Recruitment season is something many international educators both look forward to and dread. It’s a time to explore different opportunities that could literally change your life. However, it’s also a time of extreme stress and frustration. The field is immensely competitive with a single position at a popular school sometimes getting over 100 applicants. The pandemic has caused even more uncertainty as teachers come and go depending on lockdowns and city wide quarantine.
Recruitment agencies like Search Associates, TIE Online, ISS, and Schrole are designed to help teachers navigate the process of recruitment. They’re a one-stop shop for teachers to set up a profile, submit confidential references, and contact schools upon reviewing their profile. However, these organizations exist to prioritize the needs of the schools that utilize them. They uphold the status quo that allows schools to gaslight their teachers. They allow school leaders to act as gatekeepers to both prevent opportunities for teachers they dislike while also facilitating connections for those they find agreeable.
What if school leaders deploy problematic hiring practices? What if teachers are subjected to abuse by vindictive school leaders that costs them their jobs? Their reputation? There are no protocols in place on these platforms to protect teachers subjected to harm by their administrators. I experienced this first hand with one particular recruitment agency that many teachers take advantage of. This agency has done zero work on any sort of equitable hiring practices or DEIJ policies. This experience was so devastating that it caused me extreme distress and inevitably cost me a job.
I was in the final stages of the interviewing process at a major international school. Their policy required me to reach out to my last few principals for a reference. One previous principal I worked with for several years prior wrongfully claimed I “falsified” old references on the platform. I had never actually used this platform up until this point. This former principal deliberately went into my account and reported it without reaching out for any type of context, even though we have an open line of communication. This organization contacted me to clarify and the issue with these old references was a title mismatch – a minor clerical error that I owned up to and sought to amend especially since I had several up-to-date references from my current institution.
However, I received no response from the recruitment organization. I was essentially ghosted, dealing with a punishment that was an extreme overreaction for a mistake. After several fruitless email and even phone call attempts, it was clear they were avoiding me. I was just another teacher to them in a sea of teachers whose emotional well being and job security did not matter compared to their zero tolerance policy.
It wasn’t until I contacted a lawyer and threatened legal action against the recruitment agency that they finally contacted me via email. By this point, it had been over 10 days since this debacle started. In the end, the agency agreed to reinstate my account based on my more current references, but continued to reprimand me for being “dishonest”. While I was relieved to come to a resolution with this issue, the damage had already been done. I lost an exciting job opportunity and went through an emotional rollercoaster.
This issue inevitably cost me this job, and as per the recruitment agency’s policy they are allowed to notify any other bodies who may use the user’s data. I was terrified. I felt like my international school teaching career was over.
What the recruitment agency and this principal did was undermine my teaching experience. They dismissed the fact I have been a community leader for several years, ignoring my colleagues who vouched for me and taking the word of vindictive principal over my own. This particular principal has had a history of fraternizing with and verbally assaulting teachers. Yet, how could recruitment organizations ever know about this? Principals only require references from other principals, reinforcing problematic affinity biases. When I’ve reached out to recruitment organizations about this, the response has always been “go through your school’s proper channels”, but the channels exist to allow abusive leaders to thrive.
I was left on my own without any due process, so I cast out my net. I reached out to anyone and everyone within my professional network. Teachers on the ground all shared similar experiences they have had with other recruitment organizations; experiences of racism, homophobia, gaslighting, and abuse. We lamented in our shared experiences, and it made me even more frustrated to know these stories were a lot more common than I thought. Ultimately, my contacts led me to meet with other leaders at different recruitment organizations. The response from school and education leaders was the same, “ What did you do to this principal to deserve this?”. The ownership was placed back on me for having a poor relationship with my former principal. After I explained the racist and homophobic practices of this principal, I was given the response, “Well, back then we really didn’t know any better”. I knew right then I would not find my support here.
The overarching problem here isn’t with a single recruitment organization. Yes, these organizations have a tremendous amount of work to do to create truly equitable recruitment practices. The underlying issue is institutional power. These organizations exist not for teachers, but for schools, “old boys club” leadership circles, and full pockets. “Equity statements” and committees aside, when a real problem occurs with a school and a teacher, these organizations defend institutions and school leaders first. This was demonstrated not just in my own personal story, but the silent stories of many others. In fact, I believe that the way recruitment organizations are designed is to prevent truth-telling and accountability. My own experience ultimately led me to connect with the director of recruitment for another organization who wanted to hear my story. I was asked several times through the course of a single conversation what I did to make my previous administrator act in this way. After bringing up my experiences with racism, homophobia, and abuse, I was told by this director, “Back then, administrators didn’t know any better.” as if racism didn’t exist before the protests of 2020.
Consider this common scenario: A teacher has a poor experience with a recruitment organization, a school, or a school leader. The teacher experienced racism, homophobia, or microaggressions. Who do these teachers go to? They certainly do not speak with school leaders, who are often the aggressors. The head of school, likely a white male, is supportive of their white leadership team and doesn’t understand the experiences of marginalized communities. HR exists to support teachers with visas and finances, not interpersonal relationships. Even if systems do exist for teachers to report harassment and violence, complaining places our letters of recommendation at risk. Teachers are often gaslit into thinking the problem is with us; we’re told that we’re “too sensitive” or “we need to respect the journey our colleagues are on” rather than challenge racist individuals or institutions. The only solution for teachers is to keep quiet, put their head down, and make it through the year, hopefully with an adequate letter of recommendation in hand. Teachers will never know of course because electronic references are confidential, so teachers are left wondering what school leaders really said about them.
Some recruitment organizations are doing work to create more equitable practices, but I think there needs to be significantly more work done to actually hold schools accountable. Forming committees and interrogating internal policies is a piece of equity work, but justice and liberation will not happen unless more radical action is taken.
Require administrators to diversify their references
To my understanding, administrators are only required to submit references to recruitment organizations from other administrators. This creates an affinity bias and reinforces problematic power dynamics between school leaders. I would argue that very little can actually be understood by a school leader by requiring only other leaders in a similar position to provide a reference. I think recruitment organizations should require school leaders to call upon several staff members, parents, and students to submit confidential references describing their overall performance at the school. References should be random, and questions should also be available in more than one language depending on the school context. It would require some logistical gymnastics for recruitment organizations to make this work, but it’s possible especially given how there are much fewer school leaders than there are principals who go recruiting every year.
It’s also possible to enact this change without waiting for the bureaucratic recruitment organizations to do something about it. Many leaders find jobs organically through networking, so schools could make these types of references required in their hiring practice when seeking out new administrators. If we want a clear picture on how principals and other school leaders actually advocate for students, teachers and community members, they need to start reaching out to the source.
Require schools to submit public climate surveys to recruitment organizations
School websites might have a DEIJ statement or even a non discrimination policy. Now, on places like Search Associates, there is a spot in the school profile that states whether or not a school has an equity statement. Despite this, it’s extremely difficult to understand what it’s actually like to work at a new school unless you happen to know someone who either works there or has worked there. While schools tout their equity statement or spend thousands of dollars on PD, Queer and BIPOC educators often have a very different experience when they arrive. Take the school I worked at in Kuwait. It’s regarded as one of the most well established schools in the Gulf Arab region. However, in practice, they are racist, homophobic, and abusive. My experience is not unique; it has been echoed by several other international school teachers.
Teachers need full transparency. We’re shifting our lives and moving to a completely new country for a job opportunity that we don’t know much about aside from what’s on their website and in a virtual interview. Recruitment organizations should make it a requirement that schools submit climate surveys to their school profile that provide data from staff, teachers, students, and parents outlining their overall experience at the school. Surveys should be given in multiple languages and be updated every 2-3 years. These surveys should be public, so potential applicants can make a more informed decision on whether or not the school is right for them. This would also hold administrators more accountable, as their performance will essentially be reviewed by all stakeholders.
Make schools’ commitment to justice and equity a requirement
At the moment, the little section in school profiles about DEIJ statements and LGBT laws are entirely up to the school to fill out. In my experience, they’re sometimes inaccurate. I remember several occasions of bringing up a school’s DEIJ policy in an interview because I saw it on Search Associates, and the school had no idea what I was talking about. Are schools trained on what this means? Was it just a feature that was added without any notice?
A school’s dedication to anti-racism and liberation should not be optional. Finally, I think recruitment organizations should make having these aspects I noted, including a DEIJ statement, a requirement to access their services. Schools that do not comply would simply be turned away. Would that affect the company’s bottom line? Probably. However, those who are serious about this work understand that a sacrifice of privilege is sometimes necessary to do the right thing.
Queer and BIPOC voices should not have to fight this hard simply to exist. We need radical change, not committees or performative DEIJ statements or webinars. I implore recruitment organizations like Search Associates, ISS, and especially Schrole, to do more to hold harmful institutions accountable.