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Hierarchy in International Schools

By John Frame
Hierarchy in International Schools

“I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.”[1]

- Karl Marx

I’ve lost count of the number of times students told me they intend to be their own boss when they enter the world of work. I used to smile and think, “Just wait and see,” but I’m now convinced everyone should be able to manage themselves. However inchoate, the mindset espoused by many teenagers aspires to alleviate one of the major dilemmas of modern capitalism: the problem of alienation.[2]

If schools are serious about social justice, they might start by applying to faculty and staff the same values and expectations they do to students. Ideally, classes should reflect co-constructed knowledge, creative, collaborative, thinking, and independence. Teachers guide this process, rather than dictate. Similarly, within the organizational structure of the school itself, hierarchy - a social construction - should be flattened so the system can be democratized in the pursuit of harmony, mental health, equity, and inclusion.[3] This will lead to a happier, more productive, less alienated workforce, providing a model for students regarding collaboration.

Unfortunately, in reality, teachers cultivate independent thinkers who often spend careers struggling under mercurial managers, their creative development stunted by initiatives imposed upon them. The dream of not having a boss rapidly turns into the nightmare of incessant complaints about mismanagement. It is a common habit of teachers, for example, to question externally devised, illogical decisions over which they have no input.[4] Both my parents were teachers and this line of criticism was constant throughout their careers.

Another familiar grievance, walking hand-in-hand with hierarchical management, is the increasing bureaucratization in education. With its addiction to regulations and paperwork - lionizing rationalization and instituting managerial structures that mean less freedom and trust, stifled creativity, and more stress and conflict - this extraneous work leads to stress, despair, and disharmony. The demoralizing aspect of the profession can cause mental health problems, adherence to work-to-rule (or “quiet quitting” in current parlance), and resignations.

The coruscating crisis of the enterprise of education is in letting down its stakeholders by becoming a mirror image of constructed systems of organized work in the world. This attachment to hierarchy and internalized competition changes social relations at work on a negative basis. Climbing the ladder of this structure is often based on one’s talents for self-promotion, empire-building, and personal entrepreneurship. In this way, power is often respected over experience and knowledge. Another problem with hierarchies in schools is that they tend to reflect the gendered and racialized power-based hierarchies in other organizations. Thus, many international schools continue to be led by White men.[5]

Most schools currently allow for a degree of informal worker voice and a modicum of representation. There is a repressive, tenuous, tolerance of those willing to engage in free inquiry in order to rock the boat and challenge orthodox thinking. Often those individuals are targeted by leaders as troublemakers, which can threaten their future careers. The fear of reprisals for certain questions and actions tends to have a chilling effect on free and open discussion. A culture of silence, based on the harsh exigency of worker discipline, prevails. Once more, creative thinking is drowned in the icy waters of egomania. However, there are solutions to engender trust and comradeship.

Collective bargaining, somewhat impractical at many international schools, can be replaced as a concept with less adversarial initiatives: faculty and staff involvement across the hiring process, more authentic worker representation on school boards, and participation in organizational decision-making. While the traditional hierarchy is taken for granted, replacing it with a democratized and empowered workforce would add value by increasing productivity and peace of mind. The moral argument for this, meanwhile, is based around social justice and empathy, factors we aim to impart to students. Ideally, privileged identities would also become etiolated (although, given the assiduous prevention of such a process over many decades, this will take time).

Improved collaborative decision-making, through a humanistic management approach, may not deliver complete equality, just as having a racially and ethnically diverse leadership does not necessarily mean there is equity and harmony. A school may provide platforms for discussion and end up giving attention to the most stentorian voice. Thus, there should be mechanisms to ensure marginalized and disadvantaged people in the community are catered for and represented. For example, worker voice could be decided on a rotational basis through lotteries for proper representation. Committees within school divisions might coordinate the representation of employees at various levels, including on school boards.

In most democratic political societies, the inability to make decisions is classified as disenfranchisement. All stakeholders at an international school have an incentive to enfranchise the workforce. Conversely, in a workspace, participation in decisions could be voluntary. The ability to opt out at certain times, as a result of the view that involvement in decision-making is overwhelming and burdensome, would be allowed. Additionally, complete worker self-management might be infeasible.[6] Although there are not as many entry-level employees in international schools as there are in other workplaces, such a system would be complicated and problematic for a transient workforce where new teachers face a very daunting initial learning curve. Ultimately, however, any attempt at power-sharing would seek to mitigate empire-building in general and quell the imposition of unpopular initiatives on everyone.[7]

An international school workspace should foster unity instead of division. Faculty and staff should work together instead of competing with each other for access to power, modeling empathy and collaboration for students, and giving voice to all. Leaders should not impose on employees anything they would not do themselves. Therefore, if you are choosing to elevate your own career and expand your own power over the possibility of co-constructing a just and equitable campus, you do not belong in an international school. A more democratic workplace will mean better comfort, mental health, and productivity and may eventually help resolve the age-old predicament of alienation.



[1] Marx, Karl. “Comments on James Mill, Éléments d’économie Politique.” Economic Manuscripts: Comments on James Mill by Karl Marx, 1844,

[2] Essentially the idea of working as a means to satisfy external needs rather than to satisfy our real needs as humans. This estrangement between mind and body - deviating from the materialist concept to some extent - is termed ‘alienation.’

[3] There are many examples of arguments against hierarchies in business organizations and these proliferated as a result of advances in the digital age which allows for increased decentralization of management structures. See Kastelle, Tim. “Hierarchy Is Overrated.” Harvard Business Review, 1 Mar. 2019,, Deslandes, Ghislain. “Challenging Hierarchy.” The Choice by ESCP, 17 Feb. 2023,, and Paskewich, J. Christopher. Rethinking Organizational Hierarchy, Management, and the Nature of Work with Peter Drucker and Colin Ward, Ephemeral Journal, 2014,

[4] Mulford, Bill. OECD, 2003, School Leaders: Challenging Roles and Impact on Teacher and School Effectiveness, p. 17, on ‘Leadership and Teacher Satisfaction.’

[5] See Aow, Angeline, et al. Becoming a Totally Inclusive School: A Guide for Teachers and School Leaders. Routledge, 2023, p. 122, which states, “[s]ome leaders uphold hierarchical structures in schools in order to maintain positionality and privileges and to uphold dominance and power.”

[6] Romeo, Nick. “How Mondragon Became the World’s Largest Co-Op.” The New Yorker, 27 Aug. 2022, Unfortunately, of course, cooperatives must work within the capitalist system.

[7] Paltoglou, Aspasia Eleni. “Should We Do Away with Hierarchy in Higher Education?” THE Campus Learn, Share, Connect, 3 Nov. 2021, This argues against adopting a holacracy in higher education, stating that hierarchy is “almost inevitable.”


John Frame was brought up in Wick, Scotland. Between 1989 and 1998, he earned a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in history from the University of Aberdeen. He spent a year engaged in historical research for Macallan Distillery before emigrating to the United States of America (USA) where he worked as a teacher in New York City and Columbus, Ohio. In 2018, he and his wife, Rama Ndiaye, left the USA to work in the international teaching world. He currently teaches at the International School of Dakar in Senegal.

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