Paradise found? Teaching in an international school

Adam Medlycott
Sun, sand and teaching abroad can be enticing for many teachers in the UK. Sir Michael Wilshaw recently warned that England is facing a ‘teacher brain drain’ as newly qualified teachers “flock abroad”.

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In today’s post, Laura Nash, who moved to Seychelles in 2012 to teach in an international school, shares her experiences of teaching abroad.


Why did I move abroad?

I would be lying if I said I originally came here for career development. After all, I had that in the UK. I worked in a fantastic school, surrounded by a truly wonderful, supportive community. Yes, I struggled to maintain an effective work-life balance. Yes, it was tough. Sure, I worked long hours. So, the beaches, water sports and adventures were a big motivation. As was the sunshine and the rum!

But, my decision to move mostly came down to a need for self-reflection (a bit ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, I know!). It was only following a few key events in my life that I realised the long working hours were affecting my personal relationships.

I spent my evenings and weekends working, I fell asleep as soon as I took my eyes off my laptop, I turned down countless invites to social events and I drank so much coffee that it was starting to stain my teeth.

However, I never really blamed my school or even the education system for this. I blamed the pressure I put on myself to be successful. Not because Ofsted told me to, but because I wanted to be the best I could be. That hasn’t changed and, although I do now work shorter hours and make the most of my free time, I still struggle to maintain a balance. Perhaps I always will. However, I do recognise that things have changed drastically in the UK since I moved abroad and I don’t doubt that it is incredibly hard to be a teacher there at the moment.

It is true that I was drawn to my current island school partly due to their ‘unimportant paperwork has no place’ approach. I loved that they claimed to be able to focus their energy on what really matters – the children. I enjoyed the idea of more freedom in the classroom: less pressure, more choice, more creativity, and ultimately, more fun. I was not disappointed by this but not all international schools have the same vibe. Some have rigorous inspection systems which many would argue play a role in the kind of ethos a school can really maintain.

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Was my move easy? No. Did I get support? Yes.

Moving away from friends and family is hard. Starting a new life from scratch in a place you’ve never even visited? A frightening risk. I still miss the people I left behind and I know their lives moved on without me. It takes effort from both sides to maintain strong, long distance relationships and it has meant that, as time has gone on, I feel a little more disconnected every time I step foot on home soil. This is partly due to the changes that have happened since I have left, but also due to a change in my own mind-set (I think, for the better).

I took a drop in pay here. While I can maintain a good quality of life and I am lucky to be provided with very good accommodation, I am not better off financially. Some international schools have pension schemes and saving schemes but not all of them do. At the time that I moved here, money was not my priority, but this can be limiting.

Adapting to a new school environment with different expectations, different facilities and access to fewer resources took a bit of time. I came from a very ICT focused school in the UK so there is a clear contrast here. Living in the middle of the Indian Ocean means I can’t just pop to the local supermarket to buy myself a new laminator or swing by ‘Costumes ‘R’ Us’ for World Book Day!

Power cuts are regular, technology often fails us and the rain can be so loud that it could be mistaken for the apocalypse! However, I have learnt to love all of these things and I am certainly a more creative, dynamic and patient person because of them.

Most schools offer a type of ‘induction’ phase when you arrive in your new home. Again, I was very lucky in this respect. I had people bending over backwards to help me with things like getting connected to the internet, opening a bank account and sorting my ID card. My work permit was dealt with and paid for before I arrived. Shipping my belongings was organised for me; all I had to do was pack my life into seven boxes and watch them be loaded on and off the trucks! Generally, the process was made about as stress-free as it could have been.

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What have I learnt since being in Seychelles?

Well, other than the sun really does age you, I have learnt a huge amount from my experience.

Less paper work really does allow for better teaching. A culture of freedom and creativity, alongside meaningful observations and monitoring leads to a happier team of effective staff. Ultimately, the ones who benefit most from this are, of course, the children.

The outdoor playground that Seychelles provides means that children are generally active and healthy. Technology is yet to rule their lives, materialism is not an issue and the children seem happier for it. They are proud of their country and their lifestyle, and they are not afraid to tell people about how beautiful their islands are. They have a refreshing love for nature and show passion and enthusiasm for conservation and the environment.

Effective teaching is not all about the best resources and top-of-the-range technology. Sure, it can be useful and certainly has its place, but some of the best lessons I have taught have been technology free.

International schools may not be accountable to Ofsted but they are more accountable to fee-paying parents. Parents, rightfully, have very high expectations. Despite what people think, teaching abroad is not a long holiday. You might not have Ofsted knocking at your door, but stresses come in different forms. Don’t move abroad for an easy life!

Not all schools have external support from agencies or authorities. This can mean that help beyond the school gates can be limited and ultimately this means you become evermore the councillor, the doctor, the social worker and the psychologist.

My advice for teachers living abroad is to reach out and talk to as many people as possible that have experience teaching and living abroad. Use your contacts and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be open-minded and prepared for change. Embrace the things you find tough at first – you might just grow to love them! And finally, make friends with people you wouldn’t usually spend time with. Listen to their stories and share yours.

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