from the UK,
Janice Ireland is an Early Years specialist originally from Swansea, Wales who was a teacher and a leader in international schools in Kuwait, Libya, Egypt and The Netherlands before returning to the United Kingdom.
“I only ever intended to give it a go for a year but it’s been nearly 15 years since I joined the world of international education!” says Janice.
As a result of teaching in such a wide variety of schools and working with a range of curricula and nationalities, Janice found that she gained skills that were highly valued back in the UK and which broadened her career potential. She now works on Curriculum and Professional Development for Fieldwork Education supporting schools throughout the UK and all over the world. “Teaching internationally literally changed my life and career beyond what I could ever have imagined,” she says. “My educational and personal horizons have been broadened and doors have opened that I didn’t know existed.” Here Janice answers some questions about teaching Early Years in international schools:
Question: In your experience, what are the significant differences between teaching Early Years in an international school compared to a UK state school?
Janice answers: I think for me, beginning with the similarities is the easiest way to answer this question. Early childhood is widely referred to as ages birth to eight years and many Early Years practitioners are qualified to teach either all of this age group, or a specific age range within these years. However in my experience, the differences between Early Years settings internationally compared to the UK lies mainly in the expectations teachers and parents have for this age range and the approaches that schools adopt in their learning and assessment policies.
We can see elements of these differences within the UK. For example, in England the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) spans up to age five, whilst in Wales the Early Years Foundation Phase includes children up to the age of seven. But internationally the differences can be even more wide ranging. Some countries have what many UK teachers would consider ‘informal’ education up to age eight.
One of the mistakes that Early Years teachers can make when they teach internationally for the first time is basing everything on what they did in their last school back home. Teachers need to remember that they are not in their own home country, and that the host country they are in is also the host country for parents and children who have many different educational experiences and expectations. For example, teachers may have to consider Early Years education through the eyes of a parent who has a child of six years of age who has never attended a full-time (or indeed any) school setting. At the other end of the spectrum, they may have parents with children of six years of age who have been in full-time education for three or more years. This can bring many challenges in all areas of early childhood social, emotional and cognitive development. But in my experience, it is very rewarding and professionally, this type of experience really helps teachers to see the big picture of what the Early Years should be all about – supporting individual needs appropriately.
Question: How easily would an experienced Early Years teacher from the UK be able to transition into the Early Years department of an international school and what are the skills/qualities that would effect this transition?
Janice answers: A lot depends on the teachers own mind-set, skill-set, personal qualities and how well they are able to embrace change and cultural differences. It’s no good arriving in a country and expecting it to be like ‘back home’ or wearing a tourist hat indefinitely. The new country will be your home, and the school and its community will be your family, so if you are able to think in these terms it will be much easier to adapt.
I would suggest that any teacher considering teaching internationally should do their homework about the country before they even consider applying to a school. The problems I’ve seen have been largely due to a teacher’s expectations on arrival. It’s normal to have some blips along the way and to endure little frustrations about visa regulations and work permits, but if you can keep an open mind and not let these initial challenges turn into negativity, then what lies ahead will be the best teaching experience you’re ever likely to have.
Question: What Early Years curricula tend to be used by international schools and how do they compare to the English National Curriculum?
Janice answers: There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer because it depends on what the expectations or outcomes are that guide the school in its curricular choice. Some schools will market themselves as ‘British’ schools and so, for them, having a British-style curriculum model is important and for others who market themselves as American or Australian schools, they would be guided by models from these particular countries.
Where there is more flexibility - which many International Schools have - they may develop their own curriculum model based broadly on one that’s recognised as being up-to-date such as the EYFS, or they may buy into a more internationally-oriented programme such as the International Primary Curriculum which is well respected and widely used internationally and provides teachers with a solid, adaptable framework to work from.
Question: How does an international Early Years classroom differ to one in the UK?
Janice answers: There can be huge variations from country to country which can be dependent on national expectations and also on the teachers’ own training, background and philosophy of education.
I’ve found that some classrooms mirror those you’d see in many UK schools, although in my experience I’ve either had far more resources or been challenged to create my own! However I’ve been in some Early Years settings which are not always, what I consider to be, conducive to individualised learning, play and and good practice. If you are considering a move to a school which is vastly different in its personal pedagogical approach to early childhood education, then you may still be able to make some changes, depending on the school’s vision, but you would be wise to make small subtle changes over time rather than arriving armed with new ideas and going in ‘all guns blazing’. This might not get you off to the best start and may jeopardise your chances of making any further changes at all! Take time to assess what’s right for the children and the school.
Question: Is there any evaluation/inspection criteria that a UK Early Years teacher can use to identify an international school with a good or outstanding Early Years department?
Janice answers: International schools can buy into the services of inspection teams, and more schools are moving in this direction because of their own quality assurance and school improvement plans.
Some international schools are bound by national criteria in order to get a licence to operate. For example, many schools in Europe and the Middle East need to apply to their national ministry of education before they can operate and have to tick very specific criteria boxes before a licence is granted.
It’s always a good idea to see if and when a school went through inspection, or gained a licence before accepting a post. If a licence for the school is pending then it may not be legally approved.
Question: What advice would you give to UK Early Years teachers considering teaching in an international school?
Janice answers: Do your homework about the school -
• How well established is it? If it’s a new school you’ll be given many exciting challenges, but this may not suit you if you’re expecting to work in a well-established and well-resourced school.
• Is it accredited? This may give you an idea of the standard of the school. This may or may not be that important to you.
• What are the nationalities and languages of the staff, parents and children in the school? If you’ve never taught English as a second language before and your class is 90% EAL, what support will you be given?
• Is professional development offered and is this on-site or are there opportunities to travel to conferences or sign-up for on-line PD?
• What are the working conditions, benefits and package like? Will you be able to live on the salary (especially if you have commitments to fund in your home country)?
Also do some research on living in the particular country. What is influencing your selection? It may be the location or the teaching opportunity that is more important to you than the monetary package. Will there be any restrictions on your lifestyle, behaviour or dress-code and if so, are you prepared to live to these expectations? If not it would be wise to look elsewhere. If you need a local Starbucks and exciting social activities on a Friday night then you’d be wise to think twice about a job with a good monetary package that’s in a remote location. However, if you do venture to more remote locations, in my experience you’ll have the best personal and professional development imaginable.
Question: Based on your own experiences, how do you think your international teaching helped to benefit your career?
Janice answers: I could write a book on my experiences in five different countries – I only ever intended to give international education a go for one year but it’s been nearly 15 years since I joined the world of international education! Teaching internationally has literally changed my life and career beyond what I could ever have imagined. My educational and personal horizons have been broadened and doors have opened that I didn’t know existed.
Question: Did you travel alone or were you with family and what impact did the experience have on them?
Janice answers: I knew I wanted to work in an international school and waited for what I thought was the right time with my children. Matthew, my son was in university at that time and Jessica, my daughter came with me and did her A levels in the same school as I worked. She absolutely loved it! Initially she didn’t want to go because of leaving her friends so we agreed she would do a three month trial and I would sign up for just a one year contract. Also, my school in Swansea was fantastic and gave me a one year secondment so that I could go back if I wanted. It all helped to make the move much easier. After completing her A levels Jessica, my daughter went to Sterling University in Scotland and I went to work in three other international schools; in Cairo for a year, then back to Kuwait to work in a different international school for two years, then to Libya for two years and finally to The Netherlands for three years before returning to Britain.
My international work has been the best thing that could have happened for us all, even for Matthew who never actually lived abroad with me, because we spent quality time when we were together. Both Matthew and Jessica are much more internationally-minded because of it too. They have both travelled more extensively as a result and experienced different countries not just from the perspective of a holiday-maker but from us actually living there. For me it’s opened up so many new doors and changed me a lot as a person. One thing I have noticed since being back home, is that I really miss living and working around people from different cultures. A multi-cultural work environment opens your mind up to so many other possible ways of viewing situations, of considering the individual needs and situations of others, and of valuing differences.
Question: What was it like living and working as a single woman in these countries?
Janice answers: As a single woman it was fine wherever I went although in Kuwait there were some initial problems around being a single mother and it took longer than usual to get my work permit as it wasn’t the norm. ! For me as a single working woman I cannot even compare the differences to life back home in Swansea and the challenging and rewarding situations I’ve been faced with abroad. I learnt how to stand up for myself. It’s been a really good thing for me. There were big expat populations in most places I lived and you do build up a big network of friends with your teaching colleagues. In both schools in Kuwait (the Kuwait English School and then the British School of Kuwait) the school populations were very big – both schools had over 2,000 children! So there was an enormous staff who were there to support you and share experiences with you. The sharing of experiences was excellent, not only from a social point of view but also in terms of sharing different teaching and learning styles and best practice. There were always lots of activities and social events organised and there was a great community feel – the school does become your family.
Libya was very different to Kuwait; a completely different school with just 65 children so a very big transition from the huge schools of Kuwait. There were just 4 teachers in Libya and I taught a class of just 15 children. It was like working with a small family. The opportunities to travel in Libya were amazing; especially being able to go to places that tourists don’t go. I’ve never had such amazing opportunities, for example camping trips into the Sahara. On one occasion I went with the Tuareg tribesmen out to the desert for six days without any other contact with human beings. It was incredible. I would never have had thought about doing things like this before going to work overseas; the whole experience has given me so much more confidence and a willingness to take risks. You take on a new, much more adventurous approach to life because you know you can always go back to the old life back home.
My final international teaching job was at the International School of the Hague as Head of Lower School. ISH is a very respected international school and this was an excellent move for me. I made many lifelong friends there. I worked with children from over 75 different nationalities, many of whom didn’t speak English as a first language and the staff was completely international; the teachers came from all over the world.
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