International schools exist to provide an international 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. Over the past few years, international schools have 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.
Academic standards 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 drop outs. I taught the daughter of a Hong Kong woman, she was probably one of the brightest kids I’ve every 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 Masters 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 behavioural standards are usually good, as parents and students value education greatly, and are often families in international businesses, organisations, 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. Three were full sized, one 3/4; there were two swimming pools- one indoor and one outdoor, 2 theatres, a planetarium, and 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. A new 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 will eventually 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 to seat 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 with fireworks and smoke and mirrors! I have a friend there who lives on campus there – 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 would be fine and/or it might be recognised 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 true international flavour and it’s probably going to be pretty restrictive in the approach you can take to teaching. So look for 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 – go down to Coles and get it 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, the first day I was in class, they gave a stationery order form that was a booklet. I ordered 20 of this and that, handed it in and that afternoon two guys wheeled in two huge trolleys into my room. I said “What’s all this” and they said, “This is your stationery order”. I said, “I didn’t order all that!” They said, “Yes, 20 BOXES red pencils, 20 BOXES of rulers, etc! It was like there was a magic cupboard somewhere in the school that had this infinite wealth of resources. There was never a shortage of art paper. They used to have it on rolls that you could pull out and snap off so you could cover your whole wall. 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 36/37 kids with 1 free period a week to Hong Kong, with a full-time teacher’s 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 would be the AP or American curriculum, another would be the GCSE or British National curriculum and some schools would 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.
Class sizes 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. I can tell you 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. And then, 36 reports compared to 16 – it’s a snap! When Paula (My wife) was teaching in Tasmania she was teaching a 4 year old kindergarten class and 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
In international schools, a lot of schools go on special trips – they might call them a ‘week without walls’, or ‘interim’, etc. When we taught in Hong Kong they had Interim Week and every child from Year 9 to 12 would do something for a week – they’d have local interim where they’d do things in Hong Kong or go 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 into Year 7. Every student from Year 7 to Year 12 were encouraged to do something off campus – either local or international. His first trip was to Kenya, and he went to Mombasa Surf School for 5 days, stayed in a beach hut and learned to surf. The next 4 days they went on Safari around Kenya.
The following year he was scheduled to go to Lapland and see the Northern Lights, build an igloo, ride a skidoo, drive a sled dog.
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 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!” Cherie.
Once you get some experience in an international school and have proved that you can work and flourish in different environments, you will 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 – network, 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. We went up to China and helped the local teachers over the border in a Chinese school, and in return, they would take us to the local shopping centre 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, took on year level co-ordinator, 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 see 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.
A lot of places we deal with are tax-free or in a lower tax bracket, so you won’t have to pay tax in some of the countries that we work with. 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 you sufficient housing for you to live in. 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 – our second apartment was a three bedroom, school- owned apartment, which was next door to the school. A beautiful apartment with a little backyard – our kids would come and go to all the other apartments in the building because they were all school families. In our apartment in Egypt, the lounge room was enormous with marble floors and with only a couch and TV at one end, our boys could play ball games at the other end. We paid a small amount towards that apartment to be 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 so that means that 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.
You normally get your flight to and from your school at the beginning and end of 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 will be much higher when all the benefits are added up. If you’ve got a house back home, you can rent that out as well.
If you have children, tuition is usually included – up to 2 children.
The school year runs from Aug/Sept to June/July, which takes some getting used to. In fact, when it comes to Christmas and you’re not finishing the year with your kids, it becomes really bizarre to have to come back to the same room after the holidays. In some places, you work right up to the 23rd, so you don’t have time for Christmas shopping. If you’re going to start your new job overseas in August/September, you are going to leave half way through our school year if you’re currently teaching. That’s not easy for us, 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 when you’ll get 6 – 8 weeks. Over Christmas you normally get some holidays but the others are religious or country based, so in Egypt, for example, you get the Eid break, which is after Ramadan. In Hong Kong, you get Chinese New Year, etc. Most schools offer two semesters but one semester will finish on 20th January and the next will start on 21st – no break in between because it’s just an academic break not a holiday period.
Who gets jobs?
A lot of teachers come to us after a couple of years’ experience and before they have kids, whilst 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, teaching assistants, or to help 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 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. You will be required to have copies of your transcript and results to be issued 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 experience, but this is the exception rather than the rule. When you first begin teaching, it takes some time to perfect your craft and this can be a challenging time, 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.