International schools have their perks but I’m coming home
Despite the great work-life balance and impeccably behaved students in international schools, I miss the challenge and privilege of helping disadvantaged young people
After a number of years working in an inner-city academy in London, I was fed up and burnt out. Along with hundreds of other teachers in the UK, the lure of warmer climates, sunnier students, shorter days and – let’s be honest – much more generous salary packages, proved too much and so I upped sticks and moved abroad.
Fast forward a year, however, and I’m coming back.
Working in a British school in the Middle East is everything I hoped and expected. I work with dedicated and talented teachers, teaching interested and privile, and I have a work-life balance that actually allows me to have the second half of the equation. However, I’m coming home because teaching out here has made me realise what I love about the profession: the challenge and fulfilment of teaching children who really need to be taught. And by “need” I mean children in disadvantaged, inner-city schools across the UK who aren’t from the easiest of backgrounds, who don’t have the most educated parents, and who are the future of our country.
I miss the sense of fulfilment I used to get from watching those students succeed. One of my students, for example, was a refugee from Afghanistan who lost his parents in the war. He moved into a foster home in London and, when he arrived at school, was only able to write half the alphabet and say hello. Over the years, I watched him flourish into one of the most diligent and dedicated students I have ever worked with. I will never forget the moment when he stood up in front of the class and read a full paragraph, speaking in English for the first time, or on GCSE results day when he clutched the piece of paper saying he’d achieved a C in English as if it was the most precious thing he owned.
Or another student, a six-foot-something year 10 student who was forever getting excluded. He once told me that the majority of his friends from primary school were now in jail. He sat at the back of the classroom hiding his tears for Lennie as we read the ending of Of Mice and Men and then exclaimed with pride that that was the first book he’d ever read cover to cover. These breakthrough moments are the memories and stories that I always tell when people ask me why I love my job so much.
Yes, the international schools circuit has its perks. The students’ parents are educated, successful, international business people and, generally speaking, the pupils are polite, pleasant and placid. But I miss the banter, the quick wit and the humour of the typical UK student; last year, when a group of my year 11 bottom set students decided to stop swearing in the playground and began biting their thumbs Shakespeare-style instead, I felt a real sense of (possibly misplaced) pride.
Last week I told my students here that I’m leaving to move back to the UK. The news was greeted with lots of well wishes and smiles. This was a huge contrast from last year, which was traumatic. There were tears, tantrums, one student lay down on the floor at my feet in an attempt to block the door, and I encountered real, genuine resentment from some of my favourites. They felt like I’d let them down. I felt like I’d let them down. I’d gone from being their trusted teacher to being yet another adult in their lives who says one thing and then leaves them. The realisation that my departure from their lives was merely fuelling the already serious abandonment issues that a lot of them clearly faced was heart-breaking.
Ultimately, I miss the sense of responsibility and privilege of earning the trust and helping to improve the lives of some of Britain’s most disadvantaged young people. I miss the stories, I miss the laughter, and most of all I miss the camaraderie that comes from being part of a faculty who are battling every minute of every day – struggling to jump through the hoops and dodge the missiles being thrown at them from a government that changes the policies, moves the goalposts, always wants more and never says thank you. And all because we won’t give up; we just really care about the future of our students and we really want them to do well.
So yes, I’m coming back. And I’m excited about my renewed sense of purpose and my re-engagement with why I became a teacher in the first place. But I’m under no illusions this time. I’m going back into the thick of it, back to a London academy and maybe I’ll burn out again. But this time I’m going to try as hard as I can, for as long as I can, and when the going gets tough, I’ll remind myself of why I came back. Yes, I’ve had it easy this year, but I’ve realised that, when it comes to teaching, “easy” isn’t the most important factor.