For many, the idea of going on an adventure to teach abroad only seems like a dream. You may have come across expat teachers on social media, or a close friend recently made the big move. It is common for teachers to become wrapped up in this idyllic scenario, and why wouldn’t you? If I asked you to imagine yourself teaching abroad, what would you firstly think of? The salary? Weather? Travel opportunities? However, many who have gone before you have faced challenging realities when making the move abroad. They have idealized social media posts about their new home only to realize the practical challenges they must face including pressure to settle in their new home quickly, missing loved ones back home and embracing new cultures and lifestyles. Often enough, many newly expatriated teachers are not made aware of these struggles until they find themselves in the middle of them. But as we are well within 2022, where a culture of honesty towards our mental and emotional health is encouraged, it’s time to open this dialogue in order to prepare new teachers for their new adventure and address some common misconceptions.
The Council of British International Schools (COBIS) shared in their 2022 ‘Teacher Supply in British International Schools’ report that 59% of incoming teachers chose to work in the international sector for ‘travel and cultural exploration’, whilst 59% moved for ‘enjoyment and challenge’. Both are perceived as positive, justified reasons, but it takes some time to achieve this.
So, let’s start at the beginning.
Moving Abroad: The Reality
Minus the financial side of finding accomodation, the logistics and reality of moving abroad are extremely stressful. Collecting what you need, packing and moving your life, trying to settle into a new house and make it a home.We typically rely on the support of family and friends during the transitionary periods in our lives. But how does that work in an international context? Well, packing up your life becomes this logistical, mental battle of deciding what you really need and what you can purchase when you arrive. As an expat of 5 years, I am only just learning to find the balance of how to pack effectively to save on imported prices overseas without spending an equivalent fortune on freight or excess luggage. This isn’t just for the initial move either, this battle of balance continues every time you visit home and as you increasingly identify items that are easier to bulk buy when in the UK.
Making a house a home is imperative, but doing this takes time. Resulting in a period of AirBnB limbo and feeling unsettled in your new life. For some teachers, you may walk straight into furnished accomodation leaving you just the option to add your personal items and touches to make it homely. Other teachers will need to find their own housing; which can only be done once you have gained residency / visa permits.
Whichever route your take in establishing your new home, I always advise the following:
- Take the time before leaving home to write a shopping list of items you love in your current home; whether this be cushions, photos, candles, cupboard organisers. Whatever brings you peace in your current home, will bring you peace in your new home and you will have a shopping list well prepared.
- Take the ‘little and often’ approach. Realistically, you cannot buy everything for your new home as soon as you arrive, just as you wouldn’t in the UK. Unfortunately, there seems to be an increased pressure to do so when overseas. Buy a few little pieces each month, plan strategically. By Christmas, you will begin to see the differences and feel more settled with each purchase.
- Find cheaper ways to purchase UK goods. When I first moved away, I made it a rule with friends and family that if they ever came to visit, be prepared to make space in their luggage for bringing some items out for me. It may seem very forward and demanding but actually, your closest friends will be very understanding of this and will offer too!
Building a new career but with experience
We all remember the slog of our Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) or Early Career Teacher (ECT) years, or some of you reading will be approaching them soon. You’re fresh out of graduation, have some understanding of the reality of full time teaching from your placements and have a great deal of enthusiasm to build your career. This whole sensation returns to you when moving to teach internationally: you’re fresh out of the UK (or wherever may be home for you), you have some understanding of teaching internationally and have a great deal of enthusiasm to build a new career.
Moving any school, even if just down the road, brings along challenges of new routines, policies and expectations. But to take that move overseas you face a whole new collection of newness. The only metaphor I can use to describe this is the feeling of driving after passing your test, you know each manoeuvre, you know how to get to certain places but the journey can often be different to what you have experienced. Transitioning to international teaching is a similar experience in this sense, you know how to plan, assess, build your timetable, utilise your planning time effectively but the format and organisation is very different overseas. Most commonly, your non-contact time is scattered throughout the week whilst your class have specialist lessons (PE, Music, MFL and for some destinations, Arabic and Islamic) this results in you having to find new approaches to ensure these smaller bursts of PPA are just as productive as that ‘block’ of afternoon planning time you are used to.
The first term always becomes a bit of a whirlwind as you find your feet. This makes it extremely difficult to assess if you have made the right decision. I encourage you to talk to longer-serving members of your team to help you find the most effective methods for completing administrative tasks; having worked in the establishment for one or two years they may have some simpler approaches or examples to support you. Communicate with fellow new expats you started this journey with to see if they are experiencing a similar motion. You will not be the only one trying to find your feet, and that’s okay! I always reassure new expats that when you return in January for Term 2, that’s when you really feel settled. You will know the runnings of the school, routines are smoother and you just generally feel more at ease with your new life.
Rebuilding a life, but making it better!
As you are simultaneously trying to wade through your first term of work, you will also be navigating your way around the ‘adulting’ aspect of rebuilding your life. Renting a car, converting licences, understanding medical insurance and finding your local medical centre, completing visa and residency paperwork, and appointments. It can sometimes feel like you can’t catch your breath as you are juggling new beginnings with work and life outside of work. The great thing is that once it’s done you’re free from it all for a few years (depending how often residency visas need to be renewed), and with every great international school comes a great HR team that can help you through every step of the way (plus those colleagues who have been residing there a while will definitely know the tricks of the trade to help you!).
But let’s rewind to that initial vision of moving abroad to teach; the lifestyle and adventures! Relocating means rebuilding a life you once knew, but you now have the opportunity to make it even better. Again, this takes time and any veteran expat will share the same advice with you. ‘Say yes, get yourself out there, and what you put in is what you will get out of the experience!’ No matter where you live, the social circles in the expat community always seem to spread far and wide yet still feel so small as you start to find connections and network with people across the community. Take the time to accept invitations to activities, events, days out, and afternoon adventures. This will help you explore your new home and help build circles of friends and find your hobbies and interests. Never once did I think I would finish work on a Friday and head straight to the beach with my friends, or spend my weekend kayaking around the mountains of Hatta. But you embrace what you can do in your new home and that expatriate ‘why not’ ethos starts to bloom. If the weather is on your side and it only feels right to do so, then why the hell not!
The balance of friendships
Think of your current life now and how many circles of friends you have; work, university, school friends and other circles from all points of life. Moving abroad results in an additional circle of friends, but there is an additional layer to these friendships. Your new expat friends won’t just be your go-to for social activities, they will become the first people you see when you’ve had a bad day; the first people to comfort you when you might receive bad news. It’s a peculiar experience to process that the newest additions to your life take on the role of family. Although your nearest and dearest back home are only a FaceTime call away, this can be tough to balance with time differences and working hours. Realistically by the time I’m going to bed on a work night is the time my UK friends are finishing work, only leaving weekends to really catch up (even then sometimes this can take up the middle of your Saturday/Sunday) My closest friends at home have often mentioned how sometimes my responses come with a tone of correspondence; I try my best to keep in contact but sometimes very surface level as we are continuously two passing ships in different time zones. But there’s nothing to feel guilty about, this is just the reality of living abroad. Communication with your loved ones back home takes more of a formal schedule and your expatriate circle because your closest for support and company. Remember that when you visit home, this ratio will completely reverse! Family and friends become your priority and your expat family will be just as busy as you!
So where does that leave you?
Right now, many of you are counting down the days to your new adventure. You face the struggles of packing, attesting documents, organising your life and trying to process many emotions simultaneously. My only piece of advice during this period is to enjoy your time with your nearest and dearest and to allow them to support you with the move. Go shopping for work clothes with your friends, spend an evening with your family organising clothes and packing. Allow them to be part of your change too; they will have their own emotions to process and remember: you’re not trying to handle this alone. It takes pressure off you, allows others to support you and makes the process more enjoyable than stressful. Trust me, trying to do all of this by yourself is overwhelming!
I shall gift you with my top three life hacks for moving abroad
- Look into sending cases of clothes/life stuff to your new school in advance. Talk to your school about an address to use and arrange the shipment to take place a week before you leave. I use Send My Bag as it works out cheaper than purchasing excess luggage. Click the following link to receive 5% discount on your order: https://www.sendmybag.com/?affid=452114
- Arrange a Boots ‘click and collect’ order at your departure airport. Toiletries take up the bulk of your kg when packing but buying them in the UK is significantly cheaper. So I order everything off Boots website as a ‘click and collect’ order to the Departures Airside store in Heathrow and when I’m travelling I make sure my hand luggage case is as empty as possible to pop the order items into. This allows me to haul UK products to the Middle East for a fraction of the price. https://www.boots.com/shopping/click-and-collect
- Reach out to teachers on social media already living in your new destination, ask them questions, utilise their content. Each and every veteran expat has been in your shoes, many of whom did not even have the internet to connect with people before getting on the plane. We expats will always help as we are the only other people who have experienced what you are, and about to, experience. We get it and we’re here for you
If in doubt, always remember: the greater the risk, the greater the reward.
Trust me, this reward is pretty damn great!