10 ways leading an international school is different

From (literal) snakes in the grass to cultural differences, heading an international school can pose unexpected challenges

Gwen Byrom on the challenges of international school leadership

The role of school leadership requires a wide range of skills to be brought to bear, every day. In a fairly mundane day, you can bounce from teaching a Year 7 class to managing a sensitive parental meeting, and from discussions of the quality of food in the dining room to reviewing your strategic plans with the chair of governors. Leading a school is many things but it is never dull. Perhaps, however, you yearn for a change of location or pace? 


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Why not consider leading a school overseas, where even more interesting and exciting challenges face you. For example:

  1. Climate can provide unexpected tests. The moment you realise that a sudden tropical downpour has converted your basement car park into a new swimming pool, or the roads on your daily commute are now under a metre of water, for example. Or that the air quality is too poor today to allow students outside to play. Or that it’s simply too hot/cold for anyone to go outside at all.
  2. You learn to think differently about organising outside activity. Sitting on the grass becomes a risk because of snakes. Insect repellent is your new best friend. Monitor lizards, capable of carrying off small mammals, inhabit the local park. 
  3. You must take account of local regulations and cultural sensitivities if you are leading a British curriculum school overseas: there may be new curriculum requirements relating to language teaching or cultural education that need implementing.
  4. There are other differences, too. Differences in moral strictures can mean there are books you cannot have in the library, or the geography department may discover that certain map locations need re-labelling, depending upon prevailing governmental sensitivities.
  5. It will be necessary check the relevance of the exam board-mandated curriculum to your very diverse student population: who is Virginia Woolf, anyway?
  6. You may need to ensure all documentation is available in multiple languages, and that you have a bank of translators on hand to support that all-important parental contact. Working effectively with a translator in sensitive situations is a skill in itself.
  7. Recruitment of staff is no longer straightforward: you can't simply bring your shortlisted candidates into the school for the process. Careful consideration needs to be given to what recruitment looks like. And how you are going to reassure yourself that your favoured candidate is an outstanding classroom practitioner when they are 3,000 miles away? You’ll also be doing a lot more recruitment than you’ve perhaps been accustomed to because the fixed-term nature of teaching contracts often leads to higher rates of turnover.
  8. Your responsibility to staff often extends well beyond the school: settling not just your teachers but their families into accommodation and schools; helping them to open bank accounts; giving advice on buying cars; and providing induction and social activities. While you may well have a superb HR department to coordinate all of this, you will need to have the overview of processes since staff will still ask you questions.
  9. You must be adaptable. Despite your valiant efforts, your new superstar maths teacher may decide, after a week, that they should never have left the UK and may therefore require a significant amount of your time and pastoral support to keep them buoyed up. A family crisis back home may result in another member of staff leaving on the next plane, never to return. A quirk in the visa system (of which there are many) may mean that a third member of staff cannot start work for at least another two months. Picking up the phone to a supply agency or your trusted bank of retired former staff to fill the gaps isn’t so straightforward, so your creativity in solving staffing issues will become essential.
  10. Concepts of safeguarding or health and safety may be completely different. Of course, you will want to work to the highest international standards, but you and your site manager may find that managing the safety of a building project on site, locally hired staff, or the tendency of unchecked adults to attempt to wander into your school unannounced at any time will all keep you awake at night. Managing these matters requires a combination of diplomacy and a very clear but firm line on minimum standards to be upheld.

If you are already a senior leader or headteacher, you are demonstrating every day that you have the adaptability to manage the curveballs that running a school can throw at you. In an international setting, the curveballs are simply different – but they will enhance your already considerable skills and challenge you to become more creative in finding innovative solutions. 

Gwen Byrom is director of education strategy at NLCS International. She yweets @onecoldtea.

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