Saturday, October 1, 2011

Experience -v- Quality

Today on LinkedIn I came across an article posted in the IB section entitled "More of Today's Teachers are Less Experienced".  I'm not entirely sure whether this article is referring solely to teachers in international schools, but my general impression is that with lots of new international schools opening up good and experienced teachers are in short supply and that the best and most experienced ones are snapped up fairly quickly.

When I first started teaching in the UK in the 1980s, there were not many young teachers at my first school.  In fact, in the year I started there were only 3 of us who were newly qualified and very many who had 10, 20 or even 30 years of experience.  As a young and inexperienced teacher I learned a lot from some of these older colleagues, especially in the area of classroom management.  I was supported and helped by teachers with more experience than me, and some of these I have remained friends with to this day.

When I moved into international education some years later, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and got a fabulous job at a school that was known as a world leader.  ISA was instrumental in the development of the IB Primary Years Programme and the IB Middle Years Programme and was the first authorised PYP  school in the world, as well as the first to offer all three IBO programmes.  I am very appreciative of the opportunity that was given to me to work at this school and to be a part of developing these programmes - especially as I came to the school from the state system in the UK and, although I'd lived in a number of countries previously, I'd never before worked in an international school.  At that time the school had over 50 nationalities of students and more than 50% of the students were not native English speakers and so were in the ESL programmes. For me it was a steep learning curve.

When I started in international education, in the late 80s and early 90s, there were a small number of "top" international schools that were developing the IBO programmes that are used by many international and private schools around the world today.  In general these schools could take their pick of candidates - they received hundreds of applicants each year and often one of the requirements for working in these schools was that the candidates had to have a minimum of 2 years of experience of working in international education.  And to get that first experience in international education, they had to have worked for a minimum of 2 years in their home country too.  Therefore in general any teacher who was offered a job at these schools would have had a minimum of 4 years of experience, and often many more in a variety of international schools.

The article I was reading in LinkedIn mentioned that today's students, however, are more likely to have a teacher with 2 years of experience or less, compared with an average of 14 years of experience in the late 1980s.  There can be many reasons for this.  Maybe teachers are now coming overseas at a younger age and are less experienced, maybe more of the older and more experienced teachers have left the profession or become consultants or have gone into administration.  Sometimes, in some schools, the only way to make a decent salary is to leave the classroom and go into an office.

Does inexperience reflect teacher quality?  Does it reflect the quality of the school?  Are inexperienced teachers less likely to cope in an international setting?  Do inexperienced international teachers move on quickly to better schools once they have got their required 2 years of international experience?  It's hard to say of course and we all had to start somewhere.  I'm very grateful that my lack of experience in international schools didn't hold me back from getting my first job in a wonderful international school - and I think I learned and grew and developed as a teacher and gave a lot back to that first school where I stayed for many years.

At the other end of the spectrum there are experienced international teachers who are doing 2-3 years in schools and then moving on - some of them are actually like tourists and I've heard them say things like "Well I've done Asia now, so I think I'll do South America next".  Some of these teachers don't invest a lot in the schools where they are working as they know they won't be staying long.  They may take on positions of responsibility because they look good on their CVs for when they apply for their next job.  But several years down the road what sort of legacy have they left in the schools they have passed through?  Sometimes people find it hard to even remember their names.  Others are remembered because they came, started new initiatives and then left before the results of these were fully known.  They are no longer accountable for some of the bad decisions they made because they have moved on elsewhere.  The teachers who have come since are still living with the consequences.

At the end of the day it's probably all about balance.  It's great to have some teachers who stay a long time and who have a feel for the history of a school and the families who have passed through it.  A friend of mine who started ISA in the same year I did and who is still there is in contact with hundreds of his ex-students.  On the other hand it's also good to have fresh blood and new ideas.  A great school needs to have both.  Perhaps the most interesting indicator of quality is to look at is the teachers who have come in the last 5 years or so.  Probably those who have stayed longer than this are there for the long haul, perhaps they have met and married locals, become part of the community.  But the ones who have  only been around for a few years are the ones who may be thinking of moving on.  Are these movers the experienced, quality international teachers that the school would be best to hold on to?  Or are they just the tourists?  When good, knowledgeable and experience teachers want to stay at a school, surely that is the best indicator of quality.

Photo Credit:  Teacher Appreciation Cupcakes by Clever Cupcakes AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works 


  1. Hi there!

    Great blog entry.

    We have highlighted it on our international school community blog -

    Landing a position at a top international school can indeed be the challenge!

    Best regards,

  2. The last line is a truism. What do you think is an indicator of a "good knowledgeable and experienced" teacher? What are the indicators that an outsider (i.e. prospective teacher or parent) can use to pre-judge a school?
    There are a few external indicators-- how much do they correlate with good knowledgeable and experienced?
    What are the best range of percentages, in the staff of an "American" or "International" school, of
    A. North-American-certified teachers
    B. staff seniority more than 3 years (i.e. have renewed their contract at the school)
    C. experienced more than 10 years anywhere
    D. advanced degree holders
    E. Anglo-nationality

    This could be a great survey topic for someone's M.A. thesis.

    1. I once read that you can master something if you devote 10,000 hours to it, which I believe is about 12 years experience as a teacher. Of course we all know teachers who have not really had 12 years of experience, but who have perhaps had one year of experience 12 times, but in general I would say that you probably do need many years of reflective practice in order to be a good and experienced teacher.

      In addition, I would look at such factors as professional development, the willingness to share one's experience, perhaps online, perhaps by presenting at conferences, as a way of assessing quality of experience. For the school itself I would look at the programmes being offered, and whether the school has been accredited by a reputable organization. Many schools are members of CIS, for example, but not all have been accredited.

      It's hard to answer your other questions. I have no idea about what the best percentage is for staffing. I would assume that the percentage of American teachers would be higher in international schools that offer American programmes such as APs. I'd expect it to be lower in schools that offer the IB Diploma. Depending on the country I'd expect to see some host country teachers too (but not too many as that wouldn't indicate a true international school). I'd want a diversity of nationalities represented among the teaching staff, not just those from English speaking countries. I'd expect that many foreign language teachers would be native speakers.

      A school that has a high turnover of staff would set off alarm bells for me. However numbers can be misleading - there may be many long-timers at a school who are there for personal reasons, not because the school is a good one. Many stay even when the reputation of the school is going down, for example after a change of leadership. Perhaps they are at the top of the salary scale and would find it difficult to move, perhaps they have a local partner or spouse who may find it hard to find work if they moved to a different country. Perhaps they have teenage children who would find it too disruptive to change schools/programmes/subjects. However you are right, a willingness to sign on for more than 2 contracts would be a good indication that teachers are happy with the school. For myself I've found that moving is hard. The first year I think you take a lot more from a new school than you give back. The second year you probably just about break even. However the year that you leave your heart is probably already somewhere else and it's hard to stay motivated. If a school has many teachers who leave after 2 or 3 years then it's questionable how much long-term value has been added to the school by their employment.

      Some schools actively look for young and inexperienced teachers because they know they can pay them lower down the salary scale than experienced teachers. This would worry me.

      I would feel positive about a school that encouraged me (financially or with time off) to take an advanced degree.

      I agree that this would be a great survey topic and I'd love to know the results of such a survey.