From the Director of an international school you wouldn’t expect to hear that he had decided to never again step foot in an educational establishment following his studies. But Dr. Robert Brindley, the Director of the American International School of Bucharest (AISB), is a Brit with a big sense of humor and self-irony, and also with a spirit of adventure as well as a rebellious side. This is exactly why he found himself back at school, in fact as a teacher, to change education in a number of corners of the world. But not before working in the oil industry and living in a kibbutz in Israel. Dr. Brindley told us the fascinating story of his own professional development and talked to us about how you ‘raise’ future gentlemen.
Bucharest Gentleman: What was your personal experience with education? What kind of school did you attend?
Robert Brindley: I went to an old fashioned boys school in London, a classic British tradition. The professors wore robes and it was a very old school from the 16th Century, near Tower Bridge. I played only rugby and cricket; as gentlemen, football was forbidden at my school so during recess we naturally all played it. In the winter we played rugby and during the summer, cricket, whether we wanted to or not. At the peak of winter we ran around in shorts and a t-shirt because “that’s what made you a gentleman”; suffering. You had to learn to suffer without showing emotion, it was part of the ‘unwritten rule.’
At 17 I revolted and although I had a place at University, I left school earlier, to the sheer disappointment of my parents. I went to work in the North Sea, in the petrol sector. I did that because I was interested in geology, that was the subject I had chosen for University. So for a few months before University I worked in Norway and it was fantastic. I liked it, and although I worked with people who treated me horribly, the money was great because it was a very dangerous job. I remember a list that valued each part of the body – each finger was priced differently. But I had a lot of fun over there, I was young and naive, I had come from a very isolated environment and I missed out on a lot of the things that happened on board because I didn’t know what was going on. Then, I went to University and after that I worked for a company that was searching for Uranium in Ireland.
BG: So you didn’t decide right away to become a teacher?
RB: No, when I finished school I swore to never step foot in one. The 60s and 70s were times of rebellion and that’s what I did. I grew my hair as long as I could and I soon as I got to University I cut it, because it didn’t matter anymore. Then I worked for that company because the money was good.
BG: So that’s what you wanted, money?
RB: No, it’s not what I wanted per se, but it was very good! I lived in hotels where I was always first in the breakfast hall until one day when I asked for tea, a large orange juice, and cheese. But the waitress brought be jam and apologized for not having access to the refrigerator and I remember I asked her firmly: no matter what it took, I wanted cheese. The next day I quit, I realized how ridiculous it was that cheese was so important – the small things had become too important, money was no longer a motivator. Meanwhile, I had read a book, Exodus, about the migration resulting from the wars in Palestine so I decided to go to a kibbutz (a self-sustained village). I thought I had arrived in paradise: it was south of the Sea of Galilee, they had bananas, avocado, they raised their own animals. So I went from a rather large salary to 1 dollar a week. I liked it a lot: you wake up early, work, and then have time to yourself. We didn’t have money, so we were very creative. At the beginning, I collected bananas, which kept me in great shape. Each branch weighs about 40kg and you have to catch it after you cut it.
BG: Is that where you started working with children?
RB: No. At school I was interested in everything and nothing. But a neighbor who was a geophysicist gave me a book about the subject and I loved it so that’s what I decided to study at University. I still collect rocks and fossils.
In Israel, at one point, my future wife decided I wasn’t serious enough so she left to Crete.I followed her and I worked at a hotel in Greece for some time and that’s where I read a book about democratic education: Summerhill. The author revolted against the system and created his own school named Summerhill. And I remember that’s when I told my future wife that I was going to become a teacher and I was going to bring change to schools. We traveled for another year and a half and then returned to Great Britain, got married and I went back to University to become a teacher. At my first job as a teacher, in south-east England, I taught mathematics and chemistry. It was the hardest job I had ever had, because it exhausts you emotionally. I remember coming home from school and falling asleep immediately, but I really enjoyed it.
That book changed my mind; I can be very impulsive if I like something. And because I liked to travel, I applied for jobs at international schools, which didn’t really exist at the time, at the beginning of the 80s. The first international school I taught at was in Rome, followed by Australia, Venezuela, USA, Uzbekistan, and now here…
BG: Taking a step back to the book, what exactly did you like so much about it that you decided to become a teacher?
RB: The idea that you could change education. My education was fundamentally boring because I was a good student and I did as I was told, but not everybody did that. I survived the system because from an academic standpoint, I was good, but because we were being pushed to pursue further education at Oxford and Cambridge, we weren’t allowed to do much else – music, yes, but not band, rather orchestra. We couldn’t do anything manual, we learned Latin and maths.
BG: Is international experience necessary to teach in these international schools?
RB: In this kind of school, yes, because you are dealing with many nationalities you need to be understanding and modest, which is not in my nature (he laughs). I have my cultural heritage, which I respect, of course, but I must understand that others think differently, too, so I try not to draw hasty conclusions or judge.
BG: What is your key role here?
RB: To change things, to transform the school into what it should be. That’s how I put food on my table – I go into schools to change them, but quickly, because change can be very tiring and you cannot do it forever. Here, I changed everything. I started with the teachers, it’s always about the people. Either you change the way they think, or you replace them; I did both. But you have to make changes in a way that people don’t realize, because they are daunting, that’s why schools don’t really go through big changes. When you think about it, in the school things have changed, but in essence it’s kept the same model: children go into a room, they listen to a teacher, then they leave.
The first thing you have to change is the entrance to the school because that is the image you create about the school. Then you take different spaces in the building (the library, for example), and you transform them based on your philosophy towards education. People want to see changes that resonate. And because the subtleties are not seen, even though you also work on subtle changes, you need to show distinct physical changes. I spend a lot of money: last year we spent 1.3 million Euros. Likewise, I ensure that we pay our teachers well and offer them an excellent benefits package because we compete with the international market, not the local one, and our teachers work a lot. Yes, it’s a business model but it all comes down to talent.
BG: What is the ‘ideal student’ like? What qualities do you cultivate?
RB: The academic part is very low on the list of priorities; it is important, but not primary. Students must be honest, respectful and know their place in the world and that they can change it.
BG: How do you ‘teach’ that?
RB: Through the teachers, they must be the example, through everything they do, they must reflect these values and the students will follow. Often you have to change the parents as well as the children, but the latter change the former. Similarly, critical thinking: if you teach about the Second World War, you have to offer different perspectives – of the allies, Germans, and Russians. You see, the meaning of a gentleman has changed over the years, but at the core it’s about someone who understands and respects those around them, who is honest and good. The fundamentals of being good doesn’t mean you are weak, on the contrary, it means you do what you consider to be fair. The original meaning comes from the Middle Ages, from the meaning of knighthood; it comes from an Anglo Saxon tradition, of something generous.
BG: In these circumstance, the expectations of and selection requirements for teachers must be very high…
RB: They must have international experience. Then I look at whether they are good, fair people, and whether they like kids. I always meet with them personally before selecting them, because everything comes down to the person: he or she will interact with the children. I am not perfect, but I believe in instincts and I learned a lot from working with people… I do make mistakes too, the important thing is how quickly I can fix them. As a general rule of thumb, I expect 1 in 10 to not be a perfect match. Last year we had 30 new teachers and over 1,000 applicants.
Since 2014, Dr. Robert Brindley leads the American International School of Bucharest as School Director. AISB is the oldest and largest international school in Bucharest, established in 1962 by the American Embassy. Approximately 830 students from 53 nationalities aged 2-19 are educated at AISB. According to the most recent parent survey, satisfaction grew from 7.6 to 8.1 between 2015-2016 (on a scale of 1-10, least to greatest). Dr. Brindley aims to also help local schools change and to this end, he collaborates with Ovidiu Ro and with Transylvania College, for example, offering his experience and insight voluntarily.
Article by Iulia Stancu translated by the AISB Communications Department in line with our thinking.