Issues | LEARNING CURVE

Your school may be international, but what values does it teach?

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

As a teacher of global studies and an American citizen, my interest in politics is both professional and personal. Though more often bemoaned as a “failure of democracy,” the wild, woolly 2016 U.S. presidential election now looks to me more like a complicated triumph for unbridled capitalism. A tycoon who has brazenly boasted of his tax avoidance strategies now inhabits the White House; his son-in-law — a man who allegedly bought his way into Harvard — has been anointed the president’s special adviser.

During the campaign itself, corporate values were simultaneously validated and repudiated by both sides. While President Donald Trump’s inauguration augurs a sea change for the world, one thing now seems clear in this roiling ocean of uncertainty: More than ever, education must guard against breeding elitism and entitlement.

Yet across the globe, international schooling is big business. Murky contradictions to the surface values of diversity and transparency flourish, spreading like mold under the camouflage of progressive curriculums. But despite the hefty tuition fees, an international school should not be a breeding ground for exclusivity. For students who cannot attend local schools due to language or other obstacles, these institutions are essential. For all its students, an international school should be an authentic lesson in global collaboration.

But how can we make international schools accountable when they are frequently run as nonprofit organizations whose main check and balance is their own board of trustees? Open dialogue is a start. If you are vested in an international school as a parent, student, member of staff or management, here are four questions to consider:

1. How does the uppermost echelon of the school model and encourage egalitarian values?

Too often, heads of schools now behave like corporate leaders — high-level administrators too busy for daily interactions with students. A school leader should lead by example, giving their time and energy principally to the students themselves.

It’s an admittedly difficult balance to strike when a school is run as a business, but a school does not make products, it nurtures people. Absent leaders mean an absence of true values in a school.

Leaders obviously need opportunities to lead: weekly or monthly assemblies with dialogue between leaders and students, and opportunities to recognize talents or face challenges together while building a sense of community. Individual moments are important too: raking leaves on the grounds, cheering at school sports events, chaperoning a weekend hike, even daily greetings in the hallway. Leadership in school works best in these quiet moments of interaction that affirm respect for all aspects of education.

2. Are there separate, disparate types of contracts for staff across the school?

When I first arrived in Japan to teach at an international school, most Japanese nationals, including classroom teachers pulling 95 percent of a teaching load, were on part-time contracts that denied them a wide range of benefits. Although that situation has changed in some schools, look closely at the existing differences between foreign and local hires at your school. Do benefits such as housing, tuition support and home leave apply to some staff but not others?

Maintaining a relative financial proximity between leadership and the rest of the school is also important. School leaders are often given a special category of visa — business manager — that enables them to write off first-class plane tickets or hire domestic help, for example. Such perks are legal and might make a corporate leader “smart” — but those are not the types of smarts we should be teaching in education. Look for equity and balance across all contracts in a school; look for educational professionalism — not corporate gold-coating — for an atmosphere of transparency, security and integrity for all stakeholders.

3. Are there avenues open to all staff encouraging transparency and dialogue?

One thing businesses have learned well — though often only after being stung by litigation — is the importance of having an outside ombudsman or team within its HR department to deal with grievances within the company. In education, such protections should be in place because we invest in people and truly value our professional relationships. Yet international schools often construct fuzzy pathways of support for the less powerful sections of the school.

How does your school actively ensure all staff — full- or part-time, teacher or caretaker — have a voice? Is there an open-door policy of communication? Are all voices heard and valued equally, at staff meetings or annual open forums for discussion? Are there supported avenues for complaints with allowances made for language barriers? Or are some voices bound to silence by one-year conditional contracts or other subtle means of stifling dissatisfied voices?

4. How does the school treat nonteachers and support staff?

“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” This is a moral tenet popularized by the Harry Potter series, so students far and wide embrace this ideal. Internationalism, however, emphasizes that there are no “inferiors” — just diversity.

Look at how your school treats its diverse staff. How many cafeteria workers, caretakers, IT technicians, lab or classroom assistants are on part-time salaries with no benefits? An even more significant question, and one that’s easier to answer: How does your school interact with its diverse staff? Are they a visible, integrated part of your community, or are their names forgotten, their work undervalued and underpaid, their rights largely ignored?

I’ve taught at a wide variety of schools, international and local, during my 20 years in Japan, and nowhere is perfect. The monetary divide between people everywhere is enabled — or even encouraged — by some educational institutions. Educators must tackle this modern scourge with vigilance.

Let me end with one story: Several years back, I taught at an international school north of Tokyo. They followed Japanese school culture, so students removed their shoes at the entrance and cleaned up after themselves throughout the school. Groups took turns with shoveling snow on the grounds and within the local community.

For nearly 200 students, there was one caretaker. Let’s call him Sam. Sam was an active part of the community, a proud attendant at every school function and our neighbor in staff housing.

As an authentic model for valuing diversity, Sam bridged the gap between college-bound students and the rest of the world. The entire school valued Sam: We noticed his incredible work ethic, his positive smile — he was the first to arrive every morning and the last to leave, cheerful and unfailingly kind. Sam was everyone’s friend.

Like that school up north, there are many authentically diverse schools across Japan and around the world. Students learn so much more from our actions than what we espouse in curriculums. If there is a lack of equality and institutionalized elitism in place, then your students are learning it, along with grammar and theorems. As educators, let’s model a nobler set of values than corporate ones.

Kris Kosaka is a lecturer at Meiji Gakuin University in the Faculty of International Studies. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp