Dhaka Diaries: Insights of an International School Principal


David Longworth, Primary Principal of International School Dhaka (ISD) shares his experience of living in Dhaka as an Eexpatriate

What are the advantages of being an expat and experiencing a multicultural environment firsthand? Does that benefit you as a school principal and influence your interaction with others?

You are experiencing the country with a fresh set of eyes. It’s a different environment, and once you arrive here, you begin to get a sense of the country and how the people will be. Our school does an incredible job of introducing expats into the life of Bangladesh through ‘cultural introduction’ by showing us around various sites in Dhaka City, conducting historical tours, and going for canal and boat rides. It created opportunities for us to explore and meet people while learning about the history and culture of the nation. We also get to experience a taste of Bangladeshi culture through music, dance, and of course, an array of local food, like Shingara and Fuchka. There is a very nice harmony between expats and locals in the school. As a school Principal, if I can better understand the country, its culture, and its people, I can relate to those around me in a much more informed way and build even stronger relationships.

What are the most difficult challenges you tackled to acclimate to the culture, and how did you overcome them? Did they have any impact on your work?

Bangladesh’s people have been very warm and welcoming. People here are happy to have you in their country, and no matter where you are from, a hot cup of tea (or cha) can break down barriers and bring people together.

As Dhaka is a populated city; thus, expatriates initially struggle with the volume of people and the noise. I think the best way to overcome it is by truly immersing yourself in it by going to the old part of the city or roaming around on a rickshaw. You’ve got to throw yourself in the deep end, where you either sink or swim. And thankfully, I was able to swim and adapt to the environment. Now, the place feels like a second home.

Challenges can sometimes impact someone’s work, like when we have to consider our children’s safety, air quality, and pollution. I’m very conscious about it and do my best to ensure a safe environment for the children; for example, the school runs indoor filtered air and takes necessary steps to protect the students from the sun.

What cultural differences seemed prominent to you?

A: In England, especially in a big city, everybody is always busy and going about their day. Bangladesh people are quite hospitable and curious. Most would approach us inquiring about ourselves, our jobs, and our home country. It does make us feel quite welcome. Another thing I have noticed is that quite a few people here fear dogs. I have a little puppy named Badami, and she is getting quite big now. When we go for a walk, most people tend to avoid us. I have noticed that when people see me coming with my dog, they cross the street or purposely avoid me. On my walks, where possible, I try to make others understand that dogs are friendly pets and good creatures to have around

You have interacted with diverse communities. How did these interactions influence your understanding of community engagement and the role of schools in fostering community connections?

In an international school, community connection is paramount. Our school has numerous social events, creating opportunities to bring people together from different backgrounds and nationalities. I have been fortunate enough to work with various types of people from many corners of the world. The most important thing for me is establishing a relationship with a parent or child and understanding what they need from us and the school. For some, it might be a social aspect; for others, it might be emotional care. We are very open-minded to what people want from the school and quite consistent in our philosophies towards education and raising a child because it truly takes a village to raise a child. It’s not just the parents or the school; we are all in it together. We need to be very clear on what it means to be internationally minded and what it means to be a good person because that is ultimately going to have a positive impact on the world. At ISD, we stand true to our philosophies and support our community in understanding how we approach education.

What is it like to live in Bangladesh, especially compared to your own country?

A: I have not lived in England for 14 years as I have been teaching in different countries overseas. So, how does my country compare to Bangladesh? I feel that the people in Bangladesh made me feel welcome. Someone is always kind enough to welcome me to their tea shack and have Dudh Cha (Milk Tea) or Jhalmuri (Spicy Puffed Rice). I like that I could travel to Rajshahi or a 6th-century Buddhist monastery without being bothered by many tourists. Traveling around the nation can be adventurous as finding numerous places is difficult, and you need to plan. I have been very fortunate to travel within Bangladesh, especially during the pandemic when we could not travel abroad. So, in terms of how it compares, I would say that Bangladesh is a lot more raw and more untouched, which adds to its beauty. When you are out in a village in the middle of nowhere, and nobody is around you for miles, I feel that’s a wonderful and wholesome experience.

What made you choose to work in Dhaka? Would you recommend Dhaka to other foreign teachers?

I chose Dhaka because of the school. I was very invested in the people I would work with, and ISD is a secure establishment that is well-known in Bangladesh and globally. Another aspect that drew me into the country is my love for cricket. Thus, going to a cricketing nation and experiencing it in Dhaka is extremely special. Whenever there is a cricket match in Bangladesh, I would always try to get there to watch it.

I would recommend Dhaka to foreign teachers because I feel that Bangladesh goes a little under the radar, especially due to neighboring countries like India and Nepal. Usually, people tend to travel to these nations, but somehow Bangladesh gets left behind on the circuit. Most have no idea about the nation’s history and culture, and some don’t even know the language, even if Bangla is the 6th spoken language in the world. I would recommend teachers to come to Bangladesh and highly suggest the government promote the country’s tourism more adequately.

Can you discuss the key differences you have observed between Bangladesh’s education system and the places you have worked before? 

The teachers in Bangladesh work incredibly hard; however, most schools generally tend to suffer from a lack of appropriate resources and finance. It would be amazing if more time and money were invested in the country’s education system. During my 2 years in the country, I have seen schools struggling with the number of children and the teachers’ exertion themselves to provide individual attention to them, especially due to a lack of adequate resources.

Additionally, I have worked with numerous schools globally, but the thing that ISD does above any other top international schools is its holistic environment and its commitment to putting the needs of the child first. The inclusion of IB’s philosophy and aspects of the learner profile allows every child an opportunity to have a positive impact on our shared planet. We know all our children individually. We worked with children at all levels – very kind students, advanced in academics, and pupils who need extra help. ISD is very supportive of its students. We often get children from overseas who can’t speak either English or Bangla, and it’s astonishing how fluently they can communicate in that particular language within a year. This has to be attributed to our knowledgeable and hard-working staff who are experts in supporting students with any barriers to learning.

Many of your students went abroad to pursue higher studies, and some are preparing themselves to study abroad, and they might tackle similar problems with cultural adjustment. What would be your suggestions for them to experience and learn from the culture and apply the learning in their lives?

Experience and learn from the culture and try to apply the learning in their lives. I would advise the students who are moving abroad to build their independent skills. Even simple tasks such as learning how to wash their dishes, iron their clothes, do their groceries, and many more can help them get by. Some young adults are dependent on their mothers and nannies; thus, we try to help our children become more independent from an early age. Again, reflecting on my experience of coming to a new country, it’s imperative to understand how people live in that environment. I shouldn’t just be a Brit in a foreign country; similarly, another person shouldn’t just be a Bangladeshi in another country. It’s crucial to spread your wings and involve diverse people from different backgrounds in your social network. Hence, making friends is very important, and your connections in another country can lead you anywhere. For example, I am now in the USA but visiting a friend from Kenya living here now. This was a friendship that happened 6 years ago, but now I am in Boston because of the friend I’ve made. Therefore, nurture friendships, expose yourself to how people live in that country, and step out of your comfort zone!

What are your commitments or initiatives to foster a high-quality international education that celebrates diversity and prepares for global citizenship?

We talk about individual traits within a child that can contribute towards being internationally minded. We encourage our students to be balanced people and be caring for other human beings. For example, this year, the children from Grade 4 did a full unit of inquiry based on human migration. The teachers created a mock border crossing where some children were given passports, whereas others didn’t get any passes. In a way, they experienced what it is like to cross the border as a migrant worker without the right documentation. They had to go through fake medical checks and fill in forged paperwork.

Students having these kinds of experiences is very important. We discuss issues of our local community, country, and global with our children; therefore, our 5, 6, and 7-years old students are talking about topics like the resolution of conflicts, use of clean energy, protection of animal habitats, and what a sustainable future may look like. Keeping the learning relevant to the children is essential. Equipping them with the skills or helping them develop to be well-rounded is crucial to becoming an internationally minded individual.