The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Chris Fenton

We’re not going on a summer holiday

Working abroad conjures up images of sun, sea and sand but is it always what it seems? Headteacher Chris Fenton describes his experience of working abroad.

Living and working abroad isn’t a holiday, though when you look at some international education recruitment sites it’s difficult to make that distinction. There are a lot of companies that sell jobs on the romantic image of life in another country and all of the marketing tricks you would expect are capitalised on to encourage those willing to sign up for an ‘adventure.’

Who wouldn’t want to give up drizzle and gridlock for sunnier shores?

I know I did, and moved to the Middle East four years ago.

An adventure abroad

I love my job and life in the Middle East and my family and I enjoy our lifestyle very much. But I’ve been very lucky.

I say this because when I first ventured into the world of international education I bought into the ‘adventure’ offered by a recruitment agency that had a quota to fill and would do anything to do so.

It’s not the recruiters fault, they are just playing to market forces. These companies earn a lot of money from placing teachers in roles around the world. They will do everything in their power to entice teachers and school leaders to take the plunge but in doing so they also have a responsibility to ensure that their expatriate assets are well cared for once they arrive. 

Unfortunately this isn’t always the case and I can cite many examples of teachers who arrived with sunglasses and flip flops only to discover that all is not what was promised and teaching in a different culture can be very difficult indeed.

When I first made the venture into living and working abroad, I took on a role as a curriculum consultant at a start-up school in Abu Dhabi. I was ready to take the leap having worked as a head and educational advisor to North West LEAs for over 20 years. 

I was old enough to have the experience required to take on the role but also young enough to want to try something new.


In hindsight I should have figured out that something was a little awry when I consider the general speed of the appointment. I registered my interest and within a week I was being interviewed via Skype. 

The next day I got the offer and two weeks later I was on the plane, internally screaming as it took off that I had given up a perfectly good position and left my family behind.

When I was first approached by the recruitment agency, it was via LinkedIn and again in hindsight it was obvious that they had run a blanket sweep of anyone with enough educational experience to even give the job posting a second look. 

I can say with some confidence that the job I was offered was certainly not the job I walked into. Some of that may come down to naivety and some to a lack of research, but I can honestly say as I look back now and remember walking off the plane, experiencing the mid-summer Middle East heat for the first time, I was ill-prepared both psychologically and professionally for what I was about to experience.

Most importantly, as I was about to find out, there was no support from anywhere.

What does an international school inspection involve? Read what happened when El Limonar International School decided to convert to an official British school. 

A living hell

The next eight months were a living hell. I tried to apply my experience into a culture that wasn’t ready to accept it and was without doubt completely lost.

I missed my family, questioned my professional skills and lost any sense of focus that I might have had when I first made the decision to go.

The support I so readily needed was nowhere to be found. The agency that had turned over a nice return on my appointment was nowhere to be seen. Their abandonment was worse still, as I had used them to recruit other teachers to the school at the beginning of my contract, who were consequently looking to me for support. 

When the situation became completely untenable, I started looking for another international job and was determined to make it work. In starting my search I came across a small bespoke recruitment agency that seemed to know exactly what was required.  

The adventure continues

My experiences out there are not unique and even here in Bahrain, the same questionable practice of some international recruiters is still obvious.

What struck me was the fact that they didn’t simply farm teachers and school leaders out to any school that wanted them. They took time to match candidates to schools and made sure that the match would work both ways. 

They found my current role for me and I was fortunate to get the job after two gruelling interviews. I’ve been here for three years now with another contract about to be signed.

I’m not saying that it has all been easy but what made it easier was the support I received from the agency and new school that was so sorely lacking in Abu Dhabi.

My experiences out there are not unique and even here in Bahrain, the same questionable practice of some international recruiters is still obvious.

Now that I am in a position to recruit international teachers again, I have learned from experience that I am the person they look to for support when they first arrive and that is what I give, knowing from first-hand experience the damage that can be caused if it isn’t forthcoming.

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