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4 ways to retain early career international teachers

Young international teachers aren’t necessarily just out to collect passport stamps. Here one principal explains how your school can get them to stick around

David Tongue

A school leader retaining staff

Younger teachers are understandably drawn to the exotic locations and opportunities for travel that a position in an international school presents.

This can create the perception among some school leaders and parents that such teachers may simply be on a short-term overseas adventure.

While this wanderlust is perfectly understandable, the stereotype of a younger backpacking teacher conflicts with the committed educators who international schools would be looking to recruit.

However, in my experience, this is rarely the case. With a plethora of additional attractions – from more generous remuneration and benefits packages to a more exhilarating working environment – there is plenty on offer in an international school setting to ensure that overseas education becomes a longer-term career choice for early-career teachers.

Here are four ways that a school can focus on retaining its brightest young talent.

1. Support and understanding

Sverre Lysgaard’s famous model of cultural adaptation argues that people moving to a new country are likely to undergo a series of stages.

Initially, during a honeymoon period, everything seems new and exciting. Later, this temporary high may be replaced by the low of culture shock, where the differences between one’s source and host cultures become frustrating.

Those who opt to carry on through this period will inevitably recover, adapt and adjust, and may eventually even view the host country as their long-term home.

Understanding the stages that new teachers are likely to progress through and the challenges they may face in adapting are vital in helping schools plan to support new staff. An extended induction period – stretching over months and even years – will allow a school to not just prepare a new teacher to teach at the school, but also to live and thrive in their new home.

Acknowledging that this process will need to look very different for a young single teacher than it does for a married teaching couple with three children is crucial.

Having a strong buddy system for new staff is particularly well-received as it not only ensures that new teachers have a friendly face to turn to, but also provides an additional channel for questions or concerns. It is far better to identify a potential sticking point before a teacher arrives than after they have made the big move.

Allowing for frequent feedback ensures that the programme can adapt to the requirements of each member of staff and that it is constantly reviewed and improved.

2. Loyalty and belonging

Creating a culture of loyalty begins before a teacher is even appointed. Moving countries, while undoubtedly exciting, can also be a hugely stressful experience.

Ensuring that teachers have all the information they need prior to accepting a position helps to reassure them and gives them an opportunity to seek clarification or ask questions. While some will be very open about doing this, others, particularly less experienced teachers, may be more reluctant.

The period between a teacher accepting a position and their first couple of months of employment is crucial for building loyalty and a sense of belonging. A school must try to do all it possibly can to support teachers through this process.

With the possible exception of salary, the accommodation a teacher will be living in is likely to have the greatest impact on their longevity.

Accommodation arrangements will vary depending on the territory, but whatever arrangements are in place, investing time and money in sourcing or providing the best quality accommodation in the best possible location will significantly reduce the amount of time and money a school has to spend on replacement recruitment one or two years down the line.

Ensuring that the accommodation is spotlessly clean and well-stocked with enough essentials to get the teacher through their first few days is not only vital for creating a great first impression but will also help build loyalty when teachers are likely to be at their most anxious.

3. Ambition and opportunities

Young and talented teachers are more likely to stay at a school if they feel their career ambitions can be met within it. Ensuring that such teachers have clear individual training plans and paths to promotion will help them to visualise their own future at the school. Promoting from within can help to further build this culture of ambition.

Perhaps counterintuitively, celebrating the successes of those teachers who go on to achieve promotions outside the school will also help to reinforce the notion that teachers leave the school in a stronger position than they joined it. This is a powerful retention message.

Once teachers are settled and have a good understanding of the school, allowing them frequent opportunities to shape its future direction will not only help them to develop new skills and experiences outside the traditional role of the classroom teacher, it will also help them to feel part of the school’s future.

Forums, feedback sessions and frequent questionnaires will not only generate a huge amount of useful information it will also improve teachers’ sense of belonging and understanding of the direction the school is moving in.

4. Friendship and community

It’s hard to think of a role that merges the personal and the professional so completely than that of the international school teacher.

When a teacher accepts a new job in an international school they are invariably saying a temporary goodbye to their friends and family. It is highly likely that the majority of new friendships they form will be closely connected to the school.

New teachers will frequently look to the school to fulfil their social and logistical requirements – whether this is in ensuring that they have plenty to do at the weekend or in supporting them through the bureaucratic minefields that result from living and working overseas.

While a school can never be all things to all its employees, it is vital that it recognises its responsibilities towards those who have committed their time and energy to working there.

David Tongue is Principal and CEO of St George’s British International School Rome

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