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.
Who I am
I am a black educator employed at a top tier international school. I have built a future for myself thanks to this teaching post. My children go to the school I teach in, for reduced tuition fees. I am
also deeply grateful for the opportunity to teach fabulous students from all over the world. These are some of the reasons why it is a teacher’s ultimate dream to work where I do.
What Happened to me
I joined my current international school post over 10 years ago. It was a breakthrough in my career. Understandably, I did not pay attention straight away to the fact that there were just a handful of
black teachers amongst an overwhelmingly white faculty. At the beginning, all was well. Spontaneously, I became everybody’s ‘sunshine’. Colleagues complimented me on my colourful clothes, my extravagant hairstyles and my commitment to smiling and spreading positive vibes. A feeling of isolation only kicked-in a few years down the line as my fellow black colleagues moved on,
often replaced by white educators. No matter how committed you are to creating relationships wherever you are, the loneliness of having no one who looks like you, starts to take a toll. My
children also brought stories of playground and classroom racism from school but I thought that building my children’s resilience was my one and only option.
Soon I became simply annoyed by the constant need for me to code-switch. The jokes, the news discussed, the experiences shared by everybody, everything seemed to sideline me in one way or another. I felt like an outsider at work. I was a visible and a cultural minority in a context where I shouldn’t have been, at least not so drastically. As a matter of fact, I repeatedly noticed prospective black teachers that I thought would be excellent additions to our team, not coming back after their interviews. Black candidates were hitting the proverbial glass ceiling…
I was torn between enjoying my luck and fearing for my job security if I dared to speak up about the school’s racist recruitment practices. Feeling ‘othered’ at work made me sleep a bit less at night. I was agonising over whether or not I should quit. I decided against it because my children loved their school. I did become more attentive to the racism they occasionally faced there. I no longer hesitated to challenge colleagues or the school administration when my young ones reported incidents to me. tension was building up.
Fortunately, I had access to some black communities outside of school where I was able to feel safe. This is how I kept my sanity. That and the practice of spiritual gratitude. I really tried to keep seeing the good side of things, the light at the end of the tunnel.
What wound up destabilising me was the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement and its impact on international education. The Pandora box of my bottled-up feelings was forced open by newspaper articles and blog posts written by courageous black educators working in international education like me.
The texts of professionals such as Proserpina Dhlamini Fisher
( https://www.tieonline.com/article/2725/racism-in-recruiting-the-elephant-in-our-international-education-room ),
Nunana Nyomi ( https://www.cois.org/about-cis/news/post/~board/perspectives-blog/post/international-education-perpetuates-structural-racism-and-anti-racism-is-the-solution ),
Safaa Abdelmajid ( https://medium.com/@mabrouka ), and more, stirred up painful emotions but also, the merciful feeling of not being alone. In that same period, some of my white colleagues who might have read the same articles as me, started critical conversations with me about the relevance of BLM in international education. In meetings, during lunch, in the corridors, some of them were unleashing strings of daily verbal microaggressions with the intent to make me see the other side of the story, their side . As these co-workers were blissfully unaware of the negative impacts on me of their attempts at wokeness, I made crying in the staff toilets my secret routine.
I had always known there was racism at school but I attributed it to ignorance. After the surge of BLM, I would start to notice guerilla tactics, avoidance moves, and resistance to change. I was not ready for that. The school leadership had understood that talking about race could no longer be deferred. Our coloured students were speaking-up about racist experiences at school. Their
parents were joining in. So the institution had to take a public stance. First of all, there was the p.r. on the website and communications, literally inundating the community with proof that the matter was being addressed. Surveys about people’s experiences with discrimination, presentations in staff meetings, sharing groups etc. it looked all good on the surface.
I saw this as my opportunity to speak up too. I did so on social media, and informally, at work, sharing articles, bringing risky topics into casual conversations. I wanted the school community to reflect on so many questions: why are we not recruiting more black educators? What does bias look like in an international school classroom? Why do students need their names well-pronounced? How come black and coloured boys are statistically more likely to be unjustly disciplined by their teachers? I even expressed my interest in presenting to the leadership of the school on the issue of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. I thought my personal story could help make things right. But my messages to the school administration were answered very coldly and that hit me like a closed fist. In my short-lived enthusiasm, I had underestimated white fragility. I started to understand how I could be seen as a problem for the image of the school. I was an angry black woman, my impact
needed to be curbed to leave way to a slow process of awareness, without pressure to deliver anything concrete anytime soon. I often heard the following sentences in discussions. ‘this is a marathon, not a sprint.’ or ‘the most important is to raise awareness. In the meantime I was witnessing the following types of behaviours on the ground:
– A teacher who used the N word in class, and publicly dismissed the importance of racial incidents that happened at school was put in charge of a major anti-discrimination project while parents, students and myself had voiced concerns about the prejudices of this individual.
– When my name was proposed in meetings to lead anti racism efforts, the school management remained silent. In the meantime other institutions came to me for support in the exact same domain
– After making it clear to the school leadership that I am very enthusiastic about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, I saw another person recruited on this mission without it being previously advertised. The person was less experienced than me and not black, and therefore less ‘threatening’ maybe?
– A group of disgruntled parents came together to hold the school more accountable on racism. The school created hurdles to silence them, while keeping the dialogue going on the surface, then officially turned to another anti-discrimination group with no black members and a ‘less angry’ tone ( weaponizing people’s anger when the school caused it in the first place)
– One of my posts promoting antiracism in international schools was re-shared by my school on their own page. They were seemingly endorsing me, while sidelining me in reality.
As a black educator in international education, receiving the cold shoulder from your superiors during the development of the BLM movement is particularly upsetting. Overall, these were strange
times at work. Colleagues were kind enough as a whole. On the surface, I also remained my chirpy happy self but I could not help notice that my new activist posture inconvenienced some of my
co-workers though. A couple of teachers seemed to be avoiding me, others challenged me for being ‘divisive’. Some of my colleagues did sense I might be struggling behind my mask of happiness as my mental health was slowly but surely deteriorating. I was, unknowingly, developing racial battle fatigue. One weekend like another, I broke down at home, in the presence of my family. I was
hospitalised in a psychiatric unit. I am currently still recovering.
Why I am Talking Today
I am writing this testimony anonymously because I fear for my job. However, another reason why I am not giving my name here is because I want international schools around the globe to face the
mirror when they read these words and assess where they presently stand. I have told my own story here but I am certainly not the only one to have experienced what I have described. I want to say to fellow black and BIPOC teachers in international education who have gone through the same grief as me, that they are not alone. Racism in international education is particularly hurtful because it is out of place there. When highly regarded international institutions choose to discourage black teachers from expressing themselves, when they drown our voices through tactics from politics , when school leaders make the choice to work on inclusion at their own slow pace, smiling all the way while we suffer, the people who pay the price are non-white members of the community. The isolation of black teachers is mirrored in the injustice BIPOC students experience due to lack of role models for them, it is exemplified in insufficient curricular representation for non-white children at top international schools.
How we can stop this from happening to black teachers
International schools have been, in the past, spaces where white privilege has prevailed. This status quo is being challenged today by the BLM movement. This momentum should be understood as an opportunity to become even truer to the idealistic missions of international education. There are, in my view, 3 ways to navigate this change positively:
– Embrace racial inclusion without hypocrisy. It is no longer time to focus solely on protecting your school’s reputation through p.r. Instead, you must move forward, courageously, now.
– Empower the BIPOCs who step forward to help lead change in that domain. Rebalancing justice, agency and voice is the way to go. This journey can no longer be about white people showing how woke they can be, or sticking to their racial fragilities.
– Restore trust through a clear long-term vision for diversity equity and inclusion. Educators of colour do not need a temporary band-aid on our traumas and discriminations. We deserve to work in a safe space where regularly reviewed recruitment policies and educational practices confirm that we will never again have to be the voiceless tokens.
How can isolated black teachers keep sane in such toxic, gaslighting environments?
– Don’t despair, instead reach out to others like you across the movement, for, there is an active movement for racial inclusion within international education. Reach out to organisations like ODIS (Organisation to Decolonise International Schools), AIELOC (Association of International educators and leaders of Colour) or International Teachers of colour. They have conferences, resources and safe spaces for you.
– Self-care: racism will not end tomorrow but you could if you keep experiencing high levels of stress
– Share your experience: our voices need to be heard, even by those who are trying hard not to grasp the full picture of what racism looks like in international education today. Our voices are also precious to comfort each other. The echo of us speaking up in turns is in itself an antidote to isolation
Here at the hospital, thankfully, there is only me and my wellbeing. The doctors say they want me to relax, for, I arrived here, distraught and exhausted, even sleep-deprived. I must rest. And yet, a knot is forming in my stomach at the thought of going back to the international school. The idealistic school that rejected my black voice, ignored my pain, disregarded my experience, in such a casual way. I am not sure that I will be able to go back , even though one of my life goals was to grow professionally here, in one of the best international schools in the world!
As I look through my room’s tall windows, I see swallows circling above city rooves. One building seems to particularly appeal to them. It is one with a high steeple. The dark birds are flying around it in a majestic dance, as if they are looking for an opening to get in, but cannot find one. I feel serene here, far away from the tensions of the real world. My expectations for my international school do not seem to matter here. I must say I received a couple of ‘get well soon’ messages from work. People do like and respect me there. There is no shortage of kindness; that has never been the real issue .