Feeling the heat of international headship
Taking on a school abroad will take you out of your comfort zone, but it's a journey worth making, says Chris Seal
“Why would you do that?” was a question I heard directly and through inference a fair bit through the 2016/17 academic year. Although at times I resented the premise of the question, I also sometimes found it hard to come up with a satisfactory or coherent response.
I’d decided around 2015/16 that I wanted to move from being a deputy head to headship. I’d not thought about roles overseas, in fact I had not really thought about what was involved very much at all, an issue painfully exposed in the first two interviews I attended. The constantly smiling agent from the head hunters continued to ask me questions I had not considered, as I mumbled something about my wife doing the flowers in chapel, and pointing to the fact that I’d seen the school’s accounts on the charity commission website.
Those months of dismal failure were critical to where I am now. That time gave me the opportunity to develop my vision of what leading a school was about and why I wanted to do it. Now it seems simple: I just want to offer a community the opportunity to succeed in finding and fulfilling their potential on an individual and collective scale. These are not new words, and they are a central part of the education of many independent schools, but in the maelstrom of being a deputy in a large boarding school they are not always easy to locate, let alone fulfil.
Once located, they became my authentic reason for headship - anywhere. That point is also important. As a family we’ve been geographically flexible, and taken opportunities when they came. So, when Thailand loomed into view as the location of the next role on offer, my response was “Why not?”
"The governors and school appointed me because I had the experience to make sense of a large school"
So what is it like? Challenging is the answer, but it would be the same answer in Taunton, Twickenham or Tyneside. Headship is not easy. Over the past three years I would summarise the challenges under three categories: imagined challenges, real challenges and disruptive challenges.
The imagined challenges are inevitable. How will I fit in and what do I not know? The first of these was the one that brought the sweaty palms and butterflies into play as each first interaction was reflected upon and often “graded”. The latter issue was completely self-imposed.
I went to Shrewsbury, Bangkok in August 2017 as principal, a highly selective and successful school in the centre of the heaving, intense and vibrant capital of Thailand. Before this, I was the “pastoral deputy”, with a good line in sarcasm and able to smell a lie and/or cannabis from 100 paces. Over the year before I actually arrived, I convinced myself I’d have to know more about teaching and learning, and especially the buzzwords associated with all that. I read furiously about assessment for learning and evidence-based practice. I’m glad I did, but I also know now that, to a certain extent, this was folly. The governors and school appointed me because I had the experience to make sense of a large school and had had to develop enough people skills to make change work. They did not appoint me to deliver eduspeak.
"Adversity is as real as sunstroke and snakes, but can be the very foundation on which to build your confidence"
Within days of arriving in Bangkok, the real challenges began. It’s hot, sunstroke is a real thing, and it's not nice. Nor are snakes, and they come into school, and don’t register with form tutors like our wonderfully behaved students. The Thai language is fiendishly difficult to learn; we have over 1700 students on nine acres; and the competition in the city is growing more intense. There is also a deep and ingrained ignorance of the sector in the UK. I was part of this pre-2016, and although it makes no operational difference to the school at all, it is desperately annoying as heads of schools with 4 per cent A* at A-Level lecture me on what good schools are. Add a nought on the end of that figure to get the percentage at Shrewsbury Bangkok - plus 275 activities, great sport, awesome music and stunning drama. Great schools are great schools.
The final category is one at which all heads will smile wryly, I suspect. Disruptive challenges come from nowhere and can make a mess of you. In December 2017 I had: spinal fusion, bringing to an end six months of agony; complex pregnancies among staff; bereavements back in the UK; losing my guide and mentor to his own retirement; and the sinking of the school boat. Some particularly tricky disciplinary and safeguarding issues have made my three years in post interesting, to say the least. Adversity is as real as sunstroke and snakes, and equally unpleasant. However, if you make it through, it can be the very foundation on which to build your confidence and sustain your renewed sense of purpose and mission.
So what have I learned? Well, the usual stuff. Trying to be something you are not is folly. Have faith in your background and what you have already learned, in this I had been incredibly lucky, I realise in hindsight. In addition, when times are tough you really do get a sense of the strength of your community, and in my personal struggles I have found support from the most unexpected sources. Finally, you can read articles like this one and gain a theoretical understanding of what you might learn, but until you actually experience something it isn’t the same. As I hope you have gathered, I thoroughly recommend headship, here or anywhere.
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