When I tell people back home in the US that I’m teaching in Thailand, they usually assume I teach English to Thai children. When I try to explain by saying “no, I teach at an international school”, I’m often met with a blank stare.

Understandable enough – before moving overseas, I never realized that there was a network of English-speaking American (or Canadian, Australian/New Zealand or British) curriculum schools all around the world. I have now worked at three international schools in three countries – Germany, Malaysia, and Thailand – and I often receive questions about where I work and how to start working overseas.

So, I thought I’d share some very basic information about this type of school for those who aren’t familiar with them.

What is an international school?

International schools are private schools serving mostly expatriate children (diplomats, multinational corporation executives, NGO staff), and usually some local families (that can afford the steep tuition). Student population is usually diverse, with students from many different countries. Most schools offer grades PK – 12 (ages 5 – 18), but some are restricted to high school or primary school, depending on the needs of the population.

International schools usually choose to follow a curriculum model from the US, UK, Canada or Australia/New Zealand. Sometimes you can tell by the name of the school (like the American School of Dubai) but others are more ambiguous (like the International School Bangkok). Still others choose to pull from all different curriculum options, finding the mix that best suits their student population.

Many international schools also choose to run the International Baccalaureate program, which consists of the IB Primary Years Program, IB Middle Years Program and the IB Diploma Program. Schools which run all three are referred to as IB World Schools. Usually students from international schools attend top universities around the world due to the high quality of their education, advanced placement and/or IGCSE course offerings, and test preparation (for US universities).

The language of instruction is usually English, but you can often find German, French, Japanese or other international-style schools in major capital cities as well. There is usually at least one international school in the major cities of every country in the world. Here in Bangkok we have over 90 “international” schools, although, as I will explain later, some are less international than others.

International schools are usually affiliated with other schools in their region by the following associations:

What are the differences between schools?

Every international school (with a few exceptions) is its own entity. Even though I’m using the term “network” here, they aren’t really connected to each other. What might be common practice in one school could be unheard of in another.

One of the biggest differences between international schools is their management/ownership. There are really two types of schools: non-profit, board governed schools and privately owned (usually for-profit) schools. It’s well worth checking in detail which kind of school you’re investigating as the management/ownership can have a huge impact on educational practices within the school.

It’s also worth noting that schools labeled “international,” “American,”etc, are not always such. It’s common practice in many countries (especially developing countries) to label privately owned, for-profit schools, “international” to secure native-English speaking teachers and to provide a high standard of education to local (usually wealthy) children. Although these schools often do provide a more international-style education, the student body is not usually as diverse as you would find in true international schools.

Who are the teachers at these schools?

Teachers in international schools are very diverse, as schools often make an effort to hire a mix of nationalities and ages. Most are native English speakers, but certainly not all. You will find teachers who have been overseas almost their entire career working alongside teachers who spent many years teaching in their home country before choosing to move abroad.

Interestingly, schools usually prefer teaching couples, where both spouses work at the same school, so it is quite common to be working with families where both parents are your colleagues and their children are your students. This helps build a close community, ensures that teachers have some stability in their lives (moving to a new country is stressful), and provides the most economic method of hiring and employing foreigners.

Teacher contracts are usually for 2 years initially, and then will be renewed on a year-by-year basis (though some also renew for two years). It’s fairly common to stay at a school for just two years, although plenty choose to stay much longer.

How do teachers get jobs in international schools?

This is rapidly changing as both Rhonda and Jeff have explained so well (so I won’t do it all over again). It’s worth noting that the “traditional” method of finding a job is still effective, and may be the best choice for teachers new to the international school network.

In the past, the majority of teachers would be hired at a job fair, the two major fair operators are International School Services and Search Associates (also COIS operates a fair as well as UNI and several others). Each company provides pre-screening for potential employers by requiring a detailed application process (plus fee). The companies then provide detailed listings of available jobs via a database. Finally, they organize “job fairs” in several locations around the world beginning in early January (usually Bangkok, Dubai, London, NY/Boston, San Francisco, and Philadelphia – but the locations change year by year).

The job fair is an intense experience, usually resulting in an emotional rollercoaster from moment to moment. You can walk in on the first day expecting to land a job in one region of the world, and walk out on the third day heading to an entirely different country (or, sometimes, without a job at all). Julie and Clay shared their ups and downs from the Bangkok fairs this year – so many of those points could have easily described my experiences at past fairs as well.

Most of these schools operate entirely independent of each other (though there are a few that are connected), so getting hired at one school does not ensure that you’ll be hired at another. Each school is privately owned and operated and some are more highly respected than others, so it’s worth investigating a school’s reputation before accepting an offer. However, it’s also worth noting that many school directors, principals and teachers move from school to school, bringing their previous connections with them.

What are the benefits of working in international schools?

The main benefit of teaching at an international school is going to work every day in a diverse and stimulating foreign cultural environment, with the chance to explore new places during every holiday break. As if the travel were not enough, there are tons of additional benefits to teaching overseas.

For starters, the less developed a country is, the more benefits schools usually offer, including: free (often furnished) housing, utilities paid for by the school, free tuition for children of teachers, annual flights to your home of record, shipping allowance, transportation allowance, Cost of Living Allowance (COLA), and local taxes paid for by the school.

Most schools offer comprehensive health insurance, transportation at the beginning and end of your contract, and a professional development fund. All of these benefits vary widely, usually dependent on the location of the school (for example, most schools in Italy offer a limited benefits package because so many people want to live there).

On the professional side, most international schools are very learning focused and provide extensive professional development for teachers, expectations are usually high, as is support for teachers. These schools are usually very well resourced in terms of both technology needs and teaching supplies and resources.

Of course, all of this is very general and should not be viewed as fact for every international school. This is just my opinion/perception of teaching overseas and working in international schools after 9 years abroad.

What other questions do you have about international schools? International school teachers, what did I miss in my basic overview here?

20 thoughts on “The World of International Schools

  1. Thanks Kim for this insightful post. I had no idea really about the difference in International schools and the various affiliations/curriculums so that was really interesting. What interests me is that some schools have the free tuition for children of teachers. Do many teachers have their partners/children with them? I had never thought of going to an international school because I have children (5&8yrs), however I can see with the other perks and travel it would be an amazing opportunity for the kids (I think they’d need to be older though, in my case). Reading your post gives me a further option for my future career as an educator – if I want to take a couple of years out from my present path. Thanks for this overview again.
    Justine (@digitallearnin)
    http://digitallearningnz.blogspot.com

  2. Great post, Kim…so many people (especially in the USA) are not aware of International Schools.

    While many International Schools are filled with children of diplomats, ex-pat business people, etc., I think that its worth pointing out a few exceptions to the this. I worked at Woodstock School in India for 10 years. Woodstock was originally a girls school for daughters of British ex-pats, but in its 150 years, it became a truly international school with students from 25 different countries. Many of them are actually sent there from their country of origin.

    Now I am working at a United World College, part of a movement of 12 (currently) schools founded by Kurt Hahn. Although I’m working in my country of origin(USA), we host students from 85 different countries. The mission of the UWC movement is to mix up as many different countries and cultures as we can to promote inter-cultural exchange.

    To answer Justine’s question, my wife and I made a conscious decision to take our two children out of the USA for much of their schooling. Although neither of us is a teacher (I direct information technology systems and she is an administrator), we found jobs and although the pay at our school in India was not great, it was sufficient. Plus our children got an excellent education, and as a result, my daughter gained admittance to a highly-regarded ivy league school that probably would not have happened if she had just a US education.

    Thanks again for your article.

    Steve Ediger

  3. Hi Kim,
    I came across your article on a feed. I have a close friend that teaches overseas, and she loves it. The support she has recieved is more than she expected. Also, the ability to travel, see another part of the world, where kids don’t have the luxuries like back home, was quite an eye opener for her. I emailed her your article..thanks

  4. What would you say are the percentages of teachers who stay overseas? Are there a lot who come and go back to the states after their contract is up?

  5. I was recently talking with a teacher in my building about the idea of international schools. Her daughter wants to go to college for a teacher’s degree. This is a great post that explains more than I ever could.

  6. @Justine,

    Yes! I would say almost the majority of teachers I know travel and work with their family. As I mentioned above, most schools prefer teaching couples, and most of them have children. We have so many families here with young children as well – it’s a great way to grow up learning about other cultures (and the fact that nannies are so affordable here doesn’t hurt either). Each country definitely has it’s own perks, but southeast Asia is a great place to live with kids!

    @Anne,

    Most schools have a real mix of teachers. Some schools place a very high priority on years of experience, but others are more flexible. For sure you will find schools with teachers new to teaching and in the very same school you might have people finishing out the end of their career, ready to retire.

    @Steve,

    Is Woodstock a boarding school? That is one area I did not touch upon at all in my overview – I’ve never worked at one myself, so I don’t know too much about how they operate.

    UWC has a great reputation – are you at the New Mexico campus? Friends of mine worked there for a few years and just loved it!

    @Joey,

    Thanks for forwarding on my post! You are so right about the luxuries – we get used to them a little too quickly ;) Weekly massages, full time maids or nannies, taking a taxi everywhere, etc, etc. In many ways it’s a very easy way of life!

    @Chad,

    I would guess that the majority stay overseas once they arrive. Certainly there are exceptions and some people realize that they don’t really want to be overseas very quickly. But, if you make it through two or three years, you usually end up a “lifer.” We’ve been overseas for 9 years now and have no plans to go back to the States. Most people I know have worked at quite a few international schools – it’s common to stay 3 – 5 years at each school and then move on to a new contract in another international school.

  7. Thank you for all that information Kim, it was really helpful. I am considering teaching abroad and was interested to learn about provision for my own teenage children. Thanks again, Amelia UK

  8. Hi,

    When I lived in Bangkok, we had to consider if we wanted to send our son to an international school or a local school with an international class. Neither seemed the best choice. International schools were very expensive and the local schools didn’t have high enough standards. In the end, we moved home before school began.

    Congrats on getting jobs in international schools though, I am sure there are many English teachers who are very envious:)
    Erik´s last blog post ..Grand Palace og Wat Phra Kaew

    1. @Erik,

      I don’t actually teach English, I teach technology – since international schools usually use English as the language of instruction, we have teachers for all different disciplines – and we have teachers from all around the world, that can speak English. It’s a great environment for both the teachers and the students.

  9. Thanks for posting this! My husband works with a missions agency that is wanting him to move to Bangkok in the summer. So I am trying to find a job at an international school for the 2013-2014 school year. I am certified in Special Ed. and have held different resource teaching positions. I am currently the director of special ed. for a private school. Are there any particular schools in Bangkok that you would recommend? This whole thing is so foreign to me! I am not even sure if it is likely I will get a job! How competitive are these positions? Any recommendations that you might have would be super helpful!

    BTW…I have enjoyed reading through some of your posts!!!
    Danielle´s last blog post ..On prayer

  10. I found this website really useful. I have a simple question…do you find international schools tend to more often than not hire teachers who have previous experience in an international school? Are teachers who haven’t worked in an international school before at a disadvantage? I’d appreciate some insight! Thanks (:

  11. I lived in Singapore last year and next to my building there was an international school. All the kids were polite and nicely educated. I had never noticed yelling or running around this school. Lately, I read up that there are a lot of international schools not only in Singapore but all over Asia and Europe. Thank you for sharing your article. Greetings!

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