Are leaders addressing their own well-being?
By Helen Kelly

International school leaders are finding themselves under increasing stress as they come to grips with the complex and challenging environments in which they work.


In a 2017 study of international school heads and principals worldwide, 97% reported that they found leading an international school emotionally challenging work. While 58% reported feeling emotionally challenged at least two to three times per week, a quarter reported encountering these challenges on a daily basis.


The complexities of dealing with cross-cultural relationships and the emotional climate generated by the constant transition of an internationally mobile population pose specific challenges for international school leaders which are not encountered elsewhere. Heads find themselves taking responsibility for a vastly diverse community of people with very different sets of values and expectations, many of whom look to the school for support and a sense of belonging.


Relationships within a school are key to its success but can also be a major source of challenge for school leaders. 93% of international school leaders find relationships with other adults in school challenging.


Parent challenges

82% of leaders report relationships with parents challenging, citing cultural dissonance around parents’ expectations as the main reason for conflicts arising. These include issues relating to dissatisfaction with the current educational programme or proposed curriculum changes.


Particularly in Asia, heads report significant parent pressure to deliver learning in traditional ways with overemphasis on the importance of core skill development and testing, and hostility towards 21st century approaches to learning.


Disagreements between the parent community and leadership around the level of parent participation in the school’s decision-making process can also cause problems.  These issues may come to the fore when new parents join the school, bringing with them expectations from previous schools. Their interactions with school leaders may be influenced by their own heightened emotional state as they come to terms with the demands of transitioning to a new location.


Staff relationships

76% of international school leaders report finding relationships with teachers emotionally challenging.  Appraising and supporting underperforming teachers, dealing with staff discipline issues and managing staff responses during times of change are the most widely reported issues.


Attitudes to change vary widely across cultures, with some cultures more change-averse than others. The responsibility that international school leaders take for the welfare of their staff is also a significant cause of stress. Without a social safety net, the school becomes much more of a focus of support for staff members living away from their home country. Heads are often the first port of call for teachers in crisis, and leaders find themselves supporting those who are grieving, experiencing personal problems or suffering physical or mental health issues.


Poor relationships with boards of governors can also be draining for heads and is the single most reported reason for international school leaders leaving their post. Lack of clear role definition between the board and administration can lead to conflict and an atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust and ill-feeling.


The impact on leaders

Relationship issues within the workplace can leave international school leaders feeling lonely and isolated. 81% of international school leaders report feeling isolated in their role at times. The structural loneliness experienced inside school, resulting from a lack of external support and a trustworthy peer group to confide in, may be compounded by personal loneliness. The need to keep a professional distance within the school community, coupled with a lack of time to build relationships outside school, can leave leaders with no support network. Transitioning heads and those without family may find themselves particularly vulnerable to this.


67% of international school leaders report that workplace stress impacts negatively on their professional performance, with a similar number reporting interference with their personal lives. A third of heads say that they have felt close to breaking point at some point. This is clearly a significant issue that it is in the interests of the whole international school community to address. How do we prioritise school leader well-being and provide heads with the support they need?


Solutions for leader well-being

Building connections with others is the most important strategy in improving the well-being of our international school leaders. Prioritising relationships with senior colleagues through effective team building should be high on every head’s agenda, ensuring that senior leaders at all levels have a peer group to turn to.


Building networks of leaders within the international school community is also a key strategy to support well-being. ISC Research reports that only 29% of all international schools (of which there are over 10,000) are members of an international school association, although a growing number of international schools (31%) are part of a school group. EARCOS has recently developed a leadership mentor programme for colleagues in the East Asia region, which is proving highly successful. However, regional associations and organisations supporting international schools could do more to prioritise and promote the well-being of school leaders.


Finally, boards of governors should provide heads and principals with a professional coach throughout their tenure at a school. The value of leadership coaching has been acknowledged in business for many years but is still rare in international schools. Leaders need to ensure they ask for this where it is not offered, and insist that it becomes a condition of the contract.




Kelly, H., (2017) International Schools as Emotional Arenas, Facing the Leadership Challenges Ed.D Thesis, University of Birmingham


Supporting school leader well-being

  • The board could form a transition team and develop a transition plan to support new heads in a school.

  • The board can ensure it is providing professional coaches for its school leaders.

  • Senior leadership colleagues could prioritise team building, to ensure they build strong connections with each other and avoid isolation.

  • School leaders might seek out mentors within the international school community to support them, through formal mentorship programmes or informal networks.

  • School leaders could prioritise building networks with leaders in other schools and make time available to seek support from others.

  • Schools could become members of regional associations to support networking of school leaders.

Dr Helen Kelly has led international schools in Europe and Asia since 2006. She is currently the Lower School Principal at Canadian International School of Hong Kong. Helen completed her doctorate in 2017 on the subject of school leader well-being and delivers workshops supporting the flourishing of both middle and senior leaders. She is currently studying for a master’s in applied positive psychology and coaching psychology with the University of East London. Twitter @drhkelly or find out more at

©2020 International School Leader