International School Reform Initiatives Must Be Led by Students, Alumni, and BIPOC Educators
On June 3rd, 2020, I published an open letter to the international school community that I had penned and edited in a single day. I had hoped it might circulate within the international school community in Bangkok, where I had attended school myself. Little did I know, however, that it would reach 67,000+ views over the coming weeks; I was overwhelmed and shocked as I received a flood of messages from Bulgaria, China, Japan, Austria, Ghana, and beyond, thanking me for writing my open letter. Although I had suspected my experience wasn’t unique to just my own community in Bangkok, the outpouring of positive (and negative) feedback to my letter cemented what I had already known: that the global international school community has work to do.
In the past month, I have been approached by educators in the global community to head or facilitate diversity webinars, be featured on podcasts, and help design new curricula. I have felt apprehensive to be involved with any of the aforementioned initiatives for several reasons, such as lack of compensation or pay and feeling tokenized. Most importantly, although I am confident in my own work and research, I felt it would be wrong to convene with international educators, mainly white educators in leadership positions, behind closed doors to discuss diversity initiatives without any say from current students, alumni, or other BIPOC educators.
Of all the messages I have received over the past month, the most inspiring have been from alumni and current students who are making waves in their own international school communities by bravely penning open letters to their schools and peers, sharing social media posts about their experiences, challenging the International Baccalaureate’s Eurocentric curriculum, and meeting with their own school administrators to enact meaningful change, amongst other things. Students and alumni have tackled issues beyond racism, and have also bluntly problematized the ubiquitous Eurocentrism, classism, sexism, xenophobia, and queerphobia in international schools globally. I have never been happier to take a step back and let the very competent, intelligent, and passionate students take the lead, and to offer my support by simply amplifying their voices.
For example, an open letter penned by a “Graduated Student” from the King George V school, an international school linked to the greater English Schools Foundation (ESF) in Hong Kong, has amassed 1,500+ signatures and counting, and has prompted ESF to investigate the claims of inappropriate and racist behavior. On the other hand, in an Instagram post, another graduated student from an all-girls school in Tokyo identified the racism, sexism, and queerphobia entrenched in all-boys schools in Tokyo, and called for such institutions to be dismantled. The post has stirred up a lot of conversation, apparent in the 867 comments and 1,334 likes it has gained since posted on June 2nd. The author and her peers are now heading a Tokyo-based educational reform platform called The Unlearn Initiative.
The two examples I mentioned above, although only snippets of the student and alumni-led change rocking the international school community, are impactful because they draw on personal anecdotes. Unlike my initial article, the two courageous students mentioned above discussed their very personal experiences with acts of racism and sexual harassment committed against them and their peers by students and teachers alike. The honesty and candor displayed by the two students were much needed, and are the key to any type of systemic change in the international school system. A complete paradigm shift can only occur when we bolster the traditionally silenced and marginalized voices within our communities, take them seriously, and do not meet them with defensive attitudes.
White educators, administrators, and staff cannot be the ones to lead reform initiatives because they are complicit in the very problems they seek to dismantle. Whether they have knowingly or unknowingly participated in the racist and misogynistic international school culture, or have turned a blind eye to it, they are still deeply tied to the problems at hand.* Reform initiatives must be led by students, alumni, and BIPOC educators, and supported by white educators and administrators; what white educators, administrators, and staff must do instead is offer allyship by listening to their students’ and BIPOC colleagues’ concerns, and by using their privilege to amplify said concerns. Students, alumni, and BIPOC educators must be given a seat at the head of the table moving forward.
On the topic of racism and sexism amongst international educators, I found this article by Proserpina Dhlamini-Fisher deeply insightful. Dhlamini-Fisher discusses racism in international school recruiting and supplements her points with her own powerful anecdotes. As a young international school student of color, I always wondered why most of my teachers were white; this article made it abundantly clear. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to leave my own international school bubble while pursuing my undergraduate degree, and, after I read this article by Dhlamini-Fisher, that I understood that the international school system equates whiteness with higher intellectual capacity and greater teaching capability, amongst a plethora of other falsely racialized narratives. Whiteness in the international school community functions as a form of capital, as made evident through the racial homogeneity amongst educators and administrators in leadership roles. I discuss this further in this Instagram post.
The next and first step for international school educators and administrators who are serious about enacting structural change is to completely reform their hiring practices and reckon with the institutionalized racial hierarchies amongst their own staff. While curriculum reform is of utmost importance, curriculum reform without hiring practice reform (amongst other reforms addressing racist and sexist salary disparities, lack of promotion opportunities for BIPOC educators and staff, etc.) will only further uphold the glaring racism and sexism in the international school community. An institution committed to teaching anti-racist and anti-sexist curriculum taught and created by a majority white, male teaching staff and leadership would be ironic, to say the least.
To that end, I am formally calling on all international schools globally to release the following demographic statistics:
- Summary statistics of race, national origin, and gender of staff, educators, and administrators with clear job title differentiation
- Staff, educator, and administrator salaries broken down by race, national origin, and gender with clear job title differentiation
- Leadership positions broken down by race, national origin, and gender
- A comprehensive history outlining the race, national origin, and gender of all heads of school, principals, and vice principals
All statistics released must be completely anonymized, and must not be tied back to any individuals.
Additionally, schools must also release a concrete reform plan on how to ensure equitable hiring practices and treatment of their staff, or must formally state they are in the process of working on one with clear future goals. They must enlist the help of their BIPOC educators and staff, alumni, students, or any qualified external organizations, and must pay them appropriately for their labor and time. They must not, however, tokenize the aforementioned individuals or place the burden upon them to be the face of any structural change if it is unwelcome.
Further, thorough investigations into all staff, educators, and administrators at each international school must be conducted to vet for inappropriate behavior anywhere along the lines of racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, predatory, or queerphobic behavior. Will this be easy? Certainly not, but it is absolutely necessary and long overdue.
Let me be clear: I do not want to take part in any diversity initiatives, many of which, I argue, are performative activism at best, without a) other students and alumni present, b) centering BIPOC voices (educators, staff, students, and alumni), and c) the aforementioned statistics readily prepared and available for discussion. Now let’s get to work.
*I would like to acknowledge the white educators and staff who have worked relentlessly to push for structural reform at their respective educational institutions, but who have been stymied and gaslighted when doing so. I personally remember a handful of teachers who I witnessed challenge our own educational institution, NIST International School of Bangkok, and can only imagine how exhausting it was and continues to be to resist against the problematic nature of our institution(s). I recognize and thank you for all your work.