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Research in Brief: international school teacher identities

Have you considered international teaching?

Do you fancy travel? Pete Clements has been doing some research on the types of teacher who brave it.

The international schools market is booming. ISC Research estimate that there are over five million students currently enrolled in international school programmes, with around half a million full time staff employed in such contexts. Demand for international school teachers has risen sharply due to the emergence of the new models of international schooling (e.g. Bunnell et al, 2017).  The need for international school educators seems clear, but what motivates teachers to work overseas? Also, how are the educational beliefs, values and pedagogical approaches of these teachers being shaped by their experience of teaching abroad? 

Identifying types of international school teacher 

According to Bailey and Cooker (2019), the professional identities of international school teachers have been largely ignored in educational research. In a recent article, they set out to explore the identities of a small group of educators in international school settings. They undertook semi-structured interviews with 20 educators who were taking an international PGCE course. They identified three types of international school teacher based on the data gathered: 

Type A teachers – These teachers wish to be globally mobile. They see their role as supporting learners in a similar goal: attaining global mobility. 

Type B teachers – These teachers have an open, international mindset. They view the purpose of education as leading to global and ideological change. 

Types C teachers – These teachers are primarily connected to the local area (e.g. through marriage, family, etc). They see international school teaching as a chance to serve the local population.  

Bailey and Cooker note some other interesting trends based on the interview data. Many respondents identified as, in the researchers’ terms, ‘accidental teachers’. That is, they hadn’t planned to enter the profession but had ended up there by circumstance. Also, the authors coin the term ‘Third Culture Teachers’, which they describe as… 

“… teachers who see themselves not as professional teachers in their country of origin or in their country of residence, but as belonging primarily to a third culture of teacher identity – that of a teacher in an international school.” (Bailey and Cooker 2019:135). 

The term ‘Third Culture Teachers’ hints that the identity of international school teachers is in some way distinct, as with the identity of people classed as ‘Third Culture Kids’.  

Why these teacher types? 

Bailey and Cooker’s ‘typology of international school teachers’ is a starting point for other researchers who are interested in exploring international teaching identities. As mentioned, research into international school teachers, their identities, values and so on is rather limited, so the authors are laying down a marker. Further research will likely result in these types being outlined in more detail, being redefined, or more types being identified. 

The authors took their lead from Hayden and Thompson (2013), who created a similar ‘typology of international schools’. They outline three types of international school:  

Type A – Traditional international schools – typically serving Western expatriates. 

Type B – Ideological international schools – embracing a more ideological take on ‘international-mindedness’. 

Type C – Non-traditional international schools – typically geared more towards host-country nationals. 

That’s a very basic overview, but it should make it clear how Bailey and Cooker’s typology aligns with existing research. A disclaimer for both these attempts to categorize international schooling and its educators would be that they are generalisations and shouldn’t be taken as fixed or rigid. 

What can we learn from Bailey and Cooker’s research? 

This research, although small-scale, opens up useful dialogue into the identity of international educators, and the evolving nature of international education. It is easy to make false assumptions about why teachers migrate overseas – the authors hint at these misconceptions when framing the article and exploring existing research. Notably… 

  • International school teaching is often seen as highly lucrative. However, many international school teachers are actually in the ‘middle-space’ between (wealthy) corporate expats and disadvantaged overseas workers facing precarity. 
  • The financial benefits of teaching overseas depend on how you enter the profession – the difference between expatriate vs local hire contracts means it shouldn’t be assumed that money is the motivator for (all) international school teachers. 
  • International teachers often face culture shock, and conflict between their own educational values and those of the host country. These issues are explored in prior research by Bailey (2015), who highlighted a mismatch between teacher and learner attitudes towards both pedagogical approaches and English as the medium of instruction. 

The profile of the participants in this study offers an interesting take home point. The interviewees were not teachers who had already qualified in their own country, and who had decided to up sticks and head for warmer climes. In fact, they were practising international school educators taking a PGCE course, which is seen more as an initial teacher training course in the UK. This shows that teachers at international schools aren’t simply plucked from overseas, and they may be considered competent enough (in some cases) to teach without holding a formal teaching license from their own country. International school recruiters may feel there are benefits to hiring expatriates locally, beyond the fact that it is probably cheaper. Bailey and Cooper suggest that researchers build a better understanding of the skill sets and mindsets of these ‘third culture teachers’, and what makes them desirable to recruiters. 

Are you an international school teacher? If so, can you identify with any of the teacher types mentioned?
Do you think there are more than three types of international school educator?
What do you think makes a good international school teacher? Why? 

The article summarised above is: 
Bailey, L. and Cooker, L., 2019. Exploring Teacher Identity in International Schools: Key Concepts for Research. Journal of Research in International Education18(2), pp.125-141. 
Further references include: 
Bailey, L., 2015. The experiences of host country nationals in international schools: A case-study from Malaysia. Journal of research in international education14(2), pp.85-97. 
Bunnell, T., Fertig, M. and James, C., 2016. What is international about International Schools? An institutional legitimacy perspective. Oxford Review of Education42(4), pp.408-423. 
Hayden, M. and Thompson, J., 2013. International schools and international education: Improving teaching, management and quality. Routledge. 

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The author

Pete Clements is a teacher and materials writer. He is currently based in Thailand, where he works as an EAL Teacher at St. Andrews 107 International School. Pete has written English language learning materials for various educational publishers and institutions including Macmillan, Pearson and the British Council. He blogs at, tweets @eltplanning, and plays midfield for Bangkok Old Boys FC.

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