Are you White enough?

by Alexander Charles Gardner-McTaggart (Alex McTaggart)

In many international schools, remuneration is based on where you come from. For example, Ex-pat hires, recruited abroad get the full deal. Ex-pat hires recruited locally get a lesser deal. Local hires, get an even lesser deal and unless you can ‘fit’ the field, you get no deal at all. Writing this now, I still find it difficult, as none of it makes any sense. Worse than that, it is stupid, ignorant, deeply divisive, and unjust. Yet, as most readers will recognize, this is the non-collegial reality that we call international schools’ teaching. 

When you walk into one of the ‘good’ international schools – the ones that can ask the higher fees – you will be greeted by a happy registrar who walks around a school campus of superlatives: theatre, pool, sports-fields, cosy student areas etc. The staff are helpful and friendly, educated and purposeful and for the most part, white and Anglo European. 

When you teach at one of these schools you walk into a world where payment is appropriate, working hours are decent, and benefits are the defining measure of its prestige as a school. Particularly if you are white and Anglo European. 

When you learn at one of these schools, you hear all the words, write them down, and repeat them when asked. They are about fairness, justice and making the world a better place. When you think about internationalism, you understand that being international, well-paid, and just, is about being White and Anglo European. 

When you sit down to think about it, none of it makes any sense, except in the most cynical and caustic manner. How can leadership of schools set up for a multicultural international reality officially condone, encourage and reward openly racist policies of recruitment, and fail so badly to address issues of criticality in thinking? We are all led to believe these issues are what they specialize in, and not what they fail in. When you research this phenomenon as I do, the truth ends up being clear, unjust, and entirely predictable. 

For most of its history, the field of international schools has been a small one, where the romanticism of the word ‘international’ became an alternative way to educate children of internationally mobile parents, and expats of various descriptions. In the grander scheme of ‘educational’ things, the field is mostly irrelevant. After all, research aims to find truth and generate knowledge so that the world we live in can be a better one. This is the purpose of knowledge and knowing, not having to repeat the same old errors and failures over and over like Sisyphus, but building on what works, improving what might, and avoiding what doesn’t. International schools tend to be quite clear that their international remit validates their approach to ‘making the world a better place’, to coin an International Baccalaureate (IB) adage. They have always been ‘alright thank you very much’, in that they have plenty of money, well-paid staff, and cohorts of students who come from comfortable backgrounds. 

Since 2001 the international school’s sector has expanded from 1 million students to nearly 6 million worldwide with now 500,000 staff – and growing. For perspective, England has around 475,000 teachers. What was once a small field is now nation-sized and remains small in one way only: in knowledge. Added to this, the diffused, and distanced nature of these thousands of institutions means that finding truth is expensive, arduous and mostly what researchers might call, ‘snapshot’ in nature. That means that there is little data available on the human reality of these schools and plenty on the ‘do good’ nature of their curricula, teaching, and outlook. The research has been skewed in this way, and it is understandable, as state education over the last 40 years has witnessed a dismal decline towards PISA stats, teach to test, and underfunding. For many, international schools represent a new hope where pedagogy is progressive, and teachers are valued. 

Finding knowledge is not a cut and dried matter. If you survey a thousand teachers and admin, you will find truth of a certain kind. It is the kind that policy makers tend to like, because you can put it on a graph, or chart, present it in a board meeting and talk about trends and averages. My search for truth is different. I look for lived reality, the stories, ideas, dreams, and experiences of those in education. This kind of knowledge is of the type that policy makers tend not to like because it shows what life is really like for those who live it. Not for those who live above it, aside from it, or distanced from it.

For this project, and over the course of two years I was connected with six of the most influential international school directors in the world in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. My objective was to understand their truth, see the world as they saw it, and allow them to express themselves and present their vision as they saw fit. Having collected this data through unstructured interview, observation and questionnaire I made sure they reviewed the data, and the findings just to be absolutely certain they were being represented accurately. With this done, I applied theory of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu alongside the more general work from the field of educational leadership. This is called a theoretical triangulation, and lessens the impact of my personal interpretation, putting the focus on the social theory. 

What I found was that these leaders were very powerful, with freedoms and responsibilities that go far beyond what a national school leader may expect. This is good for policy makers, good for people who agree, good for those ‘on board’, and potentially disastrous for those who think differently: or are different. Welcome to the staffing reality of an international school. However, I found these people were unequivocal in their understanding of internationalism and global mindedness as the core aspect defining leadership in international schools. They drew enormous strength from their biographies of white, Anglo upbringings: service, hard work, merit, deep belief, and most of all, their values. This is what made them distinct. This is what made them successful. 

Time for a bit of light sociology. Bourdieu tells us from a social perspective that humans (agents) create ‘fields’ wherein they work. International school leaders exist in just such a field. Bourdieu posits that the more successful you are in a field, the more power you will gain, and the higher you will climb in that field. The schools I researched and the teachers in them are positioned at the top of the field, and if Bourdieu is to be believed, they play an instrumental part in defining what it is to be a successful international educator. The sociologist makes it clear that being successful is a direct result of how well the agent fits the field. That means that if your field is defined by whiteness, and stories of it, then you will be successful in it if you align with it. Conversely, if you do not fit the field, then you will experience something called ‘symbolic violence’. This means the field will reject you, and you will remain unsuccessful in it until such time as you either change or leave. 

Teachers cannot change their skin colour, nor can they change their past. Teachers are agents of transformative change, shapers of futures, and representatives of our planet to the young. 

My research found that the most senior leaders and policy makers of international schools lead the field without any open awareness of, or willingness to change the whiteness status quo they inherit. They live and embody a powerful and deeply ‘international’ reality through the lens of whiteness. These are the people, who by their own admission, shape and form the field of international schools. Despite this, they develop, monitor and sign-off on policy that privileges white, Western teachers and makes it difficult for the rest. In this way, these sites of transformation are sky-bound Elysiums where the teaching of emancipation and fairness is available to the white Western candidate who has the ‘right’ teaching qualification, the ‘right’ experience, and the ‘right’ degree. 

It is a curious situation. International schools are prepared to spend the lion’s share of their considerable budget on their white, Anglo-European staff. They retain them with expensive salaries, accommodation, repatriations, insurance, and the rest. By doing so, they actively define the field, and enact ‘symbolic violence’ to those unable to take part because they didn’t grow up in California or Berkshire or Melbourne, didn’t go to a tier one university, and didn’t train in ‘the West’. Are international schools (and by this I mean their directors and owners) really saying that some teachers are not as valuable and their contribution is worth less because they are not white Anglo-European? After all, they should know because as the name on the tin suggests, these schools are diverse spaces. It is stranger still that these schools which build their identity on values of multiculturalism and internationalism are unable to invest ‘the lions share’ of their budgets in teachers from non-white Anglo-Europeans. As if this were not enough, the question remains, why can’t international schools pay people the same money for the same job? (Some may, many don’t). Why is payment often due to local or expat status? What is this nonsense that keeps the illusion of a post-colonial advantage alive in the 21st Century? Not in some tobacco-chewing, gun-toting, white supremacist training camp, but in multicultural international schools. 

The reason is to do with something called ‘The International Gaze’. Where once internationalism was implicitly connected to sophistication, knowledge and even fraternity and solidarity, it is now much-changed, and refers more to material advantage. It is this tantalising ‘International’ advantage that these schools sell. The customers are the burgeoning upper-middle classes around the world and particularly in the global South. ‘The Gaze’ is a term that refers to how a person reacts under the eyes of a more powerful other: a patient to a doctor, a woman to a man, the colonised to the coloniser. It denotes the reaction to this power and corresponding appropriative/pandering behaviour that the gazed upon employ. The international gaze as applied by the parent-customer demands what it perceives to be advantage. It just so happens that this is, and remains, white Anglo-Europeanism. So, as this analysis shows, international schools, far from being nodal points of multiculturalism are in fact more likely to manifest as replicators of The International Gaze, not because they necessarily want to (and I am extending plenty of goodwill and ‘benefit of the doubt’ here), but because their market-orientation requires it of them. 

So, where now? What can we do as international educators? How can we change an entrenched system of injustice and bias that cloaks itself in a magic mantle of ‘making the world a better place’? How can this be possible when we model yesterday’s and today’s inequities in the very schools that seek to educate our future influencers and decision makers? What kind of systems will they put in place when it is their turn to lead? The ones we told them about, or the ones they saw us working in and profiting from? We are international educators after all, it is in our blood to seek positive change for sustainable futures. This is the question international schools need to ask themselves. What is internationalism? Is it a shared, collective representation of the diversity and difference of our world, brought together in peace and hope? Or is it defined by a privileged few, enacted by them, experienced by them, and even taught by them – by their rules and on their terms? 

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This article also appears in Educational Digest International. It is based on the following:
Gardner–McTaggart,
 A., 2020b. Washing the world in whiteness; International schools’ policy. Journal of Educational Administration and History, p. online first

About the author: Alexander Charles Gardner-McTaggart (Alex McTaggart) is lecturer in Educational Leadership at the School of Environment Education and Development (SEED), of the University of Manchester where he is program director of the MA Educational Leadership in Practice. He is co-convenor of the Comparative and International Education Special Interest Group of the British Educational Research Association (BERA). His work is located in the critical paradigm and seeks to uncover truth and power in international education and educational leadership. Alex lives between Manchester and his family home in the Austrian alps.

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