Social Justice in the Staffroom: A Bulwark Against the Normalization of Traditional Hierarchies in International Schools
By John Frame, International School of Dakar, 9th and 10th grade teacher
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The Director of the International School of Dakar recently proposed an incredible change in the faculty and staff compensation structure for the 2022-2023 school year. Prefacing his presentation by indicating that ISD teachers’ remuneration packages are in the top twenty-five percent of international schools in Africa, he announced that most foreign hires should not expect to receive their usual salary increases next year. Instead, assistant teachers, administrative staff, and support staff are to expect an enlargement of their compensation, including the creation of a retirement fund for local hires and increased access to professional development. Next year, according to this proposal, classroom teachers and educational administrators will not represent three quarters of the increases in the labor budget at ISD. In effect, the new budget augmentation should reverse the percentages for the year, so that local hires will be allocated approximately seventy-seven percent of payroll escalation.
The decision to review the financial outlay demarcated for local hires through a lens that seeks to redistribute some of the wealth usually set aside for the foreign workforce, is a step forward for social justice. It is based on a series of listening sessions that took place at ISD under the banner of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Amongst other observations, many local staff members pointed out that the state pension in Senegal, to which ISD contributes, does not provide individuals with a comfortable standard of living after they have completed their working lives. In the world of international education, many people on local contracts spend their entire careers at the same school, receiving few of the benefits that are expected by the foreign teachers and administrators who come and go every few years. To work in this environment is to witness, at close range, a certain slice of ‘Western’ privilege. In the effort to foster collaboration within educational institutions, and to model how social justice can be practiced, it is incumbent on all international schools to address the injustices that are often intertwined with the traditional hierarchies and two-tier labor systems that they establish in host countries and impose on local workers.
'Naturally determined' hierarchies at international schools (that emulate the structures of the ‘Western’ education systems they were established to replicate) draw from a similar, if much smaller, well-spring of global teaching talent as occurs 'back home' - with an emphasis on credentials from 'Western' academic institutions - albeit with even fewer candidates of color (for reasons that would take too long to outline here). The privilege that some foreign teachers may feel as palpable while living in developing countries may not extend to the workplace where much of the apparatus of their day-to-day lives is similar to what it was in other international schools and even in their country of origin. Therefore, the inequities between foreign and local personnel are seemingly not explicit enough to provoke prolonged discussion and, when they reveal themselves, they often give rise to resentment.
Upon entering the international school world, foreign hires generally exercise what they perceive as their rights, within the parameters of a legally binding contract. Their position, often attained through a job fair in their home country, does not at first manifest to them as a privilege or an entitlement because they assume that, within the school system, these same rights must be conferred upon all. There is a certain willful obliviousness to this, although that can also be true in the country of origin. The stark difference in international schools is the racial disparity that - depending on the location of the host country - often goes hand-in-hand with material inequality. Psychologically, this acceptance by foreign teachers of the wages of whiteness, is normalized as a facet of what the labor market has determined (this is particularly true in China where having white skin is sometimes seen, not only as an advantage, but as a qualification in and of itself). Anyone who calls the status quo into question is told that this is what parents demand and that there is a legal apparatus in the host country that supports it and which cannot be challenged. Its fixed nature is also exacerbated by the seemingly cavernous divisions between the pay and conditions of the foreign staff and the local staff. This asymmetrical relationship prevents any solidarity that could effect change in this area and ameliorate the situation for the sake of local staff members and their families as well as neutralize the constant messages of division and inequality received and absorbed by the student body.
Examples abound regarding the lack of sensitivity exhibited by foreign staff when discussing their perks, bonuses and benefits in meetings at which all members of faculty are present. Often this includes complaints around details about remuneration for flights back home, housing allowances, or annual performance bonuses, none of which are usually enjoyed by teachers on local contracts. It can even extend to social occasions to which local faculty are either not invited or which are unaffordable on a local salary. Aside from the shame and ignominy taken on by local staff, associated with the indifference that some foreign faculty display on these occasions, it is hard to see how professional solidarity can flourish in an environment where such discussions persist.
A corollary of this is that students can easily detect the foreign-local social class dynamic that is often on display. For example, a Black third grade teacher on a foreign contract at the International School of Dakar was mistaken for a teaching assistant by a first grade student. The student’s sister, who is in the third grade class, explained to her teacher that her brother was confused because “the assistants are always in the back of the class, not saying anything.” However, the reality is that the teaching assistants at the school, most of whom are Black, are all on local contracts and the six and eight year old siblings were merely figuring out how to navigate a case of mistaken identity that had been shaped by the hierarchy. Students see how local educators are treated (as ‘assistants’ rather than co-teachers) and this manifests itself in their perceptions and attitudes, often resulting in racialized outcomes that defy what the school is trying to create (a unified, harmonious, global learning community).
Fortunately, in the past couple of years, international schools such as ISD have become influenced by the wave of anti-racist agitation that is flowing into many workplaces with varying degrees of potency. Diversity, equity, and inclusion committees can address issues of discrimination and bias that take place on school campuses and, depending on whether the school community has the stomach for it, they can shape the curriculum and the hiring process. Much of this work is an effort to allow grievances to be aired and redressed and to refocus points of view and negotiate a reframing of how learning takes place. Those on the various rungs of the ladder of power are expected to take what emerges from this endeavor as seriously as possible in order that their school can function more smoothly. Often, schools will emphasize issues, problems, and concerns expressed by students because they are in the early stages of learning about their identities and about how they interact with others in a multicultural space.
Teaching students to treat all people with respect is one important aspect of the progressive project of many international schools, but it should not be the only one. Respecting identities does not shelter and feed people; it does not even address material issues. The future elites of our world need to know how to interact with the people their parents employ - their drivers, their maids, their cleaners, etc. - with a sense of decency. Students also need to know how to exist and collaborate on a diverse university campus and in a diverse workplace. They need to be anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, and anti-ableist. This would, perhaps, help to improve the functioning of the systems that control the levers of global power. All of this is an incredibly worthy, monumental task that international education should gear itself towards. The people at the top of the hierarchy should no longer be white and male; there are increasing demands for that to change and, however slowly, this will happen. Nevertheless, this is predicated on the fact that we are still comfortable with the power structures that exist and with the continuing existence of elites that control them.
Another equity-based problem that is rarely stated in DEIJ work - and which students absorb and process as a normalized, unchanging state of affairs - is that of the skewed hierarchies within international schools where the construction of labour relations is still based on a quasi-colonial model, whereby foreign and local educators operate on different contracts. Even though this division may be below the surface for many foreign teachers, as stated above, it is very much at the forefront of the minds of local educators. Nowhere is the cleavage more obvious than in the classrooms of lower schools where local ‘teaching assistants’ share spaces with foreign ‘head teachers.’ It is often the case that the assistant is “in the back of the class, not saying anything” because she or he is expected to carry out relatively menial tasks such as making photocopies or taking students to ‘specials’ classes. This occurs even in the best IB schools where there is supposed to be an emphasis on educational collaboration and where ‘assistants’ find it difficult to bring into service any professional development they have acquired. Overall, this state of affairs underutilizes vital resources with which local educators are often endowed: non-western educational qualifications, language skills, teaching experience in their home country, and a bank of cultural capital that is unattainable for most foreign hires. Even though investment in such personnel would benefit the learning community as a whole - especially students - and would promote collaboration, diversity, equity, and inclusion of a radically different nature, it seems that most international schools are indifferent to this situation and reluctant to make changes in this area of inequality.
How much different would the life of a locally-hired assistant teacher at an elite international school be if her leaders were people of color rather than white? She may feel more included, she may feel more respected, and her working life may be more comfortable and less stressful. However, unless there is a structural change, her salary would be the same, her healthcare benefits would be the same, her access to professional development would be the same, her housing settlement and travel allowances would continue to be zero, and she would still be unable to send her children to the school at which she works tuition free. Respect goes a long way to a sense of belonging, but perhaps it should go further to become transformative by being truly inclusive; by insisting on actual equity. Eliminating the disparity between the treatment of foreign and local educators does not, in and of itself, achieve as much as the idea of equal pay and conditions. Fairness can end up being exploitation with a human face. If material inequality is allowed to prevail - regardless of how much DEIJ work is done and how much ‘white privilege’ is checked - the sense of disrespect would probably resurface as a result of the continued imbalance of power. An attempt at economic parity, on the other hand, would help to eliminate the fundamental difference between the two tiers of teachers. That would be real social justice.
The solution is not only to strive for a diverse faculty and leadership, but also to begin to push for authentic equity and inclusion (especially in the treatment of local staff). The emphasis should be on social and economic justice for all. Racism, classism, and sexism and their deleterious effects intersect and change over time, according to changing attitudes and changing needs, and, if they are to be addressed and dismantled in any comprehensive manner, they must be excavated from the structural systems that have been allowed to calcify around them, barely touched since their inception save for a few swipes of some anemic liberal, multicultural, brushes. The efforts to do this must be synchronized rather than reduced to their constituent parts and each component should not be disarticulated from the other. There is no single metric of social justice.
The self-congratulatory awarding of gold stars by some international schools for scratching the surface of the problem of injustice can go on only as long as no one notices that the badges of training seminars are gilded and worthless and simply used as window dressing for the purposes of branding. These actions allow institutions to wave the banners that tell the world they are “doing the work.” At best, this is a reification of identity politics and at worst it is a commodification of the chronicles of people’s genuine pain. Either way, it tends to ignore the value of those on the lower end of the hierarchy and denies their right to engage in a manner that is meaningful to them. Monitoring the thoughts and actions of individuals based on whether they are guilty of having racist impulses will not overcome the socio-economic issues that are propped up by people who wield actual power.
If teachers and students are shaped by the environment in which they learn, then both must be allowed the agency to change that environment into something more human. For this reason, the recent proposal at the International School of Dakar - to make the affluent a little less well-off and the disadvantaged a little richer - is a very welcome starting point that other schools should adopt.
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About the writer:
John Frame is currently teaching ninth and tenth grade I&S classes at the International School of Dakar in Senegal. Between 1989 and 1998, he earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He then spent a year engaged in historical research for Macallan Distillery before emigrating to the USA and working as an adjunct professor in various colleges in New York City.
In 2003, John moved to Columbus, Ohio, and worked as a high school teacher at a small private school. Thirteen years later, he headed back to New York to take up a position in an IB school in Harlem.
In 2018, he and his wife left the United States to work in the international teaching world. He completed a three year stint at a school in China before moving to Senegal in 2021.