What constitutes an international school and how did they come into existence? Apparently, the concept of an international school is nothing new. In 1855 the Exposition Universelle in Paris took place. Many ideas were discussed including “the advantages of educating together children of different nationalities”. If we look back even further it was speculated that Prince Henry, the Portuguese explorer, set up a cartographer school featuring students from around the world. It has been debated that the “first” schools with a hint of internationalism were found in either London, with the help of the author, Charles Dickens and another school in Lesotho, founded by British missionaries. Yet, the school that seems to have the best claim to be the first, modern version of an international school is The International School of Geneva. It was founded in 1924 as a multilingual institute for diplomats and other fellow expatriates, post-World War I. Nevertheless, even their claim as being the “first” is contested by a school in Yokohama.
An increase in diplomatic relations, multi-national corporations, military movements and globalisation in general has seen a rapid rise in the amount of international schools around the world. Now, there are reportedly 8000 international schools globally. But what does “international” actually mean? From a historical perspective it seems an “international education” meant promoting ideas coming from predominantly Western educators that expressed their ideologies about the world. The methods seemed be either to have a bi-lingual initiative or a programme that focused on occidental cultures, so that the students were prepared for the international (read: Western) world they would face afterwards. Often the teachers in these schools helped “home” students learn the cultural and canonical traditions of Europe. Even now, in schools that have large, ethnically diverse student bodies we find that there is a craving for teachers from English-speaking nations and for those who have been “Westernised”. Some schools even ask for photos on Curriculum Vitaes. Speaking English is still deemed to be desirable for parents, students and educators alike. Of course, there are many dialects found within the English language. Gogate’s Globish was an attempt to simplify the English language for the masses, however, in the eyes of the ruling classes nothing quite beats “The Queen’s English”. It is no surprise that nations with burgeoning economies such as the UAE and China have had the biggest rise in international schools. However, does promoting the aforementioned methods truly support an international education? Whether done inadvertently or not, some international schools have become systems for supporting certain cultures and leaving others behind.
Authentic international educators want to “help to create a better and more peaceful world through their intercultural understanding and respect.” But, how do we enable this to happen in the context of a school where most stakeholders have taken the risk of being part of an international community, in an increasingly nationalistic and hostile environment? Furthermore, it seems throughout the modern manifestation of an international school there is a tension between promoting internationalism and endorsing the product that some of the stakeholders want, that is: to sell monoculture. Additionally, international schools are typically fee-paying and for certain socio-economic classes, which can alienate them from the local community; creating a sense of “otherness”. This feeling of otherness can affect the identity of some students who feel they are citizens of the world, but can be viewed unhelpfully as “citizens of nowhere” from those that might feel threatened by their multiculturalism. Therefore, international schools can serve as safe-havens but can also unconsciously promote their own world-systems and polities, which can alienate “third-culture” people from their first, or even second cultures. We have all seen schools entitled “British, Canadian, Swiss and American international schools”, which feature students with mid-Atlantic accents or who seem to be platonic, Anglophone conceptions of themselves or at least versions of characters on Netflix. So, what is really going on? Why are nationalities being tagged onto school names and does this need to stop? We need to ensure that students, teachers and parents have well-developed intercultural competencies instilled in their day-to-day experiences with each other for real international relations to occur. If these competencies are not endorsed, the exclusivity and difference that is often seen and glorified in international education will counterintuitively be the very threat to the “international experience” that is being sought.
Encouraging intercultural awareness can prove to be a challenge in a school which has perhaps had students coming from one culture, or one that employs staff for the purpose of spreading “Britishness” for instance, but it isn’t impossible. To be sure that we are comfortable enough to create apposite versions of international schools we need to be sure of who we are first. Cosmopolitan people can go through numerous physical and mental transitions, which can leave them feeling vulnerable, so they either become deniers of change (the American teacher working in France for 25 years, who still sounds like he’s from New York), or complete chameleons (the Australian teacher who has been abroad for a month who now wears a kimono regularly and hosts his own tea ceremonies). These are true examples. What they display is that we need to meet in the middle and have the metacognition that we intersect with cultures every day, as soon as we leave the house. We cannot become caricatures of our own or another. Once we are aware of who we are culturally we can flex and adapt to a variety of cultures. This practice will avoid unwanted situations. I observed a class discussion once about the “burkini” between an American and a Saudi student. It nearly turned into a fistfight. I might add that none of the students were born in America nor Saudi Arabia, but it doesn’t matter they were fighting for their monocultures unaware that there were multiple cultures within their nationalities in the first place. Sure, differences are fine, but if you are unprepared to have intellectual debates with those who oppose your views how on earth are you going to develop yourself as a person? Fortunately, the students settled and ended up respecting their differences through discussion and reflection. If only politicians and adults could learn to be as malleable as some international students, we may not be facing the surge of harmful nationalism we face today. Being loyal to your country is very different to being jingoistic.
What does it take to be truly inter-culturally competent? According to Ann Straub it takes knowledge, skills and attitudes that are conducive to internationalism. The knowledge of your own cultural identity, knowing what to do when cultures meet and how to react. Furthermore, the realisation that borders are arbitrary, and temporal will definitely help. Directors can make rational and diverse hires in their staff, to represent the world as much as they can. Pastoral leaders can incorporate citizenship into their curricula or create assemblies and celebrations that embrace multiple cultures. I created a Performing Arts exchange with a school in Colombia at the International school of Geneva. The Colombians also stayed with host families from our school. Additionally, programmes such as the Model United Nations, which I organise at Institute Le Rosey, allows students to debate on behalf of cultures and nations that may not reflect their own through research, which encourages empathy. Educators can learn intercultural competencies through professional development such as language courses or teacher exchanges. From my experience I went to IC Beirut for two weeks, teaching and living with my Lebanese counterparts and learning French in Switzerland has enriched my professional and local interactions. Students can learn through literature, for example through empathetic writing in relation to a text from a cultural that is not their own or through the incorporation of epistemology and critical thinking within their classes. Parents can have cultural exchanges. The International School of Geneva, for example hosts a “Kermesse” with traditional international food stands and entertainment made by the school community. Institute Le Rosey’s highly customised home language programme ensures that every student learns their home language from home language teachers. This unique experience helps the students stay in touch with their home culture despite being, in some cases, thousands of miles from home. International schools that create opportunities for the development of inherently diverse networks through acknowledgment and respect of multiculturalism are schools that will enrich wellbeing. They are schools that have more potential to be sustainable in a globalised world.
If we, as educators, parents and administrators model genuine and positive intercultural competencies for our students and children we will show them and the world that an international school isn’t a fixed notion to be sold or promote further inequity. Instead our open, flexible and adaptable attitudes we will engender curiosity, acceptance and most importantly respect for all cultures within the communities we serve and beyond them.
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