Where are they now?



In many international workplaces there seems to be a merry-go-round of faces coming and going. Sometimes we note with sadness the empty desk of a colleague who left before we had time to say goodbye. It is natural to want to accept new challenges and widen our experience and by and large this is commendable. What is of a concern for many of us however is the turnover of gifted staff who for whatever reason didn’t feel valued or have a chance to flourish, so they moved on to greener pastures.

In my first science lesson at one international school a boy asked, ‘How long are you staying?’ What a strange question? What did he mean? Later I found out that that class had had three different science teachers in the past year? I thought about this question many times. Who were these three teachers? Why did they leave? Where are they now? The school had world class facilities and accommodation, the salary and benefits were above average and most students willing to learn. Sure there were challenges but what’s new? A cynic (not us of course) might paraphrase Oscar Wilde, ‘To lose one teacher is unfortunate, to lose two sounds like carelessness'.

I thought about the effect of such teacher turnover on a young teenager struggling to build relationships, especially with teachers from another country, another culture and language. It struck a chord with me. When I was fourteen in England, we were most upset when our science teacher left after two years. But he wasn’t just a science teacher. He was one of the few teachers who understood us, we could joke with him, share our dreams and he even took us fishing in his free time. Imagine if he could have stayed just those two more years until we left and then our lives would have been perfect! Did the school leadership see the effects on students like me or feel the heartache? If so what could have been done to encourage the teacher to stay?

The higher turnover rate of teachers in international schools might be viewed by some as ‘collateral damage’, I mean every school and company has this problem doesn’t it? In her excellent book ‘Strengths-based Recruitment and Development’, Sally Bibb highlights three different responses shown by managers to address problems of engagement and retention. The first is denial that there is a problem and it’s business as usual. Secondly others accept it as the norm in that nature of work or location. The final group however recognise there is a cause for concern and look for creative strategies to address the situation.

If you believe that the retention of international teachers and employees is a key issue to address this year, then the Eight Step Change Model of Harvard Professor Tom Cotter might be relevant here. He suggests that we start with a sense of urgency that there actually is a problem, there is a need for change. Often, he says, there is a veil of secrecy, ‘we don’t want to worry the troops’. We may fail to address the issue because we are too busy to shift our focus or even that we may be concerned about the adverse publicity if it becomes public knowledge, I mean, what if the press gets to hear about it?! To capture an opportunity a true urgency is required, but what does this look like? How do we need to think, speak and behave in such a situation?

Although there is room for improvement within the areas of Professional Development and Personal Wellbeing, many international schools are making progress here as they note the financial, educational and social impact of high staff turnover. But it is this third area, Purpose and Direction towards goals, that I believe is the missing part of the equation. Gallup research confirms that when we are able to use our unique strengths each day there is increased engagement and retention. Our strengths come naturally to us, we feel energised when we use them and conversely frustrated and unfulfilled when they are stifled. Though we may still be ‘effective’, we are not truly engaged as frustration leads to withdrawal and a scanning of the jobs pages where we may at last find a place to thrive.

The Clifton Strengths Finder is a key step to becoming aware of the contributions and needs of our top strengths. With the support of a strengths coach, the individual and school can set goals based on these strengths to the mutual benefit of all. This engergised and focused engagement is the key to extended contracts, providing the solid base for long term school development, improved staff and student relationships and academic progress. Of course some of the huge financial savings diverted from recruitment and induction programs can be passed on to the teacher as further incentive to commit longer term. When we have clear goals based on our strengths that are aligned with the needs of our employer, it coincidently enlightens the content of the school's Professional Development and Personal Wellbeing programs.

One headteacher recently told me that addressing teacher engagement and retention is his top priority. Perhaps we need go no further than adopting some of the above suggestions with winners all round, except for perhaps international removal companies with less business than usual.

Rob Fenlon understands the joys and the challenges of inspiring children and adults to reach their potential, having over 25 years global teaching and education management experience in UK, Thailand, Burma, United Arab Emirates and Australia. Throughout his career he has looked for opportunities to integrate classroom learning with a holistic outlook to include family life, sports, hobbies and work experience. His team created and delivered the National Award-Winning Education-Industry Liaison Course between Batchelor Institute, NT and the Mining Industry by developing life skills and well-being components. He has the ability to see the wider picture, enthusing diverse groups to work interdependently on common goals.

Rob gained coaching credentials through Strengths Strategy® Inc. USA and Coaching Academy UK. BTEC, BTh, PGCE, (London), Cert IV (Training & Assessment, Australia), Strengths Strategy® Certified Coach (USA), Certified Professional Life Coach (UK)

His top Strengths from the Clifton Strengthsfinder® are Connectedness, Strategic, Empathy,

Achiever, Includer and Futuristic.

His Coaching provides the essential tools to help clients confidently tap into their potential and integrate their professional and personal goals successfully through the appropriate application of their Strengths.

He works across the globes and lives in the UK with his wife and four children.

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