One thing that bothers me about international schools is the fear of taking a strong stance on any sort of issues. We persistently flap about in the no-man’s land of opinion, belief and – most worryingly – ethics. We have wonderful mission statements, visions, learner profiles, principles, codes of conduct etc… ad infinitum… but we don’t take a stance on anything that really matters.
Imagine working at a school that explicitly took sides against one, a few or all of these things that exist outside and/or inside the walls of most of our schools:
- massive gaps between the rich and the poor
- environmental destruction
- waste and the production of rubbish
- maltreatment of refugees
Imagine a school that refused to accept the children of parents who were in the country for dubious or destructive purposes – industries that caused pollution of the destruction of the environment, for example. Or a school that refused to accept the children of powerful local “dignitaries” or owners of the construction companies that are turning many of the cities we work in into nightmarish visions of “progress”. Or a school that refused to accept the citizens of countries waging wars on foreign soil. Or a school that insisted on paying its local staff decent wages. Or a school that would not tolerate seeing people living in distressing circumstances within a certain radius of its premises. Or a school that gave disadvantaged local people scholarships or new career opportunities.
Or, basically, a school that does more good than harm… and is fiercely proud of that fact. Is that how we can make sure our schools are “human”?
Every year, in international schools, a certain number of teachers spend several months – usually between August and December, figuring out what to do with their lives. This is because they have signed a one-year contract and must decide whether or not to sign another one.
Recently, I chatted with a non-teacher at a party. He told me he was here, in Vietnam, until 2018. He said this with a real peace, like someone who knows where they are and is fine with that. All too often, international school teachers are caught between two places, or sometimes three… or even four. Home, where they were before, where they are now and where they might be next.
It is very difficult to be content with one’s current situation in these conditions. It is also an exhausting way to live… making the biggest decision you can make – where to live – every year.
I reckon schools should get rid of one year contracts and introduce two or three year contracts as the minimum. This would:
- get rid of the gossip – “is he staying or going?”
- remove some of the uncertainty
- help people feel more settled
- fill schools with people who want to be there, not people who aren’t sure where to go next
- encourage commitment rather than delaying decisions
- encourage people to live in the moment rather than worry about what’s around the corner
Food for thought. I am a perpetual signer of one-year contracts, but I know how debilitating those months of indecision are, how they affect my enjoyment of where I am, how they affect the friendships I have made but am not sure will continue and how they affect my enjoyment of my work.
A school is a part of a wider system, a bigger picture.
But what is that bigger picture?
How does your school reflect the systems, cultures, communities and directions that lie outside the school… and what role does the school play in those?
I wonder if many of the international schools we work in have anything at all to do with the bigger picture of the city, community or culture they are part of. I also wonder if they reflect that bigger picture too much!
Imagine, as I am at the moment, that our schools represented and lived up to the ideals and visions that were espoused in their mission statements. Can we truly say that we see those ideals and visions being reflected in society as a whole when we step outside the school gates? If a school is an idealistic island surrounded by the ills of society, is it truly going to have any effect on the world around it? Indeed, it may be more true that those ills are equally present in our schools. And, soberingly, the very existence of the school may depend on the presence and perpetuation of those ills.
I’ll leave you to decide what they are…
I recently explored an old colonial building here in Saigon. Tiled corridors, sweeping staircases and Art Deco features. Cool little boutiques and cafés juxtaposed with shady family apartments. And, what can only be described as a whole village in itself on the roof.
Beautiful? Yes. Tragic? Almost certainly.
It is quite soul-destroying inhabiting these cities in this part of the world. It is a perpetual cycle of coming across amazing bits of history only to to find them flattened the next time you go past.
There is a direct relationship between this cultural impermanence and the distinctly impermanent nature of international schools in this region. Though they may physically remain in place for some time, the attempts of their transient teachers to have a genuine affect on their transient students often comes across as fleeting. Students and teachers keep passing through as though on some conveyor belt both oblivious to their surroundings and incapable of shaping them. Never the twain shall meet.
Everybody needs to feel as though they are part of something that lasts. How do we create schools that affect and shape culture? How do we create schools that symbolize cultural strength and wisdom and not exploitation and destruction? How do we attract great teachers to those schools and get them to stop looking for a place where the grass is greener? ‘Cause it ain’t. The grass is green back home.
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?
I was recently very fortunate to attend a keynote speech by Richard Gerver (@richardgerver) during the IB Annual Conference in Singapore.
One of Richard’s quotes that really resonated with me was:
“One of the most important things we need to do in education is get out more.”
This a short and simple statement but, like many short and simple statements, it asks many questions!
How often do we venture beyond the walls of our schools?
It’s funny… “field trips” are viewed as a special event and are done, in most schools, pretty rarely. In my school, for example, most grade levels have ventured out of the school only once. There are many reasons for this – costs and the fear of anything “happening” are often the biggest barrier. Indeed, I know of one IB school in Australia in which it is strictly not allowed to take students on field trips! How about that?
Yet, every time we take students outside of the school there are learning experiences above and beyond those we planned for:
- Genuine connections with the real world
- Improved sense of place
- Observations of people’s behaviour
- Improved ability to look, see and notice
- Rich language and conversation
- Emergence of prior knowledge and wisdom
- Natural curiosity
- Greater bonds between students
- Bursting the bubble by going somewhere new, expanding horizons
- Revealing information about students as individuals in different contexts
- … and more
You see, very often teachers have a limited understanding of the learning objectives that will be reached by taking the kids out somewhere. But, if we realize that everything is learning, everything is an opportunity to develop, everything is a formative assessment – from how well students behave in an art gallery, to how curious they are in a botanical gardens, to how well they talk to strangers at a market, to how they sit and eat during a picnic. It is all real learning.
How well do teachers know the world outside the school?
I work in an international school and, of course, you get all types. In Bangladesh, I worked with local teachers who had never stepped foot in the local markets – that was for servants to do. In China, I worked with people who detested China and refused to enter into society at all, purely frequenting expat restaurants and bars. In Thailand, I worked with people who spoke literally not a single word of Thai. In Vietnam, I work with people who go from school to home and back again over and over and over each day, week, month and year. Of course, there are the complete opposites in each school too – one of my colleagues here speaks the language pretty fluently and has covered nearly every corner of the country in his travels.
My concern is that we are, in these schools, teaching many students who live in a privileged bubble, our schools are often bubbles themselves and many teachers also live in a bubble. What are we teaching them then?
I find it fascinating to provoke people in international schools by asking what difference it would make to the curriculum if the school was suddenly picked up and dropped in a completely different country in a completely different city. Rather soberingly, in some ways, the answer would be “not much”.
What connections does the school have with the community?
Inspired by the stories of two-way community connections that come out of Reggio Emilia, I do wonder about how schools can become genuine parts of their local community. Like a watch, schools seem to have become a “single-function device” – kids get dropped off here and we teach them. How else do we serve our community though? Is student art displayed in local restaurants, shops and public places? Are the students encouraged to initiate projects that feed into and have an impact on the local community? Are the expertise and talent from the local community brought into the school to create those connections? Are the students visible in the local community?
It seems we are stuck in some rather tired looking moulds (schools excel at that!). We can break those moulds by getting out more, as Richard says.
How does your school do it?
“Nearly the weekend”
“Holidays coming soon”
In schools, you can’t go five minutes without hearing people saying these words, or something similar. In that sense, I suppose it is no different from the average workplace. What does make it different to other workplaces though, is that kids might hear us. What is the main lesson they will learn from hearing those words?
That people wish their lives away.
It’s such an astounding contradiction. Nobody wants to get old quickly, yet everyone consistently wishes the weekend and the holidays would come sooner. Weird.
One of the main causes of this problem in schools is the cycle of “busyness”. We make our days, weeks, months, terms, semesters, years so frantic, so chock-full of frenetic activity that we are constantly in desperate need of a break. We exhaust ourselves…
Who is to blame? Well…
- school leadership has to take some of the blame. As soon as we step out of the classroom we unavoidably and instantly forget what it is like to be a classroom teacher, so we pile things on with little empathy or understanding.
- the “mould” of schools also has to take the blame – they are expected to be these busy and rather frantic places!
- teachers are also partly to blame, we are not exactly Masters in the Art of Saying No – either to ourselves, to our students or to our colleagues. As a result, we take on more, and more, and more, and more, and more, and more… and then we struggle to put our finger on the exact reason why we are so busy (except, that is, for those who are able to simply point their finger at school leadership and say “its their fault we’re so busy”!)
The funny things is… you know who isn’t to blame?
If they could, they would hang out, relax, play, be creative, come up with ideas, start their own little projects, socialize and probably do a massive amount of learning!
Some things to ponder:
- Make clearing out your school calendar a regular and rather therapeutic process. If nobody really knows why things are done, chuck ’em. If events don’t go right back to your school’s vision, chuck ’em. If there doesn’t seem to be learning involved, chuck ’em!
- Find ways to break the mould, to seek more time rather than seek more activity. Instead of filling time with things, take things away. Instead of valuing “busyness”, value being purposeful. Instead of trying to do too much and ending up not doing it well, do a few things and do them well. Instead of segmenting your days into little portions, spread things out to create bigger portions. Instead of creating huge, ever-evolving to-do lists with your students, sit back and see what they come up and then decide how and what to teach. Just try, and keep on trying. It is the only way to break these stubborn and damaging moulds and traps we consistently find ourselves in.
- Be kind to yourself. Keep things simple, don’t try and do everything that comes into your head. Empower your students by letting them know anything is possible, but keep your own agenda for teaching short and simple. If there are things you have to do, do them – it is amazing how much time can be wasted sitting around moaning about the things you have to do instead of just doing them!!! If you believe you shouldn’t have to do them, be part of driving for change – suggest alternatives, do the research, stake a case.
So… there you go. Believe me, I am equally prone to all of these things and equally guilty of falling into all the same traps. I am writing this as much for me as for anyone else.
Like many of you, I am an international school teacher. The longest I have lived anywhere in recent times is four years, in Bangkok. When I first got to Thailand I was constantly doing “double-takes” as I exclaimed about the fact that I lived in Thailand. Just the smallest acts, like getting on a motorbike to go and buy limes, were exciting, novel and fascinating. Slowly, however, I stopped doing the double-takes and, by the end of my stay, I was taking things for granted. I am quite ashamed of that, and do wonder if it affected my teaching.
When you live your life in a way that is full of surprises, curiosity and double-takes you are, certainly, a better teacher. By “better” I mean a teacher who instills those very emotions (and more) in their students. It is this kind of teacher that inspires, that motivates and that draws kids in to inquiry. Of course, if this is true, then the opposite must also be true.
Many of us in this nomadic lifestyle are both blessed and cursed as a result. We do have the chance to keep going to new places and re-experiencing the double-takes again. But we also develop a “grass is greener” mentality as we continue our search for the ideal place to live. We may also be more at risk of becoming jaded as our ideal place never comes to fruition. Everyone knows how poorly a jaded person teaches!
Perhaps moving is not the answer. Perhaps we simply need the determination to become and remain a person who is fascinated and surprised by life, curious about why things are the way they are and willing to take a wrong turning just to see what is around the corner. We can live that way without moving anywhere.
Maybe then we can become and continue to be inspired teachers?