Administration & Leadership

What We Can Learn From International Educators

An American who has worked abroad shares how teachers in other countries implement some familiar strategies, with potential lessons for the U.S.

May 22, 2024
ferrantraite / iStock

Teaching abroad allows you to broaden your perspective on the world at large and how different families and cultures approach education and teaching. It also helps you to continue to grow in your teaching in different contexts to meet the needs of a variety of students.

I am privileged to have worked abroad in two amazing schools. I grew in so many ways both personally and professionally. In that experience, I also reflected on the many challenges of both living and teaching abroad. Some personal challenges may seem obvious—languages, cultural norms, friendships, lifestyle—but there were specific challenges in the teaching profession while abroad that I couldn’t quite name at the time. 

Two professors at William & Mary School of Education, Leslie W. Grant and James H. Stronge, are involved in several research projects, including international comparative case studies of award-winning teachers in the United States and Asia.

More recently, they’ve been researching the strengths practices that international teachers have that ensure student success. Professors Grant and Stronge have interviewed 20 teachers across eight international schools in four countries in Asia and continue to do so. I saw them present their findings, which really resonated with me—not only due to my experience as an international educator, but also because what they reported can be transferable across the teaching profession. Below is a summary adapted from Stronge’s framework of effective teaching that shares effective practices that international school teachers use.

  • Cultural Awareness and Responsiveness: Being aware of the culture and responding to the various needs of the students you serve in your guest country.
  • Language Acquisition: Learning languages utilized in your guest country.
  • Professional Knowledge: Knowledge of content and best practices in teaching areas.
  • Instructional Planning, Delivery, and Assessment of Learning: Effective unit and lesson planning, instructional strategies, and assessment practices to drive student learning. 
  • Professionalism: Attending to ethics and appropriate policies of the school and country.
  • Learning Environment: Creating a healthy climate and culture in the classroom, including building student relationships. 
  • Teacher Collaboration and Leadership: Collaborating with colleagues in professional learning communities or similar teams to maximize student learning, as well as taking various leadership roles like instructional coach or department chair.

“Cultural awareness and responsiveness“ and “language acquisition” might be the practices that stand out initially, which makes sense. When you live in a different country than your initial home, it’s important to learn the language or languages around you. Similarly, just as all educators endeavor to be culturally responsive and aware of the many cultures that make up a classroom, there’s even more of a need to understand the culture of the country where you now teach and live to ensure that you can be an effective educator. By learning the language and connecting with the local culture, you can build connections with your community, learners, and caregivers. 

At a cursory glance, any educator would likely say, “That makes sense” or “All great teachers do it,” but after talking with Leslie Grant, I learned that there are some critical nuances and components that need to be unpacked. 

Effective Direct Instruction

While their research continues, a study soon to be published found that in the area of instructional delivery, direct instruction was often used effectively. Direct instruction, however, wasn’t simply lecture; it was a structured set of tasks that teachers guided students through, involving teacher modeling, questioning, practice, and careful planning, rather than simply talking at students. As Dr. Grant describes, “Of the instructional activities used in the classroom, interaction and engagement with students were the most used activities. Clearly, these effective international teachers are focused on the needs of their students.”

Students might have some freedom in the process, but it is carefully orchestrated by the teacher. 

Sharing Work in Collaboration

While collaboration may seem straightforward, a specific nuance of collaboration is critical to international educators. It centers around “doing work” and “workload.” International educators collaborate in ways that ensure that there is a shared workload. It’s not simply another planning meeting, but a sense that work is getting done with tangible products. In fact, one educator shared that there was no way they “could survive” without the collaboration of their colleagues.

This work is directly connected to the curriculum from lesson planning to assessment design. As Dr. Grant says, “Teachers co-develop lessons and assessments, share effective instructional practices, and reflect on student learning. These are hallmarks not only of effective teachers but also of effective collaborative structures.” 

Systems Thinking

Coupled with being culturally aware, international educators in the study understand the many systems that impact them. These include the political and legal systems of the host country as well as their role as a middle-level leader in a large school. They’re able to understand the tensions between school and home and how potential conflict might arise. 

For example, they might have to know how to navigate the school system’s expectation of homework and the cultural and community expectation. This system and situational thinking allows educators to better collaborate with all members of the school community in complex geopolitical and cultural settings.

Key Takeaways

Flex curriculum design muscles: While educators may not have the time to fully design their curriculum, it’s important that they be trained in the process of effective curriculum design practices so they can unpack and understand how curriculum materials are created. It’s OK for educators to adapt them, but it’s important that those adaptations maintain the integrity of the curriculum. This can only be done by fully engaging in the curriculum as it is with a level of fidelity.

In addition, professional development in curriculum design can help challenge or reinforce mental models we may have about effective teaching. 

Language and cultural matters: We need to continue to support culturally responsive practices. Furthermore, educators need to engage with their local community in meaningful ways to deepen their understanding of the many cultural backgrounds in their classroom. This can include learning a language of the community, home visits, cultural celebrations, place-based experiences, attending community forums, and more.

While this may seem like a lot, I encourage educators to try one practice that makes sense for their bandwidth. 

Don’t shame direct instruction: There has been a narrative that direct instruction is ineffective. Direct instruction, however, is effective teaching that requires intentional planning connected to where students are and what they need to learn next.

We need to give permission for educators to deliver structured teaching through direct instruction and avoid shaming them in our collaborative conversations. 

Reflect on hiring and appraisal practices: All of the above ideas call us to reflect on hiring and appraisal practices. We can suss out these dispositions and practices through interview questions and performance tasks. We might ask a teacher, for example, to describe direct instruction in the classroom or ask about their comfort level in working with different cultural communities. We might include an appraisal goal that asks educators to modify curriculum tasks based on effective principles.

Teaching in another country is an exciting opportunity. We learn that while there are general best practices that are universal to all educators, we also understand that there are nuances and needs when teaching internationally. However, those practices can provide insight into how we in the United States engage daily in the practice of education. 

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Administration & Leadership

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.