If you currently teach in an international school there is a good chance you’ll love your life. International school teaching offers unparalleled opportunities for professional and personal development in a supportive environment and new culture. However, there may be something missing: the feeling that you are making a difference. There is a reasonable probability that you went into teaching to help make the world a better place, educate children to be better citizens and help children to achieve more than they ever thought possible, regardless of their backgrounds.

However, one disadvantage of international school teaching is that schools can exist in a sort of bubble, disconnected from the local community. Students may be aware of poverty and conflict across the globe, but know little about issues on their own doorstep. What is the international school ‘bubble’, and what can we do to give back to our local communities?

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International schools – the domain of the privileged?

With a few exceptions, such as African Leadership Academy, international schools can be the domain of the privileged, both from a teacher and pupil point of view. The world students live in often feels like a lovely bubble. On the inside lie wonderful facilities, low teacher/student ratios, excellent resources, modern apartments, nannies, sophisticated restaurants, endless sporting and art opportunities. Outside of the bubble, and particularly so in the developing world, things are rather less appealing.

Even when I taught in a lovely school in a well-to-do neighbourhood in Portugal (part of the EU) there were very serious issues on our doorstep: extreme poverty, inadequate housing, lack of heating, drug abuse, and a state education system that was overwhelmed and reacting by only offering half a day of education to students. Students knew of the issues in Africa and did a fair bit to help raise awareness and tackle some of the issues there. However, there was no attempt to deal with or even raise awareness of local issues.

How can international schools get involved with the local community?

casFirstly, the choice of curriculum can affect a school’s social responsibility. I’m a big fan of the International Baccalaureate. It provides students with a much more rounded education and is more rewarding for teachers to be a part of. The Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) programme is one of its highlights. In this students have to undertake a number of activities/projects alongside their academic studies. It encourages students to step outside their comfort zone, encouraging them to think about both their own and others’ well-being. Whilst big trips to work on projects across the globe add value and are exciting for students, I’d like to encourage schools, teachers and students to think locally as well. Even in the most developed of countries there are people who have been neglected by society and are in need of help.

However, you don’t need to offer the International Baccalaureate to adopt such an approach. There is nothing to stop you from offering something similar as an extra-curricular activity. Finding local charities to partner with can be a great starting point. Get children really involved in that project, beyond just fund-raising. Local homeless shelters, children’s charities, old people’s homes are all in desperate need of help.

eco schoolWhy not try other great projects such as the Special Olympics and take advantage of your school’s facilities for a weekend? I support the approach adopted by the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative which engages children in social change and empowers them to participate in compassionate communities. They run competitions to help students identify local charities, work with them and pitch for fundraising opportunities for them. Environmental issues are of global proportions but there is a growing sense that they need to be tackled locally. The organisation promotes work with local charities and making a difference at home.

Alternatively, create an Eco-Committee of students to help your school achieve Green Flag status. This can be a rewarding project for students to become engaged in. Some international schools are already pushing such initiatives. We’ve seen great partnerships established between local and international schools, where they share facilities and have teacher/student exchange programs as well as shared CAS type projects they work on.

The rewards of stepping outside the bubble

One of the rewarding elements of working at international schools is that it is likely that many of the country’s future leaders will be taught by you. Encourage them to be compassionate citizens and leaders by stepping outside their bubble and encouraging them to become more involved in local issues. You’ll still be able to enjoy the benefits of working at an international school but will feel like you are having more of a positive impact and making a difference. Isn’t that one of the main reasons we went into education in the first place?

I feel that the experience can be so much more rewarding if you and your students take steps outside that bubble and into the local community. The beautiful thing about bubbles, is that they don’t take much to break out of.

How do you encourage your students to be responsible citizens and get involved in the local community? Feel free to join the discussion below.

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