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Resolving Class Divisions in International Schools

By John Frame
Resolving Class Divisions in International Schools

“There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor.”[1]  – Oscar Wilde

During a discussion on motivation, some students told me I should feel lucky whenever anyone engaged in classwork. Further questions revealed a truth rarely stated out loud. Certain students blithely began comparing the number of houses their parents owned in different parts of the world and conveyed the sense that, economically speaking, they would still have a “good life” if they never graduated, went to college, or even worked a day in their lives.

This interaction was eye-opening and reminded me of my place in the social order, where I have to work for a living. When I attended school in the 1970s and 80s, teaching was a profession that promised a degree of social mobility.[2] The manner in which teachers negotiated their position in the class hierarchy and enforced the social order, often amounted to a protection of status. During the era of corporal punishment, working-class children were beaten regularly and children from the middle classes were often spared. While most teachers suffered through the same system as children, a line in the sand affirmed where they stood in terms of class division after entering the profession. Working-class children often had trouble negotiating a system that was designed to control them. The middle-class code - how to speak, how to dress, how to negotiate, how to get ahead - was second nature for some at home, at school, and eventually at the workplace.[3]

As a postgraduate teaching assistant, I was a union delegate, which brought me into solidarity with other public service workers.[4] In my mind, this cemented with whom I stood and underscored what I stood against. Working in secondary-level teaching, I mostly taught at fee-paying institutions. This included 13 years at a private school in Ohio, United States of America (USA), where students from wealthy backgrounds regarded the teachers as working class. Clearly, according to national statistics, I resided in the lower-middle-class bracket of the socio-economic scale, but in terms of perception, and a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle, I straddled the class divide.

Now, as an international teacher, I’m between the Scylla of lower middle class on campus and the Charybdis of upper middle class outside campus. Employees on foreign-hire contracts are thrust into the upper echelons of wealth and class privilege in developing countries, with an ability to live in a nice apartment, hire people to perform tasks (drivers, cleaners, cooks, dog-walkers), and travel to places they’d never see if they worked in the USA. It seems too good to be true. One may ask whether this is a result of meritocracy, or does it happen at someone’s expense?[5]

Because it’s a nebulous concept, often relative and based on perception, class is difficult to anatomize.[6] Fixed notions of how we identify tend to undersell the complexity of the human condition. However, it must be remembered that the interests of the most oppressed coincide with the interests of humanity as a whole. This provides a basis for solidarity among all who are not tremendously wealthy and lays the foundations for structural antagonism against a system designed to keep us divided and deluded regarding “upward mobility.”[7] While discussions of social class may be regarded as unfashionable in modern Western politics, forms of identity-based conflict overlap with and obfuscate class issues. Rich elites tend to be more comfortable with identity-based debates, drained of any analysis of class relationships or examinations of economic oppression because they present no real threat to their bank balances. In this way, fundamental injustice is never meaningfully challenged.

At international schools, as with most businesses, there is solidarity within leadership and governance. Board policies usually ensure unity with some form of "code of silence." Leaders support each other. Teachers and staff, on the other hand, instead of acting in their collective interests, often act individually, or build relationships and coalitions with people in positions of power to attain promotions and better conditions. This is encouraged by some leaders because it maintains divisions among employees and strengthens their influence (especially in tiered labor contract systems).[8] Thus, while bosses and managers adopt a solid front, an alliance of all workers is difficult, if not impossible. Vulnerable employees with no easy access to people in positions of power can be targeted and scapegoated. Frustrated workers are labeled as “disgruntled” and neutralized. Those at the very bottom of the hierarchy find it a herculean task to voice their concerns. The kaleidoscope of status-based identities gets tangled up with systems designed to prevent any sense of consciousness toward a common goal. Thus, workers are pitted against each other.

It is necessary to reject these conditions by recognizing that economic oppression, rather than discrimination, is the fundamental fault line from which other problems spring. Class is not another identity that needs to be protected against discrimination. Material inequality writ large was not caused by racism and sexism, although they are huge, corrosive components. Initiatives regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion rarely touch upon class, and activism in these areas will not dismantle economic inequality.[9] However, realizing gains in economic justice brings improvements in the physical and emotional wellbeing of all workers. All humans require the ability to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and should be able to stay healthy and be educated. Increasing wages, lowering hours, improving working conditions, providing pensions, and allowing access to healthcare and education are required to reduce economic deprivation. The transformation of this set of worker-employer relationships is the guiding principle to challenge oppression. This can be achieved when workers recognize their common interests.

While the important fight for equity and justice based on identities - race, gender, ability, and sexual orientation - requires pride in, respect for, and celebrations of those identities, a struggle for economic fairness and sustainability requires the elimination of class differences. A world where one percent of the population owns half the total wealth, while over half the population owns one percent of the wealth is grotesque and unsustainable.[10] For this to be challenged at international schools espousing a commitment to social justice, the most privileged among us must strive for solidarity with the most oppressed and abandon our acquisitive dreams of glittering luxuries: houses and vehicles we won't use, domestic staff for which there is no real need, and exotic vacations we could live without.[11]

I would like to thank Tyson Lazzaro for his constructive feedback on this article.



[1] Wilde, Oscar. “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” Libcom.Org,

[2] My mother, for example, who was born into a working-class family in Glasgow, became a teacher and married a teacher, elevating her into the ranks of the lower middle class.

[3] For a discussion of this phenomenon, see Ursula Hoadley and Paula Ensor. “Teachers’ Social Class, Professional Dispositions and Pedagogic Practice.” Teaching and Teacher Education, Pergamon, 20 Feb. 2009,

[5] See Richards, Erin. “These Teachers' Jobs Give Fair Salary, Housing, Respect. All They Had to Do Was Leave U.S.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 10 May 2019, This article contrasts the benefits of international teaching with the increasing problems of the job market in the USA with “stagnant wages, a divisive political environment and continued pressure to boost test scores…”. See also “'Don't Forget the Locals' - Managing Staff Induction in International Schools.” Independent School Management Plus, 4 Aug. 2021, According to one leader in an international school, “...the international school community “seems like a country on its own – when you get out of the walls of [the school] you are in a different world”.”

[6] See Guastella, Dustin, et al. “Class Is in Session.” Jacobin, 7 Sept. 2016,

This states that 60% of millennials in the USA self-identify as working class. In spite of the increase in education levels, this sense of immobility is caused by the casualization of employment and stagnation of real wages over several decades. See also: Cayzer, Amy. “Aspiration and Upward Mobility: The Lies Working-Class Students Are Told about Educational Inequalities.” BeyondEducation, 8 May 2022,

[7] See Clark, Gregory. “Social Mobility Barely Exists. so Don’t Expect It to Solve Inequality | Gregory Clark.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Feb. 2015, According to intergenerational correlations, based on tracking by surname lineages, Professor Clark argues that social mobility rates are low in much of the world. His study of English surnames, for example, indicates that social mobility in England has seen no improvement since the thirteenth century. In the face of this genetic determinism, his diagnosis is that society needs to focus on inequality because it is impossible for anyone to shift a family’s status in the longue duree.

[8] See Tyvand, Rose, "Split Labor Markets in International Schools: Perceptions of Fairness Among Local-Hire Teachers" (2017). Doctor of Education (EdD). 99.

[9] According to surveys, the median incomes of the families of students entering college in the USA was 46% above the national average in 1971 and 60% above the national average in 2007. This rise occurred during the period when affirmative action was supported by the Supreme Court. See: “Higher Education Research Institute.” The American Freshman Forty-Year Trends: 1966 - 2006, Jan. 2008,

At Harvard University, the class of 2025 is 53% White (significantly lower than it was in 1971) and 45% of students come from households making double the median income of the country. See: Koller, Alex, and Eric Yan. “Survey Finds Class of 2025 Disproportionately Wealthy: News: The Harvard Crimson.” News | The Harvard Crimson, 2021,

[10] See: Deshmukh, Anshool. “This Simple Chart Reveals the Distribution of Global Wealth.” Visual Capitalist, 23 Sept. 2021,

[11] See: Hutton, Will. “Of Course Class Still Matters – It Influences Everything That We Do.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 Jan. 2010, and “State of the Nation Report on Social Mobility in Great Britain.” GOV.UK, Social Mobility Commission, 16 Nov. 2016,

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 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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12/03/2023 - John Frame
Readers should be aware that, while reading articles in the DEI section of TIE Online, there may be one or two references to equity. There are many ways to approach equity that don’t involve totalitarianism. Since the dawn of industrial capitalism, workers fought for various rights that many of us take for granted: public education, state pensions, universal suffrage, universal healthcare, the weekend, the eight-hour day, ending child labor, holidays, sick leave, maternity leave, paternity leave, etc. These are all examples of attempts at equity and they tend to survive and thrive in the hands of democratic-socialist governments. Regarding totalitarianism, I abhor the apparatus of the surveillance state, propaganda and misinformation, cancel culture, rampant inequality between elites and the majority population, insidious racism, and attacks on those who challenge the system. There was also a lot wrong with Soviet-style communism! I was not arguing in favor of totalitarianism and I apologize if this wasn’t clear. It might be worth pausing to reflect on the number of deaths caused by capitalism over the centuries - in the name of maintaining inequality - not least during its imperialistic phase.

I fully acknowledge that many teachers do not enter international schools with the intention of addressing class divisions. That’s why I wrote the article. Unfortunately, I don’t think my suggestions for faculty in the conclusion are practical at all as they rely on people giving things up, which is never easy. It seems that many are happy with the status quo - relying on the gains made by others (and on sections of the workforce being treated differently) - without realizing those benefits can be taken away. As for students of privilege, there are plenty of possible avenues to explore. At my school we have service trips to underprivileged areas of the country and the IDUs have practical service elements embedded within them. These examples, at the very least, illuminate another reality for students. My school is also committed to the following concepts: “challenge, create, change.” These watchwords mean teachers and students are dedicated to challenging the status quo, creating better systems, and changing mindsets. An understanding of DEI is also important in the area of class division, because it acknowledges diversity of opinion, the attempt at economic equity, and the inclusion of all, regardless of social status or positionality.
11/30/2023 - Aberra
Uncomfortable to hear, but the truth! The statement about the privileged among us abandoning our acquisitive dreams of glittering luxuries is powerful. This isn't easy, but it is a necessary step towards building a more equitable world. It is crucial to recognize the momentous impact that teachers have on the future of our society and guide the next generation of leaders. Equally important is to note that international schools that espouse a commitment to social justice often have a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) commitment. To this end, it is vital for schools to not only preach but also practice the idea of developing young people who help to create a better world.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this critical issue.

11/26/2023 - Say No to Marxism
Teachers do not come to international schools to resolve class differences.

This does not mean that teachers and staff should not have protections. Scholarships for worthy students, safe working and living conditions, these are all worthy goals.

But if you want to achieve economic equity, well, that is not within any teacher's power to achieve. Moreover, when one reflects on the totalitarian nightmare that occurred in the name of societal equity in the 20th century, perhaps that should give the author and readers pause about what they are trying to achieve.

11/22/2023 - Yein
Such a piercing critique and a discussion that should be more frequently held. I appreciate your practical suggestions for staff in the conclusion but how about for the students, whose blatant acceptance of privilege (that serves as your introduction to the article)? Should we include this in our teaching? This also reminds me of the book: tyranny of meritocracy, which I highly recommend — it could incorporate well into this line of thought as well.