2019

An International School in Moldova – first impressions.

My new neighbourhood

There are seven things that will destroy us: Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Religion without sacrifice; Politics without principle; Science without humanity; Business without ethics.

Mahatma gandhi

Eu cred in Moldova.

Thierry Ernst, French born, Moldovan cheesemaker in Horodiste, Moldova

Anna Akhmatova’s poem “The Guest” was being read on a podcast as I sat in the cooling early evening sun, sipping a very chilled Cricova rosé looking across from my new apartment at the small courtyard square, off Bucharest Street.  My new neighbours opposite, sat together outside and shared their day’s communal story. This was finally it.  I was in Chisinau; I now live and work in Moldova,  I was already a few days into my new role as Director of Heritage and Wyedean and the UK seemed more distant than the reality of the 3000kms between my new place in the World and the one I had left behind.

I have moved schools and changed roles a number of times over the years and deciding when to move on and what to move onto is never easy, certainly not an exact science.  I have worked with a range of countries and places over the years from Siberia to Java, via Quebec, but these have never been more than for short periods and certainly not a long term decision to live for long periods away from home.  As the Air Moldova flight left Stansted on a grey and cold Tuesday afternoon, it hit home that this was just such a move.  Home-home, will always be where my wife, Gen, our children and our dog are, but Moldova is my new professional home. 

During my journey, I read the inflight magazine from cover to cover, and, as Simon and Garfunkel almost sang, the words of the prophets are written in the most unusual places:  A particular piece of wisdom and inspiration came from the in flight publication in the words of a Frenchman living in Moldova quoted at the start of this blog.  These words appealed to me for many reasons:  I used to answer that tired old clichéd interview question thrown to young teachers, “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”, with “…as a very successful goats cheese farmer, preferably with a small holding in the gentle hills around Poitiers.” 

My wife spent a year studying at the University in the overlooked, but to us, wonderful and historic city of Poitiers.  The city and surrounding area hold many lovely memories for us.  It may have been a deal-breaker in interviews, but I have always refused, even in the first such interview, in the stuffy drawing room of a pompous and preening housemaster at Charterhouse, to give the sycophantic answer “…where you are now.

Returning to the in flight magazine and the Frenchman, Thierry Ernst:  My late father in law also made a move abroad later in his life and I had a moment on the plane when I thought about him and compared his experiences with those of this Moldovan Frenchman.  I felt a great deal of empathy with their nerves and excitement as strangers in a new land.  I knew I had a strong affinity with Moldova, from working in partnerships with remarkable Moldovan schools, educators and students from Wales 6 years ago.  In many ways, Moldova can easily be likened to Wales: a fiercely proud people and small nation; an ancient land sitting in the borderlands of an area much disputed with large neighbours who haven’t always been friendly.  

I agreed with Thierry’s sentiment a long time before I ever read it on a London flight bound for Chisinau at the end of May after an emotional send-off, both from my former school and my wife and children for this first stage of the move:  I believe in Moldova too.  Over the last few weeks, as I have settled in and become more accustomed to the pace of life here, I have discovered a lot of people here do too.

Sitting recently in “The Smokehouse”, a craft beer bar in Chisinau, run by a former US Peace Corps volunteer, drinking a not badly brewed English brown ale and eating wings, my American companion asked me what I thought of Moldova after 4 weeks.  My reply “…it is definitely growing on me”.  To know a country and people working from a distance as from the UK, is a very different experience to being here, trying to understand the more complex contexts and nuances, even when you have known and worked with Moldovan colleagues for at least 6 years and can instantly answer the frequent question “Where is Moldova?”.

As my flight came into land, looking down at verdant slopes resplendent with grapevines, I was reminded of Italy.  The heat hit it me immediately as my new colleagues met me at the airport and took me to my hotel.  The first few days were a blur: I was still adjusting to leaving the UK and getting used to my new role as the director of Heritage International School.  The final day of the academic year with all the students celebrating their countries, varied cultures & heritages in a bustling international festival was truly one of the best experiences I have had in global education.  It was a privilege to join in and participate for the first time and my first words to the whole Heritage International School community (Claire Rush: take note) were “Bora da bawb: croeso” – Hello everyone: welcome, delivered in the language of my former home, Wales.

It has only been in the last week that I have felt I could really reflect on this first stage of being in Moldova.  Getting out of the hotel and into my new apartment in the city centre was a much needed move.  To any international educators who may be reading, I would recommend moving quickly from the mindset that you are “just on vacation”, to “this is where I now live and work”.  I realized, when it became routine to wait in the morning for my ride to school at the corner on Bucharest Street, use my local supermarket, “No1” (though I am more a fan of Linella), to becoming a regular at “Delice d’Ange”, the café around the corner, that I was starting to feel at home – settled.  Do I miss the daily commute and the battle through the M4/M32/Ring Road at the end of the day?  Let me think…

Thus, what starts as bewilderment, quickly becomes fascination and ends up being normal, daily routine.  Just as I spent four years alongside the borders of Wales greeting Tina at 7am, asking about cover, then Dave the caretaker, singing as always and telling me about the weather, before Mel made tea and we both caught up with overnight correspondence, my routine now is my ride through the busy city, the “salut, buna ziua” to Viktor the security guy and Olga on reception, and then tea from Jane at the school café.  The most obvious draw of any school is its feeling of community.  Heritage International School is housed in an incredibly modern and beautiful, purpose built building and grounds but it would count for nothing if the school community of students, staff and parents did not match. 

The last four weeks coming into my new school, working with new colleagues, students and parents have revealed completely that I have a school community as good as any I have worked with previously as a school leader.  The superb network of schools, talented educators, policy makers and leaders makes the role easier and it is clear to envision the way we will make a significant impact on education and global learning here in our schools in Moldova, Eastern Europe. 

The outward facing school community is here and this June, my colleagues have been working with colleagues in Romania reflecting on the Finnish model of education. Working with their counterparts in Moldova on global learning and English language teaching, HIS experts have also been heavily involved in partnerships and projects with the US Embassy, America House and colleagues from North Carolina over the last week as well.  It was a pleasure to invite them to our flagship school to see what we are doing with international education here in Eastern Europe.

Despite my inner monologue telling me to spend these weeks and months just listening and learning, it has been very difficult not to want to jump straight in.  I still have Bill Bixby’s voice and the experiences of four years leading Wyedean guiding this new start.  With hindsight, there are always lessons to be learnt. 

Getting used to my new teams, surroundings and developing the positive school culture happens in the everyday things we say and do.  I have embraced this culture of change and positivity – one of my first steps has been to change my anonymous and cavernous rooms to take them from the “Oil Company CEO” look to something more fitting as the study of the director of an international school.  Now the walls are adorned with the beautiful artwork of our students.  An inspiring and fitting reminder of the young people at the heart of our work in Heritage.  It is a privilege to have their work surrounding me.

Travelling from the UK, I had only 23kg of luggage allowance, but that meagre allocation has given me the opportunity to work with my brilliant colleagues Elena and Svetlana, as well students like Bia.  I have spoken to and met every member of staff, learning names, forcing myself to speak slowly, rather than at my normal 100 miles an hour as translators roll their eyes.  Working in three languages and with communication a key leadership tool means a little bit more thought than previously.

Recruiting exceptional local and international educators these last few weeks, it has been a privilege to see brilliant teachers from across the globe wanting to work in Eastern Europe. Planning and putting together the priorities for the new academic year and meeting with the marketing company, suppliers, ministry, embassies and founders so that we are all working towards common goals and have alignment in our approach has taken a good deal of vital and necessary time since my arrival. 

The vision of the founders to have international education and an innovative holistic curriculum with the values, skills and knowledge for the 2020s and beyond has never been more important.  We are educating the future business and civic leaders of this corner of the world and in turbulent political times, such as we have recently seen in Moldova, developing these values and skills becomes essential.  Maia Sandu over Boris Johnson as your PM??? 

As I view events in the UK right now, I know I am in the right part of the World.  Harvard and The World Bank over Eton and Oxford every time.  Moldova and Eastern Europe are outward facing and want engagement with Europe, Russia, USA and the wider World.  Our young people need educating with Ghandi’s words above in mind, if they, our future leaders, are to tackle what seem increasingly almost insurmountable global problems. I am still curious to see the post Brexit “Global Britain” emerge and I recommend the below article in The Economist to anyone outside the UK who shares the bewilderment echoed by Mark Rutte, the Dutch PM in an interview on Britain this week.

https://www.economist.com/briefing/2019/06/20/how-brexit-made-britain-a-country-of-remainers-and-leavers?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/howbrexitmadebritainacountryofremainersandleaversthenewtribes

The notion of an outward facing global society and our common history was very much in evidence at the start of June with the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The extraordinary sacrifice of people from the UK, Commonwealth, USA, Europe and Russia to defeat fascism was commemorated with more poignancy and uncertainty as we head into the 2020s.  Listening to the last survivors of the beach landings from 1944 I thought of my late father in law’s good friend, Ray Wolfe, one of the brave men ashore on Gold beach:  How that generation must weep for the mess we have made for the future after so much sacrifice for a better world in a battle they believed they had fought and won nearly 8 decades ago.

Here in Moldova, the chaos of that part of C20th European history is keenly felt. This was brought home to me last weekend when I was invited to a colleague’s family home in the countryside near Orhei.  Drinking the amazing homemade wine under the vines and eating wonderful local Moldovan food in the sun, the older members of the family showed me the cellars and places they hid during the War.  They described the experiences they endured under several armies of occupation during that awful time. In the evening, I had an invite to the Opera outside in the spectacular setting of Old Orhei: It is worth a visit to this amazing site alone. 

I am growing more and more fond of Chisinau.  It is a wonderful, green and relaxed city in the summer with tree lined streets and beautiful parks, but it is the gentle, vine-clad, rolling hills of the countryside and the hidden gems like the forest of Codru and the monastery at Curchi, that have left the strongest impression on me. 

I leave in July for meetings in London and to spend the summer break back with my family in the UK.  I cannot wait, but this time, I know I am back to Chisinau in August to prepare with my colleagues here for the new academic year ahead.  I cannot wait for that either; I believe in Moldova too! 

1 thought on “An International School in Moldova – first impressions.”

  1. Reading about your journey (both figurative and literal) with fascination. It’s about 17 years since we crossed the border to Poland on a school bus and my love affair with Eastern Europe began. 12 years since l began my teaching career in Russia, inspired by lessons filled with snowy revolutions. You may have talked of French goats cheese but l think part of you has yearned for Eastern Europe since you watched the wall fall! Wishing you all the very best in your new adventure , the students are very lucky to have you…you still hold #1 place on my list of ‘I wish I could teach like that’ people!
    An ex-student ☺

    Liked by 1 person

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