Mind the Divide!

A while ago I had been green lighted for publication of an article in the an international education magazine but their publication schedule has changed and it will no longer be published in April as I thought. As I am probably exiting the world of international schools forever this June, I am publishing the article here, primarily to honor all of my fellow professionals who have responded to the survey (thank you!) but also to hopefully raise an issue and propose a solution. Please share if you feel it will make a difference.

For the past twenty years I have worked in one of the leading international schools in Eastern Europe. I am what is referred to as a “local hire” and came into the school right out of college, in a secretarial position.   Today I lead the Admissions & External Relations Department, representing the school in many instances. I have worked with five Directors, many more Principals, various international and national Business Managers, many  teachers and I have personally met the families of all 900 students currently enrolled.  I care deeply about the institution that I represent in front of families and so I am sensitive to comments that I hear around staff disengagement. I cannot however deny one thing: while so many things have changed around me, one hasn’t really – the more or less openly talked about divide between the foreign and local staff, be it faculty or support staff. 

I am an avid student of connection, emotions and perception, so this quote from Dr. Brene Brown, resonated very much with me while I was reflecting on the above:

“So, here’s the question: we don’t intentionally create cultures in our families, schools, communities, and organisations that fuel disengagement and disconnection, so how does it happen? Where’s the gap?

“So, here’s the question: we don’t intentionally create cultures in our families, schools, communities, and organisations that fuel disengagement and disconnection, so how does it happen? Where’s the gap?

more than what we know or who we want to be. The space between our practiced values (what we’re actually doing, thinking, and feeling) and our aspirational values (what we want to do, think and feel) is the value gap, or what I call ‘the disengagement divide’. It’s where we lose our employees, our clients, our students, our teachers, our congregations, and even our children.”

Dr. Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, pg. 177


The primary mission of schools is to educate, to grow next generations of engaged, inspired and compassionate individuals – as so many of the former make it their mission to do.  There is a lot of transition and change in international schools and this makes it very difficult to create and maintain an organizational culture of engagement and compassion.  There are many elements that play into building such cultures and the question I am asking today is: when it comes to the integration of local staff, do international schools align with their visions and missions?

Organizational culture – educational organizations in our case – has been defined in many ways.  “Culture is the environment that an organization creates for its people and extended shareholders”.[2] Some like to refer to culture as simply “the way we do things around here”.  When we try to gage the level of health in our organization’s culture, there are certain elements that need checking: a clear purpose based on agreed values, agency of employees (both the capability and the autonomy to make choices), psychological safety, diversity, inclusion, the possibility of employees to bring their authentic selves to work and connect genuinely with others, resiliency at the level of the individual and, therefore, of the organization.[3]

Given that constant change is part of their nature, international schools are bound to have an exceptionally hard time building and maintaining inclusive environments.  Such endeavors take years to create and chances are that in an international school the turnover of staff delays and in certain situations stunts this process more than in other institutions.  One thing that schools do have going for them, however, is their character as learning oriented cultures – and it is precisely this type of culture that research has identified as a true berth for diverse and inclusive organizations.[4] “Learning-oriented cultures emphasize flexibility, open-mindedness and exploration, and can equip organizations with the ability to adapt and innovate.  […] Organizations with learning-oriented cultures will seek out and value individuals who bring unique and varied perspectives and experiences to the table and will be better positioned to make progress in increasing diversity within the workforce.”[5]

Regardless of the many corners of the world they come from, their culture and their interests, teachers and school administrators have something in common: they are in the learning profession. So the fertile ground is there, the conditions are set.  The danger schools face however when considering this is leaving out their “non academic” staff from this learning process.  It is only when the learning organization comprises all of its members, when it is inclusive in its learning practices, that we can talk about a learning organization with a sustainable and meaningful culture.  While most of the local staff many times constitute the backbone of the school, the employees with the greatest seniority and bearers of institutional memory, few are the instances when business office personnel or maintenance staff, custodial or medical office staff are involved in student centered activities or in discussions around the educational mission of the school. And this creates and accentuates the divide.

In her doctoral dissertation of 2018, Dr. Tracy Arnold, currently Middle School Principal at AEL in Lincoln, Buenos Aires,  presents extensive literature and research in support of the idea that there are several “contributing factors to workers’ perceptions of distributive fairness in international schools” and that “this impacts the collaboration between local and foreign-hire teachers.  Variables such as perceived compensation differential, contributions of different staff groups, willingness to collaborate and perception of communication systems amongst others were considered.”[6] These are strong barriers in the schools’ journey towards inclusion and integration.

Through research and surveys Dr. Arnold shows how “feelings of inequitable treatment may be demotivating, resulting in efforts on the part of the work to compensate for this.  This may result in workers showing less dedication to their work or behaviors that undermine the organization.”[7] Dr. Arnold surveyed a number of international schools, and her findings show for many of the local employees (in this case locally hired teachers) differences from their foreign counterparts in terms of salary and benefits, systems of promotion, communication as well as a lack of understanding of why this is happening. 

I wanted to dig a little deeper and ask local support staff about their involvement in the life of the school.  I started asking around to see what my counterparts felt in my quest to highlight an important part of the workforce whose potential often remains untapped. Do they feel like they belong? What lies behind disengagement?  More importantly, is there anything that can be done that is within our reach?

In a survey I have designed for this article, 56 members of local staff in schools around the world, answered questions regarding their representation to the school leadership, their knowledge of the organization’s values, vision, mission and curriculum and hiring practices.  The participants were also invited to offer their opinion on matters such as the way in which their schools make the best of their abilities and potential, include them in transition activities or in decision making and if important communication is translated into their local language. 

Respondents came from many continents: mostly from Europe (Romania, Portugal, Hungary, France, Denmark, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, UK, Lithuania, The Netherlands, North Macedonia, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Malta), but also from Africa (Kenya, South Africa) and Asia (Vietnam).  The respondents’ positions ranged from leadership to administrative assistance and maintenance and their experience in their institutions from under five to over twenty years.

It was quite encouraging to see that a bit over half (60.7%) of respondents mention the existence in their schools of groups/ bodies that represent their interests and which mostly meet when there is a need (41.2%) or monthly (32.4%).  The majority of local staff surveyed (84%) rated themselves as quite “in the know” about their school’s vision and mission and  somewhat knowledgeable when it comes to their school’s curriculum (66.1%).  Hiring practices also appear to be clear to over half of the local staff surveyed (73,2% rated themselves a 3, 4 or a 5 on a 1 to 5 scale where 5 was an “I know this in great detail” rating).  When it came to the values of the organization, 98,2% of local staff surveyed confirmed a high level of knowledge.

Even more encouraging was the finding that 87,5% of local staff surveyed believe they belong in their organization and that their school is respectful of their culture.  While some comments speak about a lack of communication, school focus on teaching staff, micromanagement in administration, many describe welcoming environments, feeling appreciated and valued, being able to see the impact that their work has on their institution.  Many respondents talk about being appreciated and belonging at the level of their teams but not necessarily the school leadership, about how changes in leadership (which happen so often in international schools) affect their feelings of being supported, valued and appreciated.

60.7% of respondents feel that the school makes the best of their abilities and potential and that professional development at their school is tailored to the locals’ needs and capabilities.  Comments do however identify the fact that this happens more for locals in teaching or administrative staff and not necessarily for other functions. What I found concerning were the many comments in which respondents identified as being overqualified for the jobs they are doing, their experience not being taken into consideration by new leadership.

When asked about their inclusion in transition activities, only 44.6% responded that they are and 64.3% responded that they are included in orientation activities.  Most locals surveyed feel that they are involved in activities related to the school vision and mission, branding and marketing (78,6%) and around half are involved in important decision making (48,2%) or communicated to in their native language (53,6%).

In closing, general comments to the survey indicated a pull between the locals’ status of being well remunerated compared to other people in the same positions in their country but feeling not so well paid when they compare themselves to the international staff at their school.  Answers vary from more positive to less so, depending on how close a local staff member works with members of the leadership team – the closest to leadership, the more informed, involved and appreciated one is.

I have spent the last two decades in the same place, but not in the same school.     I got behind people, projects, ideas, I invested time, energy, mind and heart and at some point, for reasons I many times have no say in, everything ended abruptly.  Locals in international schools stay in the same place physically, yet things change around them yearly: people around them close chapters, say goodbye, others come, excited and wide eyed and … locals are stuck in the middle of this whirlwind, wondering where to hide the excitement of past projects left unfinished or uncelebrated and how to start new ones they don’t even understand very well or want.

While there is a clear transition process that is highlighted and supported when it comes to foreign school hires in any international schools and many organizations have amazing orientation and transition programs, little thought is given in schools to the process that local staff, the “stayers” have to go through.

“Developing the right culture can be a slow and difficult process.  Although achieving a shift toward a learning culture will take longer than setting diversity targets and paying out bonuses, we believe organizations that are able to pull it off will be the ones to build equitable, diverse, and inclusive organizations for the long run.” [8]

If we look at most international schools’ visions and missions, we can see they all set out to be world changing educational organizations.  “International schools pride themselves on helping young people to develop intercultural understanding. […] It is essential that the young people in our schools see intercultural understanding and respect modelled in the day-to-day practices of the school.”[9]

Of course, the disengagement divide is not the only danger a school faces when its local teaching and support staff is not included and empowered.  In organizations where it is already hard to maintain stability and a sense of flow due to the high yearly turnover of staff and students, it is the local staff that many times represents the connective tissue moving the school ethos and culture forward.  In an environment where they feel unmotivated and not engaged, their threat to leave becomes reality more often than not.  There is recent research coming out of Microsoft which suggests that 41% of workers across the world are thinking about quitting their jobs.[10] Building a culture of solidarity is one of the ways in which companies manage to retain their valuable workers. “Forced into self-reflection during extended periods of work from home, workers have questioned the value of their work and the sense of meaning it provides.  On top of that, the isolation of the pandemic has intensified our desire for authentic belonging.  […] The top two reasons employees cited for leaving (or considering leaving) were that they didn’t feel their work was valued by the organization (54%) or that they lacked a sense of belonging at work (51%)


Jill Perry-Smith, Professor of Organization & Management and Senior Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School outlines a few important practices through which leaders can drive their institutions forward, by creating a more inclusive and solidary culture.[12] These are: recognizing differences, working to actively uncover common ground and committing to having difficult conversations.[13]  These practices are great strategies for educating the young but in an institution as old as time and with practices that have firm and entangled roots, how do we even start?  Here are some small but meaningful steps that can transform a school’s culture and, in turn, enrich the product: education.

  1. Be a learner: When coming into a school as a leader, care enough to assess your entire workforce.  Everyone, from the leadership team to the last hired custodian makes up your team.  An intentional listening effort in the beginning of any Head tenure will pay off in so many ways. Any leader would be amiss to not consider the important “backbone” information local staff, who has been at the school for a long time and through many changes, can offer.  Whenever change occurs, people fear lack of stability and a leader can depend on a well engaged local staff to help keep stability in check.
  1. Connect genuinely: Offer transition workshops for your locals as well – they may not be relocating but they are for sure going through a transition. The change of school leadership will challenge the way things are done, organizational culture that is,  and you need to bring everyone with you if you are to be truly successful. Yes, this will give way to some difficult conversations but, who knows, you might find some great insights along the way as well.
  1. Be a risk taker, give people agency: “Workers need to know that what they do makes a difference.  They need to be equipped with the tools, training, support and technology to do the job and they need to have a certain level of autonomy in doing the job.”[14] Always consider your entire workforce in campaigns – a bullying prevention campaign, COVID prevention or a rebranding effort are not complete without sharing with your “eyes on the ground”.  Chances are that many of the bullying incidents in the school happen in the bathroom, in a corner of the hallway, out in the parking lot – who from your team is there if not your custodians, drivers, security support? Empower them with knowledge, tools and trust and you will benefit tenfold. 

A crisis always brings to light what is true at the time of its unfolding – so it is with the COVID 19 crisis – organizational culture where people feel like they belong, where communication systems are strong, equitable and inclusive, where everyone is heard and included are by far more agile and resilient. 

  1. Work to create a psychologically safe and purpose driven environment: Of course, we are all paid to do a job. But don’t all leaders recognize the difference between a workforce that is simply “doing a job” and a truly engaged one? Simple actions can make sure leadership sends the “you matter” message to their local staff: have someone represent locals in meetings that concern the entire school (have locals on the leadership team), translate communications, communicate inclusively.
  1. Celebrate your inclusiveness: Employees who feel they belong and are heard carry the good reputation of the institution they work for; help improve and enrich the general atmosphere of the organization and wholeheartedly contribute to a healthy organization culture. Don’t miss opportunities to get to know and showcase local culture and offer the stage to your locals in community gatherings.

Our young are smart. They never learn from what we say, they always learn from what we do. And the thing is, it may all seem overwhelming but all we need to do is take one single in the right direction.

[1] Dr. Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, pg. 177

[2] The IABC Guide for Practical Business Communication, Published by the IABC, Ch. 2 – Alison Rankin Frost,  pg. 20

[3] ibid

[4] Research: What Inclusive Companies Have in Common by J.Yo-Jud Cheng and Boris Groysberg, Harvard Business Review, June 18,2001

[5] Ibid

[6] Leadership And Perceptions of Fairness in International Schools, A Dissertation – Presented to the Faculty of the College of Graduate Studies Lamar University, Dr. Tracy Arnold, 2018, Abstract

[7] Ibid, pg.4

[8] Research: What Inclusive Companies Have in Common by J.Yo-Jud Cheng and Boris Groysberg, Harvard Business Review, June 18,2001

[9] Leadership And Perceptions of Fairness in International Schools, A Dissertation – Presented to the Faculty of the College of Graduate Studies Lamar University, Dr. Tracy Arnold, 2018, pg. 70

[10] To Retain Employees, Give Them a Sense of Purpose and Community, Ron Carucci, Harvard Business Review, October 11, 2021

[11] Ibid

[12] You’ve Built a Racially Diverse Team. But Have You Built and Inclusive Culture? By Jill Perry-Smith, Harvard Business Review, August 30, 2021


[14] The IABC Guide for Practical Business Communication, Published by the IABC, Ch. 2 – Alison Rankin Frost, pg. 23

Photo by Alex Padurariu on Unsplash

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