How Are School Directors Chosen?

Article by a guest Author:

Early in my overseas teaching career I made a bad choice of schools. That was before I knew about ISR. To date, I’ve taught at 5 International Schools, and counting. My first school was horrible, a ‘crap hole’ as one of my colleagues most aptly described it. The director’s mind-boggling incompetence and that of his principal was staggering. They almost drove me to leave international education right from the start.

Fortunately, my subsequent schools had outstanding leadership. Thank you ISR! At one school, the soon-to-be-leaving director, in conjunction with the board, actually flew in the top 2 contenders for the position (not on the same dates). Both of them spent time being interviewed by alternating, small groups of teachers. We later voted. We all felt valued.

I depend on ISR to read and research the history of a director I could potentially end up working for. A couple of bad reviews out of many and I’m okay with it. Twenty or so reviews with 95% of them not so good, and I give the school a pass.

My question: There’s a lot of good leadership out there. I know that first-hand. That said, if a particular director has scads of ISR reviews that paint them as practicing a top-down, dictatorial, ‘my way or the highway‘ abusive style of management, how is it they seem to easily move around from school to school?

What comes to mind is this: Some schools must be looking for a person to administer the agenda of the financially invested stakeholders, or an individual stakeholder and/or owner. To put it bluntly, are some schools using ISR reviews to find a director who will suppress dissension in the ranks, maximize profits and keep parents placated? I hope not! Is it possible they just don’t know about ISR?

Anonymous Guest Author

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13 thoughts on “How Are School Directors Chosen?

  1. In terms of leaders acquiring roles from school to school over time?

    Competence versus confidence and collaboration versus cooperation…all of these seem to play out differently depending on the school management/board – if one even exists.

    Then one has to look closely at reputation breadcrumbs and the effectiveness trail…this is too often measured by single sources rather than looking at patterns over time.

    I have seen so many horrible people move up the leadership ladder…jump rungs…acting in self serving ways…all based on their confidence rather than their competence.

    I know of many leaders, right now, who claim to be collaborative but are more of a commander because their notion of cooperation is silent consent.

    As far as effectiveness? Despite many accreditation systems, leadership is rarely but maybe not soley, measured within accreditation. The board has oversite of the HoS…so that position is answerable to that group- if one actually exists at all.

    And finally, ISR is not a credible source (yet) for fact gathering. This is not to suggest that the statements made by users are not true. They are anonymous, which, most will agree lessens their credibility.

    When considering ISR or other school reviews it is wise to look for patterns over time and then cross reference that leaders name in other schools to see if there are similar comments.


  2. Obviously, it’s up to the management. A good school will seek to have staff and student input, allow the candidates a little free rein to walk around the school themselves and speak and / or present to staff, as well as a clear idea what they’re expecting. A poor school will decided ahead of the interview, will not involve the staff or students, and will look to the path of least resistance.

    My last school did the former, but as a staff we were able to identify who the ‘preferred’ candidate by management was during their presentations (we knew what would push their buttons) and so a lot of us voted for the other one to see what would happen, or not at all.

    On a more general point, I do think directors / principals in international schools can be divided into two camps. On the one hand, you have the ‘good ol’ boys’ who probably started in their first role about 20+ years ago. You know them by their style; everything in the school has to be run past them, there is little or no staff consultation, they still do all the interviews and all the appointments with little consideration to the teams within the school.

    On the other hand, you have younger principals – often those who have come from domestic systems – who try to be more democratic, and allow others more freedom and responsibility. These sometimes then divide again into those who do this successfully, and those who don’t because they’re too weak or allow themselves to be manipulated by others.


  3. I’ve had two different processes over the last two positions.

    1. Full interview with students, parents, directors and owners etc. That school was a sh!@ show from the get go, but they flew me out there, let me see the chaos I was getting into – survived 4 years of that madness.

    2. Met the outgoing head who took me on a tour, didn’t meet any staff, parents or students. At the interview he was present with the school owner, we talked, when it got to me I started asking questions about the change of leadership, what she wanted to see from me that the outgoing wasn’t doing, forcing it into a challenging conversation with him present.

    They were asked to leave the room part way into it to discuss some finer details. First question asked when he left the room ” If you disagree with my decisions what will you do?” – told them directly I will always stand my ground when decisions impact the learning of students or the welfare of my staff. I will look for a solution, but that doesn’t always guarantee there is one.

    Ultimately it is your school, but I will make sure you know my thoughts if I see a problem.

    Was offered the job there and then. Even bigger sh1@ show than the first one, but a good laugh nonetheless and it made that grey to black hair dye company a good amount of money too.


  4. The truth is it will boil down to how “human” the Board of Directors is.

    We had a director change 3 years ago and he always said it was the BOARD’S fault of everything that was occurring. Then, the Board hired Search Associates to carry out and support them with the hiring. Three candidates were flown in. Parents, Students, Teachers, and Staff interviewed and voted. They chose the one we all felt was best. Albeit, we thought the Principal we had should’ve had a spot.

    THEN, we find out, with the new director, that everything that was the “BOARD’s fault” was due to the director just making HORRIBLE decisions. Needless to say, his ISR reviews (except for one probably written by his wife or his #2) speak volumes! Heck, he went to Taiwan next and its the SAME review, but different country.

    Board of Directors don’t even know ISR exists.


  5. The selection of a school head is ultimately made by the board, who may have a different agenda from the people actually working at the school. Many board members also don’t understand the interpersonal and professional dynamics of actually running a school, and have a hard time (or it’s not on their agenda) to find out what the director is like in day-to-day operations.

    My greatest concern is the recruiting agencies who screen candidates. I’ve been shocked over the years by how many utterly unqualified candidates for head of school make it to the final group who visit the school. There’s usually one candidate who stands out, but even then the school might be sold a bill of goods. It’s very rare to meet two viable candidates in the final pool, and that’s distressing.


    1. The final point here is very valid. Headhunters weed out dozens of CVs before longlisting. How well do they know the school (or the candidates…)? Many good candidates can end up in the bin and the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. Schools brief agents about the person specification they’re seeking, narrowing the field in terms of age, experience, salary requirements, number of dependents, educational background, etc. Ancillary factors can be more significant than one thinks, and even act as game-changers when candidates are on a par with one another. In the end perceived cultural compatibility is comforting, but can be illusory as many candidates in interview situations can say what the school wants to hear and later do quite the opposite! Hiring directors is more of an art than a science.


  6. Building on what others have said, I would agree it depends on the type of school and then on the school itself. Every school has its own culture and set of values. Unfortunately, many for-profit schools want someone who will focus on the bottom line – the ledger. So reviews of a top-down, “my way or the highway” attitude in a principal or director might actually attract school owners.

    Most schools I know narrow the choices to a small pool and fly them in to “interview” with representatives from all stake-holders – students, parents, staff, faculty, other leaders, board members. As others have said, this is a two-way interview. The school is selling itself at the same time the candidate is selling him/herself.

    My last school hired a “head hunter” to do all the leg work. After giving the head hunter an idea of what we needed (based in part on surveys of all stakeholders) the school was not directly involved again in the process until the choice was narrowed down to the final three. This began two years before the head was set to leave.


  7. As a now retired school head, I can say with some confidence hat there is as much valet in the type and quality of director appointments as there is in very other aspect of international schools, For obvious (and good!) reasons, ISR reviews tend to focus on the bad end of the spectrum, but don’t assume that they all get it wrong. There are some outstanding schools and directors out there as well; the snag, of course, is that they. are able to chose only outstanding teachers!


  8. I went through the process twice, once for a state department school (selected) and once for a for-profit school (hired). For the first, the process involved being screened via a video conference, being short-listed and then having to run the gauntlet of multiple interviews over two days while being oriented to the school, city, culture etc. (remember the school has to sell themselves to you; as much as you have to sell yourself to the community. The second involved being the only candidate to be flown in, being wined and dined and then, for two years, fighting a culture of profit-seeking and disrespect for, well, virtually everyone.

    Contrary to what was said in an earlier comment, an old boys’ network does not help much at all in a not-for-profit international school. A current Director may have some input, but from my experience, they do not sit on the hiring committee and only participate as just one of the on-site meetings.

    For-profit schools fall into a whole other category, so, in reality, any scenario you can imagine comes into play. The leadership is beholding to the “company” before all else (I learned this the hard way and was subsequently let go because I wouldn’t toe the line. I had 20 years of experience in great international schools to draw on to guide my understanding of what a good school should look like and operate.)

    I support the idea that a few bad reviews do not a lousy director make but do look for the flames amidst the smoke in the ISRs. Doing your research pays off.


  9. There is no way to be absolutely sure until you put some time in at a particular school. Always good to have more than one “egg in your basket”. Be ready to leave at Xmas break, or to not return for the second year. Don’t be afraid to do this, especially if you have established a good track record.
    You can be dedicated to your work and the kids, and not feel disloyal for looking out for yourself.
    In the end you only have to answer to yourself.


  10. Through old boys network and they will guard it like a hawk so that the stereotype isn’t broken. They will say a million things about levelling up, but it’s all about maximising the dough at the end of the day through mutual favors.


  11. One of my last schools had 4 candidates to replace the departing HoS. Each of them was interviewed by representative faculty and parents, the school board, and even student council. Notes from the interviews were collated and ultimately the decision was made by the board with input from the departing Head. I found it was a fairly democratic process.

    I would then go to a school where the director would turn out to be a grifter who bamboozled the parents, teachers, and investors. With no real oversight or checks on his power, he bled every drop of cash out the school and fled the country. So, yeah, there’s a wrong way to do it too.

    Lesson learned: be cautious of a director with bad ISR reviews. Be equally or more cautious of a director with no footprint of any kind.

    Liked by 1 person

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