One of the many joys of working in an international school is the opportunity to meet and work with people from different cultural backgrounds.
It may be the staff, the students, the parents or the people we meet when socialising. At a time when much of the world feels polarised, international schools allow us to be diverse and inclusive with those we meet and work with on a daily basis.
For a school leader, the challenge is to create and maintain a unified school culture that encompasses all those within it. Typically, the school culture is identifiable and felt throughout the school, through the community. However, when a school experiences a localised crisis within its community, individuals tend to revert to home culture experience, and different expectations and demands may be made upon the school.
“When emotions run high, people tend to fall back on their native cultural norms and values.”
Critical incidents may be defined as unexpected or unforeseen situations. They may involve or lead to emotional trauma, severe injury, or the death of a student or staff member. Incidents may cause institutional embarrassment or reputational harm, leading to a decline in student numbers or temporary school closure.
As the number of international schools continues to rise, it is not a matter of if an incident will occur, but when. Incidents themselves may not constitute a crisis but the manner in which they are dealt with, and communicated, may lead to a crisis within the school community.
During the Covid pandemic I conducted extensive research throughout the wider ASEAN region. Specifically, I surveyed more than 120 leaders from international schools and carried out individual interviews with nearly 20 leaders from 13 different countries.
Through this research, I gained insight into how these leaders dealt with a total of 250 diverse critical incidents, and how these incidents affected both themselves and their school communities. While the nature of critical incidents cannot be predicted or prevented by knowing their specifics, the way they are responded to is crucial. The incidents themselves are therefore less important than the response they receive.
“International school leaders need to remain attentive to the cultural expectations of others.”
International schools often promote and aspire to attributes such as multicultural awareness, global citizenship and international mindedness. However, when a critical incident occurs and emotions run high, people tend to fall back on their native cultural norms and values, potentially losing their multicultural awareness and mindedness.
International school leaders therefore need to be aware of this tendency (even for themselves) and remain attentive to the cultural expectations of others during such incidents. Culture may be a significant factor in determining the effectiveness of the response to critical incidents, and the ability of the community to overcome the incident.
Cultural dexterity – also referred to as cultural agility or as having cultural intelligence – may be crucial, referring as it does to the ability to effectively t navigate and adapt to multiple cultural contexts, arising from a deep understanding and appreciation of the cultural norms, values, beliefs and behaviours of others.
Following a critical incident, it is common for individuals and groups within a school community to display different levels of cultural understanding. Parents, students, staff and even school owners will have varying degrees of exposure to different cultures and will often rely on their own cultural background to navigate a perceived crisis.
“Language is a crucial aspect of culture and plays a vital role in the school’s communications.”
As a result, some may exhibit a sense of cultural arrogance with respect to their own beliefs, and justifications for them, potentially ignoring or undervaluing the beliefs of others. Cultural ignorance may well be present among members of the community, and to varying degrees.
Such lack of cultural awareness may lead to misunderstandings, conflicts and, more often in an international context, a barrier to effective communication. Some members of the community will show cultural empathy, and a desire to understand others’ perspectives.
In most cases cultural empathy is supportive, but it can lead to some individuals championing the cause for others, leading to unrealistic expectations of the international school. Some members of the community may simply show cultural tolerance and not question decisions and outcomes.
It is essential for international school leaders to recognise these differences and endeavour to communicate clearly a sense of the school’s own cultural awareness and sensitivity within all members of the community.
Language is a crucial aspect of culture and plays a vital role in the school’s communications. In a multilingual setting, language management is necessary to change the cultural arrogance of a situation to one of cultural empathy. International school leaders must consider their choice of language, whether it is a single language (typically English), or the use of multiple languages to match those of their community. Each choice has its own pros and cons.
“International school leaders must be aware of the cultural expectations of all members of their community.”
Using a single language can provide consistency and facilitate faster communication between different members of the community. However, it may also create a cultural bias towards those who are proficient in that language, leading to feelings of exclusion and confusion among those who are not.
Using multiple languages can promote inclusivity and create a more diverse and vibrant community. Multi-language communication also has its challenges in terms of logistics, accuracy and intended meaning for all members of the community.
Ultimately, international school leaders must be aware of the cultural expectations of all members of their community and manage language effectively in order to promote cultural inclusivity. Following an incident they must be able to provide direction that benefits everyone, regardless of their cultural background or language proficiency, if they are to build a school community that is understanding and supportive of the school’s actions.
As an international school leader, developing cultural dexterity is crucial in today’s interconnected and diverse world. It helps leaders to navigate the complex cultural landscapes of their schools and to manage cultural conflicts more effectively.
It can also enable clearer communication and help leaders build trust and rapport with members of their community – and, therefore, help to prevent an incident from becoming a crisis.
This article first appear in the latest summer digital edition of International School magazine, out now.