First-hand experience: one Kiwi teacher’s account of teaching overseas

August 2017


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Education Review asks New Zealand teacher JENNY HAY about what’s involved with teaching overseas.

First hand expQ: Education Review: In which countries have you taught? What motivated you to consider teaching abroad?

Jenny Hay: My first experience teaching overseas was in 2001 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), where I managed a kindergarten that was part of a military hospital. I had completed my BEd as an adult learner and I had always intended to teach overseas once I graduated. This was a real culture shock and taught me some valuable lessons for working overseas.

I returned to New Zealand and completed my MEd. before taking a kindergarten advisor’s position in 2007 with a New Zealand company that had obtained a contract with the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) as part of the education reform that started there in 2006. I was part of an early childhood advisory team in a kindergarten with 15 teachers and 350 students. I worked in the UAE for four years in total; Abu Dhabi for two and a half years and then Al Ain for 18 months. During that time, there were many changes to the schooling system and we worked with three different curriculums. 

In 2011–12 I went to Kuwait with the same New Zealand company and I was the education advisor for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) teachers across three large, privately owned schools with Kuwaiti students. The schools ranged from foundation (KG1) to year 13 and used the Cambridge UK curriculum. There were 1,700, 800 and 600 students in the schools and 250 teaching staff. We were employed to improve student achievement, teach pedagogy and increase enrolments.

I was asked to run a solo set-up programme in Qatar after leaving Kuwait, and as a senior education advisor I was responsible for developing a nanny training programme, with the first intake of students coming from Mauritania and the Comoros Islands. This was an initiative from Sheika Mouza, the Emir’s wife, who was hugely influential in education in Qatar. She wanted nannies who spoke Arabic and were Muslims. The programme is still going strong and they are also recruiting nannies from the Sudan and Eritrea.

Q: Education Review: What was your experience of the recruitment agency registration process and dealing with the agency in general?

JH: I registered with True Teaching because I knew the owner from when she was in Abu Dhabi and later in Sharjah. When they started advertising the Flying Squad it appealed to me as a way of continuing to work overseas, but in short stints rather than year-long contracts. It was a straightforward process to become a Flying Squad member and I found the True Teaching staff easy to deal with and always accessible.

Towards the middle of 2014, Nadine from True Teaching asked me about taking a role in Beijing as an associate director in a large group of privately owned kindergartens. In this role, I experienced the good and bad of international teaching. I was a lot more resilient and independent and found my own flat and driver within the first three days of arriving.

But many of the things I had been told during the interview had been misrepresented and only one of the teachers was actually trained, and she was from New Zealand as well. I found my integrity challenged in my position as associate director of kindergartens and I emailed Nadine to tell her what was happening and to ask her advice. Nadine was very supportive, which I really appreciated, and had some good ideas about how to handle the situation.


Q: Education Review: Did you have a clear idea of where you wanted to teach?

JH: When I first enrolled with the Flying Squad, I didn’t really specify countries as such, but I preferred the Middle East because I had learnt a lot of Arabic and enjoyed working alongside Emiratis. After my experience in China, I wasn’t keen to go back, especially as they have some of the highest pollution levels I have ever seen and I needed an air purifier in my flat just to breath comfortably.

Shortly after returning to New Zealand, I was offered a maternity cover position in Abu Dhabi for the last term of the 2014–15 school year in grade 5 as an English language arts teacher. I was a bit dubious about my ability to teach at grade 5 in primary school with an American curriculum but Nadine had faith that I would be just fine, so I went. It was a challenge. The class was all 10-year-old boys, but I also learnt that I could rise to the occasion.

The next Flying Squad role I took was in Bangkok in 2016, where I was the learning support teacher in grade 5 with a UK curriculum this time. I loved this position as I have a background in special education and I was sad to leave the lovely group of students I had.  


Q: Education Review: What was your experience of returning to teaching/working in New Zealand?

JH: When I returned to New Zealand at the end of 2013, I found it quite difficult to get work because I had been abroad since mid-2007. I even had one employer say, “You’ll just go back overseas again if you get a better offer”. It wasn’t true, but it was the perception.

On a personal level, I did relief teaching in early childhood centres in New Zealand when I returned from Bangkok and found myself drawn to the children who had very little English. In one centre, there were four children from four different countries – none of them had much English and I had amazing conversations with them as they chatted away in Urdu, Turkish, Korean and French, completely oblivious to the fact that I didn’t understand a word.


Q: Education Review: How do you think New Zealand teachers are perceived at schools around the world?

JH: New Zealand teachers are well thought of across the countries and schools in which I have worked. The Emiratis saw us as hard-working and very respectful of their culture on the whole. In Bangkok, my learning support manager kept forgetting that I had never done the role before and would turn up at my classroom suddenly remembering that she hadn’t asked how I was doing.

New Zealanders are very accepting of difference; maybe it’s the ‘number 8 wire’ mentality but we just seem to be able to get on with the job while forming and maintaining good relationships with other staff who come from all over the world. 


Q: Education Review: What impact has working with other English-speaking teachers of different nationalities had on your teaching?

JH: In most of my experiences working with teachers overseas, I have been in advisory positions. This can be really difficult, especially as it is often not discussed with the teachers before your team suddenly appears at school one day. You learn how to get onside with people and become expert at getting people to try out new things.              


Q: Education Review: Was working in a different academic year difficult?

JH: It doesn’t take long to get used to the difference in the academic calendar and once I had left the Middle East I found myself missing the call to prayer. It was only noticeable when you came back to New Zealand for your summer holidays when it was the middle of winter in New Zealand and everyone was busy working.


Q: Education Review: How has your experience of the different cultural aspects been?

JH: I think if you want to have a real cultural experience in the countries in which you work, you need to step out of the expat lifestyle and make an effort to get involved in the local community – taking classes, attending functions (we attended a lot of weddings, but also, sadly, two funerals) and learning about the culture, customs, language, food – anything that gives you insight into the way people live in that country. I met many teachers who had been overseas for years but they still lived and worked in compounds and knew nothing of the local culture or language.


Q: Education Review: Were your financial expectations met?

JH: We were paid very well when we were working in the Middle East, but often when considering an overseas post you need to have the big picture. If your flights, accommodation, utilities and health insurance are being paid, then a lower salary might be acceptable. There are lots of other considerations as well; in Abu Dhabi the school provided transport to work every morning and I had the same set-up in Bangkok.

Q: Education Review: If you had family members accompanying you, how did the experience affect them?

JH: I was on my own in all of my overseas work, which was difficult in KSA because women can’t drive so you are reliant on taxi drivers to go anywhere. Travelling with families can be a really enriching experience, but private education is expensive and some families found that one parent was working just to pay school fees. These are the questions that need clarifying before you sign a contract. Some companies pay for school fees, some don’t.


Q: Education Review: What advice would you give to New Zealand teachers considering teaching overseas?

JH: If you are going to go abroad to teach, the best thing you can do is to find out as much as you can about the country you will be living in and also to learn a few words of the language, even when it’s really difficult, such as Mandarin. Blogs from expats teaching abroad are available and these can give you real insights into the problems you might face. With Google, these days you can look at flats, schools, neighbourhoods and basically find out anything you want before you leave New Zealand.

The characteristics that will keep you sane are being self-reliant and resilient and having the ability to hold your tongue! Losing your temper in the Middle East or China will not only get you nowhere, but will also be viewed as a lack of control on your part. It’s also important to adhere to the local laws; I am always stunned at the people who do things that are culturally offensive and then cannot understand why they are being deported. Remember the old saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

Being able to immerse yourself in another culture is so rewarding and I have friends all over the world. And even though I have work in New Zealand now and I am pleased to be near my family, I still miss the beauty of the desert, the warmth of the Emirati teachers and the experience of working in different schools, with different languages and within different cultures.

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