***Disclaimer: This is my personal interpretation of my husband’s experience. I cannot pretend to be representative of others’ experiences. We are in no way trying to put forth a complete picture of the school we work at nor international schools in general.
Joe has worked in three public elementary schools in Washington State, before taking the cross-Atlantic leap to come teach at an international school in Ulm, Germany. Here are some of the differences we’ve noticed:
The pay & cost of living: We are not making a ton of money, but surviving as a family of four on a single salary is much more feasible now than in America.
The class size: Joe currently has 15 students, compared to 22-26 in his US public school classrooms. Some of his colleagues have as few as 8 students in their classes. It really changes how much attention teachers can give each student when the class sizes are so much smaller. The classes at his international school go on a lot of field trips each year, which is much more possible when you don’t have as many students to shepherd around.
The gender ratio: Sometimes at American public schools, Joe was the only male teacher other than a PE teacher and a janitor. Now it’s much closer to 50/50. I believe this to be both a recruitment tactic on the part of the school and also a symptom of the fact that men are more likely to move internationally for their careers. While women certainly do, it’s harder for a woman to be assertive and ambitious even today. And when they have families, I do believe women are less likely to ask their husbands to quit their jobs so that they can move for their own career opportunities.
Parental involvement: Because international schools are elective, they operate much like private schools. Since Sam’s tuition is free for us, we are not exactly sure of the sum the other students are paying, but we saw one figure that looked quite high. Many of the parents in Joe’s classroom own their own businesses or work for high-profile companies. Thusly, they often have more flexibility to come to parent night (Joe’s attendance rate was nearly 100%) and invest time and money in their children’s education. That is quite a difference from some of the low-income classrooms in which Joe has taught, where parents struggled to keep their kids clothed and fed, and often didn’t have a chance to help with school because they were working multiple jobs or caring for multiple children at home.
Discipline: Where we come from, I feel that there was a very clear disciplinary process. Students and parents understood that if they were overly violent or disruptive toward other students that the punishment would progress from small consequences to eventual expulsion for serious offenses. I worry that with high tuitions being collected, the international school is afraid to expel a student because that would mean so much money lost. So they try to deal as best they can without that ultimate punishment. This can make for a tense situation because teachers and other parents in the classroom feel somewhat powerless to provide a good learning environment for the other affected students in the class.
Overall, we’ve had a very good experience so far. It’s a steep learning curve for Joe to be immersed in an entirely new curriculum, but his colleagues have been very supportive. I’m amazed to witness how collaborative the teachers have become, given that many of them are new arrivals at the school this year. It’s been good to have a contrast to the American public school way of doing things, and I think this will make Joe a stronger teacher in the long run.