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More “American” Than America: Race in International School Leadership

By Henry S. Adams
More “American” Than America: Race in International School Leadership

If you are a teacher at an international or overseas American school like I am, then chances are you remember what your classroom or school environment was like on November 9, 2016. Many classes slowed to a near halt as students diverted their attention to the U.S. election. To the dismay of many, Donald Trump won the Electoral College and is now the President of the United States.
I have no interest in taking political sides, but as someone who is not American but grew up in America, I was particularly amused by how upset some of my American colleagues were by the outcome of the election. The irony was that they expressed their utter disgust toward Trump’s “bigoted” statements and “racist” policy proposals while a much more insidious form of discrimination pervades the very institutions in which they work.
Indeed, many of President Trump’s words can be difficult to digest. But I think what is far worse is the hypocrisy of preaching global citizenship, equity, and moral ethics while engaging in or condoning imperialist and ethnically discriminatory practices in reality. One prevalent manifestation of such practices is in the demographic makeup of many schools’ leadership teams. It seems that many, if not most international and overseas American schools have a hidden qualification to becoming an administrator: The right candidate must be a white candidate.
To those who cringed at my unvarnished claim, I challenge them to browse through the leadership profile webpage of any overseas American school and not find an ethnicity composite that is disproportionately Caucasian. In fact, it is much more likely to find a non-American Caucasian than a non-Caucasian American citizen in a leadership position at an overseas American school.
This contrast is especially accentuated when the school is located in an economically developing host country where the majority of the population is not Caucasian. Of course, there are the occasional outliers, but it doesn’t take a statistician to show that the probability of having this phenomenon due to chance is near non-existent, nor is there any research substantiating the notion that Caucasians are predisposed to make better school administrators. Yet, there seems to be a widespread perception that a predominately white leadership is somehow needed to promote and preserve a school image that is more “American” than America actually is in reality.
The lack of ethnic diversity in leadership raises the fundamental question of what it means for a school to be international or American. I believe that it goes beyond implementing an IB curriculum or delivering English-medium instruction. Internationalism has more to do with an awareness of and respect for diversity that is deeply embedded within the culture of the school. Many schools claim to embrace core values such as global responsibility, fairness, and respect in the language of their mission statements and strategic plans.
Yet, in addition to inspiring rhetoric, we have a moral obligation and professional responsibility to teach by example, and this includes adopting hiring practices that are aligned with the values we try to instill in our students. To be clear, my intention is not to question the qualifications of current administrators. In fact, I have known many to be highly effective and competent leaders. Rather, I am advocating for the acknowledgement that many educators of color also possess the expertise, credentials, and international experience to be successful administrators at these schools. It is time to more seriously and fairly consider their candidacy for leadership positions.
As educators, we care deeply about issues such as getting more girls interested in STEM, with the goal of having more balanced gender ratios in these fields in the future. We also look for ways of providing equitable opportunities to learn (OTL) to all students with different backgrounds, abilities, and learning needs. We feel compelled to address these disparities because they carry ethical and philosophical significance within education as well as a sense of purpose in our profession. But what about achieving ethnic balance in leadership among ourselves? What about providing educators of color with equal opportunities to advance professionally? These are pertinent questions that we cannot continue to ignore.
To conclude, it would be a misnomer to call ourselves “21st-century schools”—as many claim to be—so long as we are bound by antiquated belief systems and discriminatory practices from the European colonial era. Considering how much progress we have made in the 20th century in terms of empowering women with more equal rights and treatment, it is deplorable that educators of color at international and overseas American schools continue to face glass ceilings that women have already transcended in the new millennium.
However, we can bring about positive changes, like so many successful movements in the past, through raising awareness and advocacy. It could start with sharing this article or broaching this issue at faculty meetings. If we encourage our students to “make the world a better place,” then we must serve as role models and begin creating a more ethnically inclusive workplace in international education. After all, embracing diversity is the cornerstone of being truly international, and actively speaking out against injustices has always been the hallmark of being truly American.
Henry S. Adams (pseudonym) has served in international education for over a decade and can be reached at [email protected].

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06/11/2017 - Shana Pecheur
Henry, how I echo what you say, especially in 2017! I have been a student, teacher and administrator in international and American International schools and yes, as a woman of colour, we still have a long way to go! But worse more recently has been idea of intentional affirmative action - one os black, qualified, and will look good in the yearbook and website, but with no real leadership responsibility or respect from both School leadership and teachers!
06/10/2017 - AB
Thank you 1776. I screamed out so loud while reading your op/ed that my daughter feared I was undergoing an exorcism. With over twenty years of teaching and administrative experience in NYC and approximately six years of international teaching, I fear that I have to give up the desire for a post as an administrator in the international setting. The doors are slammed so hard that it is deafening.

In the US I am a highly driven American woman of great intellect and accomplishments, and being of East Indian decent is an assest. In the "global", "international mindedness" world I am a tan, 5' 3 woman with no chance of being a school leader because it is not what "we" are looking for.

Thank you for your article and helping me recover from thinking it was "only" me.
06/01/2017 - Pamamonya
Your article is right on point I have tried unsuccessfully to apply to various international schools however I am a non-Caucasian African. The excuse is somehow you are not qualified enough, have the right passport or don't have international experience though I have been teaching in an international school and gone through most international curriculums...
05/31/2017 - Gabriel Maldonado
This is an important comment on a fundamental issue. We ALL know what's happening here. I challenge TIE OR ISS OR NAIS to create a study group to examine the issue of the absence of Black, Latino or Asian Americans in international and indecent school leadership positions. I offer myself to lead the group.



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