My first home was a Welsh mining cottage, complete with tin bath, situated about half a mile along the railway line from the local colliery, but my parents quickly moved away to a council estate when my father obtained work in a factory. Both my parents had left school at fourteen, and though they appreciated the importance of education for me, I doubt that our family ambition, at that time, stretched much beyond the local pit or the factory.
But my soul has never left the woods that tumbled down the valley side to that cottage, the home of my grandparents, and where I climbed trees and played endlessly with numerous cousins. It is still a place where the sun never ceases to shine.
I enjoyed school, and a certain talent for rugby propelled me through the years, and provided status enough, although I was an indifferent scholar. I scraped by, eventually entering Cardiff University, where I captained the University Rugby Club, providing me, yet again, with sufficient status to satisfy my undemanding self, and an excuse yet again, to scrape by academically.
Upon graduation I entered that stream of young people travelling east, seeking questions to the answers they already seemed to possess, passing through places that are no longer so easily accessible: Tehran, Quetta, Peshawar, and the Swat Valley. In the dusty poste restante in Delhi I discovered that my father had survived a serious heart attack. It was beyond time for me to go home.
Adrift, I drifted into teaching. With nowhere to go, and nothing to do, I sought refuge in my former university – by luck, someone, somewhere, decided not to take up the offer of a place on a postgraduate teaching programme only days before it was due to start. I will, of course, ever be grateful to this nameless person. My first teaching position, just over forty years ago, was in a Nepalese boys’ boarding school just outside Kathmandu, where I held the somewhat alarming position of a ‘Category 4 Expert’ as a part of a British Overseas Aid programme.
Since then I have worked in the Canary Islands, Egypt, Chile, Lesotho, Japan, the UK and Thailand. The last twenty six years as the Head of four different schools: Machabeng High School, Lesotho; Yokohama International School, Japan, United World College of the Atlantic, Wales and the British International School Phuket.
It has been the most privileged of lives, with only one short break from teaching. I made one tour in Asia as a representative for a commercial directory, but quickly scuttled back to the refuge of education after selling advertising space to people who would not benefit from, and could not really afford, the dubious exposure.
I had not the stomach for false promises. To this day I hate outrageous claims or unsubstantiated hype, but regrettably this has become a major part of the burgeoning international education industry with ‘marketing’ taking up far too much time of school management. Essentially, schools are supposed to do two things: the first is to prepare students to contribute to society, and to do so in such a way to make a person feel both valued and valuable; the second is to get students over the hurdles that society, rightly or wrongly, lays across the path to trip up or, if I am more politically correct, to help differentiate.
“Motivation, for both student and teacher, requires emotional engagement, which is why learning, at its very core, is an emotional rather than an intellectual activity.”
Unfortunately, if schools continue to over concentrate on this latter task – usually manifested as examination success – we will have failed our young people. The one size fits all mind set of current educational policy planners can be a nightmare for teachers. Because children are messy – no class is ever intellectually synchronised, or in perfect harmony – rather, they are a bit like their parents: tired, sad, elated, angry, withdrawn, happy and bouncing off the walls, and a million other things, but never quite the same from day to day.
Passing examinations do not make human beings ‘fit for purpose’; that messy task requires far more than getting someone through exams and into university – after all, most of modern history’s worst human beings have managed to do exactly that, and life has a nasty habit of continuing long after we are told to stop writing and put our pens down.
As a school leader, I firmly believe that examination success is a consequence of a good education, not the purpose. There are a lot of confused parents hoping that someone will anchor their children to a life of value, and give them the emotional skills to survive everything that the modern world throws at them. This is why it is imperative that our best and most creative talents are attracted to the teaching profession and that they are given the freedom to connect and nurture, rather than be driven to distraction – if not out of the profession altogether – by data collection and blinkered target setting based upon unrelenting assessments.
Motivation, for both student and teacher, requires emotional engagement, which is why learning, at its very core, is an emotional rather than an intellectual activity. We, all of us, feel before we think – it is an evolutionary survival mechanism, and it pervades all that we do. Boredom or disinterest, concentration and excitement are nothing but behaviours that arise from an emotional response. The Thai word ‘to understand’ is a composite word meaning ‘into the heart’ – parents and educators forget this at their peril. So what does such a philosophy – if this is not too grand a word – look like in reality?
Can I, as an educational leader, claim that I put my own philosophy into practice? I would be the first to admit that it is becoming more difficult, in part because teachers entering the profession seem to be much more comfortable with corporate jargon and the target setting mentality of the business world; more at home with quantitative rather than qualitative assessment. Perhaps more alarmingly, a lack of trust in the professionalism of teachers seems increasingly to be the default position of educational managers.
(This is probably a mite unfair of me, but with age comes grumpiness, or so I am reliably informed by my own four children, all of whom are currently international school teachers.) At the British International School Phuket we have created a model of education to concentrate our minds on the underlying and shared values of the school. The model is called the Triple Helix, where each of the three strands of ‘Academics’, ‘Wellbeing’ and ‘Passion’ are considered equally important for the education of every student and underpin the school’s ethos.
School development has focused upon an education that is aspirational, with an academy structure (academic, sporting and artistic) that breaks through the glass ceiling of examinations. It must be a place where young people can select experiences from a wide range of opportunities, where they can discover talents, and pursue passions to the highest possible levels. There is a strong focus on providing aesthetic experiences and opportunities as well as upon sports and physical activity.
Most critically, however, in any school that believes that positive relationships are the very essence of
good learning, the question of teacher retention becomes highly significant.
A constantly changing teaching staff may not necessarily upset examination results (if this is what motivates both the school and its community), but the opportunities for developing long-term mentoring relationships, and grounding students emotionally are surely compromised by constant turnover. An important goal at BISP, therefore, has been to create and nurture the conditions for a stable and long serving teaching staff. The average teacher turnover for the last two years has been ten percent, and the average length of stay is currently just under seven years, both statistics would now be considered relatively rare in the world of international education.
Such stability creates an almost family-like atmosphere, which in turn promotes trust and wellbeing for students and teachers alike. Teacher turnover is, I believe, a good indicator of the general health of a school. Wisdom is a word that has quietly dropped out of fashion. We do not often refer to people as being wise, not in the modern world at least knowledgeable, perhaps; clever, perhaps; talented, perhaps, even expert, but rarely wise.
“‘Academics’, ‘Wellbeing’ and ‘Passion’ are considered equally important for the
education of every student…”
Wisdom is too intangible for us. It is an uncomfortable concept, and, after all, doesn’t it only come from experience?And isn’t it only of use when things get messy, really messy? In the world of education there are now inspections, and evaluations and assessments and accreditations and performance management and workshops and conferences and consultancies and corporate templates. We just don’t have time to get messy anymore. But I somehow doubt that we are any the wiser.