Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey is like an anthem for those who grow up internationally but its genius has thus far escaped the attention of the international school community. Elizabeth Liang’s gripping film and performance is a godsend for international educators grappling to find creative ways to address difficult, complex issues relating to racism and inequalities that speak to both children and adults.
Written and produced by Liang, Alien Citizen opens with a booming voice taunting her on stage to answer the unanswerable questions that Third Culture Kids (Pollock et. al., 2017) and mixed-race children often hear: ‘Where are you from? … What are you?’ It then follows Liang’s childhood of moving internationally with her ‘Guate’-Chinese-Irish-European-hodgepodge- American family, partly to escape the civil war in Guatemala in the 1970s at first and then later as a ‘business brat’ when Xerox posted her father up and down and across the Atlantic Ocean.
Liang—the sole actor in Alien Citizen—seamlessly switches from one character to another as she humorously unearths a hoard of deep-seated pain that many children experience but have no words with which to express it. After moving to Fairfield County in Connecticut, USA, she notices that ‘nobody on TV looks like me, except maybe Spock on the Star Trek reruns!’ Just as Liang is feeling culturally displaced and in need for a sense of belonging, she begins losing her Spanish, the language that connected her to her father’s large and loving extended family in Guatemala.
But she does not stop there. Liang deftly places those same issues that have been covered a myriad times in expat memoirs squarely in the middle of a world riddled with social inequalities that spans across centuries. Liang spares no one from critique, not even herself.
In a poignant scene, after trying and failing to speak Spanish to their housekeeper, five-year-old Liang takes a broom in an attempt to hit their housekeeper, Filomena, while her older brother tries to stop her. My own doctoral research shows that when children are overwhelmed by language barriers, they sometimes express it in ways that look like the behavioural problems of a spoiled, privileged brat, such as by punching their classmate or yelling ‘shut up’ at their teacher (Tanu, 2018).
It is not lost on the adult Liang that ‘Filomena left her home in the highlands of Guatemala’ out of poverty to take care of her privileged family in ‘the coldest, unfriendliest town in New England’. Later, she alludes back to Filomena as Liang makes fun of her beloved Chinese Guatemalan family elders who were horrified by the dark tan she had picked up from playing in the sun at her next home in Panama because they were ‘obsessed’ by anti-indigenous colorism (see Knight, 2015).
Liang’s brilliance lies in her ability to convey the child’s deep sense of loss at the exact same time that she exposes the absurdity of the prejudice borne out of vast, global inequalities. While many with similar international childhoods like hers struggle to go beyond addressing identity or transition issues in generic terms, it is not so for Liang who is far too talented and fiercely honest for such a myopic focus.
A teenage Liang realises how tender she feels towards Egypt when she witnesses a group of Egyptian boys playing soccer appear helpless in the face of one European boy taunting them with ‘fake Arabic’. Liang delicately addresses the ambivalent feelings that emerge when social class hinders a child’s desire to build meaningful relationships with the local community.
In high school, Liang becomes ‘excellent friends’ with Hamed, a local student who does not ‘speak any language without a foreign accent’—not even Arabic, thanks to his international schooling—and seems out of place in Egypt despite having never lived anywhere else. According to the psychologist Drs. Doug Ota (2014), ‘stayers’; are often forgotten by school transition programs even though they are repeatedly left behind by ‘expat’ classmates who come and go as though through a revolving door.
The goofy Hamed became my favourite character even though the Grease-loving Liang won’t dance with him at a school dance because he is not ‘cool’—never mind the fact that the teenaged Liang was just as awkward—because…high school is high school. Be prepared to cry and laugh (hard) at the same time.
In all this, Liang never loses sight of the child bewildered by the constantly changing world around her. As she takes the audience with her from Guatemala to Costa Rica, the US, Panama, Morocco and Egypt, we see a young child gradually shut down from ‘transition fatigue’ as she turns into a teenager in her sixth country. All the while, her adolescent body is subjected to regular sexual harassment that she could neither fend off nor comprehend at that age.
Covering everything from mobility, identity confusion, racism, class prejudice and sexism to eating disorders, Liang is able to distill the essence of these difficult and deeply personal experiences and present them in a manner no scholar possibly could. And she does it with superb comic timing.
The film is a dynamic viewing experience thanks to director Sofie Calderon and editor Daniel Lawrence. Shot at different angles in front of a live audience, the energy of the performance and the editorial pacing are top notch. Audio effects enhance the atmospheric storytelling while visual effects add welcome texture, with scenes changing to the sound of a Xerox photocopy machine.
What’s more, because Liang is a master storyteller of childhood emotions, international school students would be able to instinctively pick up on the complex issues more than you might anticipate. In fact, Alien Citizen gives voice to what your students already know but are rarely invited to talk about. Indeed, it is a film that you ‘feel’ as much as you see.
It was a crisp evening in March 2014 near Washington D.C. in the US when I reluctantly dragged my jet-lagged body to the hotel ballroom of the Families in Global Transition (www.figt.org) conference to watch a live performance of Alien Citizen for the first time. I had initially thought,
‘What can one woman in a black T-shirt and jeans possibly do on a near empty stage?’ I came late and slumped into my chair.
But by the time the stage lights faded on Liang to signal the end, a third of the 142 attendees were bawling out our eyes.
‘It hit you hard, huh?’ It was the American international school educator who had been sitting next to me. He looked amused. I was a dripping wreck of snot while he looked curiously as fresh as when he first sat. So, I glanced around. The ones sobbing seemed mostly to be those who identified as having spent their childhoods ‘growing up among worlds’.
It was the first time we had heard our stories told with such compassion and brutal honesty.
This film review was first published in the EARCOS Triannual Journal (Fall 2022): https://issuu.com/earcosorg/docs/et-september-2022/74
About the Film
Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey is available on DVD and digital streaming in Individual (home use) and Institutional versions: www.aliencitizensoloshow.com . The DVD includes a Q&A with Elizabeth Liang and director Sofie Calderon, and interviews with Liang’s brother and parents. The Institutional DVD and Streaming License both include a digital toolkit with over 35 clips from the film, each followed by questions to promote learning and discussion.
Knight, D. (2015). What is colorism? Teaching Tolerance, Fall(51), 45-48. Retrieved from
Ota, D.W. (2014). Safe Passage: How Mobility Affects People and What International Schools Can Do About It. Stamford, Lincolnshire: Summertime Publishing. www.safepassage.nl/the-
Pollock, D., Van Reken, R.E. & Pollock, M. (2017). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (3rd ed.). Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. (See also www.crossculturalkid.org )
Tanu, D. (2018). Growing Up in Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School. New York: Berghahn Books. www.berghahnbooks.com/title/TanuGrowing
About the Author
Danau Tanu, PhD, is the author of Growing Up in Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School and a Japan Foundation Research Fellow at Waseda University. Website: www.danautanu.com ; Twitter/Instagram @danautanu
I am tired. I am tired of violence in the news. I am tired of defending my existence, of having the
same conversations over and over about “pronouns this and pronouns that.” We are getting
gunned down and all you do is flash your rainbow “ally” badge and have yet another
conversation about including pronouns in your email signature, all while misgendering me in the
When it comes to real talk of change; of teaching children about identity that’s inclusive of
gender diversity and sexuality, your body tenses. “Our community is not ready for this yet.
Maybe next year.” You are the gatekeeper who decides at what capacity we exist, and that is
wrong. Hints of us exist on your website. We are in your equity statement. We are hidden in
language like, “diversity” and “belonging”. In strategic plans and anti-bullying policies. Yet, we
are invisible everywhere else where it matters like classrooms and curriculum. Your equity
statements and social justice committees are selective of who they include. Cherry picking who
is included is the antithesis of this work. You tout the analogy of “mirrors, windows, and sliding
glass doors”, yet all you want to see is yourself.
What are you afraid of?
If anything, we are the ones who should be afraid. We have been under attack for centuries;
between policing how we look…how we act…who we love…
Today, this still exists on both an individual level and at a larger scale. Anti-trans legislation
continues to pass all over the world, and there are countries that refuse to allow us to exist. And
yet, we persist. We still go out. We teach. We party. We express our radical love through our art
and our chosen families. We thrive and celebrate joy in spite of the hate that you perpetuate.
We are not afraid, but you are.
You are afraid of children's books. You are afraid of graphic novels. You’re afraid of using
pronouns, of drag shows, of freedom of expression. You are afraid of the endless possibilities
that we represent, of the love we represent. Everyday we suffer as victims of violence. And I yet
I am not allowed to read a book with a transgender child as its protagonist. How dare I correct
you when you misgender me. How dare I defend myself against the onslaught of your passive
aggression. How dare I exist.
Queer children exist in every single classroom, yet they rarely see themselves reflected in the
books and curriculum taught to them. Suicidality is several times higher in Queer youth than cis
heterosexual youth, and that is because of your inaction. Your inaction is violence. We are dying
while you are sitting in your office telling us which books we can and cannot read, which topics
we can and cannot talk about. Power hoarding and gatekeeping are rooted in white supremacy.
What are you afraid of?
Your fear is violence. It is because we cannot read our books or tell our stories or exist in
classrooms that these shootings occur. You spread your fear, and so others are afraid. They act
on this fear with violence. Others are not given the opportunity to explore the infinite ways of
being in this world. Their ignorance, the ignorance that you perpetuate, makes them fearful of
the unknown. It’s the reason why so many young people die of suicide. It’s the reason why our
spaces and our communities are under assault.
We are both the same, you know. We have both experienced gendered trauma in our lives. I
would wager that we both grew up being forced onto gendered norms which we did not consent
to. We were ascribed a role we did not choose. Many of us grow older and continue this path.
There is no shame in that. But why silence others who travel a different path? Is our difference
so harmful to you? Free yourself of this burden of fear and join us in our love and liberation.
On the topic of judging schools and organizations based on DEIJ and providing awards. To be
clear, we agree with developing and sharing good practice around a range of learning-focused
categories, one of which focuses on DEIJ.
We would like to understand the context of awards? How they come into existence? How are
panels organized? We would like to figure out why you think this work should be awarded.
For full transparency, we really struggle with folks trying to make justice & liberation work
competitive or even about recognition. We have observed that some of the systems outside of
us seem to create competition and ‘fights for recognition’ that, frankly, none of us are really
The idea of “winning” seems to run counter to what DEIJ work is about and also implies a finish
line when there is ALWAYS learning / work to be done. It also fails to recognize those who may
not meet the standards of dominant culture/institutions that truly aren’t invested in this work.
These institutions shouldn’t and don’t get to give a stamp of approval to work they truly aren’t
invested in. And if they truly were invested in it, they wouldn’t even think to give trophies out.
DEIJ work is a work of solidarity, community, and deep learning. Competition or
competitiveness are hallmarks of white supremacy, and almost always replicate oppressive
systems we aim to dismantle because they can be individualistic, binary, either you win or lose,
you get it or not. Award-giving like this opens the possibilities for school leaders to tick the box
without doing deep work. We have seen DEIJ becoming commodified, used as a marketing tool,
because of our rush to dole or perceive the need to dole out congratulatory cookies for doing
A few hand-selected lines from Michelle Mijung Kim, author of The Wake Up comes to mind
around ISC's ideas: “If the good we are seeking in this world is advancing social justice and
equity for all oppressed people, then we must measure our goodness by the outcomes desired
and impacts felt by those to whom justice and equity have not yet been granted. And only they
get to decide when something – our efforts, our impact, our apology, our outcomes – is good
Kim added, “Too many still approach social justice work like community service, as if we’re
doing a favor for marginalized identities, as if we’re spending our time and resources to be
selfless and as if we are deserving of grace, because “at least we are trying”. This attitude is
problematic as it centers us as martyrs while mischaracterizing the necessary work of
addressing centuries of systemic oppression as charity work.”
Considering our thought processes, what do you think schools who are actually doing this
important work would feel to receive this award? What does it say about a school who is
honored to receive such an award?
In addition to the white centering, competition, commodification; and who gets the authority
to confer approval of what constitutes equity and justice, and other reasons – all these make us
say no, not for us.
To be clear, we agree with “developing and sharing good practice around a range of learning-
focused categories, one of which focuses on DEIJ.” We believe that the categories should have
principles and practices of DEIJ and anti-racism undergirding all of these categories; and for
schools and institutions to ensure they are continuously and cyclically taking actions,
monitoring progress towards equity and justice. Receiving affirmation and recognition is
valuable but it would be much more meaningful and authentic if it came from within the
community and students. In fact, the only people judging DEIJ work in schools should be the
students from a school. How would anyone else know how the school is doing with serving the
very folks they are meant to serve?
Thank your time and for considering these matters. We hope you will take this email as
intended – with humility and as an opportunity for collaborative growth. We look forward to
The AIELOC Community
AIELOC stands in solidarity with the people of Iran, and expresses its support for the students and educators who are being persecuted for demanding their liberties and basic human rights.
AIELOC condemns the violent oppression by the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) that has imprisoned, tortured, and killed many innocent lives not just in these last forty days, but for over forty-three years.
AIELOC emphasises that this movement is not a movement against Islam, or the hijab, and should not be co-opted for any other purpose than to support the people of Iran. Understanding that this movement, led in great part by the youth of Iran, is one that is demanding the liberty to choose for oneself. This is about bodily autonomy and the right to live in freedom.
AIELOC calls for unity in our movements for liberation of all people.
‘We are not free until everyone is free.’ Martin Luther King Jr.
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” Audre Lorde
Thank you to AIELOC Members: Yasmine, Omar, Sara, Parisa, Larisa, Roya
We ask AIELOC members to take a photo of themselves holding a piece of paper that says “I stand with the people of Iran in their fight for freedom” and share this on their social media with the hashtag #AIELOCforIRAN
Reflections from the International School Anti-Discrimination Task Force, 14-15 October 2022
By: AIELOC Fellows – Justin Garcia (they/them/theirs), Kristina Pennell-Götze (she/her/hers), Iyabo Tinubu (she/her/hers), and Cultural Wealth and Lifelong Learning Practitioners – Rama Ndiaye (she/her/hers), Nayoung Weaver (they/she)
What does joy look like in the international school ecosystem?
On 14-15 October 2022, positional and thought leaders gathered at the International School of Geneva (Ecolint) to attend the inaugural International School Anti-Discrimination Task Force (ISADTF). 91 educators coming from 5 continents participated in this historical moment.
During these two days of reflection, connection, and co-construction of knowledge and shared understanding, members of the global majority and those of dominant groups held space for one another. Throughout the event, members of the Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color (AIELOC) engaged in line with Our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Policy:
“We acknowledge that the diverse backgrounds and voices of our community represented in the collective make us stronger and better equipped to make a positive impact globally… Our goal is to ensure that our association and our global partners demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and anti-racism and that this is reflected in policies, programs, practices, recruitment, curriculum, and the life of the institutions in general.”
As we worked, we found solace in gathering as a community.
We heard from the founders of the Task Force – the Educational Collaborative for International Schools (ECIS), the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO), the International School of Geneva (Ecolint), AIELOC – and we were graced with a presentation from Xoài David and Clara Reynolds, founders of the Organisation to Decolonise International Schools (ODIS). During an impromptu moment, we also had the opportunity to hear the heart-wrenching experiences of an Ecolint alumnus, Eloise Hughes, and an Ecolint student, Violetta. Equipped with this additional knowledge, educators entered committees motivated to collaborate and generate commitments. The committees were:
- Governance, facilitated by Kathleen Naglee (she/her)
- Leadership, facilitated by Fandy Diney (she/her)
- Accreditation, facilitated by Nunana Nyomi (he/him)
- Humanising Pedagogy through Teaching and Learning, originally Curriculum, facilitated
by Angeline Aow (she/her)
- Recruitment and Retention, facilitated by Justin Garcia (they/them)
- Agency, originally Student Agency, facilitated by Katrina Sunnei Samasa (she/her)
From AIELOC;s perspective, one of the goals of the conference was to model, in real time, our commitment to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice, also known as DEIJ. It was extremely important to us that members of the global majority – and other historically-marginalized folks – bring their authentic selves to discuss radical possibilities with those possessing systems knowledge in order to co-create strategies for a more equitable ecosystem. Another goal was to ensure collective accountability for our tasks. In order to reach that goal, each committee
pledged to have at least three commitments by the conclusion of the Task Force. Our dedicated facilitators understood too well that in spite of the extraordinary collaboration that took place, the commitments shared should continue to be a work in progress.
As AIELOC members, we are still in disbelief that we all came together on the sunny weekend of October 14th and are still buzzing from it. Although many of the bodies we hugged were those of the faces we only saw via Zoom until that weekend, it all felt familiar and easy. We all
already knew each other. As advocates that continue to be systematically oppressed at our jobs, being seen and embraced for exactly who we are was refreshing and a (radical) dream come true. Thanks to our cultural wealth, as marginalized folks, we have the critical lens to
observe and talk about the oppression all around us, even though existing structures continue to refuse to acknowledge its existence. Unpacking these systems, to ideastorm solution steps, was invigorating. As AIELOC members, we were there for the movement, the joy, the radical imagination, and of course, being together in solidarity.
Nevertheless, history continues to repeat itself: Even during a Task Force aimed at creating anti-discrimination policies in international schools, we still witnessed – internalized and externalized – oppressive behaviors. We heard from educators who were still surprised that
racism and all the other -isms still exist. As AIELOC members, we were reminded that many institutions are still at the stage of reckoning with the idea that all human beings in their community, no matter their identity, should matter. Many with power and privilege do not have to
come to terms with their experiences of oppression in their lives and thus continue to exploit, appropriate, and commodify our knowledge while continuing to erase our existence in the ecosystem at large.
Even the existence of the taskforce shed light on the privilege we hold within the community. Many attendants could not attend because of distance, travel costs, or illness from the ongoing pandemic. Options for virtual participation were limited. Voices of international school support and maintenance staff were missing. This reinforces our own commitments to learning and action for future taskforce endeavors.
The strategies that emerge from genuinely diverse, equitable, inclusive, and anti-racist sessions are new and unparalleled in international schools. Some of us understand that expertise does not mean authority and, as Keynote Speaker Cynthia Roberson stated, passion alone does not make us experts. Many people “in DEIJ” have not made a personal connection to its history and therefore have a lack of understanding of its true meaning. Our ancestors have invited us into this work – we are in a multigenerational effort and need to stay humble. However, divesting in capitalism is challenging when we are taught that succeeding in that realm is our life’s purpose. In shifting systems, we all have a role to play. We must all fight back against these systems and the people who uphold White Supremacy Culture.
As James Baldwin stated, “The place in which I'll fit will not exist until I make it.” We, members of the global majority, historically-marginalized folks, and AIELOC, had a taste of a genuine space of belonging during the Task Force. Channeling that creative space for our students is our primary job as educators. We have a lot of work to do – but we will do it our way and with a
focus on liberation. But let us start by centering ourselves and our lived experiences, front, back, and all the way. Let us continue the journey with humility while inspiring each other.
To answer the question from the beginning of the reflection: the joy in the international school ecosystem should look and feel like an AIELOC meeting. A space where people gather to be with each other, actively listen to one another, have each other’s backs, and fully realize the importance of authentic solidarity. As AIELOC founder, Kevin Simpson, always says: “it’s about WE not me”.
To non-members of AIELOC: Whatever position you hold, include colleagues that are AIELOC members who breathe and live the work every day simply by showing up to their institutions. Move beyond “allyship” and engage as an advocate. Advocate for a system of time and financial support for them so they can sit next to you at any table you access. Their presence is
revolutionary – uplift them, and in turn, you will play a part in breaking the cycle of oppression that plagues our ecosystem.
To our AIELOC family: coming back to reality after being together is tough. We know. Until our next family reunion, take care of yourself, stay in community, and reach out. Keep being you.
We love you.
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.