What is an international school?

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One of the inevitable questions you get asked when you are travelling for an extended period is, “What do you do?”

When I answer I’m an international school teacher in Singapore, most people assume that I’m teaching English as a Foreign Language to Singaporeans at a language school. I have taught English, both in a language school and a public school in Korea, but that is worlds away from the world of international schools.

In continuation of my So you’re thinking about teaching internationally… series in this post I will outline the world of international schools.

So what is an international school?

International schools are private schools that operate overseas to serve the needs of expatiate business people and diplomats. The older and more established schools tend to be non-profits and there significant numbers of for-profit schools out there. There is at least one international school in each of the major cities around the world. Cities with large expatriate populations have large numbers of international schools. However international schools can also operate in remote areas as well.

What do you teach in international schools?

Basically what you would teach ‘back home.’  The language of instruction is usually English, but you can also find schools who offer instruction in different languages in the bigger cities. International schools usually follow a curriculum from another country; Britain, America, Canada and Australia are the common systems for English-medium schools.

Often you can tell what country a particular school follows by the school’s name – (like Shanghai American School) however others might not be so clear. Some schools choose to have a mix of national curricula to meet the needs of their students. Many international schools International Baccalaureate programme, which consists of the IB Primary Years Program, IB Middle Years Program and the IB Diploma Program.

To add to the mix there are also private schools, primarily in the United Kingdom, setting up campuses in different countries.

Where are the kids from?

International schools often start enrolment at preschool (3 years old) right up to the end of high school (18 years old). The students come from a diverse range of countries, the ‘where are you from’ question can be difficult for many children attending international schools to answer. There are often children from the host country in international schools however in some countries, such as Singapore, domestic students are not able to enrol without special permission. In some countries schools might be labelled as “international” to attract native-English speaking teachers however the student body is made up almost exclusively of students from that country. The only way to find out about the make up of the student body is to ask!

Who works in international schools?

There’s a huge mix of ages and nationalities in international schools.Teachers in English-medium international schools are generally from English-speaking countries but not all staff will be. There is a mix of highly experienced teachers, mid career and some new to teaching (though in general most schools will be looking for teachers will at least a few years of experience). Some teachers will teach internationally for a few years, others become ‘lifers’ bouncing from country to country every few years.

What are the benefits of working in an international school?

For me it’s always been a sense of adventure that has drawn me overseas. Living in Singapore has enabled to rack up a ridiculous amount of travel around Asia. The other attraction is the diversity in the school. My colleagues as well as the kids I teach come from different countries bringing with them new languages and culture which forever enriches my life.

The other benefits of working in an international school are:

  • Fantastic opportunities for ongoing professional development
  • Small class size
  • Highly engaged parent community
  • Great resources in terms of technology and teaching supplies
  • Free tuition for children.
  • Salaries are generally higher than ‘back home.’ International schools benefits include annual flights home, comprehensive health insurance, a shipping allowance and cost of living allowance. Benefits depend on the location and the individual school.

The benefits come with very high expectations from school leadership, parents and the kids themselves. However international schools also offer fantastic support to help you focus on being the best teacher you can be.

3 thoughts on “What is an international school?

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  1. I work in a special education classroom at an IB school. However, I do not understand all the aspects of the IB programme, perhaps because my training’s are different from the regular education teachers. Do you consider IB schools in the USA to be the same as international schools? Other IB schools I have been involved in had a more global focus in the curriculum and international schools in other countries seemed to be preparing students for post-secondary education in a different country. I have not yet seen this at my current school.


    1. Hi there
      I have no idea about how schools in the US function as I haven’t taught there. International mindness is a goal of the IB – so a question for you. How could you develop that in your students?



      1. I work a lot on developing perspective in my students. How do you feel about this? How might someone else feel? How might yet another person feel?

        I also consider current events on a global level. We don’t just read US articles. We read the articles from the country of the event, too. (In translation if necessary)

        In 6th grade we do units on tolerance and courage and work a lot on learning about different cultures and histories. I do a human rights unit and an environment unit with my 7th graders that we work hard to see global issues within, but my 8th graders don’t have any special unit.


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