A (school) librarian abroad

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to transport yourself to work in another country?  International Schools very often advertise, but what would it really be like to take up that offer?  Marion Prickett tells all…

In August 2014 I set off on the biggest adventure of my life. After a whirlwind of interviews, packing and moving I was off to Malaysia as the first Librarian at Epsom College in Malaysia. I would like to say that in true Librarian style I carefully researched by new home and workplace, but there was no time for that and so I arrived to the heat and humidity of the tropics in high summer. I enjoy something different and a challenge and I got both. Unfortunately, the building programme was delayed and so our accommodation was not ready, however, what we lost in permanent accommodation we gained in team building and bonding. We started off with about 28 academic staff, and a small but vital team of admin staff. The school opened after three weeks of hard slog to try and turn a recently handed over building site into a functioning school of 140 students. The College had intentionally omitted recruiting for years 11 and 13 as it would be unreasonable to expect a start-up to run exams at the end of the first year.

The library was bare when I arrived, the furniture was in plastic wrapping, the books were a far off dream, there were no computers for the students and my assistant, Atiqah and I had one laptop between us. Luckily I had bought my MacBook. The lack of computers hardly mattered as the internet was inadequate. We borrowed books from families to cover the first weeks and thanks to a brilliant idea from Val Dewhurst (QEGS) we appeared to display books we had ordered on the shelves.

By half term we had taken delivery of 3,500 books – not as many as I expected but there had been some adjustments to the book order, we also had nearly 300 DVDs, various online resources, some locally bought resources, a really good selection of posters and surprisingly happy Library users. Unfortunately, when the Library management system was eventually installed and the data loaded it was found to be flawed and everything had to be re-entered. Right from the beginning the library had been running lessons for students from nursery to Year 7 – this was later extended to year 8. I did induction sessions and teachers enthusiastically used the library.

I visited any book shops I could find, although they were very few and I really had to travel to Kuala Lumpur, over an hour’s drive away. The Malaysians are very kind and helpful and our local staff helped us all to feel welcome and at home.

I am now in my fourth and final year at Epsom College in Malaysia and it has been the best working years of my life. Unfortunately, if I am to see my husband for more than two short visits a year then I have to return to the UK where he works.

The pluses of living and working in Malaysia? The best job ever. I have worked in a fabulous school with colleagues to match. I am a Head of Department, I have an excellent assistant, I am never questioned about how I run the Library because I am trusted. The governors come and say hello whenever they come to the College for meetings. I feel as if my contribution and opinions really matters to the life of the College. I have been expected to join academic committees, I help to run a competition with other international school librarians to challenge our readers. I choose the stock. I am well paid by international standards and very well paid by UK standards, I have a benefits package exactly the same as the teachers – because I am on a par with them, including ID90 which gives us 90% off the price of Air Asia flights. I suffer none of the problems commonly encountered by many UK school Librarians.

The minuses about living and working in Malaysia? There are very few. Family are a long way away, Skype is great for day to day contact but it is still a long way and the difference in time zones means it can be difficult to keep in touch. It often takes longer to get things done than in the UK, The College is a long drive from anywhere, when we first arrived the nearest really nice supermarket was about an hour’s drive away, or it was a trip to Kuala Lumpur. I don’t like chillies and spices – a real disadvantage when even babies chew on a chilli (OK, not quite but they are definitely brought up on spicy food). I wish we had all been encouraged to learn the local language of Bahasa or Mandarin. Living on campus means it is hard to switch off (which I am not very good at anyway). There are some very unpleasant diseases here that have no cure. You are recommended to have rabies jabs if you plan to do anything wild and adventurous, dengue fever is vicious as my colleagues who have suffered can testify. The heat can be over-powering – thank goodness for good quality air con – everywhere. The driving standards are very different to the UK. I imagine if you lived in Kuala Lumpur it would be very easy to spend money on food and entertainment. Not a problem out here as almost the only booze is on the campus – the local commercial/retail development is owned by the local mosque and unsurprisingly they do not permit their tenants to sell alcohol.

Back in the summer of 2016, I visited Epsom College, UK. I wanted to see their library – I love to visit different libraries and see if I can improve what I do and share my ideas too. My headmaster mentioned exchanges often and so I suggested to the UK Librarian that we might be the trail blazers for this scheme which at that point was really only an idea. On returning to ECiM I suggested the idea to the headmaster who agreed, although I am not sure how certain he was it would come to anything. Anyway, Sue Nichols and I organised the exchange between us, kept our schools informed, sorted out paperwork (there was a surprising amount), and then in January swapped our lives. I inherited her lovely house in Dorking, her cat, and her job, including her three assistants. I had the easiest end of it as I am obviously familiar with life in the UK, although the cold was colder than I remembered! The staff at ECUK were very welcoming and kind, especially the Library assistants. The library provides lots of resources to year nine for various projects they undertake across the curriculum, year 12s and 13s were frequent library users and small groups used the Languages room on one side of the Library. Year 7and 8 also use the library weekly for silent reading. Epsom having been established since the mid 1800s has very impressive archives in the dungeons, clearly a lot of time and effort have gone into the creation, care and use of these. ECUK has twice as many students as ECiM and all in years 7 and above, this gives the school a very busy, bustling feel. It was surprising how small a group of Year 6s looked when they visited the school as part of their student recruitment programme. ECUK have an excellent book supplier who was extremely helpful – and so quick to deliver. I felt enormously envious as quick book delivery is something we cannot do. There are book suppliers in Malaysia but their stock is not as wide or diverse as UK suppliers. It was strange driving into work again and the state of Surrey roads was a shock – definitely worse than Malaysian roads. However, the joy of going home at weekends – I only had to work one Saturday during the exchange instead of almost every one as I do in Malaysia – was fantastic.

Since I have been back, everyone has asked if the College in the UK is ‘better’ – no it isn’t, but it isn’t worse either. It is different. ECUK is a traditional English boarding school with a long and proud history which they are very aware of, it caters for 11-18 year olds, the vast majority of whom have English as their home language. This makes some things easier but it is surprising how quickly you miss the diversity we have. Here our students range in age from 3 years old to 18+years old. Only a minority have English as their home language although many are very proficient in English as well as one two and sometimes more languages. So the voices raised in our corridors are often higher and beyond my comprehension whilst in ECUK you most hear English spoken by more mature voices as students in both places hurry from one class to another.

I would recommend anyone who can to do such an exchange, it is always interesting to see your life and career from a different perspective. You cannot help learn new things and take away new experiences. You will see things differently to your exchange partner and may be able to make useful suggestions, if you are a little nervous of working overseas but think it might be for you then this may be an excellent way to test the water and see how you like it.

Go on, go to the International Jobs section on the TES website and see what is there. You might surprise yourself. I did and love it.

Marion Prickett

College Librarian.

Epsom College in Malaysia.

library@epsomcollege.edu.my