A huge question for new and veteran international teachers alike is what to look for (and look out for!) when seeking a new school and country. Naturally, we hope to receive offers from excellent schools in fantastic places that check many boxes for what we want!
Let’s start with what to seek in a new location.
All of us would like to see ourselves teaching in a school and city that support our well-being. Clean air, potable drinking water, a plentiful and healthy food supply, a high safety level with minimal crime, efficient public transportation, a vibrant culture, and some pretty good weather are probably on most people’s wishlist.
We also want to work in a school that, as we say, “has its act together,” from good management to plentiful school supplies to high staff morale to engaged students and supportive parents.
Fortunately, plenty of international locales fit this description, with some offering even more desirable attributes.
Yet these pluses can be offset, on closer examination, by criteria such as miserly salary and benefits packages. We also need to consider the cost of living and how much one can save, which certainly come into play.
International teaching offers us such a wide variety of places to live and schools in which to teach. As with most things in life, there are trade-offs. Sometimes we want high adventure and a very different culture. We might be motivated to collaborate and create to help a school going through some growing pains. Other times we want comfort and a mature school with systems in place. What makes international schooling so remarkable is that we can have a dazzling array of experiences as long as we are ready to recruit and to partake of the next exciting flavor that the world offers us.
Our podcast episode “The Skinny: The Inside Scoop on What You Might Want to Look for (and Look Out For)” offers helpful information as you look to that next school and country. Think about making a list of what you would like to have and your definite “no-gos” regarding a new location. Having this list in black and white ahead of time can be very important - particularly if you receive a dream job offer at a location that just doesn’t fit your parameters for well-being.
Besides the salary and benefits package, here are a few essential items to look for (and look out for) in prospective schools. In other words, in a positive light, look for the first items on the list and be wary if the latter criteria are not met.
The school has a website that isn’t just filled with promotional material. Helpful school websites provide accurate data about the school. Take a look at Jacqueline Mallais’s blog post “Five Red Flags When Viewing a School Website” for further insights.
The school mission, to some degree, is integrated into the school’s culture. This will take some digging. One suggestion is to reach out to current teachers at the school to determine whether the mission is fluff or the real deal.
Solid reputation - Use Facebook Groups (access our Library Resource page for group links), Reddit, International Schools Review, LinkedIn, and your network of international teacher contacts, among other sources, to gather insights.
Engaged Student Population - Go to the resources just mentioned to learn about the level of engagement by students. The reality is that not all international schools are known for engaged students.
Supportive School Board - Accredited schools - I am guessing that all accredited schools have school boards. For the most part, school boards make policies and advise the director or head of school (HOS) on big-picture items. For not-for-profit schools, the makeup could be parents, business leaders, or embassy representatives. What do the boards of accredited for-profit international schools look like? I can only answer this question if accreditation leads to set criteria, which I don’t have at this time. We will have guests on the podcast to talk about the nature of for-profit schools, which now make up the majority of international schools.
Supportive Parents - At the schools where I have taught, we mostly had supportive parents. Yet, there are some schools where the boundary between the parents and the school is pretty porous, leading to encroachment in the school’s management. Some students can pick up on the influence of their parents, which can then lead to behavior struggles.
Now, let’s switch gears to potential red flags and a few questions.
A start-up school or one with a history of only a year or two isn’t an automatic red flag. Well-managed new schools that focus on building systems and providing a solid educational experience for students can be an excellent fit for innovators who are adaptable and open to collaboration. Yet, if the school is for-profit with owners worried about getting their investment back, the red flag might be flying high.
There can be several reasons for high turnover. Some low-paying schools can depend on young educators just getting their start and needing to acquire international experience. They teach for a couple of years to then move on to a school with a better salary package. A benefit of this type of school can be a tight-knit and fun community. Having said that, ongoing high turnover due to weak leadership, HR shenanigans, location struggles, and so on are red flags to look out for.
Another attribute that can go in a few directions is government labor laws that stipulate the length of the work day, rules on meetings between staff and administration, and so on. It can be comforting to have a statement in writing indicating when the workday ends. Yet it also can be restricting to work in schools where the positives of working late with a committee to get things done aren’t allowed to manifest because the workday has ended according to government regulations. A teacher’s union can have positive as well as negative effects on the culture of a school in many ways.
Local staff is, in most cases, part of different salaries and benefits systems than the overseas staff. This can cause tension in some cases, but often the local staff actually make more money than they would in the local public school system. Again, this is a grey area and it is important for the school to learn if there is tension between the two groups.
Returning to the idea of supportive parents and an effective school board, if either tends to overstep its designated role, this is a big red flag. The last thing a teacher needs is to be caught in the line of fire of an influential parent, let alone a board member trying to affect how their child is taught. Ugh. Do your research and be ready to ask interviewers to describe the board’s role in the school’s management. Ask if there have been examples of either board members or parents trying to influence administrators or teachers. This might also be a good question to ask in an email to a current teacher.
When either the location of the school or the word on the street involves some negatives, look for the interviewer to come right out to point them out with complete transparency. Administrators with experience and integrity know that not disclosing the warts of a location or school could mean bringing on new staff who are not ready or equipped to handle the circumstances. If transparency is not evident, be ready to ask questions about what is known about concerns.
Check our blog post on various health insurance offerings. Some schools offer limited geographical coverage and may not cover pre-existing conditions. In the Facebook groups, I found the story of an administrator probing the interviewee about her health status. So do your homework and look to get in writing your health insurance situation before signing a contract. Note also that many governments demand that new staff seeking work visas receive a medical check-up, possibly to include HIV screenings.
There are age limits to getting work visas for some countries, typically in Europe and also in Asia, and it may also vary among schools within a country. I recently looked at two countries where it came down to individual schools. With one of them, the word on the street was that 60 years old is the max. But when I went through a recruiting agency database, I found a few schools that hired older educators. It makes me wonder why this is the case. It may be a cost situation of health insurance. We will learn more in future podcast interviews with experts!
I started this write-up by noting that it is a vast topic: Trying to list all of the criteria to look for (and look out for) in schools and locations is a tall order indeed! Hopefully, the topic feels more manageable to you now. I will be editing this article as I learn more from our guests. In the meantime, go to our resource library to visit sites, read books and listen to podcasts to provide you with additional information. The JPMint Consulting site in particular has tips and blog posts that expand on several of the topics covered here.