The perfect storm?

Chris Seal, principal of Shrewsbury International School Bangkok, sets out on his fishing boat with sights set on attracting more international schoolteachers

You could be a meteorologist all your life and never see something like this. It would be a disaster of epic proportions. It would be… the perfect storm” – TV meteorologist Todd Gross in the 2000 George Clooney film The Perfect Storm.

Some are claiming that the teacher shortages in the UK and other parts of the world, aligned with the growth of international schools requiring something approaching half a million more teachers in the coming decades, presents the education sector with the perfect storm.

The numbers are pretty scary. A young Mark Wahlberg, playing rookie fisherman Bobby Shatford, turned to Clooney and asked, “Skip, what are we gonna do about those numbers? They suck.” Though the jeopardy and drama of the questions is not in the same league as that about the Andrea Gail on that fateful trip in 1991, governors, owners, leaders and managers are asking similar questions in schools.

Where is the next physicist coming from? Where are the quality mathematicians? What are we going to do to ensure we recruit all the staff we want each year, for the next decade?

You need a fish finder

Firstly, every good trawler needs a sonar fish finder. Technology is key to finding great staff too. The TES subscription service offers simple and easy upload workflows of all the jobs you need to advertise to a global audience. There are detractors, of course, but Apple, Microsoft and Amazon have their detractors too – does that stop you?

Reaching a global audience can be truly achieved through advertising only as your starting point. The number of educational agents is truly bewildering and I’m sure that in the coming years, time spent with some of those selected in carefully explaining your school’s needs will be well spent.

At Shrewsbury this has been a careful dance, predicated on our need for control. This is not the usual principal’s need for control, but instead a desire from the senior team to carefully assess each applicant in its fullest sense. Our online application process is thorough, and somewhat clunky, but it offers heads of department and senior leaders all the information needed to make informed decisions that we shouldn’t regret.

Whatever method you chose, you can then amplify matters further. The school website is a key holding pen for all the relevant documentation for each post and having this page ready at the point of advert should be part of the process. Once there, this can be shared on Twitter, LinkedIn and any other social media outlet you choose. Equally share it all with your current staff, they are your best advocates, they are your experienced deckhands – they might know where the fish are?

Bait, strike and landing

Once the fields are formed or the schools found, then the most critical stage of recruitment begins. There are many ways to do this. For international schools this can often be a Skype call, a room in a hotel, a meeting over dinner or a job fair in a noisy hall. To continue with the fishing analogy, we at Shrewsbury like our colleagues attracted through fresh and authentic bait, hooked and caught on the rod rather than in a trawler’s net, and finally landed with care and attention so that the highest price can be sought at market.

What this actually means is that each candidate will speak to at least two layers of colleagues. The teaching and learning credentials of each candidate carefully examined first, safeguarding questions delivered to challenge early on, and questions of character and motivation released when interest heightens. The ‘right fit’ is key but this works just as much for the candidate as it does for the school – we have to be sure each potential employee will enjoy and flourish during their time with us (which I always make clear is expected to be a lot longer than one two-year contract).

Technology is again key here. Skype has been a ‘go to’ for many schools but if you look around there are better solutions. FaceTime often has a better connection and Zoom works well in most countries now. However, there really is no substitute for a face-to-face interview where possible.

In the past this meant the annual trip back to the UK for most international heads, and I think this will remain a key part of the landscape for years to come – especially thanks to Brexit-fuelled departures which far from being a stereotype, are a reality of the sector now.

In addition, schools can look at their own data, and also from bodies such as the TES which show that applicants from the UK to international schools are actually falling. Whereas applicants to Bangkok from Dubai are on the rise and the development of a thriving and competitive marketplace across Thailand capital delivers the very real option of hiring locally.

Much can be made of the interview. In the same way much could be written about casting, rod technique and use of lure but each to his own and also some methods should remain unique to a school or head perhaps? What I will say is do your research, read ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, ‘Blink’ and any other text you care to employ in searching for an effective way to understand the people in front of you. Your understanding of them is the key to building a great working relationship.

Preserve, develop and sell well at market

From fishing boat to table is sometimes a very short journey, but in a microcosm, it speaks of the care and attention that ought to be afforded all colleagues and especially those we look to work with at Shrewsbury. Good ice, well-packaged and well-maintained until such time that the ‘almost inevitable’ happens – sale.

The care of staff is something we all aspire to, and in big schools can be tricky to deliver. Staff rightly demand a great deal of time. Weekly HR meetings allow me to be close to the decision-making around current staff, recruitment trends and retention conversations.

Retention is essential and something that I have valued enormously since my first dealings with a reasonably settled and very loyal staff room in 2017. It is, in my view, great for morale, stability, strategic planning, long-term thinking and most importantly, student outcomes.

Retention is essential and something that I have valued enormously since my first dealings with a reasonably settled and very loyal staff room in 2017

Retention is something of an art form in itself, and not something that can be summed up easily – but instead try thinking of something you do at school that does not have a staff retention impact? Not easy is it?

Rather obviously we have developed a new WeWork-style staff room designed by the head of design and technology, laptops introduced to improve ease of access to school systems and the Shrewsbury Institute founded to offer more coherent and compelling CPD including QTS qualifications through the TES Straight to Teaching product.

Equally and less obviously we are now partnering with the British Club of Bangkok to offer a home away from home, offering more transparency on terms and conditions on interview to ensure no disappointments or surprises on arrival, and working with heads of departments on collaborative working spaces for all to aid community and cohesion.

These concepts are not new or earth-shattering but they also build the profile of the school and the way that staff can engage with the community at Shrewsbury and across the city. This profile then becomes a powerful part of ‘find’ and ‘recruit’ – if the mantras about staff development are met by reality, then people stay.

If leadership is authentic and inclusive then people stay. If the school is a strong community then people stay.
On average, people stay at Shrewsbury for 6½ years, and annual turnover is now down to just over 10%. These numbers aren’t so scary, but it is our intention to improve them further, and by doing so we hope to keep our ship afloat at the top and troughs of the highest waves.

In doing so, I also wish to continue the fine record of Shrewsbury staff moving on to the best schools worldwide. Shrewsbury staff are marketable back in the UK through a mixture of academic excellence and their own skills and character.

It is always a shame when your prize catch is sold at market, and indeed we do all we can to keep them for our own table.

However, this is a reality of the school sector and increasingly the younger generations are expressing a wish to travel further.

It is, therefore, our intent that if they do leave us, then staff are ready for the next challenge which fairly often is in a more senior role. In those roles they swim hard and flourish as people, it is our pleasure to have them with us even if their visit is fleeting.

Listen to the shipping forecast

George Clooney, as Captain Billy Tyne in The Perfect Storm, did ignore the storm warning and it cost him and the crew of the Andrea Gail their lives. Schools are not being tested by a situation so awful or so deadly, but the storm is considerable and unless the course is well set, there will be some rough seas ahead for all.

I hope the above has helped you decide which course you will set. Good luck!

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