Does my passport define me?

Reflecting on equality in the international schools’ world

Potter. Jaipur, India, 2019

“International schools’ hiring processes and policies discriminate!” That was the first line of a post on a Facebook group for international educators that I follow. Having just tendered my resignation and being “open for opportunities,” I must admit that the idea added to my stress and made me question the timeliness of my decision. Not only was I looking for a job in the middle of a global pandemic but also a Colombian passport holder competing in a job market that is dominated by a select group of nationalities. What I was to encounter in the months to come both challenged and confirmed that assertion. 

As soon as my resignation was official, some concerned colleagues reinforced my fears and encouraged me to reverse my decision, so that I would secure my job and remain within the comfort zone of certain employment. Others, on the other hand, offered words of encouragement and supported me in my quest. To both sides, I am grateful, for their words came from authentic concern and a desire to help me. However, the fact that several people felt the need to share their anxiety was another feather on the worrying hat that I was wearing. Despite much hesitation and uncertainty, my family and I decided that it was the right time to seek new horizons and embarked on a journey of hope in treacherous times.

One of the claims the Facebook post made had to do with a lack of opportunity for those who do not have the privilege of a British, a Canadian, an American, or an Australian passport. That was not my experience. Despite the variety of approaches to the hiring and interview procedures (some more rigorous than others, but that’s another matter entirely), from October to mid-February I had more than a dozen schools express interest in my profile, and they invited me for interviews via various platforms. Although some might argue most schools chose more “mainstream” passport holders over me, I feel that in most cases I was given a fair chance to present myself as the right person for the job, and I am certain those who were selected are – in all fairness – the best fit for the job. As a matter of fact, I ended up signing a contract and had the luxury of choosing amongst a few options available to me. So no; as a Colombian passport holder and a non-native speaker of English, I never felt opportunity was in short supply.

The conversation about diversity and equality in international schools is open, and organizations have publicly and honestly brought up the issue of equity and discrimination in the international teaching context. Similarly, many international schools are actively seeking diversity in their teaching and leadership staff to better reflect the values of their missions and visions, so I am certain this newly found awareness had much to do with my success. However, this does not mean that discrimination has been eradicated in the world of international schools. 

More than ten years ago, when I went on board this international education quest, the organizers of one of the job fairs I wanted to sign up for bluntly replied that my profile would not be attractive to schools because I was not “a first-world passport holder.” In the job fair that I did attend back then, a few recruiters asked if I had another passport as it would be difficult to justify hiring a Colombian. In the end, I encountered hope and a few schools offered me the chance to interview, which led to my success in the fair. Not everything was dire then.

These blatant displays of bigotry have not entirely disappeared and I hear colleagues share their distasteful encounters with the prejudice that is undeniably present in our context. So no; the job is not done yet. Some nationalities are over-represented in the international schools’ context, the term native-speaker is loosely used to close doors to competitive candidates, and oftentimes a passport weighs more than an impressive resumé. Nonetheless, we are most definitely miles ahead from the “in your face” bigotry I experienced ten years ago, and despite the abundant discrimination, more and more schools and organizations are able to look beyond the passport to find highly qualified educators.