Educators are the backbone of every school and Beijing’s international school community is no different. However, the expat community is also transient by nature, which means teachers come and go all the time. But every once in a while, we’re lucky to meet an educator with long-term vision who transcends traditional ideas about what education should be. This issue, we talk to two veteran Beijing educators, John McBryde and Caroline Chen, about how they wound up here and where education in China is headed in the future.
John McBryde characterizes his history with China and Indonesia as a “love affair.” The Australian educator has been going back and forth between the two countries for over 27 years. A self-described “beach boy,” McBryde grew up north of Brisbane on the Sunshine Coast and never imagined he would one day live in some of the biggest cities in the world.
For many, he needs no introduction. Currently Director of Beanstalk International Bilingual School (BIBS) and CEO of Beanstalk
Education Group (BIBS), he also spent nine years at the Western
Academy of Beijing (WAB). Notably, McBryde was director of WAB
during the school’s early years and is acknowledged for his contribution to WAB’s unique architecture and interior design.
“I taught for ten years and had no aspiration to be an administrator, but I did have a burning desire for multiculturalism and indigenous cultures. I was working in government schools and found out about this small island in the Great Barrier Reef called Ugar, all with indigenous island kids. I was told I could only go as a principal because all the teachers are indigenous. So I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ It was a really significant influence in my life, as my training was during a time when there was a lot of alternative education and a period of shaking up the classic style of education. Schools without structure, schools with a much more flexible curriculum, without bells, and without the teacher at the front. It set me on a professional level that there’s something better and we should be striving for it. You’ve got to go with the system – you can’t go radical – but you should always be pushing the boundaries.”
Road to Beijing
“Just like I was drawn to be a teacher, I was drawn to international education. My first experience was a small city in Sumatra. I was there for five years, loved it, went back to Australia, and eventually to a new school in Jakarta. That’s when China called me. A friend who was at WAB in ‘98 called and said, ‘You need to be here, John.’ At the last minute I put in an application and next thing I knew, I was in Beijing. Beijing was a fairly gritty city back then, but over time I have fallen deeply in love with China.”
Environment Inspires Creativity
“It’s hard to be creative without the conditions for creativity. It requires an environment that stimulates. One of my mantras is, it doesn’t cost more to paint color than to paint grey. My first ten years in China were a very exciting period of development and I remember the first
Starbucks opening and watching people coming from their big, beautiful
offices juggling their laptops and coffee. [I realized], as human beings we want to mix up our space. My thought was that if it works this well for Starbucks worldwide, why can’t Starbucks as a concept work in schools? Why not cafés instead of cafeterias? Why not color, sofas, and everything we take for granted about coffee shops? The other idea was that you can do your work anywhere – work does not have to be done in a classroom.”
Where’s It All Going?
“There’s something happening in China that we don’t know quite how to do. Every country comes up with a term, and here we call them ‘international bilingual schools.’ The boom happening in China now is in progressive 21st century education for Chinese kids. There’s a mass movement of parents looking for something different than public education and its emphasis on tests and cramming. What’s different about the Chinese international and bilingual schools is that they are licensed as Chinese schools and offer international programs, but are allowed to take foreigners. So now we have schools that can actually do what international schools would love to do, which is take Chinese kids.”
“Chinese authorities are allowing a lot of flexibility in terms of curriculum. What we do [at BIBS]in the IB, as they do in international schools, is have a curriculum framework that we draw on and contextualize within the local environment, but draw our standards from somewhere in the world and throw on Chinese math standards. You see this in a lot of international schools now – drawing on standards of the host country, adapting where it makes sense, not adapting when it doesn’t. Following an international program, but drawing on local stuff. There’s a very happy, very easy marriage when you start looking at it.”
Challenges in the Education Scene
“Education is drawn by vision, program, and an understanding of how kids learn. The challenge is for the new, emerging Chinese schools to get the whole formula right. Schools are complex organisms and it takes a lot of things working together to get it right. It requires Chinese and westerners with international expertise working hand in hand and that’s something we’re certainly engaged in at BIBS.”
“Another challenge has been out there my whole life – as a kid, as a beginner educator, and it’s still a challenge out there for me now – is that what we learn in school doesn’t necessarily prepare us. It’s been one of my holy grails that I’m still searching for. What is educating kids for the 21st century in a global world, in a changing society?”
Forecasting the enrollment trend
“There was this dynamic growth when China joined the WTO; that was the start of the boom. It was almost like you could build and fill any school good, bad, or ugly, and now that’s changed. What people are talking about is enrollment decline [at international schools.]The reality is that fewer foreigners are coming to China, not just Beijing. Pollution is an issue in other countries too, but the foreign media likes to focus on Beijing and that’s slowed down the numbers of families coming here with young kids.”
“We’re driven by success and growth and people think of success as being by size, which is not true. Program quality is success. The understanding international schools will arrive at is that this is a natural part of things, and for schools to budget accordingly. A school of 1,500 can operate as a school of 1,300 or even 1,000. The opportunity here is to take our focus off growth. In the first year, decline hurts. The second year, you learn from it, adjust, and find it doesn’t impact the program at all. Once you understand the trend, there isn’t budget chaos and schools can get on to the business of schools.”
“Anything we do in education that would make us proud has to live beyond our time. For me, one is to see what we gave birth to at WAB. It is incredibly sustainable, valued, and just so cool and funky – it feeds my happy spot constantly. At the heart of it though, the things that make me most proud are the people stories. Last year I found out that one of the island kids – and one of my daughter’s best friends – is now the island chairman. He took a group of kids to film at the Olympic Games in London [in 2012]. It was that full circle; you value something, you plant a seed, you don’t know where it goes, and a generation later, that kid knows the value of his own culture and who he is.”
Caroline Chen is the founder and director of one of the first international schools in Beijing, the International Montessori School of Beijing (MSB), founded in 1990. As an American Montessori Society-qualified teacher, Chen has spent over 30 years in Beijing. She is respected in education circles in China for introducing and promoting the Montessori system within the Chinese early education community. She is also a frequent guest lecturer and was a speaker at the first US-Sino Early Childhood Education Conference.
On Early Inspirations
“I was born in England to parents who came from Shanghai in 1949. My father and his very traditional Confucian upbringing had a huge influence on me as I grew up and still does to this day. I didn’t visit our family’s ancestral graves until I was 16 but when I did, it had a huge effect upon me. The sense that we are truly a very minute part of a whole colored my thinking, a sense that my behavior should honor their lives. During my time at LSE [The London School of Economics and Political Science], my father introduced me to some very clever Chinese scientists and engineers from Beijing who told me that I should come to China to see life here first-hand. I made a visit at 16 to Beijing.”
On Starting MSB
“I was approached to take over the small part-time kindergarten class in the Norwegian Embassy in 1990; this was the beginning of MSB. Funnily enough, my earliest inkling and inspiration was as a young child, less than 7 years old. I heard many young children calling to me to help them and join them. I remember answering them and telling them to wait and that I would come. There was a sense of need and importance to their calls. I recall thinking that I was too young at the time and that they would have to wait until I was older and able to go. MSB was the brainchild of those pictures in my head. It came from the desire of wanting to make a really great school where children could be inspired and given the right environment to take off and fly in the face of any challenge in life and surpass anything. The spirit of a child can truly be likened to that of the bubbling brook of purity and all that is good. They are capable of so much.”
Obstacles in an Ever-Changing Beijing
“The biggest changes in Beijing’s international educational scene have really been taking place over the last ten years or so. We have these great behemoths and formulaic juggernauts of educational businesses where the child sadly doesn’t come first anymore but rather needs to fit into a prescriptive mold. What people need to understand is that if the vital connection between child and environment is made, the child’s whole person is lit up and a love of learning ensues. After that, in right environment, the child can truly go on to fulfill his or her potential. The good news is that many more parents are recognizing this not only in the expatriate but also local communities. We have a boom in private education and international departments of public schools. There’s more emphasis on the whole person. I have been impressed by many Chinese parents in the last few years who have a greater understanding and level of sophistication in recognizing the importance of good citizenship and the whole development of their children versus rote mechanical learning.”
“There have been several tough obstacles in these many years; one of these obstacles has been myself. I can be a perfectionist and a bit too trusting, but that’s how we learn and grow. At times, I have had to draw on an inner strength that I didn’t know I necessarily possessed, but I learned more about myself and the simple things of living; namely that trying to be our best selves takes time. Like children, we adults are a work in progress.”
On Declining Enrollment
“This year we expanded by two classrooms so dropping enrollment has not been a problem for us. But we all know that with the pollution problem and increasing number of international-like schools that this is a concern for all administrators. It’s probably a good thing as it keeps everyone on their toes in many ways, but the pollution issue is really hard one no matter how low one’s PM 2.5 is. This makes Beijing a harder place to attract good teachers.”
“The big question is how much is enrollment is going to drop. If numbers drop off tremendously, schools will run into financial
difficulty. But it’s like anything else; people have to apply common sense. If something comes along in life – even if we don’t like it – we have to accept, can grow from it, ask what’s the best strategy, and look at the issues as they come. From parents’ point of view, some drop off is a good thing because schools need to get back to their mission to being the very best they can be. Every parent who contacts admissions should be well looked after.”
“I am most proud of MSB’s dual language program, which we have finely honed over many years, and the wonderful team of teachers I have had the privilege to lead and work with over these 25 years.”
Advice to Parents
“If I were new to Beijing and looking for a good kindergarten and elementary school, I would look at the authenticity and integrity of the place by ‘smelling’ the place. I would ask to meet as many people in the school as possible, including parents present and former. I would ask to be allowed to see in the classrooms and take an observation or two. In other words, to see beyond the outside packaging to what goes on [inside]. I would also want to see the curriculum and ask for as much school literature available on this. Longevity of staff is also a big factor. It would give me confidence that the school has strong stability. I would want to see smiling, happy faces as I walk around the school.”
This article originally appeared on p36-39 in the January 2015 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here (will send link later) To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: By Sui and courtesy of BIBS