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Experiences of International Schools

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I know that we have several members who work in International Schools. There are also several members who will be considered the possibility of teaching in International Schools. I thought it would be a good idea for members to write something about their experiences of teaching in a foreign country.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've found my experience of teaching abroad in China, hugely beneficial, both personally and I hope professionally.

After I completed my P.G.C.E, I felt that the NQT qualificational status was just another hurdle which I did not wish to jump through. My two biggest problems teaching on the P.G.C.E, were class managment and utter lack of time. No time to put any thought into planning my lessons. No time to eat, sleep, or be a human being. How this was going to get any better with a 100% timetable on the NQT year, instead of an 80% timetable on the P.G.C.E was beyond me. A cycle of depression was settling upon my brow and I just could not face another year of the 'great paper chase.' Receiving verbal abuse everday and coming home feeling useless. And I must stress, without learning anything about teaching. My feelings about the P.G.C.E are hugely negative.

So I decided quite early in spring that I was only going to apply to International schools. By luck and chance my flatmate had left China and Shanghai High International School to come back to get qualified on the same course I was. He gave me the contact details of the school and a letter of recommendation. A phone interview later and I moved to Shanghai.

Shanghai High International School is a unique school. It is one of only two International schools in China which are state affiliated and run by Chinese teachers. We have over 1150 students. This figure has risen from 10 pupils when it opened 10 years ago to today's current figure. The school now offers a full IB programme and a relatively full curiculum. My direct boss in the History department is an 'old school' Chinese Communist. My adminstrative boss is a Master Teacher, a title which carries a huge amount of weight and personal prestige in Chinese academic circles. The principal of the school is hugely influencial member of the party, his presence is felt in Shanghai and Beijing.

It was not until Shanghai opened its doors 10 years ago, that the government would allow International Schools. The school, therefore, is brand new. We have overhead projectors in each room etc...

My personal benefit has been in the language. I've had a chance to learn to new language, which is Chinese. Not everyday did I get this sort of chance in Manchester. Plus the salary has been great. I've saved more here in China in eighteen months than I could have done in three years teaching in the U.K. Which although no-one likes to admit, because we are all in it for the love of history, is fantastic. Since I've been in China I've visited Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Xian, Beijing, Nanjing, Chengdu, ChongChing..... I've had about eight hoildays of a lifetime, in the space of eighteen months.

Professionally - All I can say is that here in my school I now get ample time to prepare lessons. I was teaching IB history in my first year and now IB English in my second. In any one day I might spend the morning finger painting with Year 5, then launch into dicussing the effect, causes and practices of war with Year 12 in the afternoon. The pupils have a wonderful mentality. They are great kids, who will stop throwing things when you ask first time. The pupils have made the experience worthwhile. This is the job in which every NQT should get. Responsive pupils, critical time to reflect, ample time to prepare. It was wonderful to know that wasn't my fault that I got such a bad report from my last teaching practice in Britain beacuse I was bad teacher, it was because the pupils were very poorly disciplined and the course was about ten years out of date.

Instead of digging my heels in for two years in a comprehensive environment just to achieve a 'status quo', I've been hotseating, mind-mapping, and backflipping around, in highly stimulating environment.

I would recommend you consider moving to an International environment, as it is a great experience, especially if you are young and have curiousity about the wider world.

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  • 1 month later...

Teaching in Sweden

Let me start by saying that I teach in higher education in Sweden … but I've done a fair amount of work in the state school sector too.

Some facts and figures:

The Swedish school and pre-school system is organised like this:

Day nursery (from as young as 6 months old to age 5/6): fee-paying, but a low ceiling has been set on fees (around £200/month). Full-time or part-time, parents have to have jobs in order for their children to qualify. For families where one of the parents is at home (could well the father, since maternity and paternity allowances are generous and long), there are various non-fee paying alternatives. Sometimes day nurseries are organised by parent co-operatives.

Pre-school (age 5/6-7): full-time, non-fee paying, a bit like reception class in the UK.

Compulsory School (age 7-16): 9 grades, divided into Grades 1-6/7-9. Instruction in English starts at Grade 3/4 (generally); 2nd foreign language instruction starts at Grade 6/7. Lots of 'private' (i.e. entirely state-subsidised!) alternatives, including Waldorf, Montessori and Steiner schools. No exams at the end of Grade 9, instead a set of centralised SATs in English, Swedish, Maths … and something else that I can't remember. Otherwise, grades set by teachers.

6th Form/High School (age 16-19/20): divided into 3 or 4 grades (technical subjects usually have an extra year). Highly individualised study (pupils usually take around 13-15 subjects, but have a lot of say about which ones they take and when) and lots of 'private' alternatives. Similar testing regime as in Grade 9.

Further education: Folkhögskolan (a sort of full-time, campus-based further education version of Open University!); Högskolan (able to award first degrees in all subjects and higher degrees in some specific areas); University (comparable to the pre-1992 British universities).

Outside further education organisations: Study Circles (offering evening classes in some subjects - low paid instructors); KomVux (council-run, state-regulated adult education, offering the same courses and qualifications as the school system, but to adults); distance courses (many coordinated by the National Centre for Flexible Learning).


What you think an educational system is like depends on where you're coming from. As you can see, the Swedish system is very non-exam oriented, and the focus is on individual and group development. In the right school and with the right teachers, this can be great. In the wrong environment, it can be hell!

There is plenty of inspection, but Swedish society is very non-judgemental - the aim is to help to improve, rather than to point out what is wrong.

All Swedish educational establishments have a high degree of pupil, student and parent involvement in the running of them, starting right from Grade 1, where pupils sit on the school and class councils, running right up to universities, where the students have more representatives on the Board than the staff do.

There's a general shortage of qualified teachers in Sweden, so lots of long-term employees in schools and universities lack formal qualifications. Generally, though, in the school system teachers teach at least two subjects (such as English and German) and sometimes more. There are two parallel economies in Sweden: the tenured and the untenured. If you're tenured, you are very difficult to get rid of. If you're untenured, you generally have a succession of short-term posts. However, if you work in the same place for three years out of five, they are obliged by law to turn your position into a tenured one.

Nearly everyone in Sweden who works is in a trade union - unemployment benefits are administered via the union, so you've got a powerful incentive. When you're looking for a job, or when you're in a job, you have the absolute right to find out from the union and the organisation a) what it's like working there; and :blink: exactly how much everyone in the organisation gets paid.

EU citizens who live here are entitled to loans and grants to study (for example to get Swedish qualifications), and the student loan system is fairly benign, compared with the UK (your outstanding loan is written off when you retire, basically). You'll be required to show proficiency in Swedish to work in schools in a tenured position, eventually, but you get free instruction, and often a grant, to learn Swedish.

I've got no idea how the pay and conditions compare with other countries, but Swedish flats (outside the big cities) are generally large, warm and fairly cheap. You rarely rent furnished accommodation … but there are plenty of second-hand shops where you can buy good used furniture.

Most of the really useful links are in Swedish! Here's one from the Tourist Board in English, though:


Hope this has been useful. If you want to ask specific questions, you'd probably best e-mail me.


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From China to Sweden and now Rwanda.....

Well, where to begin? I worked in Rwanda as a Chemistry 'A' level teacher (ages 16 to 18) for nearly 4 years under the auspices of VSO (voluntary service overseas).

In this context 'voluntary' doesn't mean that we worked for free but that we were paid a salary camparable to that of a local teacher, or if that was not considered enough to live on, we had an additional suppliment. In Rwanda we were paid 200 pounds a month in local currency (it is worth less now due to devaluation of the Rwandan Franc) which I considered to me more than enough when you have your rent and electricity bills paid for you, you don't pay taxes and don't possess a telephone or car. Living in a tiny village 200 pounds can buy you an awful lot of rice and beans!

I wont bother to state the obvious. It isn't easy working as a Chemistry teacher in a school with intermittent water, no gas and virtually no chemicals but its even less easy working in a country where every waking moment you are called 'Muzungo' (foreigner) from the day you arrive to the day you leave and no ammount of insisting that in fact you are called Rowena changes that. Rwanda, post Genocide, is still a tremendously racist country by our standards. Try explaining to a Rwandese student that you can actually be arrested for calling a black person black in England and the response will be hysterical laughter. I was white so they felt the need to point it out, EVERY DAY, just in case I'd forgotten, which without the presence of a mirror in my home I occassionally did!

Actually it wasn't so bad, the students stopped saying it to my face fairly quickly as did my 'friends' in town, but I knew that the minute my back was turned that changed and it still hurt when people I considered to be good freinds introduced me to their friends as 'Muzungo'. When you are living in a country so very different to you own its hard to cling onto a sense of self and when they try to take your name away from you it is just too much.

However, there was a certain positive side to the 'racism'. I was white and therefore even though I was female I was given a certain status that allowed me to walk into businesses and government offices and be given audience with the boss. Crazy really seeing as when I arrived I was only 23! Once you accept that you are different and that they will always consider you to be different you have a choice of either going crazy or making the most of the positive aspects and this I did. The result was work experience for the kids, equipment exchange schemes between schools, conferences and an invitation to join the national exam board because as a white person I was clearly 'serious'! None of these things could have been acheived by a Rwandan teacher due to social barriers, and certainly not a female one.

You may think I'm making a bit of a deal of this one but speak to any current or returned VSO Rwanda volunteer and the Muzungo issue will be a key one.

It was however probably the most amazing experience of my life. In difficult circumstances I was still able to acheive things which I could never have done in England due to our own stratification. If I got frustrated with the state of the library I could go in there and demand that the librarian and whichever poor students were in there helped me to tidy it. If I didn't have the chemicals I needed in the lab I could apply for a grant or fundraise and order them in from Uganda. I trained a lab technician who worked almost entirely for me simply because the other teachers didn't believe that it was necessary to do practical work.

Imagine the shock of going back to England to complete a PGCE and being bottom of the social pile again. I completed my PGCE at Oxford where I had the most amazing tutors and worked in reasonable comprehensive schools, but I still found the lack of control almost too much to bear.... and of course the kids were shocking by comparison. Not because of thier relative lack of 'discipline' but becasue of their utter lethargy. Its difficult having worked in a country where the students are desperate to get a decent secondary education to move to a country where all children are offered one for free and they don't care!

Had I remained in the UK I may well have completed my NQT year but I would much have prefered to work in an alternative school. That is why since moving to Canada I have tried to involve myself as much as possible in alternative education. I strongly believe that there are some amazing teachers out there who can inspire students despite outdated curriculae and impossible time contraints, but I'm not one of them. When a students asks me what the point of studying the extraction of Aluminium from Bauxite is, I can't give them an answer becasue I too feel that its utterly pointless. Science should be about teaching students how to think like scientists but its become so test centred that its simply about cramming facts into their already overburndened brains and if a fact is useless then frankly what is the point?!

In Rwanda there was a cuture of cramming and repetition to gain knowledge. I did my best to break my students of that habit with some measure of success, sadly the system of science teaching in England is becomming no better than that of Rwanda and is in fact worse becasue we should know better. We've lost track of the fact that its about people and not statistics.

Rowena Hopkins

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From the South Wales Valleys to busy Hong Kong.

After completing my PGCE in Swansea University, I managed to get a job teaching History in Bryntirion Comprehensive School, Bridgend in South Wales. I had never lived outside of Wales despite always wanting to travel. After four years of teaching I felt the time was right for a change, but positions in Wales were few and far between. I took a look at my life and at the age of 25 I was still living with my parents and the only possession I owned was a car. I quickly began to look at the International Section of the TES and literally the advert for jobs in Hong Kong fell onto the floor. I decided that it was fate.

I applied for a position teaching History in King George V School which was part of the English Schools Foundation, teaching the British curriculum and exams. I really did not think I stood a chance. I was later interviewed in London, which went well, but still believing I had no chance. When I was told I had the job, it was only then I realised I was going to live and work the other side of the world. It was scary.

The ESF organisation were fantastic at keeping me up-to-date and I had letters almost every day asking me to fill in this form or another. By the time it was due to leave I wasn't worried at all and could not wait. Meeting the other 40 new teachers for the various schools at the airport relaxed me further. Little did I know that I would be forming life long friends with many of these people.

Teaching in Hong Kong for the last 4 years has been immensly satisfying as a teacher. The students (1,600) are well behaved and usually eager to learn. The expectations are much higher. Working hours are generally longer, as you are required to get involved in the life of the school. With over 40 nationalities of students, there is always someone in my class who can share experiences about the countries I teach. Exam classes are challenging, but last year 20 out of 20 students achieved a grade A in their A Level History exam. Working with these students has given me increased confidence and a renewed enthusiasm for my subject. Since working here, I have been promoted to Second-in-Department and have gone on courses abroad to report back to staff in meetings. I have felt valued and motivated as a result.

Hong Kong itself is amazing. The skyline is impressive and the shopping, 24 hours a day is a dream. The living costs are much higher than the UK, but the salary compensates. What I didnt expect was to be able to travel so extensively around Asia. I have visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Korea, Thailand, Bali, Australia, New Zealand. Hong Kong is a perfect base to see this part of the world.

Unfortunately, after 4 years, I feel the time is right to make another move. I am currently looking for a Head of Department/ Second in Department History job in the UK. I hope to return to spend some time with my family and to buy a house to have a base to return to. I don't know whether this will be permanent but I hope to work abroad again in the future. I will just see how it goes. However, I have really enjoyed my time here. I have increased in maturity, confidence and actually love teaching. I know that my experiences will stay with me forever. The friends I have met will always keep in touch too.

Now does anyone have a job???

Jude Owen

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