International Schools are known for having diverse student bodies, with respect to both the demographics of the individual schoolhouse and when compared from one school to another. The community of parents and teachers that grows up around an international school is similarly diverse. Parents may be wealthy locals, internationally employed middle- or upper-class expatriate workers, or often international school teachers and administrators working for the school. (Hayden, 2006, pg. 22) Likewise, teachers in international schools are an eclectic bunch, ranging from typically long-term expatriate administrators, to short-term contracted international teaching faculty, to locally hired low-paid staff (pg. 74).
The pragmatic goals of local nationals who elect to send their children to international schools rather than studying within the national system include developing alternative 'international' identities in their children, and preparing their children for mobility within the global economy (pg. 37). They may become very involved in their child's school-life, hoping to ensure that their child achieve good exam scores and that they are taught to high standards of achievement and discipline to ensure that their pragmatic goals are being met (pg. 32). When choosing a school, they may seek out options that allow students to maintain their cultural identity though local language or culture classes (pg. 32), often one of the few instances in which local national teachers are favored by parents over expats in international school settings (pg. 77). As they likely are paying a significant amount 'out-of-pocket' for their child's education, they may be selective about expensive 'extra' programs involving trips abroad or the like (pg. 32).
Expatriate parents sending their children to international schools may have different motivations. Often, unlike host country nationals, they may have little to no choice in whether or not to send their children to an international school, and further, in which international school to choose (pg. 31). Their desire to maintain the family's cultural identity in their children may limit them to schools that cater to their particular language and culture (pg. 33). Often, parents choose English language schools should a home national school be unavailable (pg. 33). While local national parents are often involved in their child's international school education for pragmatic reasons, expatriate parents may find themselves more involved that they would be in their home nation for other reasons.
The stresses faced by expatriate parents, especially trailing spouses, in dealing with culture shock may lead them to see the international school as a bastion in which they can communicate and experience something more closely resembling their home culture (pg. 24-26). Some schools have incorporated parent rooms and activities into their buildings and programming to meet these needs (pg. 26).
Teacher-parents find themselves in a unique situation as both educators within schools and 'customers' of them. They are expatriates in need of appropriate schooling for their children much like those abroad working in other fields, and also often receive subsidized or waived tuition fees for their children (pg. 28). As such, often around 5% of the students in a given international school will be children of staff (pg. 28). These teacher-parents are face challenges integrating themselves into their children's school-lives in appropriate ways. They worry about colleagues having high expectations of their children, feel extra stress when their children misbehave, and are often reluctant to lobby for thier children to avoid raising suspicion should their child be very successful (pg. 29). Most feel that these challenges are offset by the benefit of their child's increased status in the school, their access to their child during the day, and the benefit their children receive by viewing teachers as 'friends' of their parents (pg. 29).
Regardless of parents' backgrounds, most parents of international school students have high expectations of their children and value education (pg. 21). Who are the teachers in international schools tasked with meeting these elevated expectations?
Hayden (2006) expresses that, in order to achieve their internationalist visions, international schools should hire staff that are representative of major cultures within the world as much as possible, and that ideally the individuals teaching in the school should have prior experience adapting to live abroad (pg. 76). Few would argue with this philosophically, but practical challenges to creating such diverse faculties arise due to the realities of government immigration policies, taxes, and work permits and the desire for native English speaking instructors expressed by parents (pg. 76-77). Challenges to selecting faculty arise due to the global nature of the search: large job fairs located in major centers and phone or video interviews are two ways in which administrators meet this challenge (pg. 80).
Teachers may be new to the international teaching field, or long-term expats. Among new teachers, Hayden describes three types: childless professionals, mavericks, and career professionals with families (pg. 76). Long-term expatriate teachers fill similar 'classes', but also include individuals who have stayed in one country for extended periods due to long-term relationships with host country nationals.
Whether long-term or new to the field, teachers in international schools tend to move around a lot, resulting in high turnover (pg. 88). This is a challenge for school administrators in a number of ways. In addition to having to deal frequently with the hiring challenges mentioned above, it also makes it difficult to maintain a constant school vision with staff of different backgrounds and experiences (pg. 88). Teachers often experience stress due to he need to adapt frequently to new school cultures, curricula, and expectations and schools need to protect their investment against failure (pg. 83). Hayden (2006) notes that one way to address this is by carefully differentiating induction or orientation processes to meet the needs of new teachers both at the start of their contracts and throughout the first part of their employment (pg. 85-86).
The challenges of expatriate life and contact between different cultures affects not only the students at international schools, but also the teachers and parents. Administrators need to be aware of these forces and adapt teacher training, student counseling, and parent services to best meet the unique needs of the school communities that they serve. Despite being located in far-off lands abroad, life in an international school community is no vacation!
Hayden, M. (2006). International schools and parents. Introduction to international education: International schools and their communities. London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd. 21-39.
Hayden, M. (2006). Teachers. Introduction to international education: International schools and their communities. London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd. 73-92.
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 18 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.