is the text of David Toze's speech at the Annual General Meeting, 29 May
Ladies and Gentlemen:
It has been my practice in recent years simply to read to you the words I wrote for the Annual Report. I understand that the Annual Report will be published later and, if you are interested, you can always read my words at your leisure. Today, I have something else that I would rather say to you. Transparency and openness are buzzwords at the moment; I shall endeavor to exemplify those qualities.
Some of what I say may appear to be self-referential. I make no apology for that. I want to share with you how I feel about things. This isn't intended to be a "feel-good" speech. It is designed to challenge you all to think about the future of our school. To think about key issues of governance.
Some years ago, I attended a conference at which spoke a psychologist whose area of specialty was "Organizational Climatology" - in other words, the study of the working atmosphere or environment to be found in a particular institution. In his presentation of positive versus negative ambience, he talked about what he called the "C" state - that is organizations where the following "C" characteristics were preeminent. The words he used were CONSTRUCTIVE, CONSENSUAL, COHERENT, CONSIDERATE, CHALLENGING. He contrasted the "C" state with the "F" state: FRENZIED, FRENETIC, FEARFUL, FEBRILE, FRAUGHT. The impact on productivity, creativity, employee health (through stress-related illness) and general well-being of the institution, he maintained, correlated exactly to the proportion of "Cs" versus "Fs".
I think you would be surprised, given the stories that circulate, just how much and how often the school is in the "C" state. Whether you talk to adults or students on this campus, I would hazard a guess that you will find people who are happy at their labors, who enjoy successes in their daily lives, who think of this as a fine place in which to work or study, who believe that the school is improving year on year. We see excellence in every area of this School: in the public events such as Graduation, the concerts, the art exhibitions, the plays and recitals, the sports performances, the community service projects, the examination results. But we administrators also see the same excellence in private too: in the quality of teaching and learning, the counseling, the coaching, the human relations here on campus.
It isn't just those people who work here who share that last view. When we had our mid-term WASC visit, the Accreditation organization sent along its President, David Brown, as well as one of the members of the original team who visited the School in 2000 - Cathy Funk, the Middle School Principal at the Taipei American School. After a three day visit, David Brown's congratulations to us for what we had achieved were fulsome; Cathy Funk, a sharp-tongued veteran of dozens and dozens of accreditation visits and a notoriously tough judge, told us that she had never seen a school that had improved so much over so short a period of time.
The one "C" we aren't, however, is COMPLACENT. The workload undertaken by our principal teams and our teachers is, at times, staggering. There are professionals in this building almost around the clock, who give hours far beyond their obligations; they do so with good grace and they do so for the benefit of your children. Every week, fresh ideas come to the surface - from teachers, from administrators, from clerical staff - they are analyzed, debated, judged and, if appropriate, acted upon. Not for one second does any teacher or administrator think that where we are as a School is as far as we are going to go.
The irony is that we are an institution cursed by the "F" state as well as blessed by the "C" state. The stories that circulate around our community, the gossip, the accusations, the innuendos are such that, at times, I simply don't know whether to laugh or cry. The politics and the machinations that surrounded the proposed by-laws changes - from both sides of the argument - were quite simply an embarrassment to our School and a dreadful example to the students within. I wonder whether those at the center of some of the activities that took place at that time realize just what damage they did to our reputation. I had to listen to the glee of my colleagues, or should I say competitors, from over the road and down the South Super Highway who took pleasure in telephoning me to say that they expected that their school enrolment would benefit - yet again - because the chaos at IS Manila was the talk of coffee mornings and cocktail evenings. Why do we do this to ourselves?
I was at the "Meet the Candidates" events earlier this month, and in the evening session one of the questions incorporated the gist of an article to be found in the periodical The International Educator - our trade newspaper, if you like. The theme of the article was about parents who play "Capture the Flag, in other words who manage to seize control of the school's agenda by representing themselves as the voice of the unheard. Let me quote a piece from that article for those of you who couldn't make the meeting:
One convenient forum for this parent is to become the "instant school critic". Everything is alleged to be better in his or her former community or in former times. He or she then seeks to put everyone in defensive positions - the teacher, the principal, the school head, the board of trustees - by demanding time to have their "concerns" heard. This parent will quickly find a supporting audience of others with similarly destructive intent…Such parents show up at all the meetings and soon establish themselves as "the voice of the people". They are active on the social scene. Mass e mail gives them a wider audience. Suddenly there is a lengthy list of concerns that they insist the school leaders must immediately address or else…How many times has an overseas school been shaken or almost destroyed by these people who are so skilled at capturing the flag?"
It's interesting that the author of this piece was Daryle Russell. I first met Daryle 25 years ago when he was High School Principal at…International School Manila. Of course he was writing about his more immediate experiences as a head of schools around the world, but I have to say that his words resonate with me.
One of my main goals when I came here was that we must have a professional administration; one that takes decisions because they are the right things to do, rather than taking decisions because they are the easy thing to do, and I am proud of the fact that our Leadership Team is strong enough to stand by what we believe. Of course we welcome parent participation; of course we listen to input; of course we see our community as full partners in our day to day work, but, from time to time, some people, at least, have heard the word "No" from us. That can be a shock in this country, where it is possible to live one's life from one year to the next without ever hearing that word, such is the level of deference one encounters here in the City of Manila. But we don't say no to be contrary. We do it because our first, indeed our only, obligation is to do what is right for the school and the community; not what happens to be desirable for a particular patron or pressure group.
One of those pressure groups has formalized itself at the ADB. What next? A pressure group at the US Embassy? A pressure group from the Korean community? Proctor and Gamble? The Filipino contingent? The U.N.? The European Union of Parents? All of them claiming representative status and that their factional interests be placed above other considerations? The notion that ISM's agenda should be driven by small interest or nationality groups meeting in cabals is, quite simply, preposterous. When I questioned my colleagues in the IASAS schools if they had similar groups within their communities, they thought I was hallucinating.
Another of my major goals - one that monopolized my attention even from before I arrived to take up post - was - and is - teacher quality. I remember when I was interviewed here in March 2001, that I had a meeting in one of the assembly rooms in the old campus. It was, ostensibly, a chance for me to meet with parents and talk about why I would be a good candidate for the post. In fact, after ten minutes, the session - with perhaps 200 parents present - turned into a tirade, a volley of complaints about the dreadful level of teaching in this school and the fact that plainly incompetent teachers were allowed to remain here year after year, seemingly immune to any efforts to move them on. I gave the standard answers about the value of professional development and rigorous appraisal and so on, but I also made it abundantly clear that, at the end of the day, a school was set up to provide students with an education rather than to provide teachers with a job, and, working from that premise, my decision-making would always fall on the side of the frustrated student and her parents rather than the unsuccessful teacher.
I observed classes in the week that I was interviewed, and then a couple of months later when I returned to do a handover with the then Interim Superintendent - whose own views on teacher quality at the school were not dissimilar to those of the parents. And I went into many, many classes in my first year.
I have to say from the outset that no school, anywhere, whether internationally or in your home countries, has a clutch of teachers who are all uniformly excellent. There is always a range of talents. As a school head, one hopes that that range goes from Satisfactory to Splendid. Even five years ago, there were some obvious pockets of excellence in terms of teaching, at all levels in the school, but there was much, too, that was well below satisfactory. Indeed, was downright bad - and this was not just a feature of the local hire faculty. A significant number of foreign hire teachers were simply not up to the task in front of them. In fact the worst lessons I saw in that first year were conducted by foreign hire teachers under the auspices of what was loosely called the Gifted & Talented program. Those mediocre teachers, local hires or foreign hires, have gone. And they have been replaced - at a time when recruiting high quality teachers has never been harder - by some fine practitioners.
Much of the mediocrity of that time was reinforced by weak administrative practices and a woeful curriculum - especially at Elementary level. I remember collecting in all the student work in math and language arts from 1st Grade at the end of October in 2001. There were four classes in Grade 1…the work I saw could have come from four different schools on four different continents. At the other end of Elementary, the 5th Grade program was a morass of seemingly random factual information, loosely sewn together by unconnected events: International Week; two weeks for Filipiniana; Christmas; Class Plays; Battle of the Books - it seemed as though every month we had the equivalent of Carnival in Rio.
One obvious upshot of this poor quality of practice was that the school was in serious decline in terms of enrolment. Over a period of seven years, numbers had fallen from 2,300 to just over 1400 when I took over. The Elementary section had declined from 930 to 480. Some of that could be explained by a reduction in the number of expatriate families in Manila, but that factor could not explain why the British School had doubled in size in those same seven years or how Brent had built and filled a large new campus down in Mamplasan. The fact is that ISM was hemorrhaging students to both these schools, and if we hadn't acted immediately there were serious questions over our future viability.
We've had five years of immense hard work, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks to the vision and commitment of the Trustees and other parents in the years 1999, 2000 and 2001, we have a beautiful campus - certainly among the best school facilities in the world. We have made enormous progress in curricular terms throughout the school but especially at the Elementary level. We have doubled the enrolment in our IB Diploma Program from 30% of the graduating class to 60% and rising to 70% within a couple of years - and without any decline in pass rates or points scores, despite the misinformation that some people blithely pass on. In other words, IB used to be a program only for the academic elite. Students not in that category were openly discouraged from participating. Now IB is for everyone. Our SAT scores are excellent; our seniors get into the best colleges around the world. We are seen by our sister schools in IASAS as a huge success story. The heads in those schools cannot believe the transformation in what was always viewed in IASAS circles as the weakest, the least international, the least progressive of the six schools. We have engineered a massive change in faculty and have some wonderfully talented teachers. Our enrolment has risen year on year such that we have well over 1700 students. Within school, there is a confidence and collegiality and optimism about the path we are following, and yet, listening to some of the election speak, and reading some of the text messages and e mails that have been circulating, here we are in the midst of a crisis with a failing school, inadequate teachers, an incompetent administration and people talking about the good old days when we were back in Bel Air.
Well there is a crisis of sorts, but not within the school. That, as I have said, is firmly within the "C" state. The crisis is in the community and in the governance of the institution. One reason for this is simple: because we have an all-parent, all-elected board, the direction our school takes, the agenda we follow is subject to the whims of the electorate and the idiosyncrasies and allegiances of incoming trustees. Perhaps that wouldn't be overly problematic if the electorate was fully participative and fully informed, but we all know that isn't how things are. A proportion of our community is politically active; the majority seems to be apathetic. Even in the case of the by-laws, which was as controversial an issue as we could have, hundreds and hundreds of families did not actively vote. At last year's election, only 90 people voted directly, while 380 votes were cast by proxy - much less than 50% of the community. The way in which some of those proxies were obtained - often from parents who wouldn't have bothered to vote unless "persuaded" so to do - made that election as vitiated and as flawed a process as I have ever come across in a school - until this one.
Last Saturday morning I gave the Graduation Address at Brent School in Baguio. Whomever I met over the weekend - whether Trustee or teacher - only wanted to talk about the extraordinary stories they had heard about the upcoming elections at IS Manila. Several of them had received forwarded-on texts and e mails from the campaign down here, full of false stories and accusations - who knows how far these things have spread? No one could understand why we are publicly tearing ourselves apart to the general distress of the school we profess to love and to the general glee of those across the road or down the South Super Highway.
This is a school with a long history of Board and community turbulence; Brent and the British School have, in large part, avoided the kinds of traumas to which ISM has been subjected. Have you ever wondered why? Let me reiterate my point: boards that comprise all-elected parent trustees are inevitably short term in tenure and thought. Only one of the Trustees in front of you, Mrs Tan Saban, has been in this position as long as I have been in mine. This year, we shall lose the Corporate Secretary - Jun Cua - whose exemplary service to this School, of more than two decades, gives us our only institutional history. Inevitably, since all Trustees are parents, they see issues first through the eyes of their children, and it is hard for them to have a horizon that goes further than the length of their posting. It is said that the ideal board has its heart in the past, its shoes in the present and its eyes on the future. How well do we match up to that yardstick?
The British School has a board that is part elected from the parent body but part selected from the wider community and includes ex officio members; Brent's board is all selected. Stability, consistency, objectivity, a broad perspective - all are seen as long term benefits of these two approaches to school governance. Interestingly enough, this question has been the subject of much comment among heads in current e mail traffic, since one head is in the process of setting up a school and asked for advice on how to construct a board of trustees. Here are a couple of comments from heads of large and prestigious international schools:
I have been struck by how fortunate I've been to work with a large, self-perpetuating Board of predominantly business people. No elections, no sudden lurches in different directions, a Trustee Committee, of which the Director is a member, to carefully select new trustees, people who 'get it' and are too busy running their own businesses to try to run the school. It has, touch wood, worked very well. Kevin Bartlett, International School of Brussels, Belgium
If you can avoid a Board elected by the parents, you will be doing yourself and the school a great favor. In Houston, all our Board Members, including 4 ex officio from embassies, are selected by the Committee on Trustees and do not have to be parents of the school, though some are. We operate in an organized and orderly way with standing committees doing most of the work, thereby keeping Board Meetings themselves short, effective and with little tolerance for grandstanding. The Board members do not see themselves as "managing" anything at all. They have just four roles to play: 1. Select the Head. 2. Approve policy. 3. Ensure there are enough funds available to implement that policy. 4. Fundraising. The Board never acts as a court of appeal for parents' grievances, never gets involved in the day-to-day.
We have found that this structure ensures continuity, preserves institutional memory, taps into local knowledge and expertise in specific areas (i.e. financing, legal, corporate etc) and avoids the politicization of the Board which, unfortunately, we have all seen many times. I agree with Kevin: when you get a group of like-minded, smart, willing people who (rather like the Speaker in the British House of Commons), are "dragged to their chair", instead of a group of elected one-issue zealots who leap right in there, then you are on the right track. David Watson, Awty International School, Texas
Well, you may be thinking, these are only heads, what do they know? What about listening to John Littleford, who is touted as the educational guru of US Independent Schools and, increasingly, international schools, especially in terms of governance and leadership issues. He has been a consultant for twenty years in this area. Here are some points from a couple of his latest publications:
" School heads today, by any set of measures, face more pressure than they have ever done - because of client expectations; because of board expectations; because of faculty expectations; because of greater transparency, speed of communication (especially by e mail), media intrusion, and because there is a greater disposition to distrust a figure in authority than there has ever been
" Seventy per cent of school heads are fired
" School heads in international schools survive on average less than three years in post
" School heads in US independent schools survive on average nine years in post
" The majority of school heads in international schools are supervised by parent-elected boards
" Only a tiny minority of school heads in US independent schools are supervised by parent-elected or parent-dominated boards
" Frequent turnover of boards inevitably means frequent turnover of heads
" School heads do not usually survive their fourth board president
" The usual tenure for a Board President in international schools is one to two years
" The usual tenure for a Board President in US independent schools is three to five years
And although Littleford doesn't present the next statement as a syllogistic conclusion that derives from the above points, he tells audiences wherever he goes that entirely parent-elected boards are less stable, less professional and less effective than all other models.
Don't believe Littleford? What about Dick Chait, Harvard Professor of Education, and if anything even more pungent about parent-run boards: "Any school board - he writes - that is dominated by current parents will find that its trustees are bound to be sullied by daily contact with the school, which inevitably distorts their perspective and their objectivity."
Or what about Daniel Scinto, the President of International Schools Services, the largest, the most influential of all organizations connected with the world of international education:
"International school boards as institutions have not evolved at all over the last twenty years. They continue, however well intentioned, to make the same mistakes:
1) Board Trustees continue to allow personal opinions, alliances and friendships to influence their decisions.
2) Board Trustees function as if they know as much about education as the professionals working in the schools.
3) Board Trustees do not treat their superintendents as they would treat CEO's of any other organizations.
4) Board Trustees think short term - because they think of their own children - instead of planning for long term educational and financial health."
These aren't extreme views, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what the experts think. If they were legal experts or medical experts or financial experts, there would be a rush to follow the advice of specialists. Unfortunately, everyone seems to believe that he or she is an educational expert.
In the meantime, IS Manila is a living laboratory to confirm the opinions of Littleford, Chait and Scinto. Look at the history of superintendents here: I am completing my fifth year. The last superintendent to survive so long was Dick Wethermon in the 1970's. Before that, you have to go back to the 1950's to find another superintendent to get the five year service pin. Look at my immediate predecessors: one year, two years, four years, three years, two years. Were all of those committees, all of those selection panels all so wrong? The answer is no. What is wrong is the construct in which we operate. And the climate that that construct generates.
I enjoyed three or four years here working in a constructive partnership with Boards of Trustees. There were conflicts and disagreements of course, as one would expect when intelligent, strong-minded people get together, but in general terms, there was a shared vision of where the school should go and how it should get there and a shared understanding of where the roles of Board and Superintendent intersect. This last year, despite the presence of serious, committed and thoughtful Trustees, the Board has arrived at a situation where, in certain ways, it is simply not functioning as it ought. Not through lack of effort; not through lack of time, not through lack of desire but through lack of synergy and lack of understanding of what is its role. Depending on tonight's election results, the present situation may continue as it is or worsen. If it remains the same or deteriorates still further, what would be the point of my staying?
And if I leave for that reason, so, I guess, will a large number of other employees. Not because of my decision, I hasten to add, but because, like myself, people prefer to work where there is order and predictability, where there is an atmosphere of harmony and trust, where they feel valued and respected. Some people in our community seem to feel that teacher morale or administrator morale is helped by gossip, rumor or downright slander. I have to tell those people that they are mistaken. But they won't be the only ones to pay the price for that mistake; all the children in this school will lose out.
We have a really good school here. It's a school that could become really great. But I think we are standing on the edge of a precipice and, like lemmings, we are about to throw ourselves off. We have a chance to pause for a moment, to step back from the ledge and attempt to rebuild our community, to start to speak well of our school instead of trashing it at every opportunity, to live up to those core beliefs about honest and respectful communication and living our lives positively and ethically that we framed so proudly 18 months ago. Or we could, like the lemmings, just leap into oblivion.