I left Ireland on a career break in 1989, never to return to live

Martin Donnellan has taught in the UK, Japan, the Czech Republic, Nigeria, China and Italy

In 1989 Martin Donnellan availed of the career break initiative on offer at the Irish Civil Service and headed to the UK to work as a deputy and then principal of a school. He and his wife never returned to live in Ireland. Now 65, he has since worked in Japan, the Czech Republic, Nigeria, China and Italy, and is now setting up an international school in Japan.

Why did you decide to leave?

A number of matters came together which prompted the move: Lack of opportunity for career advancement; to afford our children greater opportunities available in schools in the UK; and to check if it really was the case that “is glas iad na cnoic i bhfad uainn” (faraway hills are greener).

How would you describe your job now?

I am travelling to Japan in a few weeks to establish a new kindergarten to grade 12 international school there. This will involve overseeing the completion of the building, hiring staff, setting a curriculum, admission of students and all details involving the local authorities and central government – with which I will have a Japanese colleague to assist. We hope to open in September 2017.

Do you think you would have had the same opportunities if you had stayed in Ireland?

I doubt it very much. In fact I am sure I would not have experienced the range and depth of educational adventures and international exposure to students, teachers and families of more than 65 nationalities I have had in the past 30 years or so abroad. I recognise, however, that Ireland is a very different place now than when I left and many Irish teachers have the opportunity to interact with a far greater number of international students than would have been the case in 1989.


How does teaching abroad compare to Ireland or other locations?

Public attitudes in the countries in which I have worked have ranged from vaguely interested to hugely engaged, and it is fair to say that such a range also exists among families too. Asian parents and societies tend to regard education and teachers highly, which is not universally the case in the west.

In private education, where my career has been spent, hours tend to be longer, salaries can be higher – though not always – but this can be compensated for by elements of an expat package including an accommodation allowance, annual flights, health cover and the like. Working conditions can vary from superb to questionable. Caution and due diligence at the point of hire is very important.

How does the education system compare to Ireland’s?

As an observer from abroad over the past 30 years, and speaking with many colleagues and families, Irish education is viewed anecdotally as being of a high standard, though quite conservative in pedagogy and assessment. Countries such as Japan and China, in my experience, are even more so. Quality of education is measured more by knowledge acquired and regurgitated than by skills, abilities and attitudes, which alongside the application of knowledge, will be fit for purpose in this century.

A variety of international curriculums seek to address this, such as the International Primary Curriculum or the whole-school programmes of the International Baccalaureate Organisation. There are very few schools in Ireland which offer these, though the new Junior Cert looks promising. It is noteworthy that some recent pronouncements from figures in the Irish Government and industry leaders seem to recognise the need for such elements in the Irish curriculum in order to attract and retain high-level personnel with families, related to foreign direct investment.

What advice would you give others considering it?

I have met Irish teachers in every country in which I have taught. They are well regarded for their professional training and their character, though I can say the same about teachers from many other countries too. I would advise an Irish teacher who wishes to expand their horizons and experience a wide range of curriculums, have professional colleagues from many nationalities and teach students who are highly motivated – in the main – to give it a go. It is not for everyone, but the rewards, professionally, personally and often financially, are substantial.

What is life like for you overseas now?

My life has ranged from living freely in open societies, to living in an compound with armed guards, to living in a centrally-controlled society. Each brings its own challenges and opportunities. As a working guest, however, it is important to recognise where you are and to be sensitive to the nuances of each environment. What flies in one could well be a lead balloon in another. Embracing what each country has to offer over an extended working period gave me the chance to better get “under the skin” of a society and to meet and work alongside some wonderful professional colleagues from many backgrounds.

A degree of humility goes a long way too – a Chinese colleague reminded me that, while there are wonderful aspects to the western education model, formal Chinese education can be traced back about 5,000 years.

What are your future plans?

I hope to successfully establish a K-12 international school in Japan. Thereafter I would hope to continue informally or as a consultant to engage with schools, colleagues and students in Ireland and elsewhere in our profession of the eternal optimist. Perhaps I will put my observations on teaching and learning in a range of countries in print, to address the very different world of education we now inhabit as opposed to that of the mid to late 20th century.

Teachers who may be contemplating going abroad to teach might enjoy an extremely helpful volume Expat Lives – New Beginnings written by my wife, GT Donnellan, who is also a teacher. She has accompanied me on this journey and the book is a distillation of the deeply personal, social and environmental factors inextricably bound up with a move abroad.