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What Are International Schools?

By Yeji Kloosterman and Matthew Kloosterman
What Are International Schools?

Due to the nature of working with people from different nations, cultures, and backgrounds, defining the term “international” is challenging. It is likely that in time this article will be updated, as schooling and the world progresses with humanity. In 2011, The International Educator published an article on this very topic. This conversation of “what are international school?” will likely, and hopefully, be revisited time and time again as we continue to explore its definition and our understanding of it. 

Diverse in People

According to IGI Global Publishers, international schools are usually characterized by students and educators from different nations.” Several international schools honor their diverse faculty and studentship on the homepages of their websites. Looking into specific international schools gives us a better understanding of how international schools are being represented to the parents and prospective students. 

Western Academy of Beijing, an international school in China, highlights the diversity of staff saying, WAB teachers hail from all across the globe. 27 nationalities are represented among our staff.” They also mention the diverse students the school serves, reaching a total of 53 different countries through student representation. 

Seoul Foreign School, an international school in South Korea, shares its diversity on the website homepage as well, stating it represent 55 nationalities with 1,555 students. 

Encourage Diverse Languages

With a diverse student population comes a myriad of different first language speakers in the school. International schools encourage and celebrate their diversity through the promotion of the students' different mother tongue languages within the school and even in classes. This is because, according to the International Baccalaureate Organization, language is an integral part of identity.” International schools see language as one of the parts that make identity, and as a result, provide and work toward a school environment where the students’ first languages are supported. 

Multilingualism is nurtured through a variety of ways. International schools may have courses that are offered in a variety of different languages to support multilingualism. There may be clear and constantly evolving policies in place that support multilingual students at the school. International schools serve some children that are multilingual and have processes in place as support for this; students that are not yet multilingual may be encouraged to take a second language and be offered a course that meets them where they are at language wise to further develop multilingualism throughout the school.

Multicultural Events Highlight Diversity

A study that was done on 1,400 international school educators and international school graduates of 18 years old students (18-year-old students that had graduated from international schools) found that one major component of being international was being interested and informed about other people and parts of the world” (Hayden). International schools look at ways to highlight cultural diversity so that students are constantly informed about the cultures within the school. 

One idea that we have witnessed in our careers to highlight cultural diversity within a school is through cuisine. We have participated in multiple international food fairs while working at multiple international schools. We witnessed a coming together of community, students, parents, teachers, and school staff, to promote their culture and food while enjoying other cultures and foods as well. This kind of event highlights the schools diversity of culture through cuisine and celebration.    

Cuisine is not the only methodology to promote diversity within the school. International schools can offer sports and after school activities that have cultural precedents. For example, a Chinese chess after school activity may start to encourage all students to participate, including students that identify as Chinese. 

Intercultural Awareness 

Employees and students within an international school have intercultural awareness of the local context. A study conducted at Western University in Canada concluded that educators should have a mindset and display of attitudes that show intercultural awareness. This is because teaching in a foreign country offers another level of complexity” for educators (Budrow and Tarc). When educators embrace intercultural awareness, their jobs may actually become easier in the local context for which they work. Having an attitude of mind where a teacher wants to experience the local context, as an example, is one of many ways to demonstrate intercultural awareness.

Additional resources to augment cultural awareness: 

This same sentiment aligns with another research articles idea on attempting to define international, place the culture's views of others on par with ones own (as opposed to being perceived as less important or less valid)” (Hayden). Part of intercultural awareness is accepting equality through different cultural viewpoints and not seeing our own identity as superior to others’.  

International schools consist of a variety people. Within the school, they should demonstrate not only sensitivity towards other cultures, but also a mindset with a desire to respect, explore, and learn more about other cultures and nations that are represented within the school. This mindset of intercultural awareness should be cultivated within the school and classroom. 

Must International” Be in the Schools Name? 

An international school does not necessarily need the word international” within its name. The following international schools have swapped the word international with intercultural:

Schools have also used the word "multicultural” instead of international or intercultural in their naming. Take, for instance, Jakarta Multicultural School.

Some schools use the word foreign” instead of international” in their names:

These innovations and risks are what keep us, as international educators and leaders, in discussion about what an international school is. These names may also stem from government regulations within the country, which also shows how the term international is a global topic that governments are also in discussion about. International is not the only wording that we can use to describe a group of multicultural learners and professionals coming together to learn and work.

Articles will continue to be written on the topic of international schools and how to define them; it is a forever evolving concept that will constantly warrant exploration. This discussion is encouraged, and likely even necessary. The article, Reconciling Multiple Conceptions of Citizenship: International School Teachers’ Beliefs and Practice, states that we must continue to question the definitions of citizenship when it is unchanging, because of the complexity of the topic of what is considered international. 

As international school leaders, educators, and readers, let us continue to collaborate and explore the terminology “international” and continue to track its ever-changing definition that reflects the changes that happen in humanity and on the planet that we share.


Hayden, M. C., et al. Being International: Student and Teacher Perceptions from International Schools.” Oxford Review of Education, vol. 26, no. 1, 2000, pp. 107–23. JSTOR, Accessed 8 July 2023.

Alviar-Martin, Theresa. Reconciling Multiple Conceptions of Citizenship: International School TeachersBeliefs and Practice.” The Journal of Education, vol. 191, no. 3, 2010, pp. 39–49. JSTOR, Accessed 8 July 2023.

Budrow, James, and Paul Tarc. What Teacher Capacities Do International School Recruiters Look For?” Canadian Journal of Education / Revue Canadienne de l’éducation, vol. 41, no. 3, 2018, pp. 860–89. JSTOR, Accessed 8 July 2023.

"Promoting the Use of Electronic Resources in International Schools." IGI Global,

"How International Schools Differentiate." ISC Research,

Holmes, Rebecca. "Education & Schools: What Makes a Great International School?" Relocate Magazine, Dec. 2020,


Yeji Kloosterman is an international educator from the United States of America, who has worked both at home and around the world since 2015. She is a K-12 Music Educator as well as a Mathematics Teacher at an International Baccalaureate (IB) school in Shenzhen, China.

LinkedIn: Yeji Kloosterman

Matthew Kloosterman has been teaching internationally for eight years. As a middle years program English language and literature teacher, he enjoys inquiring with students about literary analysis; he is particularly fascinated with the artistry and vastness of the literature subject where students have autonomy to defend and justify interpretations of texts and works. Matthew currently works at an IB school in Shenzhen, China. 

LinkedIn: Matthew Kloosterman

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10/04/2023 - Matthew Kloosterman
Dear MB,

Many thanks for giving us that precision and the added insight about using the word "island" for initial maintenance.

It would be interesting to gather international school educators and leaders that are working in different countries to explore the different namings of international schools and the why behind such names.

Many thanks again for sharing,
09/27/2023 - MB
Very interesting topics to think about.

A precision about the 3 schools in Indonesia who changed their names (from international to intercultural): it was not their choice but a requirement from the Indonesian Government to stop using "international". So in order to keep the same initials, they opted for " Intercultural ". Another school swapped for " island" because of being situated in Bali.