As the pandemic has passed through its many phases, different in each country, the common cry has gone up: “What will be the New Normal?”
For some, that stability is still far ahead, but enough time has passed for us to reflect on what we have seen, how we have reacted, what has worked and what hasn’t. What is happening as the new Northern hemisphere school year is well and truly underway in many international schools?
International schools need to meet the expectations of Western parents and faculty at the same time as satisfying local governments and parents, so they always have built-in tensions; this time the divergences may be a matter of life and death.
“The image of the community of an international school has never been so clearly dissociated from the host nation.”
The privileges which often belong to expatriates or to the local elites who seek “international” education are painfully clear in this crisis. While rich nations strive for complete vaccination of the domestic population, and build the same expectation in their expatriate communities, the host nations in which those schools are embedded may be struggling for even initial injections.
The image of the community of an international school has never been so clearly dissociated from the host nation. How is this working out? Can your “community engagement” extend to donating doses of vaccine? How can a school express its commitment to vaccination in a society which doubts its value, or even denies the existence of the disease?
In the classrooms, the needs of social distancing go against many of our dearest principles of schooling. Learning is a social process, and education as we practise it relies upon establishing social relationships between teacher and students. On the domestic scene “working from home” has been a widespread success, but virtual communication is better at the maintenance of working relationships within a team than at initiating them.
“In the classrooms, the needs of social distancing go against many of our dearest principles of schooling.”
How does a brand new employee become one of a team, when induction programmes are impeded and the conversations around the coffee machine are denied? In our schools the pre-term period for new teachers is crucial, but both the timing and the degree of integration of the sessions are problematic.
And all those thoughtful, caring, transition programmes, aiming to bring children into close enough contact to form new friendships – how can we do that? How many schools have an Adventure Weekend close to the start of the year, to establish community spirit and give the new child a sense of belonging, and can it be run while Covid rages outside?
Online learning programmes have a long history, and in the last two years many international school teachers have worked far beyond their normal bounds of duty to become effective distance teachers. But most programmes that were readily available have been developed within a single country and they may not be appropriate for our diverse communities. And how do teachers feel, after labouring in an unfamiliar mode to construct online courses, if these are now to be replaced by yet another compromise between contact and virtual teaching?
“Masks have been adopted widely, but often Westerners have been motivated by self-interest as much as by communal responsibility.”
What have we found ourselves doing for the first time, in our teaching and in our organisation? Have we adopted new practices or been barred from old ones in ways which still make sense when schools normalise? How did it feel? And can we imagine how it felt to our various students?
The same things may feel differently to different people. We do new things because they feel good to us in our local scale of Good; the Sony Walkman was invented in Japan to avoid disturbing the peace of others, but adopted in the West to promote the enjoyment of the wearer.
Similarly, masks have been adopted widely, but often Westerners have been motivated by self-interest as much as by communal responsibility. How about class sizes, and distancing: how have children reacted to these experiences? Smaller working groups have permitted more personal attention, but we may have lost opportunities for collaborative working which we had before.
Research: an opportunity to take stock
Robinson-Neal (2021) suggests that it would pay to study the changed outcomes of schooling in four areas: academic achievement, psychological consequences, teachers’ practice, and pre-existing inequities. The fourth area is a cultural matter; children who are already unable or unwilling to profit from their schooling may have suffered disproportionately.
In international schools this applies to those who have difficulty communicating with teachers, and those who are or who feel apart. Just as language initially separates those with fluent English from those with language needs, so cultural conventions such as the relationship between teacher and student may be assumed by the teacher but still to be learned by some students.
There was never a time when it was more important to appreciate the “foreignness” of a student who has grown up in another educational culture. “International”, the description kindly given by English-speaking schools to those from other countries, does not begin to acknowledge the alienation they often feel from the school’s ways and its norms.
“It’s never been more important to appreciate the ‘foreignness’ of a student who has grown up in another educational culture.”
Digital teaching may in a way have given some relief, however. Where classroom language has been a hurdle for a student to surmount, it has long been useful to offer material in print or online which can be studied at the student’s own pace. Digital communication gives time for comprehension and reflection, and it allows questions to be asked privately where a student would have been ill-equipped or too shy to ask in class.
If this is a glimpse of what technology could offer for future pedagogy, let us look very carefully and see what has worked and what we can build into future practice. It will also reveal vulnerabilities of our teaching and perhaps of the assumptions we make about students’ various abilities to benefit.
So let us, for once, pause in our eagerness to “celebrate” what went right for some, and face up to what may have gone wrong for others. Then we can share good practices, looking beyond the myth of a single “best practice”, and each pick out what suits our students and situation best. I feel sure that IS magazine will welcome our open collegial sharing of what we have learned, successful and unsuccessful.
This article first appear in the latest edition of International School Magazine, out now.