Between here and where?

The British overseas schools sector continues to grow. But how can schools and teachers manage the sometimes-daunting transition? Alex Diggins reports

Lost in Translation is one of the great films of cultural dislocation. In it, Bill Murray’s burnt-out movie star strikes up an unlikely friendship with Scarlett Johansson’s lonely college graduate, after a chance encounter in a hotel bar. The film is a tender meditation on loneliness, transience and the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. Amidst the neon-drenched surfaces of Tokyo, and alien exoticism of Japanese culture, the two eventually come to the same realisation: that home is where the heart is, and sometimes you have get away, to realise how far you’ve come. 

Similar thoughts underpin the decisions of many teachers to move abroad and seek work in British international schools. (Few, sadly, have the benefit of Bill Murray’s wit or Sophia Coppola’s achingly cool cinematography to help them make the decision, though.) According to an annual report by COBIS – the Council of British International Schools – the top reasons given for moving abroad were personal satisfaction, adventure and career development. And for many UK teachers, such a move is in the pipeline. Either as a vague ambition on the horizon, maybe after a particularly challenging Friday afternoon in drizzly November, or as a definite plan with school, country and deadline already chosen. 

Teachers planning to move face no shortage of schools to choose from. COBIS itself has 257 member schools with 135,000 pupils and 35,000 teachers, and there are plenty of schools not accredited by the organisation. Teachers who have had experience of the British education system are in particular demand. “It is seen as the ‘gold standard’,” said Barnaby Sandow, Principal at Jerudong International School, Brunei. “British teachers overseas are considered professionals to be respected.”

The benefits of overseas teaching are well rehearsed. Better resources, better pay and exotic travel are oft-cited reasons for going abroad. But what lies behind hazy dreams of swaying palm trees and 5 o’clock cocktails? What challenges, as well as opportunities, await teachers who take the brave step of choosing the expat life? As Fiona Rogers, Director of Professional Development and Research at COBIS, explained: “Teaching is a global profession, and there’s tremendous opportunities for teachers out there.” 

But: “they must do their due diligence.”

It’s not you, it’s me 

It’s worth taking a harder look at the reasons for teachers leaving to go abroad. While many cite personal reasons as the main motivation for going, a non-trivial amount also claim that difficulties with the British system have prompted a rethink. “Forty-seven per cent of [those we surveyed] said that dissatisfaction was a reason for going,” said Fiona. Dr Sarah Howling, Principal of Alice Smith International School in Kuala Lumpur, said: “The situation in international schools is often much improved in relation to these challenges.” Teaching loads are likely to be smaller, schools tend to be far better resourced and student behaviour is often less of an issue. Paul Gildea of the British School of Bucharest argued that some of the more toxic aspects of the UK system are mitigated – if not disappear completely – in the move abroad. “The rise of school social media accounts, and the unprecedented access that parents now have, can lead to some teachers feeling a sense of burnout. There is nowhere to hide anymore; if a teacher has an ‘off day’, then it is laid bare.” By going abroad, teachers feel they can decompress and switch off better from these omnipresent pressures. 

That said, as the characters discovered in Lost in Translation, living in a strange culture can be a disorientating experience. “Internationally, the challenges involve settling into a culture,” said Fiona, “but also managing the ties back home.” Teachers may feel disorientated and torn between their new lives in a foreign land and insistent commitments back home. Given this context, it is unsurprising that many schools pride themselves on helping teachers manage the move abroad.

“We created a very strong induction programme,” noted Sarah. “[Teachers] are met at the airport, given two weeks’ hotel accommodation, support finding accommodation and opening bank accounts.” Not only are these practicalities taken care of, but also “there is a series of social events to get to know each other and we have a wide and varied programme of professional learning, coaching, buddies and support from leaders.” 

One big happy…

The ethos of an international school must change as well, Sarah argued. Far from being just a place of work, Heads must recognise that their institution provides an oasis of reliability and familiarity amidst what can be a challengingly alien environment. “School becomes much more of a family and is depended on more than in national contexts.” This familial touch extends to the little things: “I write birthday and thank you cards to all the staff.” But, Sarah cautioned, international schools must be aware of the responsibility they bear for staff welfare and ensure that “strategies to improve wellbeing in school move beyond what could be considered tokenistic”. 

Staff retention is also an important factor. According to COBIS’ research, 71% of teachers move back home within 10 years. And, as Paul noted: “Most teachers are employed on fixed-term contracts, and it is not unusual for teachers to leave at the end of their contract.” Teaching abroad can “offer fascinating opportunities”, but the inevitable intermingling of personal and professional lives can leave some feeling like they live in an ‘expat bubble’. This environment can be draining long-term, and besides which, life back in the UK carries on regardless – the ties that bind home tend to grow stronger, not weaker, with time. Nonetheless, Fiona is keen to emphasise that “the movement of teachers is a genuinely two-way street. Satisfaction levels are still really high. People are not unhappy internationally.” 

Word of mouth 

Reputation is also vital, said Sarah. 

“The international schools’ network is very small, and word of mouth and personal recommendations are powerful. A school can have as many adverts and marketing gimmicks as it wants, [but] if teachers are giving a contradictory message about their experience, this will influence reputation.” Paul agreed that building a good reputation in the busy talking-shop of the international sector was crucial, but also that it went far “beyond marketing”. Rather, he said, “promoting the unique character of a school ferments a culture of inclusiveness and a sense of pride and community.” 

Many teachers consider a move abroad. Most enjoy the experience, returning to the UK with their teaching practice refreshed, their confidence in the profession renewed, and their tans topped-up. However, as appealing as pastures new are, teachers should be clear-eyed about the difficulties as well as opportunities that await. International schools have a duty to their staff to help them manage the transition as smoothly as possible. Looking after staff welfare not only protects the bottom line, it also defends something just as important: their reputation. Being lost in translation can be invigorating, after all – but only so long as you can find your way back home. 

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