“How Does Your School Director Stack-up?” Survey Reveals Lack of Accountability for Directors

In our article entitled “How Does Your School Director Stack-Up?” we shared agreed-upon ethical standards to which international school directors should adhere. At the close of the article, we asked readers to tell us who, or what governing body should hold international school directors accountable to these standards? We also asked readers to relate pertinent experiences working for a director that did, or did not model ethical standards. Click for original article and to review standards.

Responses to our questions revealed that some directors are already doing a terrific job of modeling ethical behavior. Sadly, the results also demonstrated some directors are behaving quite unethically, and in some cases have set themselves up to be completely beyond reproach, backed by contracts with catchy clauses allowing for the immediate dismissal of teachers who, in the administrator’s opinion, act in a manner construed to be detrimental to the school’s interests. In the best of all possible worlds, poorly performing directors would worry about why so many people were leaving their schools and address the problems, rather than blaming others. If this were the case such directors might actually begin to solve some problems and improve their schools in the process. This approach, unfortunately, does not seem likely to be realized by these individuals.

While the majority of respondents believed boards, teachers and parents must be charged with holding unethical directors accountable, there appears to be few, if any, mechanisms in place to effectively do this. Boards are often removed from day-to-day operations and teachers dare not speak up, as they are at the mercy of directors and administrators for letters of recommendation. Currently, a great deal of power lies in the hands of a few people and with no accountability. This is a flawed system in need of reform. Where should this reform come from?

Although accreditation bodies such as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools strongly advocate evaluating administrators at all levels, the results of these evaluations do not impact accreditation. Governance and Leadership standards from NEASC vaguely address the necessity for directors to adhere to ethical standards and practices. In addition, Standard 2: Governance and Leadership, and Standard 6: School Climate and Organization from the Middle States Standards for Accreditation for Schools address ethical practices and school climate more specifically, but it is unlikely a school will be denied accreditation due to a director’s unethical practices, unless these practices are well-documented. Practically speaking, this is impossible since directors play an active role in gathering data for accreditation.

Ethical standards and practices like those outlined in our previous article can be easily found on the internet by conducting a simple search. For example, search such key word phrases as: Standards advocated by the National Association of Secondary School Principals; National Association of Elementary School Principals; American Association of School Administrators; the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium; as well as The Ontario College of Teachers and British Columbia Principals and Vice Principals Association. Why then, if ethical standards and practices are in place and agreed upon, and stakeholders acknowledge their importance and necessity, are those practices absent in so many international schools? It is as though once some directors or administrators leave their home country, the ethical standards emphasized in their training programs no longer apply.

In recent years, literature and research into educational leadership has advocated a marked shift away from hierarchical school management and a move towards visionary leadership. Unfortunately, international schools are slow to catch up with what research is telling us. In North America and the UK greater ethical accountability for school leaders is not only advocated, but also required. In these countries ethical standards are in place, enforced and reviewed to ensure that social justice has a solid place in the school system. Failure to adhere to these standards could plausibly lead to contract termination. The key is accountability. In the overseas arena, by contrast, some unsuccessful directors or administrators are not held responsible. And in some cases we could say a few directors have set up their own little fiefdoms, where their word is law and teachers can be fired on a whim.

This brings us back to the question of who should hold directors responsible. Some respondents to our survey indicated that organizations such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), East Asia Regional Council of Overseas Schools (EARCOS) and Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools (NESA) should play a role in keeping directors accountable. While philosophically this may be true, it is unlikely that they would become involved as it is not part of their mandate. Other respondents suggested that recruiting agencies or bodies such as the Council of International Schools (CIS), International School Services (ISS) or Search Associates should play a role in keeping directors in check. This has more validity in theory but at the moment is impractical. These companies derive income from schools, some of which are headed by directors claimed to be unethical by members of their teaching staff. As morally distasteful as it may be, CIS, ISS and Search Associates are businesses whose prioritized clientele are directors and administrators.

Undoubtedly, there is a need for reform in international schools. Requiring directors and administrators to adhere to ethical standards would have far reaching effects. Who should be charged with this project is an unanswerable question at the moment. Until problems are acknowledged and addressed publicly, few changes, if any, can be enacted. A power shift needs to take place that would improve accountability and ultimately the effectiveness of schools.

The author of this article advocates the following be enacted:

• Add clear ethical standards to accreditation and hold directors and school leaders accountable. If accreditation is on the line, based on the ethics of an administrator, those that currently act outside the realm of ethics will be motivated to change their current practices.

• Commit to including ethics in performance appraisals, and have appraisals completed annually by all stakeholder groups in the appraisal process.

• Peer pressure: There are some great administrators in international schools who have the integrity to raise the bar amongst their peers.

• Provide teachers that interact daily with directors and administrators a legitimate means to inform recruiting agencies and/or accrediting bodies of unethical practices, without fear of reprisals.

One has to look no further than the responses to our Ethical Director Survey to see a myriad of unethical practices taking place with alarming frequency. At the end of the day, students, parents and teachers deserve better.

Following is a sampling of the responses to the three questions posed in the ISR Ethical Director Survey. The above synopsis was composed based on this information.

1. Who Should Hold Directors Accountable?

How can teachers hold a school director accountable? I don’t see any way to do that! Teachers want a good recommendation from the director, so there is a tendency to go along with unethical behavior as long as it isn’t pointed directly at you. We can’t blame teachers for looking the other way. As soon as a teacher makes a peep about being aggrieved in any way, LOOK OUT! One little hint of dissatisfaction becomes the beginning of the end of your career at international schools. It can also be the beginning of a nightmare as you continue to honor your contract. I don’t see any way to hold them accountable as long as there are people remaining quiet. And you can’t blame them, especially if they have children at the school. It’s not worth the nightmare that your life becomes.

Directors should be accountable to the stakeholders – parents, students, teachers and board members. The problem is there are few mechanisms in place to hold the director accountable. Often, a director creates systems that leave them seemingly untouchable. Everyone is kept at arm’s length so the stakeholders never really know what is happening in the school until it is too late. Few directors are subject to performance appraisals; those schools that do conduct appraisals of directors do not seem to take them seriously. The stakeholder groups are rarely provided opportunities to speak to each other in any kind of forum other than offhanded remarks which are no more valid than gossip. Teachers are left powerless because they have no means in which to provide decision makers (owners and boards) with feedback on director performance. Boards are not present for day to day operations and since their contacts are through the director, they usually get only the director’s perspective, which is so filtered and skewed in favor of themselves that the board members think they are making decisions based on facts when they are not. In two of the schools I have worked in, teachers were not allowed to address members of the board. I also think that the professional organizations that place directors in schools need to shoulder some of the responsibility. Directors can easily threaten the careers of teachers with no recourse for the teacher; all it takes are some comments made from one director to another that have no evidence or documentation and the teacher in question becomes unemployable. But, once someone becomes a director they seem to get recycled regardless of performance. What recourse do teachers have to point out the flaws of directors? The professional organizations like ISS, Search and even the IB program do not seem to take much notice.

The Accrediting Institutions, such as CIS, need to warn teachers of schools known to be bogus with regard to Educational standards and ethical conduct. If this is not done, CIS and the others are simply condoning and perpetuating these schools, aiding the decline of international education and prolonging the suffering of students, teachers and parents–exactly the things they are there to prevent. Next in line for scrutinizing Directors: Board, Faculty, Parents, Students. We are all responsible for maintaining Directors that give their schools and the profession a bad name. Even though Faculty are in the worst position to do something about these morally corrupt Directors, they are often the ones risking their careers should they try to effect open recognition and change. I guess I am just another one of those in a long line who have been disadvantaged for speaking out where the powerful entities have failed to do so because they are too busy making money to rock the boat. It’s time this changes before most of us decide to go somewhere else. Then where will those international students go?

2. Have You Worked for a Director that Did Model the Values Outlined in the Ethical Director Article?

I’ve worked for several excellent, ethical administrators at international schools. The director I have in mind was an honest and open communicator. He allowed teachers to voice concerns and to disagree. Because he was always respectful of the opinions of others, people could disagree with him. This allowed everyone to be heard fairly, and contribute to the free marketplace of ideas. I felt safe disagreeing or giving an unpopular opinion, so that even when I was overruled, I could accept his decisions as informed, fair, and thoughtful. So even when he had to make unpopular decisions, most teachers backed him.

Yes! I have taught in five overseas schools. Four of them had administrators who exemplified the qualities outlined in the Ethical Directors article. Appropriate standards were in place and were followed through on. I could expect to be treated fairly, and in at least some cases, treated exceptionally well when unforeseen circumstances arose. These administrators followed through on their promises, valued me, prepared for my optimum readjustment to my new school and surroundings, and demonstrated care and concern, listening when I had a problem, and trying to solve it.

Absolutely, the one administrator that I can recall was a role model to all and walked the talk. He set a very high expectation for the staff and students. At first many of us thought it was impractical, but when he started displaying, demonstrating and modeling such behavior, we all knew it was possible. He was open minded and was very clear that every decision was well thought out and had a positive effect on the staff and students. It was obvious that his priorities were the Staff and Students. He was also very personal and let us know that he truly had an “open-door” policy. People were welcomed to come in with disagreements and frustrations and left for the most part with a clearer understanding of why things are the way they are or why certain decisions were made. And when there were disagreements, the administrator was not shy about putting his foot down and supporting his decision, again with the best interests of the Staff and Students.

Yes, I have worked for one of the finest administrators I could even imagine. He was honest, fair, open, even when it may have not been in his own self interest to be so. He modeled appropriate behavior in his relationships with staff, faculty, and students. This director knew educational values and consistently modeled for teachers at meetings and in initiatives that good teaching is valuable and that we are all teachers at some level. He was and still is a model of a teacher’s administrator.

Yes, I have. I worked for an outstanding director who embodied all of these qualities and more. He was first and foremost an “empowerer” of others. He made each person feel valued and appreciated, he sought input and feedback of others. He was democratic while still being a clear decision maker when necessary. He communicated well, smiled often, and created an atmosphere of trust and well-being. Rare, but refreshing. He is now retired.

Have You Worked for a Director that Did Not Model the Values Outlined in the Ethical Director Article?

Unfortunately my career in international schools has been dominated by unethical and ineffective directors. Individuals who did not honor contracts, changed contracts without any consultation, refused to collaborate or consult with anyone, and moreover were dishonest and, in several cases, were just plain vindictive. None of these individuals were the least bit transparent, fair or genuine; they were just the opposite and in each case they left the schools they were supposed to be leading worse-off than when they arrived. To be completely honest, I am ready to leave the international circuit because I have little faith in the leadership, and as a result have lost the belief that I can make a difference. The mentality that to survive, the teacher must just close their door and keep their head down is a sad commentary on the impact that directors have on schools. There are too few checks and balances for directors; they have complete authority without any accountability which, based on my experience, is a disservice to the teachers, students and parents.

Yes, the majority of administrators I have worked with do not model the characteristics of ethical leadership. Examples include administrators that tell teachers where to put the desks and bookshelves in the classrooms, that tell students to disregard religious observations for the sake of the sports team, that micro manage every aspect of the budget down to the last penny, etc. These administrators exert power over staff and students; fear, cunning and deceit are their qualities.

I have worked for an unethical director, and it’s hell. I will leave international education because of the lack of good administrators.

Yes. It ultimately became clear that from the start, ‘integrity’ was not a word in this administrator’s vocabulary. He lied to me in answers to my questions at the hiring fair, where he was recruiting an entirely new faculty. It turned out most of his current faculty was in the first year of two-year contracts and he had left notes in their boxes that they wouldn’t be needed for the second year. He lied about the fact that it was a privately-owned school; did not pay me what he said he would pay me; did not order any of the materials he said he would order (and blamed it on shipping) — leaving me with a classroom with one teacher’s desk and NOTHING ELSE; played favorites–had ‘spies’ who fed him information, so that no one felt they could trust anyone; treated any difference of opinion as a traitorous act; pushed through a ‘gag act’ that resulted in everyone bottling up their emotions in a place where no counseling help was available; required all employees to live and take all 3 meals/day together in the same crowded lodgings; made no provision for individual differences and needs for privacy; did not follow through on simple requests–like having more than one TV programming choice for the entire faculty–because it “costs too much,” but then spent vast amounts of money attending every recruiting trip possible.

I did not have any personally bad experiences. But this will give you an idea of how the school was run. During final exams a student asked and was escorted to the toilet by a counselor. The counselor became concerned as the student was in the stall for a long time, and asked the student to hurry up. This resulted in repeated flushing of the facilities. The counselor opened the door to find the facilities struggling due to many papers in the water. She reached in a retrieved this soggy pile of notes, and confronted the student with cheating, escorted her to the principal’s office. After a visit by the parents, the teacher of the subject was told to examine the notes, determine what material on the exam was not covered by the notes, grade only that part of the exam and give the student a grade based on that section of the exam! Another time students were asked to stop playing football (soccer) in the middle of a league match! This was so that actors, with new school jerseys which no one else had ever seen, could take the field and be filmed playing–this footage was used to make another promotional video for the school! The lack of support shown teachers and students, the demands placed on teachers, and the pursuit of money at the cost of education made this school extremely difficult to work for.

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