Who's captain of your ship – Shackleton or Schettino?

International teachers look to their leaders in the Covid crisis – they need a reliable skipper, says this teacher


International schools: Who's the captain of your ship? The coronavirus pandemic may have shown the answer

During an emergency, such as a pandemic, what matters most to an international teaching family is trust in those who provide your safety.

It’s easy to overlook this when you are cruising through smooth charted international waters with ease, but, come the storm, it is amplified in importance beyond all previous thought.

Suddenly, the character of your captain (or captains) is highlighted by a lightning strike across the sea, illuminating their talents or shortcomings, as the searching eyes of staff are fixed on them.

Coronavirus: Action stations

What happens next matters more than ever and sends messages like distress flares into the sky.

Actions now will become the legacy they leave and the culture they create – the story that gets told on the international radios between all future teachers who might serve under them.

After all, being stranded in a foreign country, devoid of contact with family, with restricted local movement, housebound at certain times, with limited understanding of the news, is rather challenging. 

Elderly and sick parents and grandparents at home, nieces and nephews growing without you, brothers and sisters who could do with a hug (after quarantine), all too far away.

So you look to the helm and hope the gap between the organisational rhetoric and the leader’s behaviour is minimal, ideally absent, as you ask the question: ‘‘Are we safe?’

The character of your international school leader

Who is stood there? Who is navigating our course through these dangerous and uncharted waters? Who has the physical and psychological safety of our own children and partners at the heart of their decisions and behaviours?  

You hope to see a Shackleton: a value-driven, servant-leader, who, in the face of adversity, stays with his men, leading them through the most savage of times, placing his own needs last, suffering personal hardship to ensure their wellbeing.

What trust dividends these leaders will reap. What loyalty and respect they will rightly enjoy. What a culture they will create. What authenticity they will be able to justly proclaim!

How lucky the international families, teachers and communities who found themselves with these captains. Many did. But not all... 

A different leader

In these potentially isolating international waters, some teachers found themselves in a different predicament. 

At their helm was a figure more reminiscent of Captain Schettino of the Costa Concordia.

A captain's character uncomfortably unveiled, deserting the ship and all on board. Subsequent deplorable, embarrassing excuses that held no weight with the crew or court. Unapologetic and dishonourable to the last.

Ignoring the warnings of the coastguard, he sat in the safety of the delusional echo chamber created by his second officers as they rowed to support his survival. Efforts benefiting only themselves in the short and long term.

This was remote "leadership" from a starkly underpopulated lifeboat – disconnected and detached. A position no leader should be in but sadly some were.

“Your wellbeing is important to us...” may have been heard faintly by those left behind, carried by the unmistakable winds of self-interest, as the emergency megaphone drifted further from the shipwreck, each time the words becoming fainter: “We are listening deeply… You are valued… “ 

Sharing stories

The fragility and vulnerability involved when choosing a career in international teaching has never been more apparent, amplified by this global pandemic.

And yet, arguably, the extent to which it made you question remaining in international teaching really did depend on the leadership you found yourself under during the Covid storm.

We know of many international families that found their leaders to be Shackletons. It’s affirming and encouraging to know they are there.

Sadly, after sharing "virtual shanties" with other international colleagues, there are clearly a few Schettinos out there, too.

For many, this meant it was time to plot a course home. Will they brave the international waters again? Perhaps...

However, like for so many other international educators who travel with their loved ones, never has it been more important to have those essential assurances from the current sailors on board, that the tickets confirm travel on The Endurance and not the Costa Concordia.

The author is an international teacher who has worked in three countries abroad and been a teacher for 17 years

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