Are International Schools Hotbeds for Top Educator Talent?

International educators are amazing. Okay, so that is a sweeping generalization. I’m sure that we can find enough non-examples to challenge my claim. Nonetheless, I’ve been reflecting on my February trip to Hong Kong and Vietnam, where I had the pleasure of interacting with teachers at Hong Kong International School, Concordia International School in Hanoi (as well as couple other international schools in Hanoi), along with an impressive collection of international school educators from Asia and beyond who gathered in Hong Kong for the 21st Century Learning Conference. It left me considering the idea of international schools as hotbeds for top educator talent.

I’ve spoken at and attended many conferences over the years (well over a hundred), but I’ve never been to an event where educators collectively and individually demonstrated so much engagement, curiosity, and love for their work. It was the antithesis of events like [I originally referenced a specific event here, but decided it was in better taste to leave it out] which, I hate to say, have this subtle but evident intellectual stench of a dying education system. Instead, this conference of international educators was vibrant, inspiring, intellectually stimulating, and had the sweet aroma of hope for the future of education. I wasn’t with them long enough to better understand the impact of their practice, but I can say with confidence that, as a group, they conveyed a level of passion for the profession that was inspiring and heartening.

While I’m sure that some of these schools are grappling with plenty of serious issues, it was refreshing to attend an education event where people were not lamenting the latest external mandate and its implications on their school (although I’m sure that they must have at least some parallel challenges). They were not obsessing about external policy and self-preservation. Instead, they were talking about teaching and learning. As a group, these teachers cared about curiosity and a love of learning. As best as I could tell, they were largely interested in creating world-class learning communities and experiences for young people.

Again, I realize that my limited time in these contexts leaves some of these ideas as conjecture, but I’ve been to enough education conferences to trust my subjective experience to some degree, at least enough to know that the attendees at the 21st Century Learning Conference helped to create a wonderful and positive ethos, one that I would love to see at more education events, conferences, and communities. In fact, the ethos at this event was comparable to the climate at many of the innovative and student-centered learning organizations that I’ve highlighted on this blog over the years.

While it varied from school to school, there was certainly a consistent challenge among many of these international schools. Parents, for example, tend to have high standards for their children academically, wanting them to attend the best higher education institutions in the world. As such, you can find plenty of families interested in the traditional GPA, test scores and whatever else gives their student an advantage in the competitive admission process to these top Universities. At the same time, and I realize this is easier said than done (not to mention a bit presumptuous coming from an outsider), these are parents who are invested in their children’s education. If you can introduce them to the broader range of possibilities in education and the benefits for their children’s future, then you have a potent combination that can launch such a school into the stratosphere when it comes to student engagement and learning.

At minimum, reflecting on this trip and some of the distinctives of these teachers and their communities, I am certain of one thing. If I were starting a new school or I was leading a high-impact and innovative school in the United States, and I wanted to find top education talent, I guarantee you that I would be scanning the teaching rosters in top international schools around the world. I’m convinced that they have a special concentration of teachers with a sense of adventure, a commitment to excellence (in themselves and others), and an openness to trying something new and impactful in the education space.

With regard to the last paragraph, I should be more direct. I know the audience for my blog pretty well. I realize that one segment of my readership consists of many founders and leaders of innovative education organizations and schools. As such, I’m really writing this for you. If you are looking to find top educator talent for your school, check out the international schools.

Posted in blog, education, international education, talent management | Tagged ,

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation; as well as Founder and CEO of Birdhouse Learning Labs. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

4 Replies to “Are International Schools Hotbeds for Top Educator Talent?”

  1. Michael Boll

    Hi Bernard. It was great to meet you in Hong Kong and listen to all the positive things people were saying about you and what you had to talk about. Your ideas may have also sparked some positive ideas and reaction as well. Maybe that is what you saw. 😉

    My daughter is graduating soon and is a product of international schools in Indonesia, China and Thailand. She had a zillion wonderful learning opportunities given to her over the years by caring, dedicated teachers. It allowed her to grow in ways well beyond the classroom.

    Was this a result of fabulous teachers? For sure! And, I think it was also a result of these fabulous teachers working in an environment that gave them the time and autonomy to plan and create these opportunities.

    Many teachers in the USA would surely do the same things if they were less burdened with social struggles, financial struggles and the seeming demonization (at least from an outsider’s perspective) of the education system in the USA. However, I agree that much of what happens is part of the expectations set by the culture of the school and parent community. Perhaps a returning international educator would be less likely to let their home country’s restrictive educational culture stop them from making great things happen.

    As Daniel Pink tells us, mastery, autonomy and purpose are powerful motivators for job satisfaction. My career has nearly always been in international schools and I am very thankful.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thank you for the comment and kind words, Michael. Your comments about teachers in the US are certainly important. I should probably clarify that my writing is largely focused on an audience of a-typical US schools. The people who tend to tolerate my work and writing the best are those schools and leaders that/who have a bent for innovation and a more entrepreneurial spirit, and they struggle to find teachers from the legacy system who have the energy, skill and openness to do things differently. As I speak with leaders of these schools, this is a common challenge. They find it hard to take what is sometimes even a great teacher from the legacy local high school and place them in a full-blown project-based learning school with success.

      As you noted, culture is key, and it is sometimes hard for someone coming from a more restrictive culture to hit the ground running in these more innovative school cultures, although there are many wonderful examples of teachers who make that transition well. Many of these innovative school leaders who are looking for great talent, however, have not considered the pool of international teachers who might come from school cultures that may well be closer to the vision they have for their school in the US.

  2. Maha Bali

    This was really interesting to read. I grew up in top tier British schools in Kuwait and went to the American University in Cairo. I guarantee you it’s not true that these places attract the top talented UK/US educators. But I can tell you the following:

    A. Anyone who takes a job in an exotic location will (unless they’re totally stupid and insulated) eventually become a special teacher because of their exposure to international students and living in a foreign country. This doesn’t mean they’re better teachers than counterparts who haven’t traveled; but they become broader than they were coming in… Does that make sense? I see faculty who come here to Cairo wide-eyed and clueless but they grow and mature. So maybe now they’re considered top talent, i don’t know…but many aren’t top talent coming in

    B. Usually those schools they work at are private and well-paid; usually as expats they get good benefits; usually this combo is much better than they would get back home. This must impact their attitude, coupled w how well they are usually received in the host country by everyone

    C. Taking the person who thrived abroad back home may or may not be a good idea because it’s possible that what they’ve learned is most usefully applied internationally or that the international environment is part of what spurs them on; going back home could stifle them. It might not, but it may.

    Come visit me in Cairo sometime 🙂 The Digital Pedagogy Lab folks had a blast here last month

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, this is certainly not based on any formal research. Yet, I’ve never seen such a concentration of engaged and open educators at a conference. You make other important points as well. I do quite a bit of work with schools that are quite different from the more common industrial age schools. These are project-based learning schools, self-directed learning schools, game-based learning schools, etc. They often do not have traditional grading systems and other 19th and 20th century school features. Finding the right teachers for these schools can be incredibly challenging as teachers coming from standard US schools do not always make the switch well. I suspect that international schools are a new and potentially untapped source of talent for these distinct schools.

      Thanks for the invite. I had an invitation to speak at what I think was a government-led event in Cairo last year that was focused on the future of education in Egypt. Unfortunately, it conflicted with another keynote commitment.

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