Wellbeing and international schools: The research view

Academics studying wellbeing in the international school sector offer insights on what the research tells us matters to the global education community

Mark Harrison, Stephen Chatelier, and Elke Van dermijnsbrugge

Covid: Nearly half of teachers have considered leaving this year, according to new research revealing the impact of the pandemic on teacher wellbeing and mental health

Teaching is a stressful job, and it isn’t getting any less so.

Indeed, research indicates that the wellbeing of teachers is lower than that of people who work in other professions, and the Covid-19 pandemic has added to teachers’ stress in a number of different ways.

Moreover, international school teaching comes with its own particular pressures, which teachers in national school systems are less likely to face.

Interactions with students, parents and colleagues from different cultural backgrounds might be unfamiliar and disorienting, and teachers can experience a sense of cultural isolation or “homesickness” not having access to the stable networks of social support that might otherwise be available to them.

Teachers in international schools are also usually employed on a contract basis, without the job security, protection and other support that might be offered in their home countries.

No wonder, then, that their wellbeing can be affected.  But what do we even mean by wellbeing?

Defining wellbeing

It’s not easy to sum up neatly, but one definition relating to teachers has been proposed by researchers Renae Acton and Patti Glasgow, who describe it as “personal professional fulfilment, satisfaction, purposefulness and happiness” which is “constructed as a collaborative process with colleagues and students”.

In the context of teachers’ work, how might this notion of wellbeing be more regularly experienced?

In this article, we explore the centrality of relationships to teacher wellbeing and the importance of international schools adopting an ethic of care.

Focusing on relationships

Research shows that when teachers experience an affiliative climate at school, characterised by close interpersonal relationships, they also experience higher levels of wellbeing, as described above.

We are a small group of researchers at the Education University of Hong Kong and have been conducting research into the experiences of international schoolteachers in the city – so far, our findings strongly support the view that relationships are at the heart of teachers’ wellbeing.

Teachers’ relationships with students are particularly important. A recent study, using data from the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), for example, found that “the best predictors of job satisfaction involve proximal interpersonal relationships, specifically, relations with the students”.

The reason for this seems clear: relationships with students make up the primary source of teachers’ emotional experiences at school, and they are the principal way in which teachers are able to satisfy their need for connection – a basic psychological need we all have.

Therefore, a focus on developing and sustaining good relationships between teachers and students in classrooms is an important way of improving the subjective wellbeing of teachers, and ought to be a priority for international schools.

Time to connect 

Recent research conducted in the UK has reported that teachers experience joy when working with young people, insofar as they were able to concentrate on the relational aspects of their work in classrooms, and not be distracted by measures of performance and accountability.

This conclusion may be even more important in international schools, where the usual expectations on teachers to “perform” by demonstrating high grades in their classes can be intensified by expectations coming from different cultural values systems, and the reality that parents are often paying hefty tuition fees.

Add to this the common two-year contract cycle for international schoolteachers, and this need to “perform” is of high stakes for one’s career.

But what is the relationship between the performance culture of schools and teacher-student relationships? We agree that there is no contradiction, as such, between a teacher building good relationships with their students and the students doing well academically.

Indeed, research in the UK involving data collection from a very large number of teachers has shown a statistically significant relationship between teacher wellbeing and student attainment.

But all too often, teachers feel that their focus is pulled away from the classroom, away from the relationships that bring them joy and contribute to their wellbeing.

An ethic of care

While relationships with students have the most immediate and substantial impact on teachers’ wellbeing, their relationships with school leaders and the wider climate of the school can also have a significant influence.

One hardly needs academic research to tell us that when school leaders are approachable and supportive, when they trust their staff to work independently, and give them autonomy and the freedom to make or influence decisions, teachers experience higher levels of job-satisfaction and self-efficacy, but research has indeed consistently found this to be the case.

Schools generally claim to be “caring” places, and one often hears international schools describe themselves with words like “family” and “community”. No doubt many do achieve this ideal.

Teachers, however, may have many experiences that are not consistent with this claim: job insecurity, unapproachable managers and leaders, inflexible working arrangements, insensitive human resources practices, and a sense of not “having a say” in their own classroom practices.

Don't make teachers feel used 

The antithesis of being cared for is being used.

If education is seen as a service to consumers, whose outcome is essentially grades, and if teachers are viewed as service providers, then teachers are also seen as expendable, and they can feel like resources serving an instrumental purpose, which can be disposed of and replaced by younger, cheaper versions.

In such an environment, teachers can hardly be expected to thrive, especially when they see the contrast between their lived experience, and the lofty and altruistic vision statements on their schools’ websites.

Schools do try to pay attention to teacher wellbeing, of course.

However, in attempting to improve their teachers’ wellbeing, schools can sometimes put in place initiatives which, while well intentioned, fail to solve the deeper, systemic problems that lead to feelings of alienation and disconnection in the first place.

This tendency to enact superficial responses to problems with deeper, structural causes, is part of a wider movement, which situates the locus of control for happiness and success on the individual and, as the author Ruth Whippman has observed, “has led to an almost belligerent denial of the impact of social and political context on wellbeing”.

Whippman goes on to remind us that we are now “encouraged to turn to self-help books rather than social safety nets, and blame the individual for his or her own unhappiness rather than attempting to tackle the thorny causes behind it”.

Our own research with international schoolteachers in Hong Kong suggests that articulating a shared vision among the whole school community, which focuses on interpersonal aspects of teaching and protects teachers against a climate of excessive accountability measures, is likely to be the best way to support teacher wellbeing.

Schools that provide mindfulness classes, yoga and shoulder massages might be missing the point: teachers need to feel more connected, more heard, more valued.

To be sure, this is no easy task, but it ought to be one of the core priorities of international school leaders.

Mark Harrison, Stephen Chatelier, and Elke Van dermijnsbrugge have all been teachers and leaders in international schools, including in Asia. They now work in the Department of International Education at The Education University of Hong Kong where they teach and conduct research on critical aspects of international schooling

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