Putting the “International” back into International House

Putting the “International” back into International House

By Jeremy Barchus

There’s a story in the wrestling world that goes like this: it’s the early 90s, and Rick Rude” ‘Stunning’ Steve Austin and ‘Prime Time’ Brian Lee are in a car driving to the next town.

As usual, they’re discussing their pay from the last show with the younger two wrestlers in particular, bemoaning their lowly position in the business. At some point during the conversation, Rick Rude gets irked at their whining and barks at the younger wrestlers “What exactly is so ‘Prime Time’ about Brian Lee?” Silence. Then Rick turns to the young Texan. “What’s so ‘Stunning’ about Steve Austin?” The car falls silent again as the younger performers ponder their personas.

I like the story. It’s punchy, it’s sharp, and it has a message to impart that has long stuck with me. It seems it didn’t just stick with me either; it turned out to be pivotal for both of the younger wrestlers. Brian Lee dropped the moniker and went on to dubious, but moderate success, while Steve Austin reflected from this conversation that he was more “Stone Cold’ than ‘Stunning’ and went on to be one of the biggest names of his profession.

What if Rick Rude had been in a car with an anthropomorphised version of the International House network of schools? I can imagine him growling something like, “International house?! What’s so ‘International’ about it?”

Would he have a point?

Let’s take a moment to step back and consider that idea. Like a lot of other networks and companies we were forced by the circumstances of the pandemic to evolve, and evolve we did; but going forward we need to decide how much of this evolution we are going to continue to develop and what will fall by the wayside.

But what will that mean on a day to day basis? Until recently, I might have struggled to disagree with Rick. How ‘International’ are our schools? Don’t get me wrong - positive steps have been made along the way in terms of environmental initiatives and postcard schemes, both of which have brought our schools closer together, making them more like members of a truly international network. But the fact that we engage in limited forms of cooperation and nothing more underlines the point: Are we really making the best of the incredible opportunities our international network affords us?

I can sympathise with Brian Lee and Steve Austin. I’ve spent a decade as a teacher at this point, with most of that time spent with different schools in the IH network. My fundamentals are pretty sound, and I’ve learnt from many incredibly smart and capable teachers, learning some great techniques, and having many of these post-mortem conversations with colleagues that are essential to our development.

However, recently dipping my toes into management has made me see things a little differently. While a lot changes when you move between different schools with different ways of doing things, a lot stays the same too.

Let’s consider weekly meetings - or input sessions, or developmental sessions, depending on your own school’s preference for giving such things a name. Now that I’m more responsible for leading such sessions instead of just being a member of the audience, I can feel the pressure that comes with the expectation of novelty each and every week. Some schools solve this by presenting the same topics every year.

Others try to find newer things to present. But the pressure is tangible, and becomes even worse when you consider how time really does fly during the school year; add to the mix the sort of short-term panics and emergencies that befall every school, and you have a recipe for overload and chaos.

And what about those post-mortem chats like the wrestlers were having in their car at the beginning of this article? Early in my career, in North Poland, I remember many conversations like this on the drive back from satellite schools, breaking down what had and hadn’t worked and commiserating with my colleagues in the car. These discussions were essential for me; it’s arguable that I learned more in those car rides than I did doing anything else in my first few years, and I look back on them very fondly. Isn’t it a shame we can’t import that experience on a grander scale?

Because this is the thing. As ‘International’ as our house may be, that’s of no consequence if we don’t make the most of what it means. Which is a nice idea, but a worldwide network is a lot to manage, right? How could it all be pooled together in a way that works for everyone, with a minimum of fuss?

Well, we’re in luck. We already have the skills and the experience - we now just need the will to make it happen. Look back at 2020 (I know we’re all still trying to forget it but humour me). Our worlds were in danger of becoming much smaller as isolation and lockdowns loomed. But our network came through. Get-togethers and reunions on Zoom started to happen, and the circumstances temporarily made online modality the way to go for conferences and training days. Through the use of this technology, for a while we became more international. I remember being able to attend training days and sessions for the first time in a while during this period because I wasn’t restricted by the geography of where I was or by transport schedules. Meetings were starting to be recorded so they could be accessed at a later date for everyone. More and more of our admin moved to the Cloud, meaning it was easier to keep in touch with the school and its goings-on from a distance.

But when the pandemic ended, were we all so eager to return to how things were that we have since forgotten the road we had begun to travel down?

Think about how we could apply what we learned here to the weekly development of teachers and the running of schools. Instead of four Directors in different countries racking their brains over what to put on for development this week, why aren’t schools in the same or similar enough time zones collaborating by taking turns to present weekly or monthly sessions? Why not pool resources and take turns? The teachers would get the same benefits of working and collaborating with colleagues from different countries and the different energies and ideas that would bring.

Doing this would have unexpected benefits. When I worked in those satellite schools and had to travel back and forth, the idea was to be able to teach in more than one physical location; the idea was not to enable the teachers to discuss their lessons during the ride home, but that’s how it worked. Hosting training sessions between multiple schools would mean gaining all of those benefits I’ve listed above, while also allowing teachers from different schools the opportunity to get to know each other. To feel like they all belong to one network, a truly interactive network.

Think what that might mean. A teacher who has worked in one place and would like to see another part of the world would become known to the teachers - and directors - of other schools within the network. This will help IH to retain the best teachers instead of risking their loss to the competition. It will also mean that, when one school is faced with a problem, the teachers of that school may well discover that another school faced - and solved! - that very problem, and can share their solution easily and readily. We need to get used to hearing what problems are being faced by our neighbours in the network and how we can help them.

We should not limit ourselves to synchronous sharing, either. Cloud storage has become ubiquitous, and there is no reason why recordings of development sessions can’t be stored and exchanged between schools on a wider scale. The same goes for teaching resources - International House teachers are notable for their ability to generate great resources, and it is a shame that these rarely go further than the school in which they were first conceived.

I may well be preaching to the choir when I say this, but I honestly believe that International House is a great place to work and is a brilliant institution. But does it make the most of its superpower? Are we doing the best that we can to put the international back into International House?

I’m not saying we can do all of this overnight. Of course there are logistical concerns that come with the territory of collaboration - but isn’t it the point of what we’re here to do? Surely the problems of one school should be the problems of all? Even if worldwide collaboration is unrealistic, regional collaboration can be strengthened through regular low-level collaboration on something like meetings and development sessions; and when we have mastered that, can’t we think of taking things further?

Much like “Stunning’ Steve and ‘Prime-time’ Brian Lee, we have a choice. We can run away from the ‘International’ part of our identity by keeping our problems and their solutions local, or we can take our defining characteristic - our international network - and turn up the dial by including more schools in our regional groups and reaching out more across borders for everyday collaboration. We’ve done it before; we can do it again. Spaces such as this journal, where we can freely get together and exchange ideas, are a great start, and while it doesn’t bring back the days of long car rides up and down the roads of North Poland, breaking down classes and ideas, it goes a long way to developing the conversation - which is one that I hope to see continue after you finish reading!

Author Biography

Jez has been teaching since 2012, working with IH schools in Poland, Lebanon, and South Italy, and with the British Council in South Korea. Currently working with IH Riga-Satva, he specialises in teaching YLs and VYLs, using technology and pop-culture references to bring classes to life. In his spare time he’s a bit of a video game and film aficionado and enjoys a bit of golden-era hip-hop nerd on the quiet.