Essay Series: How International Schools Failed Their Promise of Diversity

The first signs of discrimination Francis Chapuredima saw inherent in the international school system was when he started applying for teaching positions. On the recruitment websites, he noticed that most postings required native English speakers. As someone from Zimbabwe, a once colonized nation where children are required to learn English starting from primary school, Chapuredima should have been qualified as a competent instructor in English. However, the definition of “Native English Speaker” was not one that applied to him. In fact, while there are at least 54 countries with English as their official language, and 18 countries that the United Kingdom recognizes as native English speaking, international schools usually only accept applicants from five of these nations; the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, henceforth referred to as the Big Five. A majority of postings he encountered specifically mentioned the candidates being from these countries as a requirement. Of course, it is not hard to understand what the differentiating factor is between them, and the other nations; the Big Five are majority white.

Luckily, Chapuredima had connections. He was referred by an old schoolmate of his, and the first international school job he got was at Qatar International School. According to Qatar’s Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics, the nation’s demographics consist of 60% Arabs, 26% South Asians, and 14% Europeans, with a total of 88% of the population made up of foreigners, ensuring that a high percentage of students of color attend the international schools. It occurred to Chapuredima as he started his job at the school that the general population demographics were not reflected inside the school walls, especially among the teachers and administration. Considering that the school prided itself in being international, one that held global citizenship, inclusivity and intercultural mixing as the highest of values, it should have been a place for teachers and students alike to feel comfortable, and represented. This was not the case.

Chapuredima was immediately taken aback by the way the system was set up to favor a certain social hierarchy amongst the faculty and administrations, one that favored whiteness, and did not give any positions of power to people of color (POC). He and his fellow POC teachers called it “the elephant in the room.” There was no way to outright prove or accuse the school of racist tendencies, but there was certainly a way to find out whether this school was an outlier, or if it was suggestive of a much larger problem, one that spans nations and continents. All he had to do was find out if there was a pattern found indicating exclusively white leadership. Chapuredima began looking online to see if there was any research done on the topic, but was unable to find much. He did, however, stumble upon a website through which he connected with Kevin Simpson, who was also an international school teacher with similar concerns.

While Simpson himself had not experienced outright discrimination, he had noticed that there was a race issue prevalent in the international school systems. The first time that it really hit home for him was when a colleague of his in Kuwait wanted to apply for a teaching job in Dubai. She was a black woman who had been teaching for seven years at her school, and second in command right underneath the head of the school. Confident in her abilities, she applied for the new position, but was then told that she shouldn’t bother because they wanted a white British man for the position. There was no doubt anymore in Simpson’s mind that there was an underlying problem that had to be addressed, and something had to be done about it. He set out to create a support system that would allow other marginalized communities within the international school system to come together and speak out, and this was how AIELOC was born.

The Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color conducts critical research to understand racial issues tied to international schools. In 2019, they combed through different regions of international schools to find out what the leadership looked like in the U.S. Department of State Assisted Schools. What they found was that international schools are run by a pseudo exclusive club, and the main requirement to get in was to be white.

Out of the 189 schools they looked through, they found that schools across three continents had similar race issues in their leadership. In Africa, they found that the schools were made up of 92% white and 8% Black leaders; in East Asia and Pacific the leaders were 96% white, and 4% Latinx; and in the United States the leaders were 93.26% percent white, 2.81% Black, 1.12% Asian and 0.56% Middle Eastern.

“These schools are not meant to be perpetuating a colonial mindset, they are not meant to only cater to white people,” Simpson says. International schools were originally created to cater to the children of expatriates that often moved around for their jobs. The International Association of School Librarianship set up a few criteria in order for a school to be considered international, including international accreditation, curriculum, a multinational and multilingual student body and a transient, multinational teacher population. The syllabus in these schools also has to differ from that of the host country, most often representing American, British, or French curriculum.

According to ISC Research, the students attending these international schools are no longer majority expatriates as they once were. In fact, 80% of the students are now local. The reasons for attending international schools instead of local ones vary but a major one listed, as mentioned on the ISC website, is that many families consider an international school education as “a ‘passport’ to global career opportunities and prosperity.” According to Simpson, parents have expectations for their children’s teachers. They want their teachers to pass on certain languages and types of accents to their children. Unfortunately, African and Asian accents do not make the cut. The only allowed accents are exported from the Big Five, the rest are not deemed sufficiently attractive for future employment opportunities. There is truth to this worry. Linguistic discrimination has a major impact on many POC, impacting everything from job searches to everyday racist encounters. This is applicable to not only different language use, but different accent use within the same language. The English accents of the global south are, for example, considered inferior by some to the accents of the global north, just as the American southern accent is considered to be less educated than northern accents, as researched by Robert Macneil and William Cran in their book “Do you Speak American?”

Research shows that language affects the frame of reference one experiences their reality through. Enforcing narrow language options limits the types of thinking and value systems that students may be able to experience. It is especially frustrating, Simpson and Chapuredima mention, that the allowed accents and languages within international schools are so limited when the schools are located in such rich, diverse cultures of host countries. The local students attending are often banned from speaking the language of their own home countries during class times. This creates a culture where there is only one right frame to exist within- and that is the western, white hegemonic structure.

The racial power structures and dynamics within these schools struck Xaoi and Clara, two ex international school students and current teachers, as a remnant of a bygone colonial era. The two were speakers at the 2020 AIELOC conference, explaining the movement currently happening at a grassroots level to decolonize international schools. They run an Instagram page @decolonise_intl, that shares educational resources, as well as student and teacher testimonials regarding their experiences. The shared stories reveal much about the effect of the current system on students; hatred and shame of their own cultures, a lack of historical knowledge of the countries they live in, and a forced reverence for western culture and holidays.

The page often posts quotes from one of the most prominent published works from a student’s perspective of international school culture; Danau Tanu’s “Growing Up in Transit: the Politics of Belonging at an International School.” The novel discusses and criticizes the eurocentric definition of “international” that these schools subscribe to, and how this resulted in hierarchies of race, culture and class within the school walls.

Meanwhile, the stories from the teachers’ perspectives reveal something just as alarming. A simple search on The International Educator (TIE) online shows numerous articles, including Chapuredima’s, that POC teachers and admin have written on how they are treated once they do get past the native speaker requirement barrier and are hired. There is a distinct lack of opportunities provided for them within the system. There is only lateral movement in the positions available for POC, yet they find that white teachers and admin are often moved up the ranks.

There is also a distinction between positions that local or POC teachers are allowed to fill, and the ones that white teachers do; the latter filling crucial positions such as Principal, Dean, and English, Math, and Science teaching positions, whereas the former are employed in local language, health, gym, as well as menial administrative positions. This is an observation that Heidi Dyck Hilty, co-founder of Rendezvous Education Partners (REP), wrote about in her TIE article.

Hilty believes that diversity, inclusion and global citizenship, values often repeated in international school mission statements, can only be taught to students through actual practice. “How can we claim to stand for these values, and tell our students that they should follow them, when we can’t even reflect them through our hiring and diversity practices? When the students don’t actually see diversity around them?”

Hilty herself grew up attending international schools, and eventually started teaching as well. She started REP because she realized there was a gap in the recruitment process, and wanted to help a more diverse range of teachers enter the international school sphere. Helping teachers is only one part of a bigger solution system that must be put in place. She believes in the education of all stakeholders, but the most important one to her are parents. Personally, she has witnessed parents kicking up a fuss when their children were taught by non-white teachers, claiming that they were paying for their children to learn from “western” teachers. This occurs often when the parents are unaware that teachers from all over the globe can be equally, or even more, qualified than those from the Big Five.

According to research conducted by REP and ISC, the simple answer to this is to have open dialogue sessions and workshops between teachers and parents. These should focus on the positive impact of diversity, and how the school aims to represent their core international values. Hilty believes that this should be a continuous process, and not just a one time thing. Parents are often quite involved in school events and field trips, and it is crucial that they understand what it means for their child to be attending a school that is filled with cultures and nationalities from all over the world. “We need to value diversity and not just celebrate it on one time occasions like holidays. Sustaining diversity as a priority will take effort, and it’s work we absolutely need to do,” Hilty says. Understanding and empathy need to be part of the core curriculum.

One of the parents that Hilty mentions has gotten on board with REP’s mission is Yasmin Aniz. Her children have been attending international schools since a young age. She realized there was an issue with how her children began viewing their own Indian culture in a negative light, and refused to speak their mother tongue at home. “Why were they so embarrassed of who they were?”

It was a question that Aniz didn’t quite know the answer to until she realized that they were discouraged, and even made fun of by their peers when they spoke in their native accents and language. Aniz took this issue up with the school administration, but she knew that they were unable to understand the struggle because they were all white, and distant from what her children were going through. While they certainly made an effort to speak to their student body about discrimination, Aniz thought it was rather hypocritical when the teachers did not reflect any aspect of diversity. The school she was sending her children to was made up of 90% white staff, while the student body was at least 50% POC. Analyzing this contrast was what started Aniz’s journey to finding out what could be done to change the way the schools operated. Her children were required to attend international schools as expatriates, so she needed to find out how she could contribute to fostering an environment that would allow them to feel comfortable in their own skin. She got in contact with Hilty, and attended AILEOC’s conferences, where she began understanding how deep the issue runs.

According to Simpson, the problem lies simply in the lack of representation at the leadership levels- in the boards who decide who gets hired and fired. According to AIELOC’s research, those who own the schools and run the school boards are most often upper class, white men. When there is a monopoly by one race and gender on these positions, it is not difficult to see why this is reflected down the ranks. Similarly, the organizations that give accreditation to international schools have a history of homogenous racial representation. One of the biggest accreditation organizations- the Council of International Schools- publishes their members online. Only 2 out of 13 of their committee members are POC in Asia. In Europe, Middle East and Africa, the number drops to one out of 11. In Latin America and the Carribean, three out of six are non-POC. A trend emerges, once again showcasing a lack of sufficient diversity.

Both Simpson and Chapuredima agree that the solution needs to be many-fold. As mentioned by Hilty, the demand needs to be made from parents for their children to be able to learn in an environment that holds truly international ideals; inclusivity and diversity, representative of a world that is increasingly heterogeneous and connected. “There needs to be back and forth communication, as well as education for not only the students, but the parents as well.”

The other change needs to come from top down, a change in the structures currently in place. “There can be no change without representation amongst those in power,” Simpson says. Indeed, there can be no change without first realizing there is a problem to begin with. Out of the 30 international school’s that were contacted for this article, not a single one responded with any meaningful answers about their diversity practices. According to ISC’s Diversity Collaborative Survey 2019, one of the key findings about international schools was that “Awareness of the positive contribution of having a diverse leadership team is not always clear or valued.”

The schools in question run in their own bubbles, with very little oversight on the part of the world’s education boards and diversity panels. They are able to get away with creating mini pseudo United Kingdoms and United States; nations that have a history of spreading colonialism and neocolonialism. By excluding their host nations in any decision making and leadership opportunities, the schools are recreating the exact same eurocentric education systems that many have worked hard to undo.

The ISC Diversity Survey mentions that there are many hurdles to recruitment for a diverse leadership, but that despite pushback, the schools that committed to moving forward with diverse ideals in mind were successful in their pursuit. School leaders have massive influence on their schools, they just have to realize that change is possible. So Simpson’s first step, for now, is to bring awareness to this issue. He is working together with teachers all over the international school community, teachers like Chapuredima and Hilty, to talk to others and educate them, providing a platform for everyone to speak up. “Change will come from within,” Simpson says, and he sounds hopeful.

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Sofia Irfan

Sofia Irfan

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Journalist and aspiring world famous author, overthinking is her main hobby.