TCKs and turnover

Does high teacher turnover have a negative effect on Third Culture Kids? 

A new study by Lisa Wishart Terry explores the possible impact of high teacher turnover in international schools on the cognitive and social development of Third Culture Kids (‘TCKs’). Chris Terry reports.

A recent study (2022)*  investigating the impact of teacher turnover on Third Culture Kids (TCKs) in international schools in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) has found that teachers believe that  ‘high teacher turnover’ in a school can have a negative impact on effective teaching and learning, student social and emotional development, the parent body and the community of Third Culture Kids.


The United Arab Emirates have the highest rates of teacher turnover in the world of international schools (OECD, 2015; Yates, 2021) while the GCC (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) has the second highest teacher shortage in the world (Mahboob & Elyas, 2017). These are matters of immediate concern, particularly when growth is expected to double to 780,000 teachers worldwide by 2026 (Gaskell, 2016).  Turnover in one of the Emirates, Dubai, has been reported to be as high as 60% (Bunnell, 2014).

TCKs are children who spend their formative years in a place (or places) that is not their parents’ homeland (Useem et al., 1963). Their numbers have risen as the world has become more globalised, and while there are many benefits of being a TCK – such as having a broader view of the world, greater cultural awareness and the ability to speak more than one language, the downsides can mean a struggle in forming their own cultural identity and adjustment issues.  Although Sharp (1987) found in his analysis of 530 TCKs that 27 percent found it was better to be a citizen of the world than of one country, the TCK experience can create ‘rootlessness and restlessness’, when home is ‘everywhere and nowhere’ (Pollock & Van Reken, 2001).


For the study, teachers in the GCC were surveyed about the variables that affected the development of students in international schools. There was also a focus on how teachers believed staff turnover had impacted on teaching and learning, especially with regard to TCKs.

Key findings

The study raised some important issues, suggesting that high teacher turnover can

  • Negatively impact the quality of teaching and learning in international schools in the GCC.
  • Directly and indirectly impact the social and emotional health of TCKs

Moreover, teachers were concerned

  • That high staff turnover can negatively impact the dynamics of the school community as a whole
  • When, in their opnion, schools prioritised profit before the wellbeing of teachers and students

However, the news isn’t all bad. Respondents to the survey suggest that teachers were aware of a paradox affecting TCKs. Overall, 75.7% of international teachers responding, said that TCKs have a sense of belonging in the international school they are in. Opinions were divided about the effect of high teacher turnover on the sense of belonging on TCKs. In Primary international schools, 41.7% stating it had an effect, whereas 54.2% stated it did not have an effect.

Relationships and trust

Nevertheless, the study revealed a significant belief that high teacher turnover can have a negative effect on the ability of many TCKs to form good, stable relationships and to develop a feeling of belonging. These needs can in turn be linked to Maslow’s (1962) hierarchy, which emphasises the human need for ‘belongingness’, friendships and trust. The study suggests that when there is a high turnover of teachers, the school environment came to be seen, in the words of one respondent as ‘untrustworthy’ while another considered ‘students can feel a strong sense of loss’ especially when they ‘get to build a relationship with their teacher and then they are suddenly gone’.

Teachers evidently believed that a positive teacher-student relationship is important for a child’s development. In the words of one respondent, ‘it can ‘take a long time for students to trust the teacher and as they get to know the teacher over the years, they open up to the teachers they know well’. Responses highlighted the importance of stability, consistency and continuity in the lives of international students. It was noted by one survey respondent that: “Turnover is a distraction for students. A community of learners is more effective than a constant turnover of teachers who could be a stabilizing and inspirational.” (JISC Survey).


One study, (Hallgarden et al., 2015) suggests schools need to strengthen their all-round offers to staff to maintain a high quality, internationally minded workforce, capable of creating the kind of stable conditions in which students can thrive. Although the 2022 study in GCC schools confirms that most teachers believe that international students develop a positive sense of belonging, schools could be even better if the issue of teacher retention can be addressed where staff turnover is high.


Christopher Terry is an ex-Head Teacher who has taught internationally and in the UK. He now works for Teach First helping Leadership Teams in school become more effective.

Lisa Wishart Terry is a Primary School Teacher from the North West who taught in various in the UK and Internationally. She has an MA from the University of Northampton.

* An Investigation into the Impact of High Teacher Turnover upon Third Culture Kids (TCKs) in International Schools in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) MASTER OF EDUCATION thesis at University of Northampton 2022, by Lisa Wishart Terry, edited by Christopher Terry


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