The TES is a popular website for teachers. It used to host an excellent overseas forum until the community was ushered away by a bizarre redesign. Until that happened, I enjoyed reading the amusingly wry anecdotes and responses of ‘Mainwaring’, a secret Headteacher of international schools. Now retired, he has published a surprisingly delightful book about his experiences managing an international school in
Honest and affectionate, if often (and necessarily!) sardonic, Taylor presents his experiences with appreciably Northern bombast. It fills an essential niche for anyone interested in the realities of international education, a market that Tristan Bunnell says will grow from 6,000,000 to 20,000,000 students in the next six years.
Taking the form of narrative anecdotes, we are taken through Taylor’s experiences from the first moment he steps off the plane and attempts to take his two dogs into India. Invariably, his paperwork (which we are assured is meticulous) is denied. The tone of his exchange with an immigration officer is stark yet its unfolding structure makes it droll:
‘That is irrelevant.’ ‘So, what is relevant? What is to be done? Do I simply about-face and take my dogs back to Malawi?’ ‘It is not as simple as that. You are facing a very large fine for the illegal importation of livestock. And the animals are liable to be destroyed.’
This is scary stuff, especially for anyone who has faced implacable immigration staff. If you’re wondering what place this has in a book about teaching, note that any book about teaching really should really be about the heart and spirit of things. Taylor gets this priority straight from the off, refusing to allow his dogs die in unnecessary quarantine in an Indian airport. This episode is particularly enjoyable for me as in Dubai a botox-dealing dentist recently served a little jail time for recording and challenging immigration staff. Her PR line was that she was arrested for drinking a single glass of wine that she ‘accepted’ (i.e. asked for) and that she ‘accepts’ that she ‘was wrong’ to film and challenge immigration staff over an incorrect visa. I challenge any cosmetic lip-puffer to try filming an argument with immigration staff in the UK or USA after entering with no visa to see how far it gets her. In contrast to this belligerence, Taylor’s firm charm wins the day. That, and having the right paperwork.
Once happily in India, although without working kitchen utensils or even a safe driver, Taylor begins the challenging process of marketing his school. Ever honest, he reveals the kind of questions he is asked by educated Indians:
The bright young woman reporter who interviewed me for the Hindustan Times went straight to the heart of the matter: ‘Why do we need to import your foreign ideas when we already have the best education in the world?
Wise stuff indeed. In terms of my experience, this will be my fifteenth year of teaching, and my sixth abroad. Indian students are amongst the best I’ve taught, especially those with wise and supportive parents. The Indian schools here produce excellent results and world-class debaters. The teachers are expert and dedicated. However, the focus on measuring and rote learning can be seen in some students with a supposedly flimsy foundational knowledge that a more constructivist focus might provide. In truth, an Indian curriculum seems superior to most others, especially for non-selective students. In the face of this, the act of bringing in international staff, who may or may not be expert in their fields, is actually a challenge to national sovereignty. Why does India need to bring in international educators? Educated Indians enjoy at least as good an English as most English people I know.
Taylor does not shrink from this reality. India produces more graduates each year than the UK has people: 200M each year apparently… of course the extent to which these have the thinking and critical skills of the elite universities in England is questionable. England has, however, has its own share of bums-on-seats universities. An elite British education, with its expected cultural capital, is what an Indian parent thinks they are buying in an international school. Taylor clearly has oodles of that in excess; whether all staff and all schools do is unlikely.
Actually running an insituation as a school rather than a business is the main challenge of an international school. It is not enough to be ideologically international and to nurture the hearts of minds of whomever walks through the door. Students must pass exams and pay fees otherwise the school folds. Hearts and minds won’t pay the bills. Taylor, being a typical English teacher, recognises some of the unusual approaches of the HR staff who often threaten to pay less. Expecting any staff, let alone educated ones with other options, to accept such exploitation is mocked rather than damned:
In rare cases Mr Chatterjee graciously concedes that EWS will pay half the salary in lieu. But my greatest admiration is reserved for those who reply to his question with a firm ‘Not on your nelly, you silly old duffer,’ or the respectful Indian equivalent thereof.
Such neoliberalist attitudes towards international teachers are amusing: we can imagine how these conversations actually went. I imagine quite horrifically. Whilst many other of the HR staff are given a gentle ribbing, Mr Chatterjee’s aggressive approach is demonised with such suitable understatement.
Once the school is up and running, Taylor meets and schmoozes with the parents. His warmth and openness to a different culture finds its way into many anecdotes. Some are rather pertinent, especially when he tackles issues of caste and class, the two favourite white Elephants in Anglo-Indian cultures. I remember as a schoolboy in Wolverhampton the absolute horror one of my Indian classmate’s parents experienced when her daughter deigned to choose a white British boyfriend. Their relationship was an open secret. There was a reason why: honour killings in Wolverhampton and Birmingham are not entirely infrequent. Of course, Wolverhampton’s Indian population is the most integrated and successful outside London, perhaps anywhere in the UK. But the issue is still touchy at best.
Of course, at the wedding Taylor asks whether an interracial marriage is difficult for the parents of a bride. The answer is, pleasingly: ‘Not as much as it was for my parents when I married him,’ she replied with a smile and a nod at her handsome silver-haired husband.’ Whilst interracial marriages cause consternations amongst all cultures, Taylor cleverly plays this off against the even more contentious inter-class marriages that, frankly, cause more schism.
If I am left with a final thought about No Baboons in India, it is Taylor’s engagement with those who would criticise his practice. Upon receiving a written note about a perceived grammatical error in the school’s marketing, he pens a literary reply:
Esteemed colleague, I am disturbed by your assertion that you are the author of The Merchant of Venice. As you must be aware, tinkering with a quotation does not transform it into an original creation of one’s own. Plagiarism is regarded as the most heinous of academic crimes and must call into question the perpetrator’s pretensions to criticise the actions of his fellows. Esteemed colleague, I earnestly entreat you to lay aside the strange delusion that you are the Swan of Avon.
This academic challenge is precisely the kind of intellectual joust that able students (and ideally all teachers) should enjoy on a daily basis. It is what makes schooling great. Fortunately, the target of his ribaldry, an esteemed local Iman, actually rises to this challenge and is invited into the school. I found this exchange to be a magical moment in the book and indicative of Taylor’s characteristic blend of confidence and humility.
These memoirs are written with frank warmth. They feel like reading the tales of a friend over a Northern pint. And in this strangely dislocated electronic world, it is a privilege to have shared them with someone I know quite well but have never met. Good man John!