Good Things Come

My apologies for the extended absence. Since my last post more than a year ago, my life here in the Kingdom has undergone quite a few changes. Over the next few weeks I’ll do my best to fill the gaps.

After fully coming to terms with my promotion and spending the subsequent three months trying to overhaul all the damage the South African and Our Dear Leader had done to the Boys Section, I was fairly confident in my ability to handle what the Brit and myself were getting thrown in to. Some of that might’ve only been from knowing that pretending to be confident usually makes someone seem more confident, but at least it was something. 

I managed a good start on the mountain of paperwork and other administrative tasks during the summer months, but after scrambling to recruit teachers in the short time before school started we were left with a considerable shortage of staff for the first day of school. We were definitely more prepared than any of my previous years when it came to actually running the school, but we would quickly find out that even the most well intentioned preparations couldn’t make up for the lack of teachers in classrooms.

Things continued downhill the week before the start of classes. We wound up facing a shortage of textbooks due to a serious lack of preparation from the previous administration back in January, and many of the changes to the internal administrative structure of the school were still being challenged by those that were being affected (namely the Principal of the Girls’ Section and Latifah).

We did what we could to cover classes as much as possible those first few days of school, but it wasn’t pretty and it quickly left parents and staff quite irritated. Those few days stretched into the first few weeks, and many of the preparations we had worked so hard to make were starting to come undone by issues almost completely outside our control.

Far from being a perfect solution to our problem, we were able to start gaining the trust and support of staff and parents by actively communicating our intentions as we enacted changes, and being as open as possible about how we planned to deal with the problems at hand. If something needed changing or fixing we did it as soon as possible, and let everyone know the whys and hows of what was going to happen. It worked for the first few months, but by the end of November we were still battling a shortage of teachers and resources. Parents were getting increasingly frustrated with the slow progress we were making. It wasn’t a good time to be in charge, and it started to really wear down on the confidence we had in our ability to manage things.

The biggest challenge was trying to convince the people invested in our school that we were slowly making progress, and that students were making considerable academic gains despite the problems we were having. It was hard to sit face to face with parents frustrated with the lack of consistent teachers in their students’ classes, as well as a shortage of basic resources like textbooks, and tell them to be patient. It was frustrating, but it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Parents had already dealt with the previous school administrations, so despite their annoyance with the current situation they were willing to accept our apologies and give us the chance to work things out in the short term because they were starting to see some progress even if it wasn’t exactly what they wanted.

We managed to deal with most of these frustrations with relatively straightforward honesty. Most of the previous school administrators resorted to false promises at best and blatant avoidance at worst when dealing with unpleasant situations. We confronted problems head on with thorough explanations of what was happening now, and followed them up with detailed conversations about what was going to be done in the future. It meant an ungodly amount of time talking to people I would’ve rather not dealt with, but the benefits of setting things straight more than made up for the hours of awkward social interaction I endured every day.

One of the many benefits of our less than perfect situation was the close relationship the Brit and I had as the administrative team. As I mentioned in the past, we’ve had considerable experience working (scheming) together, and although neither of us really knew much as far as running a school, we were able to use our relationship to get through pretty much whatever was being thrown our way. I covered the academic and typical school related issues, while the Brit put his focus on employee relations and the business end of running a for-profit school. We made for a decent team when it came to handling the finer points of making everyone happy. Granted, we were under considerable pressure to make things work, and we also ran the ultimate consequence of tarnishing our reputation if we couldn’t figure things out.

Slowly but surely we gained the trust and respect of most people. By the end of December our staffing issues were mostly a thing of the past, and the school had started functioning like the everyday, run of the mill, relatively fully resourced, Western accredited educational institution it was supposed to be. Parents were happy with the structure and routine we put in place for their students, teachers were happy with the stricter discipline and subsequent consequences, and we were happy with actually being able to reliably measure academic and behavioral improvement.

Things continued to improve through January and February, with the exception of the week we sent notices home to parents of students with severe academic and behavior issues. Part of our plan to overhaul the school was not only to improve the academic standards our students would be held to, but also to implement a standard of behavior that weeded out individuals who couldn’t seem to grasp what it meant to follow rules. The Brit weaseled his way out of having to deal with the flood of parents who came to discuss their failing or misbehaving students by recruiting overseas for a few weeks, which meant I was stuck meeting parents one after another for far longer than I would have ever wanted. In the end it worked much better than we had anticipated, seeing as, out of the 60 students who received notices, all but 12 made significant changes and were able to elude being permanently expelled.

March was a quiet month. As was most of April. Things continued dying down towards the end of the year, thanks in large part to the consistent and effective style of management we had labored to put in place throughout the year. Staff knew what they should be doing and who to go to for help, students knew what was expected of them and the consequences of their actions, and parents knew that the Brit and I were serious in our efforts to improve the school and provide what we had initially promised throughout the year. As with everything else, Final exams were a test of the systems we had put in place, but for the first time at our school we had a 100 percent attendance rate for every exam. The Brit and I were diligent enough to continually plan for the next school year as we faced various issues, so by the last day of school we were pretty much set for the summer.

Looking back, this past year was an experience that’s hard to label. It was incredibly valuable, both personally and professionally, and although the frustration of learning on the fly was immense, it wasn’t ever something that made me regret agreeing (if you want to call it that) to accept the job. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day we were sitting in the garden when the VP phoned the Brit informing him of his new promotion and our subsequent adventure into school administration. I was excited about the potential future for success after dealing with all the failures Our Dear Leader had put us through, but I was also pretty damn intimidated about what could potentially happen. I spent quite a bit of that summer worrying about what might happen and how I might deal with it. I was nervous as hell really, and over the course of the year the constant threat of failure was something that did eventually make me doubt my competency from time to time.

Ultimately, this experience was something I can look back to positively. I can say with certainty that I wasn’t a failure. I made many mistakes, but also I learned a great deal about what it means to be a leader.

Such is life in Saudi.