By Dr Mary Ashun
Ghana International School (GIS) is a not-for-profit, private, non-sectarian, coeducational day school established in September 1955 to provide international education to students of all races and creeds, at a time when Ghana was yet to achieve full independence and international schools were a rarity.
Sixty-seven years on, GIS continues to provide quality education to both international and local students in a completely different and more competitive educational setting. The school has been accredited for its educational excellence and its teaching and learning quality by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and the Council of International Schools (CIS), both internationally renowned education accrediting agencies.
Over our 67 years of existence, we have built a brand that is known for academic excellence and the development of global citizens. This reality hinges on the delivery of an enriched programme focused on holistic student development through the provision of internationally diverse school experiences within and outside of our multicultural setting.
“Regardless of your skin colour, to be successful at living, learning and working with others, you must be ‘internationally minded’.”
A diversity challenge
In the first 30 years of existence (from 1955–1980), our school was very racially diverse with less than 10% of enrolment coming from Ghanaian students. In the last 30 years, approximately 70% of our enrolled students are from Ghanaian/African homes as a result of a burgeoning African middle class who now have the privilege of acquiring what has always been described as an international education.
Our staff body is no different when it comes to this change in demographics. We used to welcome several educators from countries such as Canada, England, Scotland, the United States, Australia, India, South Africa, Benin, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Our expatriate teachers benefited from the experience in many ways, chiefly the exposure to a culture different from their own. Our own GIS teachers benefited from the interactions, most noticeably in the area of skills upgrade and awareness of even more varied ways of teaching. But we are no longer attracting educators from around the world the way we used to.
As Head of School, I have the privilege of attending international recruitment fairs. I watch with dismay as prospective teachers walk past my display to Germany, Australia, Canada, China and countries in the Middle East. There are occasional visitors to the South African and Kenyan stands; the favourite destinations on the African continent for those seeking an ‘African experience’, but for me and my Mali counterpart (a caucasian male Head), we had very few visitors at a recent fair in London because no one seemed interested! We lamented that we didn’t have as many wild animals as Kenya and South Africa had and perhaps, for Ghana, the history of the slave trade was not a draw… I should have brought along gold bars and chocolate!
The difficulty of attracting non-Africans to teach at many African schools is not unique to GIS and this unfortunately sends a negative message to prospective parents. As our student and staff body has become more Pan African, our descriptor as ‘international’ has come under scrutiny by non-African families who see a certain racial homogeneity that belies the African diversity within our walls with comments like “but you all look the same!”. With so few non-Africans, they say, how do you call yourselves ‘international’? As Head of School, I have had some uncomfortable conversations with prospective parents who seem surprised on arrival at the school for admissions interviews, that the school is predominantly African after hearing and reading about the excellence of the school. It is hard to dismiss the sentiments inherent in the comments made. Furthermore, when these parents, after being offered a place for their child at our school, turn the offer down to go to a school that has fewer Africans, it leaves us wondering how we can better understand what the word ‘international’ means to us – and them.
We cannot change who we are and who we are becoming because we actually like who we are becoming. After so many decades of unstable governments and economies, we are encouraged and excited by the burgeoning African middle class that now has the privilege of attending our school. We believe that regardless of your skin colour, to be successful at living, learning and working with others, you must be ‘internationally minded’. This is, of course, achieved more easily when you are immersed in an environment where people are different, but when you do not have that opportunity, what do you do? Well, you engineer it!
Visiting educators bring staff diversity and learning
In February 2022, we piloted a programme we called the Visiting International Educator (VIE) programme, with the express aim of diversifying our staff if only for a short while. In conversations with international educators, it was apparent that a medium- to long-term contract in ‘Africa’ was scary for some. We therefore devised a short experience, of one month, as a way to introduce ourselves to international educators and their schools. We hoped that this would help us to adapt to the change in climate for global travel and work, some of which is due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other unrest around the world due to religion, war and strife.
Here are some key elements of the programme:
- Visiting international educators spend one month at GIS.
- Educators do not pay a fee to participate in this programme.
- Candidates must have a minimum of an undergraduate degree and be a certified teacher from their home country and in good standing with the accrediting teacher education body of their country with at least three years’ experience teaching children in pre-tertiary educational institutions or supporting the work of teachers in school in an administrative capacity.
- Candidates must understand that this experience will require them, at times, to co-teach with a GIS teacher (unspecified nationality) and that they will be required to participate in all aspects of school life including participating and leading PD sessions with and for teachers and staff.
We now have two successful cohorts under our belt and ongoing collaborations with two educators from the same school in Copenhagen who visited us. If you would like to send a teacher or two to our VIE programme, we would be more than happy to hear from you!
Here are some tips for international leaders when confronting changing landscapes:
- Do not be afraid to discuss uncomfortable changes in your school environment.
- Engage your staff in the development of new initiatives that will confront change.
- Be prepared to invest in confronting the change in the form of human and financial resources.
- Ensure the outcomes you envisage for confronting change are measurable. This will help you communicate success (or failure) to your major stakeholders.
- Always ground your initiatives (to confront change), in your school’s guiding statements, mission and vision statements. This minimises bias and discrimination.