As I have progressed within my career, I have begun to contemplate what makes a ‘happy’ international school.
The demographic of the teacher greatly influences where they may feel the happiest. For example, teachers with young children look for a safe environment and an abundance of activities for children. They will seek ‘family-friendly’ schools which offer facilities such as a creche. Conversely, this is less important to young, single teachers. This demographic is more likely to seek opportunities for great nightlife and restaurants. They are likely to want to live or near to a transport hub offering opportunities for extensive travel.
When I researched this concept with colleagues and on forums, international school teachers had varied responses. Somewhat surprisingly, the same school was not named twice. Many schools mentioned were located in India and Africa. It would appear that the perfect location and the perfect school are a very unique choice.
What to consider when choosing an international school
The size of a school can have an impact
Teachers concluded that every school reflects the staff at the time plus the management. Unfortunately, staff in international schools mostly change frequently. A school can be considered very desirable one year, but the following year the perception can be quite different. For example, a school management style may completely change, or reverse, when new management prioritize efficiency, monitoring and ‘being professional’. Some teachers from my survey argued that the larger and ‘more professional’ a school, the less teachers felt supported and therefore morale decreased. Instead, a smaller school can offer a more personal experience.
Are there staff support initiatives in place?
However, I do feel some schools offer greater support to their teachers with wellbeing programs and initiatives than others. As you consider a school, check their website for wellbeing initiatives and seek out current or ex-teachers to ask about staff morale. Teachers can be contacted through LinkedIn or often found on Facebook forums for international teachers. You need to only post your school name and ask for others’ experiences.
What is the school ethos?
Teachers recommended seeking a school ethos which matches your own and to check that the school adheres to it: within their media, website and the opinions of their teachers. For example, if your educational philosophy focusses on child-led learning and inquiry, make sure the school follows this too. This way, not only should you feel happy as you are able to follow your own philosophy, it is likely the teachers you will work with would also. This would enable you to establish friendships with like-minded teachers and to ‘fit in’.
Tap into existing expat communities
It is true that a ‘happy’ environment is often one where teachers feel settled. Prior to considering a school, it is worthwhile looking into the expat communities. Some places such as Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong, have thriving communities which offer a range of activities and support. Other countries, such as Taiwan, have a limited expat community based within teaching and wind-farms. Therefore, researching expat groups online, through Facebook searches, Google groups and other forums should shed light on the expats of the particular community you are interested in. Use keywords in your search, such as ‘Parents in (insert country)’, ‘(Country name) families’, ‘(Country name) ladies’. Another great resource is ‘InterNations’(https://www.internations.org) to connect with others expats living in your country of interest.
It is also worth learning the basics of the language before leaving home, as this can ease your transition somewhat. It is a great feeling not only to connect to expats but also locals. The ability to communicate within your host country, at least the basics, can also foster a sense of well-being, happiness and reduce stress.
Pandemic response and online learning capabilities
A final, very important consideration is how staff were treated in response to the pandemic. Check through the website and ask former/current teachers what the school has done in terms of precautions and support for teachers transitioning to online learning. Several teachers explained that how their school dealt with the pandemic changed their opinions on their workplaces drastically.
On a personal note, I feel a ‘happy’ school is where staff feel they are compensated enough and they enjoy a work/life balance. Wellbeing and CPD should be a focus and the school would have a low staff turnover. Teachers would be encouraged to pursue their interests and given support in achieving their goals. Further, I feel an ideal school would offer a democratic environment, where new initiatives were shared and discussed. The feeling within the school would be positive for both children and the staff.