Moving overseas for a teaching position is a big step. Moving to a leadership position in an international school is an even bigger step. But what does it take to become a successful international school leader?
If you are looking to move into an international school admin or leadership position, what skills and experience do you need and what challenges might you face?
Here we review some of the key elements based on a recent global survey of international school leaders.

Managing Complexity and Diversity: the life of an International School Leader

Leaders surveyed for the report identified a broad range of complexities in their international school leadership positions. Certainly some of these exist in state schools too, but many do not. The breadth of challenges and opportunities is what makes an international school leadership position so potentially rewarding.

The complexity and diversity of International School leadership

We are grateful to RSAcademics for the research data summarised in this article. The full report is available below.

Working with Parents in an International School

How should International school leaders engage with the parent community?

Many international schools will have a far from homogenous set of parents. In large expat locations (such as Dubai or Singapore) it’s easy to find schools with many more than 50 nationalities in the student population. Parents may be wealthy ‘customers’ used to receiving high standards for their spend. Others may be families far from home, using their hard-earned money to fund a child’s education in the obligatory private school systems. Some may be funded by their companies.

1. Manage the diversity

Managing the diversity of parents matters in a school. If you are looking for your next role, it’s important to ask about the community at your school. Is the school full of high-earning alpha-type parents; or are you in a location that has a more easy-going set of parents. Whilst it’s important to avoid stereotypes (but here’s one!) what’s the balance of East vs West in the parent community? Traditionally Asian parents may expect high grades and content knowledge (having enjoyed/endured rote learning as students themselves) whereas Western parents may be more inclined to value critical thinking and questioning.

2. Communicate your beliefs

Any good leader consistently reinforces their beliefs, and communicates their values at every opportunity.

But how does this work if your school’s parents don’t speak your language? How can you avoid misunderstandings? If your school translates newsletters for parents, how do you double-check that the nuance is maintained? If you don’t translate newsletters for a predominant language group, how do you effectively engage the parent community in the school’s life?

3. Manage parent relations

Does your school actively encourage a parent Facebook group? Who is monitoring this, and how regularly, to ensure issues don’t flare up? As one head commented in the research, “I have been amazed by … how quickly a blaze can start”

In high status countries, is there one parent in a class or group who is known to and deferred to by others in the group? This alpha parent (through money, connections, or influence) is important to identify and keep on side.

Helping Students in an International School

What are some of the differences for a leader in an international school when thinking about support for their students?

Your students

Students in international schools may be especially resilient, potentially having grown up with parents of different nationalities, now living in a different country, and speaking (or at least learning) in multiple languages.

Of course, with these strengths, come challenges for the student and the school. Some schools consistently need to welcome and incorporate new students for whom English is an Additional Language.

For students who switch hemisphere they are likely to find themselves appearing at a new school in the middle of an academic year.

It’s important to ensure that new students have a strong buddy system in place. Whilst every school aims to promote inclusivity and a welcome to outsiders, this is especially important in international schools where many (and in some cases the majority) of students may be ‘outsiders’.

Your teaching expertise

As a school leader, you may also be one of the most experienced teachers. You can have a significant impact. Research (here) highlighted the importance:

Leaders in schools where students performed above expected levels were reported by their staff to ... be sources of advice about teaching problems influenced by leaders’ knowledge of curriculum, curriculum progressions, and pedagogy.

What are the unique challenges facing students in an International School?

International School Staff: recruiting, retaining, and developing

How should international school leaders and HR teams think about attracting, retaining, and developing their staff in an increasingly competitive global market for great international school teachers?

Staffing is probably the biggest challenge facing international schools today

International School leaders need to work hard to attract, retain, and develop great staff

Time and again we hear schools highlight the scale of the problem. A recent COBIS report (here) showed that 94% of heads find recruitment of staff challenging.

Demand for international schools, and for teachers continues to grow. This supply:demand imbalance means that schools need to work hard to reinforce their benefits for teachers.

1. Attract the best staff

To ensure you can reach and attract the right staff for you school (competing against 10,000 other international schools globally), you should regularly review your salary, benefits, and support packages for new staff.

Leverage technology to help find and filter the best candidates. Schools no longer have time to review hundreds of paper CVs to find the perfect teacher. For example, helps schools to define exactly their recruitment needs. A shortlist (already based on candidate interest and fit) is shared. Busy HR and recruitment teams can then spend time focussing on understanding the best candidates, not trying simply to find them!

No surprises. On many occasions schools or candidates need to end the recruitment process because of unexpected surprises. Be upfront with your packages, accommodation, benefits, travel, insurance and tax policies for teachers. Understand local regulations that may limit recruitment based on years of teaching experience, age of applicant, or degree status. (Searchality prevents these nasty surprises by letting candidates review a school’s outline proposal before agreeing to interview; and allows schools to share details of policies that candidates can review when invited for interview.)

In case it’s useful for you: here’s our guide to potential international school interview questions.

Be clear on your requirements. Recruiting international school teachers has additional layers of complexity versus the process ‘at home’. One area to be clear on is background checks which can vary significantly in cost, complexity, and time from country to country. This analysis by the Council of International Schools gives latest requirements (valid in 2017) for most countries globally.

2. Retain the best staff

With staff turnover high (typically around 15-25% of staff leave an international school each year) it’s important to retain your best staff.

If you are confident that your initial recruitment is robust (which you will only learn over time), incentivize staff to accept a 2 year vs 1 year initial contract.

Support their Continuing Professional Development. There are many reasons that teachers leave their home country to work abroad (survey here) but Career Development can be high on the list.

Get the basics right. Teachers coming to an international school are leaving their home, their friends, their network, and possibly their culture. We know of teachers who arrive for their new school job and leave again within the week as a junior HR staff member was too harassed to help them, the accommodation promised was not delivered, and there were unforeseen deductions in future income.

As well as the normal needs of a head teacher to welcome new staff, induct them into the culture, and set expectations, we’d advise that new international heads ensure that the tone is consistent throughout the onboarding process. One weak link can jeopardise the future commitment of a new staff member to a school.

Don’t over-commit to weak staff. Although we’ve highlighted that retaining staff is important, you also need transparent and robust appraisal systems to ensure you identify staff that are not worth keeping. Have those development discussions early (so that they have a chance to improve) but don’t be tempted to retain them just to keep that hard-to-fill STEM job occupied.

The quality of a school never exceeds the quality of its staff

Rosamund Marshall, CEO of Taaleem schools in the United Arab Emirates

3. Plan for succession

Succession planning is an area that is often overlooked given the consistent pressures of recruitment as well as managing the complexity of the day-to-day running of a school. Heads (of school and department) should invest time and build processes to enable a strong succession planning pipeline.

What are the capabilities (often leadership and softer skills) that need to be developed in more junior staff members so that they can step up to enhanced leadership positions when required? Which staff are looking for these opportunities? Which are ones you want to support? How will you manage their career expectations if you don’t have current vacancies for them?

The best Heads will know how and why their staff are teaching in their schools, what motivates them to stay and what will motivate them to leave...

... Relinquishing your roots, your family, your friends, for an expatriate life can be incredibly lonely and there has to be something which motivates good staff to make the move and then commit to it for the sake of the school.

4. Grow your own

It is also important to recognise that if the supply of experienced, qualified teachers is under pressure now (and due to get worse in the coming year), then you can ‘grow your own’ (to borrow the phrase from Kai Vacher, Principal at British School Muscat) and nurture talent in your own community. As he explains in his article here, his school has successfully developed capable Teaching Assistants into fully qualified teachers.

The ability to recruit NQTs clearly extends the reach ... when looking for teachers to fulfil vacancies.
Perhaps even more importantly, this ability to offer NQT induction, also gives schools the scope to grow their own teachers.

Attracting, developing, and retaining staff will likely be a much larger part of an International head’s agenda than in a home country school. It’s important to embrace this challenge.


“The boundary between Executive Board responsibilities and the Head’s management of the school is a common cause for concern amongst Heads.”

Boards of Governors are potential sources of support or complexity for International School heads

A first level of complexity is likely to be that school Boards are usually predominantly local whereas the head teacher is likely to be international. All the challenges of language, culture, and status/hierarchy mentioned above apply to Boards too.

Beyond that there may be perceived competing interests. In countries where there has been a rapid growth in demand for international schools, much of this demand has been met by for-profit groups creating schools. We do not think this is necessarily a bad thing: investing in education is of long term benefit to students, countries, and international relations. However, there may be tension in new schools with high profit expectations if this contradicts needs to develop a quality education. In some countries, school fees (and therefore some impact on school profitability) are directly linked to a single measure of school quality. For example Dubai’s school fee increases are based on the single rating (up to Outstanding) of the school as assessed in annual inspections. There is room for tension between providing the best possible education for students, and managing a necessarily limited budget.

Our advice to future Heads of international schools is to ensure that:

  • You establish clear guidelines between what the Board is responsible for, vs the day-to-day responsibilities of the school’s leadership
  • There is a discussion of structure and stability of the board: who should be on it, how long should they (ideally) stay, and what is the mix of skills being sought?
  • How is the Head assessed by the Board? Is there a clear (ideally written) agreement on the measures involved and how they would be assessed?

At the same time, our advice to Boards is to consider how they select and retain great Heads. What is the track record of retention of heads? How are heads identified and recruited? can help to find, filter, and profile leading international school head teachers globally.

External Local Environment

There are a host of potential complexities in the external environment including

  • Practical (access, power, internet)
  • Legal (laws, rules, complaints, remediation)
  • Employment (rights, visas, processes)

When these work, this is no problem. However, don’t underestimate the complexity and stress of juggling legal risks (injury or worse to children), structural calamaties (floodng, power outages), employment issues, or any simultaneous combination of all of these!

  • Have a strong local team to support you in the school.
  • Build a network of other heads in your city/country
  • Leverage your Board for their expertise, knowledge and (often) local connections
Environmental challenges may affect international school leaders

Leading change

If you take over a school in need of change, especially dramatic change, we’d also recommend looking through some advice from John Kotter. The article Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail is a very useful place to start.

The most general lesson to be learned from the more successful cases [of leading and implementing changes] is that the change process goes through a series of phases that, in total, usually require a considerable length of time. Skipping steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result.

Some key barriers to leading effective change are:

  1. Not Establishing a Great Enough Sense of Urgency
  2. Not Creating a Powerful Enough Guiding Coalition
  3. Lacking a Vision
  4. Undercommunicating the Vision by a Factor of Ten
  5. Not Removing Obstacles to the New Vision
  6. Not Systematically Planning For and Creating Short-Term Wins
  7. Declaring Victory Too Soon
  8. Not Anchoring Changes in the Culture
8 stages of leading change

International School leadership: Personal Pressures

An incoming International Head has all the pressures that their staff experience, in their own family.

Are your own children going to be at the school?

Did your spouse leave their job to follow you?

How much does the school support you in your transition? (Reflect on this in light of the welcome given to ‘normal’ staff without your status).

How much time do you have to get set up in the local environment (bank accounts, insurance, driving licences) and how much does someone else (e.g. a spouse) have to contend with?

Don’t overlook your needs, or your family’s as you start making an impression in your new school.

We also really like this advice from an excellent article by Jill Berry (here). “Headship gets more comfortable, not because it gets easier, but because you get better at being uncomfortable.” [Jill regularly posts advice on Twitter @JillBerry102. If you’d personally like to make more of Twitter, or simply wonder what the fuss is all about, then have a look at our step-by-step guide to using Twitter for Teachers. You can also follow us @Searchality]

How might your family's happiness affect your success in a new International School leadership position?

What makes a great international school leader?

Each role will be different, but we believe that the following sets of skills and expertise are important for great international school leaders. (If you are ready to find your next international school role, can help you).

The leadership skills of a great International School head

Since the nature of the challenges (above) are so diverse, a great international school leader ultimately needs to be able to:

  • Identify what needs to be done
  • Communicate those needs (up to the board, down to the team, out to the community)
  • Delegate to relevant staff to make it happen
  • Celebrate successes
  • Be cultural aware and interested
  • Solve problems (with flexibility, resilience, and potentially a good sense of humour!)

The teaching expertise of an International School leader

At the same time, you may well be one of the most experienced, knowledgeable teaching staff in the school. Therefore it’s relevant and important to be able to:

  • Advise on best practice and provide pedagogical knowledge
  • Establish and explain the school’s approach to learning (and homework)
  • Define good practice in teaching, mentoring, and pastoral care

The personal learning opportunities in International School leadership

Build yourself too. In your new role:

  • Expand your network (for support and learning)
  • Embrace change and challenges for their learning potential
  • Understand your strengths and areas for development. (Find/recruit people to complement those).

Of course, moving to a new job, a new workplace, or a new country can be challenging. However the rewards should be immense.

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Read the full report: The Art of International School Headship


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