The title of this entry is more than just my own poor attempt at a pun—it is meant to emphasize how the EARCOS conference grounds us in the practices, principles, and realities of governing over the complex entities of international schools, especially within the context of the world region that this conference seeks to represent.
EARCOS stands for East Asia Regional Council of Schools, an organization that claims 158 member schools in East Asia as well as close to 150 associate members. This year’s EARCOS Leadership conference brought participants together with the theme of “Leading and Learning: A Journey of Hope and Joy.” The conference gathered around 1,200 delegates from schools not just in our region but elsewhere in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and there was at least one delegate from a school in Germany whom I met during the conference as well as probably many others from other parts of the world.
Since joining the Board of the Shanghai American School in 2016, I have participated in all of the workshops and conferences that board members are encouraged to join. These have been extremely helpful and instructive in terms of understanding our important roles in school governance and leadership, and the EARCOS Leadership Conference in Bangkok last week was no exception. This was my second EARCOS conference—my first was last year in Kuala Lumpur.
The conference this year took place at the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok. It occurred at the same time as a great event in the history of Thailand: the cremation ceremony commemorating His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, on October 26. All of Thailand was in mourning for the king’s passage, and Thai citizens were dressed in black. In order to convey respect for our host nation, we were also encouraged to wear black or at least dark and somber clothing especially on the day of the conference’s opening.
This was my third trip to Bangkok in the past few months, and every time I go there I gain a greater respect for the place and a stronger desire to learn more about the local culture and language. While most of my time was spent in the conference venue (the Shangri-La with its stunning river view), and while I didn’t get to see the activities surrounding the King’s cremation ceremony firsthand, I did get to explore a bit more of the city, and spent one memorable afternoon with fellow SAS board members and our Head of School Marcel Gauthier visiting three of Bangkok’s most famous temples. These sorts of cultural experiences are a necessity for contextualizing the visit to this or any country, and they provide a wonderful opportunity to bond with one’s fellow school leaders and board members.
I arrived in Bangkok on the evening of the 24th, since there was a special governance workshop for board members on the day of the 25th. I attended this workshop along with our two new board members Aurora and Erika, and our Board Chair York-chi. The workshop leaders were Marc Frankel and Bambi Betts. Bambi is an experienced adviser on board governance, who also co-led the two workshops on governance held at UNIS Hanoi this past two years. As always, the workshop was very well organized, with the leaders providing us with an outline of topics and questions covered over the day-long workshop.
Among the many issues covered, we were encouraged in this workshop to consider how governance differs from management and how the key role of the board is to govern, and not to manage the school—in other words, to cleave closely to the mission of the school and not get too bogged down in the details of day-to-day operations. Many of the exercises were designed to get us thinking about how to touch base frequently with school mission and to prioritize board activities, structures, protocols, and key decisions around higher-level governance issues.
Another insight we gained was that the board should set its own mission and this should be clarified with all board members. We also went over issues of board maintenance including the orienting and training of new board members, succession planning, and other important matters. I think the greatest value of this workshop and others like it was that it generated good discussions among the board members concerning issues and matters that are of relevance to our own boards.
On the morning of the 26th, we were told by the conference organizer, Dick Krajczar, to show up by 7:59 am in the grand ballroom for the opening ceremony. It was a solemn ceremony in honor of the departed King, which involved a performance of jazz music by a trio of talented students from the International School Bangkok, including two male saxophonists and a female pianist. (As I learned while watching on a documentary film about the King’s life story on the flight to Bangkok, he was a jazz musician and composer himself, and so we heard a lot of jazz tunes over the week in different locations around the city). The students did a very fine job with the performance, and it was great to see jazz playing such a big role in the musical program of an international school.
Following that opening, keynote speaker Peter Dalglish gave a riveting speech to an audience of over 1000 people. He told us his own life story about his transformation from a high-powered Stanford-trained lawyer from Canada into a global activist helping children in conflict zones and volunteering in emergency situations from disease outbreaks such as Ebola to refugee camps to earthquake recovery. His speech set a high tone for the conference as a whole, urging us to look beyond the immediate goal of helping our students to attend good universities, achieve levels of personal comfort, success, and affluence, and rather to encourage them to explore and confront the major challenges that humanity faces in the coming century. I must say that I was inspired by his talk and also by the session he ran afterwards. He mentioned a monastery in Nepal where he does work with monks and encouraged international students and others to volunteer their time teaching at the temple, and already I’m brushing up on my Nepalese and raring to go! But seriously, it would be great to see both SAS and DKU students take up this challenge in the future, and I hope I can do my part in helping them to do so.
I won’t bore the reader with detailed descriptions of all the panels I attended during the three-day conference, so I’ll just give a brief rundown of a few of them here:
- Ann Straub on Global Citizenship: encouraged us to think about how to understand and assess global citizenship, and the difference between multicultural, intercultural, and transcultural learning environments
- Simon Breakspear (also a keynote speaker): how to encourage teachers to learn and to change their teaching practices over time (small steps, focus on outcomes)
- Stephen Holmes on International School marketing: focus on value proposition, be famous for a small number of things, learn how to market curriculum, teaching and pedagogy (this is what most interests parents)
- Bambi Betts on the learning process: going beyond assumptions and myths about how students learn, and using recent studies to enhance teaching and learning
There were a few others I attended as well, but the above examples hopefully give the reader a taste of what sorts of conversations and dialogues were being encouraged through the panels. Which brings me to my final point: a conference is about sharing information through formalized means such as panels and workshops, but primarily it is about bringing together the participants so that we can learn from each other. It is a huge effort to organize conferences such as EARCOS, involving enormous amounts of time and energy on the part of the organizers (who did an absolutely wonderful job if I may say so) and it’s also a considerable effort and expense on the part of the participants to show up and attend the conference. What makes these efforts and expenditures worthwhile is the ability to meet and dialogue with an amazing group of people from all over the world.
In all of my life experiences thus far, I have to say that I’ve never met a community of people with such a global outlook and such a deep well of personal experiences as international educators, with the possible exception of foreign service officers who share many traits with them. These are folks who have spent years if not decades living and working in many different countries, getting to know their political and legal systems and managing schools and weathering various crises along the way.
Just as an example, one of the attendees with whom I had a good conversation was a man named Ralph Jahr, who currently works for Search Associates after serving as a school head in many different countries in Asia and Africa for around 40 years. Some of the stories he told of regime changes, coups, and other major events he witnessed in his career made me feel that my own international experiences living and working in Australia, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan have been very tame and uneventful by comparison. And he was but one of well over a thousand people, many with similar career trajectories and experiences.
So when keynote speaker Peter Dalglish was talking to this crowd, in terms of international experience in facing the myriad challenges of the world we live in, he was preaching to the choir.