International schools explained
If you’re new to the world of international schools you may be interested in learning more about them- their clientele, teacher expectations, and conditions! Nick Kendell spent 13 years as a teacher and administrator in international schools and is currently in his 13th year working as a recruiter for international schools and teachers. He shares his experience and knowledge below.
Why they exist
International schools started in order to provide an education to expat children living abroad. They try to offer a seamless transition back ‘home’ for families who have an overseas posting. The curriculum may be similar to that of a certain country, eg. American, British, or Australian, or be an international curriculum, such as the International Baccalaureate, or a mixture of these. Like other schools, international schools teach language arts, mathematics, the sciences, humanities, the arts, physical education, information technology, and design technology.
International schools have more recently become popular with local students, who attend primarily to learn the language of the international school and to obtain qualifications for employment or university in a foreign country.
There are currently 13,190 international schools as of January 2023 (ISC Research)
The changing model of ‘international schools’ over the last 30 years
The traditional international school
(Typical in 1990s)
New generation international school
(Typical in 2022)
Expatriate population, predominantly global nomadic students of mobile parents
Increasingly local population
Unique international culture
Culture embedded in local traditions
Mainly British, European, North American, and Australasian teachers
Local teacher population increasing
International curriculum based on western pedagogy
Curriculum not necessarily grounded on western pedagogy and more sensitive to local context
Based on the work of Sylvester (2002), Hayden (2006), Brummitt & Keeling (2013), Sylvester (2015), Hayden & Thompson (2016) and Stobie (2016)
These are generally very high. The students in international schools go to the top universities. About 99% head to a university degree so there are not a lot of dropouts.
I taught the daughter of a Hong Kong woman, she was probably one of the brightest kids I’ve ever taught. She got a full early academic scholarship to Harvard, was then the editor of the Harvard Law Review, and has now graduated with a Master’s in Law. These are the sorts of children that you get to teach. Like everywhere, however, there are children who struggle and most schools would have a good special needs/support system in place. The behavioral standards are usually good, as parents and students value education greatly, and they are often families in international business organizations, foreign embassies, missions, or missionary programs.
International School Facilities
Many international schools have amazing facilities; facilities that would be the equivalent of top private schools in Australia and New Zealand. Lots of playing fields, great gyms, plenty of IT resources.
Our school in Hong Kong, for example, had 4 gymnasiums. There were two swimming pools. One was indoor and one outdoor, with 2 theatres, a planetarium, and many musical instruments. Not all of them are so well-resourced, but a lot of them are, and fees in these schools are often high- up to $30,000 – $35,000.
One such school in Korea is Branksome Hall, situated on Jeju Island, (which was formerly known as Honeymoon Island, for obvious reasons). The government in Korea has set up an educational zone on the island. They aim to open about 14 schools there – all boarding schools. Branksome Hall is the third one to open. It has a full-size Olympic ice skating rink, a theatre that seats 1500, and golf and tennis academies. During the opening of the school, they introduced the staff to the dignitaries and parliamentarians by raising them from the orchestra pit by a hydraulic lift along with fireworks and smoke and mirrors! I have a friend there who lives on campus. He drives a golf cart to school each day and loves it.
How international schools are accredited
If you’re looking at a school make sure that it has some form of accreditation that is internationally recognised, or recognised by a Western accreditation authority. It might be recognised by a North American state which is fine, and/or it might be recognized by CIS (which is the Council of International Schools). If it’s just authorised by the local government then it’s probably not going to have a truly international flavour and it may be restrictive in the approach you can take to teaching. So look for this accreditation when you’re looking at schools.
Prior to arriving in Hong Kong, I’d been teaching in a small Catholic school in Melbourne. If I wanted an eraser, ruler, or sticky tape or a student needed an exercise book, I’d just go and get it from the local shop myself because our orders took so long to arrive. There was a shortage of everything you could think of – we never had enough art paper, paint, blutack, scissors, sticky tape, pins, etc.
When I got to Hong Kong they gave me a stationery order booklet. I ordered 20 of this and that, handed it in and that afternoon two guys wheeled in two huge trolleys to my room. “What’s all this,” I asked. “I didn’t order all that!” They said, “Yes, 20 BOXES of pencils, 20 BOXES of rulers, etc! It was like there was a magic cupboard somewhere in the school that had this infinite supply of resources.
Art paper on rolls was available and could be used to transform a wall into a work of art. You simply had to unroll the paper and snap off a piece to cover the desired area. You don’t realise how easy that makes life until you experience it. We did a lot of art in my class- I used to have my full-time teacher’s assistant prepare everything for me. Coming from 36 kids with 1 free period a week in Melbourne to teach in Hong Kong, with a full-time assistant and a lot more free time- I thought I was in heaven.
Basically, there’s a few different types of curriculum that we find in international schools, one of them is the IB, another is the AP (or American curriculum), another is the GCSE (or British National curriculum) and some schools have an international style curriculum. In secondary, some schools run one of the major curriculums, but in primary school, they might just offer an international curriculum.
These are normally smaller than in Australia and New Zealand. Most of the time in an international secondary school you probably have class sizes varying anywhere from around 18 – 23 at the maximum. In primary school, probably about the same.
Research tells us that if you get less than 16 in a primary school class it is probably a deterrent for collaborative work, so 16 is a great number. If you’ve got 16 kids in a class compared to 36 – you can get to every child individually, more often; it’s just fantastic. 36 reports compared to 16. It’s a snap!
When Paula (my wife) was teaching a 4-year-old kindergarten class in Tasmania she had 20 kids, and she would get probably 2 release periods a week and 30 mins for a lunch break, (when not on duty). She got to Cairo and she had 17 in her class with nine 40-minute release periods a week, a full-time teacher’s assistant, and a toilet lady. So if a child had an accident, she didn’t have to deal with it, the toilet lady helped out. She also made the playdoh and cleaned the paint pots!
School trips overseas
A lot of schools go on special trips to develop and broaden the whole child. When we taught in Hong Kong they had ‘Interim Week’ and every child from years 9 to 12 would do something different. They’d have local experiences where they’d do things in Hong Kong or go overseas e.g. horse-riding in Queensland, golfing in Japan, skiing in Korea, trekking in the Himalayas – all these sorts of things. Teachers would accompany students on these trips.
When we were teaching in Cairo, our son, Tom went on his first trip in Year 7 to Kenya. He went to the Mombasa Surf School for 5 days, stayed in a beach hut, and learned to surf. Then he went on Safari. The following year he chose to go to Lapland and see the Northern Lights, build an igloo, ride a Skidoo, and drive a sled dog. The experiences were amazing.
Wonderful professional development opportunities are provided, either on-site at your school, or at overseas conferences. With the collaborative approach to learning, educators from all corners of the globe bring unique perspectives from different backgrounds.
A teaching candidate, Cherie wrote this on her blog:
I went on an IB training course in Bangkok. It was fantastic! So great to meet like-minded art teachers from all over Asia. There were almost 40 people in the group and I knew some of them from my time in Malaysia (and one from Australia) but I also met some great teachers who work in China. We are going to do some collaborative work. I have also been accepted as an IB Visual Arts examiner and I am currently undergoing the training. The new changes in IB Visual Art are making for a very healthy and exciting course. I can’t wait to get stuck in!
After you’ve had some experience in an international school, you have proved that you can work and flourish in different environments. You’ll find that it is much easier to move to another international school on the ‘circuit’. If you think this is something you may be interested in doing for a while, make sure to network and make as many contacts as you can. Keep your ear out for new opportunities, while remembering to work hard and gain a great reputation!
It’s also important to try and have some other interests as well and to get out and about in your local community. A lot of people try and involve themselves in some sort of community project. Paula and I went up to China and helped train the local teachers, and in return, they would take us to the local shopping center in Shenzhen and would bargain for us at local prices (rather than us trying to bargain at expat prices).
Schools often promote from within, so there are many opportunities for advancement. I started as a class teacher and took on year-level coordinator, IT specialist, and acting deputy head in my first overseas posting.
Salaries and savings
While you might earn US$100,000 in country ‘A’ and US$36,000 in country ‘B’, the savings potential is very different; depending on which country you live in. On our website, you’ll find the savings potential which can be taken as a guide to what you can save in different countries and schools, rather than the salary paid.
Many of the schools we work with offer tax benefits, either through a tax-free system or lower tax brackets. This means that you won’t have to pay taxes in some of these countries, providing a significant financial advantage. By working in countries with lower tax rates, you can keep more of your hard-earned money, allowing you to enjoy a higher standard of living and greater financial stability. Europe however is the exception. While we would love to be able to offer specific advice, we are not qualified to do so! Every situation is different. Contact your own accountant or one who is familiar with overseas taxation issues BEFORE you go. Knowing the best ways to minimise your tax, could save you big $$$.
Housing is normally included in your package, or you will be given a housing supplement that will get be sufficient for a place to live. In about 90 to 95% of the schools we work with, housing will be provided. Europe is probably the exception. In Hong Kong, we had 2 different apartments. The second one was a three-bedroom apartment located conveniently next door to the school. It had the added bonus of a small backyard. The community was close-knit, with kids from different school families regularly visiting each other in the building. Our apartment in Egypt had an enormous lounge with marble floors. With only a couch and TV at one end, our boys could play ball games at the other. We paid a small amount over and above the stipend provided by the school so that we could live closer to the school.
Health Insurance is often included in your package. The benefits vary from school to school. Sometimes it will only be local cover. If you are travelling, you need to get travel insurance. Sometimes dental is included, sometimes not. Maternity is usually a 12-month wait. We had a baby in Hong Kong. If we had to pay for that, we would have been out of pocket $A30/40,000. Of course, the local hospitals are much cheaper than the expat hospitals. Make sure to check the Search Associates database for the specific coverage offered by a school.
You normally get your flight to and from your school at the beginning and end of the contract. A lot of schools provide an annual airfare as well or the equivalent in money. So you can choose not to go home and travel somewhere else. Your salary may be $35,000 a year, but the total package is much higher when all the benefits are added up. If you’ve got a house back home, you can rent that out as well.
Most schools include tuition for up to 2 children. Read more about travelling with a family here.
The school year runs from Aug/Sept to June/July, which takes some getting used to. Returning to the same classroom and students after the Christmas break can be a strange experience, for those who usually finish up at the end of the calendar year. In some places, teachers work right up to the 23rd, so you don’t have time for Christmas shopping.
Most jobs overseas start in August/September, so if you are currently teaching you’re going to leave halfway through our school year at home. That’s not easy for teachers to do, and probably the hardest part is the conversation you’re going to have to have with your principal.
The only guaranteed holiday period you’ll get in international schools is that long break over June/July. You can expect to get 6 – 8 weeks. Over Christmas, you normally get some holidays as well. Other days off are religious or country-based. In Egypt, for example, we had the Eid break, which is after Ramadan. In Hong Kong, we had the Chinese New Year off, etc. Most schools work over two semesters. One semester will finish on the 20th of January and the next will start on the 21st. There’s no break in between because it’s just an academic break, not a holiday period.
Who gets jobs?
We place teachers in all stages of their careers. A lot of teachers come to us after a couple of years of teaching experience, before they have kids. Others apply after their children have left the family nest. Once you get to 57-59 years of age in some countries it gets harder to get a visa.
Anyone who is a passionate teacher with a sense of adventure and a proven track record makes a strong candidate.
Schools do have a preference for-
- Singles without dependents
- Teaching couples with or without dependents (usually a maximum of 2 preferred).
For couples with only one teacher working, opportunities are often limited for their spouse. Schools may be able to offer positions, such as school nurse or teaching assistant. Sometimes help is needed with after-school activities, etc. In developed countries like Hong Kong, it may be possible for your spouse to find employment. For self-employed spouses, who work from home, this can be perfect, just as long as there is great internet!
Qualifications needed to succeed
You must have a Bachelor of Education and have been teaching for at least 2 years. Schools will need copies of your transcript and results to secure a working Visa. There is some flexibility, in rare cases, for teachers who only have a Diploma of Teaching. Intern programs are offered in some schools to accept teachers without experience. Sometimes teachers with prior life experience may be offered a position without teaching experience. This is the exception rather than the rule.
When you first begin teaching, it takes some time to perfect your craft. This can be challenging, even without moving overseas and starting everything from scratch. Also in Australia and New Zealand, new teachers are usually mentored and helped to gain confidence. In an international school, however, you are expected to hit the ground running.
I hope you are now a little better informed. If you would like to know more about international schools and how to find a job, please get in touch. I would love to help you on your journey to an international school adventure! Nick