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Good Intentions

By Loretta Smith
Good Intentions

This week a story came back to me, an old story. Unexpectedly, it took me back to my life as a first grader in Germany. When I was five, my family fled the civil war in Sri Lanka. Our first stop was Germany. I don’t remember kindergarten, but I do remember school. I had the kindest teacher. German as an Additional Language class did not exist, but she spent her afternoons, after all the other children had left, playing games with me, and teaching me German. I felt cared for and valued.

During snack time a choice of milk could be purchased. As a refugee, I automatically received a carton of two-percent milk, every day. I distinctly remember having a conversation with my mom about the milk at school. Did she know about it? Had she chosen for me? No, she was unaware. I also distinctly remember plotting. Come next snack time, I decided, I would like to try something else. It wasn’t that I really wanted vanilla or chocolate milk, it was more that I wanted to try trying.

The next day, the milk was wheeled into the classroom and I, a 7-year-old with a mission and very little German, set my plan into motion. I proceeded to cry. I figured that some sensible child or adult would soon translate my crying coupled with pointing gestures into, “she wants to try another flavor.” But as great big crocodile tears rolled down my face, my peers and my teacher looked at me in utter confusion. Milk is what Loretta received – that is what she always got. It had been decided. It was the best option. Wasn’t it nice that she got milk? What was the problem?! The tears that had quietly rolled down my cheeks soon turned into wails, and what had started as an attempt to exert some control, spiraled into frustration and a full blown, screaming, wailing, clenched fists, floor pounding melt down.

At the end of the school day, my teacher related my uncharacteristic behavior to my mom. We walked home in silence. My amma never asked me about the incident or my behavior. She never made me apologize. I think she saw my embarrassment; perhaps she even knew the feeling that floods over you when you realize you never really had a choice or power or voice; the deep shame you feel for ever thinking that you did. I still remember that feeling.

As the story paces through my head, I try to make connections. I am back in Germany. I have been for the past 19 years. I am an international school teacher and part of a privileged community. I work at a beautiful school where families can afford milk, choices are plentiful, and student agency is a part of the curriculum. Yet I can’t seem to shake the feeling that milk meltdowns are happening all around me.

Globalization has blurred boundaries, brought countries and cultures together, and created diversity in classrooms. While this diversity can be enriching and exciting it has also challenged traditional curricular goals and pedagogy. Awareness for the need for more inclusive education continues to grow. 

The International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) explicitly states that “there is a growing awareness among governments that educational systems have to work in an international society, not just a national one. We engage with many governments, either to create more IB world schools or to influence national education systems” (IBO, 2020). The concept of international education is already being re-envisioned as a pedagogy useful and advantageous for creating belonging in an increasingly global, interconnected world.

International schools readily conjure up colorful images of children from a variety of nations playing, laughing, and learning together. Their missions and visions are inspiring, often including aspirations to develop “socially responsible,” “global,” and “internationally minded” citizens. International school websites proudly boast the number of different nationalities represented in their community. Events such as International Meal Day, Parades of the Nations, and World Fest seem to help celebrate this diversity and nurture appreciation of differences. These events and plans are often fun, informative, and (not to mention) delicious. How useful are they, however, in realizing our mission of developing internationally minded citizens and nurturing the individual humans in our care?   

Last year, my middle schooler came home wondering what to bring to school for international meal day. During dinner we discussed what food might best represent a German, Sri Lankan, Canadian, Brit. “That’s impossible!” my youngest laughed. And yet, it was possible; there were two live German, Sri Lankan, Canadian, Brits sitting across from me. The classrooms were filled with multiple passport holders and families with nuanced stories who lived with and between several cultures. In the end we decided on banana bread because we had a bunch of ripe bananas. As I jokingly shared this story with a fellow parent, she admitted that her daughter and her had had a similar conversation. The mom had suggested that they make pigs in a blanket as an ode to the many years the family had spent in the United Kingdom, but her daughter had argued that others would expect her to bring in sushi because of her visible ethnic heritage. I wondered whether events such as international meal day further perpetuated stereotypes and expectations based on the outward appearance of individuals. How did it affect the developing identity of students; their understanding, interpretation, and manifestation of who they are, who they should be, and who they could be?

Many years ago, the lower school completed a school installation involving each student’s national bird. It looked beautiful and represented and celebrated not only our diversity but also our common goals. My son had struggled with the choice. How could he choose just one bird, and which one would he choose? When he shared his dilemma with me, I was confused. I offered to contact his teacher. Surely, he could create a new bird, possibly a combination of national birds. My son said, “No. I have to choose. It doesn’t matter.” I don’t know if he ever asked, but he didn’t want me to make a fuss; he didn’t want to stand out or be different. Years later, he mentioned this project in a conversation.  Without knowing it, this seemingly insignificant moment, this inconvenience, this blip in a beautiful project about diversity and union had made a big unintended impact. I wondered how many more incidents of identity-based harm are brushed off, laughed off, and go unnoticed during the school day.

On our drive to school a few weeks ago, I asked my kids the routine “good parent” first day of school questions, “How are you feeling? What are you most excited about?” “I’ll tell you what I am not excited about,” my son piped up, “being asked where I am from!” As a cross culture kid (CCK), I too hate that question, but I had forgotten how many start of the year “getting to know you” activities involved pinning kids to a specific nation or requiring them to identify a geographical “home.” Later that morning I caught myself asking a colleague whether she had gone “home” for the summer. I realized that I too had inadvertently adopted the dominant culture of the school, where home was outside the current country of residence and going home in the summer was normal. I wondered what other dominant attitudes, mannerisms, and views I had adopted in order to fit in and unknowingly perpetuated. How many times had I inadvertently caused harm to children like my son?

My crying, screaming, 7-year-old outburst over milk was most arguably over lack of agency, voice, and power; but perhaps it was also about good intentions. The milk program, I have no doubt, stemmed from good, noble, compassionate intentions and yet it left me feeling frustrated, angry, singled out, unseen, and alone. What choices in our international schools are driven by the good intentions of adults who view the world through a single, dominant culture?  What curricular, reporting, documenting, and even architectural decisions are made? What events are chosen to be celebrated- why and how? And how do these well-intentioned choices impact the agency and developing identity of our cross culture children and children from marginalized groups? Their families and the wider community? How many of these well-intentioned events leave our students metaphorically wailing, fist pounding, misunderstood, and feeling unseen on the floor?

Everything that we do as educators, even the most mundane things, send powerful messages about what we believe and value. These messages are arguably even more powerful than our written curriculum and mission. When we ask children to identify where they are from, what implicit messages do we send about identity and belonging? When we ask families to attach their identity to a dish, a flag, or an artifact, what messages do we send about that culture- and culture itself?  When our dress up centers are filled with “exotic” costumes, what story do we tell about other cultures and what is the “norm?”

For many international educators, the school year is already off to a busy start. We are busy making sure to offer a wide selection of books, diversify our curriculum, hang up inclusive displays, and decolonize our resources, maybe even re-examine our mission statements or understanding of high quality learning. And while these are good, necessary actions, and are no doubt driven by good intentions, we still need to challenge the lenses through which these decisions are made and translated into action in our schools.

Nurturing global citizens takes more than festivals and celebrations. Perhaps it takes even more than diverse resources, an inclusive curriculum, and a mission. It requires those in charge of the resources and those delivering the curriculum to take a moment to look within ourselves; To examine the experiences, views and intersecting identities that shape us and through which we approach the mission, our classroom instruction, students, community, and life. What drives our good intentions and what do they look, feel, and sound like in the varied, diverse lives of our students?

Perhaps instead of handing out milk or even a choice of milk, it is time to look beyond our own known, trusted, familiar comforts and ask ourselves and the community what it is these unique individuals in our care need to nurture them.

Loretta Smith is a teacher with more than 20 years of experience in international schools. She grew up between cultures, moving several times during her childhood. She is also the mother of two multi-racial, cross culture kids. Her experiences of straddling several cultures as a child, adult, parent, and educator have made her aware of how people negotiate belonging in different spaces. This tension drives her curiosity, inquiry, and research into belonging. Her study on your children’s perceptions of belonging in culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse settings is a part of the recently published Handbook of Research on Critical Issues and Global Trends in International Education. Loretta currently enjoys exploring the world with 4- and 5-year-olds at Frankfurt International School. 

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02/02/2024 - NK
Totally relevant to many schools–not just international schools. The paragraph about international meal day was almost identical to a conversation with a friend the other day. She said that she hoped the primary school her sons had attended was no longer having an international meal. It was forcing families to make decisions about a single nationality and background. Her boys have two nationalities and live in a third country. People also need to think about distinctions between Culture (with a large C) and culture (with a small c). With a large C, it is often stereotypes of a particular Culture–i.e. what is the national dance of country A, B or C (as if there is a national dance). With a small c, it is daily customs and habits which may evolve and morph over time, as these become a blend of people's and families' own experiences. So perhaps rather than having to choose a single cuisine and putting a dish on the Sri Lankan, Moroccan or Brazilian table, students bring in a family favorite and share not only tasting it but the history of the dish in the family. Perhaps the recipe was handed down. Maybe the main ingredient is typical of where the family used to live. Make it more than a culinary experience. Make it a true learning experience.
01/23/2024 - Claire
Many thanks for this article. You beautifully describe how a well intentioned act made you feel excluded, as it took away your choice. I believe that there remain many well intentioned initiatives to acknowledge Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice that inadvertently make our students feel different, othered, without a voice. There are still incidents of token inclusion to tick the box, rather than ensuring that students feel that they belong. It made me think of a different example, where by son, who is dual heritage had his hair in cane rows (or corn rows). Whenever he took his hair out, it would be in an afro. People, often staff, would come up and touch his hair, and express amazement. He hated it so much that he would beg me to have his hair re-plaited before he returned to school. It made him feel different, set apart from his friends. He told me "I'm not an alien!" . When he was 14 he went to the hairdressers without me and had all of his beautiful hair cut off. I was devastated - but it was time for him to choose. I too have curly hair. When I have a new hairstyle I might get a compliment, but nobody touches my hair. I believe that all schools need anti-bias training so that they can genuinely see the students in front of them and work to include everyone positively within the curriculum, and the fabric of the school.
01/19/2024 - Donita
I love this so much. Truly globally minded school live an inclusive mindset but that takes a collaborative effort on behalf of the whole school and the values they hold. Thank you for this!
01/18/2024 - Lionel
Very well said Loretta - thank you ??