International Children’s Day

Every year, 1st June marks International Children’s Day – a universal festival for children and a day for reflection on the rights and welfare of children around the world.

This day was first proclaimed by the World Conference for the Well-being of Children in 1925.

International Children’s Day celebrations around the globe can range from Victorian-themed entertainment days for the whole family in the UK to China’s annual galas bringing together hundreds of young children to sing and dance.

I recently discovered that in Dubai students from a selection of international schools hold spectacular artistic folklore performances each year to celebrate the occasion.

children-around-globeYonca Tokbaş, a Turkish expat living and teaching in Dubai for 14 years, has made it her mission to organise such celebrations engaging many international schools and performance groups of different countries in Dubai over the past five years – reaching an audience of nearly 4,000 including more than 800 children. Below, she explains why International Children’s Day is so important:

“Seeing the diversity of nationalities watching the celebrations, I strongly believe that children are both a cultural envoy and a representative of friendship, understanding and the ambassadors of peace that the world needs more than ever nowadays.”

For international teachers in particular, International Children’s Day offers a unique opportunity not only to celebrate the cultural diversity of the various nationalities of their pupils, but also to promote an understanding of the the universal rights of the child.

Below is a round up of five key themes / resources you can explore with your class all year round:


Children’s Rights

Human rights



Written by Nneka Chukwurah, former Teacherhorizons blog editor. Now she works at vInspired - a digital platform that enables young people to take action on causes they care about.

What do international schools look for in a teacher?

Carlsberg beer runs eye-catching TV ads showing superhuman versions of ordinary things. What if Carlsberg made a Superteacher?

A perfect body in skin-tight lycra, bright red T for Teacher in front, turning out heroically brilliant kids with just a swirl of a cape? Maybe not.

Teaching is arguably the hardest career to perfect, partly because it requires such a wide skill set. To be a truly superb teacher, you surely need to be a completely well-rounded person, not just a star at climbing skyscrapers.

alexisIn this blog post Alexis Toye, Co-Founder of Teacherhorizons, takes a look at what might make the perfect teacher. Not a science by any means, but Teacherhorizons’ experience of recruiting a large number of teachers for international schools entails judging the calibre of an applicant on an hourly basis. I hope this gives you an insight into what we are looking for when we assess teachers, and what the best international schools demand.

What personal qualities does a teacher need?

When working in the assessment team at TeachFirst, the British government’s highly successful graduate recruitment programme, we used to assess teachers based on 8 competencies, and I was always a big fan of this system.

The 8 competencies were: HRE (Humility, Respect and Empathy), Planning & organising, Resilience, Problem solving, Interaction (with peers, students and parents), Self evaluation, Knowledge and Leadership. I’d like to add two more highly personal qualities: adaptability and an international mind-set. As the world becomes smaller and more multi-cultural, being able to relate and respect different cultures is increasingly important.

Ideally, a teacher would have all of these 10 competencies in equal measure. I don’t believe that any one is more important than another. And none of them are just natural-born traits. You can work at them and improve on every one of these competencies.

Which qualifications does a teacher need?

I have always felt that a teacher should always have been educated to at least one level higher than the students in the subject they are teaching. Whilst it is possible to learn the content prior to the lesson and deliver a decent result, that teacher will never be able to answer all those “why” questions that students love to ask, which make for an interesting and memorable experience. There are only so many times you can get away with telling them to go ‘Google’ it.

Whilst our Superteacher would ideally be both an expert in their field and be passionate about it, it is the latter that makes the real difference. So, our Superteacher loves their subject (s) and is deeply passionate about sharing them. Would our Superteacher have a university degree in education? Given that we have discussed the importance of being well rounded, I would argue no. I think it would be better to do a degree in the subject you love (ideally with a secondary subject for breadth!) and then do a Masters in Education at a later date, having gained some experience. Our superteacher would also, ideally, have a teaching qualification from a country that is at the forefront of education.

How can a teacher develop professionally?

When concocting the perfect teacher in the test tube, I’d add a big dose of continual learning. One of my criticisms of teacher training in the UK is that whilst the initial training teachers undergo is excellent, continuous training is much more limited. When we compare British teachers CVs to American or Australian CVs there’s a very clear gap in the number of courses, conferences and professional development opportunities UK teachers have undertaken compared to their overseas counterparts. Australia appears to be investing heavily in their teachers’ professional development throughout their career. You are never too busy to stop learning!

Whilst courses are useful, the biggest professional development comes from observing other teachers. Our Superteacher regularly takes time out to watch and listen to others teaching, across a variety of different subjects and age ranges, using it to reflect on their own methods and improve.

Our Superteacher has a career coach and this is something I wish more teachers had. Planning a fulfilling and stimulating career is so important and too many teachers just find themselves in positions where they are not well suited. Our Superteacher has spent between 3-5 years in each school learning from the strengths and weaknesses of each, and actively implements skills they have picked up along the way.

What previous experience should a teacher have?

Having experience of teaching across different curricula adds huge value. Teachers who have experience of teaching a national curriculum plus the International Baccalaureate (IB) rate highly in terms of what we look for in a CV. Teaching international curricula such as the IB adds huge value to a teacher’s international mindedness. Choosing the right schools to work for enhances the value of that experience even more. Our Superteacher carries out tonnes of research into a school and position before accepting to ensure that is a match for them, both in terms of next steps but also whether the school’s values match their own.

Does our Superteacher need to have risen into the ranks of senior leadership? No – our Superteacher has chosen the career path that ensures their skill set and interests contributes the greatest benefit for their students. We’ve met many truly inspiring teachers who have made the decision to not move into leadership positions because their true enjoyment (and skill) lies in teaching, interacting with students as much as possible.

What should a teacher do outside the classroom?

It is important to note that our Superteacher doesn’t teach from 8 until 4 and then go home. Of course, they do all their marking and planning to the highest and most time-effective standard but they also get actively involved in extra-curricular activities, not only with their students but in their own world too. Our Superteacher can regularly be seen supporting their students at basketball matches, attending a student debate or leading weekend camping expeditions.

Staying physically and mentally active is important in any profession and our Superteacher loves to take up new pursuits, going outside of their comfort zone from time to time. Finally, our Superteacher also knows how to relax, taking proper holidays (one of the joys of the teaching profession!) and time out at weekends.

Concluding thoughts

Does the above description sound like you? I thought so! The perfect teacher is a well-rounded individual who is passionate about working with children, is able to reflect on their practice continuously, and works hard to improve on areas they find challenging.

You can take off the cape now, thank you.

For more advice on job hunting, see our related posts on how to write your international school CV, and how to win at Skype interviews.


Written by Alexis Toye, Director of Operation and Finance at Teacherhorizons. Former IB school teacher and IB Coordinator at Oporto British School and Westminster Academy.

A home from home in Istanbul at The Koç School

Istanbul is a vibrant city that spans two continents, and yet has its own identity with a unique mix of both European and Middle eastern cultures.


Michael Oosterhout is a Maths teacher living in Istanbul, Turkey. After having taught in Botswana, Lesotho and China, Turkey is the next stage of his desire to meet and learn from different cultures.

On the outskirts of this immense city lies the Koç school, one of the country’s most prestigious schools and a school that can afford to select the best students from around the country. This is where my wife Karin and I are working.

A warm welcome

As soon as we arrived at the school, we felt at home! The very professional support staff that helped us through the initial paperwork also gave us a good impression of what to expect at the school, including a 3D view of our house, so when we got there we already knew it! And the first week an extensive programme was organised to help us with settling in at school and in Istanbul.

Getting around

There were a few things to get used to, though. Most importantly is that the school lies on a very isolated campus. And it is difficult to get off campus if you don’t have a car (like most of the expat staff). Public transport and taxis are available, but it takes a lot of time or money to get you into the centre of town. Therefore, during weekdays after school and at weekends, the school organises free bus services that take you to a shopping mall or to some popular centres of Istanbul, giving you many opportunities to explore the city.

Social life

It also means that the social life of most of the expat teachers centres around the school campus. Therefore, many activities are being organised by the school or the staff themselves. The school has quite a few facilities such as a gym, swimming pool, sports grounds, and its own music band!

A quick look at the map also shows that the school is very near an airport. Yes, planes fly over pretty low but fortunately this is not constant, and you soon get used to it.

All in all, the school have made a tremendous effort to make us feel at home and to make life as an expat teacher as comfortable as possible.

If all that sounds like your cup of tea, sign up to browse our schools and vacancies in Turkey. To get the lowdown on the cost of living, visa requirements and other essential information, see Expat Arrivals.

Written by Michael Oosterhout, a maths teacher living in Istanbul, Turkey.

Ten top tips to teaching abroad! (part 2)

Competition for teaching roles at the popular international schools is tough. But it’s still possible – the key is your approach!

Last week, Alex shared the first five of his ten top tips for getting your dream job. Read on to discover the next five…

Alex Reynolds is Co-Founder of Teacherhorizons and has taught and led education projects in the UK, Portugal, Nepal, Canada, Uganda and the United States.

6. To marry or not to marry?!

Teaching couples can sometimes struggle to be recruited – it’s tricky to find schools that have the right pair of vacancies at the same time. Even if they have the vacancies, you both need to be the best candidates – tough when there are hundreds of applicants per position. On the plus side, many schools value teaching couples as they tend to stay longer. To increase your chances, be as flexible as possible. One strategy is for one person to accept a position and then their partner to apply for one later when the right position arises. It’s worth discussing this at interview from the outset. Alternatively, look for big cities such as Shanghai where there are lots of international schools, as there’s a greater likelihood of vacancies for your partner at other schools.


7. Fix up, look sharp, get serious

First impressions really do matter whether it’s the photo you choose for your profile or your first email to a school or your Teacherhorizons Adviser. Make sure you write in proper English and your CV is neatly laid out. If you have a Skype interview, look smart, test the video quality, set up good front lighting and a plain background. Don’t leave your pants drying on a washing line behind you.

8. The EQ test

Principals are busy and have thousands of things to do every day. If they’re not busy, you probably don’t want to work at their school. Whilst you are important, you may move down their priority list if something urgent comes up (which very often does…). So think again before writing them off because they can’t find your Skype address even when you’ve sent it three times! Positivity and enthusiasm will get you a long way.


9. Your rep in the global village

Even though it spans the world, the international school community is a small one and you will come across people over and over again (whether you like it or not!). This can be a fantastic way of networking and building relationships but can be tricky too. Remember that your reputation precedes you so don’t burn bridges by being indecisive or breaking contracts. Be good to your future self!

10. Be brave!

The idea of moving overseas is both exciting and daunting. It’s not easy to say goodbye to friends, family and a life you are familiar with and head off into the unknown. Teaching abroad is an amazing experience you will remember for the rest of your life. You will learn a huge amount both professionally and personally. But it’s also important to realise there will be all kinds of challenges – these are all part of the journey! In my experience, it’s the teachers that are ready for these and thoroughly embrace them who get the most out of international teaching, and have the most enriching experience.


Written by Alex Reynolds, founding partner and Director of Communications at Teacherhorizons.

Ten top tips to teaching abroad!

Are you looking for a school with an excellent reputation, in a sunny country where you can make life-long friendships?

Would you like to work under an experienced, supportive, senior management team who believe in investing in their staff?

And a decent package would be preferable – enough to enjoy a good quality of life and save a fair bit?

If this sounds appealing, you’re not alone! Many teachers are looking for the same things and competition at the popular schools is tough. But it’s still possible – the key is your approach!


Alex Reynolds is Co-Founder of Teacherhorizons and has taught and led education projects in the UK, Portugal, Nepal, Canada, Uganda and the United States.

Since I set up Teacherhorizons I have spoken to hundreds of teachers from all over the world. For many it’s the first time they’ve looked into teaching overseas and they know little about the realities of the sector. I often get emails saying something like this:

“I’m only interested in schools in the south of Spain near the sea with a salary over 47,000 Euros and the housing needs to have a garden so I can bring my 3 dogs over… oh, and the school must pay for my dogs’ visas.”

Often, questions are recurring and I regularly repeat certain advice. So I thought it might be helpful to share the ten pieces of advice I share most frequently (in no particular order).

In this post, I’ll be sharing the first five of my ten top tips for getting your dream job…

1. Stay ahead of the game

Many good schools (particularly in Asia) start recruiting in October for the following September. If you’re serious, make sure your CV, profile and references are up-to-date and proof read by then. Speak to your Recruitment Adviser, discuss your options and have a list of questions ready.

2. Navigate your route to your dream job

plan-plan-planInternational schools are competitive so regardless of how good a teacher you are, it’s unlikely you’ll walk straight into your dream job on your first move overseas. You need to be strategic. A good approach is to ask yourself where you want to be in five years. Then you need to plan your steps to get there, making some sacrifices (money, location, school type) along the way. It’s a series of stepping stones, each position adding personal value, building your skills and experience and taking you a step closer to your goal.

3. Integrity – it’s a two-way thing

One of our core values at Teacherhorizons is transparency. We believe that teachers (and schools) make better decisions when both parties are well informed. Too many bad decisions have been made by ill informed teachers dealing with dodgy agencies and this can ruin lives! We expect our candidates to behave in the same way. If you have reservations about a job, tell your Adviser or share it with the Principal during your Skype interview. Yes, in some cases, it might mean you don’t get the job but far better than being sent home a month into your contract!

4. The ‘Golden IB ticket’ to wherever

Many international schools are looking for teachers with IB experience – which can be tricky for teachers to get. For many it’s a Catch 22 situation – you need IB experience to get the job but you need the job to get IB experience! There are a number of ways to overcome this obstacle:

  • apply for IB jobs at schools in less desirable locations (or offering lower salaries) to get the initial experience
  • be very flexible – accept a ‘last-minute’ or ‘cover’ position at an IB school and then blow their socks off with your awesomeness until they beg you to stay on
  • DIY – do everything you can to learn about the IB – read all about it, speak to teachers, take an online course, volunteer to teach IB at a local IB school. 
The above will all help you get that crucial advantage over other candidates and will open all kinds of doors for you in the future.

5. Get out there, be everywhere

To maximise your chances of finding and securing the right job, you should search widely and maximise your reach. Read blogs, follow social media pages, check jobs boards, get email updates, try recruitment fairs (although these can be costly) and speak to friends and colleagues who’ve been through it themselves. Different approaches work for different people and whilst I’m 100% sure Teacherhorizons is the best way, others may prefer a more ‘old school’ 20th century approach.

Read on for part 2 of my top ten tips.

Written by Alex Reynolds, founding partner and Director of Communications at Teacherhorizons.

Adventures in Pokhara, Nepal

The flight to Pokhara is short, about 35-40 minutes, and passes parallel to the Himalayas. Imagine flying below the peaks both ways! Quite simply, this was the most spectacular flight of my life. Be sure to get window seats!

ron-ross-with-bikeWe return for part two of Ron’s travels through Nepal. Last week we shared his experience of Kathmandu. Ron Ross is an international teacher working in Kurdistan, Iraq in the peaceful province of Erbil – a city rapidly approaching a population of two million.

After a week in Kathmandu I went to the resort town of Pokhara, which I highly recommend for its beauty and its outdoor adventures. I visited just over a year after a major knee operation and didn’t yet feel confident about one of the major treks, but they are certainly available. The most popular seems to be the Annapurna Trek, which can be anything from a week long to twenty days. It’s a trek of remarkable beauty and requires a fair degree of fitness for the altitude and mileage, but no technical climbing skills. In both Kathmandu and Pokhara you’ll see dozens of travel shops catering to trekkers and climbers, besides the rafting, paragliding and mountain bike tours. I chose four all-day micro adventures that would not stress my knee too badly – I’d like to share two of these with you.


My first was a hike outside Kathmandu that climaxed on top of what amounts to a hill in the Himalayas looking down over the city – though said ‘hill’ would surely count as a mountain in most other places! I had my own guide on this climb. The taxi driver coordinated with him by mobile to get me to his house at the foothills in a smallish village where his wife had breakfast and lots of strong coffee waiting for me. We sat with his wife and two kids as he pulled out a crude map and pointed out our adventure for the day.

The climb took us through some small villages where the people are working the terraced fields and cattle are roaming around, dogs and children run up to greet you as you pass through. Really charming. Some seemed to know my guide and he pulled from his daypack a bag of hard candies to pass out to the kids. I found this guide through the agency attached to the hotel I was staying at and the prices are negotiable, so check around and don’t feel bad making an offer at least 20% less than what they’re quoting you (as a foreigner). I returned that evening beat and exhausted , despite my knee I’m a fit guy, and went straight to bed and slept the night through. Well worth the effort!


Mountain biking

My next micro adventure was mountain biking. Due to all the spin classes I had been doing, besides my experiences living and riding at 3,000 meters in the Peruvian Andes between 2008-2012, I was feeling adventurous and picked the ‘difficult’ course. I ended up the only rider with a special guide who had to come and take me on it. Difficult it certainly was! I think I actually carried the bike about 25-30% of the time. Brutal! And the downhills, wow… real white-knucklers! But it was beautiful and scenic and well worth the challenge. At the end of the day, again, I was just the right kind of exhausted.

I recommend Pokhara Mountain Bike Adventure at the end of Lakeside. They have an excellent selection of bikes, well maintained and they’ve invested in good, quality fat tube mountain bikes with the good components to make your ride enjoyable. They have many courses to choose from – I wouldn’t recommend ‘difficult’ unless you’re very fit and have some experience going downhill in difficult terrain. Their menu includes altitude and incline graphs with photos to help you choose the best course for you. It’s a great way to get out and around Pokhara and take in some wonderful scenery.

On the days I wasn’t doing a micro adventure I was on a scooter for $5 a day cruising around town, getting to the backside where no tourists are and getting off the scooter to walk those neighborhoods and linear street markets. Very interesting. It was really nice and relaxing to sit outside at a Lakeside coffee shop slowly sipping coffee and reading, occasionally setting the Kindle down to watch the rowers on the lake or the break-dancers across the way, or the Tibetan ladies plying their wares.

Where to stay

Pokhara is a resort town and you’ll want a hotel off ‘Lakeside’ street in front of Fewa Lake. You’ll find whatever your price range is there. Again, I paid less than $20 for what little I needed and was comfortable and spoiled by the staff. Pokhara has a very different feel to Kathmandu, besides being miniscule in comparison. You’ll enjoy one or the other more, of course, depending on your personality. I liked Kathmandu a lot, but next time I’ll spend more of my time in Pokhara.

Unlike the street mazes of Kathmandu, Pokhara has one main street of shopping, restaurants and coffee shops, and this is Lakeside, and the street from the first shop to the last probably stretches just over a mile. Pokhara has more of a family atmosphere, and you’ll see more families there compared to Kathmandu. The shops in Pokhara are a little more upscale, as are the hotels, restaurants and coffee shops. Down on the lake you can rent small rowboats either on your own or pay someone to row for you. It’s a smallish but beautiful lake with its shores full of vegetation and gorgeous scenery.


The ever-present beautifully shaped peak of Mount Machhapuchhre at nearly 7,000 metres high is visible from wherever you look. On the Lakeside street central frontal that takes you down to the lake is a wide park-like area where you’ll find scooter and bike rentals, break-dancers performing, Tibetan refugee ladies selling their handmade jewellery, couples sitting under trees overlooking the lake, etc. It’s a nice spot to hang out and watch the world go by.

Pokhara is quiet and peaceful and without the hundreds of tourists and venders catering to them that you will have in Kathmandu. Both are very cool in their different ways, but Pokhara was the highlight of my Nepal trip. I plan to visit Nepal again for the long Annapurna trek, but Pokhara will be where I hang out when I am done with that. Whatever you choose, you won’t be disappointed in Nepal.

Have you taken a great trip during the school holidays? Why not tell us about it and have your story featured here.

Written by Ron Ross, an international teacher working in Erbil – a province of Kurdistan, Iraq.

A memorable journey through Nepal

Namaste! You’ll hear a lot of that common greeting from the locals in Nepal, one of my favorite vacations during my many years of teaching overseas.


Ron Ross is an international teacher working in Erbil – a province of Kurdistan, Iraq, about 200 miles or so north of Baghdad. Sounds crazy, right? Nope. In fact, Erbil is a peaceful, safe and interesting city rapidly approaching a population of two million, with all the business and employment opportunities flooding this capital of Kurdistan Iraq.

While chaos and violence may be happening relatively close to the south, the vibrant city of Erbil clicks along as if in a completely different country – as many Kurds think of it. One of the best features of working here is the longer vacation period my school, Ihsan Dogramaci Bilkent Erbil College, has during the academic year. Erbil’s new international airport has also brought really affordable travel opportunities to the area. Being an adventure kind of guy, for one of my vacations I chose to travel to Nepal – I’d like to share some highlights of my trip for you here.

Discovering Nepal

Of course you’ll land in Kathmandu and want to stay a while. This was for me a three-week break in March, and the weather in Nepal in March is simply perfect. I spent my first week in the heart of Kathmandu; an alluring and enchanting place to just walk the maze of streets, dip into coffee shops, restaurants and shops and generally take in the flavors of the city. As well as the friendly people, local foods, street markets, old architecture, and overall energy of it all.

There are a lot of tourists in the centre of town and the ubiquitous, but interesting, street vendors that cater to them. Many of the tourists are young dreadlocked backpackers carrying all their belongings with them, but you will also see some fit 30 to middle aged grizzled gentleman who are obviously there for the climbing. March is the beginning of the climbing and trekking season so you’ll see some serious dudes inside the Alpine shops at that time. Everest isn’t the only peak these folks are going for.


Prices are incredibly cheap in Kathmandu. When I’m traveling alone all I need as far as a hotel is a comfortable bed with clean sheets, a hot shower and cable TV. I paid less than $20 US for a decent place in the center of Kathmandu. I could have gone down to $10 for this, and in the $35-40 range really spoiled myself! The restaurants and foods are delicious and unique, the street foods clean, cheap, safe and tasty, and though you won’t find any Western chains or fast food in the centre, you can find some restaurants with foreign themes like Italian, Chinese, and Mexican. I’m a coffee guy and the local coffee shops are comfortable and open-air with a wide selection of coffees. I like the common coffee you get here that comes to you in threes: hot water, hot strong black coffee, and hot milk for you mix them to your own taste.

Going off the beaten track

You can walk for miles away from the tourist centre of town and get into the real nitty-gritty of Kathmandu. As I was the only one walking around so far from the centre, from what I could see, I found myself eyeballed and even approached by children who I imagine had only had very little contact with Westerners. No chance of an English speaker out here, and no street vendors either, but instead a real look at Kathmandu neighborhood life. Be sure to take the business card of your hotel for a taxi if you get lost, which is not hard to do considering the maze of streets and no apparent signage for them!

Read part 2 of Ron’s travels through Nepal…

Have you taken a memorable trip during your school holidays? Share your story with us! Leave a comment or email the editor to write a guest post.

Written by Ron Ross, an international teacher working in Erbil – a province of Kurdistan, Iraq.

Teaching all the way through – why lessons need ‘practical elements’ too

There are many reasons why students require practical knowledge and practice rather than theory only, such as the need to build on real life careers and better understanding and absorption of the curriculum.


Janet Adams holds a Master of Science in Education from DeVry University. She is experienced in assisting students with their academic studies, which she does through a professional writing company. For more info on accessing Janet’s academic support services, you can visit

Alongside data and study materials, some subjects like biology, chemistry, botany, architecture, and accounting, for example, have a practical bias and empirical influence.
Indeed, I believe practical knowledge and experiences are much more interesting and long lasting compared with theory studies for the following reasons:

1. Real life retention is better than classroom theory dispensations – we can spend weeks studying the climate in a neighbouring country and yet not get the hang of it. However, if we happen to visit this country and stay there for some time, then we gain first hand practical knowledge, understanding and insight about that country’s climate. This stays longer and fresher in our minds much more than any classroom lecture.

2. Classroom lectures can be tedious, boring and repetitive with little innovation, freshness or creativity. Day in and day out the same lectures are delivered with similar monotonous drones until eventually we get bored, and then try to find excuses to bunk such classes. But if the lecturer combines lectures with show slides, practical examples and demos, or offers practical and interesting analogies, classes become more interesting and acceptable and stay longer in the memory.

3. Both the teacher and his/her students need to enjoy the deliberations that theory based lessons demand, but only up until a point. Too much, and the lesson can lose engagement. This is not the case with practical demos, which offer scope for comments, reviews and critique studies. For instance, theoretical anatomy lectures do not evoke much response from medical students, but practical anatomy classes draw forth more attentive crowds eager to learn, understand and absorb.

4. Some subjects are best taught by empirical studies – chemistry, for instance, is a very practical subject and based on practice and observations. The same holds true for biology too. Whereas a handful of subjects, such as political science, history or philosophy, are naturally wholly theory based.

As outlined above, it is important that practical knowledge is an essential part of theory studies in order to gain better student participation, attention and interest.

Written by Janet Adams, who holds a Master of Science in Education from DeVry University. She is experienced in assisting students with their academic studies, which she does through a professional writing company.

Wuzhen, the ‘Venice’ of the East

Venice of the East? Well, that certainly sounded tempting. Canals and boutique shops, but in Chinese. This was the description our students gave us of Wuzhen – an ancient water village reconstructed in Eastern China and a very popular tourist destination. Sure, I thought – let’s go! Can you take us there?

ruth-sheffer-2nd-chinese-haircutRuth Sheffer is a British expat who has been teaching abroad for over 30 years. First, in the Israeli high school and now, following early retirement, she has moved with her husband to teach University students in China. They are now in their third year there.

Our trip to Wuzhen from our University in Lin’an in Zhejiang province was a spur of the moment thing. I never used to be prone to these, but somehow the liberating feeling of living abroad has encouraged me to shout Go for it! with more abandon. So when two students, Pluie and Monica, suggested going to Wuzhen for the National Week holiday we jumped at the opportunity.

The place had served as a film set for countless Chinese blockbusters, and was ‘romantic’ and ‘special’ they said. How could we refuse? They had never been there before but jumped up and down with excitement as our plan took shape. We were to take a bus from Lin’an bus station to some other city (God knows where) and from there to change to another bus. The trip would take about 3 hours and we would stay the night at a guest house booked by the girls (hard to do with no Chinese language skills!) They got to work phoning around to locate rooms (not easy over National Week when millions of Chinese are off on their holidays) and eventually all was arranged.


We met up at the bus stop outside the school to depart on our trip. When we reached Wuzhen the guest house sent a driver to pick us up. The girls chatted excitedly at the novelty of travelling with two laowei teachers. We felt like revered guests but also quickly became great friends. Then we got a map of Wuzhen old town and started to wander the winding streets and bridges that traversed the many canals. It was indeed a bit reminiscent of Venice, albeit mostly wood buildings and with many other Chinese tourists. There are two different parts to the town, but it is not that big so you can see most of it in a day. And of course there are many cutesy cafes and restaurants where you can relax and watch the world go by. Plus, having native speakers with you sure helps to order food!


As night falls the whole place is lit up with fairy lights and it becomes really enchanting. Our guesthouse was pretty basic but also had quite a bit of charm to it, as it was built in the local style and our bed was carved from antique wood. We would never have been able to book the place without our girls, given the owners spoke only Mandarin and the local dialect. In the evening after a wonderful dinner we got in a cab to go back to the guesthouse. I noticed that the sounds the driver made didn’t sound like regular Mandarin Chinese. So, I asked Monica about it and she said that he was speaking the local language. “Can you understand?” I asked her and she replied “No, I am just guessing!”.


Such a trip could not have been possible without our girls, and was of course all the more enjoyable for the time we spent with them and the closeness we developed with them as a result. It was an unforgettable experience.

Dive into the archives and read our related articles about China.

Written by Ruth Sheffer, A British expat who has been teaching abroad for over 30 years. First, in the Israeli high school and now, following early retirement, she has moved with her husband to teach University students in China. They are now in their third year there.

A tour of international schools in China

In 2013 Alexis Toye, co-founder of Teacherhorizons, visited international schools in China, speaking with principals along the way. In this article he shares his experience and insights – a must read for anyone considering teaching in this fascinating country.

Alexis ToyeThe first time I went to China was ten years ago, at the beginning of my teaching career. I had turned up with no preconceptions, a friend’s para-glide and a toothbrush as my only luggage and no real plan as to what I was going to do for 2 weeks while my friend worked. Having enjoyed Beijing, Shanghai and some of the surrounding towns immensely I was very much looking forward to returning, this time to work through Teacherhorizons on meeting the needs of schools and teachers in a huge country growing at phenomenal speed.

This blog post will share my thoughts on my journey and teaching at international schools in China. It may help you make a better judgment as to whether you’d like to live and work there one day. There is certainly a growing demand for English-medium education as the country looks to consolidate its vast potential into sustained economic success on an international stage.

Getting there

My journey from London started with plenty of bureaucracy: the UK makes it hard for Chinese nationals to secure visas and the Chinese have kindly reciprocated. Not only did I have to pay over £100 for a stamp in my passport but there were also endless documents to submit. Being a fairly last-minute person, I was only issued my visa the morning of the flight… Armed with a Lonely Planet, my best suit, a tonne of brochures and an iPad I arrived at Beijing Airport after what seemed a very quick journey. China, for some reason, feels like the other side of the world to the UK but it is only actually an 8-hour journey from London to Beijing, the same as to New York.

Alexis in the Hutongs ready for a meeting at The Beijing British School. Notice the backpack (s) – doesn't quite fit with the suit!

Alexis in the Hutongs ready for a meeting at The Beijing British School. Notice the backpack (s) – doesn’t quite fit with the suit!

My three week journey was to take me across the country: Beijing, Tianjin in the North-West followed by Chengdu in Central China and Shanghai, Suzhou, Changzhou and Nanjing in the South-West. All in all I met with Heads and visited 25 self-styled international schools across 7 cities and was staggered by their differences. It shouldn’t be a surprise really. China is as big as the whole of Europe so it is rather naïve to expect the whole country to be similar.

International schools in Beijing and Tianjin

I was impressed about how much Beijing had developed culturally since my last visit. We arrived during a national holiday and people from all over the region were having fun as families in the city’s numerous lakes and parks. When you think of communist countries such as North Korea, you think of serious faces, machine like people but China it seems is not like that all. Chinese love to live life, they have strong family ties and people seemed much more confident in their own skin than when I visited ten years ago. People also seemed friendlier and more open than I had found them last. It is no surprise, the country (well, the cities at least) is booming economically, sustaining a high percentage growth year after year. This growth can clearly be seen not only in the incredible infrastructure (that sometimes makes the UK seem third world) but more importantly, ordinary people seemed much better-off than in the past. Cheap Chinese brands have been replaced by Gucci, Prada and Apple products. I expected the western consumerism but didn’t expect the breadth of arts and culture on offer in what felt like a very liberal city.

The variety of restaurants (my favourite was the spicy crayfish outdoor restaurant area of Ghost Street), bars, music venues, museums and art galleries in Beijing is up there with the very best cities in the world. Our visit to the bohemian-style Arts area in disused factories in Beijing was an example of this cultural transformation. I was also pleased to see that many of the city’s hutongs (local neighbourhoods) had stood the test of time and endless construction. Getting lost in these hutongs’ narrow alleyways, brimming with life, is a magical way to spend a few hours and helps understand the importance of community living in China. Whilst public transport is superb in Beijing (and China for that matter), I most enjoyed pedalling around the city on an ancient Chinese bicycle as Beijing, despite the pollution, is remarkably well set up for cyclists.

Western Academy of Beijing. What an incredible school. The is the most truly “IB” school I have been to so far.

Western Academy of Beijing. What an incredible school. The is the most truly “IB” school I have been to so far.

The lively Ghost Street in Beijing

The lively Ghost Street in Beijing

Whipping across in 40 minutes on the bullet train to Tianjin, I had no idea what to expect. I had never even heard of Tianjin, a city of 9 million people. I was pleasantly surprised by the city centre: a mix of cutting-edge modern buildings, a wide open square and lots of colonial buildings from the former concessions. These concession areas have now been done up in a tasteful way as restaurant and bar zones. As everywhere in China, people are building for the future.

Travelling across China used to be unbelievably slow – things have changed with the arrival of the Bullet trains

Travelling across China used to be unbelievably slow – things have changed with the arrival of the Bullet trains

Wellington College, a branch of the famous school in the UK exemplified this, being built recently for a student population for 1000 but only currently housing just 250 students. Excitement about future growth abounds everywhere in the education world, particularly as the Chinese government has started to relax restrictions for English-language education of Chinese national students. International schools are currently restricted to accepting children of foreign nationals or with Chinese parents from abroad, but regulations are expected that would allows schools to accept Chinese nationals as long as their whole education is in their chosen language. Hence many schools are building for much more capacity than they need currently.

The brand new Wellington International School in Tianjin

The brand new Wellington International School in Tianjin

There are many outstanding schools in the northern cities of Beijing and Tianjin so I wouldn’t rule out living there for a few years but probably wouldn’t spend longer than that. My favourite of all the schools was the Western Academy of Beijing, know as WAB. Of the 50+ international schools I have visited to date, it has come closest to being the perfect IB school: uber-liberal, bursting with energy, student-led and full of smiling ambitious faces, determined to make the world a better place. I left inspired and longing to return to teaching.

People and pollution

There is are two key things that take time to get used to in China: the volume of people and the pollution. From speaking to teachers in China, you get used to the volume of people, but not to the pollution, particularly for those in the the North and Central China. However, I must confess that I found it hard to cope at first with the complete lack of personal space and the volumes of people we encountered at Beijing’s Summer Palace for example. You sometimes feel like a tiny ant in a huge colony, one of billions and that isn’t a feeling you often have in Europe. You do get used to it, and eventually, I even grew to enjoy the crowds of people enjoying themselves – there are always lots of people-watching opportunities in China. I was stuck by how hard-working people are, something you will find replicated at international schools. If you want to teach overseas to have an easy life, this is not the place to do it. Having spoken to a number of African teachers there, I was also refreshingly pleased about how open-minded Chinese were. To my pleasant surprise, they had encountered no racism towards them at all.

The pollution is much bigger issue. In the cities of the North, the AQI (air quality indicator) readings sound off all kinds of alarm bells. Schools such as Dulwich Beijing and the International School of Beijing have built massive anti-pollution domes to allow children to play without damaging their lungs. The government are trying to implement measures to deal with the pollution: mostly caused by construction, factories and an unfavourably still climate but the numbers and impact remains bad. So much so, that I wouldn’t recommend living in northern China with young children, when their lungs are most susceptible. My phone app read 5 days of sun and 25 degrees celsius in Beijing, my ideal climate! However, I didn’t see the sun for the first four days as pollution levels were so high until a breeze came through and swept it away.

International schools in Chengdu

The next part of my voyage took me to Chengdu, the heart of the Szechuan province. I was there to visit two schools we work with there: Leman International School and Oxford International College (OIC).

Following a number of current and former teacher complaints about the school, we had stopped supporting OIC until a site visit to their schools in Chengdu and Changzhou. Whilst I was horrified at stories of what had happened in the past, it seemed the organisation had made significant progress towards becoming a good school for teachers and students. There was still a way to go, but with the right leadership and the right teachers in place, I think they’ll go from strength to strength.

I was particularly impressed by the Human Resources department at Leman International School, they seemed to go out of their way for their teachers, both professionally and when helping them to settle into a very foreign city. One of my main motivations for a visit to Chengdu, though, was its food! Chengdu is the capital of the Szechuan province, known for its super spicy food and lip-tingling szechuan pepper. I was a little disappointed to be honest – the food we had wastoo oily for my liking and the cuts of meat seemed to be on the cheap, fatty side. Local knowledge is key to find good eateries in China and that is something I didn’t have time to develop. I was expecting Chengdu to be a sleepy, laid back town full of the tea houses it is famous for. Far from it, it is a huge metropolis and is growing as fast as any city in China. They have recently built the largest building in the world there, containing an artificial beach! Traffic on the ring roads was getting heavy so the government decided to build a whole second, elevated level of the motorway in a few months, delivering it before the deadline date. Where else does that happen? Despite the volume of sky scrapers I grew to appreciate the stunning parks, pedestrian shopping streets and old part of town that gives the town a more traditional, laid-back feeling.

Tina, Head of HR at Leman International School. Tina really goes out of her way to make teachers feel at home.

Tina, Head of HR at Leman International School. Tina really goes out of her way to make teachers feel at home.

A much-needed weekend break took us to a national park, 150 km outside of the city. The plan was to go hiking and stay at a monastery, up in the mountains. We boarded the bullet train, expecting the national park to be a stop on the train but no, it ended there. They had built a bullet train line to just go to the national park. The park entrance was as busy as Disney World. I was gutted as I desperately needed some fresh air and solitude. However, as we started to climb the crowds began to thin until we found ourselves at the most stunning monastery, sharing the whole place with just two other people. It was magical. Our mood wasn’t broken when we found out the only thing on offer for dinner was pot noodles, cashew nuts and some beers that the monks had hidden in the cellar. Oh well!

International schools in Shanghai, Suzhou, Changzhou and Nanjing

The final leg took me to the most dense part of China: the endless cities surrounding Shanghai. But Shanghai was the place that had changed the least since my last visit. It is a wonderful city and felt much less polluted than the other places I had been to many of China’s cities now have an impressive skyline but what makes Shanghai unique is that it has had sky scrapers from different decades for so long. It gives it an air of being established. Shanghai feels much bigger than Beijing.

I visited many excellent schools in and around the Shanghai area. I was impressed by my visit to Dulwich College in Shanghai. They seemed truly committed to building well-rounded individuals and getting the best out of every student, something many schools in China claim but then end up giving way to parental academic pressures.

Dulwich College in Shanghai: really well-run school in a lovely suburb of Shanghai

Dulwich College in Shanghai: really well-run school in a lovely suburb of Shanghai

I found Yew Chung International School’s approach at primary level fascinating. They have a Chinese teacher and a Western teacher co-teaching in a class, the idea being to bring the best of Western and Eastern educational practices into the classroom. It means that teachers also have much more of a chance to feel integrated with the local community. When it comes to facilities and energy, Shanghai American School was probably the most impressive of my whole visit.

Shanghai has a very active social scene. More than 800,000 expatriates live there. I visited a number of former colleagues who now work here and was somewhat envious of their standard of living. International school salaries are superb in China and the cost of living is significantly lower than it is in Europe, meaning that many teachers have a very high standard of living whilst saving a substantial chunk of their salary simultaneously. Like Hong Kong, Shanghai has a very lively expat social scene which focusses primarily on socialising and sport. Opportunities for exotic holidays and regional travel are both excellent.

Eddie takes in the extraordinary skyline in Shanghai, such a great city

Eddie takes in the extraordinary skyline in Shanghai, such a great city

My next three days were spent in Suzhou, Changzhou and Nanjing. I had heard Suzhou and Nanjing were pleasant but Changzhou had been described to me as a frontier town and I had quite low expectations.

Suzhou ended up being my favourite of the Chinese cities I visited. The air seemed cleaner and the traditional way of life had been preserved to a much greater extent than other cities. Going for a morning run round the old canals was the highlight. I was impressed how tastefully the new and old have been integrated in Suzhou. With the excellent Dulwich College Suzhou being based there, this would probably be my pick of the lot for couples and families looking to settle in China.

Teaching in Suzhou

Beautiful Suzhou with its cafés and canals. Suzhou has done a much better job of preserving its history than many cities in China.

Always lovely to meet teachers with place. In this case, Jon at Dulwich Suzhou. He and his family appear to have settled in very well indeed.

Changzhou also turned out to be a rather pleasant city. It is very modern but has been well planned with three city centres. The one I stayed at had restaurants and bars surrounding a pretty man-made lake. We went down to the building site of the new Oxford International College Changzhou. It is a fabulous spot by a huge, very beautiful lake and I was really impressed how the Head, Olly Wells, has turned things around there.

At the impressive new site of Oxford International College Changzhou with the Head, Olly Wells

The final stop was the British School of Nanjing, a delightful primary and middle school in a very pleasant leafy city.

Final thoughts

I really enjoyed my three weeks in China. I wouldn’t want to live there for the very long term as I personally identify more with the Latin American or South-East Asia cultures but I would certainly consider working there for 3 years or so. China is changing so fast and will only continue to develop that I think it would make an exciting opportunity to be a small part of its undoubtedly challenging but fascinating future. Opportunities for good teachers abound, and though the schools I visited set high standards, the rewards in all senses are impressive.

Have you ever considered teaching in China? Browse our international schools in China for information and current vacancies. Have you taught in China before? Share your experiences with us in the comments.

Written by Alexis Toye, Director of Operation and Finance at Teacherhorizons. Former IB school teacher and IB Coordinator at Oporto British School and Westminster Academy.