An international life
From KL to Rotterdam
Gail Schoppert looks back at a lifetime spent in international education and with international teachers, reflecting on the changes he has seen since the late 70s.
Arriving on the scene, 1978
I was introduced to International Schools in 1978, when I was chosen to head The International School of Kuala Lumpur. But I came by a bit of a circuitous route, having spent ten years in the U. S. Department of Defense Schools as a teacher, a Curriculum Associate and finally as a Principal, serving in Germany, France and Italy. After 3 years in the U.S. working on my doctorate, I went to Anatolia College, an American sponsored secondary school for Greek students where I was Vice President. Then after six years, off to Malaysia. During my time there I was given a semi-sabbatical for six months at half pay to complete my doctorate in the U.S. while my family remained in Greece.
The attractions of international teaching
What a life and privilege it has been, serving in international schools. Two huge benefits for me were how close-knit our family became, and how many friends we made along the way. Our three children got the best education you could find anywhere in the world, and all went on to excellent U.S. universities.
They could do everything in the small secondary schools which they attended: sports, theater, chorus, speech and debate tournaments and lively, safe social lives. All three graduated from ISKL (the International School of Kuala Lumpur) during our five years there. I could hire excellent teachers and work with very good school boards. We could literally see the world, and my “kids” now work in jobs which focus on making the world a better place.
But even after our children were gone, life was good overseas. My wife Ruth and I moved to The Hague in 1983, and I was fortunate enough to head one of the best international schools in Europe for nine years.
Throughout all of this I never owned a car, had school supplied housing and made many friends from around the world. Although the world of international education has changed during my lifetime, teachers lucky enough to work in international schools still choose to do so, not only for the good salary and benefits (especially if you are in a non-profit school), but also because your own children will be well educated and you will be able to travel, while enjoying life in a different country, probably learning at least some of the language, and certainly learning about a different culture.
You will have great students to teach. Virtually all will be college bound, and they will be from many countries. I do stay in touch with many colleagues from the overseas life, and some former students. And you will meet and become friends with many local teachers and neighbors.
The world becomes your office
Another benefit is that you will be able to move from one school to another in a different country. You may have gone overseas expecting to do a two- year contract and come back home, but you also may find that you have a full career overseas. As a proven overseas teacher, or administrator, you will be able to move with some ease. My next step was Warsaw. The staff in The Hague could not understand that move, but I wanted a new challenge, and I got it.
There are, of course, some disadvantages. While the nuclear family will be close, the broader family may be half way around the world from you, with only brief opportunities for you to see them. You will miss weddings, births and funerals from that extended family. One of my teachers in Kuala Lumpur learned that her father was dying. We quickly granted a bereavement leave trip home, but when she landed in San Francisco she learned that her beloved father had passed away that day in upstate New York. At least she was able to attend his funeral.
You may have difficulty with medical care, although we always got what we needed. The benefits programs in international schools vary widely, and it is good to learn what they are before accepting employment. Many schools have bereavement leave, others do not. One boarding school gave teachers a contract which said they could have 28 free meals. They learned they were on “lunch or dinner duty” virtually every day! Another downside is that you may end up, as we did, having children who end up overseas. This is so common! Our oldest son has lived in Singapore for over 30 years, and we see him once a year if we are lucky. And as I write this in late 2020 we see him only on our weekly family Zoom. I know international educators whose grandchildren are thousands of miles away and seldom seen. This is one area where technology can help, but it is not the same as touching!
Some of you will miss the food and culture of your home country. I missed the sports, for instance. Since I retired in Connecticut I have become a huge fan of their women’s basketball team.
Recruiting for international schools has changed drastically since we used to come to at least three recruiting fairs and sometimes could wait until returning to our schools to choose candidates. Now there is a great deal more pressure to make quick offers and some schools are recruiting entirely on line, or at least are pre-screening candidates in preparation for the recruiting fair. And contracts are usually issued on the spot. Take it or leave it. To be regretted, I think.
The phenomenal growth of “international” schools is a huge factor. Many of these new schools are really national in terms of the student body, and are regarded as international because they teach in English. This may be a satisfying position for teachers new to the overseas scene, but others may find the lack of a true international character to be not what they had expected. I loved both the international community and the culture in which the school was established.
I consulted to international schools until just before my 83rd birthday. I have visited 99 countries and seen, up close, many schools. I must say that they get better and better, especially the non-profit, truly international ones. There is a tremendous opportunity to lead a special, fascinating and satisfying life in the world of international schools – and I would recommend it to anybody prepared to take a risk and look for both adventure and fulfilment.
Gail Schoppert is a lifetime international educator, school leader, leadership mentor, accreditation visitor and organiser of the world famous Foreign Administrators and Retirees Sport golf tournament, which brings old friends together each year in support of the Children of Haiti project.
Support Images with kind permission from ISKL, The American School of Warsaw, The American School of The Hague.