Working in international education can often require some pretty challenging ethical gymnastics. The level of double-think some of us are able to achieve is both impressive and disturbing. We espouse values of inclusion, critical thinking, and international-mindedness while working in countries with oppressive human rights laws, state-mandated fake histories, and ongoing acts of genocide. We preach equity and social justice while teaching the children of the world’s top 0.01 percent in off-shore tax havens and serving the corrupt and criminal elite in nations otherwise rife with poverty and degradation.
“The longer I have spent in international education, the louder my cognitive dissonance has grown.”
I’ve been lucky enough so far in my career to avoid the worst of these. One thing I do feel guilt about, though, is the role I might be playing in helping strip less developed countries of some of their finest assets: their children.
I am an unashamed idealist. I believe that our role as educators is to equip, encourage, and empower individuals and communities to improve themselves. But the longer I have spent in international education, the louder my cognitive dissonance has grown. Are we educating the best and brightest of our adoptive homes so that they might be the agents of change needed to challenge the status quo and bring about a better future for those nations? Or are we simply handing them the tools to get out? Worse still, might we in fact be serving the interests of others to the detriment of those communities in which we serve?
“Are we educating the brightest so they can be agents of change or simply handing them the tools to get out?”
While I wish it were the first, the truth is that it’s clearly a mixture of all three. Thankfully, there are a few small things that others like me can do to avoid perpetuating the imperial and racist notion that “West is best”, and, in developing nations, to avoid actively promoting the socially and economically damaging “brain drain”.
Decolonizing the Curriculum
The choice of curriculum and content is an obvious place to start. By relying on programmes of study lifted verbatim from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia, we continue to send the message that it is the knowledge, skills and mindsets valued in these nations that are worth learning. If we are to be more neutral, we must embrace recent student-led moves to decolonize the curriculum, by actively seeking out every opportunity available to teach the histories, literature and arts of non-western cultures, and by creating those opportunities where none yet exist.
“Ask a dozen teachers what citizenship means, and you’ll get half a dozen different answers.”
There’s also the question of our citizenship syllabus. If we believe that our jobs involve the betterment of communities as well as individuals, then this is key. We must instil in each individual a sense of civic and social responsibility. We might think we already do this, but ask a dozen teachers what citizenship means, and you’ll get half a dozen different answers. If we don’t know what it means, then our students won’t either, and will have no idea what responsibilities they might have as a member of a community, or in which communities those responsibilities might lie. Schools need to define these values very clearly, and then teach them.
While learning in English unarguably opens up global pathways for progression, a school that doesn’t offer classes in the language of the host country makes a very clear statement about its values, and which pathway it believes you should travel down. Some schools go as far as to ban any language being spoken other than English. I’ll concede that there’s an argument for this in class, where English is often the only language spoken and understood by all students. To insist on this outside of class as well, though — even sometimes in boarding — is blatantly disrespectful. Instead, we must learn to appreciate, support, and respect each student’s identity.
“If you only advertise for ‘native’ speakers of English, you are sending a message about your belief in the superiority of a small number of western nations.”
How about teachers? If we only hire teachers from overseas, pay them double what we pay for a local teacher, or recruit locally only for TA and support roles, then we send a very clear message about what we think of our hosts. Continue to advertise exclusively for “native” speakers of English, and we are again sending a message about our belief in the superior nature of a small number of western nations. For the benefit of our students and their communities, we should hire for knowledge, skills, and attitude rather than nationality, seek out and nurture local talent, pay them what they deserve, and send a message that great opportunities exist at home as well as abroad.
Our final service to our graduating students is often to actively send them away. We invite (western) universities to come and peddle their programmes in our school gyms. International schools provide students with access to online platforms that list every single course at every single (western) college. We lead them hand-in-hand through the administrative processes of UCAS and the Common App. Meanwhile, students who show an interest in remaining local are often left to fend for themselves.
“Going overseas shouldn’t be sold by teachers or counsellors as the prize for success in school.”
I’m not naive. I do realise that the higher education a student will get in a more developed nation is almost certainly better than the one they’ll get by staying in their less developed home country. But going overseas isn’t for everyone, and it absolutely shouldn’t be sold by teachers or counsellors as the prize for success in school. Students can have many reasons for wishing to remain at home, and we need to respect this, and make sure their peers respect this. We need to raise the profile of local options, and be seen to treat them with equal consideration.
Finally, if they do express a wish to go overseas, that won’t be the end of their journey, and it shouldn’t be the end of our conversation with them about that journey. Most international schools don’t extend their counsellors’ remits beyond helping students find and get into the right university. I think we should be looking further, and be able to advise on how they can successfully return if and when they want to – world-class knowledge and skills in hand – to be the agents of change that we dreamed they would be and that their local communities often so desperately need.