Who can handle the Bermuda Triangle ?

Posted on January 5th, 2015

They say teaching is both the most challenging and rewarding job ever and they may be right, but managing an international school may stand right next to it! You’re the captain of the ship, and it’s not a yacht I’m talking about here, more like a liner!

Public schools are firmly established in national traditions and predefined curriculums, where despite differences everyone involved more or less knows what to expect and which part they’re playing in the movie. International schools put you in a more delicate situation: teachers are not public servants but employees; parents aren’t concerned citizens but paying, demanding customers (even though, in the case of expats, their company is often paying the bill); and at the end of the day you need to make the whole thing profitable or everyone can kiss their beautiful school goodbye! Add to that the fact that everyone, students included, come from different places with different cultural values and educational traditions and what you’ve got is a big puzzle to solve!

The Bermuda Triangle

Schools are like a triangle with teachers at one end, students at another and parents at yet another. The manager is standing right in the middle of the triangle, trying to figure out every day how to maintain its shape and reconcile everyone around a common goal: education. It’s easy to get lost in the Bermuda Triangle, but no matter what happens, the captain’s responsibility is to maintain the ship afloat and reach the next harbour safely – that is, the next summer holiday

Students are obviously the cornerstone of the triangle: it’s all about them and still, the paradox is that they’re the ones you, as a manager, will spend the less time with. However, everyone has to stay focused on them, what’s good for them, what they need. So even though you aren’t gonna be the one in the classroom with them, you’ll need to keep an eye on what’s going on with them at all times! How do they perceive their school, their teachers, the education they’re being given? Are they bored or stimulated? Are they treated as the promising and precious yet fragile human beings they are? Who they are matters, too, because depending on the age category, the cultural background, the special needs of your students, major adjustments may need to be made! So you can’t be clueless about them: they’re the reason why everyone’s coming to work, and it’s their future you’re shaping. Quite a responsibility, isn’t it?

Teachers are your most precious asset: their dedication, their motivation and their skills is what’s going to make the difference in the end, because they’re the ones dealing with the kids on a daily basis, and sometimes with the parents, too. The quality of the interactions they’ll manage to build with their students is crucial. Teachers are also your employees but trust me, they don’t think of themselves as “employees” at all. Qualified teachers –particularly Western teachers– come from public educational systems where making money is neither a purpose nor a necessity for the institution. Therefore, even when they work for a private school, they’ll still perceive themselves as some sort of public servants with a mission and moral obligations that surpass any other aspect of their job. Because they’re qualified, educated people, they also have their pride. For all those reasons, they usually don’t like being asked to do anything that’s not directly related to education, such as administrative or marketing tasks, and they will often be in an odd, somewhat schizophrenic relationship with the fact that they are both educators and employees of a private company. There’s no trying to turn a cat into a dog: teachers just can’t be handled the way “regular” employees can. Understanding that may be a challenge for a manager that comes from another professional field, but it’s a necessity.

Parents are, well… parents! Don’t laugh; it really sums it all up! They’re filled with expectations –often unrealistic ones, mind you– towards their kids and everything about them, and on top of it all they’re usually worried to death! They’re not regular customers who’re gonna simply be satisfied or unsatisfied with a product or service: they’re human beings who put their kids –their flesh and blood!– into your hands and who, because of that, feel entitled to ask for the moon! The main issue here is that they’re usually not educators themselves. Still, they want to have a say in just everything! Basically, they’re trying to tell you how to do your job even though they’d be incapable of doing it themselves. You know what men say about women: “can’t live with them, can’t live without them”. Well, it’s kind of the same with parents: they’re your customers, you basically can’t ignore their demands and at the same time you can’t reasonably satisfy them all either. That’s when you’re gonna need a lot of pedagogy, not with the kids but with their parents! Your capacity to explain your choices to them is crucial, but it requires a lot of time and patience, so be prepared!

When to maintain course, when to change course?

Obviously there are many other folks you have to deal with: other employees (accountants, maids, chefs…), local officials, suppliers, etc. You’ll need to be able to listen carefully to what everyone involved is trying to tell you, be ready to take a few stones and keep everything nice and smooth no matter what happens. You’ll need to think fast and act faster. You’ll need to adjust and be flexible but more importantly, you’ll also need to be able to stick to your deepest convictions, to what you think is right! There are times when you need to review your premises and change course, and there are times when no matter the adversity, you need to maintain your course. Knowing when to do one or the other is what makes the difference, and believe me this requires a lot of wisdom, common sense and intuition! It requires a vision, too! There are thousands of international schools in the world: what makes yours special? Which values do you convey that the others won’t? What is your notion of what a better world should be and how is your school going to fit in the big picture and help shape such a better world? If you’re going to fight for what you believe in, you need to have a very clear picture of what it is that you believe in in the first place!

But I’m not going to tell you fairy tales: you’re also running a business here, so balance is the keyword! You must have business acumen, know about business strategies and development, be at ease with marketing and PR, and always keep your accounting in checks. One needs to spend money to make money and you can’t be cheap when you run a private school: it would reflect very badly on it. So it’s really important to define your priorities when it comes to expenses. You must also be prepared to handle setbacks because, trust me, there will be setbacks! Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither is an international school! But with persistence and determination, there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished!

Dealing with paradoxes: In the end, if you have paid attention you may be thinking that this article is all about dealing with paradoxes and contradictions. Well, kind of, yeah… You’re running a company but everyone expect it to function as a public service. You’re a businessman but people expect you to act as a role model. You have to be friendly at all times but you also need to keep a professional distance with both parents and employees. You need to deal with countless pressures and maintain your pace but it’s also crucial to maintain a relaxed and positive atmosphere in a school. You come aboard with certain cultural values but you won’t go anywhere if you’re not willing and able to adjust to several other cultural values and find ways to make them all coexist constructively!

You see what I mean? An international school is a universe of paradoxes and its manager is the person whose inner-cohesiveness and determination are so high that they will make it all work, no matter what! There’s no way to do this unless you know exactly who you are and where you’re going.

There will be headaches but at least you won’t get bored! I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of man who favours a challenging and stimulating job over an easy, boring one. It’s also a meaningful job, because it involves much more than just making money: it involves shaping the future of human beings. Our kids. Our future. You just can’t be cynical about it.

As you may know, I act as an advisor for the Supreme International Education franchise and we will soon have new career opportunities to offer at different locations. We’re looking for daring and creative people who have not only the skills but a capacity to think out of the box. People whose lifestyle is to embrace new challenges. People who understand that sometimes a job is not something you leave at the office at the end of the day, but a responsibility that inhabits you entirely.

If you think you’re shaped for this, drop me a mail: I may have something in store for you!