This month represents a slightly different blog entry for me. I was asked by Radio Free Europe to contribute to one of their regular programmes giving insight into a week in my life as the Director of Heritage International School. I was asked to provide a biography and to keep a diary of one normal week, describing my role, the events and my thoughts about them. It was a fascinating experience for me which provoked a great deal of reflection on my part. I came to the conclusion that no week is an ordinary week. The culmination of the diary keeping was an on air interview which was broadcast last Saturday, February First. Re-reading the published diary of my week, I thought it might prove an interesting insight for you all, and so, I have decided to turn this blog entry over to sharing that same week with you. At the end, you will find the link to my radio interview.
Rob Ford is the Director of Heritage International School. The first international school in Moldova offering a global educational approach and international curriculum to both the local and international communities. Rob was appointed in early 2019 to the role and has been working with school leaders, teachers and students in Moldova for over 6 years. Rob is the son of a coal miner and was born and raised in the hill border county of Shropshire, between England and Wales. Mid Wales is a place he loves dearly and spends time there with family, hillwalking whenever possible and being close to nature. Rob was the first in his family to go to university and he studied Politics and History at the University of York. Rob began his teaching career at Bootham School, York, and then obtained his Post Graduate Certificate in Education from the University of Aberystwyth. He was later awarded his Masters in Education Management and his National Professional Qualification in Headship. Rob has been a school leader and has taught History and Politics to students and university entry candidates for nearly 25 years in schools across England and Wales. Before coming to Moldova, Rob was the successful principal of writer JK Rowling’s former school, Wyedean School near Bristol, where he lives still in the UK when not in Chisinau. Rob has enjoyed a unique career in international education working with school around the globe through his role as a British Council schools’ ambassador. Rob has contributed to a number of books and articles on international education and leadership. Rob is speaking in conferences in London in February and giving the keynote talk in Cairo in March about his role and the purpose and vision of Heritage as an international school in Moldova. Rob is married to Genevieve and is father to three young daughters and global citizens, Evie, Annie and Gwen.
Monday 27th Jan
I have been dreading the end of January 2020 for some time now. As a British person living and working in Moldova the shrill and irrational discourse around Brexit in the past year has been largely muted and remote on this eastern side of Europe, only occasionally making headlines due to the arcane theatre of the UK parliament trying to make sense of the decision from nearly four years ago as the once respected British democracy saw the worst faces of populism and crude national identity emerge shrieking from a vote mired in controversy. I am almost thankful now when my colleagues or friends in Chisinau ask me about Megan and Harry rather than try to make sense of the Brexit decision. To a country on the eastern side of Europe, Moldova has its own unclear debate around Europe, identity, which way to face and what future direction will it take. President Macron of France appeared to make that decision unilaterally this week when he declared the EU’s Eastern Partnership for member countries like Moldova was definitely not a political waiting room for future EU membership. The count down to the broken bongs of Big Ben across Westminster this Friday 31st January will not be the triumphalist herald to a new age of Glorious Britannia but more of a mangled and distorted view of a troubled history divorced away from any sense of reality of the issues globalised age of the new 2020s we all face in a future now in our common humanity.
Last year, when I first came to Chisinau to work with the remarkable Founders and community of Heritage International School, there was snow all over the ground. My dear colleague and friend, Tatiana Popa, took me with her family to a trip to Old Orhei, to see that breathtakingly, beautiful natural landscape, infused with such spirituality and the history of Moldova, it deserves to be recognised in its own right as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite the ice and the snow that day, leading down a very long way a sheer drop to the river below, I remember holding onto that ancient stone cross at the top in the ice winds and drinking in Moldova, even better than to drink the glorious wines and one of its best kept secrets as a hidden jewel at the crossroads of Europe. A year on and Moldova has more than grown on me only this January the effects of global climate change makes itself known as the winter in Moldova has felt like early Spring since I stepped off the flight from London to start the new academic year. The sunshine seemed so out of place today, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army and the beginnings of the uncovering of one of the most monstrous crimes as the Third Reich shrank to its embittered bunkered core as Allied armies knew with each step this was like no war that Europe or the World had witnessed before. The reviled hatred and appalling genocide crimes of the Nazis against predominantly the Jews but also Roma and groups such as homosexuals, became a totem of “lest we forget” and “never again” on this day in history 75 years ago. As we move further and further away from these moments of history and we have less and less first-hand account survivors left to speak their truth it becomes even more important for the younger generation to remember and pass this on. In the years I have been teaching history and this period, it is often this message that has sustained the central point of many lessons to countless students. I heard the now deceased, British Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, speak about the idea of us living in a “permanent present” and we are not connected to the past or even the future but living out in some existentialist and nihilistic now. I wonder if that was the driving force behind me on a very busy Monday in school when the wonderful head of security at Heritage, Mr Grigori, took me and three members of the student council, first onto Dacia Boulevard to get some flowers and then off to the Holocaust memorial on Calea Orheiului. We stood silently in the near Spring sunshine, heads bowed and then we spoke about why people should remember. We spoke about the events of the Holocaust in Moldova, the Chisinau ghetto and how honoured we felt to be representing our school community. Every act of remembrance is an act of hope. Soon we were back on Dacia Boulevard where the Khrushchevkas line the road but wear their 21st century capitalism in the Andy’s Pizzas and McDonalds around their concrete bases in a forced way. As I sat in my apartment on Monday evening, having face timed my kids and wife to see how their day had gone I looked out of window to the small group below in my square off Pircalab and valued the preciousness of time and life.
Tuesday 28th January
The day started off with the most appalling rain. It was like London. I went up to the corner of Bucharest and Pircalab to get my lift in with colleagues. There are many wonderful and innovative sustainability and SDG schemes in Chisinau and Moldova and in particular the work of the UNDP here. The deputy head of the UNDP came to speak to students at our Founders’ Lecture series just before Christmas and if these kids really are the Great Thunberg generation I hope they make real impact on actions that can prevent climate change than the band wagon celebrities I see on social media in Chisinau talking about going green or becoming more “eco-friendly” but are constantly pictured with useless balloons made from plastic or are sitting in some luxurious sunny resort having taken a jet plane to get there. Hypocrisy like BS, can be smelt long before it is seen. My constant thought as I take a wonderful No 22 or No 30 trolley bus or car share a lift with a colleague is this, Chisinau is one of the very few cities I see where no one cycles to work. My students would love some cycle lanes, as I am sure there are parents who would too. There are no car pool schemes and the number of single occupancy cars in this city is appalling. Especially in rush hours. I went to a real inspirational educational conference at the Ion Creanga Pedagogical University “Future Classroom Lab” last Friday hosted by Chisinau Mayor Ion Ceban. You know the traffic situation is bad in this city when the Minister of Education arrives late to the platform and makes a joke to the audience that it was because of the poor traffic in Chisinau.
I have tried to avoid hackneyed clichés about Moldova since I first started working with colleagues here 6 years ago. The most obvious one is about the food and wine being so good. It is true, they are incredible and people take such pride in what is produced here. When I first started Skype classroom sessions with students and colleagues and they talked about Moldova they always mentioned how good the food was. Being British, we always mentioned tea and I have proudly kept up the daily tradition of Ceylon and Assam black tea with a spot of milk, in my Welsh mug, much to the horror of my students and colleagues. In my defence, when I worked in Siberia and in Tomsk they put jam in their tea. I rest my case. Which all brings me back to the school food in the canteen. The head chef, Tatiana, I have found if I say either Tatiana, Inga or Olga, someone looks around, prepares amazing food with her team daily. Tuesday’s lunch was wonderful. It is simple but tastes good. I think to the school canteen food I have experienced in the UK and US of brown and orange glue like stodge. It is no contest. Moldovans are and should be rightly proud of what they grow in the fertile soil between the Prut and the Nistra.
Later that day, my colleague Andy and I made it through the evening traffic to Jewish Cultural Centre KEDEM in Eugen Doga street. There was a special event to commemorate the Holocaust for the 75th anniversary. Sitting in that packed hall, listening to the string quartet play as images of the Holocaust flashed up seemed slightly unreal. Suddenly this seemed more and more a week of reflection across our shared continent of Europe. As speaker after speaker spoke, the Russian ambassador, the deputy US ambassador, Mr McDowell, who is coming to Heritage in February as we reminded him and complimented him on his Romanian, the head of the UN in Moldova who quoted Dag Hammarskojld “the UN was created not to take people into heaven but to save humanity from hell”, it was Holocaust survivor Iosef whose passion and fight reminded everyone that this was not an abstract piece of history. I took my coat and scarf from the cloakroom, found the Minister of Education, Mr Popovic, right beside me and made sure I also invited him to Heritage in the near future so he could see the innovative global education and holistic curriculum we have developed and how we are sharing this with our partners and schools across Moldova. I walked home, past the wonderful “Crème de la Crème” and up through Cathedral park. This is one of the most beautiful and European streets we have in Chisinau and I closed my eyes in the early evening twilight and it could be Paris or Vienna or Berlin but I am glad it is dear old Chisinau. I walked up Pushkin Street and then past Asachi School. I am keeping a running total of Andy’s Pizzas I can walk past to get home. Café Nail on the corner of Pircalab is still open for winter and resisting the temptation for a coffee and a divan I went home to speak to Gen and the kids and continue with a couple of episodes of MadMen on Netflix. Rampant capitalism on Madison Avenue in 1960s Cold War America. Perfect for a late January night in Chisinau. Don Draper would definitely enjoy the weekend brunch in Ava 1727 on the corner. Best eggs and flat white coffee in Chisinau.
Wed 29th January.
Today was cold to wake up to. Even John Denver playing Ford family favourite “Country Roads” through the apartment couldn’t shake me at 6:30am. The tea with milk in my America House cup could though. It was my shout to deliver the Teaching and Learning weekly Wednesday briefing today for colleagues. 10mins of pitching almost anything as long as it helps somehow in the classroom and makes people think. I have seen it work so well from my time in schools in Royal Wootten Bassett, Crickhowell and Wyedean. Professional teachers learning from one another as colleagues and peers teaching peers. And in that arena I am a teacher – the whole domnal director would mean nothing to me if I couldn’t take and teach a group of 15 year olds on a cold Wednesday afternoon in November of January. One of the reasons I fell in love with Moldova is because the status and investment in education is so high in this society. It is held in such respect and I have had the privilege of working with some of the best teachers I have encountered anywhere in the World. If I think of hope for the future, then it is our teachers in our society that are in the vanguard to make sure the disaster of our people leaving Moldova is reversed and we build hope for them to come back and stay. Or at least to become engaged in communities they hailed from as they do with diasporas in countries who have suffered similar such as Ireland and Armenia. Politics aside, all parties are united on the need to tackle migration and it starts with our young people in school and their teachers. I came from a mining community and I am the proud son of a coal miner. Education was everything to me and the transformative power of learning came to me as a burning bright torch passed on by brilliant educators like Les Jones.
My briefing was on “The Power of the Smile”. An idea I have seen used in training so many times in the US and UK. I have toyed with idea many times as a briefing since one of the Ambassadors said to me once back in the summer “no one smiles in Moldova, that is the problem”. Well, I know this, that is not true. The grandad who waits to take his kids to school near my apartment block each morning, he smiles and says “buna dimineata”. As does the lady who sweeps the streets as I wait for a lift or the bus. The security guards shake my hands and we always look one another in the eye and say a meaningful good morning. I am not sure why this seems so unique as it is something I have always done and seen the great school leaders I served do, that is to stand and greet every child every morning. The power and warmth of that simple human act cannot be underestimated. It is the best part of my day. And I have colleagues from Elena to Liliana to Tatiana who have the most wonderful smiles as they greet children.
Today was a special day as it was the birthday of the school’s co-founder and chair of governors. It was a pleasure to show her the founding vision she had for Heritage when it was little more than plans on a drawing board and now in a successful school in its third year, her words at the opening ceremony are now emblazed on the main administration so no one can ever doubt the purpose of this unique school in Moldova: “The mission of the Founders is to prepare for the challenges of the future. A dream of an international school that will give the children of our country the atmosphere of an alternative progressive and modern educational institution”. We feel proud to be a part of this and to make it more and more a reality. It feels that every day and on Wednesday the 8th speaker for the inaugural Founders’ Lecture, the Head of the WHO in Moldova, Dr Igor Pokanevych, came to speak to staff and students in our library about the incredible work in Moldova and of course about the coronavirus in China right now. The day finished with a visit to Chisinau International Pre-School, our sister school, as I went with our business manager Tatiana, to speak with the director Ina and Founder John, about the collaboration we have and what we can do more together to make Chisinau a place international and local families will consider more. It is always good when educators work together like this in partnership. Another hopeful way for Moldova for the 2020s and I think of outstanding teacher networks like META in Moldova or the wonderful Alice Club over in Tiraspol and the excellent work they are doing. Last Friday, Ana Akhalkatsi, head of the World Bank in Moldova, said this at the educational conference in Ion Creanga; “Moldova’s greatest resources are not underground but in its people”. Those words have been resonating in my head all week and in the faces of the colleagues, students, parents and people I see. I went to bed on Wednesday not thinking about the bongs of Big Ben on Friday but the hope I see here in our corner of Europe. A belief in Europe.
Thursday 30th January
Every Thursday I take the upper school assembly. It is the one part of being a principal or a director I have always really enjoyed. Gets me out of my room for one and away from the emails written at 1am. Maybe it is the history teacher in me and the “sage on the stage”, not that I feel any particular wisdom navigating my role as a British director in an international school in Moldova, but in education being with the students is where the job is. But as this school has developed and we have built the strands across the Romanian, Russian and English speaking groups a possible model of the future for cooperation and identity is emerging from these young global citizens. My watch words all year have been cohesion, community and communications. Talking to all the upper school students every week is part of that process. If we want these young people to go forward and make better choices, be better leaders, solve complex global issues and carry the best of our values we need to start somewhere. Believing in young people and getting them engaged and motivated is always a good starting point. The assembly I held today was on the Holocaust. I deliberately avoided using a “shock and awe” tactic with them and also broke it down into how people have tried to make sense of it and explain. I used Hannah Arendt’s famous line at the Eichmann trail in 1961 about the “banality of evil” and finished off with the extraordinary example of Sir Nicolas Winton, who only died in 2015 aged 106. He saved nearly 700 Jewish children from near certain death and watching those now adult children hug him and thank him in a special TV programme later on was just so powerful. It added poignancy as our older students visited the Holocaust centre in Chisinau and the memorials and sight to the former Chisinau ghetto. Days like this are what we are in education for.
I finished off with my Critical Thinking group. Reduced to half their number as the school and Chisinau school children everywhere suffered the flu outbreak and parents rightly kept their children home to recover. I made my students tea in the English style, naturally made a tweet, because no one tweets in Moldova… and we discussed the importance of balance in life. Something my generation and their generation desperately needs to get right as we see the issues of mental health problems manifest increasingly in young people. I got my lift home happy and thankful to know there is so much good in the World with this generation.
Friday 31st January
It has been a particularly interesting week for reflection and tomorrow after a long January it is already February. In my own country, whatever happens next, those that wishes for a future out of Europe and throwback to the 19th century nation state now owns and live with those consequences. I looked out of my study across the park in front of the university next to Heritage and saw the family of stray dogs, who have lived and survived all winter so far, playing in the grounds. One of the most fundamental things we have done as part of our school culture is to develop compassion and social responsibility. We have been supporting local orphanages in Botanica in Chisinau, next month the head of the charity in Chisinau fighting for trafficked women and children, Veronica Lupu, will be speaking to our students for our Founders’ Lectures and we continue supporting the amazing work of the AREAL rescue centre for dogs. The founders Debbie O’Connell and Jane Sumner have done incredible work to ensure there is a centre in the city that shows compassion to dogs and works to make sure the centre can take in these defenceless animals as well as making sure laws exist for animal welfare.
Today the new “Oak Centre” opens on the school site in the old green wooden dacha that used to house the Zimbru FC museum. Now it is a multi-purpose training centre for teaching and will be used for teacher training, language teaching and for students to independently study. I am really proud to see the 21st century education we want for all in our country develop here. I am speaking at educational conferences in London in late February and in Cairo in March. At both events I will be proudly speaking about the transformative power of education in our country and why this the key to give our young people hope and our communities the bonds that will keep them together and stronger. I am a proud British school leader living and working in wonderful Moldova. Eu cred in Moldova.
I hope that this diary has provided an insight into not only my role, but also the life of the school and life in Moldova. You can find the published interview at the following link: Radio Free Europe Diary
or listen to the broadcast interview here: Radio Free Europe Interview