Over the summer, when I visited friends and family, I made it no secret that I had many concerns about my new position as principal of a brand-new school in Erbil. I had no doubts about my own ability to do the job. But I had every doubt about my company’s commitment to the project and their ability to see it through properly. I told almost everyone that there was a 50% chance the school would not even last through its inaugural year. I had no idea I’d be so painfully and quickly correct.
All the warning signs were there before I’d left for the summer in late June, before I’d assembled my staff, before we’d accepted one child through our doors. And though a lot of my concerns were proven right I could never have expected how much of an utter debacle the whole situation would become.
Ten days before I returned to Kurdistan, in mid-August, I received some messages from my boss that there were concerns about our to-be living situation in Erbil. It was a frustrating message to receive- because I had raised all of the concerns back in June, to all relevant parties, asking them to be solved by the time staff returned to housing between August 23rd-25th. Also because it showed that my boss had failed to listen to anything at all that I’d mentioned, quite explicitly to him, two months before. Namely the same concerns he was now repeating back to me, the source, as if I was unaware.
It ended up being a common theme. My two months in charge of the short-lived Oxford International School in Erbil were two months of starting a new school, with a young staff, and a very minimal amount of guidance.
Even with circumstances so quickly stacking up against us I thought we were already doing a remarkable job. Our processes and policies were quickly in place. The foreign and local staff were getting on very well.
There was complete confidence throughout the staff in my ability to lead and guide them, and I continually preached that with the Duhok and Zakho school’s launching points in the past, we were perfectly poised to take the strengths from both, while also learning from and improving on their mistakes. We also had the capital city spotlight, which I willfully and continually reminded everyone of to bring out their best.
Within three weeks the school was running like a well-oiled machine. There was strong rapport and communication across the school, and I’d also managed to pull us foreign staff out of a negative living situation and force the company’s hand into moving us to outside-party apartments, a company first.
Meanwhile, all of the necessary variables for a perfect storm were brewing.
The Kurdish referendum, had passed a few weeks before, bringing with it a stinging train of international neglect from countries that had made their stances against the independence referendum well known.
In addition, our school, though a well-functioning operation, was far too small to be sustainable, and was scheduled to lose several hundred thousand over the course of its first year. Though this fact did contribute to our perfect storm, it was anything but unknown.
The poor location and unsuitable building were issues I’d raised with the company management back in June, telling them it made us a poor option in comparison to other international schools, in what was an already saturated market.
Knowing they’d only understand pleas from the viewpoint of money, I told them that in saving maybe $50,000 annually on rent by signing onto a decrepit building, they were likely to lose $100,000(s) in revenue and school fees when parents decided not to entrust their children’s education to us and our crumbling building. The logic was lost on them.
There were also rumblings that we’d somehow made enemies already within the ministry of education and among other international schools. Hearing this surprised me. But also made me hyper-aware of how our company’s management was dealing with other stakeholders in the area, and likely doing it in underhanded ways.
The company chairman’s father- the real decision maker- was also indifferent to the idea of an Erbil school. It was a well-known fact that the only school he was truly invested in was the original Zakho school.
These factors came to a breaking point when, on the evening of October 10th, my boss took me and one of my colleagues out to dinner and informed us that our school was closing with almost no notice.
The closure didn’t go down well. My staff were very distraught when I told them, and it was impossible to convey any sort of sound reasoning for our school’s closure. Much less so when all necessary facts were being kept from me- the person who was in charge on the ground. The chairman didn’t show his face in Erbil at any point during the process, and my boss disappeared after a single parents’ meeting. I did my best to court and soothe the stream of parents that came over the next week, while having little of substance to tell them.
And had I at least been informed to some effective manner of what was happening, I could have helped ease the transition for my staff. Instead, all relevant information was being kept secret, and my boss was anything but factual in what he told me. I was powerless to help any of my twenty staff.
The reasons behind our closure were at best convoluted, and many of the “reasons” are still emerging now. The closest thing to the truth is likely that our chairman had realized the school was a long-term investment he wasn’t willing to make, though this was itself based on the poor fiscal decisions he’d already made in the establishment of the school.
He then tried to pull the plug as quickly and quietly as he could. It was seemingly immaterial to everyone in upper management that the problems that slowed the school’s growth were entirely self-inflicted. Everything from a poor building, nonexistent uniforms, poor location, over-priced fees, and book orders that never went through.
I’d asked the chairman back in June what market research had been done on competitor school fees and locations, or marketing strategies used by other schools. He couldn’t begin to answer the question. All the problems were born out of poor decision making, and from the viewpoint of minimizing investment rather than maximizing growth.
Now I’m not normally the type to put people on blast, but when decisions are made in haste, particularly with little regard as to how they directly affect people on the ground, and then those making the decisions are absent due to cowardice, there is some necessary blasting. All of my staff were completely abandoned by the company. The day that I was informed the school was to close- October 10th– was the last day any thought or care was given to any of the twenty people on staff.
My two foreign teachers were on jets out of the country within a week’s time, as the company severed their contract illegally and effectively forced them out of the country. There were staff needs at the Duhok school that my two foreign teaches could have filled, but due to reasons beyond and logic, my boss likely refused (and denied doing so), hiring them. Many of my local staff fared even worse. With the academic year now two months in, and likely few if any schools hiring by late October, many of them were stuck without work for the rest of the year.
I’d worked with the company for two years, opened a middle school expansion from a primary, started programs that hadn’t existed in Kurdistan, opened a brand-new school, and even my role evaporated without any proper compensation, notice, or recognition.
I ultimately pushed my way into a transitional position as an academic consultant and staff trainer at the Duhok school for the month of November to hold me over until I departed for Sierra Leone, which gave me a wonderful opportunity to spend some final time working with the colleagues I’d spent the past two years with, while also giving myself some time to fine tune some of the ideas I wanted to bring to the Bumpeh Academy Development Project (BADP) work in Sierra Leone.
It is a shame that my time in Kurdistan ended as it did after more than three years in Northern Iraq, but there are also probably few moments in life where variables seem to so clearly point in one direction.
Now I’m in Freetown, Sierra Leone, decompressing from what’s been one of the most exasperating periods of time. And I’m pretty used to exasperating periods of time.
I just finished two great weeks of work in the town of Rotifunk, where, along with my colleagues Rashid and Daniel, we ran an in-service staff training for local secondary teachers and worked on school improvements through our organization, BADP. It was a first of its kind for the area.
The trainings have been a total success. Teachers have really appreciated not only the show of support, but have taken many topics to heart that we introduced specifically because we knew they were massive needs here. We also have two developing trainers, and a few more teacher who’ve already been identified as having the necessary capabilities to be developed into trainers themselves. And now we’re trying to strategize ways to develop the plan to be more widely-serving for different towns or possibly all of Bumpeh Chiefdom.
I’ll spend the next few days continuing my decompress, and also sharing some of my journal from the past few weeks in Rotifunk over the coming days.