International Private Schools Are Booming. But What About Their Teachers’ Well-Being?

Managing Editor

Enrollment in international private schools has skyrocketed in recent years, but a new survey reveals that teachers and students are feeling pressured by many of the same forces that rattle educators in public school systems in the United States.

An overwhelming majority of educators working in international private schools, 83 percent, said they believe that the stress of exams can have a negative impact on students’ results on those tests.

Nearly half, 48 percent, also said that students’ transitions between schools–no doubt a common occurrence among expatriate families enrolled in them–have a negative impact on students’ well-being.

The survey of well being in international schools was released by ISC Research, a British organization that tracks the private educational institutions. It was conducted by Angie Wigford at International Educational Psychology Services Ltd., and Andrea Higgins of Cardiff University’s school of psychology.

International private schools are defined by ISC as those that are delivering curriculum wholly or partly in English outside of an English-speaking nation. They can also include schools that are in countries where English is an official language, if those schools offer an English-language curriculum other than the country’s national curriculum.

There are 9,605 international private schools around the world, and their numbers have grown by more than 6 percent over the most recent year, ISC said earlier this year.

International private schools have become a huge presence in many regions and countries.  The United Arab Emirates is the country serving the most students, 620,000, of any nation.  Demand for international schools there is fueled in large measure by the UAE’s distinct labor market: An estimated 80 percent of its workforce is made up of expatriates, many of whom want private education for their children.

China has the next-highest enrollment, with more than 489,000 students in international private schools. Saudi Arabia and India also enroll hundreds of thousands of students.

The schools’ popularity has surged in many nations, such as China, where families’ spending power has soared. As incomes have risen, families have sought out schools they believe will give their children an education that tops government-run schools. In many cases, parents are also counting on schools to help prepare their children to pursue postsecondary study abroad.

More than 1,000 educators completed ISC’s 31-question survey, which was conducted online, along with full interviews conducted with educators via Skype. The respondents were from private schools in 70 countries in every region of the world. The majority of the respondents were classroom teachers, but many others had management or leadership responsibilities in their schools. (The full survey is available upon request from ISC.)

Among the findings:

  • 40 percent of the teachers surveyed from international schools said they had between 4-11 years of experience in the classroom. Another 35 percent said they had more than 12 years experience working in international schools;
  • Supportive relationships, sound communication, and strong, clear leadership were identified by those surveyed as key factors in creating and maintaining a sense of well-being in school. Asked to list three things to help them feel positive about school, 30 percent said relationships with their colleagues;
  • 81 percent said they believe they can count on the support of their colleagues;
  • 70 percent said they feel a genuine sense of belonging with their school;
  • Yet on the flip side, 56 percent of those surveyed said they feel “emotionally drained” by their work half or most of the time;
  • 43 percent said they did not feel that their school was concerned about their personal well-being, and 42 percent said they were frustrated in their job for half or most of the time; and
  • 29 percent said they would not recommend working in their school to a friend.

In interviews with the researchers that were included in the report, teachers for the most part described collegial work environments. But some also voiced frustrations dealing with parents and academic demands.

“I love my partner teachers, I adore working with them,” one teacher said anonymously in an interview in the report. “I respect them professionally and personally, and that goes a long way for me to kind of overlook the nit-picky things that I might gripe about, and I think that helps quite a bit.”

Yet one teacher said the school tries to encourage parents to communicate with the school, “but because of the culture, parents tend to defer to teachers, so there may be less engagement.”

Others said they were afraid to have tough conversations with families. “I cannot really confront the parents, because they would take the students from our school.” Added another: “Parents will be on your back if their child’s not getting the correct grades.”

Teachers also said they feel pressure to drive improvements on test scores at the international schools.

One teacher surveyed asked an administrator “How do we help maintain balance with exams? Especially with high-pressure parents and students?”  The response the teacher heard was, “‘We don’t, we just don’t, you can’t do anything about it,” according to an interview in the report.

Richard Gaskell, the schools director for ISC Research, said in an e-mail to EdWeek Market Brief that the intense focus on exams in international schools did not surprise him. The schools have pressure to set high standards and attract families, he said.

Additionally, many students come from expatriate households where parents set lofty expectations for schools and their children.

“Many local parents are seeking out international schools as a pathway to global university options for their children, so there is parental pressure on many such students as a result of this,” Gaskell said. “Some of the good international schools work very hard to develop an understanding of what success at school means for children and their families, but examination results ultimately remain a significant part of that success.”

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