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


Racism in Recruiting: The Elephant in Our International Education Room

By Proserpina Dhlamini-Fisher
Racism in Recruiting: The Elephant in Our International Education Room

In 2015, I published in TIE an article on racism in international education based mainly on my personal observations and experiences. I am saddened that, five years later, I still get international educators thanking me for my article and sharing their own experiences, which are almost always much worse than mine. I am saddened that racism is still alive in this sector—indeed, it seems to be increasing—and I hope that my responses to my fellow professionals have been reassuring and encouraging.

Over the past month, I have been struggling with writer’s block while meditating on some big, existential questions—wondering, for example, what the universe might be trying to tell us with all of these changes we have been forced to adopt since earlier on this year. This morning I woke up and realized that I can no longer keep quiet. It was time, I understood, to come back to the page and address the elephant in the room of international education: racism towards those who are not Caucasian.

In the five years since my last article on this topic, I have been told not to speak out about diversity, as my mere presence should serve as evidence that it exists. I have been told not to apply for certain jobs because the organizations in question are seeking “excellence” (read: white males with the right passport). I have been offered jobs and then asked if I maybe had another, more reputable passport than my Eswatini document. I was once asked to apply for a job with the assurance that the institution was overdue for diversity in its leadership team before it was explained to me that they had “decided to go in another direction”; in actual fact, another woman of color was also in the running and the school could not be bothered to interview two strong educationalists who happened not to be white.

At one interview I was told I have a lovely smile (this was not on the job description). At another, a CEO told me my jacket was beautiful (I had not applied to a fashion house). In applying for another position I was informed bluntly that if I did not hold a passport from the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, I would not even be considered, even if I had all the required experience and qualifications.

I applied for a job in the U.S. and was told that, because of my nationality and the senior level of the position to which I was applying, securing a visa would present a challenge. When I replied that I had recently worked in the U.S. and managed to secure a visa with the same passport, silence. Then: “Getting the visa will take too long.” Hmm. 

I have even seen some schools put out recruitment notices listing the nationalities of those “native speakers” who are welcome to apply and guess what? South Africa is on the list. Guess why? It’s worth mentioning that South Africa has over 11 official languages, but I will let you try to work that one out on your own.

Despite all these discriminatory incidents, I still rise because I did not come to this world to be trampled on by ignorant people. Thankfully, I have had many positive experiences and opportunities traveling the world with the same passport, same credentials, and same skin tone, meeting amazing and professional leaders who have offered me awesome jobs based on my qualifications and the conviction that I could add value to their institutions.

These leaders went the extra mile, in fact, to ensure that I was accorded the correct visa—the logistical hurdle that serves as the most common excuse among international school heads citing the challenges related to hiring people of color.

A very good friend of mine, who is an amazing black African school leader in a very white school in Australia, recently joined a LinkedIn conversation about race and recruitment in international schools. Isaac Quist commented, “We need to stop being apologists for our own oppression.” Preach, Isaac!

His comment was in response to a writer who was basically arguing that if you are dark-skinned, are not a native speaker of English, and carry the wrong passport, you should just accept being rejected for a job in international schools in many parts of the world rather than insist that your qualifications, experiences, multilingualism, worldliness, strengths as a role model for minority students, and ability to bring a different perspective to the faculty are tremendous assets. While I appreciate that the author’s intended message was probably along the lines of “Don’t give up hope,” his advice was not constructive given the needs of qualified educators of color working in international education in 2020.

Schools rationalize the terrible practice of excluding teachers and leaders of color by citing parent expectations, visa laws, and a dozen other weak excuses. So I ask: as recruiters, how do you practice diversity? And how do you educate schools and boards to recruit based on the so-called international educational programs they offer? Because it is the same schools that take money from diverse families, claim international mindedness and a global outlook, then fail to uphold these ideals in their recruitment of leadership and faculty. I challenge the IB to add “diversity” to its language; far too many schools continue to hide behind the vague concept of “international mindedness.”

Another interesting comment from this LinkedIn conversation noted that some schools would rather take a white Ukrainian passport holder over a black American or Canadian. Lord have mercy! That message is loud and clear!
It reminds me of the history of apartheid in South Africa; the reason we were finally liberated was because south African people of all ethnic groups came together and fought this curse. There were many who sat back and enjoyed apartheid and its benefits because they were in a favored group; others condemned it privately but, being unaffected by the injustices of the status quo, they got on with their lovely white lives, going out and experiencing the best facilities in the land, while black African people continued to suffer. When the tables turned, it seemed to these privileged people that all of a sudden life had become unfair. The irony that life had been unfair for so many black South Africans for many decades was totally lost on them.

A very small handful of us are voicing the inequalities among international educators. Too few voices have been invited to take up the critical work of guiding schools and boards in embracing equitable recruitment practices. Not enough is done in international school leadership training programs to instill the value of creating diverse teams. As yet, I hear no voices actively challenging governments on their racist exclusionary practices when it comes to visa approval. Our so-called professionals just continue to accept them as a fact and quietly shift the blame.

Francis T. Chapuredima is an international educator who makes noise about the inequality and injustice—and if truth be told, stupidity—currently plaguing the international education sector. In an article published in the April issue of The International Educator entitled, “International Schools and Parents, Do I Have to Be a Native English Speaker to Teach Your Child?”, Francis expressed his anger at the “native-speakers-only” job posts, his professionalism as a qualified educator who masters his art, and his frustration over the fact that amazing  educators are systematically being excluded from international education for all the wrong reasons, depriving students of important learning experiences. His reflections resonate perfectly with my own.

After reading this article, I was really struck by the irony that an educator can study in English the same educational theories as her peers across the world and yet will be considered less talented or qualified just because English is not her native language, she has the wrong passport, and, worse still, she is a person of color. This caused me to wonder how school leaders actually respond when parents insist that they want their children to be taught exclusively by native speakers—usually meaning white people. Do they correct their negative and misguided thinking? Or, out of concern for the bottom line, do they promise to “fix” things, as I have seen many times over?

All this prompts me to ask: What are we actually teaching our students in international schools, and how are we preparing them to navigate the world outside the classroom walls? Are there enough people of color or teachers representing diverse cultures serving as role models and mentors to these students?

Twenty-first-century learning is more and more about developing diverse and holistic skills in preparation for the unknown world that awaits. Can we, as international educators and leaders, sleep peacefully at night knowing for sure that our minority staff and students are treated equally and respectfully at all times in our schools? Can we, really?

I challenge all our school leaders in international education to review their 21st-century learning framework in light of this most basic and vital question and to engage in a deep think about their school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion practices and add value to the conversation about implementing these policies globally.

If asked about your take on diversity, inclusion, and equity practice, what would your teachers say about you?

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


01/04/2023 - Mum24
I was told I don’t have the experience necessary. I’m a public school educator from the USA, have taught for 15 plus years, have lived overseas and speak three languages fluently.
01/03/2023 - Lav
My husband and I, who are both people of color, from South Africa struggle with this too. English is our 1st Language, and we have been teaching for over 10 years. Still we struggle to find IB employment. Let us not even begin to talk about the difference in salaries between us and our white counterparts. Color over quality will always be the name of the game sadly.
10/18/2022 - Tas
I was just reading your article and completely agree with your argument.
But I did think of something else to add to the "diversity" arguement. Recently on LinkedIn a non teaching person pointed out an ad which was an "IB school" "in India" "in a part of India that is now developing its urban areas". & the ad clear wrote they want a European English speaking national. Now the non IB speaking person did say it was discriminatory that a population of 1 billion Indians and the ad specified "white female required"
But that's the thing to. I agree India has a large enough population but being exposed to a white persons culture is also equally important.
I mean in India you will easily find Indian teachers. But if I want the school to be truly diverse shouldnt I ask other races and cultures to join too? Because if I have only Indian teachers for Indian students isn't that just an Indian school and not diverse?
And not all these races are likely to be easily available in India. (with it being developing country and visa and salary and other stuff)
So I question is the school really wrong to put out a specific ad asking for a particular race or culture to join?
Just a thought.
06/16/2022 - Jolly Ken
I was so touched by your article! I for one has been denied opportunity to teach English as a second language in international schools outside my country. My application is rejected right from the start when I get to the part of my identity and this has really made me to question why I was accepted in a master's program, in the first place. I have all the qualification starting from working experience to job descriptions but sadly I have been denied! I have taught children from scratch with no English and they became competent and excelled in their academic learning. Just because I come from a developing country, a non native speaker of English I am denied? How sad!
Thank you so much for your insight, we need to really be internationally minded and practise diversity to fight discrimination.
04/21/2022 - Anne
Thank you for writing this article! We have to keep reminding ourselves not to give up.
12/19/2020 - Vinod
A big thank you for writing this post. This is so true, every word, every instance. I have seen from my own eyes, as a head of an international school . Where are you now? Write to me, let's do something abot it , to make things better for our children and educators, together.

07/26/2020 - RR
Thank you for a very all-encompassing treatment of the subject.
06/27/2020 - Kevin
Very good article, thanks for posting this again. Among the myriad problems in this sector when it comes to hiring, there are no regulatory agencies keeping a watchful eye over schools. The agencies which schools do belong to are only there for prestige and marketing and they have to do with curriculum and educational standards. They have nothing to do with the actual people working there. The upper echelon of international school management is dominated by white men and a few women and the core teaching staff are comprised of white men and women. Having been to five international job fairs, the make up is akin to a Trump rally really. As you and others have commented, it is getting worse. There’s no oversight and self-regulation and correction is unlikely anytime soon. Those who own the power tend not to want to give it up.
06/26/2020 - Malawian guy
Thank you for your article. I can relate to this. Until recently, due to failure to get the right visa, I was teaching in South Africa. I am considering moving back to my home country Malawi. Most of the international schools there, would much rather hire teachers from the UK/US/Canada. I'm sure they'd hire me if I taught P.E. So in this case I have the qualifications. I have taught the same curriculum. I do not need a visa to work in Malawi. Yet here I am regret after regret. Some adverts will have the now famous line "native speakers" or "native speaking countries". To save myself time and wasted effort I have even resorted to checking the staff compliment of schools before preparing an application pack. I don't send out applications to some schools based on what I find there. There's a school (not in Malawi but in Africa) made up entirely of American teachers (bar the technology teacher and some of the maintenance staff). I am not convinced they would hire me as an English, History or Global Perspectives teacher. I don't even bother applying. I have been forced to lower my expectations and standards in some cases. I have principles but I also have a family that needs to eat. For now that comes first. We must not give up though it's hard to be positive in some cases. Not to heap pressure on you but it is inspiring to read about educators like you and the fact that you don't shy away from sharing your experiences. I needed this today. Thank you.
06/22/2020 - Safaa
Proserpina you had me laughing. I applaud you for continuing to navigate this world- I up and quit cause I was tired from it all and felt that my non-teaching spouse and child deserved better than my constant state of uncertainty and constant position of educating/standing up to leadership which left me drained.
But to be honest one of the drivers that I am yet to voice is that I didn’t want my child being raised in these schools- I saw so much unnecessary incompetence by educators riding on their privilege and little else and decided that I could give her a fine and very high quality education grounded in truth and knowledge if I homeschool her myself. No makers studio or Olympic pool was worth my black child’s exposure to systemic racism in schools that should be on the opposite end of the spectrum. It wasn’t easy to call it quits and my family and I are definitely starting from scratch but I feel more wholesome than I have in years- job hunting nearly destroyed me. Keep writing, you’re GREAT at it!
06/17/2020 - Nasira
Thank you for sharing. It's more than unfortunate when others are willing to sacrifice students for the sake of continuing racist behaviors. I applaud your courage for speaking truth to power!
06/14/2020 - Ash
I was told that I cannot be in a leadership position because I wasn’t capable. I resigned and was replaced by a white expat who failed miserably but is not questioned neither asked to leave the organisation! The IB programme which I had built and helped the school get authorised my teaching methodology my professional development my collaborative team-building was not enough to prove my capabilities then what proved this expats capability to justify her recruitment? It just makes me bitter about these experiences and wonder whether IB has ways recognising this elephant?
06/14/2020 - Alicia Sammons
Excellent article, addressing the legacy and, sadly, continuing presence of systemic racism within education. This is especially prevalent in private, elite schools throughout the world. When one considers that these international, elite schools educate many world leaders—is there any wonder that racism continues to be so deeply rooted among the ruling and managerial classes? Thank you for challenging educators to confront this scourge upon our profession
06/14/2020 - Nick
Your article highlights the unfortunate reality about recruitment in International Education. I’ve had a similar experience and kind of given-up. Although I work in an international school, I know my career path into a leadership role has no future for the same reasons as stated in your article.
I’m now convinced that one’s passport and ethnicity matter more than skill set, experience and credentials.

06/14/2020 - Nish
Thank you for sharing. Indeed this is an uncomfortable conversation that MUST be had with administrators and policy makers everywhere. It is absolutely horrid and appalling that qualified, experienced teachers with the correct attitude and mindset are still being discriminated against. We really cannot continue to keep quiet about an issue that affects so many of us, whether we are directly impacted or not.
06/14/2020 - Gem
It's a sad state of affairs, it's really sickening when a talented teacher with the correct attitude is rejected because he/she is not a native speaker. This conversation must continue until international school leaders can take the responsibility of educating parents on globalisation and international mindedness.
06/13/2020 - Rains
It is frustrating and disgusting to understand that racism continues in international schools all over the world. Even the International Schools based in country with people of color hire only native speakers, the excuses are many. I agree it is getting worst.
I have faced it myself and kind of given up.

06/12/2020 - EDDY
It is shocking and disgusting that racism in teacher hiring is happening in the 21st century. Especially in education which is supposed to the custodian of knowledge and forward thinking ideas.
My cousin just left a job in an international school where she was tasked with training newly hired teachers (all white) who would then become her HoDs and earn more than she did.
International schools must live up to their reputation. They must make room at the dining table for black teachers and other minorities.
Ans they must pay them an equal salary as their white colleagues.
Racism can be corrected without hating white people. Hard but possible. Todays generation of all races found the system already in existence.
We need courage and honesty to dismantle racism which Scott Wood describes as "a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up on behalf of whites at other peoples expense, whether whites know/like it or not."
I look forward to the day when teachers will be assessed on their competence not on their skin colour/nationality. No one chooses where to be born.
Thank you.
06/12/2020 - JC
Great Read ! So many key facts that need to be addressed ! Thank you
06/11/2020 - Marisa
Thank you for speaking about racial discrimination and for touching on other aspects that are pressing in terms of equity and equality when applying for jobs. Gender and nationality issues are also present as part of this big problem. Thank you for the courage to speak up!
06/11/2020 - Francis
Thank you. Looks like we still need to have this discussion. Thank you for challenging schools to think about their response when parents demand native speakers.
06/11/2020 - Quezz
It's not just a problem of origins: I am an American, a native speaker of English, and a well-qualified educational technologist and historian. The discrimination I experienced in hiring nearly caused me to leave international teaching altogether. I had naively hoped that I could avoid some of the tokenism and racism as a black teacher in American suburban public schools, but in many ways the international circuit is was even worse: I could barely get into the door, and when I did, my qualifications and competencies were questioned on many levels in ways that even in America I did not experience.

I now work at an organization that oversees international schools, and I can say that while some of what I experienced is less overt, I have an overview of the type of prejudice black educators face at international schools that does not sit well with me.
06/10/2020 - Zam
I am in teaching in an international school and what you have mentioned In this article is so apt... It has been tough for me applying jobs in other international school due to my nationality and of course I am always labelled as non “native speaker”. I would like to reiterate that there is no such thing as “native speaker”. The employer probably meant I am not white. David Crystal once mentioned in an interview that the concept of “native speaker’ is a myth. Thank goodness I am working in a school that valued my skills but not my skin colour and nationality. Thank you for writing such wonderful article.
06/09/2020 - Candace
I asked this publication/organization for this article 6 or 7 years ago...
06/09/2020 - Zack
Wow. Thank you for sharing your article. You've hit the nail on the head. Am a victim many of those circumstances. Let's all stand together against racism.

06/09/2020 - Collo
Racism must stop
06/07/2020 - Enn
Thank you for your article. I have gotten my fair share on this. I hope this evil will stop one day and we get to celebrate and respect one another as professionals.
06/07/2020 - Chris
Thanks for the article.
I don't even know what to say about this issue any more. Just that I hope things change.
06/05/2020 - Donna
Many, many thanks for bringing attention to this insidious issue. It is sad and shocking because we are still talking about this in 2020 and painful because we continue to be rejected not on the basis of our qualifications but because of the colour of our skin. Hopefully things will change sooner than expected but I'm afraid I'm not holding out much hope based on the way things work in this part of the world. Still we rise.
06/05/2020 - Shelly
Thank you for this article. We have had many conversations about the need to get rid of photos on CVs for Search Associates, ISS, etc. Perhaps it is time to add a request that schools can NOT say "Native English speakers only". I think it is time for us to create a global petition that these small, yet very discriminatory details be rectified by Search and ISS.
06/05/2020 - Debbie
You hit the nail on the Thank you for being the voice of so many of us who have gone through this scenario a number of times, yet we continue to persevere because we know we are no less God Bless!
06/04/2020 - Dominique Blue
Beautifully stated! I will process your words more then share my thoughts.