BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


Sabbatical, Recruitment, and Leadership in International Schools

By Proserpina Dhlamini-Fisher
Sabbatical, Recruitment, and Leadership in International Schools

Taking time off from schools is something I have done several times in my career and have enjoyed immensely. Time to re-evaluate, rest, re-energize, catch up with self and others, and plan ahead. My reasons have varied from taking maternity leave to re-inventing myself, from relocating to reconnecting with family, from shifting toward freelance consulting to feeling like an affirmative action hire with no professional challenges, from experiencing burn out to walking away from a toxic environment. My latest departure was prompted by a desire to explore running my own business and discovering new strengths and challenges, all within the educational field. Recently, I sat down for coffee with a dear friend who is also a school leader having taken time away to look after a mentally ill parent and finish a master’s degree. As our conversation developed, however, I was saddened to realize that my friend did not feel comfortable or relaxed about the decision, anxious that when the time came to go back to full-time employment in international schools, school administrators who have never dared to take time away from the field would judge my friend harshly for this protracted absence. How sad is that? Is it right and fair? It got me thinking about how I have dealt with this question as a recruiter, and how I myself may have judged candidates’ personal decisions and ultimately overlooked the professional sitting before me all because of the time they had taken off work. When seeing a two-year gap in a candidate’s CV, had I even invited them to an interview? Had I prejudged teachers because they had opted to take a sabbatical? Had I already decided what constituted acceptable reasons for such gaps before even hearing them out? This incident forced me to delve deeper into reflecting on and analyzing my role as a school leader with “power” over others. Had I also judged potential employees because their records indicated a series of one- or two-year periods in and out of schools? I certainly hoped not. I hoped that on encountering such movement I’d asked about it, explaining that I was looking for stability for both the students and school community. After all, I myself had stayed at certain schools for only one or two years; did this make me a bad educator? After almost 30 years in international education, I have realized that, like the fairy tale about the princess and the frog, sometimes you need to kiss a few frogs before you find a prince (school). What I came to understand, through the course of this reflection, is the importance of asking candidates the right questions at interviews, seeking to understand anomalies in a professional profile without making professionals feel guilty or disrespected. All this brings me back to school leadership today, and especially international school leadership. It takes a while for us to realize that none of us can ever be perfect. When in a position of power, we have a tendency to avoid taking real time for self-reflection and forget the critical importance of thinking deeply about how we got started on our journey as educators and school leaders. When we do, most of us will acknowledge that at some point, someone saw something in us and gave us a chance. This is not to suggest that we haven’t also worked hard to get to where we are today (although I harbor misgivings about every school leader out there having been appointed on merit alone). It was an act inspired by human empathy that eventually let you sign your life to that job that propelled you to eventually become that decision maker with power over somebody else’s fate and future. As educational leaders and educators, I feel we have an extra responsibility to wield that power wisely, more than do CEOs in the corporate world, since we work with young people, children, and parents. Although we do not take oaths as do doctors, nurses, lawyers, policemen, and journalists, maybe we should. In the realm of education, an ethical statement of faith might involve swearing to lead by example, to respect our profession, and, most importantly, to be servant leaders within our school communities. It might require a promise to be fair, honest, flexible, great listeners, collaborative, and to always remember that we run schools for student learning and aspire to continue to develop teachers in a meaningful way. Personally, I have been positively surprised by the amazing school leadership I have experienced (thank you!) and have equally been traumatized and embarrassed by people who claim to be leaders and have no idea or understanding of what the word or its inherent responsibility actually mean. I have always tried to encourage educators I work with to develop an understanding of who they are as individuals, to explore their personal strengths and own their baggage, then consciously reflect on how they can add value to the internationally diverse students they work with, and far less often, their diverse colleagues. I do not claim to be a perfect leader, but I have tried hard to be supportive of colleagues I have worked with. One of the services I offer in my consultancy centers on cultural diversity and cultural competence, looking at how aware we are of our own unconscious and implicit biases. Are we, in international education, still stuck on affinity, perception, and gender biases? Where is the equity representation for diverse students in staffing and school leadership? What are we teaching implicitly and explicitly to our students? Are schools consciously making enough effort to represent student bodies in staffing and leadership? I do believe we have missed the bus on more racial and cultural representations in international education globally. I recently visited a school I worked in a while back and was told that “the director says the school cannot hire a black principal because the parents expect a white principal.” Really, in 2019? I was shocked and stunned and made this person repeat what they had said, as I did not believe it. Again, I say thank you to the inspiring people who have looked past my ethnic background and gender and seen a capable professional. They have given me opportunities to work in their schools and organizations, supported me, and enabled me to grow personally. I continue to be a connector and help educators wherever and whenever I can in international education. Circling back to my initial question: Must educators feel scared to take time out from schools because we might be judged for it? Are we practicing what we preach to our students when we describe the importance of risk taking and open mindedness? I am hoping that when I do go back to international school leadership, somebody out there will see all the amazing experiences I have had—both in and outside of schools—that they will see the value I could add to their educational institution, and that they will take a chance on me because of what I can do and have done, and not on what I look like or how I might make some people feel because of it. Proserpina Dhlamini-Fisher is the Founding Director of Educational Aspirations, a global international education consultancy that works mainly with international schools on Cultural Diversity, Inclusion, Strategic Planning, and Mentoring and Coaching.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


01/11/2020 - Andreas
Well said! Yes! This is the line I always preach to my superiors and it all too frequently seems to fall on deaf ears! As a bottom-of-the-rung Administrator slowly climbing the Leadership Ladder myself, I am glad to read that there are actually Educational Leaders in high level positions who really do genuinely take the time to think about these kinds of things - getting to know someone and where they are coming from before judging them from a timeline of events you glanced at about them on a piece of paper. No matter how dedicated we are to our students, our classrooms, our profession as educators, we are still human beings for crying out loud! We still have lives, wants, needs, and human desires that exist - believe it or not - outside of school, away from work, just like any normal, red-blooded human being does! Amen to that! Thanks for writing this inspiring piece.
01/11/2020 - Iagree
Dear Ms. Dhlamini-Fisher,

Thank you for writing this article. For me, it could not have come at a better time. I taught for 15 years and loved it. I worked hard and committed myself to being the best learner and leader and person i could for my students. The flip side of this dedication and effort was that--combined with other personal factors--I burned out. To the point of serious illness. I took two years off and used some of that time to travel, paint, rest, and deepen my spiritual practice. However, now I am looking for a teaching job again and I fear that my impressive (I mean, it is pretty impressive) resume and my dedication to teaching will not be enough. That "weird" gap in my career. I worry recruiters won't understand. They will look down on it. But, sadly, I dare not tell anyone about my illness post-burnout. That and the hiatus seem like clanging alarm bells when I think about it. It is helpful to know others have been in this position. And that some, like you, are not "ashamed" of doing what you needed to do to take care of yourself, your family, etc. Thanks for sharing.

01/05/2020 - Mon
This was one of the most inspiring and insightful articles I have read. I felt understood!
01/04/2020 - Tamara
Thank you for your thoughtful reflection. I am currently taking a sabbatical for family reasons and have repeatedly wondered how I am hurting my future. I am not an administrator but I believe it is the same for teachers - more often than not, in the recruitment process, people with anomalies and gaps get immediately put to the side. Rather than seeing the gap as a potential strength, it is viewed as a weakness.
01/04/2020 - Thea
You have articulated so well my thoughts (and fears) in this article. As an international school middle leader taking a sabbatical to start a business, I am already nervous about how to justify my decision-making to heads of school despite having gained so much from this new experience. In addition, I recognise my responsibility in making judgements on my colleagues when I write their references too. Thank you for your excellent thought leadership.
01/03/2020 - Patolonsa
I am so moved and impressed with your thoughtfulness and empathy. I would very much like to contact you.