The full impact of the pandemic on staffing in international schools is still unclear. Recent research I carried out as part of my masters at the University of Sydney examined the impact of the pandemic on staff retention and culture at international schools in China. The findings showed distinct differences in individual schools, with some school communities managing to retain staff and maintain cohesion and others facing ongoing staff shortages into the next academic year.
The ongoing motivation for staff members to stay in the international system, and particularly to stay in China, proved interesting. Using the well-known expat paradigm “map-maker, mercenary, missionary, misfit” and the similar construct of “explorer, mercenary, architect, refugee”, the original reasons for entering the international system were compared with reasons for staying.
Teachers at international schools in China generally fitted the “map-maker” and “mercenary” profiles, the most popular motivations being “adventures in new places”, “opportunity to earn and save money” and “career advancement”.
“As most of the world opens up, China is in no hurry to do so.”
Teachers under 30 years old were distinctly more driven towards opportunities for promotion, with the 30 to 50 bracket shown to be predominately adventurers. Unsurprisingly, staff members over 50 shift back to monetary motivations as they prepare for retirement.
As most of the world opens up, China is in no hurry to do so. For staff members making the decision to stay or leave, this involves revisiting priorities. For many unable to travel, the focus is now saving.
“It has become all about the money. I can’t travel now, so that’s off the table. I love the money though,” explained one teacher.
How do schools shift the balance of pros and cons in this landscape? Money is a motivator, but schools, non-profit or for-profit, cannot operate at a loss. It is imperative that other factors are presented to potential and existing staff.
“Many teachers are becoming increasingly reluctant to return home, saying the system in their home country is ‘broken’.”
“Missionary” factors are desires to enrich the lives of young people and communities. These factors did not feature highly in the study as original motivations for joining the system but, interestingly, were seen to be more significant in convincing teachers to stay.
Teachers cited the development of their bilingual teaching methods, encouraging young people into international tertiary study and relatively easy behaviour management as reasons for deciding to remain in international education.
In the Chinese international schools context, the reputation of local students as polite and hard-working was confirmed in the data. Recognition of teachers’ contribution to developing EAL teaching and global citizenship could be important factors in teacher retention.
Similarly, “refugee” or “misfit” reasons (the “push” factors away from the home country) did not feature as significant reasons for joining the system but became more important with time. Many teachers are becoming increasingly reluctant to return home, with such responses as “the system in my home country is broken”.
From a school leadership perspective, these motivations can be encouraged through avoiding the known pitfalls of these systems — unnecessary meetings, bureaucracy, and “blame” culture, to mention a few.
“How does school leadership create the opportunity for its staff to break out of the expat bubble?”
The need to be part of a wider community was broached by teachers and leaders alike. One veteran internationalist reflected on the need for staff to venture outside their work circles: “You know it takes a year or two to…find outlets out of the school environment. It’s very hard, you know, if it’s just school people.”
The paradox is that the more a school environment is able to engage its members socially and build a sense of community, the more they may be discouraged from engaging with the wider community. A deputy head also noted that social interaction “is very much associated with the college”.
How does school leadership create the opportunity for its staff to break out of the “expat bubble”? Many of a school communities’ outward-facing activities are philanthropic in nature, which can encourage an “us and them” mindset. One possible avenue is to offer language support for expats.
For staff members between 40 and 50 the experience of their own children was paramount. Many respondents went out of their way to point out that their children’s academic and social experiences were their prime motivation for working abroad.
“The ‘fit’ between the school community and families is increasingly important.”
Interviews showed that the significance of the family experience cannot be overstated. For schools, this raises the question of how well families can be supported. As many Chinese schools face potential staff shortages moving in the 2022-23 academic year, the “fit” between the school community and families is increasingly important. From recruitment to the end of contract, honest reflection on the school’s ability to support staff children academically, pastorally and socially is required.
Travel restrictions and even budgets are outside the realm of control of most schools. To retain staff, school leaders must focus on the areas that they can influence and are important to teachers. Socially, this will involve creating a nurturing place for children and assisting teachers’ involvement in the wider community. Professionally, the advantages of teaching in the host country must be highlighted and developed.