By Nick Gilbert – International School Parent Magazine
Frazer Cairns started his career as a management consultant and journalist after graduating from the University of York in the UK. He retrained as a science teacher and subsequently taught in the UK, Indonesia, Singapore and Switzerland. Having worked in international schools for most of his career Frazer is particularly interested in the way language is used in multilingual educational settings. He continues to study and contribute to research in this area, holding both Masters and Doctorate degrees in education.
An ex-runner, Frazer enjoys sports (despite his knees not being what they once were) mainly mountain and road bike racing, open water swimming, snowboarding and mountain walking. Frazer is married to Rebecca and has two children, Matthew and Hannah, both of whom attend ISL.
From journalism into teaching, how did that happen?
I have a particular reason for teaching. I was working as a foreign correspondent on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, I also spent some time in China, a bit of time in Tibet and of course working in different places you end up seeing lots of things. There was one particularly stressful day in the office. I was in the very north of Pakistan, and there had been some intertribal violence, and some people were killed which I found quite upsetting. Later, while talking about the day with the interpreter, he said: “the problem is that these people are poorly educated, and if they were more educated then these things wouldn’t happen”.
I was young and idealistic and I went home and thought about it a lot. There are times when something goes round in your brain and I thought he was probably correct. I believe that journalism is really important. Bearing witness to things and reporting the truth. But I had an almost “road to Damascus” moment where I thought “if that’s the case then I should go and teach”. So I quit my job and went back to the UK to train as a teacher.
Lots of people say that the unplanned things are most interesting. It’s true. I have never really planned my life in stages, but that was a change in direction, and I guess flavours a lot about why I think education is important and the type of education that is very important to me. I am convinced that education is the way to make the world a more peaceful place, and I think it is probably the only way to make the world a more peaceful place.
How would you say that these experiences shape your approach to education?
In lots of ways. In my next assembly to the high school students I will make the point that the opportunity to choose your path in life is an extraordinary gift, and not one that is given to everyone.
There is a line that is misatributed to Spiderman, “With great privilege comes great responsibility”. The idea is that actively trying to make choice is a fundamental obligation and so that comes into my idea of education. Education is preparing people to try and make choices which are best for themselves but also, and more importantly, best for society more generally.
What have you learnt from your time as a head teacher of an international school?
First and foremost, I have learnt that the job is not what you think it is. Like all teaching jobs, it involves a great deal of picking up rubbish and moving chairs, and that’s an important part!
More seriously though, I have seen that there are a very large number of very good schools in the world. Children can all go to a very good school in any number of places. However, the difference between a good school and a great school actually comes down to a sense of purpose. Great schools have a really clear vision about what education is, and what the school is for. Every time I see a good school, I recognise that there is a tangible clarity of purpose to the organisation. If that purpose infuses the school, then it usually makes it an exceptional place to learn. If it doesn’t have that, then there is normally something missing.
Is that normally something you can change?
Yes, of course. A school’s culture has to be constructed, and collectively I think you can articulate a purpose. I think however that it’s not possible to just impose a purpose on something as it must be genuine. It has to come from within the community. There is no use saying, “we are the school that does XYZ” if you don’t offer that.. However, if you can get people to understand what their purpose is, and what the purpose of the organisation is, then I think that is an enormously unifying asset which gives a school clarity and focus. This sense of purpose comes from a conversation with all the stakeholders in order to draw out what the fundamental aspects are that make the school special. When a school has clarity and focus, the children respond to that. Everybody wants to be a part of an organisation that has a place in the world.
What makes this school special?
That’s a good question for someone who just arrived and of course I have come here for a reason.
The nature of the relationships at ISL is unique. The school has worked very hard to construct a close family feel, and there is a reason why that is important. It matters because, in a multi-cultural, multilingual setting like ours, people have to feel safe to have proper, serious conversations. I worry about the idea of ‘cultural tolerance’. By that, what I mean is, if you have groups of people and you tolerate them, you live alongside them, and you never question them, and you never question yourself, then we will never understand each other.
By merely tolerating people I think you can also end up marginalising people, and marginalised people retaliate. We can’t have a school in which it is not ok to ask questions, mainly when sometimes these may be difficult questions. To be able to ask someone a difficult question, you need to feel safe with them. Therefore, the closeness of the community at ISL is essential. Without that you get surface level conversations, or worse, people sticking to party line without really believing it, which gets us nowhere. I think that is quite special and unusual.
The second aspect here is that there is a genuine commitment to what is sometimes called a holistic education. By holistic, I mean an education that goes beyond a basic academic education, which I think is necessary but not sufficient on its own. What we aim for is to help students think about their place in the world, encourage them to try and think about the nature of their decisions, to encourage them to take a moral stance on particular things. So, within the school here there is a broader view of what education is. It is not just about getting to university. It is about wanting to create better people in the roundest possible sense.
In that case, a student graduating from here is characterised as?
Of course, everyone is different but I would like a child coming from here to have a very broad set of tools so that they have a very wide range of choices open to them. One aspect is to prepare them academically very well to end up with the well-educated child.
The other aspect that we want our students to be aware of, is their place in the world. That there are things in life on which you should take a position, issues you should engage in, and things which you should just not be happy about, things that you should get up and do something about.
I hope that our students go away feeling that they have the confidence and the tools necessary to do something if they think something is not right. I would hope they come away with faith. I don’t mean religious belief, but I would expect they would go away with a view that “good govt” with a small G is possible. That they have faith in the potential of people to live together peacefully and they don’t see the world as doomed, but rather that they are optimistic about their and our future.
I hope that our students leave here seeing life for what it is, an enormous adventure.
What do you think the parents of ISL value?
Openness, honesty and trust are essential within the school, and I think they value the closeness of the school highly. They appreciate the fact that their child is known as an individual and they are not a small cog in a massive machine. They value that the school tries very hard to deal with everybody.
There are only so many variables in a school; I think that different schools emphasise different bits of these variables. I think the way ISL works is by making the young people feel close to each other. I think the intangible that the school values, is that openness, living with and in different cultures rather than living next to them. Parents value that too.
Inter-culturalism is one of the guiding principles at ISL. It is more complicated in the modern world, however. The reality of today is that – like many parents living internationally – my children were born in Geneva; they’ve lived in France, Singapore, and Switzerland. They are not British in the same way I am, even though they describe themselves like this. I think the complexity of many people’s sense of identity is different now than it was in the 1960’s when the school opened which is fascinating. Again, the school wants children to have a conversation with the person next to them and try to understand it.
Within that intercultural environment, how do you get children to do their best academically?
The research on academic performance is evident. The fundamental factor that makes the most significant difference is good teachers. When all is said and done, if you put good teachers in front of children and you encourage them, you make sure they carry on learning, and they are connected to the institution, then children will learn.
The second thing is about having high expectations. Alan McLean, an education write, wrote a book called “The motivated school”. He talked about lessons being thought about on two axes. One axis is whether children feel isolated or part of the group. The second axis is whether the classroom is teacher controlled or whether you give the children real responsibility.
In an excellent classroom, you set very high expectations. At the same time, you make people feel part of the group, that they are affirmed in their own identity, and you give them genuine responsibility. You allow them the space to learn. It can’t be about getting children to repeat stuff that you’ve told them. You need to make them genuinely love learning.
Have you got any plans to develop academically or outside the classroom?
Like everyone when they arrive, my primary job is to try to understand what makes it unique. So that’s my first job. My second job is to help the school understand it’s mission and aims.
ISL has expanded and has done so incredibly successful. It’s gone from quite a small school to quite a large school. When you have been through a period of expansion, you have to reimagine yourself and say, “now we are bigger, is it enough just to be bigger?”. So, I have something to do there regarding redefining the direction and the vision of the school which I think is essential.
I am also really interested in looking at the nature of pedagogy in the classrooms. Research is clear about what are useful approaches. I am genuinely interested in what makes a good lesson tick. We have all been in good ones, and we have all experienced bad ones who never seem to end!
Is there anything we haven’t covered about getting people to understand each other’s cultures?
It’s easy to get a surface understanding of culture, and often organisations content themselves with that. I think that knowledge of cultures only really comes from close interaction and having the courage to ask people why. Why is it like that? And at the same time to reflect on your own culture and to ask yourself why you believe that something is right.
What is the best thing about being in an international school in Switzerland?
One of the best things about being in Switzerland is that it is so beautiful to be outside. The connection with nature that is possible within Switzerland is astounding. So that’s lovely.
The setting is fantastic, the opportunity that young people have here. You can go skiing, visit Cern, you can go to the UN. There is a whole variety of things. So many of the things that I want my children to be able to do are possible here, and easily accessible.
There is enormous accessibility to different cultures. You can go to Italy and speak to Italians and be back the same afternoon. The multilingualism of it is incredibly attractive. Research on multilingualism is exciting as it gives children many advantages when they are growing up. There are so many facets to the country that there is so much one can do within the school, and with young people.
Also, the standard of Swiss education is excellent. The Swiss Matura is an excellent education, and generally, education in Switzerland is held in high regard. Amongst local teachers, education is important. I think that it makes it a nice place to work.
You love cycling, what else do you occupy yourself with outside of school?
Well yes, I cycle. I love cycling, I love cross country skiing, downhill I tend to snowboard though rather than ski because I have a sore knee. I love open water swimming. I did the race from Lausanne to Evian last weekend which was a good swim! I also sea kayak, so I have brought those with me, and I am sure there are some lovely tours to do around lakes and rivers in the region. So yes, lots of sports.
Lausanne is entirely different to Geneva, so it is quite lovely to discover Lausanne. I like sport, and I read a lot, I love art and all sorts of things. I also like dance, and of course, you have the Béjart Balet here which is very good, so there is a whole variety of stuff I can pick up here.
Is there a program for new arrivals at the school?
I can talk about that quite easily actually because we also arrived as a family this year. A lot of information goes out to new arrivals! The most important thing for my kids was that they had a buddy. During the summer holidays, both of my children got emails from their buddies explaining the school, how great it is, etc.
The thing about young people is that they often don’t want to stand out, they want to be part of the group. So, it was really nice for them to feel like they had friends and knew some names already. At the end of the first day when I asked them how it was they both said it was lovely. Both my kids said that they felt very welcome and well looked after.
One of the things about being international is that we have all arrived. And so everyone knows what it’s like to arrive. I think this school has a community that is used to welcoming people.
The PTA has a welcome brunch during the first weekend so as a parent coming in there are lots of opportunities to talk and to meet. There are also family buddy systems so parents can go for a barbecue together or meet up. Lots of them end up being long term friends.
There is also a mindset that says because everyone is more or less transient there is a natural inclination to try and be welcoming and help people. International schools in many situations form a hub that doesn’t usually materialise in a national school. Indeed, here is a place that parents will come to socialise, they construct their lives around the school to some extent.
What are the challenges that children graduating in the future will face?
I think there are a lot of soundbites that are trotted out about the challenges of the future. Yes, absolutely the rate of technological change in the world is high-speed. It is also the case that we are not exactly sure of the kind of work that people are going to be doing in the future, and there is also a whole range of challenges I think that people are going to have to face up to in the short term. Problems which have been with us for a long time but are coming to a bit of a head. Our children are the lucky ones who are going to have to solve those problems, whether they like it or not is another question!
There is a quote by a man called Eric Hoffer. “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
I think the point about that is that what you need people to be is extremely flexible and capable of learning and that also comes down to confidence. I think it will be really important to continue helping young people to understand that they can learn, and that it is not to be feared.
Frazer Cairns, thank you so much for your time!