I am often asked—as I am sure many of us are—why I have spent a lifetime involved in international education, and what it is I have found so appealing or rewarding.
Part of my response often includes the idea that living overseas and working in international schools is much like the life I recall growing up in small town America to have been: an optimistic, trusting, safe place where I was part of a close-knit community.
As I look back at the growth and development of international education, there are definite waves of progress characterizing our maturity. I am sure we all remember a time before school websites and the need for aggressive marketing strategies; when strategic planning was a corporate, and not educational, approach; curriculum mapping was not even in the lexicon; data was not the determining factor in a decision or an approach… And, without the current media and digital barrage we now deem normal, there was an innocence to life—or at least the illusion of innocence.
When I moved back to the United States seven years ago, I realized, in spite of my own self-proclaimed “progressiveness” as an international educator, just how out of touch with reality I was. News in the United States is wholly negative about education; hardly a month goes by in which there are not mass shootings or, more recently, stabbings by students who are hopeless and destructive. Students are portrayed as lazy and disinterested in spite of some amazing successes. Teaching and teachers are not only not respected, they are suspect and seen as failing society.
But those of us in international education take some comfort in the fact that all of this is the U.S., and not our booming international industry with its generally cut-above schools, respected teachers, and highly successful students… all set against a backdrop of lofty missions and positive intentions.
And it has been perhaps reading about “us” in newspapers, on the internet and watching stories on TV recently that has shaken me (and “us”) the most, for our schools are suddenly being thrown into the fray of heightened suspicion because of the heinous actions of a few. Suddenly, we realize our view of ourselves and our organizations is at odds not only with others’ perceptions… but also our own. We realize that at some level, we have perhaps unintentionally failed to protect those in our care.
Recently, I was meeting with a group of colleagues and the topics of embezzlement, fraud, and employee dishonesty came up. Virtually everyone in the group had been a victim of this type of dishonesty within recent years, either in his or her school or organization. Another shocking realization that our employees--and sometimes even our friends--are not who we think they are.
In recent years, the concepts of risk and enterprise management have also moved from the corporate and insurance realms into our world—and none too soon. We have seen major changes in our schools’ approaches to the likes of security and insuring against our greatest liabilities. But on some level--being educators--we want to believe in the goodness of our fellow man. We want to assume that the person we think we are dealing with or hiring is ethical, honest and authentic. Perhaps we have arrived at the next stage of our own maturity, moving from the shadows into another level of awareness.
One of our innate human psychological defense mechanisms is to pretend otherwise—to not actually give credence to realities we would rather not see or admit. And it is this well-honed defense mechanism that is also one of our greatest weaknesses—for we do not see what is literally staring us in the face. And this is the weakness that is so well exploited by criminals of all types. As people charged with the responsibility for our youth, it is time we took a serious approach to ensuring that those we hire are who we perceive them to be.
I have been amazed over the years to witness teachers and administrators hired and rehired--again and again--in spite of poor performance (or sometimes unacceptable or even unethical behavior), simply because past references were not checked. Sometimes because it is easier to pass an employee along, ridding ourselves of the problem and hoping they will fit in elsewhere. It is time for those doing the hiring to verify professional references personally, and for candidates to know that it will happen!
It is also time for all references to be confidential in nature and to be authored by former employers and supervisors—not friends and colleagues.
It is also essential for every school to protect their students by verifying that their teachers have clean criminal records. Not to require this is simply unacceptable in today’s world, as I think we would now all sadly agree. Candidates should know that when they apply to an agency or a school, they are granting permission for background checks to be done, or provided by the candidate, and for their prior employers to be contacted.
One form of criminality that needs to be brought into the light of day is that of criminal sexual misconduct. This is an area of discussion that most find repugnant and would like to avoid. This, coupled with the ease of mobility that international teaching provides, potentially makes our schools prime targets of sexual offenders who may prey upon students in the school or, more likely, host country youth. The difficulty is that most sexual offenders are not arrested and, therefore, criminal checks are not going to reveal any wrongdoing.
There are many studies on the rates of pedophilia, sex offenders, and hebophilia with varying rates of abuse, all of them shocking. In a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education entitled "Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature" (kindly sent me by Dr. William Nicoll of Florida Atlantic University), 15 percent of females and seven percent of males are sexually abused as children. Overall, there is a one in ten chance of being abused by age 18 and only six percent of those cases are reported to an adult because of the stigma of being abused.
Given these numbers, it is estimated that 400,000 children being born this year in the U.S. will be sexually abused by the age of 18! This is not a minor issue… There has been no national study undertaken on the rate of sexual abuse by teachers, but it is part of the profile that many pedophiles are celebrated teachers, especially in the elementary and middle school levels.
A definite part of our solution to this problem has to be focusing on prevention programs educating staff and students, so that they are aware of what constitutes abuse; understand the grooming methods used; recognize the indicators of abuse; and know how to report a problem. It is this openness to reality that will go the furthest toward preventing it—much the same as our approach to bullying (which also was hidden under the carpet for years!).
The AISA region, through a grant from the Office of Overseas Schools, developed an excellent Child Protection Handbook for Teachers, Administrators and Board Members that is posted on their website at http://www.aisa.or.ke/page.cfm?p=1577
. It will provide further and more specific information on the topic. Criminal background checks
It is imperative that schools do due diligence and verify that the teachers they are hiring have appropriate backgrounds and records to be working with children. It is far better to be proactive than to find your school and your students a victim of behavior that is possibly preventable.
The problem--you will quickly conclude the same when you delve into this—is that each jurisdiction in the U.S., for example, works independently and there is no truly foolproof national database (other than perhaps the FBI). Nor is there a national database of educators whose certification or licensure has been revoked or suspended for any sort of misconduct.
Many schools require and take comfort in a police report from the last place a candidate lived. The problem is that in the U.S. and many countries around the world, crimes committed in one city or geographical area may well not be communicated to the jurisdiction from which the school is requesting the police report. So, even if a valid clearance is obtained for the candidate’s last place of residence, all their prior years and other geographical history remains unexplored.
The following is a list of services and agencies that have been reported to me by heads around the world as being used by their schools to verify candidates’ backgrounds. I am not in a position to recommend any of these other than the FBI reports for American citizens, because it is the only one with which I have experience.
• FBI checks can be requested by the teacher candidate only for $18 per person and require fingerprinting: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/criminal-history-summary-checks/submitting-a-criminal-history-summary-request-to-the-fbi
(Processing time is 22 days plus mailing)
• Local U.S. Consulates abroad, if they offer the service to the school.
• PSI (Professional Screening & Information, Inc.) http://www.psibackgroundcheck.com
• National Sex Offender Registry: http://www.nsopr.gov
(The information is only as reliable as is reported by each jurisdiction!)
• GovRegistry.us: Online Provider of Public Records: http://www.govregistry.us
• Peoplefinders: http://www.peoplefinders.com
(Free membership and then $24.95 a month for an account.)
• Absolute Background Search: http://www.absolutebackgroundsearch.com
• eeVoices: https://www.eevoices.com
• Australian Federal Police Check/National Police Check: http://www.afp.gov.au/what-we-do/police-checks.aspx
• Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Federal Police) check: http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/cr-cj/fing-empr2-eng.htm
• Police clearance by the New Zealand Licensing and Vetting Services Centre: http://www.police.govt.nz/service/vetting
• Police Clearance Certificate from the Criminal Record Centre in Pretoria. It takes between 28 and 50 days: http://www.dfa.gov.za/consular/policeclear.htm
• Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check [previously the CRB]: https://www.gov.uk/disclosure-barring-service-check/overview
• Verifile: http://www.verifile.co.uk
• First Advantage: http://www.fadv.com/solutions/solutions/employment-solutions.aspx
• HireRight: http://www.hireright.com/global-reach.aspx
• Straightline International: http://www.straightlineinternational.com
• Wymoo International: http://www.wymoo.com/services/background-checks
There is undoubtedly an awakening of sorts that is taking place in our global community. It is a beginning, and requires everyone’s involvement. It is my understanding that a task force is also being put together by ECIS, CIS, AISH, ISS and AAIE to study the issue and come up with recommendations for implementation.
I would like to close on a personal note. I am a teacher of Zen—an ancient philosophy that I find often provides direction in those most "teachable moments" when we do not know what to do. I hope that as we move forward, we do not overreact because of our sudden realization of the criminality that has—frankly--been with us all along. What is most valuable is that we put our issues in perspective, and find strength in all that we do. So, from the writings of one of my teachers, Wu Kwang:
“To be able to tolerate the inconceivable means to keep your center steady in the midst of many ambiguities and contradictions, and realize that you can’t just immediately start to try to help in certain kinds of situations. You have to stay with your own sense of not knowing what to do. To face your own feelings of helplessness. Out of that, something appears. And then we can be helpful to each other and the world around us.” Mr. Poore is Executive Director of the Association of American Schools in South America (AASSA).
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05/11/2014 - Brendan
One practical way to enhance this process is to enable and support human resources to modernize and become part of the teacher recruitment/evaluation process. Currently for many schools 'true' HR has been externalized and schools can become too rushed to make recruitment decisions at a fair. Professional HR services will make the process accountable to a different set of policy and possibly agreed upon international standards as mentioned by Duncan below.
As for " all references to be confidential in nature and to be authored by former employers and supervisors—not friends and colleagues." I do not believe hindering transparency encourages any long term growth. If schools are doing a good job of teacher evaluation then references should clearly reflect this contribution and be based on merit rather than hearsay. Transparency is often hard to face but the cost is worse. I wouldn't hide a report card from a student, rather I'd use it in the spirit of self growth.
05/04/2014 - Travis
I have known of a few cases where an administrator or teacher appeared to have been blacklisted in their home state, so they came overseas.
It is difficult to expect schools to completely vet teachers and administrators coming from all corners of the world, or even just 50 different states. In NZ and Canada, the teachers' unions play a large part in keeping bad teachers and administrators out of the system.
To me it makes sense to have a professional association police our profession overseas. However, a union couldn't do the job for us, because that would run afoul of laws in many countries.
05/02/2014 - Bonnie Lindgren
Thank you for this reflective article, Paul and for the links to resources. It is past time to halt the practice of passing along poor educators to become someone else's problem. Whether from a desire for a short-term fix to an immediate problem, or an optimistic hope that a different school would be a better fit, the practice hurts us all. Some sort of full disclosure is needed for the well-being of our schools and of the children we serve.
05/01/2014 - Coach Irvin
Thank you for the both informational/educational and reflective nature of your article. Yesterday I was on a special committee to review all of our schools practices, policies, and preventative measures as they relate to child protection (meeting 1 of many more to come). While there is always room for improvement in these areas it is not to say that despite the recent findings in the international school scene being VERY close to home that the issue of child protection should consume or dominate the character of a school.
All schools should be taking a reflective look at their practices with this issue and continue on at making their school better overall, keeping educating their children in the forefront.
04/30/2014 - Tom Hall
As a retired international teacher/administrator, I am most sadden that a very small number of our colleagues have taken advantage of those children for whom they have been entrusted with and responsible for. Such actions of a few have imprinted a stain on all of us.
Much like our international school community, child molestations around the world have unknowingly been occurring years before these crimes surfaced so unexpectedly. The scope and depth of these crimes and the ages of the victims has made this situation so shocking and unbelievable.
Local athletic teams, churches and schools have harbored those I once called friends, respected and admired the contributions they made to their students, schools and communities. This has what made the revelations of their crimes against innocent and unsuspecting children stun and shock me so. I am sure my professional colleagues and friends around the world share these same feelings as well as sorrow for the victims and their families.
The task that we now have before us is to take the necessary steps and strongly enforce them so that our children can be made as safe as is humanly possible.
To be successful, this must be a community endeavor that involves all stakeholders.
04/29/2014 - sister2om
An excellent article and contribution. Thank you Paul.
04/29/2014 - Duncan Partridge
I believe there is a need to develop an International Schools Child Protection Charter or Code of Practice. This would draw on best practices from around the world and encompass aspects such as: background checks, child protection training for staff, procedures for reporting suspected abuse etc.
Accreditation could be given to schools which demonstrate evidence of complying with the standards outlined in such a charter, thereby giving parents peace of mind that the school is doing everything in its power to provide a safe environment for its students.
International Education Consultant
04/29/2014 - Paddy
Thank you for a very good article. I don't know what hebophilia but shall look it up. I think we are seduced by people who are wealthy & influential and often ignore our own intuitive feelings that nature has provided us with when we feel that something is not "quiet right" , is this something that is being erased from us humans that we do not trust our own judgement?
I believe too that laziness & greed can account for much our problems. As well as having to be right & cover up when things aren't , getting away with cheating & lying doesn't do one a favor.
Lastly, the seems to be no place where educators who fear that they are loosing it (sexually, morally, or whatever addiction ) can go for help before things get really out of control.
I was involved in an International school for years and do believe that many , many children received an excellent education across the board, from many dedicated & interested educators, I think that students even learned something from the oddball and flawed character.
04/28/2014 - juanasf
Words of wisdom!