The art of playing politics in international schools

International leaders often have to deal with ambassadors, government ministries, well-connected parents, consulates and more - so how do you learn the art of playing politics?

Dan Worth

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You need a visa approved for a new staff member. But the ministry is holding things up. Could it be because you gave a detention to a government official's child? Perhaps the governor with ties to the Royal Family could ease things along. But how do you broach such a conversation? Maybe it’s time to call in that favour from the ambassador…

Such a situation may sound far-fetched, but for international school leaders these tricky social and cultural challenges can sometimes arise – and learning how to navigate them soon becomes part and parcel of the job, and one that has to be learned very much as you go.

“It is a skill – and I think the further up the tree you go, the more skilled you have to be at it,” says Julia Knight, principal of EtonHouse International School in Bahrain.

Well-connected people

This skill can extend from knowing how to get a meeting with those in the ministry to using the right channels to put pressure on a decision over visas to being aware of the political connections a parent might have.

None of this is easy and sometimes is only learned on the job as another leader – speaking anonymously – relates with regards a particularly well-connected parent who they had to call in for a meeting after an incident that had occurred in the playground involving their child.

“The mum came in and we had a chat and I explained everything and what the punishments would be and she was lovely about it and we got on really well.

“Afterwards, someone said to me ‘do you know who that is?’ and it turned out she was a very well-connected individual in the country.

Thankfully, the fact they didn’t know who she was actually worked in their favour: “She wrote a lovely email to me a few days later, and she said it was the first time that anybody in that school treated her like a normal mum with normal children.”

On-the-job training

However, it’s clear that such an incident could perhaps just as easily go the other way and shows why international leaders have to be especially aware of the cultural, social and political environment in which they operate.

Yet doing this is something leaders or those aspiring to leadership have to learn entirely on the job, as Cobis CEO Colin Bell sums up: “It’s quite amazing what leaders have to deal with – and none of it can be learned at training college, or on leadership courses.”

Liz Free, CEO of International School Rheintal in Switzerland, agrees that aspiring leaders need to be aware that this will be part of their job requirement, even if it is rarely covered in any courses.

“Power and influence are critical in leadership; understanding this at a micro and macro level is therefore an essential component of school leadership, but an area often missed in leadership development programmes,” she says.

Given this lack of training, it often comes down to a mix of on-the-job emotional intelligence and drawing on past experiences to help learn the rules. This can come from the most unlikely of places, as Rob Ford – director of Heritage International School in Moldova, and someone who regularly deals with ambassadors, government ministers and influential business leaders – notes.

“I still look back to working in M&S during my A-level summer and the customer service training I was given whenever I deal with someone – about keeping emotions out of it and staying focused and calm.”

Eyes wide open

Of course, whether you worked at a retailer or not, most international teachers will have an awareness that a leadership position will come with some political wheeling and dealing – and if not, the reality should be made crystal clear to them, says Bell.

“A job advert should really articulate that this is a figurehead role and it’s an organisation with influence, and set out what the expectations are,” he says.

“The governing board should also be pressing this at interview, making sure candidates have demonstrated they have skills to ‘move and shake’ and make those high-level connections, grow them, nurture them and use them – it’s that sort of EQ skill set that a leader needs.”

A senior leader in the middle gives a good example of this whereby they wanted to arrange a meeting with someone from that nation’s Ministry of Education – but doing so required cultivating a contact who could make that happen.

“[The minister] was able to grant me the meeting because it was a friend of his that requested it. I'd spent months building this relationship to get to that point where I could say, ’Oh, do you fancy introducing me to so and so?’ and them saying ‘Yes, I can do that for you.’”

Use your connections wisely

School owners – often well-connected individuals – can also be a useful resource in these situations, says Matt Topliss, British school principal at El Alsson British and American International School New Giza, Egypt.

“You want school owners who have got connections and can take out the distraction of the complexities of ministry workings for example,” he says.

“I’m very lucky to have the owners we have because they take a lot of that away from us so we can get on with the education side of things.

Free agrees leaders have to learn to work in harmony with the other senior stakeholders around them – something she has done with the chair of the board at the school who she says has lived in the region his whole life, knows everyone and “understands how things work”.

“We agreed from day one that we would tag-team, utilising our strengths for the benefit of the school. We strategised about who would lead in areas such as permit applications, liaison with the canton education authorities, parental updates about school development, etc, and always worked together, but with one of us leading and the other learning and observing/supporting,” she says.

“This means that I have ridden the wave of his expertise and he has ridden the wave of my expertise. It has been a critical aspect to the success of the transition of CEO and director leadership last year, and ultimately my ability to lead a successful international school in a domestic context. “

This is sage advice – and sensible, too – but it is not always easy for senior leaders, used to being the ones calling the shots, to have to admit to shortcomings or rely on others, which can even cause some appointments to be short-lived, as Bell from Cobis outlines.

“Some heads have bowled into a role thinking they can act as if they were in Surrey and they have had a fall from grace,” he says.

Topliss agrees that leaders have to learn such an approach will not work: “It’s all about contextual leadership – knowing the world around you, respecting that culture and having the patience to understand how things may be done,” he says.

“Then you can build that trust and confidence with those around you to be able to work together…you can’t go at something like a bull at a gate and expect results.”

Work together

However, you can’t be a pushover, either. After all, leaders need autonomy and to be seen as another part of the political landscape – one others should want in their networks just as much as the other way around.

This is something Ford said he made clear when first interviewing for the job at his school: “I said to the founders when I went out there [for an initial interview], ‘Where does the power lie in the school and how is that going to be allowed to operate in a fair way?’” he says.   

This is all a lot to think about for new leaders or experienced heads moving to a new jurisdiction where everything may be completely different from where they left.

But, whether moving abroad to lead a school for the first time or moving to a new cultural context, there is always one powerful thing leaders can draw strength and insight from: each other.

“Heads have to find their way by building a network with colleagues who are leading similar schools and sharing ideas and information,” says Mark Steed, principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British International School in Hong Kong, outlines.

He explains how he did this when he first moved to Dubai by bringing together heads from the local not-for-profit schools so they could share insights on any political goings-on they should be aware of, and present a more unified voice to the authorities when required.

“It meant we could do things like negotiate British-style term dates [with the authorities] because before then it was all different and no coordination with other schools so it was really tough on teachers with children in other schools and partners of teachers in other schools.”

Not only this but, he says, it also helped increase everyone’s understanding of how the system worked in the country.

“We found people in the group that were best placed to navigate ‘the corridors of power’ and who we could get to approach [the authorities] about certain things.”

Building on this, Steed also says leaders should be savvy at making connections with the Consulate or Embassy and their staff.

“In practice, the Department for International Trade (DIT) team attached to the Consulate/Embassy are a good point of contact, as are the British Chambers in various overseas locations. These organisations often invite key industries to events – it’s just a case of getting involved.”

This is important, not just to help get the lie of the land in the region but also for any logistical matters that may arise under your tenure that require help.

“It is worth getting in touch with one of the Consulate/Embassy team to talk through contingency planning (what to do in the case of staff or pupil death of a British citizen; serious accident; political threats,” he adds.

Insights from experts on the ground

And ideally, any new leader taking over should be given a clear handover from their predecessor, adds Bell from Cobis.

“If you are a headteacher moving into a brand new job, you should expect a handover opportunity or some form of tight induction before the job starts so you have a chance to be aware of the political theatre you are going into.”

Such insights do not always have to come from other leaders either – teachers on the ground who are more au fait with the political, social and cultural mood of a nation can be a useful guide, as an international leader in America learned first-hand.

“I wanted to start introducing teaching about world religion as a way of teaching the children about diversity and how people may have different routines or practices around the world,” they explain.

“Even though I had no plans to preach any religion, or teach about anything specific, teaching about what different people in the world may or may not believe in was still strictly advised against.”

“[This] advice came from other teachers who had more experience in the American community and knew that it was just an avenue to simply not pursue.” 

Steed agrees that using teachers already in the country is also vital – especially if you have local staff working for you too who will always have a better understanding of the cultural nuances and social etiquette of a nation.

“My PA, she’s not really a PA – she’s an absolute expert on government liaison. She speaks a posh version of Cantonese that is very formal and polite and she knows how to ‘translate’ what I say into the right language so it comes across correctly…it’s invaluable.”

Matters of grammar

These sort of local understandings around how language works and what to say to the right person can even extend into matters of grammar, says another leader.

“I wrote a letter at one point that ended with 'yours faithfully,' and was told it is always 'sincerely'. When I checked the grammar rules, British grammar would see that you use 'faithfully' if you don't know the person you are addressing.

“It was then explained to me how American grammar was different and it is always 'sincerely' because 'faithfully' could be seen as a religious sentiment and could upset people.”

The art of greetings and salutations is something that all teachers need to learn as they move around the world – something Knight in Bahrain knows too.

“I'll sign my emails off to an Arabic family saying something like ‘wishing your family many blessings for the day ahead’ so that it’s using that courteous and respectful [language], whereas I would still email a Western family something like ‘best wishes’.”

“It doesn't make you any less sincere [but] it's things like that you pick up along the way of how to do things and interact with parents differently.”

And this returns us to the key point made by all the leaders here – if you understand and embrace the host country’s culture, norms and social etiquettes, the "politics" of international school leadership becomes a lot less complicated – and perhaps part of the buzz of leadership, says Free.

“As an international teacher, you need to be open minded and interested in exploring your own and other cultures, systems, approaches and ways of being [and] this extends even further into politics, legal and finance systems,” she says.

“Personally, I love this aspect. I love the challenge and privilege of having these experiences, learning and growing.”

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes 

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