Heading up an international school is probably one of the least-understood leadership positions in education today.
Most serious scholars in educational leadership have focused on institutions in their own region.
International Baccalaureate: IB achieves worldwide growth
This has led to a curious leadership situation where little is actually known about international school leadership.
Leading an International Baccalaureate (IB) school is a different thing again.
There are now more than 7,000 international schools worldwide, with roughly half being IB schools – and there are myriad opinions on what leadership is like in these contexts.
Research is limited, so we know so very little about who leads these schools and what they think. What pressures do they face? And what do they consider to be most important?
Between 2014 and 2018, I studied six very influential IB international school directors in some of the world’s leading schools in Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
How to successfully lead an IB school
If you are keen to lead an IB school, here are six quick takeaways based on my research:
1. Model the IB learner profile attributes
This means authentically modelling the IB learner profile (IBLP) in work. In research . this consistently comes up as being the lifeblood of a successful IB school.
2. Base your leadership on professionalism
In this (expatriate) context, personal and professional space can overlap continuously, so clear professional respect is vital.
3. Remember that leadership is a social practice
Your professional connection should be based on a shared outlook. Professionally fulfilled staff make a happy school and they tend to stay on.
4. Work to reduce hierarchy
Many international schools produce extraordinary hierarchies. This invokes godlike leadership and serf-like minions.
Use relational leadership, professionalism and the social unguent of leadership to reduce hierarchy.
Remember that teachers are leaders and the IBLP empowers all: you just happen to be the headteacher in some cases and at some times.
5. Resist self-aggrandisement
This is crucial as, in many developing contexts, senior leadership can be perceived to be about being authoritarian, strong and demanding of fealty.
In the international context, this can be significantly magnified. And once the position is framed in this way, it is difficult not to feel the need to fit the supposed requirements.
Put in simple cultural terms, it’s more difficult to empower than to dictate.
6. Remember you lead a values-based school
People who know nothing of leadership (and little of education) will expect you to be a transactional and authoritarian leader, and you may find these are the people you report to or who have key positions in your school.
Hold true to the organisational values of the IBLP and reflect on your practice in the context of those values.
Resist the temptation to trivialise the IBLP and draw on your own moral framework. You are here to lead a values-based school through shared attributes.
Embodying the IB
The key to success is to develop relational leadership based on professional respect and understand that leadership is a social practice.
Use the IBLP in your leadership practice and be prepared to take from it as much as you give, and in more ways than you thought possible.
The world is a big place, after all, and IB international schools are trying to make it a better place.
That process starts with you.
Dr Alexander Gardner-McTaggart is a lecturer in educational leadership at the Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester, UK