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.
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?