Why are there so few non-white teachers working in international schools?

70% of the global population are non-white. Should we not expect the teaching body of an international school to reflect this demography? Many international schools hire locally. This factor often means that perhaps half of the teaching staff will originate from the host country, which inevitably has a significant effect on the percentage of teachers by race and ethnicity that they employ, but what about the foreign hires? Are 70% of these non-whites? Of course not. Nearly all foreign hires made by international schools are Caucasian, and overwhelmingly they are recruited from the USA, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Many job adverts even specify that a prospective teacher should have qualified in one of these countries, and have experience working in one of them. This automatically excludes millions of potential applications from non-white people. Yes, there is a significant percentage of non-white people in the seven countries that are always listed. Still, except for South Africa, each of the countries has a population where the largest ethnic group is Caucasian. Why is this the case?

woman writing on dry erase board
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International schools have mission statements that embrace global citizenship, promote inclusion, reject discrimination and profess international mindedness, yet they rarely hire Black or Asian foreign teachers. Of course, there are exceptions, and I’m sure I will have some more progressive school leaders who will point out that the breakdown of their staffing profile is more reflective of an international community. Still, they will recognise that their hiring practices are not the norm in the sector.

Hiring practices in international schools are usual an overspill from the institutionalised racism that school leaders have inherited from their countries of origin. Most of these biases are unconscious, and therein lies the heart of the problem. Those of us who’ve grown up in predominantly Caucasian societies, often in an era when the world was less sensitised to racism and discrimination, have been socialised into a particular way of thinking. But these factors can never be used as an excuse for prejudicial hiring practices, as most school leaders profess to be lifelong learners and reject the idea of a fixed mindset. There are many courses available for HR Managers, and School Leaders focused on cultural sensitivity, diversity and awareness, and education leaders should consider these opportunities. For the children in an international school to be genuinely internationally-minded and gain a global perspective, they need teachers as role models from across the globe. It is not enough to “teach about” the issues!

The typical staffing at an international school

By looking at hiring practices from South Africa, we can see the extent of racist hiring practices in the international education sector. Over 90% of South Africans hired in the international sector are white, whilst whites make up about 10% of the country’s population. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of teachers working in schools in South Africa are black. Why then are schools so reluctant to hire black South African teachers? Black South African teachers will have studied in the same educational system, and in many cases, attended the same schools as their white colleagues. Many of them will then have worked alongside white colleagues in South African schools. Most black teachers will indeed work in government schools, but if one looks at a school’s staffing in the independent sector, one will note that most teachers are black in most schools. For some reason, though, these black teachers are rarely hired by international schools, while there are thousands of white South Africans working in such schools across the world. Some might suggest that the reason for this is since white South Africans are native English speakers, whereas their black countrymen and women speak English as an Additional Language. This is nonsense. Many white South Africans will speak Afrikaans as their first language and English as an additional language. This is no different from a black South African who grows up speaking Zulu, Xhosa, or Setswana in their home but learns through the medium of English at school and speaks English daily in their community. Many black South Africans have better spoken and written English than their white neighbours. This is not in any way to diminish the valuable contributions that white South Africans make to the international education sector. South African teachers are almost always well qualified and adapt easily to the international sector. I wonder why the international education sector predominantly only hires white South Africans?

Many South Africans work in International Schools, but few are black.

Why are so few African teachers employed in international schools per se? 13% of the world’s population is from one of the 54 countries on the continent of Africa, but how many African teachers are employed in international schools? English standards are pheromonally high across the continent, and many Africans effectively speak English as a first language, sometimes even in the home. Many parents raise their children through the medium of English, believing that empowers the child and increases their chances of succeeding at school and subsequently in the world of work. The people of Uganda, Zambia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya, Botswana, Malawi, Ghana and Rwanda are exceptional levels of English, and teachers from these countries should be eminently employable in international schools. Scandalously, many schools would instead employ a non-qualified or under-qualified teacher from a ‘western” country than consider hiring a qualified and experienced teacher from Sub Saharan Africa. If parents were to dig a little deeper, they would be shocked by the numbers of unqualified teachers working in the international sector. It sometimes seems that “whiteness” is the key to securing a job in the sector. Why else do schools and recruitment agencies request photographs of candidates for positions? Furthermore, many schools in Sub Saharan Africa offer Cambridge International (CAIE) or IB programmes. Thus teachers who work in the schools have the necessary experiences required for immigration officials to be granted a visa. I appreciate that the visa issue is sometimes a genuine issue for schools, but more often, it’s an excuse rather than an actual reason. And I refer you back to my thoughts on South Africa!

man in beige blazer holding tablet computer
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I am wary of promoting a brain drain and recognise that the best African teachers are needed in their own countries. However, many from across the continent seek short to medium term employment in an international school and are likely to return home to work in their own country. Moreover, if we take Nigeria as an example, 6.7% of GDP was made up of international remittances in 2007. In fact, across Sub Saharan Africa, those working internationally contribute significantly to the economies of their home countries through the money sent to relatives through services such as Western Union. The extended family of an African teacher is thus likely to benefit from one of their relatives securing a position in an international school. Africa is my point of reference, as I have had the experience of working on the continent. The same issues apply to countries in the Caribbean, where there are exceptional English standards on many islands. Still, there little opportunities for teachers from the Caribbean to work in the international sector.

A not uncommon job advert from China

Some school leaders will quietly tell you that they are reluctant to recruit more non-white teachers due to their parent’s expectations. I find this reasoning abhorrent. School leaders should educate their parent community, and if the best person for a role is Black or Asian, they should be hired. Increasing diversity among the teaching staff brings great benefits for the students for the reasons I explained earlier. In parts of Asia, it isn’t uncommon to see job adverts for teachers stipulating that they should be “White/Caucasian.” School leaders should take the “risk” if that’s how they perceive it and hire more non-white teachers. As leaders of the wider community, they bear witness to diversity, inclusion, and international mindedness.

The discriminatory recruitment practices of many international schools are deeper-seated than I have alluded to up to this point. Another question to consider is why are there so few Black or Asian “Western” teachers in the international education sector, and why are so few in leadership positions? Is this because our international schools are mirror images of the “western” countries whose curriculum models they teach? It would seem so. After all, Black and Asian teachers from “western” countries are hugely underrepresented in the international sector, and perhaps even more so than in their countries of origin. Again, it is perverse in an industry that proclaims to be enlightened and forward-thinking.

There are less than 30 black headteachers in England, and the situation is worse in international schools.

I love working in the international sector, and the good in the sector certainly outweighs the bad, but the industry as a whole needs to address these issues head-on. I look to the Council of International Schools and COBIS to speak out more explicitly on these issues. They do offer many courses to do with cultural sensitivity but do skirt around racism in international schools. It is easier to be silent.

Please comment on my post and let me know what you think.

2 thoughts on “Why are there so few non-white teachers working in international schools?

  1. Hello, I bumped into your post here, while researching why Asians are underrepresented in the International school teaching industry. The reason for the research is that I am applying for the PGCE license to try to start a career as a teacher in International schools. Now, I am an Asian by race, and I was born and raised in Indonesia, so I am not a native English speaker. However, I got my degree in Europe and now have been living in 10 different countries for the past 20 years. My children have been to 4 different International schools in 4 different countries, and of all these amazing IB International schools, I have only met one Asian teacher in one school (this was in Osaka, Japan). My children’s amazing International IB school in Spain, had over 250 teachers and staff working there, they are almost all white, not a single Asian, perhaps one black English teacher. Although they boast of how diverse the nationality of their students in the school (over 75 different nationalities!)

    So thank you for addressing this issue. I am worried obviously that my PGCE could be useless for me since I am not white and not a native English speaker, I am aware of this apparent issue. Currently, I am still taking my chances.

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