Top 5 things I wish I’d known before getting into international education (as a spouse)

After a couple of years on the circuit, here’s my list of things I wish I’d known before we started living and working in an international school environment.

1. There is no perfect school

When searching for the right school, you’re looking for a school that’s:

  • great for your spouse’s career
  • is located in a family-friendly location
  • pays well so you can save and travel 
  • offers an excellent education for your kids.

As many people within the international circuit put it, you’re looking for a unicorn! 

You’ll undoubtedly have to make some compromises, so it’s crucial to think about the non-negotiables for you and your family before deciding on the right school. For example, it’s one thing to acknowledge your kid will be the only expat in their class or even year level, but find out what the culture is like at the school to make sure they don’t end up isolated or excluded. 

2. Making friends with other parents can be challenging

The schools we’ve experienced so far have been predominantly made up of local kids, making friends outside the expat bubble a little challenging. In most schools, you’re dealing with the upper society of the local community. In many cases, they’ll have established tight-knit friendship groups, which can be hard to break into, particularly with language barriers. 

In some cases, they can also consider teachers as the ‘help’ and are just not interested in getting to know you or your family. While this isn’t the case at every school, it’s certainly something to consider. You may need to be proactive and brush up on your language skills if you’re looking to establish friendships with local families.

3. You have no real role in the school

Well, this one is pretty obvious! However, your role in the school as a spouse is a little strange. You have no ‘authority’ to contact the school for questions or raise any issues, even though it impacts your life. If you’re proactive like many people are, you’ll make contact anyway, but it can make your spouse feel uncomfortable, given they’re the one with the contract. If you’re a bit of a control freak, like me, you may feel a little uneasy about this arrangement!

Also, getting involved in school activities is initially done via your spouse. And while many schools offer community activities for new joiners, a lot are tailored to younger staff rather than families. As with most things in life however, how involved you get in the school community entirely depends on your personality and how much you put yourself out there.

4. Have a plan for yourself

Before we first left Australia, I had grand visions of what my days would look like when we moved to Lima, Peru. I envisaged me and my son visiting cafes and hitting up the local markets, before heading to the park to meet other families. Three weeks in Covid hit, so there went those plans! But realistically, after 12 months I’d have been pulling my hair out. 

It’s hard to plan when you’re unsure of your opportunities in a new country. Make sure you think about what you want out of the experience. Consider your skills and expertise to work out if there is likely to be any work available for you, and do some research ahead of time. Consider volunteering or study options if you think it will be hard to find work, or look for opportunities for remote work online.

5. The community is small

International school communities can be SMALL… particularly if you live on campus or in school accommodation where other teachers and parents of students all live. It can feel like you’re living in a bubble. Depending on your personality, you may love this, or you may find yourself looking for alternative accommodation pretty quickly to maintain your anonymity! 

Knowing what you want out of the experience is essential, as you can easily get swept up in a school community. Every school is unique, and with Covid-19, there are many schools where people have spent more time than initially intended, which has obviously impacted their experience. Take their comments with a grain of salt when you first start and try to form your own opinions‌.