Retention is a challenge facing schools all over the world. New statistics show that almost one in three teachers leave the classroom within five years of starting to teach, and 1 in 6 drop out after their first year. From the UK to China, teachers are leaving their jobs in higher numbers than ever before.
The resulting impact is enormous. Alarming numbers of teachers are leaving work mid-contract, causing schools to scramble around for new candidates in the middle of the academic year.
And the impact isn’t limited solely to schools. Recruiters are also feeling the sting, causing friction between them and the establishments they’re placing teachers in. If fewer teachers are fulfilling their contracts, the pool of teachers a recruiter can recommend becomes ever shallower.
“If a person doesn’t stay for long in their current role, their CV starts to become littered with short term positions.” says Munir Mamujee, Managing Director at m2r Education, a recruitment agency aimed specifically at teachers. “This gives both potential employer and recruiter huge concerns as to whether they would actually last the contract. We appreciate that mistakes happen, however leaving mid-contract is always frowned upon. If their work history suggests they might, it becomes very difficult for us to support them and propose a new school.”
Munir Mamujee is the Managing Director at m2r Education, an education-focused recruitment firm based in West Yorkshire. He has extensive knowledge of the recruitment industry and the issues that are occurring within it.
What is causing teachers at international schools to leave their jobs?
Teachers leave their jobs for any number of reasons, from the personal to the political. When combined with the added pressures of moving to a new country, adjusting to an unfamiliar culture, and living without friends and family, it can be difficult to make solid judgements on why the crisis is occurring.
However, a study by Alicia Ann Ritter on the retention of international school teachers gives us some idea on the factors that may influence their thinking. Ritter conducted interviews with teachers across the globe, and through their conversations a number of themes began to emerge. The major elements at play seem to be:
- How well they adjust to their new home
- The support given to the teacher by their school/recruiter
- How their investment in the country changes over time
Adjusting To A New Reality
The adjustment period a teacher faces in their new country can have a major impact on whether they choose to stay in their jobs for the long term. Ritter’s study cites the work of Pamela Joslin, who broke down the three transitional phases a teacher a faces when moving to a new location:
- The honeymoon phase
- The depression phase
- The contentment phase
The honeymoon phase reflects the teacher’s initial impressions of moving to a new country, when everything is exciting and new, and the person is experiencing many things for the first time. One interviewee noted that “everything was just kind of an explosion of experiences”. According to Ritter, the honeymoon period for most international teachers ranged from two months to two years. 71% of respondents moving to China reported entering the honeymoon phase, while only 52% of teachers moving to the UAE reported the same.
The depression phase tends to follow the honeymoon phase, and begins when the teacher starts to feel frustrated in their new surroundings. Things may not work as efficiently as the place they came from, or they may be struggling to establish new relationships, especially if the place they’re moving to does not have a strong expat culture.
Raymond Fuorry, who has taught in multiple countries across four different continents, believes that the heightened expectations of a move abroad can cause disappointment for those who were treating their new job purely as an adventure.
“The whole idea of teach and travel is deeply flawed. No, you will not be on spring break sipping margaritas all day. You will be working a full time job. You must be serious about giving it your full effort, adapt to the culture, and be thankful for the opportunity.”
Raymond Fuorry has taught in the US, Central and South America, Japan, and Korea, and is now teaching in Vietnam with APAX.
Difficulties adjusting to a new school and culture impact how well a teacher settles in, and ultimately how long they end up staying in the country. Preparedness is key.
“Bring a positive attitude!” said Robert*, a teacher at a major international school in Thailand. “Be prepared that things will not be the same as your role elsewhere. Ensure your contract is really clear about what you are going to receive and make sure you clarify working hours and any non-contact time.”
The contentment phase arrives once the teacher has gone through the trials and tribulations of living in a new environment, and they have learnt to accept their adopted country as home. Those who reach this phase are much less likely to leave their jobs. According to Ritter’s research, learning the language seemed to help both in the adjustment period as well as in the long term, and involvement with the host culture grounded the teacher in his or her location. Teachers who stayed connected with home, got involved in the new culture, and connected socially seemed to adapt best.
“Lean into it.” says Raymond, when asked what teachers can do better to adjust to their environment. “Yes, for absolute sure, it is a different place. Do not resist, try instead to adapt, learn the language, eat the food, travel the small towns, and make the most of the experience! Do not sit around in the same western restaurants, speaking English, making plans to travel that don’t materialize. Really, truly, totally go for it! Otherwise, what’s the point?”
The amount of support a school offers is vital towards the initial period of a teacher’s employment. However, while many schools are adept at offering great induction packages to their teachers, others may not have the budget to do so.
“Small schools can offer more personal assistance, [but] volunteer organizations do not have quite the capital backing to fund much of the operation.” says Raymond. “And then there are well-oiled machines like APAX: [who provide] personal guidance, professional on-boarding, [and] financial support.”
A larger organisation like APAX is both able and willing to offer a package to their teachers which ensures that they get off to a great start in their chosen country, with the knowledge and the know-how to get their new starters set up for success. But for those schools who don’t have the same resources, Munir believes there are a number of things they can still do to increase the chances their teachers will stay in the job.
“The interview and mobilisation process needs to be smooth and professional. The teacher needs to feel wanted and excited about the move. Does the school have a settling in procedure? A simple buddy system could help alleviate the feelings of isolation a teacher might feel upon arrival.”
Vanessa, who taught in China for a brief period before moving into the tech industry, certainly seems to agree.
“There needs to be more support with the transition or at least another foreigner there in place to show you the ropes of how things work. Regular social events for teachers would also be helpful so people can empathize with one another about their experiences and will make foreigners feel less alone during the process as well.”
Another challenge in international schools is that working conditions vary greatly by school. Within the business sector, Chen et al. (2010) found that expatriates experience greater work adjustment when their roles are clear in international assignments.
Vanessa Wachtmeister has experience living in five different countries, from the US to China. She now works as the Technical Launch Manager for the Expedia Group in London, and has been running the Wander Onwards blog since 2013.
Vanessa believes that giving teachers clear guidelines towards success would help them acclimatise better to their new environment, thus improving retention rates.
“I think more training around how to create lesson plans would help teachers stay for longer in their contracts. This creates structure for both the children and the teacher. Clear metrics about what the children should be able to do at the end of the year would also be helpful. If you’re just teaching ‘general’ English, there’s no direction and this becomes easily frustrating.”
According to Ritter’s study, induction and mentoring programs have been known to lower rates of turnover. 85-90% of teachers remained in teaching after 5 years if they were part of a successful orientation program. Another study found that “…Investing in an induction program at a cost of $6,000 per new teacher could save millions in turnover costs each year.”
Investment In The Country
How long a teacher chooses to stay tends to correlate with the kind of personal investment they have in their new home. Those who are invested more deeply, whether through learning the language, meeting a partner, or sending their children to school are much more likely to value the stability of staying in one place. Teachers who make it through their first contract are more likely to connect to the school and the culture, potentially increasing the length of time they remain overall.
The school has as active a role to play in this as the teacher. Ritter’s study states that salary, benefits and job satisfaction were among the main reasons for remaining in a school. But our interviewees variously told us it was the little things that made their investment in the country grow over time, such as the school arranging a welcome package, offering free language lessons, or even help setting up bank accounts or SIM cards which can be notoriously difficult when you don’t speak the language.
“They gave us an advance on our salary for when we first arrived which we paid back over several months.” said Robert. “I also had a buddy who I emailed with regularly before I moved over which was very helpful to find out about dress code and working hours etc.”
How Recruiters Can Help Or Hinder
The recruiter too has a strong part to play in the happiness of their candidate, and the difference between a good and a bad recruiter can often be the level of aftercare they provide once their candidates are in country. It’s something that m2r pride themselves on.
“Do you keep in touch with the teacher when they arrive to see how they are settling in?” asks Munir, explaining what recruiters could do to help improve retention rates. “Are you offering advice to the school to help them with their onboarding and settling in process? Do you ensure that you give the teacher all the information they need, not just the positive bits?”
Another of our interviewees, Karlien Van Zyl, also had a positive experience with her recruiter, T.I.V, when moving to Vietnam.
“I received support from my recruiter with every legal situation ranging from visas to legalizing my documents. I also had support throughout the whole teaching experience with anything you can think of; they also supported me with any issue I might have had with my school. T.I.V also helped me get an apartment which is great!”
Karlien Van Zyl
Not all recruiters are so helpful though. A number of rogue agencies in China allow candidates to apply for positions that don’t meet government criteria. Because they know they won’t pass the legalisation process to get a work permit, the candidates are often encouraged to apply for a tourist or business visa instead, and brought to the country to start working illegally without their knowledge. It is an experience Vanessa is all too familiar with.
“I was told that everything would be very easy and seamless, but my experience of moving to China was very complicated. The agency wanted me to work on a tourist visa until my z-visa was approved which I found out later is totally illegal.”
Shoots Of Recovery
All parties have a role to play in making sure retention rates recover to sustainable levels. Teachers need to make sure that they’ve done their research before moving to the country and school in question, so they know what they’re getting themselves into. “Look at online reviews” like Robert says, “[and] ask lots of questions – a legitimate school will always answer them and support you.” Making a concerted effort to acclimatise can also stand you in good stead towards long term happiness.
A little bit of effort from the school goes a long way towards keeping a teacher happy, both in their career and how they adjust to life in a new country. Job satisfaction is absolutely key towards teacher retention rates, but schools can also make sure their teachers have support that they can rely on when they are at their most vulnerable.
A happy teacher helps keep recruiters happy too. Knowing that they can count on candidates to fulfill their contracts means recruiters can place teachers more confidently, and makes sure the relationship between school and recruiter stays strong. Departing teachers can put off new teachers because of bad experiences, so it’s even more vital that a recruiter ensures an easy transition and high levels of support for their candidate wherever they’re being placed.
Higher retention rates bring the promise of a more stable work environment for everyone involved. And as the rise for foreign teachers continues to grow, it is critical that all parties work together to allay the crisis.
*Some names were changed to protect the identity of the individual.