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What’s American about “American” Overseas Schools? Maybe Just You!

international school contracts

If you’re one of the many American teachers working in the States and thinking that teaching overseas would be an attractive alternative to your current teaching position, you owe it to yourself to read this article. Yes, international teaching and living can be an exhilarating, life-changing experience. There are, however, some landmines that teacher recruiting agencies and potential employers do not disclose. Armed with some practical information from an experienced overseas educator, like myself, you can avoid many of the situations I learned about the hard way.

Upon your arrival to your new teaching location, you will, without my help, figure out the negative situations all by yourself (if they exist). However, it will be too late for this knowledge to be of any benefit because you will be far from home and with limited recourse, if any. This article describes some of the negative situations teachers may encounter in “American” schools overseas and is intended as a “heads-up” for teachers thinking about a career overseas. This is not to say that a rewarding overseas career cannot be experienced, but some knowledge of what to look for in a school before signing a contract can certainly help to assure a positive experience in an overseas “American” school.

Overseas Teaching Contracts and Your Rights, or Lack Thereof

This is not Kansas!
You would think that teaching overseas is similar to teaching in the United States, but with a little twist since you are on foreign turf. This is, however, not necessarily the case. Take note: many overseas schools incorporate the name “American” into their title to imply a few things. First, that they follow an “American” curriculum and second, that the laws and policies of the federal government of your home country apply to such titled schools on foreign soil. Both implications are false.

Once you are in the host country, U.S. laws do not apply and you are on your own. Overseas “American” schools have their own handbooks of policies and procedures, which are frequently out of date or lacking in language that actually spells out your rights. Sometimes policy does not exist at all. And, worse yet, even if the handbook and your contract clearly state your rights you may still have absolutely no recourse should your rights be violated. Remember, you do not have the support system in place that your find in the States. For example, if you sign a two-year contract, the school may decide after one year that it does not want you back for budgetary reasons or just because you flunked a child of a board member. In such an instance, you would naturally turn to the head of school for support. Unfortunately, often times the head of school is also an American and therefore also at the whim of the board with little, if any, decision making power. In overseas schools, the board is usually made up of host country nationals and they do not see things like you do. In fact, often times you may wonder if they see anything at all.

A common and unfortunate situation is when you arrive at your overseas school to find your contract has been changed. In other words, the contract you agreed to at the interview in the United States is not what the school expects you to sign when you arrive in the host country. This can mean the salary is different from what was negotiated during the interview and often you may find that the quality of housing and health insurance is quite different from what was previously discussed. This has happened to more than one teacher.

On the International Schools Review web site I read a school review in which an entirely new contract was presented to a teaching couple upon their arrival at their new school. When the couple realized that they would take a substantial reduction in pay and receive no insurance benefits, they refused to sign and requested the school adhere to the contract signed in the US. The couple was fired on the spot and black balled at the ISS recruiting agency by the director of the school. ISS supported the school and the couple was banned from future recruiting fairs for breaking contract. These things do happen and more often than you may think. I recommend the International Schools Review Forum as a good place to look for such information about schools.

Of course, not all schools operate in such a deplorable fashion. Most are forthright and treat their teachers well. But, you need to do your homework in order to avoid situations in which the endless supply of unsuspecting American teachers are nothing more than pawns in the get-rich scheme of some foreign business man. With international tuitions in the neighborhood of $10,000 per year, there is good money to be made by unscrupulous types that will happily use you to meet their ends.

Who can you turn to?
Even if you sign your contract in the United States and are working for an “American” school that receives money from the U.S. Department of State, the embassy is not in a position to help you. Embassies do not perform the function of judges. They are not adjudicators for American citizens (including educators.) On the other hand, if you want to get a lawyer and litigate your situation, it generally is not worth the cost to sue your headmaster or school. You must have proper documentation, which usually will not exist. Many discussions and promises are verbal. Heads of schools do not put everything in writing and refusal to do so at the interview may be your first clue that something is not right. Use your intuition. Even though you are eager to go overseas, do not jump in if something does not “feel” right to you.

In difficult times, the foreign school board will probably not help you, either, and may in fact be the root of your troubles. Boards often have their own agendas that stress what is best for the board members' children. And most surprisingly, when there is a heavy concentration of embassy staff on a school board they will focus on the needs of their own children to the exclusion of the student body as a whole. Since board members are not educators the edicts they hand down often contradict good teaching practices.

The Point is……
In the United States, you have legal recourse and the luxury of union representation. When you are overseas, you have just you. And ‘just you’ is subject to the decisions of the people who have the power to fire you. If these people are “good” people, you will have a wonderful experience. If not, you may find yourself subject to all sorts of inequitable circumstances. You can opt to just walk out and fly home but this is more difficult to do than you may think when a flight home is $1000 and you have all your favorite worldly possessions with you. Not to mention that you will be unemployed and summarily black balled at the major recruiting agencies, even if the school is entirely at fault for you leaving. Do your homework and find about a school in advance. Once you arrive, it is detrimental to your mental and financial health to make negative discoveries that solidly affect you.

In the Classroom

Do you speak English?
The other side of the coin from your teaching contract is your life in the classroom. An interesting point is that in many so-called “American” schools there are few, if any American students. As a result, the level of English in the classroom is commonly at least two years behind grade level. The result being that teachers are pressured by school administrators to pass undeserving students to the next year for several reasons, but mostly because each student adds to the revenue of the school. How can you assess a student who cannot speak English?

Frequently there will be no native English speakers in a classroom. Usually during the summer students return to their home country, without English support, only to return the next school year having lost what little English they gained during the previous year. It is also common for a middle or high school to accept students with very little or no English. Students with very limited English are enrolled in AP or IB programs. Their English is not sufficient to complete the courses successfully, yet the teacher will pass them. It is common to receive students in your classroom in January or February who are non-English speakers. Do not be surprised when the administration expects you to apply more than just a passing mark to their report card. Fortunately, not all schools function in this manner and many schools will not accept students with a level of English below what is required to succeed at grade level. In addition, many schools will require a course of study that includes ESL with a designation on the report card showing that the academic subjects have been graded using a modified grading scale. Look for schools that follow these procedures.

Academic integrity can mean different things to different people.
You may also find a lack of academic integrity in some overseas “American” schools. In an instance, I know of, the high school principal was actually caught changing grades so students could get into better universities! This was done with the knowledge of the American head of school. This was not altruistic. The owners and headmasters of such schools reward compliant teachers and administrators. You will also encounter many “American” schools that lack counselors, reading specialists, sports directors and personnel to assist student with learning disabilities and ESL support. Most “American” schools are for-profit schools and it is expensive to bring specialists on staff. Such schools may also lack adequate facilities to support music performances and physical education classes. Playing in the burning hot sun of South America or the freezing temperatures of an Eastern European winter is very different from a proper gymnasium.

For me, a startling discovery was to find myself working with teachers who were not certified teachers, even though the school was accredited. You may well find yourself working alongside a host country national that is not credentialed and completely inexperienced. Host country nationals are much less expensive to hire than teachers recruited from the States. In many schools, teachers who are credentialed are teaching outside of their field of expertise. Many have let their teaching credentials lapse. Many principals do not have a current principal license. Some principals and headmasters have no education degree and are not Americans.

While we are on the topic of academic integrity I should tell you that you might find some teachers “hiding out” at “American” schools overseas. At one school, I know of, there was a defrocked priest who served as a high school counselor and principal. Through very simple research, it came to be known that he was defrocked for having sex with underage boys in the States. He was also caught kissing a high school boy at this overseas school. This man went before the school board and admitted his guilt. Since he admitted his guilt and the headmaster said she would keep an “eye” on him, the school board allowed him to remain as a counselor and then as the high school principal for several years. This man worked for over ten years at the school. A teacher needs to have thick skin to deal with these kinds of issues. In the United States, it would be illegal to have this person working in a school system. This is definitely not true in overseas “American” schools.

When there are few American students, a scant American curriculum, few materials, little English spoken in the classroom, administrators and owners who are not American and with no education background, you begin to wonder what is so American about these “American” schools overseas. Then it dawns on you that you are the only thing American about the school and the parents are paying top dollar for a supposed “American” education by an American teacher. There is no law that states that a school overseas may not use the word “American,” hence when you look through the list of overseas schools, there are many with the word American in them. These schools are simply trading on the name “American” and they need you there as an American ornament.


Where Does All This Leave You?


The job of any recruiting agency is to place teachers at schools in exchange for a hefty fee. The loyalty of the recruiting agency is with the school, not with you. It is in the recruiting agencies best interest to tell teachers the most positive aspects of the school and leave out the adverse details I have pointed out here. If you return to the recruiting agency with a “sad story,” most likely it will take the side of the school. If you complain too loudly, you may find yourself blackballed by the recruiting agency. The recruiting agencies are obligated to the schools. That is why you cannot trust them and must do your own research.

The best way to check out a school is to look at the International Schools Review web site and see what other teachers have written about a school you may be considering. If possible, talk to other teachers who have left the school you are interested in working at. However, be aware that teachers’ are not inclined to say anything negative about a school they are currently working at for fear of retribution. Fortunately, the International Schools Review web site is a safe place for teachers to be open and honest about their experience.

Network, network, network and ask, ask, ask. Do not rely on the recruiting agencies or other representatives of the “American” schools for full disclosure. Teachers applying for an overseas position must do their own homework with due diligence. There are many wonderful overseas teaching opportunities to be had and some schools laced with landmines to be avoided at all costs. A little effort on your part will go along way to assuring you find yourself in a good situation, having a wonderful and fulfilling overseas experience.

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