Teaching Abroad – It’s not always sunshine and roses
Teaching abroad can be a wonderful experience for many people, they find the work/life balance is much better, there is more teacher agency and the pay is better. You also get the experience of living in a different culture and a country, (which can mean much nicer weather than the UK – which to be fair isn’t that hard!) And this is great when this happens but I want to share my experience of teaching abroad which wasn’t those things, in fact my experience of teaching abroad pretty much broke me and almost had me leave the profession.
I know that this is just one experience and is an exception rather than the rule, but I write this because I see many teachers looking to move abroad to teach and I think that when you are considering this massive move it is important that people are aware that not every international teaching post will be sunshine and roses and you need to carefully research the school and the country you are considering moving to.
I am not going to name the school or the country I went to, beyond saying it was in Europe and that it was a small British Curriculum school. The reason being I am just not that brave to name and shame and also my experience occurred over 7 years ago and I hope things will have changed dramatically in that time.
It was in the academic year of 2009/10 that I started to think about moving on from the school I was at in London. I had trained there and started to feel like I needed a change. In my personal life, my long term relationship had broken down, I was not getting on with my family particularly well and the idea of going abroad and starting absolutely clean slate sounded like a great idea. I applied for a few jobs that year and when I interviewed for this international school and was offered a job starting in September 2010, I was thrilled. I had applied to be a History teacher, but they asked if I would be interested in teaching A Level Psychology as well, as they were starting a 6th Form that September. I said I would as I thought it would be great to add another subject to my CV.
When I arrived in August 2010, I was still very excited, the school had been great at helping to organise the move and helping me find a place to live and setting up bank accounts etc. Looking back, there were already signs that things would not be as rosey as I had imagined but I was too excited to see it. On arriving at the school, I was told not only would I be teaching History to Key Stage 3 -5 but I also had A Level Psychology (which I had agreed to) and A Level Sociology as well as whole school PSHE. It was a small school so each year group only had 1 or 2 classes. Also I would be the form tutor for the new 6th form group, but there wasn’t a Head of 6th form, so I would need to help set that up as well.
At the time I was just so excited to be there and starting this adventure I went with it. I was also still only in my 5th year of teaching and had only ever been in my training school so was probably a little naive. So I dove in with gusto, despite the new subjects and responsibilities I had been given that had not been mentioned at interview.
In that first year, I put down the struggles I was facing in terms of work load and stress to teething problems and getting used to a new school, new subjects and a new country. But I was seriously struggling by Easter of that first year and two of the staff that had joined the school in the September along side me had already left. By the summer term I was struggling with insomnia and often not getting more than 2 or 3 hours of sleep a night, and I wasn’t socialising as much as I had at the start of the year. I was working non-stop to keep up with marking, planning and strengthening my own subject knowledge which was often only 1 lesson a head of the students. I made it to the summer holidays and thought I was just end of year tired, I was looking forward to a holiday in New Orleans and getting back to the UK to see family and friends, but I was cracking.
I started my second year thinking this year would be better, the school were advertising for a head of 6th form, I was more settled in the country, I had a new flat and felt refreshed after the summer break. But within days of being back the pressure was back on. My GCSE History group hadn’t achieved the grades the school wanted so I was pulled into a meeting to explain why (I had only had them for year 11), I was told I would need to take my form group through the UCAS process and would be writing all of their references and providing guidance to students, parents and staff on what needed to be done, but not to worry I was being sent on a 1 day training with UCAS at the end of September. And all staff were told that due to staff shortages we would be required to do cover in the primary school on occasion as well as cover lessons in secondary as we had done previously.
By Christmas of that second year I really was broken, I had lost a lot of weight and wasn’t eating, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t socialise or talk to anyone. I would come into school and go to my classroom and I would stay there all day until I left at around 7pm when I would go home and work through the night. In that first term, there had complaints from parents that I was marking too harshly or that the students were not getting the expected grades, and again I was called into the Heads office to explain why or my teaching, there was no support from the Head – The parents were right and I had to explain myself. But I kept going thinking that I was the problem and that I just wasn’t a good enough teacher and I needed to work harder.
It was after February half term when I reached rock bottom. I had come into work was teaching a year 13 class and needed to use the photocopier. The Deputy head saw me and just said hello, how are you and I broke down and couldn’t stop crying or shaking. The school nurse was called and I was taken to the hospital. I was admitted with a complete mental and physical breakdown. At this point I weighed just under 8st and hadn’t slept for, I don’t know how long. I stayed in hospital for 5 weeks initially and was off work for another 2, but I should have been off much longer. I went back to work because the daily emails from HR and the Head made me feel that I was letting all my students down and placing my colleagues under strain covering my classes because they couldn’t get a cover teacher in who could teach all my subjects. I would get daily emails from the school asking when I would be back and for my medical records to prove my illness.
I returned to work at the start of June, looking back it was clear I wasn’t ready to go back, I would have panic attacks as I walked into school, I would have heart palpitations throughout the day, or be physically sick. I would cry daily on the walk home from, but I had spoken to the Deputy head and we had worked out a phased return and support program for me so we could get to the end of the school year. But when I arrived at school on the Monday morning of my first day back, my name wasn’t on the sign in sheet and when I asked why I was told by the office manager that I no longer worked there and needed to leave the school site. A letter had been sent to my home to inform me and if I hadn’t received it yet it was likely I would get it the post that day. I was then escorted off the school site by the Office manager, in front of staff and pupils, me in floods of tears. The deputy head called me later that day to ask where I was as my class were waiting for me, I was on my way back to the UK by then, she had not been informed that I had been sacked nor had any of the other staff beyond the Office Manager and the Head.
This ended my foray into international teaching, and I returned to the UK in January 2012 but it had taken me 6 months and 270+ job applications to find my current school, who took a chance on a teacher with a dismissal on their CV, no reference from their previous school and 6 months of unemployment. It took another 4 years to go through the court process to have the dismissal declared an unfair dismissal. It was by going through this process that I found out that this school did not have a good reputation and a high staff turnover including 17 unfair dismissal cases in the 3 years that the Head had been in post. had I known this before hand, I would not have applied for the job.
I haven’t blogged about this before as I have about my mental health issues, because for a long time the memories were too raw and I still felt that I was to blame in some way for the situation. There was also a sense of embarrassment at being sacked and feeling that maybe the school were right and I am not a good teacher. But after 7 years, A LOT of counselling and therapy and hearing @mini_Lebowski talk about her experiences at #BrewEdCambs on Saturday, I feel ready to share my experience, not to scare people but to show how important it is to use the same caution and research you would when choose to move to a new school in the UK to ones internationally, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and skip this stage.
I am now at a great school which has supported me through the court process, with my recovery and management of my mental health issues which I still deal with. I am not ready to consider international teaching again but I don’t rule it out entirely, but next time (if there is a next time) I will be much more cautious and do a lot more research into the school before I apply.