“Bloody hell, it's hot, isn't it? How do you cope?”
It’s 6.30am on a Sunday and it’s pushing 40C, not uncommon for September in Kuwait.
The staff bus crawls through traffic, as all on board wait for the coffee to kick in.
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Conversation isn’t exactly off-limits, but it’s definitely frowned upon.
Mark, fresh from the UK, is wearing a pained expression as he sweats profusely in the corner seat and fans himself with his teacher's planner.
I tell him it’s forecast to reach 50C before 2pm.
He fixes me with a death stare.
I’m not sure Kuwait is suiting him. Sure enough, two weeks later he’s packed his bags and returned to the UK, leaving us one teacher short.
International schools: teacher turnover
In international schools, average annual staff turnover means replacing at least one in six teachers every year. It costs time, effort and a big chunk of the budget.
Studies into the drivers of staff retention point to the obvious: salary, job satisfaction and supportive leadership.
But how does this translate in the real world? Here are five things that all schools can do to improve staff retention (they may seem obvious, but I’m yet to cross paths with a school that has got it right across the board).
1. Expectations vs reality
Like poor Mark from the bus, many of those you recruit will have expectations that differ from the reality of day-to-day life.
Mark read "Middle East" in the job description, imagined Dubai and ended up with Kuwait (which, while relaxed and well-placed for travelling, is definitely not the same place).
Ensuring that prospective staff know what they’re letting themselves in for is vital in keeping them beyond the one-year stage.
Make this a serious focus during the interview. What do they know about the country and the culture? Have they adapted to large-scale change in the past? Do they have colleagues, friends or family already in-country that could form a support network?
2. Building a community
Teaching abroad means making a new home and finding a new international family every time you switch country. Supporting staff in finding and strengthening those connections makes it more difficult for them to leave.
For me, the two weeks leading up to Christmas consisted of daily break-time brunches, with the different departments competing to put on the most impressive festive banquet.
Find the hidden party planner among your staff, give them some petty cash and let them loose in the staffroom. It might not be much, but it works – if staff feel at home, they’re less likely to go looking for a new one at the end of the academic year.
3. More than money
Make your package as attractive as possible. Increasing the salary might not be realistic, but you can add bells and whistles.
Focus on assisting with or providing services that will be a real headache for staff to set up on their own.
I’ve seen all sorts of creative add-ons designed to attract and retain staff: interest-free car loans, wi-fi on arrival (a big one), weekly minibus trips to the supermarket, assistance with getting a driving licence, contributions towards private health insurance, self-directed personal CPD budgets – the list goes on.
4. Be a champion
Most international schools far exceed the size of UK schools, and this certainly rings true in the Middle East (a competitor of ours has up to 15 classes in each year group – more than 4,000 students in total).
It’s very easy for teachers to feel like cogs in a machine. Managers drift further from the front lines, with headteachers and directors hidden in ivory towers somewhere in the misty distance.
Make yourself visible. Having supportive and approachable school leaders is the number one factor in staff retention. Teachers who feel recognised and valued stay the course – a study of international teachers in the UAE found that 97 per cent of staff who felt their school valued them planned on renewing their contract.
5. Invest in teacher CPD
Finally, the prickly issue of professional development. Whether it’s a valid concern or not, the fear of being deskilled in the years spent away from the motherland plays a key part in how long teachers are willing to stay abroad.
CPD should be relevant, useable and (wherever possible) accredited. This need not cost – there’s a plethora of accredited, free development programmes out there from organisations as recognisable as National Geographic and the Open University.
Give your teachers options, a deadline, clear expectations, a bit of money (if the budget stretches) and let them develop themselves. Oh, and if you really can’t avoid a staff meeting out of hours, bring doughnuts.
Oliver Ireland is assessment coordinator at The New English School, Kuwait