Teaching abroad – life as an Irish expat educator

Irish International TeacherIn 2010, Brian Nolan was one of many young, newly qualified teachers unable to find a full time contract in his native Ireland after the crash of 2008. Unwilling to wait for the world to come to him, he went to the world, and found what he was looking for in Dubai, where he started his international teaching career.

Bound for distant lands

As I sat in the Arrivals Hall café of Dublin’s new terminal 2 with a freshly shaven face and slightly oversized suit, I was all too aware of the strangeness of the situation in which I found myself.

Sitting opposite me was the principal of an International school in Dubai, situated a mere 6,000km away from my home in suburban Dublin. He and his wife smiled warmly at me and in the corner of my eye was my father, glancing over protectively from his perch on the mezzanine floor.

Arabian Desert AdventuresNow, an expatriate in my fifth year, I don’t believe the situation was all that unusual; I’ve now taught lessons in the desert, in chilly air-conditioned classrooms and on the 125th floor of the world’s tallest building.




UAE 43rd National Day at SchoolThe life of an expatriate is an exciting one, full of constant change and nowhere more so than Dubai. Life in the city is diverse, vibrant and fast-paced and this is replicated in the schools and classrooms.


My first year as an expatriate teacher was confusing, exciting and ever changing. I decided to make the step into international teaching (ironically) through a feeling of uncertainty at home. “Are you on the panel?” “Are you a permanent teacher yet?” These were the questions that dominated the staffrooms in which I sat. The whole setup up bewildered me and the atmosphere it created was a hugely intimidating one. I soon found out that the setup and atmosphere internationally was the polar opposite.



At the time of writing there are roughly 175 private and international schools in the United Arab Emirates. It is projected that the number will reach 198 by the end of 2016. It is commonplace for these schools to provide facilities such as tennis courts, swimming pools, auditoriums, athletics tracks and more. The atmosphere in the staffrooms is vibrant and energetic with the majority of the teaching staff between the ages of 25 and 35. I was suddenly subjected to a whole world beyond Dublin, beyond Ireland. The possibilities seemed limitless. And no mention of a panel.


Home ties and generation immigration

Alongside all of this excitement and change, there was one constant. I was Irish. I felt more Irish, I spoke more Irish (outside of the classroom), I was proud to be Irish. It probably had something to do with the fact that I was one of five Irish in a school with over 70 staff. The four Irish girls and I formed a little committee within our work sphere, which involved chatting in our native tongue, snowy flights home for Christmas and plenty of Barry’s tea. Two of the girls remain happily in that first school, one has made the difficult decision to return home and the other is somewhere between Australia and Asia.



Growing up in ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland I was told I was lucky. I could study whatever I wanted. I would never struggle. My parents and teachers told me of leaner times when a lot of young, educated 20-somethings were forced to the U.S, Canada and Australia for work. Flash forward to 2014 and the appointment of Jimmy Deenihan, Ireland’s first ‘Minister of State for the Diaspora’. My generation has made the successful transformation from ‘Celtic Tiger Cubs’ to ‘Generation emigration’.

With the appointment of Mr. Deenihan comes the promise from Taoiseach Enda Kenny that 2016 will see more returning immigrants than those leaving, for the first time since 2009. I for one am not convinced.


It was the case in the 1980s that many immigrants were forced out. My own uncle moved to Ottawa, Canada in the late 80s out of necessity and often dreamed of returning to Ireland when the time was right. That time never came and now, in his late 40s, he talks about being ‘trapped’ abroad. In 2016 I would ask: other than emotional attachments, what incentives are in place to encourage ‘Generation emigration’ to return home? And while I’m waiting to figure out the answer I’ll enjoy the highs and lows of international teaching.



Brian Nolan


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