The Retention of Teachers in International Education

International schools have many differences: national and regional contexts; national, cultural, and professional backgrounds of parents and teachers; the make-up, in its various forms, of the student body; the cost of attending; the curricula; and staff conditions and benefits, to name but a few. Among the similarities, usually, is a mission to improve.

Key to school improvement, and student success, is the employment, through recruitment and retention, of high quality teachers. And yet, in my experience of three international schools on three continents, the effort put into finding the right people, and especially into keeping them, seems limited. This would seem to suggest that schools don’t understand the issues involved; either that, or, worse, they don’t care.

As the authors discussed here (Hardman, 2001; Odland and Ruzicka, 2009; Manusco, 2010; Chandler, 2010; Cox, 2012) are keen to point out: while there is a substantial amount of literature available relating to recruitment and retention in education, these typically deal with state-funded systems in national settings. And while international schools will naturally share many similarities with such institutions, staff turnover is one area where the variables at play are potentially very different. Thus, this review of the literature will focus solely on studies specifically addressing these issues in the context of international education.

Little such literature exists. Six pertinent texts were found, four of which were internationally published. The remaining two were a Doctoral thesis and a Master’s degree dissertation; the latter was unavailable for review.

Through the application of questionnaires, Hardman (2001), Odland and Ruzicka (2009) and Manusco (2010) all sought to explore what factors affect turnover in international schools. Between them there is some agreement, some disagreement, and a few gaps which might be explored.

Hardman’s work focused on the reasons teachers claimed to choose to join and/or stay at a particular school. His findings, in response to a list of pre-specified variables to which 30 teachers from a wide geographical spread of international schools were asked to respond, suggest that potential professional advancement (88.5%), financial incentives (84.6%), a happy working climate (84.6%), and a strong sense of job challenge (84.6%) were the most important variables, with others rating higher than 50% including a school’s staff development programme and the amount of collaboration in decision-making within a school. What is conspicuously absent here, in light of subsequent studies, is the role played by the leadership within a school; and while he does elucidate on ‘working conditions’ to discuss a teacher’s need to feel appreciated, feel important, and feel part of a team, these findings come from the interview responses of individuals and are presented more as anecdotal and exemplary than as statistically significant.

In contrast, while focusing on why certain teachers chose to leave at the end of their first contact, Odland and Ruzicka found that school leadership was of paramount importance. In a much wider study – of 281 respondents – the results suggest that communication between teachers and leaders, support for teachers from leaders and a teacher’s ability to take part in school decision-making are the three most significant variables affecting a decision to stay beyond the initial contract period. They labeled these variables together as ‘administrative leadership’. Manusco, too, in a survey of 22 head teachers and 248 teachers from 40 schools of the Near East South Asia (NESA) group, found leadership and organization to be significant; and though he was looking specifically at these issues, and the questions asked of respondents gave little chance for respondents to cite alternative priorities, the numbers, and his analysis of them, suggest that leadership qualities are key; transformative and distributed leadership styles –particularly those of a school’s Director – and, again, staff participation in decision-making, were all shown to aid teacher retention.

Other factors found by Odland and Ruzicka included salary, issues with private ownership, misrepresentation during the recruitment process, and dissatisfaction with colleagues. Manusco found that having a spouse who also teaches was a significant factor, as was the number of years a of experience a teacher had, but as the focus was on retention, these variables, being beyond the scope of a school to affect, were not discussed.

It is hard to criticize the size and make-up of the samples in these last two studies, as the disconnected nature and disparity of international education makes any other approach difficult. Hardman’s study, perhaps, is the weakest: 30 teachers seem unlikely to be statistically reliable.

One thing that does shine out of these three studies – especially so in the case of Hardman’s study, both in the research instrument and the tangential discussion of his findings – is the way in which recruitment and retention are so often conflated; and while both Manusco’s and Odland and Ruzicka’s studies clearly focus on retention, recruitment pops up time and again in the discussions. Cox (2012), who deals explicitly with recruitment, not only blurs the boundaries between the two; he makes direct claims that the findings of his study – which, given the large and widely-sourced sample, are likely to be significant – are applicable to those seeking to retain staff as much as they are to those involved in the hiring process. He does, in fairness, reach similar conclusions to those of Hardman and Manusco as to which variables are the more significant. However, there must be an inherent danger in treating these two parts of the employment process as one: namely, that school leaders might fail to pay enough attention to one, in favour of concentrating on the other. They are both of vital importance, and should be treated as such.

Cox also identifies ‘wanderlust’ as a key factor in recruitment, and then explicitly claims its importance in retention also. Chandler (2010) conducted a study specifically addressing the importance of location in influencing teachers’ decisions about joining and remaining at an international school. He found that while location is a major factor during the recruitment process, it had very little, if any, impact on retention. And while his study was very limited – his information was gleaned from just 24 respondents – this does seem a reasonable hypothesis, given that one would hope that by the time a teacher accepts a position at a school, they will have done their research and be familiar with the location in question.

In summary then, the studies discussed above seem to identify school leadership and organizational structures as key factors in teacher retention. Salary plays a part, as do a complex combination of other factors. They also seem to suggest a conflation of recruitment and retention, which might potentially skew a school’s policies with regards to teacher turnover. Furthermore, what all these studies have in common, above all else, is that they concentrate, either explicitly or implicitly, on the subject(s) as they are seen from the point of view of teachers. What they fail to address are the practices school leaders see as affective in recruiting and retaining their staff. What seems to be missing, in short, is a study of whether or not employers are aware of what their staff or potential staff value in a school, whether or not they actively seek to do anything address these issues, and if not, then why not; especially given the evidence that school leadership is so important.

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