Dear Conrad,

I read your TIE Online article, “How Might International Schools Position Themselves in Times of Armed Conflict?”. You’re right; it’s not a simple stance and the reality is all-encompassing. The violence we read about, hear about or experience is unavoidable. Many of our students and colleagues bear this weight as they enter our school doors.

Before I respond, I would like to name my own positionality and the lenses that I am writing from. I’m a Queer, non-binary, half white half Latinx American. I also have a multicultural family – my partner is Kuwaiti American, and his American side of the family is Jewish. I acknowledge that many of my intersectional identities inform my experiences within the international school community. 

For those of us who have the privilege to live away from the shadow of terrible human suffering that we see in the world, what position should we take when it comes to armed conflicts?

This is not a simple question, and one that many would probably rather avoid altogether, but we cannot because the reality that is around us engulfs the minds and experiences of our communities and students, either directly or vicariously through social media.

Avoiding international crises and global disasters is indeed a privilege. Turning off the news or avoiding social media is not something everyone can do, especially for those who have families being directly affected by these crises. Therefore, It’s impossible to leave our whole selves at the front doors of our schools. Global events will inevitably affect us through family, friends, our colleagues, or our students. 

International Schools, in general, are beholden by a set of values around peaceful cooperation, critical thinking and social custodianship. In times of armed conflict, these four core principles might help you navigate your way:

  • An international school is a place of learning and not a political organisation or national government – while all those working in international schools should deplore all forms of conflict, especially those that contravene international law, the purpose of an international school is not to publicly condemn nation states or governments, individuals or groups, nor is it to encourage our students to take sides, it is always to stand on the side of peace. While individuals might have their own positions, the school represents several nationalities and does not pick and choose a position that the whole organization is expected to stand by.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire wrote: “All education is political; teaching is never a neutral act” (1971). In 1984, bell hooks asserted a similar sentiment in her transformative book Teaching To Transgress where she argues that no education is politically neutral because teaching “is a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement that makes education the practice of freedom” (hooks,1984).

International schools, by nature, are inherently political spaces, and we need to reckon with that fact as educators. The reasoning is clear:

  • Schools are only accessible to the extremely wealthy and privileged
  • Curriculum centers Western lenses, experiences, and ideologies
  • Leadership is predominantly cis, white, male, and heterosexual
  • English is normally the primary language of instruction
  • Teaching staff from the “inner circle” Western countries like the US, UK, Canada, etc. are privileged over teachers from the Global South.

How are schools not political spaces? How can we achieve justice and liberation for everyone within our community if we don’t acknowledge the positionality of our schools? If we ignore the political nature of our schools, then we’re upholding the status quo.

Also, the word conflict can be misleading. A conflict can be defined as a struggle, clash, or disagreement between two forces. What if power is asymmetrical? What if one side has disproportionate military technology and global influence? This is a power over dynamic, which is built upon force, domination, and control. This dynamic characterizes sustained, systemic violence, not a conflict. When we engage in discussion and critique institutional powers and systemic discrimination, we can take action to help those who are affected now and take steps to prevent violence in the future

Also, by your logic, we should condemn all forms of conflict…but how can we condemn  a conflict without naming what’s happening right in front of us? While I don’t think that schools need to necessarily take a political stance, our collective silence around how violence is disproportionately affecting members of our community is action.

  • In times of extreme emotional turmoil, such as that which armed conflict creates, as educators we must not forget the vital importance of remaining focussed on being critical thinkers, not swayed by any form of propaganda and not assuming, most especially in the middle of such conflict, that information is unbiased or depoliticised, complete or not charged with complex details of context. Therefore, encouraging listening, learning, reflection, questioning and suspending judgement should be centred. 

I agree – we need to remain critical thinkers, especially in times of global catastrophe. Propaganda exists everywhere we turn, so we must teach our students to be vigilant in identifying and understanding how propaganda can inform our actions and beliefs. One purpose behind propaganda is to silence the voices of others; to shape a single story narrative designed to uphold a certain set of beliefs and values that, if challenged, are met with hostility. Information is never unbiased or depoliticized, because information is used to privilege certain narratives over others. We also need to remember to listen to the stories of people affected by these global catastrophes, especially the stories of our most marginalized community members. In my experience as an educator, many of these stories are intentionally omitted in the name of a false sense neutrality.

  • Students, parents and staff may be traumatised by events and schools will clearly therefore do what they can to be supportive, allowing members of the community who are affected to feel safe and using pastoral and human resources teams to give care and moral support to the community. 

The unfolding of world events can traumatize many in our community in a multitude of ways. Schools need to provide adequate support for these individuals, and also seek to invest in external support. Our pastoral team may not be equipped or comfortable to support families through global traumatic events. Do our pastoral teams have adequate trauma response training? Are they Queer and gender affirming? Do we hire people of color with lived experiences that can relate to our students? Also, there should be multiple pathways of healing, and having that responsibility fall on the few counselors we have at our schools would be unfair and harmful. Trauma and violence goes far beyond moral support and care. Organizations like The International Institution of Restorative Practices is a starting point to ensure that our schools have the tools needed to address harm. We also need to critique our hiring practices. Do our pastoral and human resources team reflect the identities of the global majority?

In order to begin healing, we must be able to name harm as well as develop systems to support our diverse student and faculty body. There can be no healing without acknowledgment of reality.

  • Armed conflict leads to several forms of real but also symbolic violence and we must be attentive to the dangers of overgeneralisation, prejudice, stereotyping and in-grouping or out-grouping that occur. Staff should be attentive to this and ensure that no one in their school community is ostracised because of the country they come from, their religion, culture or political orientation.

No single person should be conflated with the politics or government of their nationality. Stereotyping and prejudice cause harm to everyone in our community. As schools, we also need to be realistic; politics and government will be conflated with the identities of our students and teachers. We need to ensure that safeguards are in place to address when they happen. Failure to address the violence, especially with our most vulnerable community members, contributes to ongoing violence.

The bottom line is that international schools, and perhaps all schools for that matter, should never allow the armed conflict of the outside world to enter the classroom. 

The same unfortunately can’t be said for many people in the world. I think about schools in the US that constantly worry about gun violence. I think about how the war in Ukraine interrupted the school for so many people. I think about the violence in Sudan and how that’s affected our students. There are too many instances of armed conflicts forcing their ways into classrooms.

Silence and moving forward with the status quo is a missed opportunity. It’s false and irresponsible to assume that our school spaces are bubbles, somehow immune and sheltered from what’s happening in the “outside world”. When, in fact, what’s going on outside of our walls has very real consequences in our community. I believe that we can be on the path of healing and liberation through ongoing dialogue and meaningful action. Let’s reflect on the wisdom of civil rights advocate and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw; “When there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem. When you can’t see a problem, you can’t solve it.”

I think the four principles you proposed are helpful. I would like to add some ideas to them:

Four principles, therefore, in these terrible and difficult times:

  • Stand on the side of peace and openly denounce violence
  • Think independently and critically, and name bias
  • Demonstrate love and care to everyone within our community

Name and address prejudice