Clear, well written school policies is a third key structural element for an overseas Christian school. Most schools have various types of critical foundational documents such as student/parent handbooks, teacher handbooks, board policy manuals, and so forth, that need periodic review and perhaps revision. However, it’s been my experience that what happens in many cases, due to the high turnover rate in administration and lack of competent staffing, these documents are not reviewed and updated on a regular basis. Because the school lacks any kind of coherent procedure for reviewing and updating its policies, it is unable to identify where particular policies are no longer working well and where restructuring needs to takes place. I have personally witnessed school handbooks that had not been updated for years. Often there will be a recognition that a change needs to take place (for example a change in school grading policy), and a new policy will be announced without the change being made in the appropriate school documents, leading to inconsistency, misalignment, and confusion in the everyday operation of the school. I have observed over the years that one specific area of weakness in many overseas Christian schools is its hiring policies.
Lack of structure in hiring policies.
In what Bolman and Deal call “the keystone of structure,” one of the common areas of weaknesses you will see in overseas Christian schools is a lack of structure in “allocating task” (Location 1301). Below is a list of some areas of weaknesses that are common in overseas Christian schools when it comes to hiring practices.
• Hiring of unqualified administrators and teachers
• Hiring of unqualified office staff
• Lack of job descriptions and clear expectation for both staff and teachers
• Lack of balance in allocating task. Some staff and teachers are overworked, while others seem to have less responsibility.
The hiring and firing of administrators, teachers and staff members, is the most consequential action school leadership does. For the school board, it would be the hiring of director, principal, or administrator. For the director, it would be the hiring and placement of administrators and teachers. Unless there are school board policies with high standards, clear expectations and procedures for hiring qualified personnel, the consequences could be devastating for the school. I know from experience that high turnover rate at many overseas Christian schools makes finding qualified teachers and administrators challenging. Though it’s common practice and at times almost impossible to avoid, putting teachers in the classroom and administrators in leadership with little or no formal training in education has the potential to lead to all kinds of unintended negative consequences. For example, school boards of small overseas Christian schools without strong structural framework for hiring a director, may be tempted to measure qualifications anecdotally and sidestep the importance of experience and training. Pressing needs leads schools to promote someone in house to the director’s position, and it is even more tempting to go this route if the person is well-liked, but without a hiring policy that measures things like training in education, basic knowledge of curriculum, high value for student learning, commitment to the shared mission, and core values of the school, the daily operation of the school will lose balance and break down over time.
Another particularly critical area in the structural frame that is often overlooked in overseas schools is the hiring of secretarial staff. Often in small overseas private Christian schools, the school office staff are nationals with little formal training in being school secretaries. While having nationals as secretaries can have advantages when it comes to public relations and communicating in the host countries language, unless the secretaries are competent with 21st century technology, it can potentially create huge headaches for the school—particularly, for the director who needs a competent, experienced secretary who is up to date with the latest secretarial and administrative software. Most Christian schools have various types of important school documents like student/parent handbooks, teacher handbooks, and board policy manuals, and without a competent office staffer who can organize the documents and keep them updated for review and easy access, structural weaknesses will become evident in the implementation of important policies and procedures.
A particularly egregious area in some overseas Christian schools is having poorly written job descriptions without clear expectations. This can lead to multiple problems like the inability to hold teachers accountable, miscommunication or misunderstanding about what is expected of the teacher, misunderstanding about the chain of authority, lack of uniformity in expectations, changing expectations, lack of balance in teaching responsibilities, and the list goes on and on. Especially problematic is the inability to hold teachers accountable. Without an agreed-on job description that is part of a signed contract, the school has no to way to really give the teacher a valid performance review or enter into any kind of growth plan. The ability to remove a teacher who lacks professionalism and is not a good fit is vital for a school that wants to assure student achievement and excellence.
A word about accreditations reviews.
Accreditation reviews and self-studies for overseas Christian schools are indispensable. I personally would not work at an overseas school that was not accredited by an approved accreditation agency. Accreditation reviews often aid in providing the desperately needed structural framework that is lacking in many overseas Christian schools. However, being accredited is not the total solution for a dysfunctional school or one lacking structure. Just as a reminder, many of the structural problems I have experienced and written about were occurring at fully accredited schools. To be clear, accreditation institutions provide the framework; they do not provide the structure itself. The accreditation agency is not an authority over the school, nor does it manage the school. Its function is to work along with the school to provide a framework that enables the school to correct any possible structural problems that may exist. As valuable as the self-study and accreditation reviews are, they are limited and, in some cases, inadequate. Not all accreditation teams are created equal, and unless the review team does a thorough job of reading the self-study and properly reviewing and collecting documentation, the review could lead to a flawed report. I have experienced several accreditation visits at schools where the final report was based mostly on anecdotal evidence from face-to-face meetings with administrators, teachers and students. Because the final report weighed anecdotal evidence so heavily, it missed several critical areas of dysfunction and structural weaknesses.
Another area where accreditation reviews may fall short is in the area of “showing grace.” Overseas Christian schools have a tendency to be unstable because their members live and work in difficult countries and environments. The schools often suffer from a high attrition rate at the director’s position, unstable political situations that include street protest, military coups, natural disasters, and local and education laws that all have an adverse effect on the school. Because of these dynamics, the accreditation review team, in some cases, appropriately takes these dynamics into consideration when writing the final report and shows “grace” and consideration toward the school when deciding its accreditation status. While showing deference for the school’s current circumstances is needed at times, unless the accrediting agency strikes the right balance, you may find a fully-accredited school suffering year after year with the same structural problems that are not being corrected or addressed.
This article addresses three critical structural elements of any school: foundational documents, written curriculum, and written policies. Because of unique dynamics associated with overseas Christian schools such as administrative and staff turnover, unstable political and environmental circumstances, and constantly changing demographics, it is vital for the future of these schools to have consistent review and restructuring taking place so that these key areas remain strong. It is also important to note there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. According to Bolman and Deal, “structures must be designed to fit an organization’s current circumstances (including its goals, technology, workforce and environment)” (Location 1210). They also assert that too many prescriptions and mandates implemented too quickly can be damaging to school morale and may lead to “apathy, absenteeism, and resistance” (Location 1304). The key is the right amount of structure in critical areas. There are other important facets of the structural frame in overseas Christian schools like board governance and facility policies that are beyond the scope of this writing but should also be consistently reviewed for restructuring as needed.
Bolman, Lee G., and Terrance E. Deal. Reforming Organizations, Artistry, Choice and Leadership (Fourth Edition). Jossey Bass, 2008.
Rice, Condoleezza. No Higher Honor, A Memoir of My Years in Washington. Broadway Books, 2011.