“My mother to this day says: ‘Where do you want to go next, Mark?’” says Mark Exton, high school principal of Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana.
As a truly international head who has taught in and led schools in eight different countries over a 33-year career, it is hard to convince his mum that he is not on some kind of perpetual gap year.
“I say: ‘Mother, it’s about the job’,” says Exton, whose CV brims with exotic place names, including leadership positions in Sudan, Peru, Japan and Morocco.
It would be a dream resume for many international teachers, a nightmare for others who do not necessarily enjoy the pain of transitioning between different countries.
“Transitions are always difficult, you don’t get used to them,” says Exton, who has two daughters now at university.
“The adrenaline when you go out there is just pumping. It’s so exciting to be in a new country and it carries you through the first two or three weeks.
“Then you get into the normal routines of daily life but you don’t yet know how the school works…you actually get a bit lost in that…it gets hard…you go down into a bit of a hole until you find your equilibrium and you work out how it works.
“It’s so exciting to be in a new country, and adrenaline carries you through the first two or three weeks.”
“You also start to find your bearings in the local community, you sort of climb back out and you’re on an even keel.”
Exton and his wife Jane clearly enjoy this rollercoaster because Exton says that after their four years in Ghana he will have “one more adventure” leading another international school before retirement to the UK.
He is a specialist in IB schools and —perhaps unsurprisingly for someone with a UK degree in geography and American studies — has found himself leading American international schools. Lincoln Community School is an IB school with 635 children from pre-K to K-12 and numbers are back up to pre-pandemic levels. It enjoys a high level of prestige among locals. Around a quarter are American students, linked to the US embassy, up to 20 per cent are Ghanaian. In total, there are 50 nationalities represented.
“It’s probably the most international mix of any school I’ve been in,” says Exton.
But what are the challenges of working in an international school in Ghana?
“One of the problems of being an international educator is that you can be in something of a bubble,” says Exton. Accommodation can be expensive and somewhat basic in Ghana, he says, so it is harder to take pupils out on a “week without walls” excursion to explore the country.
When he led a school in Rabat, Morocco, the school took students out for four nights in the Atlas mountains in Grade 6.
“It was a fabulous experience where we valued being in Morocco so explicitly,” says Exton. He says there is now “the will” to start looking at these kind of opportunities more closely in Ghana, so students can see more of the country and culture.
“There’s no reason why a student from a US Embassy family wouldn’t gain a huge amount from the study of local literature.”
More generally, Exton is frustrated by the low level of exposure many international school students have to local culture such as literature in school. At IB Diploma level, the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe “represents the whole of a continent” he says, alongside the teaching of the Western canon.
“There’s a lot of Ghanaian literature written in English, it’s the universal language of the country, and we don’t teach any of it,” says Exton.
He adds: “The bubble is nice, but sometimes it can feel like the Truman Show.
“So for me as a parent, when I’ve been in Japan I wanted my children to read Japanese literature in translation. What is the value of living and going to school in Japan, Morocco or Ghana if local kids don’t understand their own culture and if the children of guests in the country don’t get a window into it as well?
“It’s such a missed opportunity. There’s no reason why a young person from a US Embassy family, for example, wouldn’t gain a huge amount from the study of local literature wherever we are.
“Just doing what we could be doing anywhere is a massively wasted opportunity, criminal almost.”
Whilst working in Hiroshima, his school created an interdisciplinary unit looking at manga, with students looking at Japanese creative arts and storytelling, based around Barefoot Gen, a series of manga novels about the atomic bomb falling on the city. As part of the project, students created comics telling the story of a social issue they were concerned about.
“As a school you have to do the work, there isn’t a text book that covers it.”
“It’s about taking local things and using them across the curriculum in a variety of ways – not as an add-on,” says Exton.
But Covid and staff movement have made it difficult for schools to shake up their curricula to include a focus on local culture.
Exton’s own teacher at Lincoln who would have taught Ghanaian literature has taken up a teaching post in Osaka, for example. “I’ve lost the person who was going to be my go-to earlier adopter and seeder and so I don’t know where this will go, but it’s certainly something I feel passionate about,” he says.
“There are possibilities everywhere, but the problem is, as a school you have to do the work, there isn’t a text book that covers it. It’s very much school-developed resources, it involves a bit more work but it’s very powerful learning. We should be looking for those possibilities in every location.”
“We have to acknowledge that it isn’t always a feel good thing.”
In a similar vein, Exton has spent a lot of time considering the hiring policies of international schools and the problem of a lack of diversity in recruitment. The demand for “native speakers” of English in recruitment can be used to deliberately recruit only white people he says.
Schools need to take more overtly anti-racist action, he says.
“Part of the problem in schools is we’ve held onto multi-culturalism and in international schools international mindedness and made ourselves feel good. But anti-racism is another part of what goes along with that, we have to acknowledge that it isn’t always a kind of feel good thing.”