Five Points for a Successful International Career

Rob Fenlon, CEO of Global Education Consulting Services reflects on his time as an international educator, and shares his 5 points for a successful international career.

I’ve had a wonderfully exciting and eclectic thirty years as an educator on four continents. However, travelling the London underground to my PGCE teaching practice, I could never have imagined the endless possibilities ahead. Nobody had ever sat down with me and showed me a blank canvass asking how I would like to fill it. Like my fellow graduates, I just scanned the ads column, sent off an application, got a job, worked hard, had fun. The prevalent ‘see how it goes’ mindset rarely connected with a bigger picture; the questions only came later.

A mixture of serendipity and great people opened up my world, literally. From NQT, to head of faculty, pastoral leader, my horizons soon expanded beyond home soil. Incredible experiences followed, teaching in rural Zimbabwe, fascinating Burma and the bright lights of Abu Dhabi. Added to the mix was an education coordinator role in jungle refugee camps and training aboriginal miners in Northern Territory, Australia. I’m sure there’s a book, or a film in this somewhere!

I am forever grateful for such opportunities, leaping into the unknown and landing, sometimes, on my feet!

Here are some things I learned along the way:

1.     Can you think of any real growth in your life that didn’t involve risk?

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go” T.S. Eliot

Leaving home for the first time to go to university, buying your first house or even getting married? Being human, we have an insatiable desire to grow, to make a difference, even when success isn’t guaranteed.

Swapping a familiar, secure teaching job in your home country to become an international educator involves more than packing a suitcase, having a farewell party and flying off into the sunset. It means closing a significant chapter in your life, leaving behind loved ones and becoming vulnerable in this brave new world. Things will never be the same again.

2.     Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

No alt text provided for this image

This famous quote of Jim Rohn challenges us to ask what is it we are looking for. For international educators, how would you answer this question? What would your ideal career and lifestyle be like and where would it take you? What impact do you really want to make? When this is clearer, we might ask what we have to do to make this come true?

Making Transformation Intentional, not Incidental

According to COBIS research, the key reason for teachers moving abroad is for a ‘transformational experience’ (salary was cited as fifth priority). But what does such an experience even mean, who helps to shape this vision and how would you ‘measure’ its success? If transformation is so integral to a teacher’s time abroad, then why is this left to chance, often vaguely stated and certainly not widely known?

3.     Beware of Appearances.

“All that glistens is not gold” William Shakespeare

‘How long are you staying?’ A strange question to be asked on my first day in a new international school! Why did the student ask that? I found out that I was his third science teacher in less than a year. I thought about this question many times. Who were the other teachers? Why did they leave? Where are they now?

The school had world class facilities and accommodation, the salary and benefits were above average and most students willing to learn. I was saddened to learn that unnecessary teacher turnover can be accepted as ‘collateral damage’ even though it negatively impacts relationships, educational performance and the school’s reputation and finances.

4.     The Grass is Always Greener Where You Water It

“Never jeopardize a good thing for a new thing”

There is a question about the type of support on offer to help teachers thrive abroad. Covid-19 has made life even more complicated. Investing in the growth of teachers needs to become a planned priority if we are to retain quality staff as recruitment to international settings has become more difficult and costly. Teacher wellbeing and growth can no longer be left to chance.

Most international teachers sign a two-year contract, the first year often a fascinating blend of new experiences, growing friendships and exciting places to see. When challenges appear, you can feel the pull of the next adventure, new cultures and a new professional challenge. During these times, it is important to build resilience, to seek help drilling through the rock. There are new opportunities, professionally and in our personal lives, that are right under our nose; we just need help seeing them.

5.     Clarity Brings Opportunity- Being Proactive with our Strengths

“What great leaders have in common is that each truly knows his or her strengths- and can call on the right strength at the right time” Tom Rath

Our Strengths make us ‘stand out’; they provide the confidence in times of transitions to contribute to diverse teams far from home. We become aware of how we can best make a difference; we learn, together with the school leadership, how to scan the horizon for opportunities instead of waiting for them to come to our door.

The problem is, according to business expert Peter Drucker, most people don’t know what their Strengths are. Because they come so naturally to us, we assume everyone can do it and so our unique talents can remain frustratingly untapped.

Our Clifton Strengths profile, a forty-minute online assessment provides the clues to unlocking this potential. It makes us aware of blind spots, potential obstacles ahead and helps build stronger, more diverse and creative teams. Surely this is a great asset for international schools in helping their staff to grow stronger and stay longer.

As international educators, we face many challenges, much uncertainty and constant change. But it is a privilege to make an impact with incredible people in beautiful parts of the world. Growing stronger, staying longer doesn’t happen by accident but these five pointers aren’t a bad place to start.