Category Archives: Emily Meadows

EMILY MEADOWS, PhD is an alumni of international schools and has worked as a professional educator and counselor across the world, serving children and families in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. She researches inclusive policy and practice for LGBTQ+ students, and holds master’s degrees in the fields of Counseling and Sexual Health. Emily teaches for the George Washington University’s graduate program in LGBT Health Policy & Practice, and is a consultant on gender and sexual diversity and inclusion in international schools: www.emilymeadows.org

We’re Moving: What About the Kids? {Part I}

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With the flurry of recruiting season beginning to diminish, many international teachers are now standing, new contract in hand, preparing to pack up and start a new chapter someplace else in a few short months Aside from the logistics of moving, there is also the emotional management of bidding farewell. These good-byes are particularly complicated when we are not only professional educators, but also parents. This is the first of a two-part post about easing the transition of a big move for your child.

Be careful of how you break the news

Parents know that big changes can create anxiety, and we all have the best intentions to shield our children from discomfort. A family I once supported as a school counsellor decided to move their child to a different school nearby. They knew this might be upsetting so, to try to make the transition fun and quick, the idea was to surprise the child with cupcakes on their last day at our school and, at the impromptu good-bye party, break the news that they would be attending someplace else the following day. I managed to talk the parents out of that plan, but have seen various (less extreme) versions of attempting to conceal from children that they’re in for a major shift in scenery. Put your child’s needs at the forefront, and think carefully and sensitively about how to tell them that you’re moving.

Tell them now

Maybe not right this very second, but tell them soon. Here’s why:

  • They already know. Maybe they don’t know the details, but kids are so dialled in to their parents, it’s hard to keep major family secrets for long. My guess is that they already know something’s up, and could be worrying about it anyway.
  • They will find out soon. If you haven’t told them yet, they are going to learn about it in short time. International communities (sometimes called bubbles or fish bowls, for good reason) are close-knit, and exciting news gets around quickly. You want to be the one to share this information at the time and place of your choice, not have your child accidentally find out at a play date or in the hallways of school.
  • They need to prepare. Children will benefit from having time to process the idea of a move, as well as to wrap up at the current locale, and get excited for your new place. Basically, they want to know for the same reasons you’d want to know: they need to get ready.
  • It will cause less anxiety in the long run. Moving is hard. It can be positive and exciting too, but it’s always hard. There’s no getting around this, and cutting your child out of the conversation won’t make the shift any less difficult. Accept that there will be some aches associated with the process; don’t put it off like a trip to the dentist.

Full disclosure and special circumstances

We are actually moving ourselves. After seven incredible years in Hong Kong, we’ll be starting a new adventure in The Hague this summer. I’m feeling a bit hypocritical as I write this because we haven’t told our babe yet. He’s two, though, and June is a very abstract concept for him. We’ll make sure to give him plenty of notice as we near the departure date.

Every family is different, and you know your child best. There may be a good reason to temporarily hold off on telling them about an upcoming move, such as one parent is on an extended trip, and you want to share the news together. Or, perhaps your child is facing a different, significant challenge at the moment, and you need to focus on that. However, consider what your reason is for delaying the conversation, and whether waiting will actually address the issue. Kids are resilient, and bringing them into the family discussion about your transition now (even if it’s difficult) could be better for them in the long run.

If you’re not quite sure how to prepare your child for an upcoming move, stay tuned… My next post will offer tips on how to ease this perennial transition so associated with international teaching life.

What tips do you have about sharing the news of a move with your child? 

Your School’s GSA May Be Saving Lives

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Before school-shooting survivor, Emma Gonzáles, burst into the public spotlight for her role in pressing U.S. legislators to tighten up gun control, she was contributing to a life-saving cause of another sort. Emma Gonzales is the president of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s gay-straight alliance (GSA).

GSAs are clubs to provide support and safety for gender and sexual minority (GSM) students, and to improve the campus climate for this demographic. The acronym GSA historically stands for Gay-Straight Alliance, but has been updated by some to mean Genders & Sexualities Alliance, a more accurate reflection of the youth running them. Allies are usually invited to participate, providing an outlet for heterosexual, cisgender students and faculty to acknowledge their privilege and contribute to making schools more inclusive.

GSAs originated in American high schools in the 1980s[1], but have spread around the world since. These alliances change – and even save – lives. Here’s how:

Gender and sexual minority (sometimes called LGBTQ+) students are more likely than their heterosexual, cisgender peers to miss school because they feel unsafe, to achieve lower grades, and to report less support from teachers and other adults at school[2]. Indeed, large-scale studies show that the vast majority of students who do not identify as heterosexual and cisgender are subject to frequent verbal and physical harassment and discrimination at school, at the hands of both students and faculty, based on their gender identity and/or sexual orientation[3][4]. Furthermore, this stigmatizing school climate leads to serious negative outcomes for GSM students, including increased risk of mental health issues and suicidality[5][6][7].

Fortunately, GSAs make a concrete positive impact on school climate, and can mitigate these serious risks. For example, students attending schools with a GSA reported significantly higher feelings of school belonging compared with those who attend a school without a GSA[8]. Schools with GSAs see lower truancy rates for their GSM students[9]. GSA presence is associated with significantly lower levels of homophobic victimization and fear of safety at school[10], and can improve overall GSM student well-being[11]. In fact, the mere presence of a gay-straight alliance at school has been reported as more impactful on GSM students’ well-being than whether they had actually been a member or participated in the club in any way, so it’s worth hosting even if only a few students attend[12]. GSAs have even been associated, in multiple studies, with lowering the suicide risk for sexual minority youth[13][14]. These organizations make a difference.

Most of the studies on GSAs have been carried out in the U.S., but it stands to reason that their impact may be felt at least as strongly where they are present in international settings. Seeing as plenty of international school students are limited by language skills or cultural barriers from joining organizations in the local community, school is often the hub of social support for our expat children. Your school’s GSA may be the only option for students to meaningfully connect with other GSM children.

GSAs may be unsafe for students in some countries, where gender and sexual non-conformity is harshly penalized, so exercise caution according to your context. If you are in a place where these groups are possible, I encourage you to attend a meeting or event with your school’s GSA to show encouragement for the students running it, and for the many other children who are quietly noticing your support. If your school does not yet host a GSA (you may be surprised to learn that they do exist in conservative regions and in religious schools), this resource from GLSEN offers a how-to guide for getting started.

Tell us about your school’s GSA: what impact does the group make in the city/country where you work? 

 

[1] Russell, S., Muraco, A., Subramaniam, A., & Laub, C. (2009). Youth Empowerment and High School Gay-Straight Alliances. J Youth Adolescence, 38, 891-903.

[2] IOM (Institute of Medicine). (2011). The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People: Building a Foundation for Better Understanding. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[3] Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C., & Danischewski, D. J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York, NY: GLSEN.

[4] HRC (Human Rights Campaign). (2012). Growing up LGBT in America.

[5] Hatzenbuehler, M. L. & Pachankis, J. E. (2016). Stigma and minority stress as social determinants of health among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth:                Research evidence and clinical implications. Pediatric Clinics of North America,        63(6), 985-997.

[6] Lick, D. J., Durso, L. E., & Johnson, K. L. (2013). Minority stress and physical health among sexual minorities. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(5), 521-548.

[7] Russell, S. T. & Joyner, K. (2001). Adolescent sexual orientation and suicide risk: Evidence from a national study. American Journal of Public Health, 91, 1276-1281.

[8] Heck, N., Flentje, A., & Cochran, B. (2011). Offsetting Risks: High School Gay-Straight Alliances and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Youth. School PsychologyQuarterly, 26(2), 161-174.

[9] Poteat, V. P., DiGiovanni, C. D., Sinclair, K. O., Koenig, B. W., & Russell, S. T. (2012). Gay-straight alliances are associated with student health: A multischool comparison of LGBTQ and heterosexual youth. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 23(2), 319-330.

[10] Marx, R. A. & Kettrey, H. H. (2016). Gay-straight alliances are associated with lower levels of school-based victimization of LGBTQ+ youth: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45, 1269-1282.

[11] Toomey, R. B., Ryan, C., & Diaz, R. M. (2011). High school gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and young adult well-being: An examination of GSA presence, participation, and perceived effectiveness. Applied Developmental Science, 15(4), 175-185.

[12] Toomey, R. B., McGuire, J. K., & Russell, S. T. (2012). Heteronormativity, school climates, and perceived safety for gender nonconforming peers. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 187-196.

[13] Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Birkett, M., Van Wagenen, A., & Meyer, I. H. (2014). Protective School Climates and Reduced Risk for Suicide Ideation in Sexual Minority Youths. American Journal of Public Health, 104(2), 279-286.

[14] Goodenow, C., Szalacha, L. & Westheimer, K. (2006). School support groups, other school factors, and the safety of sexual minority students. Psychology in the Schools, 43(5), 573-589.

School Shooters Are Male (and this isn’t just an American problem)

 

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The hegemonic definition of manhood is a man in power, a man with power, and a man of power[1].

Masculinity has been studied by social scientists, and broken down into core dimensions that many of us recognize. Masculinity means[2]:

  • Femininity Avoidance & Homophobia
  • Status & Achievement
  • Dominance/Power/Control
  • Toughness & Aggression
  • Restricted Emotionality

Toxic masculinity is when these dimensions are expressed in harmful ways.

In addition to (not instead of) gun restrictions[3], consider how social gender norms contribute to the school shooting epidemic. Mass shooters are almost invariably cisgender males. (Those who commit homicide in the U.S. are also overwhelmingly male, comprising more than 90% of cases where the murder’s gender is known). If this was simply a biological issue, then all cisgender men would be murderers. But, of course, they are not. This is a sociological issue.

Boys are fed the message, from a young age, that their masculinity is of paramount importance, and that they must actively maintain it lest they be figuratively castrated. Sissy, or other feminine insinuations, are perhaps the greatest insult for a male. Only more offensive might be fag[4], and other slurs that connote a lack of both masculinity and heterosexual prowess.

Social media has done a nice job of pointing out the lengths men may go to in order to clutch onto their male identity. The hashtag #fragilemasculinity pulls up a range of contortions designed to reassure men that they are, indeed, men. It might seem funny that anyone would require his bath products to be shaped like grenades, but the underlying message is serious: boys, your masculinity defines you, and it’s at risk – take steps, even irrational and bizarre steps – to protect it.

There are several ways to try to fit into the masculine mold. Referring back to the bullet (no pun intended) points above, one of the most effective methods to keep up your perceived masculine levels is to exude heterosexuality. Social norms would have us believe that masculinity and heterosexuality are mutually-dependent, that you can’t claim one without the other[5]. Therefore, to be considered masculine enough, boys must also show that they are firmly and indisputably straight.

Another way to assert masculinity is to display power. As masculinity is so inextricably tied to power, males are taught to claim and exert power in order to stay in the boys’ club. This power can take a variety of formats, but physical power and aggression is a high marker of manliness. So, the fierce guy with muscles who attracts the girls is on top of the pyramid of masculinity. But how about the (many, many, many) young boys in our schools who do not fit this description?

Some find productive, alternative ways to achieve status (i.e. Tim Cook or Morgan Freeman style). Some find healthier ways to understand their own masculinity (and sexuality), and live comfortably outside of the constricting social norms of their gender. And others struggle and bash around inside that rigid, narrow box, looking for a way to exist, to prove their worth, to Be. A. Man.

If this struggle brings up feelings, acknowledging them is to further emasculate oneself. From the bullet points above, restricted emotionality is a major element of traditional masculinity, so great displays of emotion are contrary to these boys’ search to become men. The one exception to this rule is anger: boys can get angry without being accused of being effeminate. So, anger may become a default emotion for boys, replacing other strong feelings like sadness, shame, fear, and loneliness.

In America, these males, pressed with the burden of traditional masculine norms, but unable to fulfil them to our social standards, can find incredible, breathtaking, earth-shattering power behind the sight of an assault rifle. And they do. In the hallways of schools. There have been 270 school shootings in America since Columbine in 1999. Ninety-six percent of them were committed by males.

Outside the U.S., we have the advantage of government regulations that significantly reduce the risk of a school shooting. Still, while young boys in international schools who battle with the heavy, unreasonable expectations of masculinity may not be armed to commit mass murder, this does not mean it isn’t hurting them. Toxic masculinity exists, and does harm, world-wide.

Educators can help. Question gender norms at your school. Point them out, analyze them, wonder aloud – with your students – about their ridiculousness and the damage they may be doing. Select literature that portrays male protagonists who defy traditional masculinity. Avoid perpetuating gender stereotypes when you talk to and about children. De-emphasize heteronormative sexual relationships, such as those endorsed by prom and over-the-top, public promposals (especially on campus). Check your curriculum for signs of institutionalized heteronormativity. Teach little boys about the range of human emotions; let boys cry. Allow a flexible space for students to define their own gender and sexuality. Reiterate these messages in official policy documents.

Also, provide students with alternative ways to exercise power. Teach all children, including those who identify as male, to make a positive difference in other people’s lives, to contribute to a cause greater than themselves, and to help those who need it most. This is where their power lies.

How do you challenge traditional gender norms in your school?

[1] Kimmel, M.S. (1994). Masculinities as homophobia: Fear, shame, and silence in the construction of gender identity. In Brod, H. & Kaufman, M. (Eds.) Theorizing masculinities. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

[2]Zurbriggen, E. (2010). Rape, war, and the socialization of masculinity: Why our refusal to give up war ensures that rape cannot be eradicated. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34, 538-549.

[3] The message in this post is in no way intended to conflict with the underlying problem of Americans having easy access to guns. Get 100% of guns out of the hands of civilians, and you’ll get a 100% reduction in school shootings, even with no adjustment to gender norms. As a vegetarian, I do not even advocate for the right of hunters to bear arms. As far as I’m concerned, no civilian needs, deserves, or is entitled to a gun. I am completely supportive of banning firearms from the public altogether.

[4] Pascoe, C. J. (2007). Dude, you’re a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

[5] Bem, S. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Transgender School Policy: What’s Yours?

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Unless you are a novice educator, you have taught transgender students. You may not have realized it at the time, but I assure you that you have. Increasingly, educators are becoming aware that they have transgender kids in their classrooms, which can sometimes catch us off-guard. Most of us do not have formal training, or even experience, meeting the needs of transgender children. Yet, when a gender nonconforming child is placed in our care, everyone from senior leadership to classroom teachers to instructional assistants will appreciate having clear guidance on how to support them.

What Does Transgender Mean?

Transgender describes someone whose gender identity does not match the one they were assigned at birth (usually based on external sex characteristics). Transgender people may be ‘out’, or not; their gender identity (how they feel inside) may match their gender expression (how they present themselves on the outside), or not. There is a lot of diversity in gender nonconformity, and some countries or regions may use different terminology for similar concepts (i.e. Hijra for our friends in South Asia, for example).

Why Do We Need a Transgender Policy?

If you haven’t yet been asked how your school supports transgender and gender nonconforming children, you will face this question at some point. International schools around the world are finding that families with transgender children are applying to attend, or that a current student may be transitioning. This happens in religious schools. It happens in conservative countries. It happens in elementary and primary divisions. The interests of the school and, most importantly, of the child, will be best served if a solid policy is in place. Schools that take the lead here will find that they are on the forefront of child-centred practice in the international community.

A Model Policy for Schools

GLSEN (pronounced ‘glisten’) is a non-profit organization whose mission is, “To create safe and affirming schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression”. They are leaders in the field, and backed by research, so you can feel confident referring to them for sound advice. GLSEN’s transgender model district policy  offers school decision-makers sample language and reliable advice on topics as varied as student gender transitions, parent/guardian involvement, access to gender-segregated activities and facilities, and dealing with media requests. You could literally copy/paste their text into your own handbooks; it is written with schools’ needs in mind.

Transgender Policy in International Schools

International schools generally exercise a degree of independence from both local and foreign regulations, while also operating within at least the partial confines of both. Naturally, these responsibilities need to be taken into consideration before implementing any new policy. That being said, GLSEN’s suggested policy document uses straightforward language that would suit many international contexts. And, while I encourage you to consider adopting the model policy in its entirety, it is neatly organized and concisely written so that it would be possible to lift out the sections that are most relevant to your school as a starting point, until the full text could be approved.

Not So Sure?

Many people, even well-intentioned school leaders, harbor bias against gender nonconforming people. While we, as professional educators, are committed to serving all of our students, we may still find ourselves neglecting to protect transgender children in the same way we look after others. Decision-makers may feel nervous about endorsing policies that so much as acknowledge the presence of transgender children at their school. This takes some courage and forward thinking. We still have a long way to go in ensuring equal educational opportunities for transgender and gender nonconforming students around the world. A proactive policy is a step forward in making our international schools safe and inclusive places of learning.

Can I help? If you are interested in updating your transgender policy, but have questions about how to do so in a manner that is consistent with your school’s mission, stakeholders’ values, or local context, please do not hesitate to contact me. I would be delighted to serve as a resource.

5 Concrete Ways to Address #metoo and #timesup in International Schools

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Tarana Burke, founder of the #metoo movement

Everybody’s talking about it. #metoo and #timesup are trending hashtags and campaigns that represent an age-old issue: sexual harassment. This is a global phenomenon, and certainly – unfortunately– present in international schools. Whether you’re inspired by Oprah’s Golden Globes speech, or moved by the flood of #metoo’s on your social media feed, or simply realize that you are in a position to make your school a better, safer place for working and learning, here are five concrete ways to start:

  1. Establish a rock-solid policy/plan on sexual harassment. I had the honour of serving on the committee which revised Hong Kong International School’s sexual harassment policy, and I can tell you that crafting an effective one requires a lot of thoughtful effort. Take stock of resources in your locality, read plans from other schools, and write it up in painstaking detail. Don’t assume that everybody agrees on things like the definition of ‘sexual harassment’. Remember to consider what to do if an accused harasser lives on campus or in school housing, a common arrangement in international schools. Waiting until you’ve got a crisis on campus is not the time to think about how to manage it.
  2. Publish your plan everywhere. Your plan will only be useful if people understand how it works, and trust that it will be followed. If students/staff do not know who to go to when they’ve been harassed, or don’t believe that the policy will be enforced, it is useless. Make your policy and plan visible to everyone. Tell families and students about it. Talk about it at staff meetings. Do this routinely, or at least once a year.
  3. Listen to reports of sexual harassment. Believe the reporters. Put your policy/plan into action as soon as someone reports.
  4. Reframe reports of sexual harassment as an opportunity. Nobody looks forward to the HR/PR issues that can come up when sexual harassment takes place within a school community, and there can be a temptation to see reports as a nuisance. Instead, consider that the sexual harassment has already happened, and the school now has a chance to improve the safety of everybody in their community, thanks to the reports. Express gratitude to reporters for their bravery and willingness to help make the school a better place for all.
  5. Turn this into a teachable moment. Children need to be taught the knowledge and skills to deal with sexual harassment, starting from a young age. Leverage this current conversation (or use it as inspiration) to reinforce your school’s curriculum on the topic.

How does your school ensure that community members know what to do in cases of sexual harassment?

Science as a Political Statement

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I had the honour of meeting with a group of scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this summer, and I can tell you that it’s no secret within the organization that using the term ‘transgender’ in your budget proposal this year doesn’t fare well for funding prospects. This isn’t necessarily a brand new barrier; deciding what gets studied (and published) has always been a matter of politics, often favouring the dominant narrative and priorities of those in power (not typically transgender people).

Harvard palaeontologist, Stephen J. Gould, writes in his thought-provoking book, The Mismeasure of Man[1], about a history of “scientists” using the platform of their profession to further political agendas. For example, 19th century Europeans conducted “studies” attempting to prove the fallacy that certain races are genetically superiour. Gould explains the ways that bias and falsification can turn “biological evidence” into dangerously misleading “facts”, and how readily these distortions may become justification for discrimination. While we like to think of science as apolitical, it isn’t. What we decide to study/fund/publish is driven by the values of those in charge of bringing research to light[2]. Gould makes a case that power maintains itself through science.

The Washington Post this week reported that the Trump administration is prohibiting CDC officials from including some specific words on budget proposals: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based. There was no explanation accompanying the announcement, so the CDC and the rest of us are left guessing why. The mission of the CDC is to, “Protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the U.S.” The organization covers all things health-related from general well-being to very specific, urgent zika virus research, and pretty much everything in between. (They also host an extensive resource on traveler’s health.)

According to the Washington Post article, in lieu of the terms ‘evidence-based’ or ‘science-based’, CDC analysts have been told to use the phrase: “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes”. Which community does this refer to, I wonder? Probably not the transgender community – just a guess. While I understand that a political administration has some leverage within U.S. public organizations, I would also hope that the professionals in charge of carrying out their mission to protect the health and safety of a nation are encouraged to do so in a way that is both evidence-based and science-based, not discriminatory or politically-motivated.

May educators everywhere continue to teach their students about the scientific method, about the pitfalls of biases, about the critical importance of reliable and valid results, and about the inclusion of underrepresented populations. Perhaps the CDC of today is being dissuaded from working on such projects, but I hope that our current students, when they are professionals in their fields around the world, will gain attention and funding for their studies about populations that are vulnerable, issues of diversity, transgender people, and other under-researched topics, and that they may do so openly using evidence-based and science-based methods.

[1] Gould, S. J. (1981). The Mismeasure of man. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

[2] Suhay, E. & Druckman, J. N. (2015). The Politics of science. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 658(1), 6-15.

The Invisible Knapsack of Privilege Part II: Heterosexual & Cisgender Privilege

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Almost three decades ago, Peggy McIntosh published her now-legendary piece on White Privilege[1]. McIntosh likened white privilege to an invisible knapsack of advantages that white people carry with them, listing a selection from the abundance of everyday rights withheld from people of colour. This post is the second of two parts, in honour of McIntosh’s birthday this month. The first addresses the ethnic privilege I carried as a student growing up in international schools. This piece considers a few of the many ways that I benefitted from my invisible knapsack of heterosexual and cisgender privilege as a student in international schools:

  1. I was free from concern that a teacher or classmate would misgender me.
  2. I never had to worry that a teacher would deadname me while taking attendance.
  3. The standardized tests that pre-entered our personal information always checked the box that corresponded with my gender identity.
  4. I could be certain that both anatomy and relationships similar to mine would be discussed in sexual education lessons.
  5. I could enjoy the playground and other common campus spaces without worry that I would be the target of verbal or physical harassment because of my sexual orientation or gender identity.
  6. I didn’t have to come out to anybody.
  7. I could attend dances and school functions with my boyfriend, unquestioned.
  8. I could audition for a part in a play or try out for an athletic team without being asked to discuss my gender.
  9. I was able to use the school bathroom that corresponded with my gender identity.
  10. I was never assigned entire reading lists with characters and plots that completely ignored or invalidated romantic relationships like mine.

How do you see heterosexual and cisgender privilege playing out in international schools today?

[1] McIntosh, P. (1998). Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In P.S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, class, and gender in the United States, p. 165-169. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

The Invisible Knapsack of Privilege Part I: Ethnic Privilege

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Almost three decades ago, Peggy McIntosh published her now-legendary piece on White Privilege[1]. McIntosh likened white privilege to an invisible knapsack of advantages that white people carry with them, revealing a selection of everyday rights withheld from people of colour. For example: #34) I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking. Or #41) If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem. A few of McIntosh’s items in the knapsack have to do explicitly with school: #8) I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race, and #44) I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race. Unfortunately, the concept of the invisible knapsack is as relevant today as it was in 1988. This post is the first of two parts, in honour of McIntosh’s birthday this month.

I grew up in international schools. I am white, and carry a number of other privileges: U.S. nationality, English as a first language, cisgender, heterosexual, socio-economic status, typically-developing[2], to name a few; the road to my academic goals has been paved with advantages. In the spirit of cultural humility, I am reflecting on some of the ways that I benefitted from my invisible knapsack of ethnic privilege as a student in international schools:

  1. I could wear clothing from my home country without being referred to as ‘ethnic’ or ‘exotic’.
  2. If my parents missed a meeting or arrived late for a school function, I could be sure that it would not be attributed to their cultural background.
  3. Regardless of the demographics of the host country, I could count on seeing my race represented in school leadership figures.
  4. I did not have to explain the contents of my lunch box to anybody.
  5. If I had difficulty understanding an academic concept, I could be sure that my teacher would not attribute this to a work ethic stereotypically associated with my heritage.
  6. I never had to explain where my country was located, what language we speak there, or what it is like where I come from.
  7. I could speak my first language to anybody on campus and assume they would understand or try to understand me.
  8. I was never labeled solely by my nationality (i.e. the American kid).
  9. When I auditioned for school theatre productions, I could be sure that most people had already seen the leading parts played by somebody of my race.
  10. A wide selection of books at the library reflected and validated people who resembled me.

How do you address ethnic privilege in international schools today?

[1] McIntosh, P. (1988). Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In P.S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, class, and gender in the United States, p. 165-169. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

[2] This two-part post will not address the privilege that comes with being typically-developing in international schools, as this type of exclusion is often overt rather than ‘invisible’.

We Are All Diplomats: The Politics of Being an Expat

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Growing up American in the Soviet Union, I was highly aware of my nationality. When we moved to Moscow, I was only six years old, and not quite sure what being American meant – but I knew I was one, and lots of people around me weren’t. When the first McDonalds came to town, I understood I was somehow connected to the symbolic edifice, even though my parents agreed that it was not an acceptable place to eat, and I certainly hadn’t felt any relationship to the golden arches when we lived in the States. Being in an international setting brings our own national identities into relief.

I was living in France when George W. Bush was elected to his second term as the President of the United States. I stayed up all night with astonished French friends, watching the outlines of states turn from pink to dark red. From their perspective, this was a person at the helm when the Congressional cafeterias changed the menu listing from French fries to Freedom fries. To the French, Bush Junior was an overindulged war-monger. I, as the sole American amongst my peers, was charged with explaining why he would continue on as President (despite losing the popular vote).

Then, I moved to Kuwait. Kuwaitis I met had mostly fond memories of Bush Senior, thanks to his intervention after the invasion of their country in the Persian Gulf War. Upon learning my nationality, locals would cheer “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and offer high-fives. It was a blatant contrast to the French perspective. Again, as an American, I was personally associated with the actions of my president, though I was not even old enough to vote when he took office.

As a foreigner, we represent our countries everywhere we go. My nationality is part of my identity, and a major element in how others see me when I am a guest on their land. I bear the responsibility of my politicians’ mistakes, along with the credit for American successes. Though I have spent more than half of my life abroad, my passport marks me as a symbol of the United States, and my actions reflect upon my fellow citizens.

As the State Department is facing major cuts to funding, and U.S. diplomacy is threatened to be gutted, it is critical that Americans around the world represent our country with integrity. While I am still don’t think I could tell you exactly what it means to be an American, I do know that I am committed to contrast the image (however justified) of the Ugly American[1] while I am fortunate enough to visit other places on this earth. International educators are reminders to the people we meet around the world that our countries are more than just the high-visibility emblems we come to associate with each place. Any national population is diverse, and many of us – regardless of political leadership or corporate icons – favour diplomacy, positive international relations, and active participation in constructive global citizenship. Whether we signed up for it or not, we are all diplomats.

[1] Burdick, E. (1999). The Ugly American. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Alternative Facts: Is Your Practice Really Data-Based?

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So, I’ll start this piece with ‘so’, in a light-hearted tribute to Daniel Kerr’s signature blog-commencing line, and in honour of his 200th post for The International Educator.

 Student Preparedness

It is expected that educators train students to use data or research to inform their decisions and viewpoints. Many international schools’ mission statements pronounce that their students will think critically, marking this as a key skill that we value in our community. From literature to science classrooms, teachers are showing students how to identify credible sources and analyse large volumes of information to make sense of what is applicable in their work. But are we doing this in our own work?

Educator Training

You’d be hard-pressed to find an international school that overtly eschews research to inform policy and practice. “Data-based” and “research shows” are buzz phrases, guiding us through the tangle of options to best serve our students. However, many educator training programs do not prepare us to conduct – much less responsibly consume – academic research. It is not enough to assume that, because the study was conducted by an established institution, it will be applicable to your classroom. 

I earned my undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder. CU’s college of education, at the time, required a statistics course as part of the teaching certificate program, but virtually nothing else in terms of research methods or design. Many graduate education programs also emphasize professional skills, offering practical rather than research-oriented coursework. I argue that understanding academic research is practical, and a critical skill for all professional educators.

Context Counts

When we cite a study as justification for a policy or practice we’re following, how often do we actually read the study? It may be that the project we’re referring to had significant findings, but they were never reproduced outside of one limited setting. A research team that measured positive results with a particular reading intervention in a small school in the Middle East, for example, may not yield the same findings at a large school in Asia. Much of the educational research published for international audiences is based in the United States or the U.K., limiting the relevance to international schools elsewhere.

The celebrated example of Finland leading the world in education has sparked global conversations about how to recreate these results elsewhere. It is unlikely, however, that anybody will be successful in this endeavour, given the numerous unique contextual elements that influence any educational system. That is not to say that we cannot learn from Finland, nor that we must look only for academic research strictly bound to our context. However, as we instruct our students to think critically about the data before drawing conclusions, so must we as educators carefully consider a study before deciding whether it is relevant to the policies and practices we employ for our students.

How do you know when a piece of research is appropriate to guide your school?