What’s the value for teachers taking on an international post? What does Africa and Kenya in particular have to offer? What do employers really look for in new recruits and what are the most common mistakes candidates make when applying for a job? We spoke to Robert Blake, Head of Peponi House School in Nairobi, to find out…
What do you think is the value for teachers of taking on an international post, particularly in Africa?
There is no doubt that working in an International School or in a British Curriculum school outside the UK broadens one’s horizons. Not only do you experience living in a different country as opposed to a fleeting visit on holiday, but you are also exposed to different cultures, languages and climates. There is always a healthy mix of ethnic backgrounds in these schools and teachers very quickly learn a great deal, not just about others but about themselves as well. Speaking to colleague Heads, a sizeable majority see overseas experience as a big plus on a candidate’s CV as it shows a willingness to try new ideas and a sense of adventure.
What are the major plus points about living and working in Kenya?
Kenya is, to many people, the most beautiful and diverse country in the world. From the glaciers on Mount Kenya to the coral-fringed coast, Kenya has one of the most varied ranges of habitats in the world. Watch ‘Niko Na Safaricom’ on YouTube to see what makes Kenya so special.
The children are wonderful to teach. They work hard and they play hard. First rate academics are coupled with top class sport in the best possible climate, where children are outdoors most of the time and where the pressure to own the ‘right’ phone or wear the ‘right’ clothes has yet to filter through. There is very little petty crime while graffiti and vandalism are almost unheard of.
Teachers are still held in the highest regard, which is very refreshing.
And the negatives?
Security can be an issue as incidents such as car-jackings can be serious, although they are uncommon. The post election violence in 2008 was very unpleasant indeed and broadcast all over the world. Things are much more settled now and the referendum last year, which ushered in a new constitution, went smoothly and peacefully.
Tummy bugs (often caused by dehydration) are common and there is always the risk of something more unpleasant such as malaria. (Hospitals are very good, however). If you don’t like creepy crawlies, you probably shouldn’t be looking for a job in Africa.
Power cuts and pot holed roads are annoying, while bureaucracy can be stifling. But then again, name a country where bureaucracy is not stifling.
The cost of living has risen sharply in the last few years but the inflation rate has recently come down. Even so, a teacher’s salary goes a lot further here than it does in the UK.
Could you tell us a little bit about your school and the nearby area?
Peponi House started 25 years ago with a handful of pupils. There are now 320 children in the school, starting at age 6 and moving on after Year 8, when they are 13. There are equal numbers of boys and girls and over 40 nationalities are represented. All children are day pupils and the vast majority live within 15 minutes of the school. The school follows the British curriculum and older pupils take the Common Entrance exam in Year 8. As one of ten IAPS schools in Kenya, we adhere to the ethos of the best prep schools, with a wide range of sports and extra-curricular activities as well as the academic excellence that one would expect from an IAPS school.
The school is in Lower Kabete, a leafy suburb of Nairobi. There is a rural feel to the school although we are a few minutes’ drive from excellent shops, bars and restaurants – but with the Great Rift Valley less than an hour away by car.
Is it easy for teachers from the UK to adjust to the curriculum you teach?
Yes, very much so.
What kind of lifestyle can teachers expect, living in Kenya?
Most people adjust very quickly to life out here. The school day is very busy and during term time teachers are very focused on what they are doing. However, opportunities exist to explore the country at weekends and during school holidays, which are the same as those in UK. If you shop for imported goods in supermarkets, stay in luxury lodges in the game parks and fly back to UK every holiday, your salary won’t go far. However, a little prudence goes a long way and the climate is perfect: 12 hours of daylight every day of the year, temperatures in the twenties (Centigrade) and at 5,500 feet above sea level, very little humidity.
What would your advice be for someone contemplating teaching overseas and in Kenya specifically?
Be bold! Do not expect UK salaries and do not expect to get the same deal everywhere. Some schools will offer what on the surface may be a very good package but investigate carefully – what are the pluses and minuses? Look at the school’s website and prepare questions for your interview. Think carefully about what you want to teach and then see what is available – you do not want to be in a wonderful country doing a job that you don’t like.
As far as Kenya is concerned, balance the package on offer with the opportunities that are available. Nairobi is a bustling, cosmopolitan city while the coast can be incredibly hot and places up-country can be remote. If you love heat or if you want to be well away from the City, choose a school that is outside the capital. The Kenyan IAPS schools are first class and are very highly regarded.
Is there a lot of paperwork involved for someone coming over to teach?
Not really. The schools themselves do the paperwork but teachers must supply the right documents as soon as they are requested. Make sure that you can lay your hands on the original certificates for your degree and teaching qualifications. Keep a stack of passport photographs to hand and it is also worthwhile making sure that from the UK, you have a current CRB form.
As a recruiter, what do you generally look for from candidates? And how do you interview people for vacancies from overseas?
Potential teachers must have the right qualifications, while experience of working in a prep school is a huge advantage. People who can show that they are flexible and are prepared to work hard get to the top of my list, as do those with more than one string to their bow. If you can play the piano, coach sport, lead field trips and direct a school play, for goodness’ sake say so.
Write your CV and letter of application with great care. Spelling and grammatical mistakes will ensure that your application goes in the bin. Show that you have done your homework – you should know where the school is and what sort of school we are.
Get the name right. If I get an application addressed to the Head of another school, what does that tell me?
Tell your referees that you are applying for jobs, so that they won’t be surprised when a reference request comes their way. Your current employer should always be a referee.
I will always interview face to face where possible. I interview candidates here and in the UK but it might not always be possible, in which case I would ask for an interview using Skype or some other audio-visual platform.
Try not to time waste. Apply for jobs that you are qualified to do and that you want to do. I do get some unusual applications from time to time, most of which begin To Whom It May Concern. Horrid! One in particular sticks out, in response to an advertisement for a Head of Geography: “As a mechanic with the City Hoppa Bus Company…” I’m sure he was a lovely guy, but not quite what I was looking for…
Anything else you’d like to add for teachers who are perhaps considering living and working overseas?
Do not be afraid to take the first step. By joining the School and Regional Talent Pools on Eteach, schools can access your CV regardless of whether they are currently recruiting or not. You never know, you might be just the person that they are looking for.