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Teacher engagement and the pursuit of happiness (Part 1)

Ash Pugh, Director of Operations at Teach Away

In part one of our four-part series, we discuss the common thread that permeates throughout recruitment, onboarding and retention: happiness.

Recruitment and retention go hand in hand: something I’ve witnessed time and time again throughout my decade working in international education at Teach Away.

Get your recruitment strategy right, we always say to our partner schools, and you’ll go a long way to ensuring strong retention rates. And this still holds true. However, as the following story illustrates, recruiting the right teachers for your school is only half the battle.

Way back in 2008, Teach Away worked on a large-scale hiring campaign for a government program undergoing massive educational reform. While we had no trouble attracting the volume of qualified candidates required to help this particular program meet their ambitious hiring targets, their nascent post-hire support process contributed to a dropout rate that was much higher than they wanted.

The following recruitment year, we worked together with our partner to create a tailored pre-departure program for successful hires through a series of theme-based webinars and outreach. Our efforts paid huge dividends; dropout and turnover rates dropped dramatically. By aligning expectations to the reality on the ground, retention rates shifted to where we needed them.

A cautionary tale for international schools and programs everywhere: without quality recruitment, onboarding and retention processes, hiring new teachers becomes a never-ending cycle of wasted time and money.

I was excited to have the opportunity to co-moderate a series of sessions with Dr. Ann Jurewicz at the the 52nd AAIE Conference in February of this year, exploring the interconnected topics of teacher recruitment, engagement and retention alongside international school leaders from around the world.

Dr. Jurewicz recently completed her dissertation, where she surveyed nearly 1,000 teachers on critical factors influencing contract renewal.

As luck would have it, Teach Away had also recently completed a survey of over 10,000 educators, diving deep into their motivations for teaching abroad, what matters to them when seeking employment and what makes them happiest at a school.

What we wanted to do together was to take a holistic approach to mapping out and understanding the journey from job seeker, to candidate, all the way through to a teacher’s first year at your school, to help you figure out what you can do to ensure a smooth transition from new hire candidate to an engaged, committed educator.

Happiness: the secret to retention.

Over the course of our combined research and discussions, we uncovered a common thread winding through retention, engagement and recruitment – the secret sauce for teacher retention, if you will.


You might think that cultivating a happy teacher workforce is an elusive (and arguably subjective) goal. But, as our research shows, when it comes to keeping teachers at your school, the pursuit of happiness is a worthwhile one.

If your school has a retention problem, it’s a relatively safe bet that you likely have some work to do on the happiness front. Your teachers must be given the training and tools they need to be successful. They also need to be satisfied with their work environment and compensation. Which leads us to our next question:

Why does your teachers’ happiness matter now more than ever?

1. It’s time to brace for change.

It’s important for school leaders to understand that the international education recruitment landscape is changing – and changing fast.

Until relatively recently, an oversupply of teachers put the power in the hands of international schools to have their pick of teachers, on their terms. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a fundamental shift in the balance of power from hiring school to candidate.

We’re experiencing a time of unprecedented growth in the international school market. According to ISC Research, which has tracked and analyzed data on the world’s international schools for over 20 years, the biggest challenge facing international schools over the next five years will be finding enough skilled teachers.

In fact, in order to keep up with the demand for English-speaking K-12 teachers, international schools are going to need to source an additional 150,000 qualified teachers by 2021.

That’s an increase of 36% in less than four years. It’s clear that hiring schools no longer hold all the cards.

With qualified teachers in high demand and more opportunities available to them than ever before, you need to understand what matters most to candidates and harness that information to attract and keep them at your school.

2. It’s also time to start thinking about your long-term growth.

It’s important to keep the big picture in mind. As a school head or principal, you’re striving to build and sustain a community.

This community does not just happen by happy accident and it’s certainly no small task. It requires vision and intent. Knowing what your community culture and values are and hiring according to these is a key first step to getting the right teachers at your school.

It won’t guarantee they’ll stick around for the long term, however.

To build a strong and lasting community, you need to ensure that your teachers are engaged and excited to come to work and that student learning outcomes are met. In turn, you’ll have satisfied parents and rising enrolment rates.  

So, what is exactly it that makes new teachers happy? And how can you evaluate and improve your existing recruitment and onboarding processes to ensure a positive experience for candidates and new hires?

Let’s take a closer look.

Why teachers stay and why they go.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that salary and financial perks are the biggest indicators of whether or not a teacher chooses to stay at your school.

In fact, top indicators of happiness, as outlined by Rainer Strack, aren’t financial at all. Especially among the generation currently entering the job market – our future teachers – key indicators are things like appreciation for their work and building quality relationships with colleagues.

As shown below, salary comes into the picture further down – as the eighth most important item on the list.

hire teachers

Source: Rainer Strack, October 2014 at TED@BCG Berlin. The workforce crisis of 2030 and how to start solving it now.

Don’t make the fatal flaw of assuming that teachers stay solely for money.

Check back next week for part two where we look at the first part of recruitment, onboarding and retention cycle: recruitment.

Do you know what really matters to your teaching candidates?

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of InterED, the bi-annual newsletter of the Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE).