Back to school: David Baird on coming out of retirement to take the helm at Canadian International School
Interim headmaster tells how a mix of East and West in education can yield results
David Baird was appointed interim head at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong in August, after a troubled couple of years in which it endured reports of infighting among staff and numerous teacher sackings. The 60-year-old veteran headmaster, who lives with his wife close to the school in Aberdeen, came out of retirement to take up the position on a two-year contract. He has previously worked at schools in his native Canada, before stints in Swaziland, Vietnam, Thailand and mainland China. He spoke to City Weekend about healing professional wounds, efforts to support young people’s mental health, and how a combination of Canadian and Hong Kong values benefits his students.
Why did you decide to accept the position as interim head?
I had retired, bought a house, started fixing it up, and also got a skipper’s licence, but I thought, is this what retirement is about? So I thought I would start looking around. I had met a teacher years ago in Uganda who had done six interim headships. I did not make an exact plan for what I was going to do for the next 15 years, but I thought I would like to do that someday: go around and immerse myself in a school, get it going, then go to another one. I liked the idea of the challenge.
Your school has been through a difficult period in the last few years in terms of staff changes. what’s your perspective on that?
The first thing I did when I came here was to listen without judgment. It is always easier being a historian looking back on an event. I think people needed to talk about what happened here; parents and teachers. The past is the past and you have to look forward. Like all organisations, there are bumps in the road. All of the building blocks for excellence are here. Everyone is feeling good. We are making a lot of changes. I spend a lot of time talking to parents about what they think the school needs.
What is your vision for the next year and a half?
We’re launching a lot of neat projects, such as project Innovate, where we are working on our maths programmes. Many staff have already volunteered; they are ready for exciting changes. We are doing a lot of hi-tech things with laser technology, robotics, coding and 3D laser printers.
This school has always had an atmosphere of caring for students. That never went away. Part of my job is to continue to push that. Kids like being here. There is a wonderful tone in the school. For all that has happened in the last two years, that was never lost.
You previously worked at an international school in mainland China. how would you contrast the Hong Kong and mainland education systems?
There was a slogan that the school used in China, “the best of the West and the best of the East”. When I went there, I thought, that’s just a slogan. But having been there for one year, there’s a lot about the Chinese education system – the self-discipline and the working for the benefit of the group – that when you blend that with the British Columbia approach to education, you really are enacting that slogan.
The fascinating thing to watch is how Western teachers are starting to see where the students are coming from. Particularly those students that start with no English, and go on to be able to write British Columbia government exams, and sometimes do better than British Columbia kids. It is just phenomenal. I will always respect that.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, this is an excellent school. You have teachers from around the world here. I can’t comment on the public schools here but I hope I will learn more about them. You can’t come at education from a Western-centric viewpoint, thinking you know the best. I think the local schools have a self-discipline which is really good. We have hired teachers from local schools here, and they have found it takes a couple of months for some students from local schools to get familiar with having more of a dialogue with the teacher.
Your school has a well-respected Chinese programme and a new cultural centre was launched two years ago. why do you think Chinese should remain an important feature of a child’s education in Hong Kong?
The school values Chinese culture. We needed a centre, and we have spent close to HK$100 million on a building for that. Rather than being dispersed throughout the school, we needed a focused place for that. We are running so many streams for Putonghua. It’s a belief system that we want to celebrate the Chinese culture and language. As soon as children enrol here, they work on the language up to grade 12. We don’t do a dual language diploma but the Chinese studies programme is equally strong.
Parents value Putonghua and they know in the global workplace it is extremely important.
What do you think about the so-called “mainlandisation” of Hong Kong?
Wales was worried about losing its language, and there has been a real resurgence of the Welsh language as a result. In Canada too, there has been a rebirth of some first nation languages. Fortunately some young people see the value of learning one’s first language. For many decades ahead, I don’t think the Hong Kong culture needs to worry about the loss of Cantonese. But I do have parents who are worried about Cantonese, because although it is spoken in the home, they are losing written Cantonese. But they also know the value of learning Putonghua. We have a lot of parents pushing for traditional characters; we offer both streams. And students can do their International Baccalaureate diploma in either traditional or simplified characters.
Hong Kong is facing growing challenges with regard to mental health, particularly in relation to young people. What do you think about the current situation?
I think it’s not just in Hong Kong; educators around the world worry about the changing environment out there. Every generation worries about the younger generation. It is a complex world they have to navigate. Educators are spending an incredible amount of time with various programmes in a lot of schools. Bullying and suicide is something that all of us are very concerned about. People have said there has been a rise in teenage anxiety in the last decade. Any suicide is a tragedy.
How does the Canadian International School seek to support students who may be feeling emotionally vulnerable due to cyberbullying or academic pressure?
Our school, as in most international schools, has very good programmes to try to address that. You have to start this type of education earlier and earlier. Some people think the students don’t have access to social media until grade six, but they do. So we teach children as early as grade five about the responsible use of technology. We have student counsellors and one psychologist who students can turn to for a chat. And we run sessions on mindfulness, yoga sessions, and peer-to-peer mentoring programmes.
In Hong Kong, there is a lot of pressure on students, and a lot of pressure to equate success with the “right university”. We want students to aim high but also for the right fit. Sometimes there is an overreliance on brand-name universities; Harvard is not for everyone. Go where the programme meets your needs.
Human resources professionals tell me they are looking for soft skills as much as qualifications, if not more so.
Do you sometimes find yourself battling against the views of parents?
Sometimes we do. Some parents voice concerns about play-based learning. They look at that and think it is a waste of time. They think their kid should be sitting down with a book and reading. Brains don’t develop that way. And if you force a kid to read and make them feel they are behind in a class then they can develop an aversion to reading very early.
If a parent is expecting education to be worksheets by the end of grade one every night, or an hour and a half of homework, then this is not the school for them. The primary years programme is very holistic. They are still doing the maths and literacy but it is not the way parents remember they were taught. Thankfully the old expression “we will teach the way we were taught” is out the window now.
What Canadian influences do you think children in your school are benefiting from?
I think the friendliness is a quality here – when people come in, they talk about that. We have a lot of Canadian teachers here who look quite fondly on the education they had in Canada. They bring that approach. I remember 45 years ago, I sat in rows at school and I did have to do worksheets, but I remember being able to sit with the teacher and ask questions. I remember having great arguments in grade five and six. That inquiring approach – is it Canadian? I think you’d find it in the United States, in Norway, too. I think it’s more of a Western approach.
I think fairness is important, too. It is about balance. The teachers are always emphasising the importance of scholastic achievement and also other areas of their life; their well-being, compassion, too. [Students at CDNIS do both the Ontario Secondary School Diploma and the International Baccalaureate]. It is an approach of a cultural mosaic, and we pride ourselves on being inclusive.
On a lighter note...
What aspects of your character would you say are most “Canadian”?
My sense of humour. Even in times of stress, some people will say ‘what are you laughing for?’ If I’m able to keep a smiling face and keep calm, that helps others. I love the Canadian comedian Rick Mercer; he’s got a good sense of humour. I like some of the other comedians that are emerging now, like on Saturday Night Live. Stuart McLean was a well-known Canadian radio DJ who died recently, he had subtle humour in how he approached things.
What was the naughtiest thing you ever did when you were at school?
In grade 10 in New Brunswick, I wrote a play that was a spoof of Robin Hood, and I played the role of Robin Hood. During the performance I had to shoot an arrow, somebody was supposed to throw a fake chicken down, and I was supposed to hit a cardboard box that was hidden, but I missed, and it went through a double plate glass window, costing hundreds of dollars. It was an accident that fortunately I didn’t have to pay for. I think that was naughty. Luckily the play was a success.
Then at university, there was a radio competition, a professor was sponsoring a ballot from the student newspaper. My roommate and I took almost all of the newspapers, filled our names out and put them into the ballot. The result was announced over the student radio and we won all the prizes. The roommate and I were called to the president’s office. He said, ‘What were you thinking about? You’re a rugby player, you’re supposed to be a gentleman’. He made us go on the radio to apologise publicly and we had to give the prizes back.
If you could have pursued any other career, what would you have done and why?
I wanted to be an oceanographer but I wasn’t good enough at maths and physics. Because I was a diving instructor.
I was a warden at Parks Canada when I was in my early 20s. I loved that job — working with wildlife was a great career.
But now I’m in the teaching profession, I can’t imagine a better thing to be doing.
Tell us something that none of your colleagues know about you.
I have been quite involved in sea rescue as a volunteer. I used to go out in the middle of the night in high-powered boats in the Queen Charlotte islands. I also used to work underground as a miner.
I loved letting explosions go. I love lighting the fuse of dynamite. That is something very powerful.
What is the most Canadian thing you’ve ever done?
I learned to dive by chopping holes through the ice lake near my home and tying ropes on myself and going through a foot of ice. I loved diving so much, that’s just what I did.
When I was doing my masters degree at the University of Ottawa, the canal there freezes so I made a point of skating on the canal from where I parked my car to university. It was about a five kilometre skate. I would sit in classes just dripping. They had these waffles called Beaver Tail waffles, which are covered in sugar and maple syrup. And I would head up to my three hour night class. I did that for two years.
What is your opinion of Justin Trudeau, and how he is relating to Donald Trump?
You can’t escape the news. Trudeau is young but he has developed international credibility. I think he is putting the message out there about tolerance and compassion, as well as the importance of countries co-operating. I think he’s done a really good job and getting a lot of traction.
In regards to Donald Trump, he is between a rock and a hard place, much like (German chancellor) Angela Merkel. Parts of the world are becoming more isolationist. If Trudeau is representing ideas of open-mindedness then I support that.