Escaping our confines of fear: a call to develop courageous learning communities

Escaping our confines of fear: a call to develop courageous learning communities

Nunana Nyomi

“I’ve been worryin’ that we all live our lives in the confines of fear”, the refrain of Ben Howard’s song,
The Fear, kept insistently echoing in my ear. As the song played, I had to put it on repeat as I reflected on the fears I see on display when attempting to further diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) efforts within my profession of international education. Often these fears are expressed in the form of questions. “What if the students say something controversial?”, “What if our institution goes viral on social media?”, “What if we offend an influential parent?”, “What if we fail?”, “What if…”.

These ‘what ifs’ have become like walls, fencing us in and paralysing us in the face of our responsibility to develop equitable and inclusive communities.

Psychologists say we experience fear in order to protect ourselves from threats. Does this accurately describe the fear that my colleagues and I are experiencing? If so, then we have to take a critical look at ourselves and what we view as threats. If DEIJ efforts are meant to create environments where all can thrive as their full selves, then why do we find it so hard to act? Why do we feel threatened? Perhaps we know, deep down, that taking action requires us to hold ourselves accountable for our part in perpetuating and benefiting from inequities in our communities. Perhaps we worry that standing up for justice may cost us the relatively modest trappings we have worked so hard to obtain. This zero-sum thinking blinds us from the cost of our inaction.


The cost of our fear


The opportunity cost of maintaining our status quo is a misguided generation of students within our care. According to ISC Research, our international schools now serve a much more diverse population than the Western expatriates many were originally designed to serve. However, our curricula are still largely dominated by eurocentrist perspectives, our teachers and leaders are mostly white and western, and many of our schools still serve a narrow group of wealthy elites. Yet, many of our mission statements proudly proclaim that we are developing internationally-minded global citizens. Our empty statements and shallow focus on food, flags, and festivals, are not enough to prepare our students to engage with our dynamic world.

We have a tremendous responsibility to get past our inhibitions and act now. All we have to do is watch our daily news headlines to notice the growing trend that we live in an increasingly polarized world which is facing looming existential threats. Climate change, military conflicts, and the resulting mass migration which we are already witnessing are all potential harbingers of what is to come. Furthermore, some in our care face daily abuse and discrimination due to their race, sexuality, ability, and other forms of identity. We fail our most vulnerable students and staff when we remain too afraid to explicitly address the harm they experience. Given the urgency of our challenges, we must ensure that this generation of students can feel seen and can develop the agency necessary to bridge differences in order to address our world’s problems. How might we break out of our fearful funk to create more inclusive and equitable communities to address these challenges?

My quest for strategies to address our fear-based crisis of inaction led me to borrow from the field of psychology, where strategies abound to help individuals overcome emotions of fear. While the semantics might be different, there are many DEIJ strategies that are very similar in approach to the world of psychology. Therefore, psychology provides another potential access point for DEIJ concepts. Just as there has been greater acceptance of therapy as important for wellbeing, I believe we are in need of therapeutic approaches to transform ourselves and our communities to become places of flourishing. In my own exploration, I came across two of these strategies which can be adapted to our contexts as international educators: cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.


Borrowing from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)


CBT was developed to help individuals conquer unhelpful ways of thinking that can lead to psychological distress. One of the CBT strategies is to address the underlying beliefs that impact the emotional responses we have. Often, the cause of our fears can be found in irrational beliefs or expectations of ourselves. For example, in our largely white-western educational cultures, perfectionism has become an intoxicating drug. We are always striving to do more, be better, and push ourselves to never fail, because we have been socialised to falsely accept flawless performance as the standard. Whether it is perfectionism, eurocentrism, ableist thinking, heteronormativity, or something else that afflicts us, we have to be introspective about the beliefs that underpin our unwillingness to take action.

CBT can interrupt the negative spirals of ‘what if’ thinking that often halts DEIJ work. This therapy invites us to challenge our idiosyncratic beliefs by teaching us that we are worthy of self-acceptance when we struggle or make mistakes; that others are worthy of acceptance even when they behave differently to what we may expect; and that sometimes life has challenges but that does not mean that we are facing utter disaster. This shift away from perfectionism and other irrational beliefs makes room for the diverse perspectives that we find in our international communities. Thus, allowing us to build up the courage we need to truly give voice to the voiceless, even if it may mean opening ourselves up to criticism. From this courageous stance, free from irrational beliefs, we can make positive changes towards equity and inclusion.


Exposure Therapy Strategies


As the name suggests, exposure therapy aims to desensitise individuals from their fears by having them confront them in a safe environment. This can be done through a variety of methods from having individuals use their imagination, using virtual reality, or using live confrontation. Admittedly, exposure therapy is not without its critics. It could potentially induce more anxiety or trauma to expose an individual to their fears. However, when it comes to nurturing a diverse, equitable, and inclusive international education community, it is vital that we expose ourselves to individuals and perspectives which we may fear. How often do we cultivate friendships with those from different races, nationalities, abilities, religions, gender identities, or sexual orientations to ourselves? How much literature do we read from non-dominant perspectives? Do we ever make an effort to de-centre ourselves and listen to those who are traditionally unheard in our communities? We cannot do equity and inclusion work if we are not reaching out to form these relationships or hear their perspectives.

Now, before everyone rushes off to find that one BIPOC friend or attend that one cultural festival, I must clarify that we should not fall into the superficial and tokenising equity traps. Rather, I am suggesting that we must engage in deep and meaningful work to embed and centre a broader range of perspectives in our communities. As educators, beyond forming friendships across differences, this means learning to employ culturally relevant pedagogy strategies and consistently immersing ourselves in literature to enrich our understanding of student experiences such as Dr. Danau Tanu’s Growing Up in Transit. We need to truly expose ourselves to difference in order to overcome the fears that paralyse us.


The choice we have to make


While CBT and exposure therapies tend to be applied to individuals, I would argue that our learning organisations are in need of collective therapy. Just as with any other therapy, this will take more than a one-time workshop to address. Our institutions and their leaders must ensure that adequate time and resources are provided to move past our fearful inertia. We must commit to and invest in advancing DEIJ initiatives so that everyone feels a true sense of belonging at our institutions.

Strategies which root out our fears are essential for us to make progress in disrupting the status quo in the manner that DEIJ work requires. After all, we are collections of individuals with anxieties and fears, these fears creep into our decision-making. As we mould the next generation to tackle the urgent problems we see in our world, and as we aim to protect the most marginalised individuals in our community, we cannot afford to let our fears paralyse us into inaction. Are we prepared to work on ourselves and our institutions to break through our fears in order to build a more equitable world, or are we prepared to inherit a more polarised and inequitable world? Let’s be courageous and choose the former.

“…I will become what I deserve…” Ben Howard’s voice echoes repeatedly as the bridge of the song The Fear builds to a crescendo. When it comes to DEIJ, if we continue to live our lives in the confines of fear, we will only have ourselves to blame for what our institutions will become in the face of the challenges that face us.




Nunana Nyomi is the University Advisor and DEIJ Coordinator at Leysin American School, Switzerland. Nunana is passionate about developing communities where everyone can thrive as their full selves and helping students find career pathways which allow them to fulfill their potential. Nunana currently serves as University Advisor and DEIJ Coordinator at Leysin American School (LAS) in Switzerland.

Prior to joining LAS, Nunana was based in the Netherlands as Associate Director of Higher Education Services for the Council of International Schools (CIS) and provided programs to support student transitions from school to university education. Additionally, Nunana served on the CIS Global Citizenship Team and on a special CIS Board Committee on Inclusion through Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism (I-DEA). He also previously led international student admissions for Calvin University in the U.S. Nunana is a Third-Culture Kid who grew up in the U.S., Ghana, Kenya, Switzerland, and the U.K. He has a BA in International Relations and French (Calvin University) and a MA in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (Michigan State University).


Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Simon O’Connor
Director, Deira International School

With the benefit of hindsight, moving to lead a new school in the middle of a pandemic may not have been best timing. However, when I did, I was very conscious of the fact that many successful school leaders fail in their second position as a result of repeating the measures that they had introduced in their first schools. The school had led for the seven years prior this had enjoyed enormous success, but I was mindful I needed to adapt my leadership to the context to which I was moving.


I suspect my background in teaching is a very common one. I moved from teacher to through a series of middle and senior leadership positions until I was a deputy head. When I first became a school principal, I focused on what I knew, namely the processes and strategies which I’d seen to be effective. This included focus on teaching and learning, parental engagement strategies, quality assurance procedures as well as assessment routines and so forth. But looking back it is now clear that, whilst these were incredibly successful, to a large extent they were all individual strategies and instruments, rather than holistic approach.


During that first term, with new learning protocols in place and start offering both on site learning and distance learning, the focus became staff wellbeing. Teachers across the world were being asked to teach in a totally new way, using unfamiliar technology, yet being asked to perform at previous levels of success. As a school we recognised that if this was going to be sustainable (and there was significant doubt about this) we needed to ensure staff were properly supported in this new context. Very rapidly, this focus extended to looking at the culture of the school. As well as placing well-being strategies in place we wanted to identify how the school could be led from an holistic perspective.


Over the last 18 months this has become an increasing topic of fascination. There is significant writing on the impact of organisational culture within a school and, whilst there is inevitable disagreement about many aspects of this, that this is a powerful force for school improvement is rarely challenged.


Peter Drucker made the observation that ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Furthermore, one of the key authors on organizational culture, Edgar Schein wrote ‘the only thing of real importance that leaders need to do is to create and manage culture if you do not manage culture, it manages you.  … The unique talent of leaders is their ability to understand and work with culture; and that it is an act of leadership to destroy culture when it is valid viewed as dysfunctional’ Toby Greany and ‎Peter Earley even went as far as warning: ‘To neglect a considered and structured response to culture is perilous to the point of being foolhardy’. In a school context, with the enormous array of responsibilities within the headteacher’s job description, it would seem something of a challenging statement that their only real responsibility is to manage the culture of the school.


Furthermore, to accept this there needs to be an understanding of what is meant by the term culture. Again, previous authors provide a number of answers. ‘Culture is the values, norms, beliefs and customs that an individual holds in common with members of their group’. Or that ‘Culture is to the organisation what personality is to the individual – a hidden yet unifying theme that provides meaning, direction and mobilization.’ Certainly, one of the challenges of dealing with organisational culture is that it is difficult to precisely measure, but when one considers it in terms of both values and personality, I believe it potential power becomes clearer.


Culture is also recognized to exist in an organisation at various levels. Edward Hall referenced this as a Cultural Iceberg.



At its most obvious and visible, culture manifests in the behaviours and practices that exist across an organisation. Within a school context this can be the more obvious elements such as school events, policies, calendar of events but also lies in the less formal practices. For example, it could be in the way in which members of the SLT interact with staff. Are they visible around the school? Do they have open door policies in terms of meeting with staff students and parents? How transparent are the school policies?


Beneath this lie the less tangible elements which underpin the observable behaviours. This could include the vision and mission statements of the school. It also includes the assumptions upon which these statements have been made. For example does the school value inclusion, equity and diversity? Is the school selective or non-selective? Does the school exist as a for profit organization or not for profit? These values, and the extent to which they are prioritised will inevitably impact the behaviours which go to make the culture visible to others. In addition, if an organization’s culture is to be managed then, if it is to be embedded, then these elements must be identified and considered if to be successful.


Drucker’s suggestion is that management of organisational culture is more impactful that any strategic interventions. This has certainly been our experience over the last two years. In the second article I will outline how and why the ideas of an author on business practice has been interpreted to work within a school context.



Simon O’Connor is the Director of Deira International School with oversight over both the primary and secondary schools. Simon is also Chief of Education for the the Al Futtaim Education Foundation, working across their portfolio of schools. Simon has over 25 years of experience in education and joined DIS in August of 2020. Prior to this he was Principal of Jumeirah College, an outstanding school in Dubai, since 2013.

Simon is passionate about learning and ensuring all students are challenged in lessons for them to achieve their full potential. He strongly believes that if this is to be achieved students should be happy at school, and therefore the wellbeing of community must be a key focus for all. He is also very interested in school leadership and is currently studying for Doctorate with the University of Buckingham, researching the impact of a focus on organisational culture in international schools.

Prior to moving to the UAE, Simon taught History and Politics for over 20 years in a variety of different school contexts. In his last role in the UK, Simon worked as a school leader in a very successful grammar school in Kent. His role there was curriculum lead and was also responsible for the management of a teaching school and working across an academy chain of schools which he helped to found.

As a student Simon studied for a BA in History and Philosophy at the University of Wales, College of Cardiff where he was a choral scholar at Llandaff Cathedral. He then studied for a PGCE at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was also a choral scholar. Simon also holds a Master’s Degree in Education Leadership, and a National Professional Qualification for Headship.