‘Flexibility and individual control help staff want to stay working in education’

Hazel Kay, head of marketing and admissions at ACS International Schools, says the professional culture fostered in its schools is a world away from the scrutinisation of classroom planning in more traditional British schools

In a 2019 survey of 8,600 members of the National Education Union, 40% of respondents answered that they didn’t expect to remain in the teaching profession in five years – and a startling 80% have considered leaving the profession in the past 12 months.

“My job is no longer about children,” one respondent said to The Guardian earlier this year. “It’s just a 60-hour week with pressure to push children’s achievement data through.”

So, what is different about an international school? And why are teachers of the International Baccalaureate (IB) so passionate about their time in the classroom?

“The combined global mindset of all the students and teachers and variety of cultures at an international school means I really have to stretch myself when it comes to the way I approach my teaching,” says Tasha Arnold, high school learning specialist at ACS International School Cobham.

“There is never a one-size fits all approach to teaching, but in an international school, you really are challenged.

“The teaching, testing and structure of the IB has given me the opportunity to develop much more as a teacher than I would have done being in an alternative, perhaps more traditional, school system.”

Traditionally the preserve of expat families, local British families or long-stay residents are discovering the huge relevance of an international education to their children. Parents are increasingly valuing it above the traditional British system. Accessing innovative and inspirational teaching gets our students ready to answer the world’s next questions.

“I think the main thing I enjoy about teaching at an international school is the ability to think outside the box when it comes to your teaching style,” says Sue Wakefield, curriculum and iMake coordinator at ACS International School Hillingdon.

“This flexibility in teaching allows for our students to feel confident in approaching things in a new way. They might not be able to achieve the things they do if they didn’t take risks; and I don’t think as many of our students would take those risks if it wasn’t supported in school.

“Our students come from lots of different countries and cultures so it makes sense that they would approach situations and challenges in different and new ways. This attitude of trying something new is celebrated and is one of the unique things about teaching at an international school. It also makes my job particularly satisfying. When students achieve something by taking a new approach that they have not tried before, it is a very rewarding moment as a teacher.”

ACS International Schools
ACS International Schools is a group of four private schools, three in England and one in Qatar

Professional culture

We believe that it’s this flexibility and individual control of lesson plans that forms a key part of helping staff want to stay working in education. The culture of teaching in the UK has generally evolved to focus on a constant scrutiny of classroom activity and planning, the need to reach particular targets across classes of varying academic ability, and hyper-critical management from senior leadership teams – but this is far from the professional culture fostered at ACS.

“Here and within the IB, I have more freedom; it gives me the possibility to work on individualisation and personalisation,” explains Rob Surminski, Dutch teacher at ACS Cobham.

“I love to bring my life and the things that I see in my spare time into the class and relate it to the different topics.

“I love to challenge the students to come up with their own interests and their own sources. What do they know and what can they teach each other?”

As part of the critical thinking skills developed in the IB, students do not just take their teachers’ word for things. They want to see the proof and they want to understand the process of things. They really push back at their teachers, and this ensures the teaching is executed at a much higher level.

“I am at a school that allows me the freedom and autonomy to design the way I choose to educate,” says Leanne Larkin, high school principal at ACS Egham.

“This freedom is not something you experience in other school systems. At ACS, we are engaged in thinking about how we teach, alternative ways of assessing, authentic learning experiences, and approaches to improve students’ happiness, and helps them to be ready to succeed in and out of school.

“We are able to focus on designing progressive and challenging lessons. Exams are, of course, important here but they are not our sole focus.

“We concentrate on working on lots of different things that make up our students.”

Accessing innovative and inspirational teaching gets our students ready to answer the world’s next questions

Creative teaching

The advantages and job satisfaction of teaching the IB from the teacher’s perspective are centred on freedom to explore subjects and having more scope for creative teaching. Where once the concept of a global mindset and international education may have seemed inaccessibly intellectual or aloof, it now seems like common sense to be taught how to enjoy, thrive and respect different cultures, and to come out of school equipped with the skills to live and work successfully.

It is being trusted to teach this common-sense approach independently that offers a more appealing role to modern teachers when compared to the traditional British school system – whether that’s a state or private school.

“I think the most noticeable difference I’ve experienced at an international school is the willingness to try new approaches,” says Arnold. “At ACS, I am trusted as a teacher to use my knowledge and experience to treat each individual student’s case as I think best. In other schooling systems, there is a structured outlined approach to every scenario and to go in a different direction you need to be prepared to write a dissertation explaining your reasoning.

“At ACS, you are encouraged to think outside the box as a teacher, and that is something I really value as it allows me to try different methods depending on the child – being able to design my approach makes my job extremely satisfying. At ACS the end grades are not what is important. It is about the positive impact we can make on each student, and this is much more important than numbers.”

Ultimately, the best and most relevant feedback ACS receives from teaching methods and curriculum selections is the progress of our students and their confidence in being ready for the next stage of education. “Any time I see a student have the light bulb moment where they suddenly understand a process or finally understand something that they found particularly challenging is always the most rewarding part of my job,” says Wakefield.

“Quite often students surprise me by developing their own approach to a challenge, in a way I would never have thought of. Moments like that make me think ‘Yes! This is why I teach!’”

It just goes to show, for those 40% of teachers who feel that their job isn’t about the children anymore, or that they won’t still be in the teaching profession in five years – there is another way.

A forward-thinking global education where the teachers are granted the freedom to teach in the best possible way for each student does exist. ACS offers families an international education in a school that helps teachers actively look for those ‘Eureka!’ moments in the classroom – a hugely rewarding attitude to teaching, which gives children the advantage in their approach to learning for many years to come.

You might also like: ACS International Schools’ charity gala raises funds for bursaries and scholarships

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