The struggle is real: Supporting teachers in an international context

Over the last few weeks I have been doing teacher evaluations. I have about 30 to complete. We do them in November and then again in April. I really enjoy these opportunities to celebrate the great work that is happening in classrooms.

I always find it interesting how nervous teachers become around this time. My belief is that nothing written on the evaluation should be a surprise. We have been having conversations and created plans for support for teachers if there are issues. If a teacher is struggling they know they are struggling and we have a plan in place for them.

Teacher evaluations are a bit trickier in an international context for many reasons. If you are working with a struggling teacher in Ontario it is a long process that involves the union, human resources and a variety of other interventions including supports by the union, professional learning, a grade change or even a school change. This does not always result in success but it does provide many layers of intervention.

In an international context there is a high turnover of staff, teachers come and go in a 2 year cycle and the administration team can also change frequently. Contracts are 2 years in length to begin and teachers or adminstrators can extend anywhere between 1-3 years. This change of staff can create inconsistencies in practice. Initiatives that one individual begins can be abandoned or changed by the incoming individual. The rationale for decisions, important historical information and data can be lost when an individual leaves the organization. This can cause confusion for staff who are unsure of what is expected of them.

Supports in international schools are limited and depend on what you have to offer at your school. We are fortunate in our context we have the time and ability as adminstrators to provide a regular support through observations, debriefs and coaching. We have other support personal such as our PYP coordinators, instructional coaches and even team leads that work with us to support struggling staff. If a teacher is having difficulty we work together to determine what the issues are, how we can support and who is best to provide this support. We create a plan with identified steps and regular check ins along the way.

We want our teachers to succeed but what if they don’t. There are lots of reasons that this is difficult in an international context: cultural clashes, homesickness, loneliness, mismatched teaching philosophies, experience, training, language barriers etc. Some of these things are out of our control and although we try and support in some of these areas many of our interventions are not successful.

What impact can a unsuccessful teacher evaluation have in an international context?

We ALL live and work in the same place. Our homes are literally 2 minutes from the school and many of the staff are my neighbours. There is no physical separation between work and school. This can make for some awkward moments. I have tried really hard to separate my role as administrator from my personal life. This is not always an easy task but one that I feel I have been able to do fairly well. When a teacher receives a poor evaluation they often do not keep it to themselves. They need to talk to someone about it. Sometimes they are not at the place where they can reflect on the feedback or do not see it from the same perspective we do. These emotions when shared with others can impact staff morale and the climate and culture of the school. Depending on how loud their voice is or the influence they have on staff their experience if shared with others can fracture trust between the administrator and the staff.

Supports are limited for struggling teachers. Beyond the collective wisdom of the admin team, PYP coordinators and coaches we are limited. We can observe, co plan, model and debrief with teachers. We can find a mentor within our building for them, send them to job likes, provide them with resources to research and read but besides these interventions we are limited. All of the supports we have lie within our building. We also have the majority of teachers within our context who have anywhere between 2-5 years of experience. They are still finding their way and adding to their teacher toolbox. They are keen to help but are often limited in the supports that they can provide based on their limited experience.

Replacing a struggling teacher mid year is extremely challenging. We have a list of occasional or supply teachers. This list is very limited and although they are able to supply for a day here or there they are often not qualified for the positions that we have to fill. (teacher licenses, visas etc) This is not an option. We also have some trailing spouses but many of them are not teachers and therefore we are unable to hire them. We can reach out to our administrator network but many many schools are in the same boat and the available pool of replacements is VERY VERY shallow.

If we post on one of the sites that we use Search, or Schrole the options mid year are also limited. Most individuals that are seeking positions are doing so for the following school year and are already under contract with another school. We cannot interview or explore options with a teacher that is under contract with another school. That would be unethical and could have serious consequences for us.

Our goal is ALWAYS to support and develop teachers. We do what is within our control to help teachers grow and improve. At times this is a rewarding and difficult task but there is no greater joy as a leader than leading a struggling teacher to success!

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