Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Five Year Building Site?

After being in Thailand for a year and a half where we lived in a 9th floor apartment, my family moved to a house.  On our soi (street) most of the old Thai houses had been knocked down to make way for large apartment blocks, hotels, serviced apartments and so on.  We were lucky to be able to rent one of the few remaining houses.  When we moved in, there was building work going on right behind our house, renovating the Dream Hotel.  We only chose to move there because we knew the hotel was almost finished and we wouldn't be living next to a building site for long.  It was a good decision - within months the hotel was finished and as the neighbours of the hotel we were able to use its facilities such as the rooftop pool.  We'd definitely not have chosen to move if we'd expected the building work to go on for years.

I'm thinking of a conversation last week about how long it takes to change a school or to build a new culture - the figure mentioned was 5 years.  This is a really long time.  It's twice as long as the time that I've been living in Switzerland, it's longer than the entire time we lived in Thailand.  When I think about my children, 5 years is over a third of their school lives and I think that's way too long to wait for change.  For myself this reminds me of my decision about moving to a house in Thailand.  I was happy to put up with a bit of short-term discomfort to reap some long-term benefits.  However I would not have been happy to live for 5 years next to a noisy and dirty building site.  In the time we lived in our house, far more of it was pleasant than unpleasant.  Now let's think about schools:  if the average turnover time for an international school is 5 years and changing the culture of a school also takes 5 years, how many international teachers would be prepared to go to a school that was at the start of the building and changing process, knowing they'd probably already be moving on before seeing light at the end of the tunnel?

The more I think about it, the more I question how accurate this time frame might be.  Schools can change, for good or for bad, in a very short period of time.  I've lived through one such change at a previous school, which moved from being fairly average to being excellent, and it didn't take anywhere near 5 years.  In my own subject I think that change in fact can be rapid as most teachers are keen to take on new things.  The IT departments I left after 5 or 4 or 3 years were completely different from the ones where I'd started - the philosophies, the hardware and software, the visions of how technology would be used, the schedules and so on.   I have also seen schools completely turn around with a change of just one person.   An inspiring Head, who values his or her staff, can have a real impact on morale in just a matter of months.

This morning I read a post from the ASCD which was about avoiding teacher burnout.  One of the things recommended was to take a long view of your teaching career and to look at the trends.  Don't judge your career by your mistakes.  Look at the mistakes you made and see how much you have learnt from them and then move on.  Living a few months beside a building site eventually led to us having a better life than staying in a high-rise apartment building.  Spending a couple of years in a school that is changing and building can also bring some valuable lessons though it might not be a comfortable place to stay for much longer than that.

Photo credit: Construction site by Tanakawho AttributionNoncommercial 

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