Schools Can Be

A few years ago I was scared of my thoughts. More accurately, I was afraid of how people would react to my thoughts, my ideas, my values. Maybe it was because I was living in a conservative country and working at a conservative school. Or maybe it was because my values, at the time, were still forged in anger and seeped in rage. I was driven by an obstinate defiance. I was always pushing back against existing hypocrisies, instead of standing for anything on its own merits. There was little wisdom to my beliefs. Even less understanding. Whatever, the case I was constantly anxious about what I said, what I shared and what I wrote. I was scared of my thoughts.

But recently, things feel different. Not only do I not feel scared, I feel that my ideas are valued and even celebrated. This acceptance and sharing of diverse thinking is a testament to a healthy learning environment. The fact that all members of our community feel valued enough to share their ideas no matter how different from the status quo is what makes UWCSEA East such an amazing place to work.

Let me tell you a bit about my last few days. Last week, I was part of a Share Your Beliefs session with our current grade elevens, as part of their TOK (Theory of Knowledge) exploration of faith. It looked a bit like this:

Your role is in session 1; when you be based in a single classroom and you will have three sets of some 13 students come your way; one set at 8.30am, one at 9.00am and one at 9.30am.  The students are all mixing up for each session, so all will hear from you and two different people; in all cases students hear from an atheist and two people of different faiths.  We have several speakers from outside school coming too.

The aim is for you to share with students your beliefs, and to have a short discussion/debate with them. This will then form a solid platform for later analysis and comparison.

The following faiths were represented:


This is the second year in a row that I have been able to talk about my unique melange of  Zen inspired spiritual atheism with a group of young people. I spoke about how my Buddhist principals have shaped my ethical and moral choices when it comes to teaching, parenting, and being an active and thoughtful member of the human race. I pulled no punches and spoke about my animosity and disdain for organized religion based on the effects of Islam on my country of birth, Iran. I spoke about how a belief in a patriarchal omniscient deity just doesn’t jive with how I view the natural world.

In short, I was able to have a very open and frank conversation with a group of young people about who I am and what I believe, without fear of reprisal from an angry community member, because by making this sharing of ideas possible, UWCSEA is telling students and parents that we value a range of ideas. We are saying that no one idea is correct or carries any more weight then any other. We are free to hold our unique beliefs, but we must be open to the idea that others may disagree. This melting pot of ideas may seem obvious to anyone who has studied or worked in a progressive environment, but I think we all know that open-minded is not always the case especially when it comes to religious matters.

Second story– My daughter is in grade two and their current unit of study is about food and where it comes from. They were recently visited by Cowboy James, who spoke to them about his experience on a dairy farm and growing up in rural Canada. (BTW Cowboy James is our head of school) Kaia was curious and excited to hear about this process. At home we began to talk about my current decision to become vegan. Our entire family is vegetarian, but the vegan thing is new. It was great to watch Kaia negotiate her understanding of our family’s choices in the light of Cowboy Jame’s message and what I was telling her about food choices.

After our family chat, we thought that it would be great for Kaia her share some of her thoughts from our conversation with her class. So today, Kaia and I gave a 25 minute presentation, which we prepared yesterday, to her class about why our family chooses not to eat animals. It was great. She helped brainstorm the slides, find the pictures and got up in front of her class and shared her thoughts, with just a little help from me.

“We simply love all animals like our pets and don’t want to eat any of them.”

If you are keeping score– Atheist, Vegan, long haired, bearded and tattooed! It may not seem like much to you, but this is the first time in my career where I feel at home where I work. The first time I feel I can be my compete self. I think a school with such freedom of ideas should be celebrated and upheld as a model for effective learning communities everywhere. I cannot imagine having opportunities like the ones I just described in too many American schools. It is precisely because of  this celebrated diversity that I work internationally. I also love the cross pollination of ideas between ages groups and school divisions.

Third Story– Some students in my grade seven BTC (Be The Change) class are working on an action project about labor rights and treatment of migrant workers here in Singapore. As luck would have it, our grade nines recently did extensive work on the topic with TWC2. So they were perfect mentors for my middle school kids. I quickly sent an email to former students and all week, I have had several grade nine students work with the grade seven students as secondary sources and sounding boards. It has been a fantastic opportunity for both groups.

In closing, I wanted to share my gratitude to finally work at a school that puts its money where its mouth is. The examples I shared are just a few episodes that happened to me this week. I am sure there are many such expereinces happening everyday, everywhere in our school. So often we get so lost in the bureaucracy of school administration that we forget how powerful a school should be.

UWCSEA is a special place not only because I can share my quirky liberal values, but because I am sure that my daughter is the recipient of a plethora of conflicting ideas as well.

Final note– I am excited because I can write about my ideas without the fear that an administrator might “find me out.” Instead, I will email this post to our leadership team confident that they too will be proud of the community we are building here at East.

How does your school work? Do you have open channels for an exchange of ideas? Are you doing anything to promote cross-divisional sharing and learning? If so what are you doing? What are some frustrations that you face being yourself?


10 thoughts on “Schools Can Be

  1. avatarMelanie Alde

    This makes me incredibly envious. Love the ability you have to share and give choice! Miss that international mindset in school. Thanks for posting!

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  3. avatarCarl Hooppell

    Wow, that made me feel all giddy inside! I am also happy that you feel so comfortable and happy at UWC Mr Jabiz! Your children are lucky to have such a caring father. Unfortunately I very much feel like I am at the place at the moment where I am scared of my thoughts and become angry often, but I think my path will also become clear with time. Thanks for the great read.

  4. avatarParia

    It’s so great when your work matches your authentic self. Sounds like an amazing school with wonderful teachers.. Great read! :)

  5. avatarAnonymous

    As much as I would like to comment on your blog post, I am in the place as you were a few years ago. I work in an environment where everything I say is scrutinized and placed under a microscope. I feel as if I can’t even be close to being me and others have attempted to silence my voice. When the occasion comes when someone liked my ideas, they have always claimed them as their own. It feels toxic and has affected every ounce of who I am as a person.

    I am so happy you are in a better place now and have the ability to voice the sadness you felt before. You are a voice for many of us who are silenced at the moment.

    Thank you.

    Your friend and supporter

  6. avatarUzay

    I read your blog post with much interest. It seems that we are quite similar; in fact, more similar than I realised. I, too, finally feel like I am working at a school that appreciates what I have to offer. I love the values that UWCSEA has as its foundation, and I feel that Ella is getting a top notch education; for this I am most grateful.

    From what students have told me, the TOK Religion day was a huge success. I’m glad students get to hear the beliefs and values of others without feeling like they are being “preached to” or “converted.” I’m not sure this type of day would have been as successful in the middle east where the schools (regardless of how “international” they claim to be) are still quite conservative.

    I have also been struggling with my belief system for a number of years. It’s difficult for me to completely cut myself off from it (out of sheer guilt), but I find that the more spiritual I become, the more mindful I become, the happier I am. I don’t need an organised religion to tell me how to live; I am living with my own beliefs in what is right and wrong and that’s okay.

    Finally, I love that my family is vegetarian; I am even more happy that Ella has veggie friends like Kaia. I want her to grow up in an atmosphere that embraces her choices (whatever they may be) without having to hear ridiculous things like, “how do you get your protein?” or “we were meant to eat meat.” The more our children are exposed to these “alternative” lifestyles at a young age, the better adjusted they will be as adults. This I believe to be true, which is why I don’t like to hide anything from Ella. If she asks a question, I will answer it as honestly as possible.

    Thanks again for writing such a personal and important post. It makes me proud to know that my friends are living their dreams, speaking up, and teaching others. You are an inspiration! :)

  7. avatarIan Tymms

    In one post I think you have summed up Kurt Hahn’s vision for the UWC movement. A powerful and very special vision and it’s a pleasure to be able to agree or disagree with you knowing that the honest and respectful engagement in ideas is the important thing.

  8. avatarJenny Hinton

    Hi Jabiz, I am currently a student at the University of South Alabama and I am an aspiring high school English teacher. I am so happy that I was assigned to comment on this wonderful post of yours because it addresses so much of the issues in my own life and has inspired me to work hard to seek out a place where I can work and contribute in my own way. I have been an atheist since I was in middle school. I actually did not even know what the term was until one day my mother was questioning me on my beliefs in god and religion. Immediately after I decided to research all the religions I could before I committed to the label because calling yourself an atheist in Alabama tends to invoke either dislike or attempted “saving” from others. I have always heard from people that I must not have any reason to be good and that is why being an atheist is such a bad thing. I used to lash out and use my knowledge to break down their religion, but now I simply try to explain that I have morals that come from myself and the common sense of being a good person. I have also always loved the principals of Zen Buddhism in that I believe everything is of the same and should be treated as such. My philosophy of religion professor even pointed out that many scholars consider the first Buddha to be an atheist himself. I would love to have a chance to discuss this with students and try to enlighten them that their are so many layers to a person’s beliefs no matter what label they have chosen to describe themselves. I am also very impressed with the way that your school arranged for the students to visit and discuss with people of so many different faiths. I am amazed that you can discuss such things at a high school level! Noting on your second story, I love that you and your daughter took the time to offer a counter to Cowboy James’ presentation. I too have been a vegetarian since the day my father decided it would no longer affect my growth (he is a doctor so there was no arguing) and I think it is fantastic that your daughter was able to voice her opinion on the issue and hopefully help create a few more veggies out there! Your school sounds so amazing and I am very glad to know that there are teachers out there who care about their students and have such wonderful lessons to share with them. I hope to one day work in such a place!


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