International schools: I love being a teacher. It is, without doubt, the very best job in the world. No two days are ever the same, there is always something new to learn, and there is always someone who will bring a smile to your day. Yes, there are days when things don’t go right. Yes, there are days when I feel frustrated, but still – the love of my profession remains.
It has been like this, for me, for over 20 years. But would I still feel this way if I had remained teaching within a national state system? The sad likelihood is that I might have burnt out and be doing something else by now.
I know a growing number of former teachers in the UK who have fallen out of love with the profession. You may know some too; teachers for whom the very thought of continuing (or returning) to work in schools has them reaching for the Prozac. There are record numbers of vacancies in schools, and government recruitment targets are routinely missed; only 59 per cent of the target for initial teacher training was achieved last year (UK Parliament Education Committee, 2023).
“I know a growing number of former teachers in the UK who have fallen out of love with the profession.”
Meanwhile, there seems to be a growing symbiosis between the burgeoning numbers of teachers leaving UK schools and the ever-expanding international schools market. Just as the number of teachers leaving UK schools grows, there is a growing number of schools overseas that are ready to welcome them with open arms.
The international school sector has expanded at an almost unbelievable rate since the turn of the century, and it is clear that a large number of teachers moving to work in these schools are UK-trained, looking beyond national borders to reap their rewards.
My recent doctoral research indicated that some UK-trained teachers in international schools are what I call “pragmatic idealists”: professional educators who have navigated their way into positions of privilege by trading their personal, professional and cultural capital within a global marketplace.
These are people who have an affinity with learning and teaching, who have a passion for their job and wish to develop their career in the best way possible, but who also wish to enjoy a good quality of life outside of their professional interests.
“There is a growing number of schools overseas that are ready to welcome British teachers with open arms.”
There are international teachers around the world who enjoy a much-improved quality of life as a direct result of their decision to move overseas. Such teachers are aware of the sacrifices they must make in being away from their families and home nations, but nonetheless choose to remain working in international schools due to an improved sense of personal and professional freedom and wellbeing.
The canvas upon which an international school teacher can paint is vast – literally as big as the planet – and the restrictions and limitations placed upon their classroom practice by meddlesome directives and oblique political agendas are not present.
One international school teacher I interviewed said: “I remember my last year in the UK: I think that every single day I had a new initiative, either from the local authority, from curriculum, or from the government to deal with”.
Teachers working in international schools may enjoy an improved income, along with a level of privilege and social status that they were unable to achieve back home, no matter how hard they worked. Some academics argue that such privilege is precarious; any teacher who was left homeless and jobless after recent high-profile crises such as the war in Ukraine or the global pandemic would certainly agree with them.
“International teachers spoke with passion about professional opportunities within their daily practice.”
However, I believe there is a silent majority of international school teachers who – regardless of their initial motives for moving into the field – are actively developing their careers, playing to their strengths and enjoying a level of personal and professional freedom unknown to them in their home nation.
There is a body of work that suggests teachers in international schools are driven by motivating factors such as a desire to travel and see the world, or to “ride the gravy train” of working in highly paid jobs in the emerging markets of the world.
My research indicates that such incentives are not the greatest or most significant factors. The teachers in my study were fully cognisant of the economic benefits and opportunities for travel and exploration that their international career had given them, but more important to them was the freedom to teach.
These educators genuinely love their work, and have an affinity with education that could be considered a vocation. All spoke with passion about professional opportunities within their daily practice: to diversify rather than being pigeonholed within one area; to try new things in their classrooms without fear; to hone skills over a number of years without being branded a “coasting teacher”.
Whilst some international school teachers may unwittingly fall into a life of precarious privilege and subsequently become trapped in the gilded cage of that privilege, the teachers I listened to were very clear about their professional commitment and personal freedom. The majority believed that the reduction of scrutiny and administrative workload allowed them to sustain a professional approach whilst still having time for themselves and their families and friends.
“Tinkering with the curriculum and wresting control of training provision is unlikely to address the shortfall.”
One teacher described how her years spent teaching in the UK had been “work to the brim and I don’t mind that … I love being [busy], but I don’t think it’s sustainable”. As described by Fiona Rogers in the Autumn 2022 issue of this magazine, feedback from teachers in international schools regarding their job satisfaction and personal wellbeing is overwhelmingly positive.
It seems to me that there are lessons to be learned here: lessons for international school leaders who wish to recruit and retain the best teachers for their schools, and lessons for home nation policy-makers who wish to address the recruitment and retention crisis in their schools.
Tinkering with curriculum content and wresting control of training provision is unlikely to address the shortfall. What is needed in the first instance is a long hard look at why so many talented and inspirational teachers are leaving the UK for a career in the international school sector. The answers might not be particularly comforting, but once recognised, they will surely help to inform a strategy that can make real and lasting positive change.
This article first appeared in the latest summer edition of International School Magazine, out now.