Mission impossible?

After the first few pages of the book I started reading yesterday, I was already questioning the way my profession works – I work in international schools which are all committed by their mission statements to making the world a better place.

The story begins on a rubbish dump in an Asian city and follows a family that ekes out an existence by sifting through everyone’s waste.

People live that type of life in all of the cities and countries in which international schools exist. As they make their way to another day of “making the world a better place”, our students pass those people without noticing they exist. Let’s not kid ourselves either… most teachers do too. You see, I am not sure we are all doing this in order to improve the world… I have a sneaky suspicion that we’re doing it for the domestic help, the incredible lifestyle and the exotic holidays. Luxuries possible only because of the massive divide between rich and poor.

Many of our schools perpetuate that divide. Many offer zero scholarships. Many pay their local staff so little that they are desperate for overtime just to survive. Many have deplorable environmental practices. Many make no real expectation that members of its community will ever really look or see beyond their own needs.

I wonder when we will start to see the evidence of the world being a better place because of our schools. I wonder when we will see these big, wealthy establishments putting their money where their mouths are. I wonder when we will stop tolerating the things we know are going on around us and actually do something about it. I wonder when we will stop waiting for the world to be a better place and actually make an effort to have an impact.

I wonder when we will go and get that family from the rubbish dump, give them a home and a job and educate their child. “Oh, but we can’t do that for every family” is the predictable opt-out clause for that one, of course. But, we can do it for one family… which is better than doing it for none. Maybe then our mission statements will be possible, visible and tangible and not just some lofty, ambiguous ideal that we will never really be accountable for.

Children who attend international schools should be the luckiest children around. Not because the schools have the best facilities and because they get to go to a tropical beach at the weekend. They should be lucky because they are surrounded by reality, a reality that is often beautiful but in need of attention. They should be lucky because they live in places where it is possible to make a difference. They should be lucky to know how good that feels.

Children learn by doing. What exactly is it that we have them doing towards making our mission statements real?


  1. Kirsten Durward

    Great post. I’ve worked with schools that do truly make a difference, have kids out in the community doing all sorts, have local teacher training schemes (voluntarily run by faculty to support local schools) and scholarship opportunities for local students. I’ve also worked for schools where kids fly off to volunteer projects in other countries while we consistently ignore the need that is in front of our faces.

  2. Saigon_Eldred

    Sam, as always you make some very good points. One group of people in a place like Saigon that could benefit from a more caring approach by international schools are the families of people working for NGOs. We (you & I) know or knew of people who were able to give so much to the young people of Saigon through training staff in a bakery or chairing a large organization such as Saigon Childrens Charity, but aren’t in a position to send their children to an international school. Aside from the children of these families are those that are in even greater need that you’ve referred to. Wouldn’t it be good to see the leading schools across the globe get past ‘talking the talk’, but do more ‘walking the walk’. I say ‘do more’ as so many schools and students are contributing, but could always do more.

    • sherrattsam

      Craig… you make a fantastic point. Offering free or vastly reduced places in our schools to the children of people there for altruistic purposes would be a very strong indication of what the school stands for and believes in. There would have to be some pretty clear criteria though!

  3. rafangel

    Here in Mumbai, and I assume in many other parts of India, the sad part of reality becomes magnified when some NGOs even tell schools what they need. Are schools not even create enough to come up with solutions for existing problems of their local context?
    CAS programs are also some sort of monopolies here, proposing practical ideas at times feels like fighting with transnationals that concentrate all initiatives.

    • sherrattsam

      He he… yes, it is amazing how solidified we can become in schools… how closed-minded when it comes to new or different idea!

  4. Nathalie Delgado

    An amazing article! I was intrigued by it for many reasons…I came to work in Bangkok, Thailand because of my school’s mission statement. I was moved by a single word: compassion. The school’s mission statement took me on a personal journey of inquiry…trying to figure out how I could make a difference…how my students could make a difference….I loved how you wrote about making the mission statements ‘tangible.’ It’s a great question…where do we begin? How do we make our mission statement a part of our everyday life…how do we get our students to live and breath it? How do we make it something more than just impressive words on a wall that ‘look good.’?

    • sherrattsam

      All very important points and questions that you are asking, Nathalie.

      Schools are full of gimmicks and fads. Mission statements can sometimes become those too – we make them, we use them for a bit and then we forget them. Then, the cycle repeats.

      Things like this are only effective if we develop habits around them. So, in this case, developing the habit of always referring back to the mission statement when planning or making decisions – “Will this support/enhance/enrich our mission?”. Many times the answer will be “no” and that may be a wonderful opportunity to scrap something or to change it to make it more purposeful.

  5. Pingback: Mission impossible? | PYP Blogging Daily | Sco...
  6. concentricthinking

    I don’t think I have been in a school that has ever really lived up to their mission statement. This goes for students and teachers. A classic example is when I’ve been part of beach clean up days. Yeah sure, we did collect countless bags of rubbish. We also brought with us countless of plastic bottles and plastic bags with us because it was more convenient. At the day’s end we all took a group photos and patted each other on the back. We almost brought as much plastic with is for lunch as we did on the beach. Just poor planning and missing the point. Sadly, the photo is what was ‘tangible’ from the day and nothing more.

    I also know of some parents who work for NGOs whose kids go to international schools. These people who are in a position to establish and develop a bridge for what their mission is doesn’t ever surface. No matter how obvious the direct connection between the school and organization itself. Huh? It’s a head scratcher.

    Schools are in the business of chasing rainbows. A platitude of what we say we do, but really it’s just words. Where is the authentic and compassionate action people take? Not as a publicity stunt, a real guineuie act of caring for others. Sam, your point about paying peanuts to local staff is very sobering.

    • sherrattsam

      See Craig’s point above and my reply – the concept of offering free/discounted places for NGOs is very interesting. I am going to put a tweet out to ask if anybody works at schools that do this… will keep you posted!

  7. teaton

    A divide between the haves and have-nots, indeed. I appreciate that you’ve begun to tackle these ideas on an organizational level as so often we neglect addressing the shared responsibility towards a school’s vision. How too can we involve the large corporations/companies where our student’s parents work? I applaud the parents who take their children on the community service projects that their work takes part in but how can we promote more cross-cultural learning?

    The real question that remains in my head is how do we get our elementary-aged students to truly care when caring for the global world as you stated is certainly not always being modelled for them? How can we make more respectful, genuine connections with the communities in which we live without the relationships being demeaning or action as tokenism? More so, our international school is comprised of over 20% local; how can we empower these students and families, in particular to make more longstanding commitments to their home country with the support of local networks?

    Will our kids every develop a strong relationship with a country if we move them every few years to another place in need?

    Surely if a bake sale is all we do then were not really modelling how much we care about this issue to promote/push change from our partners on an organizational level….. Let’s start with getting out of our bubbles together.

    • sherrattsam

      Your point about our local students/parents is really crucial as the power for sustainable change in the countries we live and work lies in their hands. How do we bring them into the equation meaningfully?

  8. Fleurp (@maritakirby)

    It was interesting to read, ‘I am Malala’ – after all she’s gone through for the promotion of education for girls – she still counts her blessings and makes mention of the children on the rubbish dump, she seen this as a future challenge. I think it’ll take a global change though. Have you got a copy of ‘Key competencies for the future’ Bolstad et al. NZCER a great thought provoking read. Especially regarding the ‘wicked’ problems.

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