A little bit about us: We lived and taught in the international school arena for over twenty years. We worked in four countries on as many continents. We accepted positions through recruiting fairs as well as through other means. We worked at a non-profit school in the Middle East, a college in Asia, a company-sponsored (international recruiting agency managed) third-world rural start-up school, and a large international school. We survived an earthquake and an invasion, lost all our belongings during a country-wide occupation, been subject to anti-Americanism, lack of heath care, threat of malaria, risk of live munitions, inadequate school construction resulting in the collapse of a classroom ceiling, a tornado ripping the roof off our house and other challenges I prefer not to recall. But none of this prepared us for what was to come!
A most unfortunate experience followed our verbal acceptance of a position. In the best of all situations it would be ideal to have an attorney versed in international contracts review your contract. Who, though, can reasonably and logistically manage this, particularly under the time pressure so prevalent at recruiting fairs? When we received our written contracts by mail, however, we immediately noticed the school had not only changed the terms which we had discussed, but also clearly stated that we would be entering our new country of employment as tourists. Yes, we know, this is how many schools work, but who is the one breaking international law and taking the risk for lying at that country’s consulate to obtain a visitor’s visa? And who is risking incarceration or worse upon entry into that country under false pretenses?
We were held to the contract despite its illegalities and the terms that were different than what had been discussed and agreed upon. Later, when we opted not to sign our contracts, upon the advice of that country’s consulate as well as a representative of the U.S. embassy, the recruiting agency that hosted the recruiting fair blackballed us more quickly and effectively than one could imagine, pressuring another school not to hire us without so much as asking our side of the issue. The other school knew our situation and assured us that they still wanted us, that we were still the best candidates for the positions, and that their offers were legally binding. They were as effectively coerced by the hiring agency as we were blackballed. This particular school opted to break their country’s employment laws instead of going against this particular hiring agency’s policies. The take-away? You’ll want to be sure to get everything in writing and at the recruiting fair.
In another situation we had the unfortunate experience of having key components of a contractual agreement changed following our acceptance and signing of contracts. These changes included: change of position (the administrative position agreed upon suddenly became a teaching position simply because it became a better fit after the school attended the next recruiting fair and had new candidates to fit into the puzzle), inaccurate host country tax information (17% for the first year only was soon realized at 27% throughout the term of employment), details of medical coverage (after doing extensive homework to make sure that a prohibitively expensive drug that our son required would, in fact, be covered under the school’s medical plan, finding upon our arrival in country that there was a one-page rider added to the insurance booklet issued to new staff that denied coverage specifically to the category of drugs including our specific need).
On another occasion, unrelated to the two above experiences, the recruiting agency led us to believe a new school they were managing in a rural area of a third-world country was ready to open. What we found, however, was quite a different story. We lived in a construction site for a year and taught school with no materials whatsoever while waiting almost a month for the school’s shipment to arrive. There was no infrastructure established to even acquire food. While the recruiting agency sponsoring the school (a major agency) did nothing to help us in any way, the company who had hired this agency to set up and run the school for children of their employees paid for the teachers’ food shipments, R&R trips, trips for needed medical care and even coverage of certain medical costs.
We were later told by an employee of the recruiting agency that we were frequently the coffee machine conversation as photos we sent were apparently frivolously shared with numerous employees. The point being that the hiring agencies, in our experience, have done nothing to help or support the teachers, even in their own schools. Naturally they were effusively thankful that we had stuck it out, that we had endured what most would not have, but they so quickly forgot any professional respect they may have had for us and readily blackballed us when we refused to honor the altered contract I spoke of above.
What We Learned
You owe it to yourself to take advantage of web sites such as International Schools Review and others. These web sites will give you all sides and realities of a school and its administration you are considering. The people at International Schools Review state on their ‘About Us’ page: “We have all been lured-in by directors who were not exactly forthright in their description of their school and/or host country. Had we been privileged to the first-hand type of information found on ISR we would have successfully avoided these episodes in our lives”.
You should also consider contacting current or recent employees of any school you are contemplating, and not just the names the school representative may provide you with. As a quality educator, you want to avoid the schools that seemingly tolerate inept, immoral, and unethical “leadership.” Yes, we have stories to tell in this area as well, but perhaps they are best left for another article.
The bottom line is this: Candidate Beware!! You, the candidate, are on your own. The fact that a school is present at a hiring fair does not necessarily mean that it follows legal hiring practices or will treat you as a professional. While the candidates must prove their credentials in order to participate, the schools don’t have to jump through such hoops. Look out for your own interests. Be assertive with your questions; don’t let yourself feel pressured to accept a position you are not sure about. We all need to think about how we can support each other in the international schools arena, especially as we have no teachers’ union, no legal representation and are essentially on our own upon arrival in a new country.
You might ask why we stayed in international education so long? We did it because it’s all part of the adventure. Because the wonderful experiences override the challenges many times over. Because of all the exceptional individuals we have encountered and become friends with in many different countries and cultures. Because of the wealth of experiences our travels have provided our now teenaged children. international teaching has much to offer. You just need to avoid the land mines.