Risks and Challenges for International Educators

Flags

Being an international educator brings some wonderful opportunities to travel, to live for extended time in some amazing and fascinating parts of the world, to earn good salaries  and to engage with other cultures. Also, generally, a lot of international educators believe that they get more freedom professionally within their schools and more opportunity to use their voice to shape educational approaches.

However, it’s not always a soft ride and people need to be aware of. the issues – it’s not a decision to go in to with rose tinted glasses. Some of the issues are really quite serious.

In some recent blog posts I’ve touched on a couple of important issues. Teachers have found themselves in very troubling situations when confronted with cultural differences – for example, coming to know about child abuse, but not having access to the support services and facilities to protect the child (or where family and local perceptions will be that this is a matter of family private choice and that the educator needs to stay out of it). i shared the evidence of even online teachers from the US experiencing trauma after witnessing child brutality at a distance, but having limited ability to do anything about it. It’s even more challenging when you can see the results of abuse almost daily, but have few direct tools with which to confront it.

Some teachers choose to take up roles in countries that subsequently become volatile and sensitive politically.  I had some of my own experiences with this. When I first went to Bangladesh in 2005 things were relatively calm. However, within months the tension levels ratcheted up significantly. What made it worse was that both geographically and for reasons related to the owner’s political affiliations, the school (and my apartment across the road) were right on the front line of the battle for power that was unfolding in the country. Some evenings while working late in my office I was aware of the inherent risks caused by meetings taking place in the room next to my office attempting to create a third political front to challenge the existing two party system. Thankfully they were never caught in action!

In many weeks i was only able to open the school for three days. Each evening I would spend hours on text and phone with a parent who was news editor for a local TV station. He was my eyes and ears to understand the issues, the risks and on which days i could offer an education for children and on which days the risks were too great. The daily stress was there very evident in the parents, pupils and teachers. We even had to deal with the ‘disappearance’ for some days of a teacher who was known to be politically quite active. When rioting broke out, chanting protesters armed with knives, machetes etc would pass the school front door, even as mothers clutching their children’s hands weaved through them. Then would come the tear gas as the protesters were dispersed.

Over the last 10-12 years one of the most rapidly growing communities of expat educators is in China. However, there’s evidence of a political/ cultural shift there which is now bringing their job security in to question. Whether it’s linked to the trade war with America or not would be near impossible to deduce. Around a year ago the Chinese government announced that they expected to enforce rigidly a law that previously had existed, but had been ignored by all parties. Put in simple terms it said that the private schools in the country were not meant to make a profit (similar to laws in India). However, some of the school groups expanding rapidly in China were quoted on US stock markets – where they openly and transparently reported their profits regularly, in accordance with the law there.

Then there are headlines and stories like the following:

Next Shark Article – China is Arresting, Deporting More Foreign Teachers Than Ever Before
(Click on the link above to read the article in a separate tab or window)

For any expatriate teacher working in China this would certainly be alarming. Likewise for those large numbers working in Hong Kong. The article appears to indicate that there is a specific objective which is about increasing ‘patriotism’ in schools. In other words, ideologically manipulative authorities would be uncomfortable with foreign teachers who encourage and incite ‘free thinking’, global perspectives and student voice.

The truth is that by no means are all international educators saints. Too many schools have rules that are way too lax when it comes to verification and security checks. Sadly, the profession has, at times, attracted some bad elements. Also, it could be said that some teachers who choose to go international really don’t think through the risks that they might be taking if they are going to engage in actions or choices that are out of alignment with local laws, traditions or expectations. Those of us in the field have also heard stories of teachers in the gulf countries, particularly UAE who have inadvertently stumbled in to legal quagmires through careless, indiscreet or other actions that are frowned upon locally.

Teachers have also found themselves getting in to difficult situations with parents and local communities over their teaching where it clashes with local customs or practices.  Issues can arise around gender issues, sex education, issues where the teaching of certain science comes in conflict with religious dogma etc. As the world suffers collective forgetfulness of history, permitting politicians to take actions that separate and divide people, the risks in these areas may well increase. Actions by one country can spark counter actions and international teachers can find themselves caught in the crossfire (hopefully only metaphorically).

I believe being an international educator is still a wonderful career. As a new academic year is getting under way there are experienced and fresh teachers are starting out with new classes, new colleagues and opportunities. Schools and their management can do more to open teacher eyes to the issues before they take up roles. But, ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the teachers to make themselves informed and to be sure that they’re comfortable with the things they will need to contend with. There’s no point believing that you’re going to go to someone else’s country and simply demand your right to openly act or speak in the way you choose, if you know it goes against the local values and beliefs.

We don’t always get to tell the rest of the world that we’re right and they’re wrong, or that our way is the best.

 

The Spread of International Education

international schools

There are now over 5.4 million children attending English medium international schools worldwide, revealing just how rapid has been the expansion worldwide.

The following report carries some of the top line data and information that shows the full extent of this growth:

Times Educational Supplement – Report – Phenomenal Growth of International Schools
(Click on the link above to open the link in a new tab or browser page)

There are a whole variety of implications that flow out of such rapid growth. There is no question that over the last 10 years it’s provided a big opportunity to UK educators who were ready to travel, especially those who were becoming frustrated with issues in the UK schools system.  There’s also no question that such rapid growth has thrown up some issues of ‘indigestion’. Schools find it harder and harder to find talent, especially for leadership roles and this has resulted in considerable inflation in the salaries paid to expat educators. Until now, those increased costs have been passed on to parents willing to pay to satisfy their high aspirations for their children and willing and able to pay.

Within many geographies there is a sense now that the ‘low hanging fruit’ has been gathered and that future growth will be more challenging. Also, for a market of over 10,000 schools with over 5 million pupils it is still incredibly fragmented, with little consolidation of market power and ownership. Some geographical variations are quite stark as school models have been tweaked and adjusted to meet local expectations and demands. There are now many markets where the growth potential is still there, but the methods to tap in to it will need to change. Also, the ‘high end’ has been mostly filled by schools linked or associated with prestigious British Independent Schools.

I believe that in many such markets there are still plenty of potential children whose parents can afford an international education, but they have not been satisfactorily convinced of the merits over alternatives – especially when the price differences can be very significant.  Some of the response to this will be about improved creation of awareness and information about what international education is and its benefits in a globalised, rapidly changing world. Some will also be about raising standards and consistency to ensure that parents perceive quality.

It’s also very important to increase the emphasis on ‘leaving a legacy – international educators not satisfying their own ends by making their schools dependent on their presence, but ensuring adequate effort is given to the training, coaching and mentoring of local talent. This should not only be for teachers, but to see locals holding roles in leadership – not as token representatives, but with the full range of knowledge and experience of global mindedness and depth of awareness of the aims and objectives of international education.

Provision of high quality international education is about so much more than swanky premises, white-skinned teachers, good exam results and admissions in prestigious named international universities – or it should be. There’s still much work to be done.

From Flat, to Fast, to Deep

Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman wrote “The World is Flat”, a book that had a massive impact when it came to people’s understanding of the world, economics, globalisation and the forces that were shaping the world and how that shaping was likely to emerge in the future. He also went on to write other books, such as “Hot, Flat and Crowded” looking at the environment, impact of population growth and global warming. These days he writes for the New York Times, especially on foreign affairs and issues of globalisation.

Recently, he sat down for a very interesting interview discussion with James Manyika, Chairman of the McKinsey Global Institute. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to embed the interview video here, but the link here will take you directly to it.

//players.brightcove.net/1971571337001/HkOJqCPWdb_default/index.html?videoId=6009094435001

The work that Friedman does entails gazing in to the future and trying to predict where we’re headed. it’s far from an exact science, so inevitably he’s been, at times, subject to a fair share of criticism. Nevertheless, he’s also been very good at predicting certain trends.

As educators, our task principally is to prepare young people for the future. Also, there are many questions that students have about what’s currently happening in the world and it’s important that teachers are equipped to respond intelligently and in an informed manner.

If we look at the views of commentators like Stephen Pinker there’s never been a better time to be alive. The world is becoming a better and better place to live. Admittedly, he can point to enormous strides in recent years in the reduction of absolute poverty in the world, improvements in numbers and proportion of children getting education, reductions in child mortality, reduced levels of deaths through war and conflict.

However, especially for those living in the West it’s hard to believe in this positive message. There’s growing anger and disaffection, especially among the middle classes. For the first time in a long time, we see life expectancy creeping down in countries like the US, we see a young generation who almost certainly will not achieve the wealth levels of their parents and middle classes whose real wealth levels are in decline as wages stagnate and real costs of living rise (all exacerbated by beliefs about what represents minimal living standards).

This anguish is manifested through more extreme polarisation of political attitudes, rise of extremists and demands to roll back globalisation in favour of protectionism. Instead of embracing the benefits of open trade, the inclinations are now towards erecting real and virtual barriers, walls and restrictions.

In the interview Friedman talks of the anguish of people acting out their humiliation and questing for dignity. For a blue collar middle class worker in Britain or USA the fact that children aren’t dying as often in Africa, or the resurgence of Asian economies don’t matter a jot when they feel they’re robbed of the promised riches of ‘the American dream’ that they believe was theirs by birthright. Ironically, I suspect that economic progress in Asia, the Middle East and Africa is the very best possibility for those people in the longer term as it will slow down the natural flows of those who feel the need to migrate. Finding more than adequate opportunities at home, they’ll feel less need to head west.

Rightly, Friedman highlights the significance and need for leadership in these times.

Worth a watch.

Dinosaurs in the Classroom

This isn’t the article i intended to write on the blog. That’s still half written, so i’ll save it for another day. Instead, I saw something that got me so hot under the collar that i felt the need to get some stuff off my chest.

First, a bit of background about what’s made me mad.

Over 30 years ago, I was a young man fresh out of college and early in my first career as a private banker. I was excited and thrilled to be out in the professional world at last, ready to build my career. However, I had already had a few months to realise that all was not necessarily well in the world of work and that there were many sharp rocks in the water that could harm a career or harm the idea that all the people working in an organisation are strongest when they all align and pool their best efforts in a common direction. A couple of short stories will illustrate.

Initially, I had to rotate through all the departments of our bank – to understand the work done by each department and begin to build my technical knowledge. I started in the wills, trusts and estates department, full of dusty ledgers and ruled by arcane sets of rules on double entry bookkeeping. Maybe work that entails whole days rifling through the personal possessions of people who’ve just died does something to the inhabitants after a while. After a few weeks I was given a task to collate the records of a large collection of share certificates. Some were for defunct and bankrupt companies, some had been taken over, in some cases the shares had been split many times. It was technical and time consuming work that required great accuracy. I was new, i wanted to learn and i threw myself in to it heart and soul. Extra hours, skipped lunch breaks – I was in the zone. When I’d finished I checked and double checked my work before taking it to the desk of the supervisor.

He opened up the ledger, looked it over for a while and then told me he’d get back to me. Three days later he called me to his desk. He didn’t invite me to sit, pushed his glasses down his nose and peered over the top at me. “Hmm. Interesting.”
My heart lurched. I’d been so careful in the work, had taken such care. Had I made a mistake?
“Wellllll, it’s all correct, as far as it goes ……………. but this isn’t the way we do it here.”
“But is the information accurate, correct and understandable?”
“Yes, Mark. But, you need to understand, this isn’t the way we do it around here.”

All my pride in that piece of work just washed away like someone had pulled out a big plug. I struggled to understand how a piece of work could be right, accurate, clear and yet ……… all wrong because it wasn’t laid out according to some hidden, secret, set of protocols. needless to say, I was made to lay the information out in exactly the way required. my enthusiasm and sense of ownership had gone and somewhere I was cautioned to limit my inclination to use initiative and innovate.

man-holding-his-head-with-hands_1154-47

In the following weeks I picked myself up, renewed my energy and decided to be positive and optimistic, putting this experience down more to the individual I was reporting to than the system as a whole. I threw myself back in to my work with new energy.

A few weeks went by. I will never forget a particular Friday when i took some time out to go to lunch with a couple of my colleagues. As i was coming back in to the building I suddenly felt a tug on my elbow. A much older colleague with whom I’d had little dealings asked/ told me to step in to a meeting room. As I entered, I recalled that someone had pointed him out to me as ‘the union rep.

“Mark, I needed to talk to you on a very important matter.” He looked stern. “It’s come to our attention that you’ve been working late, taking work home and doing extra projects for the management. It must stop immediately. You’re setting a bad example, management will start expecting it of everyone and we can’t have that.”

After I picked my jaw up off the floor I figured out how I wanted to respond. I won’t write exactly what i said here, but the gist was that I told him to mind his own business and that I would thank him not to infringe on my rights to choose how i approached my career.

There is a little side note to that story. About 5 years later I bumped into said Union Man at a company event. By that time I’d undergone a few promotions, moved jobs and offices, done a secondment in the Channel Islands and was generally moving forward in my career pretty rapidly. He, on the other hand, still sat in the same office, doing the same job at the same grade and was known to be full of bitterness towards the company that he considered had failed to recognise his talents! My only hope at the time was that he wasn’t getting to pour his poison in the ears of any other young, keen and ambitious employees.

I’ve always chosen to live (and work) according to the spirit of the famous poem ‘Invictus’, by William Ernest Henley;

“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

We are none of us helpless and we hold our fate in our hands. I also find common cause with writers like Cal Newport, Seth Godin, Simon Sinek and Adam Grant;

Cal Newport – So Good They Can’t Ignore You

“Stop worrying about what you feel like doing (and what the world owes you) and instead, start creating something meaningful and then give it to the world. Cal really delivers with this one.”
–Seth Godin, author, Linchpin

Adam Grant – Give and Take 

Simon Sinek – Leaders Eat Last

These writers all have in common that they are considered to be Twenty First Century thinkers and writers, espousing the right ideas for those who want to succeed in a rapidly changing and demanding environment.

I well remember after i left banking in the late 1990s that as I worked to change my career I started to evaluate where I wanted to work. Without ties, the world was open to me. In some ways, the decision was made for me when people started talking genuinely and seriously about legislation that would, by law, limit the working week. As though, somehow, in some sort of socialist Lala Land it was going to be mandated that nobody must have ambition, nobody must make effort to rise above anyone else, nobody should gain or benefit from the fruit of their own labour. This was all the motivation I needed to set out on an international venture that has now stretched for close to 19 years.

Young people today are growing up in a very different world to the one that I grew up in. It’s way more global, more connected, faster paced and requires a greater level of continuous learning (and unlearning) . This is exactly the kind of world that Newport, Godin, Sinek and Grant are pointing towards. This makes two things very clear to me;

a) When adults say of lifelong learning things like, “I make a particular point of learning from everyone around me,” you’re listening to someone who’s fudging it. Lifelong learning means real learning, not just the lazy practice of kidding yourself that because you spend time around others you’re absorbing their knowledge and wisdom by osmosis. If that was true, we should give every kid in school and A grade when they pass out – just because they showed up and spent time around others.

It also, though, doesn’t necessarily mean the frenzied pursuit of more and more bits of paper. Certificates that say you attended some programme of learning don’t necessarily represent a good fit with the knowledge you need at the time. The best learning to meet the needs of an ever evolving life is the learning that can be gathered through a self-generated and evolving curriculum based upon personal interest, opportunities and circumstances.

b) And this one is the real bee that got under my bonnet and inspired me to park the other article i was writing – people like Union Man shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near Twenty First Century children or their teachers. Their toxic line in mediocrity is so unhealthy that it has no place.

What do i mean – here’s an article published in TES that had me almost frothing at the mouth;

TES – Teachers Shouldn’t be Expected to Work For Free

This article seems to start off on the subject of school/ education funding. However, suddenly it veers off in to a rabid attack on school leaders in a style that would have been worthy of a protege of my Union Man from 30 years ago.

According to the writer, every time a teacher is offered an opportunity to learn, to grow, to expand their skills in to new areas their first response should be, “Not until you tell me what’s in it for me.”

This is how we prepare and motivate teachers to lead a new generation towards fulfilling their potential, grabbing opportunities in the global economy. Do the world’s great creators, artists, designers, idea generators ask, “Can I get away without doing this extra half an hour of effort?” or “Tell me what I’m getting paid before I put in this effort.”

This is the way educators in Britain will condemn another generation of young people to live stunted and denuded lives, wondering why they’re not better off than their parents’ generation, wondering why all the money and jobs seem to be flowing elsewhere, why Asian economies are so buoyant while theirs remains so anemic.

If the writer needs extra time to watch Great British Bake Off, rather than supporting a generation of children to get the best possible education that is his prerogative. But I wish he’d keep it to himself

 

The New Normal

The world has changed and it’s never going back to how it used to be again. This is for real and for ever. The evidence is abundant and unavoidable:

The Guardian – Up To 70% Of people In Developed Countries Have Seen Income Stagnate
(Click on the link above to read the irrefutable evidence from the Western developed countries about the ‘common man’s’ income.

It’s time for a real honesty in the world, especially in politics. What people took to be ‘normal’ in the 1950’s to 90’s was really an aberration – a temporary golden pond. I’m reminded of the saying – “A rising tide lifts all vessels.”

So much of Western prosperity at all levels of the society was propelled by disproportionate progress of countries and regions, coupled with the tail end of the industrial age that still valued the inputs of those who physically made things. With globalisation and the onset of the knowledge age, those people have been left with little of value to offer to the world and a weak position to compete with those who will do all they do and more at lower costs elsewhere.

A new Prime Minister in the UK promising to ‘look after the poor’ as she takes office does the community a massive disservice. Nobody can really be looked after or protected from their own self-imposed obsolescence. What’s needed is the kind of honesty that would get the message across. What’s gone is gone. Move on and either choose to be valuable in the new age, or accept that life will never be the same again.

It’s tough love, baby.

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