Transformative and culturally responsive leadership practices challenge school leaders by presenting a moral responsibility to lead schools towards inclusive and equitable outcomes for students (Shields, 2010, pg. 580). Much of the research and discourse regrading these leadership approaches centers on the experiences of students, teachers, and leaders in North American, urban schools. To what degree and to what ends can school leaders working in international contexts apply transformative and culturally responsive school leadership (CRSL) practices when working towards school reform?
Globally, international education is experiencing a demographic switch towards being comprised of a greater proportion of local-national students studying in international contexts (Bunnell, 2015, pg. 327). While these local-national students are frequently privileged or children of elites, this is not always the case (Hayden, 2012, pg. 65-66), and depending on their socioeconomic circumstances, they may feel privileged in international schools or out of place due to their local culture (pg. 66). Hayden (2012) posits that local nationals may feel isolated and different in schools with a high-percentage of expat students, and experience challenges resulting from not having their local culture represented in their school-life (p. 64).Nationals studying in schools with curricula based upon foreign systems serving mostly expatriate student bodies run the risk of rejecting their local traditions and trying to take on the affectations and beliefs of their British or North American schoolmates (pg. 71), especially since elite local populations often view international education as a path to top universities for their children in a neo-liberal, globalized society (Cambridge, 2013, pg. 187). This echoes the experience of some minority school leaders, according to Khalifa, Gooden, & Davis (2016) who take on a “whiteness perspective” to pass politically (pg. 1286). Conversely, Third Culture Kids, globally-nomadic children of expatriates, must deal with issues of identity resulting from lack of a stable environment (Hayden, 2012, p. 67). Needless to say, differences in conventions regarding roles and communication between students, teachers, and classmates due to differences in culture can be a source of conflict in international school contexts (Pearce, 2013, p. 62).
To address the challenges of culturally diverse student bodies in international school contexts, leaders would do well to adopt practices and behaviors associated with transformative and culturally responsive practices. Shields (2010), citing Quintz et al., views schools as places in which cultural politics can result in inequities and imbalances in cultural status being elevated or reduced (pg. 569). International school leaders, thus, should adopt behaviors of CRSL in order to influence their school context to address the needs of their school community and to support an inclusive school culture for minoritized students, regardless of their origin and status as ‘national’ or ‘expat’, and to celebrate all of the children they serve (Khalifa et al., 2016, pg. 1274). They can do so by applying elements of transformational leadership to enact school visions supporting the implementation of bespoke curricula that bridge local, national, and global divides (Tate, 2015, pp. 18-19). To do so, leaders can enlist the aid of the community in creating a culturally affirming environment and focus on uniting groups within and outside of the school house to validate local and indigenous cultures, languages, and identities (Shields, 2010, pg. 579; Khalifa et al., 2016, pg. 1290-1292).
Skelton (2016) sums up the internationalist goals of international schools as “helping their students become positively able to be with an other” (p. 80), and says that schools need to provide students with opportunities to repeatedly experience positive interactions with others and reflect on their experiences (p. 81). Dunne & Edwards (2010) view international schools as potential locations of social change, but find that international schools may not be meeting their potential, rather reinforcing socioeconomic stratification and the distinction between 'haves' and 'have-nots' (pg. 36). They would likely argue that further integrating local-national international students with their local communities could help to promote positive social changes.Tate (2012, p. 208) cites Appiah’s approach to global citizenship that begins with the local, then moves outwards to embrace the national and global in turn. Tate (2012, p. 209) also cites Maalouf’s writing on the individual’s “ethical homeland” that includes national, cultural, and ethnic identities and how global citizenship might involve a universal understanding of human values overlaid on top of such a construct. It is clear that support of a culturally responsive school and curriculum can help international school leaders to realize common internationalist visions of internationalist education and serve a diverse student body increasingly comprised of students crossing local, national, and global borders and a broader socioeconomic spectrum.
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Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 15 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.