On day one of arriving in China I came face to face with one of the biggest prawns I’ve ever seen. Deep in the heart of a bustling Beijing fishmongers market, there it was, nestled in ice and only two foot away from the live toads who were quite content to mull over their future in their less than spacious fish tank. Lifeless as it was, this ‘large prawn experience’ reminded me of the reason why I’d had chosen to ‘up sticks’ and leave my teaching job in the UK and move overseas and, whilst you might be thinking that this is some kind of clumsy prawn-based metaphor, it’s not! Living in China gives you much better access to larger prawns than you might otherwise get in a supermarket in the UK. Stay with me on this.
Prawns (large) aside, there are, of course many reasons why teachers choose to live and work overseas but I have always pondered on whether teachers take the leap to leave the UK because they can’t hack it or whether they leave because they are compelled by the thought of a new challenge
A recent news report proffered that record numbers of teachers are now leaving the UK to teach overseas and that this number is set to grow due to, among other factors, the emerging middle classes of developing nations increasingly demanding western qualified teachers. I see it myself: more and more schools in China are opting to run their own international programme alongside their existing national provision. Whether they opt for an IB, A Level or AP curriculum offer, they need the right blend of western expertise to add authenticity to their curriculum formula. The best schools are offering some extremely competitive packages in order to find the right candidates. Add in 2 annual flights back home, fully furnished accommodation, tuition fees for the kids and an end of contract gratuity, not to mention global health care benefits for the family and suddenly there’s an offer on the table that is hard to resist – still not a prawn metaphor!
Then it’s the teaching experience itself. If you like your students to be obedient, with high aspirations and plenty of ability then that’s another tick in the ‘I want to leave the UK and teach in China’ box. But as my students say when starting the second para of their discussion essays, ’As we all know, every coin has 2 sides…’
Teachers leave their home country to set out on their new international path for many reasons. Let’s face it, it’s a huge leap of faith into the unknown and the drivers have to be pretty substantial to make you want to pack all your belongings up in a box, sell your car, rent out your house and prise your kids away from everything they hold dear. Parent: ‘It’s going to be really exciting, a huge adventure and you’ll make lots of new friends’ Teenage Son: ‘No it won’t, it’ll be crap and I hate Chinese food. Can I bring my Xbox?’
Teaching in the UK can be a hugely rewarding experience but the pressures are palpable and felt in all corners of the staffroom. The latest debacle between parents and Government over the testing of 6 year olds is just one illustration of how teachers are used as mere pawns (no pun intended) in a forever politicized education system. The overused phrase ‘education reform’ is now well and truly worn out to the extent that no policy stays still long enough from which future reform can be built. It’s like trying to put a layer of custard on an unset pot of jelly.
Then there’s the money – lack of. Living in the UK is expensive especially if you are a young teacher trying to cut it in the metropolis with its unfathomably high rents and boundless temptations and expense. Weekly disposable income is hard to come by once you’ve banked your salary, deducted the overheads and divided the remainder by 4. Add in the odd Friday night out, the frustratingly frequent boiler breakdown and the need for yet another appointment at the vets, then suddenly you’re up to your neck in it, scooping out your pot noodle with a credit card… again.
Of course, the lure of the overseas teaching post involves both the pull and push factors. Whether you’re pulled in by the pay and conditions and the sheer luxurious enchantment of giant prawns or pushed out by ‘the system’ will depend upon where you are with your life and the people you have around you. Personally speaking, having escaped the profession in the UK and spent the last six exhilarating years of my life in China, there is not a day goes by without me thinking back to that fateful, albeit fated, fish tank of contented toads.