Enduring Mission in changing times
Enduring Mission in changing times
Over a period of, say 20 years, a football team will almost certainly lose every single original player, most likely replace its manager and quite possibly change its stadium. But the fans will stay loyal and chant the same name they chanted twenty years earlier. An orchestra undergoes a similar cycle. Over an admittedly longer period than it takes for a football team to change all its personnel, an orchestra will see all the original musicians leave, its conductors retire and its concert hall rebuilt and relocated, and yet The Berlin Philharmonic continues as an entity everyone understands. Corporations and countries are bigger examples of the same things. People might mutter something about values or belief systems holding things together, but is that really true? A modern, pacifist, French woman may take immense pride in being ‘French’ just as an executioner at a guillotine may have felt wonderfully ‘French’ two hundred and forty years ago. Being French is, perhaps, no more than a convenient, malleable story around which we rally in our loneliness. France can’t feel or laugh or cry. Neither can Google, nor Real Madrid, nor the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
What about a school? Does it make any sense for somebody who was at UWCSEA nearly 45 years ago to stay loyal to the College today? None of the people that former student knew remain. The buildings are virtually all new. And—say it quietly—the mission statement did not exist. However high blown the rhetoric, is a school in any way different to the examples cited above?
Well, we can take a look at an interesting snapshot right now.
On both UWCSEA campuses we will soon be undergoing some senior personnel changes—just like an orchestra or football team—but I guess the main difference is that whereas the crowd or audience at the match or concert has little personal interaction with the players, a good school is founded upon relationships, and seeing a much loved teacher leave is different to watching the second bassoon play her last concert. The intensity, frequency and significance of interactions at school are markedly different, and when one factors in the trust and dependency of the students, the ambition and love of the parents as well as the care and passion of the teachers, it is little wonder that we are startled when the complex weave of school relationships is unpicked, even if the unpicking is really only thread by thread. We do not always immediately notice the new bright strand that has been added, usually because it does not lie in exactly the same place. Eventually, every strand on the tapestry will be replaced. But the image endures.
More prosaically, it’s worth noting that we are very fortunate at UWCSEA. On average, a teacher stays nearly nine years on Dover; and on East, where the campus has only just reached capacity, the average is already four and a half years. As with our student body, turnover is very low for an international school. Yet some people find it surprising that teachers ‘leave’ at all. Just as I used to think as a child that all teachers wore ties and tweed jackets when at home (and to be honest it took me some time to get used to the idea that teachers existed at all out of school), so there are those who feel a sense of betrayal when a teacher moves on. Questions are asked of schools that would never be asked of banks, trading houses or consultancy firms. Teachers are traditionally supposed to be driven by vocation, and the longer and more geographically static the vocation the better. Something is ‘wrong’ when a teacher leaves in a way that it is not ‘wrong’ for an executive to switch firms. “I do not regard this as a promotion” wrote a disappointed parent after we announced one of our colleagues was departing after many years of service for a major headship. I think they meant “Please, don’t leave us.” (It may shock some parents to know that the average tenure for an international school Head is two and a half years. I am due a carriage clock.)
Back to the question. When does UWCSEA stop being UWCSEA? For me, our identity crumbles at the moment we decide to educate people for a hard stop at 18 (which some schools do very well). The certificate you clutch when you leave school counts for nothing if the hands that clutch it are going to grasp and grab from that day on. The whole of life is a process of learning, and so long as we recruit teachers who believe and can inspire children to believe that, we will be recognisably UWCSEA. Who those teachers will be, I cannot say, but if they share ideas of unity, tolerance, kindness and empathy, they will be welcome—and necessary.
So like the orchestras and sports teams, companies and nations, we will honour our name while our people and our buildings come and go. The students, parents and teachers who gave us the opening day of UWCSEA are now treasured, sun-worn pictures on our walls. Soon, we too will be echoes.