As someone who has worked in international schools with as few as 100 students and in schools as large as 3000, I’ve come to realize that the size of the school alone can, and should, be a factor in choosing an international school. Although some of the upcoming analysis may be more or less obvious, I feel it’s important to make a case for both big and small international schools, as school size is a factor you might not readily consider when contemplating your next international school assignment. Yes, size can matter.
To avoid redundancy, I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of teaching in a smaller international school overseas. I will state an advantage of a small school and then follow up each statement with a corollary disadvantage, which would thus be an advantage of a larger international school. I must also mention that I am a secondary social studies teacher, so this analysis may not be as relevant for an elementary school teacher.
Size Affects Your Arrival Into the Country and School
Small International School Pro: Since your arrival at your new international school will coincide with your first-time arrival into the country, you’ll enjoy the fact that a small school makes a great place to fit in easily and quickly. In fact, the nature of a small international school necessitates this because in a small school the members of the overeseas community are more dependent on each other than in a large school. If the new country itself is very overwhelming (whether it be for cultural, climatic, demographic, or other reasons), a small international school environment can provide a sanctuary from the intensity of the outside world; this can apply even if you relish the intensity of the outside world, for we can all use some down time.Small International School Con: You may find the intimacy of this community environment overwhelming, especially if you are of the ‘below the radar’ persuasion. In other words, because everyone will know you and feel more comfortable around you, you may find it harder to have time where you can be anonymous and just be left alone. And, if for some reason you don’t fit into the community, you’ll have much fewer options for socializing within the school.
Students’ Perspective is Directly Proportionate to Size
Small International School Pro: Students are often very excited (though they will seldom admit it) about your arrival, since in a smaller school they’ve had less opportunity to interact with different teachers.
Small International School Con: This may make students tired of having you as a teacher, especially if you’ve been there for several years. Even if you’re a good teacher and your rapport is excellent, students may long for a change, if only to hear different perspectives, different personal stories, and perhaps another style of humor.
Size Effects Your Colleagues’ Perspective on You
Small International School Pro: Collaboration with colleagues is much easier and usually more productive, since it is very easy to regularly meet with them and, when meeting, come to a consensus. The phenomena known as ‘diffusion of responsibility’ is much less likely to take place; that is, you don’t have to worry about always taking on the burdens of others, since it’s much harder to hide one’s lack of contributions if the group is intimate. It’s much easier to share with colleagues, and if your stapler is missing, it is not so hard to track it down. And if you’re the stapler thief, you don’t have to worry about having inconvenienced your victim for too long.
Small International School Con: You will NOT be able to ride on the efforts of others. If you’re the type to usually think, “someone else will volunteer for that committee” or “someone else will stay behind to clean up”, you’ll find this will be a lot harder to pull off when your lack of effort will much more noticeably increase the workload of those around you.
Your Relationship with the School Director–Which Size Are You On?
Small International School Pro: I would make a blanket statement that it is naturally easier to meet and discuss anything with your school head in a small school, but I suppose this might have more to do with your personal relationship with your school head, although I’ve had very positive experiences with my school head at both my current small school and previous large school.
Small International School Con: This could be construed as a disadvantage if you’re inclined to prefer to be left alone to do as you like. Sometimes getting to know the school head on personal basis can later become strained for a variety of reasons.
You Are the Committee and Size Matters Here
Small International School Pro: Suggesting an idea for school improvement seems more likely to actually be implemented due to the tighter knit community and the fact that it’s less likely you would not know how any particular teacher felt about something if you’ve raised the issue publicly. On the secondary level, since you have few, and perhaps no fellow teachers in your particular discipline, you can make curricular decisions and set course standards without worrying about complaints from another class; in other words, if you assign two research projects per quarter, you don’t have to worry about students saying “but Mr. Smith only assigns one per quarter.”
Small international School Con: You’re more likely to be on your own as far as subject instruction goes. With few (or no) content area colleagues, you will have much less access to other’s materials, lesson plans, simulation ideas, effective strategies, content questions, or even just someone with whom to discuss subject specific academic matters.
Sizing Things Up
Small International School Pro: Because you will see your students quite often, you will certainly get to know them very well, and a level of familiarity which is seldom possible in public schools and larger private schools. If you forgot to mention something in class, you can easily find the students within the school and tell them each personally. If a student is late or cut your class (the latter being exceedingly rare in a small international school), it is quite easy to find out where he or she was.
Small International School Con: You may long to simply meet a greater variety of students, for the same reasons they may long for a greater variety of teachers. Many in class group activities could lose their benefit since often students can predict in advance what the others will say. Furthermore, if you start a club at a large school, it’s more likely you can find a quorum of similarly interested students, whereas at a small school your club must be much broader-focused to appeal to a smaller pool of potential applicants.
Know Your Classroom Size
Small International School Pro: When students meet in larger groups (class meetings, field trips, joint lessons, etc.), you have the advantage of already knowing all (or at least most) of the students and know in advance of any undesirable seating arrangements. It’s also much easier to get students to participate in extra-curricular activities, since you can appeal to them personally and not as ‘just another teacher.’ You’ll also have the opportunity to teach a much wider group of subjects, and across a larger age span, which will ensure you will seldom lose interest in teaching any particular unit. Classroom management is much easier, as your classes are likely to be much smaller.
Small International School con: In a small school you are less likely to teach three or four sections of the same class. For this reason, as a secondary teacher, you will have a lot more preparation work to do. While smaller class sizes means less grading, it also means more time is needed to prepare for all your different classes. While many teachers may state it is more interesting to prep for a variety of classes than the possible monotony of grading large numbers of similar assignments, the prep work can nonetheless often exceed the time commitment you want to make outside school on your own time. And, very small class sizes make it more difficult to engage in simulations and discussions, if only because there are less ideas that will be circulated (though on the other hand, it’s much harder for any student to allow others to take the lead all the time, since they’re more individually accountable in a smaller class.)
Shrinking and Expanding Size
Pros and Cons: It’s interesting that in large schools (and most public schools), teachers frequently lament about having ANOTHER student added to their class in the middle of the year (more grading, more difficulty with classroom management, harder to regulate individual accountability in discussions, etc.), in a small school you’re more apt to lament a student LEAVING, as it can dramatically alter the dynamic of the class, with their particular personality and/or viewpoint being an important element in many class activities. Thus, another factor perhaps worth considering is which direction the school is going – a large school getting larger can be just as frustrating as a small school getting smaller. But once again, you may be inclined to always welcome the dynamism that accompanies growth, or you may always be inclined to have environments of greater intimacy.
A Final Size Note
So, in summary, while this discussion is by no means an exhaustive description of all the pros and cons of international school abroad size, I just wanted to give an overview of factors one should consider when considering a teaching position at a large vs. small school. Of course, on a personal level the pros and cons may equally outweigh each other for you.
I should state that the pro and con argument seems to be most relevant for secondary teachers; for elementary teachers, it seems the small school provides much more of a PRO side than the CON side. In support of this impression, I have noticed that at my current school (being a small one), secondary teachers seem to spend an average of 2-3 years in the school, whereas elementary teachers have stayed an average of 7-8 years. Then again, it could just be a phenomenon at my school, or it may just speak more, if I may generalize, of the inherent preferences of those inclined to teach at the elementary level vis-a-vis those inclined to teach at the secondary level. Though personally, and at the risk of sounding contradictory, I am glad to have had both experiences, and I nonetheless recommend to you to try them both at some point in your career, unless you’re certain one environment would not be to your liking.