At the start of each new academic year, international schools around the world welcome a number of new families and new teachers to their community. A certain degree of student turnover in such schools is an expected and accepted feature of expat life, mostly as a direct consequence of parents being relocated by their multinational corporate employers.
Understanding the reasons that contribute to academic staff turnover
But what about the teachers - why do students returning from their holidays regularly encounter several unfamiliar faces amongst the academic staff? Many who embark on an international teaching career consider it an opportunity to explore different parts of the world.
From the outset they are planning an itinerant lifestyle, for a while at least, until they decide to return to their home country, or fall in love with one of (or someone at) the destination(s) that they have chosen, be it the Middle East, Asia or Africa. Such stopovers tend to last between two to five years, long enough to share and gain professional experience, and to get to know and enjoy country where they have made their temporary home.
Very often, Europe is a stepping-stone to other continents if the first venture was successful. There are other reasons for moving on, of course, like a change in family situation, a return to further studies, an opening for a promotion or perhaps retirement. And, quite seldom, homesickness or incompatibility with the establishment or its programme.
So what is an “acceptable” turnover of teachers at an international school?
When international travel was not as easy as it is today, before opportunities for instant communication were so widespread and when many contracts were fixed at one or two years by local government regulations, figures were well above 20%. Over the last decade, the benchmark saw schools having to recruit at least 1 in 6 teachers every year, according to a 2009 study on international schools in Asia. It is accepted though that much depends on the type, size, geographical location, curriculum, etc. of the school.
In reality, a qualitative evaluation is more meaningful. On the one hand, the answer to the question, “Why are teachers leaving?” is important. If these reasons fall under the heading of “natural turnover”, which in principle mean that teachers otherwise would have been quite happy to remain, then these are forces a school administration, and the parents, have to respect and accept. However, if teachers are seeking new opportunities elsewhere because they are dissatisfied with one aspect or another of their employment, then some action is required from the school to improve retention.
Ultimately a refreshing change for school and parents
On the other hand, the question, “Is the teacher turnover affecting the education the school is providing?” is of great relevance to the students and their parents. This can be answered in terms of the ease with which a new member of staff fits into the existing structure. If the school has a robust academic programme with clear curriculum planning in place, then new teachers, already experienced in the IB for example, can seamlessly pick up where their predecessors left off. In fact, their fresh approach may bring some innovative and interesting elements into the mix, not only in the classroom, but also in the co- and extra-curricular offerings.
In conclusion, teacher turnover is as much a part of international school life as are the different cultures, the changing student body, and the constant evolution of the academic programme to best meet the needs of the upcoming generation. As such, it can be considered enriching rather than detrimental to the school community, even if it is always sad to say farewell to members of staff. Not everyone likes change, but looking forward to new beginnings is exciting nevertheless!