The Problem of Diversity in International School Recruitment

White Paper–James Nelligan

Over the last decade, it is estimated that the total number of international schools has doubled, while the number of qualified teacher candidates in the international pool has decreased (UIS, October 2016; Alexander, Wyatt-Smith, & Du Plessis, 2020). Currently, the number of teachers entering the international workforce neither meets demand nor makes up for sustained losses due to early retirement and/or mid-career exits from the profession (Odland & Ruzicka, 2009; Chandler, 2010). The onset of the COVID pandemic has further complicated workforce sustainability and contributed to teacher supply shortfalls worldwide (Hoang, 2020; Dos Santos, 2021). These market forces leave HR departments scrambling for qualified applicants during the international recruitment period, usually in the early fall preceding the target year (Jacoutot, 2020). At the same time, attentions have progressively turned towards diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives, albeit in a distilled or truncated form in many international contexts. Local socio-political priorities and sensitivities can infringe on a fuller engagement with DEIB principals, conceptualizations, and actions.  Diversifying faculty through reconceptualization of HR recruiting practices may begin to address both issues simultaneously—the need to recruit from largely untapped sectors of qualified applicants to meet demand, and the goal of diversifying faculties so as to further DEIB initiatives in context.  

Is diversity in international hiring really a priority?  

In their 2014 report, Time for a Change: Diversity in Teaching Revisited, Dilworth and Coleman ask, provocatively, whether it is necessary to actively recruit teachers of color?  Dilworth and Coleman (2014) contend that teachers who are “grounded in the day-to-day experiences of students and communities” show greater empathy for students of color, are more optimistic in their assessments of student potential, demonstrate a greater commitment to the wellbeing of students of color, and overall are more socially conscious than peers from more privileged ethno-social groups (pp. 1-2).  Some research suggests that teacher efficacy is greatest when educators work with students who mirror their own ethnocultural norms and experiences (Villegas & Irvine, 2010). There is little doubt that a diverse faculty, one reflective of the cultures, languages, and communities of the students they serve, is more likely to acknowledge and celebrate difference as a community strength, and more conscious of the need to facilitate equitable practices and opportunities in a shared learning environment for students and adults alike (Howard, 2010).  

Intersectionality is a useful theoretical frame for analyzing features within social systems that result in the marginalization (even invisibility) of some groups while privileging others (Walby, Armstrong, & Strid, 2012). This may be especially true for the assessment of often opaque organizational hiring practices. Crenshaw (1989, [1991]) defines intersectionality as the interface of multiple identity categories, which include but are not limited to class, race-ethnicity, and gender.  She argues that the intersections of traditionally marginalized categories usually lead to the double-repression of individual/groups within social contexts, as social categorizations and political discourses are generally not designed to consider multiple identities simultaneously. Jackson (2014) argues that within the field of Comparative Education, race, class and gender are critical intersectionalities because they are significant determinants of individual access and achievement.  This builds off the work of Kicheloe and Steinberg (1997), who posit that individual and group ‘location’ in social systems, e.g., employment, financial position, etc., shape perceptions of self, others, and power structures.  Access within and to systems, groups, opportunities, and power associated with identity categories such as race, class and gender, can shape individual experiences and results, though Jackson (2014) cautions that parity of access does not necessarily equate to parity in outcomes. 

International schools, by design, market the diversity of their student bodies and staffs, e.g., the number of nationalities, cultures, and languages represented within a school community (Fertig & James, 2016). ‘Diversity’ as an idea into practice may be further expressed within schools’ curricular choices, e.g., dual-language instruction, cultural immersion programming, etc. Conversely, hiring practices in many organizations, especially in schools wherein the language of instruction is English, tend to favor white, native speakers of English from the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom and its affiliated states (Johnston, Sator, Gajdamaschko, McRae et al., 2021; Diversity Collaborative, 2021). The established practice of enlisting international recruiting agencies to expedite teacher recruitment, agencies whose screening practices and candidate preferences often mirror the individual traits and professional experiences of recruiters themselves, may exacerbate the tendency. Furthermore, a recruiting agency’s country of origin may negatively impact diversity recruitment due to negative social perceptions held by in-country recruiters and/or candidates of color (Baum, Sterzing, & Alaca, 2016). 

Other market factors confound local efforts to improve faculty diversity through international recruiting, including candidate familiarity with independent/international schools and international school recruiters, candidate affiliation with preferred independent/international schools and universities, and context-specific customer preferences that can inform local hiring decisions (though this is rarely discussed in overt terms).  Due to systemic disparities in access, candidates of color are proportionally less likely to have attended or worked at independent or international schools (Munhofen III & Burchfield Vardi, 2020). These systemic disparities in opportunity also make candidates of color statistically less likely to have attended so-called “top tier” universities, a preference of recruiters and international school human resource departments alike. Teacher candidates whose identity categories and experiences are far afield from those with more traditional pathways to international teacher candidacy, e.g., black, intercity public teaching, etc., may be doubly challenged to legitimize the quality of their professional preparation and ‘fit’ for international school work. 

Perceptions of people of color regarding independent/international education may shape the recruitment and retention of minority teachers, especially if independent/international schools are viewed as systemically reinforcing privilege contrary to pluralistic ideals, candidates are made to feel as if they are token representatives of larger social groups within their professional contexts, or context-specific professional pathways promote exclusionary majoritarian (in-group) cultural practices and priorities (Hasberry, 2013). A further complication for minority candidates is parent preference regarding expat teacher background profiles, which can favor white Americans, white Canadians, and white Western Europeans over equally qualified people of color. This is particularly true in non-Western countries seeking to import what they imagine to be an authentic “Western education”—understood as white and English-based.  Ironically, the confluence of these hiring preferences results in majority white, Anglo-European faculties serving ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse student bodies (Jacoutot, 2020).   

Why do we miss out on teachers of color?

            The recruitment of minority teachers to international schools can be exceedingly difficult for the aforementioned reasons and more. As a subgroup, minority candidates, of all backgrounds, represent a small share of the total applications forwarded to international school HR departments by partner recruiting agencies (Jacoutot, 2020; Diversity Collaborative, 2021). Internal and external screening processes privilege candidate profiles that meet established criteria, e.g., English language proficiency, highest degree earned and granting institution, work experience, certifications, and references.  Prima facia, these criteria may be viewed as “objective”. They invariably favor certain teacher candidates, those that “check all the boxes”, over others. In white majority countries, e.g., the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, these criteria work for white English-speaking candidates, especially those with independent and international school backgrounds. In some cases, they may actually work against equally-qualified non-white candidates with a high degree of English proficiency (Johnston, Sator, Gajdamaschko, McRae et al., 2021).  Established criteria are also subject to the vagaries of individual interpretation and biases, especially by members of hiring committees and leaders who will ultimately make the decision on hiring (Mason & Schroeder, 2010). Frames of reference, those “broad, abstracted, habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting expressed as judgements, attitudes, and feelings associated with particular groups,” influence individuals’ views and actions (Taylor, 2017, pp. 18-19). These frames can inform individual hiring decisions regarding what makes a qualified candidate—e.g., a specific dialect of English, shared cultural indicators or experiences, what a qualified teacher ‘looks like’, etc. 

Furthermore, international school circles are small and interconnected—two and three-year contracts ensure that international teachers will work at multiple institutions over the course of their careers. They are very likely to work with past colleagues in their futures, and are often recruited to new institutions by former colleagues and bosses.  Similarly, their professional references are likely to have worked with members of future hiring committees, advantaging candidates with large networks over others. Conversely, teacher candidates graduating from so-called ‘lower-tier’ schools of education, or programs designed for and/or emphasizing public education, may be wholly unaware of international teaching opportunities that they may otherwise show interested in, and for which they are fully qualified. Teachers of color outside of normal recruitment circles may indeed be doubly-repressed, unseen because they do not fit the standard frame for international school teachers (Crenshaw (1989, [1991]). 

Diversity hiring can address multiple organizational concerns, including immediate staffing needs near-term, and advancement of DEIB initiatives long-term. However, there are a number of systemic factors that can and do limit the field of minority candidates. While macrosystemic factors engrained in cultural, political, and economic systems will continue to impact diversity hiring, e.g., those associated with class/ethnic privilege and access, organizations can adopt more equitable hiring practices. These begin with the reconsideration of the agencies we choose to work with to source our candidates, a reconceptualization of preferred candidate traits to ensure equitable opportunities, and the exploration of non-traditional partnerships that leverage under-recruited sectors (such as schools of education in HBCs). 

Taking Action

A first step in diversifying organizational recruitment efforts is to actually commit to a vision of equity in hiring in explicit terms, a process that can precipitate a paradigmatic shift in school and leader priorities (Taylor, 2017). This shift begins with an acknowledgment of intra- and inter-institutional cultures and assumptions that shape organizational decision-making and the day-to-day experiences of employees. This is a values-based conversation. Mason (2014) contends that “whenever values are discussed collectively, they have to be examined in the context of individual choice of values” (p. 227). For this to work, values and mission-based discussions must be aligned; the negotiations that ensue must be viewed as an invitational to and for all stakeholders. 

Human Resources departments play a major role in shaping organizational recruitment profiles, protocols, and practices. It is imperative that HR managers and their teams view diversity as integral to both recruitment and retention efforts for a sustainable workforce, and draft recruitment and retention plans that prioritize diversity in hiring. Socialization of these plans, especially among Board members and school leaders responsible for hiring decisions, are a crucial next step, as is explicitly communicating changes in schools’ hiring foci and preferences to both school stakeholders and partner recruitment agencies alike.

Increasing diversity within faculties and staffs through hiring will not, in and of itself, lead to improved DEIB outcomes.  A more diverse faculty can invigorate DEIB discourse on school campuses, elevating and socializing abstract conceptualizations through the sharing of lived experiences. Students in these often highly-privileged environments are better served when they are exposed to diverse cultures, languages, and viewpoints in authentic and culturally-situated ways. This is more likely to be accomplished where faculties are more broadly representative of their world.   


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Purpose: Discourse

They say the unaimed arrow always finds its target. Better still is the well-aimed arrow. My purpose, our target, is to provide space for conversations about the unique experiences and problems associated with leading in international schools. The rules are simple–if it matters in international education, it matters here. I ask that participants share relevant concerns and insights with the explicit intent of supporting international schools, international educators, and their leadership. Be professional, be concise, be open and fair.