Mad Dogs and Englishmen: The dangers and pitfalls of International Schools

Teaching is a great way of seeing the world and the proliferation of International schools in the last few years has served to offer a wide choice of exotic destinations in which to work.  There is certainly a considerable draw to a job in Phuket or Zanzibar and it is easy to imagine a relaxed working environment, well-behaved and friendly students and the opportunity to earn a decent salary – and save.  Many of these schools offer accommodation, medical cover, repatriation expenses and end of contract bonuses.  All this can sound very tempting when you are stuck doing supply work in East Dulwich, and these schools in turn are keen to employ young, dynamic teachers who are familiar with the British National curriculum.

                However, after a number of years of teaching in some of these institutions, my best advice is to exercise caution and research the place well before you sign any contract.  It’s best to stay well away from schools which advertise the same job vacancies every couple of months or those which offer vacancies in about twelve different subjects – because there’s a good chance their entire teaching staff has walked out en masse.  Most importantly perhaps, a job should never be too easy to get.  I applied once for a job in Uzbekistan and the next thing I knew was that I received an email, in broken English, asking me which flight I was arriving on and informing me that someone would be there to pick me up from the airport.  With my year’s worth of teaching behind me, they hoped that I would head their new English department and be able to train their local staff in my ‘spare time’.

                It may have been an easy thing to do, and not once did they ask for my credentials, but chances are I would have found myself stranded in Tashkent with no return ticket and 150kgs of luggage on its way, the school a washout, or maybe even non-existent.  It happened to a friend of mine who applied successfully for a job in Kampala, Uganda, and arrived to find that the school was yet to be built. The Head, however, was keen that he stay, but after a couple of weeks in a respectable hotel, he was then transferred to some flea-ridden place in the middle of the red light district.    Two days later he left.

                It’s not only teachers who find themselves on the receiving end of some rather dodgy job offers.  At a school  I worked at in Zambia, we had a teacher who claimed to have gone to Oxford, although no one had ever seen his certificates.  Insisting on the title ‘Dr’, he constantly name dropped and made  the odd comment in Latin – an obvious mark of an Oxford man, he thought – but really all he had behind him was the gift of the gab.  An incorrigible alcoholic, he was kept on because of the mistaken belief that he was really some sort of genius, despite spending more than half the term either at home drunk or in hospital drying out. At another school in a neighbouring town, the arrival of a new head teacher caused great excitement as he was apparently a Harvard man.  Numerous bad decisions that cost the school an absolute fortune, like employing teachers from Thailand, caused the Board to make some investigations into his background and it was soon discovered that the certificates were fake.
In Africa at least, and I am sure the same is true of South America and Asia, there is often an assumption that the best teachers are British. To be taught by a true Englishman (men are still valued more than women) means that you will be taught well and taught properly.  The number of schools around the world offering Cambridge qualifications and following the British National Curriculum is testimony to the faith in British education (despite the unhappiness with the system in Britain itself). I have been privileged to work with some really great teachers in my life and I do admire much about the British system of education, although I have reservations about others. 
However, some of the 'international' teaching staff I have worked with in Africa, and they haven't all been British, have been questionable.  Africa is still a place where one can run and hide from the world, perhaps even inventing a new self along the way.  When someone tells you they have travelled to over 100 countries and worked in 12, you don't necessarily doubt them. When someone tells you they went to a good school or they worked at a good school or they were headhunted for the head's position, we think that it is admirable.  We often believe what other people tell us about themselves - at least initially. The flaws in their stories are discovered later, in the way they behave, the comments they may make. Unfortunately, what happens then is that they usually move onto another place.  They either disappear in the middle of the night, like the school chaplin who took photos of boys in the shower for 'artistic' reasons did at one school I was at, or the board, embarrassed and hoping to get rid of them as soon as possible, pays them a considerable amount of money to leave - which they do - and they go onto another school with a glowing reference. 

                Unfortunately, many of the recent developments in technology, which should make it easier to check up on someone’s background, can also be used to disguise it.  It is very easy, for instance, for either an individual or a school to launch a website or blog in which they lay claim to various attributes.  Upload a few photographs – perhaps pupils working studiously away in a chemistry lab or battling it out on the hockey field – insert a few graphics and a motto in Latin, and you’re away.  The first school I worked at in Zambia claimed to have a sixth form college on their website and the profile of the alcoholic teacher states he rowed for Oxford and enjoys playing golf in the afternoons, nothing short of a downright lie.  The website of the second school I worked at in Zambia, shows boys in a scrum on a rugby field that in reality was non-existent. They also claimed to have the most recent technological devices in all the classrooms, yet the most the majority of teachers had access to was a whiteboard. 
                My first teaching job was in Singapore where I worked at a college which offered tuition for the University of London’s External Degree Programme.  I had been sent a glossy brochure and been told that I could initially stay in the halls of residence which were so comfortable and well-equipped that I probably wouldn’t want to leave.  ‘Most of our expat staff live there,’ I was told during my interview, so it was rather a shock to arrive at 9pm at a huge deserted building in a country I didn’t know and be told that I was the first ever occupant!  It was just the security guard and me in the great, big, echoing building.

                Secondly, I was given the nigh-impossible task of lecturing on every area of English Literature from Homer to Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf to Chinua Achebe.  It was only when I suffered a near nervous breakdown due to my incredible work load that I discovered why the previous lecturer had left.  He also had found the scope of the course far too dense for an individual to realistically cope with – and he had a PhD!  One day he didn’t come into work and investigations found that he had done a runner – leaving everything behind and with not a word to anyone.

                ‘International’ is a word which is bandied around a little too often these days without many people knowing really what it means.  It suggests a multi-cultural pool of students and the offering of internationally recognised qualifications.    However, in Africa at least, it’s almost on a par with adding ‘deluxe’ or ‘luxurious’ onto an advert for accommodation – and it’s usually as disappointing.  Hotels which really are deluxe don’t have to say so – and the same holds true of many ‘international schools’.  The advent of skype often means you don’t get to have a face to face interview for many jobs and you could find yourself whisked away to somewhere which is disappointingly unlike it promises.  Read the small print.  Supply teaching in East Dulwich might not be very interesting, but it’s sometimes far more safe.



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