“Our best teachers are lured away by more attractive packages”
“Some of our better teachers just use us as a stepping stone into the international market”
“We can’t compete with the best schools so we have to hire later in the year and get access to a smaller talent pool.”
These were the themes of conversation at a meeting with mid-range international school leaders. No-one needs telling that recruitment and retainment of teachers is a big issue globally at the moment, and from these conversations it is clear that in some sectors there is fierce competition to attract and hold onto the best talent.
So this raises the big question: are international teachers a rare breed of educators who are in teaching for the money? Or are there other reasons that so many leaders in this sector find it hard to retain staff? Of course there is no simple “one size fits all” answer to this question, but I was keen to find out what international teachers were in it for.
Over a period of three months I surveyed 157 teachers from all over the world in a range of positions, to find out what mattered most to them when job hunting. 87 per cent of those interviewed had more than 10 years’ experience in the international school sector, with four as the average number of international schools worked in.
This article offers a brief summary of the research outcomes.
Pay and Benefits
Unsurprisingly the number one factor that teachers reported as playing a crucial role in their job-hunting decisions was the pay and benefits package offered. Many of those interviewed noted that they found it hard to predict the costs of living associated with a new country, so being given a good idea of what to expect, and being able to save and provide for their families – as if they were at home – was crucial.
Some suggested that school leaders should consider providing sample shopping lists and utilities bills breakdowns to help reassure that the package will sustain an adequate level of living.
Next up was the opportunity for growth. Many teachers placed growth opportunities above pay and benefits. Teachers wanted an environment that didn’t aim only to use them to grow the team in-place, but also allowed them to grow in an exchange of skills and ideas. Teachers wanted to feel that they were part of a bigger school improvement plan rather than individually working on their own growth goals. Hattie’s research (see, eg, Hattie et al, 2016) tells us that wholeschool teacher efficacy has a huge impact on student learning. It would appear that it also has an impact on how valued teachers feel in the work environment.
Third overall came the nuts and bolts of the role: the timetable, class sizes, meeting schedules, extra-curricular responsibilities and support in the role. Teachers were more likely to accept a new role, or to be happy with their move, if they had the opportunity to speak to someone on the team outside of administration.
Many noted that day-to-day operations in international schools varied greatly from country to country, and weren’t always discussed in enough detail during the hiring process. Several noted that the best thing a school had done during the hiring process was to allow them to be in contact with the departing role-holder.
Curriculum ranked fourth. The big pullout here was that curriculum materials and objectives that weren’t relatable to the students of the host country made it more difficult to teach, caused lower engagement and led to disruption in class. Having a curriculum that matters to the students matters to the teachers.
As one respondent noted: “Do students in a South East Asian middle school really need to analyze Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening to learn about metaphor, or is there a more relevant piece they could use – given that many of them have never experienced snow or winter?’
Coming in fifth was cultural engagement, with teachers preferring international schools to stop placing an emphasis on cultural experiences during induction. Teachers commented that they weren’t moving for a holiday, but to work, and a bus tour of the city during induction was time away from the classroom that several teachers really wanted. That being said, guidance in avoiding cultural faux pas made teachers feel much more comfortable in their personal lives.
So – are international teachers in it for the money? That’s not what this study found. Does pay matter? Of course it does, but so do the opportunities for growth and the day-to-day working conditions. When asked what they would like those hiring to consider, an overwhelming number of respondents expressed that greater transparency was needed as they couldn’t visit the school in person prior to accepting a role. As one respondent stated: “All teachers understand that all international schools are at different points of development, but please share with us honestly so we can help development, know if it is an environment we can grow in, and feel like we matter. It’s pretty obvious on arrival when a school has not been upfront, and that helps no one”.
So let’s stop worrying so much about pay and benefits if these just aren’t flexible, and focus on providing growth and transparency
This article first appeared in the lastest Spring 2021 print edition of International School Magazine.