Dear Dr. Spilchuk…

December, 2006

Should We Tell Our School We’re Breaking Contract?

Dear Dr. Spilchuk,

My husband and I are considering leaving our positions before the end of our contracts. However, we are not sure if we should let our administration know before we are safely back in our home country. We are afraid that they may impose all sorts of conditions, and that they might start treating us badly (worse) until the end of our contract.

My biggest fear is about the financial consequences of our decision. Although we intend to pay all the fees required by our contracts, I wonder to what extend the school could require that we pay other fees not included in the contract. I have heard of teachers that could not leave the country unless they paid a certain amount of money for items not included in the contract such as housing. I would not want to be stranded in this country without a job. I also fear that they might withhold our pay checks and add extra unjustified fees. I fear that we could not even get recourse in front of the law as the justice system here is known to be corrupt. I understand that a lot of our board members are lawyers and feel that we might not have a lot of power in the matter. There are many reasons why this International placement is not adequate for us and I hope we can get out of this with some dignity (professional), and in the agreed upon financial terms.

We would definitely prefer letting the school know ahead of time so they can use the recruiting fairs to replace us. However, previous exiting teachers have had experiences that let us think that that might not be the best idea. We don’t feel we can talk to our general director as he is exiting the school. We certainly can’t talk with our principal as he is one of the big reasons why we are leaving. We love our colleagues and would not want to leave them in a bind. We are therefore somewhat confused. We would appreciate your input.

Thank you so much,


Hello Laura,

Where are you located? Let’s work through your problem together. It would help if I knew which country you were in. Some are worse than others in dealing with their teachers.

The problem with simply walking out in June is that you can find yourself blackballed by recruiting agencies representing International Schools. This will make it difficult for you to find another international position in the future. You do have a chance at not having this occur if you can work out an agreeable solution with the school. Without telling anyone you are planning on leaving, I think you should sit down with the director and explain what is bothering you and at that time propose a solution to the problem. Unless you make an effort to resolve the situation in this manner I don’t think you can justify walking out on your contract.

I do highly recommend you examine your reasons for leaving the school before doing anything. In the eyes of the recruiting agencies there are few, if any, legitimate reasons to break your contracts. I know people that broke their contracts only because they didn’t find the host country to their liking. This is not a legitimate reason and any rational adult would wonder why you didn’t do your homework before signing the contract. On the other hand, there are legitimate reasons to break a contract and you will have to determine for yourself if yours are well founded.

A young male teacher recently gave his school notice he would be leaving at the end of the year. He felt he was acting responsibly by letting the director know of his intentions to break his contract. He reasoned that he was allowing the director an opportunity to find a replacement at the upcoming fairs. The director, a vindictive sort, rewarded this teacher’s sense of conscience by having him blackballed at every recruiting agencies he could, and then docking his pay to the tune of almost $4000 dollars. These were strictly acts of revenge. Although the director had misrepresented the school, the country, the pay, and the housing, the recruiting agencies blindly sided with the school. In retrospect, this teacher reports he would have been far better off just going home for the summer, collecting all that was due him and then settling up on what he fairly owed the school for breaking his contract. This young fellow was so devastated by the retaliation of the director that he simply collected his paycheck for the month he had completed and flew home one Monday morning, telling no one of his plans.

The blackballing and retaliation scenario seems to be a familiar theme in some International Schools. Apparently, there are schools/directors that conduct their business in a fashion that appears to be without integrity or honesty. Annulling signed contracts upon a teacher’s arrival into a country, reducing housing allowances, retracting international insurance plans and other underhanded moves are justifiable in the eyes of some directors. Unfortunately, recruiting agencies will usually support these people, claiming they “were not there to know what happened”. No recruiter is going to bite the hand that feeds them and it’s the schools that put the “big meal” on the table for the agencies. I have heard of Search Associates dropping schools that repeatedly treat teachers badly. This is the exception to the rule.

Keep in mind that bringing in a teacher from overseas poses considerable expenses for a school. Air fare, shipping allowance, insurance plan, visa, etc., etc. When a teacher walks out on a position the biggest problem is not the money but how to replace that person. The expenses and predicament created by a teacher walking out should be enough to motivate a legitimate school to sit down and work things out with you. A school that sees teachers as a disposable commodity in a money-making diploma mill will have little incentive to work things out with a dissatisfied teacher. When dealing with people that are systematically taking advantage of you, it may be that your only way out is to walk.

Your situation is a difficult one and I can’t tell you exactly what to do. This is a decision you must make on your own and based on what your conscience tells you is the right thing to do. If it looks as though the only way you might get out of the country is to simply leave in June, then you might just have to do that. You must look after yourself first, while understanding the job consequences. I do recommend you submit a review to International Schools Review and warn other teachers of what might be waiting for them after signing a contract at this particular school.

All the best and please keep me up-to-date on your decision,


Responses to This Column

Dear Dr. Spilchuk,

Can you tell us all where this teacher is? Then veterans of that school can respond and let her know whether to bug out or do the right thing. In TACC in Egypt, the teachers learned fast to cut loose and tell everyone after you had gotten back home. (We actually stuck it out for our contract.) Maybe as a teacher that teaches a subject that is difficult to fill, I don’t have to worry as much as others, but I would still recommend blackballing over suffering, and nowadays teachers can get hired without going through any agency.

Thanks very much Barb,


Hi Wilson,

I cannot tell you where she is, but I can say that she and her husband have already approached veterans for their advice. Unfortunately, advice is not the same as support and when controversy happens in an international School, many teachers go behind closed doors for fear of being implicated in any punishments, blackballing.or bullying behaviors that the teacher may receive for questioning the status quo.

Good for you, Wilson! I would agree with you that blackballing is preferable to continued suffering! And I also agree that Search Associates are not the only method to being hired., Dave’s ESL Café and Tie-online are three ways to get around the blackballing issue.

Thanks for your response. Support across the world from International teachers to international teachers in distress goes a long way to make the community seem smaller!



Dr Spilchuk,

In your column you mention: “This young fellow was so devastated by the retaliation of the director that he simply collected his paycheck for the month he had completed and flew home one Monday morning, telling no one of his plans.” I hope that someone mentions to the “young man” who walked out of his job, to consider the effect it had on his students. I realize some work situations are hard, but we had a teacher in a similar situation flee in the night (literally) from our school, to ‘get back’ at the director for the penalty exacted on him for breaking his contract. The story you tell sounds like it could even be his side of the story. The only people who really suffered in this case were the kids. He thought he was really sticking it to the director (who held him accountable to the contract he had signed- yes, it was harsh but he signed it!), but really, she wasn’t affected. His classes, left without any grades, teacher, or direction, with 6 weeks until finals got the worst of it, and it was not their fault at all. Nice thing to do to seniors right before they graduate, isn’t it? Our “nice young man” threw out the essays he was supposed to be grading, and trashed his grade book before he left too.

Perhaps you can help with your advice columns, and remind international teachers of the whole reason for teaching in this picture: the students whom you are educating. I can’t imagine people who go into teaching being so selfish in the end. Really, would it kill them to stay to the end of the year? If the answer is a legitimate yes, then, by all means leave. But leaving suddenly doesn’t hurt the senior administration as much as the students and possibly other colleagues who have to scramble and cover, often with no extra compensation, because they do feel morally and ethically committed to making sure the students aren’t damaged as a result of a teacher abandoning an overseas post.

Just a thought.



Dear Liz,

I absolutely agree with you. There are many things to consider when an international teacher decides to leave a post. The example given in my response was generated by a member of the ISR editing team. I don’t know the particulars, but certainly the children must be considered.

Thank you for your caring input,


Dear Dr. Spilchuck,

I disagree with Liz. Imminent death is not the only reason to break a contract. It is possible, in trying to fulfill a contract in a difficult situation, to completely burn-out and leave teaching completely. What is worse, for 20 students to suffer for 6 weeks, or for the teaching profession to lose an individual forever, when just a little step away might have let them recharge and gain perspective?

Now, in no way do I support the vindictive and destructive acts Liz described, but it is very easy to say that the students come first, and that those who aren’t willing to put them first shouldn’t be in teaching. But I can tell you from personal experience that a sacrifice for the students doesn’t always work.

I was teaching in the states, and I was desperately unhappy. I knew that no matter what I was never going to work for that principal again. I also knew that the last time the school lost a music teacher it took 10 months to find a replacement. I felt I owed it to my students to give the school as much time as possible to replace me, so in March I chose not to renew my contract, even though I did not yet have another position.

Unfortunately, I didn’t remember that March is also budget time. Instead of giving the school plenty of time to find a replacement, I gave them the opportunity to eliminate my position, which they did. My “sacrifice”, my attempt to act ethically and honorably, caused more harm to those students than my breaking my contract ever would have.

This behavior is not limited to stateside schools. In our current school, an IT teacher left. My husband offered to step in temporarily and do the job in addition to his own. So the school figured if he could do that for three weeks, he could do it for two years, and cut the position.

So I am sorry, but I don’t believe in the “sacrifice anything for the students” mentality. There just isn’t the support for the attitude, and too many people take advantage of it. Take care of yourself and your sanity first.


Liz (Please not that this is a second person with the name of Liz)

Dear Liz,

I have to say that also I agree with you. Healthy teachers will, in turn, breed healthy attitudes in students. If a teacher is desperately unhappy in a situation, that is not good for kids. I also agree that sometimes kids are burned in the process of administration looking for ways to cut back overhead. Schools should be first and foremost about kids, but this does not always happen.

Thank you for your input. Best wishes for a happy future in your career and for a safe and peaceful holiday season.


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