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teachers abroad at airport experiencing cultural fit

About The Author

Jane has considerable experience in the world of international education. She first became involved in teacher and educational leader recruitment while working in Abu Dhabi. Over eight years, Jane worked with colleagues and agencies organizing extensive recruitment campaigns around the globe. Today, Jane uses her knowledge and experience to support schools and organizations in the design and fulfilment of their recruitment goals.

Cultural fit was a hot topic within teacher recruitment circles ten years ago. In 2015, teaching abroad was a popular and attractive option for teaching professionals at all stages of their career.

At that time, school organizations and recruitment agencies recognized that there was more to a successful overseas teaching experience than individual qualifications and/or years of experience. Hence the attention to the notion of cultural fit

Arriving at an ordinary understanding of an individual’s personal and professional match to an organization’s culture is complex.

Cultural fit is generally understood to mean the alignment of values, beliefs, and behaviors between the employee and employer and involves a close examination of one’s values, beliefs, traditions, perceptions, and assumptions – none of which are tangible or measurable. 

Experience tells us that a strong match can facilitate a successful transition to the new school community and ultimately contribute to teacher retention. On the other hand, I have learned that a mismatch usually ends up in disappointment and disillusionment for everyone involved, especially for the teacher. 

I wonder if there is more to the notion of cultural fit than employee and employer compatibility. In today’s globalized and seemingly more politicized and polarized world, it is more important than ever for teachers, when considering their preparedness for an overseas appointment to deeply reflect upon the challenges and practical realities of living and working in, what very often is, a vastly different culture. 

As a recruitment officer for a significant national initiative in the Middle East, I witnessed newly recruited teachers desperately trying to fit in.

Similar to attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole, regardless of dogged persistence, nothing seemed to work.

Teachers were often consumed with questions and ruminations such as, “Did I make the right decision?” or “What’s wrong with me?” or even worse, “If it weren’t for these … (students, principals, parents etc.).”

Understandably, such thoughts influenced the teacher’s well-being and ultimately, their job performance. 

Besides the expected expressions of nostalgia, especially around one’s traditional and significant holidays (think Thanksgiving or Diwali), a teacher’s unsettledness can surface in any of the following ways: low-energy attitude and/or apathy towards colleagues and school initiatives, gradual isolation from collegial interactions and staff functions, unexpected emotional and uncomfortable outbursts, or lack of attention to good health habits such as sleeping, eating etc. None of which are easy to watch, and all are distressing. 

Fortunately, most recruitment and school organizations today have honed their antennae to signals of teacher distress arising from their perception of cultural misfit. Comprehensive on-boarding processes which offer opportunities for ongoing professional mentoring, coaching, and professional learning along with recognition and appreciation for the teacher’s unique contributions to the school are examples of organization practices that facilitate a teacher’s sense of belonging and fit with their new professional community. 

In short, embarking on an international teaching career today is not only a tremendous professional opportunity but also a big decision. Over the past decade, teacher recruitment agencies and school organizations have learned the importance of transparency when discussing a particular organization’s professional expectations and community culture as well as identifying available transition supports. 

Similarly, teachers, when making the decision to accept an overseas teaching position must acknowledge the importance of researching and honestly considering their ability to successfully adapt or fit in a new professional and personal culture.

Believe me, the answers will not only impact their future colleagues and students, but also leave a lasting footprint upon their confidence and sense of professional well-being for years to come.