of the modus operandi so many international educators find objectionable about the Middle East.  Mary McNeil, a music teacher in the Seattle school system, asked students to create lyrics for a song. The last few lines of the song go: We are children of love…We are the children of the world… We don’t want war anymore. It was this last line of the song that the school principal wanted removed from the song.

Interestingly, the line in question was actually contributed by one of her students. To Mary’s credit, rather than compromise her principles for the principal, she resigned her position to the dismay of parents and students alike.

One could argue that teachers should leave their political views at home. As educators, however, are we not charged with teaching children to use their intellect rather than brawn? What could be more in line with the philosophy of education than singing We don’t want war anymore? We invite you to comment on this topic. We should add that this event took place some ten years ago, but the fact that it did take place is reason to give pause.

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Guilty Until Proven Innocent – by Dorje Gurung

dorje-medium“On May 2 they paraded me, in handcuffs, in front of five different prosecutors  in different rooms at the Public Prosecution office. I don’t know what the first four prosecutors and the guy taking me around exchanged between them – everything  was in Arabic. But, with the fifth one, they provided an English interpreter on my insistence. Otherwise it would have been Hindi or Urdu.

“The second trip to the Public Prosecution office on Sunday, May 5, I faced a prosecutor who spoke English. Again we had the same exchanges I had had the previous visit but with one important difference. I would have to produce witnesses in court to prove my innocence, he informed me. In other words, I was guilty unless I proved myself innocent.” Read more

Peccadilloes & Other Innocent Transgressions

peccadillo_1_45637465A peccadillo is a “petty, little offense or sin.” And as you can imagine, a peccadillo in one culture may carry no overtones or negative connotations in another. For example, sitting in such a way that you expose the bottom of your feet to someone is considered an insult in Thailand and certainly something that fits the definition of a peccadillo. Unfortunately, the reality is that an innocent peccadillo could land you in jail as we just saw in the case of Dorje Gurung who went to prison in Qatar for using the word “terrorist” while talking to taunting 12-year-old students at Qatar Academy.

International Educators aren’t the only ones who accidentally commit peccadilloes. President George H. Bush, caused himself a hugh problem in 1992. While driving past a group of farmers demonstrating against US farm subsidies in Canberra, Australia, he thought he was giving them the peace sign when he was actually telling these farmers to ‘f#@k off.’ After being told about his peccadillo, the President apologized. Even a simple ‘thumbs up’ can get you trouble in some cultures. Most everyone recognizes the ‘thumbs up’ gesture as a sign for good or A-OK. But in the Middle East, a ‘thumbs up’ has the same meaning as the American middle finger thrust upwards gesture.

As International Educators, we obviously don’t enjoy the same support and security as American politicians who travel accompanied by the full protection of the US government. No, as international educators we are dependent on our schools to stand up for us should we inadvertently cause a few bruised feelings. The ISR web site is dotted with Reviews, Blog and Forum posts in which teachers describe how they unknowingly offended a rich parent, or disciplined a student and found themselves detained and/or jailed. Sadly, in most cases their schools abandoned them.

A recent post to the ISR Forum tells of a teacher’s experience in the Philippines in which his school called immigration and had him arrested for reporting the inappropriate relationship between a teacher and a 15-year-old female student to authorities. The school called it “libel” because the report brought unfavorable attention to the school. “In hindsight, it was a pretty cool adventure. At the time, I thought I was dead. We had a 6′ x 8′ cell for six of us. They gave me the bed (a raised bamboo platform) because they felt sorry for me. The other prisoners were incredibly kind. After I got out, I visited all of their families with messages and big bags of rice because I owed them so much for being so good to me.”

ISR can help you know if a school stands up for its teachers or simply throws them under the bus during a peccadillo crisis. Additionally, you’ll want to learn all you can about a school’s location and its culture before you arrive. Imagine landing in Kuwait and upon being cleared at immigration you give the agent a big ‘thumbs’ up…Now that’s a peccadillo!!

To read & share first-hand information on living in Asia, Africa. the Americas, Europe and the Middle East, ISR invites you to visit our What’s It Really Like to Live Here Blog/series. Remember: a peccadillo shared means a colleague may be spared.

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