A Bird in the Hand- Why Teacher Retention Matters

By Chris Nash- Principal at Beijing Changping Xinxuedao International School & Co-Author of Starting Your International School.

The end of term is a critical time in your recruitment and retention strategy. Depending on your exact location, there can be fierce competition amongst international schools to attract the best teachers. In the state sector in the UK, we always aimed to complete staffing for the following year by May whenever possible. That was because year on year student numbers and the curriculum tended to be stable. It has certainly been my experience in a Chinese international context that student intake is much more fluid, even with the possibility of new classes being added during holidays. The curriculum too has to follow the market. It is not unknown for owners to identify a new course which they think will give the school new advantages over competitors and expect it to be staffed, resources and running at the start of the new term!

Loyalty counts!

In my opinion this puts extra emphasis on using as many strategies as possible to retain good staff. I was reminded of this just this week when a competitor tried to poach one of my brightest and best teachers. I am confident the competitor will have been able to offer better terms, conditions and salary than me, but it was very satisfying to see that several years of work investing in her loyalty paid off when she confided, ‘I could never be as happy working anywhere else as I am working with you.’

Growing loyalty

How can you develop this kind of relationship with your team? First of all, don’t expect it to come about with large dramatic gestures. Small acts of kindness really count. For me it’s tremendously important to ‘walk the talk’ of ‘we’re all in this together’. You really must roll up your sleeves as a school leader and work alongside your teachers. It absolutely pays to be approachable and respected so that colleagues value your opinion on both professional and personal matters. Of course you don’t want to pry or get involved in the personal affairs of teachers, but staying close to the ‘gossip circles’ can throw up important pieces of information that help you to act just in time to prevent a problem escalating to the point where a colleague leaves. 

Professional Development 

This is an absolute non-negotiable in your retention strategy. I have yet to meet a teacher who does not want to improve professionally. Separate intrinsic development from extrinsic rewards such as career progression. Of course you must let your staff know that you are here to enable them to achieve their professional ambitions, but this risks losing them sooner rather than later. I’ve always found it more productive to emphasise to staff that the professional development you are offering will help them ‘to become the teacher you’ve always wanted to be’. It’s the application of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where the highest needs are not financial but ‘esteem’ and ‘self-actualisation’. And it’s not just about individual pride. Greater loyalty is created when teachers feel as though they are collectively members of a high performing team. Help them to believe that each one of them has a critical role to play and that the loss of any one member of the team would have a negative impact on collective performance. That’s why I’ve always led teams applying the philosophy and practices of a Professional Learning Community.

Develop Cultural Sensitivity

Whatever setting you are leading in, you will need high levels of Emotional Intelligence to create strong bonds with your team. In an international setting you must add to this high levels of Intercultural Intelligence to understand not only the psychology of team members, but the cultural drivers of their feelings and emotions. Every culture has its own norms about etiquette and professional relationships. You must know and respect these. That is not to say that they have to be followed at all times. Introducing different ways of thinking and team building can help to show your authenticity and strengthen ‘follower-ship’, but the point is that you have to knowingly break the rules and acknowledge this. ‘I know you’re not used to giving each other a high five when something goes well, but let’s just try it and see how it feels’. Balance this with picture perfect application of domestic cultural norms at other times. Never under emphasise the power of being able to say the right thing at the right time in the native tongue of your colleagues. This relates to the third of Maslow’s needs which is for a sense of family or belonging. As a leader you are an ‘elder’, a ‘head of the family’ and the ability to bring your team together with a few well chosen phrases in their mother tongue can be a powerful bond. 

Lead with Integrity 

Finally, don’t neglect your own integrity as a leader. There is both a macro and a micro level to this. Your team will stay loyal to a set of commonly held principles, the narrative that you create with them as a ‘mission’ or ‘vision’ for your work. At the micro level, show unswerving loyalty to that vision yourself. You must ‘walk the talk’ through all of the decisions and interactions of your working day. Loyalty disappears like a popped balloon at the first suspicion of hypocrisy or double standards. And that’s not easy when you’re trying to balance all of the competing pressures of a school. 


Leadership only works when we act purposefully to create ‘follower-ship’, the conditions in which your team can develop loyalty. Be realistic about the considerable challenges in growing stable, high performing teams. Show constant attention to this goal – your students and community need continuity, not a constant merry-go-round of new faces. 

Photo credit: Fauxels

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