Quality of life, prawns: the joys and perils of teaching abroad. Part 1: Going Rogue

It's not edible.
It’s not edible.

International teachers, back home from another stint abroad. What a tiresome bunch?! They bleat on about prawns the size of your head and their 10-bedroom colonial mansion (deliberately omitting the fact that it’s in the no-man’s land of a border conflict between two Central African states).

Oh yes, they’ll bang on about ‘quality of life’ and ‘prawns’ (a la Stewart Lee’s excellent stand-up routine in Series 2, Episode 5 of Comedy Vehicle), but when they come round your house, they can’t help but get misty-eyed as they chug HP sauce straight from the bottle and ask you if you’ve got any russets. Oh yes, they’ve climbed a waterfall in Ecuador and helped build an irrigation system in Kinshasa, but have they really lived? Oh yes, they’ve taught the son of the head of military intelligence in Pakistan and they’ve dodged gunfire between special forces and drugs cartels in South America, but do they know anything at all about the real world?

I went rogue over five years ago. Having taught in a rural primary school for a few years, I decided to decamp my family to Central Europe. I have now taught in three countries in Europe and have been happily settled with my family in South America for the last two years.

My family and I have found teaching abroad to be enormously rewarding, but not without its hardships, heartaches and very real risks. With that in mind, I’ve written a three-part guide to teaching abroad, taking you through the process of decision-making, finding the right school and country for you, and finally acclimatising to your new life.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
taken from ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost

Please keep in mind as you read on, I emphasise some negative aspects of teaching abroad (mostly the risks), but personally I have no regrets in choosing to work abroad. If you are savvy and manage risk with foresight and resiliance, you will benefit enormously from having taken the plunge.

So, let’s begin with Part 1: Going Rogue.

Picture this: it is January, you still have 8 weeks left of your summer holiday in the Southern Hemisphere. It is 32 degrees in the shade of your gazebo, and you are tucking into the biggest prawn ever. So big a prawn, that its normally pinhead-sized, beady black eyes are the size of marbles. (It is actually quite unappetizing, so you push the plate to one side and regret your choice of anecdote with which to start this post.)

Smart-arsed self-referential anecdotes aside, choosing to teach abroad is both bold and stupid. You are making a decision that will have implications at many points in the future. You are taking a very identifiable step that you will be able to look back on, at various points in your life, and say both “I’ve never looked back” and “I wish I could go back” (sometimes in the same hour of the same day). In a nutshell, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that it is a life-changing decision. So how do you make it? Well, I’ve thought about my experience and boiled the process down to four factors. There are more, no doubt, but these are those that came to my mind as I stared down that oversized prawn. In the interests of good practice in persuasive writing, I shall make these four factors each begin with an F. This is easy for three of them, because happily they did accidentally begin with an F.  See if you can guess which one didn’t.

1) Family and friends: will your move cause an upheaval too great for people close to you? Do you have relatives that are getting old and will need support from you? Most crucially, do your immediate family wholeheartedly support your move? Your partner needs to be as committed to the move as you are.  If your partner is willing to take as much responsibility as you are, then you are good to go. If not, seriously reconsider: you do not want to be held personally responsible for every little hiccup along the way as you get used to your new situation.

2) Finances: “This will work if I can find a tenant for my house and someone to look after Mr Nibbles. Oh, and I’ll need to get me papers forwarded. Ooh, and don’t forget to water the wisteria every Thursday (it has to be a Thursday, otherwise Mr Cathcart can’t have his shower).”

Moving abroad can be financially very rewarding, but is not always so. You need to have some flexibility in your finances, so if you have large commitments in your native country, don’t just plan for the best case scenario. Make sure that you have a plan B if things don’t go according to plan. For example, what if your tenant goes AWOL? If things don’t go according to plan, do you have enough savings to repatriate your family?

3) Flexibility: With their Marks and Spencer’s and their Tesco’s, foreign countries may seem like home (to my British readers) but scratch the surface and things can get distinctly unBritish. Picture yourself standing at a zebra crossing where cars never stop for you, or standing in a line where you appear to be the only person observing the etiquette of a queue. Imagine living somewhere where you have to kiss everyone that you meet (day in, day out). How well disposed are you towards cultural relativity? Will you adapt or cocoon yourself in a mini theme park of Englishness? If you go down the track of putting a portrait of QE2 on the wall of your Victorianesque reception room, then you will find yourself a magnet for the local Anglophiles. Not to mention a sounding board for the apologist for the local dictator…

The Apologist: “Those were tough times; we needed a strong leader. Just like your Margaret Thatcher in the 80’s.”

You: “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure that Thatcher didn’t try to sterilise the miners.”

4) The final factor is, er, feeling (or faith, or fancy?). Ahem. If you teach abroad, unless you work as a volunteer, it is very likely that you will be teaching in a private school. How does that grab you? The sons and daughters of oligarchs, royalty, celebrities? You may not have exactly the same sense of mission that you had in your native country (where you found yourself patiently explaining to Conner why weeing in the bin is not okay). That said, wouldn’t you cherish the opportunity to teach a trilingual student who is partway through her third novel, an affectionate pastiche of Anna Karenina, sprinkled with verse in Hebrew, Russian and English? Also consider this: all children deserve love, and, with the right example set, have the capacity to make the world a better place whether they come from the most impoverished or privileged background. But, if you think that teaching privately will challenge your principles, then you will find it very difficult to work hard with a smile on your face. So it would be best to get back to Conner and the binful of wee.

At this point, you have some food for thought. You may be rolling a juicy, imaginary prawn around your tongue. It may be too soon after the incident with Conner to reflect with an entirely open mind. But, in any case, assuming that you have decided to move abroad, the next step is how to choose the best school for you (and your family, if applicable). I will deal with this in Part 2: Blind Man’s Bluff – or ‘how to make an informed choice with insufficient information.’

Now please excuse me, I must go now. I seem to be stuck with a mental image of giant prawns swimming in a bin full of wee.

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