As If A Pandemic Wasn’t Enough…

This posting is adapted from a conversation presented during the AAIE Conversation series on April 13, 2021.

We were feeling pretty good about things the last weekend in January.  Enrollment had gradually increased through the fall.  Though it was still not at pre-COVID levels, it was not as bad as we had feared.  This was partially due to a successful effort back in August to get faculty back into Myanmar before that option was closed off to teachers when the government announced all schools in the country shut for physical in class learning.  It was also due to a process we had put in place starting in December of what we called Transition Days, in which only two or three grades came on campus per day.  The idea was a gradual transition back to face-to-face learning, and it looked like we were heading toward that happening.  Finally, there was just a general sense that all was going well in the country.  The number of COVID cases had drastically declined, vaccinations had begun, and there were rumors the airport would fully reopen soon.  It really did seem we were on the right track to a return to some semblance of normality soon.

As a result, the morning of Monday, February 1 was a complete shock to the system.  I awoke at 5:00 AM to a phone call from our Director of HSSE informing me a military coup had occurred just a few hours earlier.  I remember taking my phone from my ear at the end of the call in a state of disbelief.  Dealing with COVID had been an incredible challenge as it had been for schools around the world.  To be honest, at times I had wondered if I could make it through the challenges coming my way leading a school through COVID.  Now this?  What do you do during a coup, especially in the midst of a pandemic?  I sat on the edge of my bed for a moment thinking.  Then I stood up, called our Director of Communications and Marketing, and asked him to put out a message that school was canceled for the day.  Simultaneously, I asked him to reach out to the leadership team, asking them to meet me at 8:00 AM at school.  I wasn’t at all clear yet what needed to be done, but felt these were good first steps.

There are eight members of our leadership team.  We began by going around and having each person speak.  The idea was to hear about their thoughts and concerns, any information or rumors they had heard about what was happening, and finally, what did each of them believe our immediate steps needed to be.  During the course of this discussion some key points began to emerge.  First, we believed we needed the school to remain a safe place for our community, especially all of our students.  Second, we realized that for the first to happen ISY needed to remain neutral in the current political situation.  While we might have feelings about the situation, the school itself needed to be seen as neutral.  Finally, we also determined that we needed to be a point of stability for our community.  As much as possible, we needed to pursue a course that provided stability and continuity for students with minimal disruptions.  Once we had these key concepts, we determined we needed to call faculty together to give them a sense of security, as well as to provide direction moving forward.  We put out word we would be meeting later that morning.  Finally, several times during all of this I called our Board Chair.  I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of this relationship.  I kept her up to speed on the discussions taking place, permitting her to support my decisions publicly.  Beyond that, the fact we had developed a strong relationship over time meant that in this time of crisis I was able to count on her, consult with her, and trust in her to be a support in the tough times ahead.

The weeks that followed reflected a constantly evolving situation.  The first week of February was incredibly quiet.  Everyone seemed in a state of disbelief.  It was almost like people were in mourning.  During this period, I remember that every time I looked at my assistant she would look like she was about to break out crying.  There were many people like this.  Then, the weekend came and with it began massive demonstrations.  Literally millions of people took to the streets to demonstrate, taking on the three-finger symbol of resistance from The Hunger Games as their own.  There was almost a carnival type atmosphere during this period along with a renewed sense of hope.  This came crushing down the following weekend when the internet was shut down for several days and phone communication went out briefly.  During this period the response to demonstrations began to be aggressive with people being shot and killed.  At this point, mobile demonstrations began with people demonstrating in one area, and then moving to another when the police arrived.  The regime began shutting down the internet every evening, with mobile internet shut down indefinitely, while night raids and detentions began.  The response was a descent into battle zone type scenario with barricades erected in neighborhoods to prevent raids, and the people starting to respond aggressively using Molotov cocktails, sling shots, arson, and small bombs in response to the ongoing aggression and violence from the military regime.  As the situation continually evolved, we found ourselves constantly making plans, and then re-planning in response to the rapidly changing situation and the needs of our community.

I would say the biggest challenge for us as school leaders was the constant pivot we needed to do as we assessed the changing needs of our community, and then provided the support required.  Our students were at the top of our list of concerns, which was confounded by the fact that school continued to be online.  Early in February, our students were looking for the school to make a statement about the events, or at the very least provide an avenue for them to discuss what was happening around them.  Some of our seniors put together a petition on this.  We realized we needed to support them, while also helping them understand the challenges the situation presented.  We ended up inviting students to meet with us, and worked with them to identify ways we could better support them.  This included changes in our communications process.  It also led to the creation of discussion guidelines for teachers who felt comfortable leading discussions on the events in Myanmar.  We also found the needs of our local students to be different in many ways from those of our international students.  For example, many of our local students want to be a part of demonstrations and were trying to balance this with school responsibilities, while many expat students wanted to engage in some way, but unsure how to do this.  As a school, we strived to find ways to support our students while still trying to walk that fine line of neutrality.

Supporting our parents and organizational community during this time was also very challenging.  Expectations were very polarized.  In the same day I would receive emails from parents encouraging me to continue with Transition Days in an effort to provide continuity for students, while others felt I was placing people’s lives at risk by having anything happen on campus.   Still others felt we were indirectly making a statement of support for the regime if we held classes on campus.  This was compounded by different organizations and embassies putting out public security statements and / or calling us to advocate for different decisions from the school. In addition, we had parents from our local community being detained and felt a need to support those students, plus, we were increasingly needing to support refugees from organizations we work with who had been displaced.  I found myself often struggling with decisions as I tried to balance out these various needs.  Our board chair was fantastic in helping me weigh through decisions.  At one point, in trying to make a decision, she asked how I would want to have decided when I look back on the situation in ten years.  I explained what I thought, saying I believed it to be the ethical and moral way to go.  She said to me, “looks like you have your decision.” 

At this point, I want to discuss our faculty.  I cannot speak highly enough about our faculty.  All through the COVID pandemic they have continually arisen to the occasion to make sure our students have routine, have quality learning opportunities, and that are community is supported. With the sudden addition of the coup, our faculty were suddenly experiencing a sense of loss and uncertainty that bordered on depression for many.  Yet, through it all they continued to focus on supporting students and learning, never wavering in their commitment to the school community.  In an effort to support our faculty we made use of Adaptive Schools protocols to provide a way for teachers to discuss and explore what they were feeling.  We put in place alternative communication plans to use when phones and the internet went out, and began to meet weekly to share the constantly evolving and changing plans being dictated by the reality of the situation.  We also tried to provide guidance as they sought ways to further support students and their families, and to create some semblance of routine.  Eventually, following guidance from several embassies, as well as an increase in violence from the regime, we decided to organize a charter and evacuate ex-pat teachers.  In doing this, two members of our leadership team joined me in deciding to stay behind and support our local community. 

Our local, Myanmar staff, have probably suffered the most during this situation.  I’ve already mentioned the incredible sense of loss they were experiencing.  They had been so proud of their young democracy and so engaged in the process, and now it disappeared in one brief moment.  Many of them participated in demonstrations, some have been displaced and are now living with their families on our campus.  At least one of our staff have been detained.  We’ve had several meetings to address their needs.  Early on, I was asked to state if I supported them.  I explained that as a school we are neutral, and as an ex-pat living in Myanmar I need to be publicly neutral.  However, I explained that I support each of them in their aspirations for the future.  Later that day, our leadership team determined that though the school is neutral, our support for our staff would be evident in our actions.  I think this was most clearly stated when three of us decided to stay back from the evacuation.  After meeting with our local staff to share the evacuation plans, several came up to me afterward and were crying as they expressed their appreciation for not abandoning them.  There is a belief that as the foreigners leave things will get worse for the local population.  There was an incredible sense of relief that we were not all leaving at once.

At this point, it is unclear what the future holds for Myanmar.  The outcome of the current situation is in no way certain.  This has had an impact on the school.  Moving forward we are anticipating a very large decline in enrollment for the next school year. This has led to a decision to put in place a reduction in force amongst our teaching faculty.  As a result, in the two weeks leading up to the evacuation flight we met with every teacher to let them know their status for the next school year.  I was incredibly impressed with how teachers responded.  Though some were saddened or disappointed, all of those who were told they would not be returning indicated an understanding it was what was needed for the school and expressed their ongoing support for our school community. Similarly, we’ve also committed to keeping all of our local staff employed through the next school year, recognizing the need to provide continued support to them during this time.

As mentioned, this situation in Myanmar is no where near complete.  I’m sure we will have continual challenges and opportunities for meaningful reflection.  However, in reflecting on the time since February 1st, I can say there are a few leadership lessons that have crystalized in my mind.  These include –

  • The important role of communication.  This includes tone, timing, transparency, and regularity.  I’m lucky we have a fantastic Director of Communications and Marketing.  Together, we’ve evaluated every word and every sentence we put out to make sure we communicate the right message.  I can’t say we always got it right, but we strived to communicate a consistent message of supporting our community.
  • The importance of the board chair / head relationship.  There have been times I’ve needed to call upon our board chair several times in a day – sometimes just to have a listening ear.  I can’t express more strongly how important this relationship has been.
  • Keep key individuals informed.  Before communicating any major decisions, we informed all board members, the embassy, and other individuals and organizations in an effort to avoid surprises and to ensure support.  This proved essential when decisions were controversial.
  • Plans are important, but be prepared to constantly change them.
  • Be flexible!
  • Avoid personalizing the things people say.  We’re in a situation that is highly emotionally charged.  Unfortunately, some of those emotions are directed toward the school.  I’ve really had to learn to step back and not take things personally.
  • Stay true to a set of core beliefs.
  • Recognize that leading is about making decisions and realize many people want someone else to make the difficult decisions for them.
  • Trust in your leadership team.  I am fortunate in that I am surround by an amazing group of people.  Trusting in them makes my job easier and means I’m not alone.

Finally, in closing, I need to express my appreciation for the international schools’ community.  The number of people who have reached out with voices of support has been amazing. 


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