Bursting the bubble

I’ve just been reading this piece on European Schools by Vincent Manancourt, and I thought I’d offer some reflections.

Vincent explains that he usually says he’s from Luxembourg, since that’s where he was brought up and lives, but that he doesn’t really believe it. He’s actually English, and just lives in Luxembourg, yet he’s not ‘really English’ either.

He suggests that his nationality crisis is due to his having attended the European School in Luxembourg. People from the school didn’t speak the language of the host country and didn’t need to mix with the locals (although he himself did mix to some extent), and in general there wasn’t a sense of permanency in his friends’ residency in Luxembourg. This, he feels, created a tense relationship between the school and the host country. He sums it up by saying that the school exists in a bubble, and the school community is like a stream that flows through Luxembourg but doesn’t have a permanent presence there.

Now, I don’t know Luxembourg and I was not lucky enough to attend a European School myself. But I have travelled and lived in different countries, and I currently teach in a European School (in Heraklion, Crete). And like Vincent I feel confused about my national identity. For as long as I can remember I have always felt ill at ease when asked where I was from. It didn’t matter where I was living at the time, what age I was, or who was asking.

I felt people wanted to place me, get the measure of me, reduce me to a familiar stereotype they could deal with. That might be convenient for them, but it’s simplistic and short sighted. I knew that a simple answer (even if I could give one) wouldn’t really be helpful to them or fair to me. We are not merely products or representatives of a country, and there is so much more to us, to each one of us, than a birthplace. Someone’s origin was never important for me, no more than their religion, gender, or ethnicity. People are complex collections of experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and desires, and a person’s country of origin is just one of a huge number of parameters — and not the most important one. In fact it would make more sense to ask what food I prefer or what music I like than to ask about my country of origin.

Of course, our connections with countries do colour our habits and attitudes to some extent. But we are not connected only to our birthplaces, and the great benefit of being able to travel and live in different countries is that one can build more connections and enrich one’s outlook.

European Schools facilitate this — they bring different national perspectives together in a natural way. And the school environment need not be an artificial bubble cultivating imported attitudes, but a meeting place, where different cultures can co-exist and flourish together, and where individuals can choose the elements that are most meaningful to them. In this way, students can create their own individual European personalities, drawing on the continent’s rich cultural palette, rather than being defined by their birth certificate.

So at our school, we sing Greek folk songs and bake Swedish pancakes, we dye eggs for Easter and carve pumpkins for Halloween. We study Shakespeare, read Hans Christian Andersen, and recite Cavafy. Some might say it’s a cultural soup – and perhaps it is, but it’s a very nourishing one, and one that builds more strength than some stodgy local diets!

I certainly don’t feel I live in a bubble. Working at the school, I have built up a network of friends across Europe — former pupils, parents, colleagues, and visitors. We keep in touch, they come back to visit, and we visit them. If it’s a bubble, it’s one that includes the whole continent!

Is the school community a transient stream? In a sense, yes — people come and go. But that’s not bad; that’s life. Steams are living things and the school brings new people and new life to Heraklion and carries the culture of Crete and Greece out to the rest of Europe. We need more streams like this!

But maybe others think we live in a bubble? Maybe they think that, since we do not thoroughly assimilate into the host culture, we remain outsiders? Certainly there is some resistance to the school here and occasional accusations of elitism. But I think such attitudes are misplaced. We do not reject the host culture. Far from it! We embrace it and celebrate it and work on many projects with the local community. But we embrace much more too. We embrace the cultures of the children who have moved here, of the teachers who work here, and of the other schools across Europe with whom we have contacts. If anything, it’s our critics who live in a bubble, shut off from this wider European culture.

Of course, none of this is aimed at Vincent – but rather at the attitudes that make him feel uncomfortable. Moreover, Vincent is absolutely right about one thing – namely that ignorance of the local language keeps you in a bubble. Language is the key to culture, and the more languages you have, the wider your horizons will be. And we should all make an effort to learn the language of the country we are living in, or even just visiting. But again the European Schools are helping to puncture these linguistic bubbles. Second languages are learnt from first grade and third languages in high school. Many of my students speak three or four languages and many take extra classes in Greek.

So we need more people to burst out of their bubbles and share the spirit of the European Schools. We need more European Schools; indeed I’d like to see all the schools in Europe become European Schools! Then we can leave our national bubbles, be ourselves, and feel at home everywhere.

Still no news

It’s Wednesday evening and we still have no news from the EU schools meeting in Sophia. It seems our case is low down on the agenda and may not be discussed till tomorrow (the meeting lasts several days).

Meanwhile I appeared on TV Creta this afternoon, along with Gian Andrea Garancini from the PGA and Fanis Fanourakis from ENISA. I wasn’t pleased with my own performance (I was very tired and migrainy), though Gian Andrea and Fanis put our case well.

When we get any news, I’ll post it here.

One day to go!

Disclaimer: As always I am writing here as a citizen and parent of three pupils at the SEEH, not as a representative of the school’s management, teachers, or PGA.

There is now less than a day left before the meeting of the European Schools Board of Governors in Sophia, Bulgaria. Have we got the Minister’s signature?

Well, if we have, we haven’t been told. Now, I won’t mind at all if I find out that the ministry simply forgot to tell us, or that they regarded it as premature to inform us before the meeting (though I think the parents, teachers, and especially the students deserve better, especially after such a difficult year).

That is, I am not bothered in the slightest, provided the Minister has actually given the explicit confirmations he promised. As long as confirmation is on the table along with all the other papers for tomorrow’s meeting, I won’t be upset. In fact, I’ll be delighted.

But will a document from the Minister be presented tomorrow? And if so, will it say the right things? Perhaps the thing I fear most – almost more than closure – is another fudge, a compromise that keeps the school going but doesn’t solve its underlying problems. I fear this because our children, and therefore we too, simply cannot bear a repeat of this situation next year. We cannot have another year in the same building, with a late start and the same old problems, and with another inspection that the government won’t take seriously. It is demoralising, unsettling, and degrading to us all. And in “us” I include our partners in the European Schools network and all those people who signed our petition (nearly 3,000 worldwide), shared the word about our campaign, and sent us messages of encouragement and support. We owe it to them too not to accept half-baked solutions.

There is another aspect to this. Some of us fear that those responsible for the school, while unwilling to close it outright, may actually want a half-baked solution. They may think that if they keep the school running under unsatisfactory conditions, the psychological pressure on parents will be so great that they will give in and transfer their children to another school. Similarly, teachers and management may become so demoralized that they quit their posts. In this way, the school would collapse of its own accord and the burden of blame for closing it would not fall on any specific individual or group.

I hope no one in authority is thinking in this fashion, but, if they are, then I think they should reflect on the events of the past two weeks, and reconsider their strategy. Parents, teachers, and pupils have shown themselves highly resilient and deeply committed to their school – more so, I suspect, than anyone bargained for.

For myself, I am committed to the school for somewhat selfish reasons — for the sake of my three kids and myself. But I am equally committed to it for the sake of my students, the local community, the region, Greece, and Europe. We would all be poorer if this school were forced to close. I feel I have a duty to do my best for the school. And I know that I am not alone in this – the other parents and teachers and the school management feel the same. We won’t just let the school go. So, no closure, and no half-baked solutions either, please.

We need real solutions, and if we are to get them, we need more students. That way, the problems will start to resolve themselves. The school will be seen to be far more economical, and it will be in the government’s interest to support it. And then the authorities may finally realize that the SEEH, far from being a burden, is a terrific asset for Greece, whose ethos and practices should be adopted throughout the country.

So of all the changes, opening up enrolment may be the key one. If you would like to see it happen, and to register your own children at the SEEH, please come and talk to the school management when registrations open in June. Then all sides will win!

Six days to go!

Wednesday was a wonderful, inspiring day.

Pupils, teachers, and parents marched through Heraklion to the City Hall, where they put their case to the city authorities. The Mayor of Heraklion promised to help guarantee our school’s future and the Governor of Crete affirmed his support for the SEEH.

Our campaign got a lot of press coverage, and our petition passed 2,000 signatures.

Our campaign received strong endorsement from many leading academics, including Professor Evripides Stefanou (Rector of the University of Crete), Professor Nektarios Tavernarakis (Head of the The Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (IMBB-ITE), Heraklion), Dr Christos Tsatsanis (Vice Dean of the Medical School, University of Crete), and Dr Eleni Vasilaki President of the Department of Primary Education, University of Crete.

Our case is strong and we certainly making an impression! Let’s keep going until we get the Minister’s signature too!