Quality of life, prawns. Part 2: Blind Man’s Bluff – Choosing a school abroad

Some prawns are bigger than others.
Some prawns are bigger than others.

In Part 1, we looked at the factors that influence your decision whether to up sticks and teach in a foreign country. In Part 2, I want to focus (now you’ve decided) on how to choose a good school.

When I first moved abroad, I very quickly decided whether to move and then immediately applied, using the TES jobs website. The decision to go and the action of applying were, in retrospect, too close together. What surprised me was how quickly I got several very positive responses.

In comparison to my early experience of job-hunting around primary schools in England (travelling miles to be interviewed for jobs, only to find that the current placement student at the school was pretty much a shoe-in, was a common experience), job-hunting internationally you will quickly feel wanted.

The process of finding vacancies is fairly straightforward.  Here is a list of websites, with a short commentary on their pro’s and con’s:

TES jobs:

Pro’s: lots of jobs advertised.

Con’s: very little or no quality control on the part of TES. Be circumspect about schools that seem to be regularly posting a high volume of vacancies.

TIE online:

Pro’s: good selection of schools and positions; schools need to register (so a measure of quality control).

Con’s: American website, so many schools will favour candidates with US-based experience. Oh, and you need to subscribe ($39 a year for a web-only subscription).

COIS jobs site:

Pro’s: very reputable, schools need to be members of the Council of International Schools

Con’s: relatively limited number of jobs

Search Associates and International School Services

Pro’s: search and select services used by the top international schools (can be some of the most lucrative contracts in the world)

Con’s: you’ll need to spend money and go through a rigorous selection procedure, with no guarantee of a job at the end of the process.

There are many more sites that advertise positions and agencies that will keep you informed.

So you have browsed some sources of jobs and perhaps seen some positions in which you’re interested or countries that you’d like to visit. How do you know whether the school is right for you? More importantly, how will you know that the school is not completely wrong for you?

Broadly speaking I would split schools abroad into three main categories:

1) International schools:

These are sometimes referred to as ‘Tier 1’ schools, for the simple reason that they are typically some of the most expensive schools in the world. School fees may be as much as $30-40K per year, the facilities are genuinely state of the art (a Macbook per student, for example) and they tend to attract a broad clientele from diplomats, expatriate business people, politicians and local wealthy families.

When most people picture international schools, this is what they think of: an IB school with great facilities and English as the language of instruction (because they draw their clientele from a broad range of nationalities).

How to spot these schools:

Ask if all courses are taught in English; ask whether the school is registered with the IBO and/or CIE; ask how much the school fees are and let your eyes water!

2) Bilingual schools:

A bilingual school will typical teach 50-60% of its curriculum in English. The remainder being taught in the native language. The school fees are usually a little lower and, typically, there will be a majority of native language speakers. This has implications for your teaching style, as you will find that you have to promote English as a common language in the classroom. The benefits of bilingual schools for a teacher are that you are less likely to spend more time in the ‘expat bubble’ as you will be exposed to more native language and culture.

How to spot these schools:

Ask how much of the day is taught in English (it should be 50% or more); find out about accreditation (very important, as above); expect the school fees to be lower than ‘tier 1’, perhaps $8-10,000 per year, depending on the country.

3) Normal, ‘national’ schools that have an English department:

To an extent, I started out in a hybrid of bilingual and national. These I would classify as schools that have either yet to establish their linguistic identity, or where the local national curriculum is given due privilege, but there is an additional focus on English in some subject areas.  As long as you go to one of these schools with your eyes wide open, you will be fine. But you should understand that it will not be a simple case of rocking up and opening your bag of National Curriculum tricks.

These are the schools where culture shock might creep into your professional as well as your personal life. I worked in a school where penknives were sold in the school library (with the school’s branding on them). Now if that is not professional culture shock, I do not know what is!

How to spot these schools:

The name of the school is likely not to be in English; less than 50% of the curriculum will be taught in English; there will be an emphasis on teaching English as a Second Language, rather than teaching UK curriculum subjects in English. The fees are likely to be very low for a private school (maybe $3-5,000 per year).

My personal recommendation, given that this will be your first position abroad, is to confine your job search to Tier 1 International Schools and Bilingual Schools. The third category of school is a less conventional proposition in terms of both professional development and career progression. Also, it is where you might encounter pedagogical practices that fly in the face of what you have been taught on your PGCE course. I heard of one secondary school in this category, where the male students were sometimes allowed to hold drunken parties on the premises and plastered their lockers with pornography with no threat of sanction from school management.  Again, I reiterate, very few schools in this category are like this, but it gives you some indication of how far away from normal it is possible to get when you move into the margins of international teaching.

We’ve looked at the three main categories of schools abroad, so how do you evaluate the general quality of these schools? Most likely, you will not have an opportunity to visit the school. Being financially pragmatic, it is equally unlikely that you will be able to afford to pay for yourself to travel to the school and then decide not to work there (having already sunk some investment into your decision-making).  The most common route through the recruitment process is to engage in a series of (usually two or three) Skype interviews with a variety of managers (starting with your prospective headteacher, and moving down to your head of department). Very rarely might you be asked to deliver a demonstration lesson. If you are, that would actually reflect very well on the institution. Personally, I think it is important to feel that the school makes its decisions with great care and deliberation.

So this is what I want you to get a feel for during these Skype interviews. By all means ask the questions that you know will make you sound very professional, hard-working, great at your job, etc; but do yourself justice and find out some basic things about the school where you will be committing valuable time.

1) Establish, through questioning, what type of school you are dealing with: how much are the school fees? For what percentage of the school day do the students speak English? What exams do they take at the end of the Key Stages?

2) With whom is the school accredited? Schools can register with interest groups: the European Council of International Schools, the Council of International Schools, the list goes on. But it is important to focus on exam accreditation, as this will give you the greatest indication of the school’s stability and seriousness. Indulge me whilst I dramatise a line of questioning between a candidate and an interviewer to give you some idea of how some schools may try to puff themselves up a little:

Interviewer: We are a Cambridge school delivering roughly 50% of our curriculum in English, culminating in a suite of Cambridge English exams at the end of Year 10. [this sounds great, doesn’t it?]

Candidate: So you are registered with Cambridge, then?

Interviewer: That’s right.

Candidate: The students take GCSEs then, do they? With the CIE?

Interviewer: Er, yes, we follow a UK Cambridge curriculum, at the end of which the students sit a suite of IGCSE examinations.

Candidate: Sorry to pry, but do you send your exams to Cambridge International Examinations?

Interviewer: Well, no. Our students sit IGCSE style papers, typically prepared by their subject teachers. The externally marked papers they sit with Cambridge are English language certificates. [OK, this doesn’t sound quite as fancy as before.]

Candidate: So you are registered with Cambridge ESOL, then. I see.

I am being a little uncharitable here, since I think it is natural for a school leader to present his or her institution in the best possible light (and the interviewer said nothing that wasn’t true). But I hope that this little dialogue illustrates one clear point: it is your responsibility to clearly establish the status of the school you are evaluating. If you, as for example a GCSE Geography teacher, rock up and find out that your students will not be externally assessed for their efforts (and that you might be expected to write their exams), you may find yourself having something of a ‘sixth sense’ moment.

3) What kind of package is on offer? I would suggest a baseline that rewards you with more than UK main payscale (certainly you should expect to be rewarded for uprooting yourself to another country). Within Europe you should expect less than other more far-flung locations – the economic law of supply and demand applies very strongly the further you are from a native English-speaking population. You need to know whether you will be contributing to a pension (and how you can extract it when you leave). You also need to understand what health coverage will be provided and whether it extends to your dependents. You should also know precisely under what terms and costs your children (if you have any) will be given places in the school. It is quite normal for schools to offer between 50-100% coverage of the school fees of one or two dependents.

Beyond the above hygiene factors, you then need to find out whether the cost of accommodation is covered. Many schools outside of Europe will pay for your accommodation. This may sound excellent, but you need to see photos of the accommodation or at least ask to speak to a teacher who currently works at the school and lives in the accommodation.

4) What are the vibes that you get from the people with whom you have interacted throughout the selection process? In my first overseas job, I asked whether I would be met at the airport. I was told, quite flatly, that ‘no’, I would need to make my own way from the airport.  The vibes were there for all to see. By contrast, many schools will meet you and greet you, and put you up in a hotel for a month or so, whilst you find your feet. You will be working hard; you deserve a little initial pampering before the onslaught.

Whilst you are being interviewed, monitor eye contact and trust your instincts. Perhaps the interviewer doesn’t engage in eye contact whilst talking about aspects of the contract. Take care to look out for anything that may bode ill for you further down the line.

Take the opportunity to talk to serving teachers. Skype them in situ if you can, so you can see them in context and get an instinctive feel for how the school supports them.

Finally, google your new school. In particular, check out International Schools Review, an excellent website for international teachers, run by the estimable Dr Barbara Spilchuk. International Schools Reviews hosts anonymous reviews of hundreds of international schools. Because the reviews are anonymous they are not accountable and, as such, should be taken with a pinch of the proverbial. But you will quickly learn to differentiate the toxic from the terrific schools. (It costs $29 per year to subscribe, but it can give you real piece of mind).

To conclude, essentially the process of selecting a school (and being selected) at a distance of tens of thousands of kilometres remains a game of Blind Man’s Bluff. In the cold light of an interview, you may not feel that you can ask all of these questions. But bear this final point in mind: if you feel that your questions are not welcomed; if you feel that your desire to fully understand the situation you are entering into is not appreciated by your prospective employer, then what does that tell you about them? It may be a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, but that shouldn’t prevent you from sniffing out the right school for you.

In Part 2, we have looked at a range of strategies for selecting a school that suits your teaching style and expectations. In my final post on the topic of ‘Quality of Life, Prawns’, I’ll be focusing on the process of acclimatising to a new school in a new country. It’s called, rather optimistically, ‘Part 3: You’ve Made Your Bed…”

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