Thu 02 Feb 2023 4 min read

#29 Elephant days, snow days and rain days

Kai Vacher

Those tricky decisions

 Elephant days, snow days and rain days

Whether there’s an elephant in the playground, or the sky is about to open, Kai Vacher, Principal of British School Muscat and British School Salalah has a plan for making decisions in tricky situations.

‘Sir, there’s an elephant in the playground!’

I’m told this happened somewhere at a school in India: whilst for a moment it sounds rather fun and exciting, the safety of the students, the rescue of the animal and the communication of the successful outcome to all involved would have been quite a challenge to those responsible for managing the situation. If you have ever had to make a decision to close a school for snow or any other environmental hazard you’ll know that managing multiple stakeholder viewpoints on whether the school should stay open or not can be a delicate balancing act.

Rain in Oman? Surely not!


Thankfully at my school, in Oman, we don’t have elephants nearby, but we do have a few other unusual aspects of life to deal with from time-to-time. Visitors from Europe look at me in disbelief when I explain that rainfall in Oman can cause major disruption to daily life including school closures. Oman normally experiences up to three days of rainfall each year, and these days are normally greeted by our students rushing around outside getting wet on purpose. Water is scarce, sacred and a novelty in this part of the world and must be celebrated. In Europe you have snow days when you have to close the school for the white, fluffy stuff. In Muscat we have rain days; yes, we close the school when it rains.

Road drainage systems tend not to be part of the infrastructure throughout the Middle East; they are rarely required. Driving on such roads in the wet quickly becomes more like aquaplaning, and the dry-river beds – wadis – become terrifying and treacherous torrents of powerful water ready to swallow-up even the most robust 4 by 4. It is illegal to drive through a wadi when it is raining in Oman.

Waterfalls on site

Our campus is built on a hillside with an 18m drop from the top to the bottom of the site. When it rains, waterfalls cascade down the many staircases and make the site hazardous within minutes. However once it stops raining, the site can dry out within a few hours and can quickly be operational again. The solution to cancel school when it rains heavily, or it is forecast to rain heavily, is not always straightforward. It’s very similar to making a decision to close for snow, elephants in the playground or other unexpected hazards.


5-point strategy to manage  tricky decision-making

Rainfall of varying intensities is expected to continue in the northern governorates of Oman.


The Ministry of Education here in Oman sometimes requires all schools to close and take the decision out of our hands. Sometimes they leave the decision to us and that’s when it gets tricky.

For these tricky situations I’ve devised a five part strategy for managing any elephants that might appear in my playground:


1. Comms

Communication – timely and clear comms are an absolute must, using all forms of messaging. Students and parents demand immediate news so being ready for action is a priority.  I know that I will rarely get consensus on a decision to close the school, and being stoically British we try and keep our school open as long as possible, but a quick well-informed decision is best shared through multiple channels.


2. Manage criticism

Be prepared to manage criticism – we can face criticism for our ‘keep school open if at all possible’ stance, as some parents are more cautious than others, and we have many different nationalities and viewpoints to consider. International schools often have very close and tight knit communities. One of the benefits of having such an engaged community is that during difficult and emotionally charged times, some of our parents will go online and strongly defend the school’s position. We like to be a listening school and seek to understand the full range of viewpoints as we reflect on the decisions we take in these circumstances and consider whether we can manage the situations even better next time.


3. Be prepared

In the event of likely rainfall, I keep a watchful eye on multiple weather forecasts, have draft comms messages prepared, and have a collection of umbrellas and a raincoat in my office.


4. The show must go on

Have a ‘the show must go on’ mindset – we ensure that learning can continue using online platforms when school is closed. As many schools learned during the COVID pandemic, Google Classroom/Microsoft 365 are excellent ways to support learning when your school is forced to close. We expect learning to continue wherever possible during forced closures and this is communicated to staff, students and parents.


5. “Keep calm and carry on.”

I repeat to myself Rudyard Kipling’s words about ‘keeping your head when all around you are losing theirs’ and remind myself to keep breathing deeply.


Meanwhile, in Manchester . . .

Colleagues in international schools will experience events and circumstances that they may not have come across before. Common sense, flexibility, diplomacy and maintaining a calm atmosphere are all important, whilst at the same time ensuring the safety of the school community, can be a real test for your professionalism.

But this is why working in an international school can be so rewarding. You are presented with challenges and opportunities that you would never have had if you had stayed at home in Europe.


This article was first published in International Teacher Magazine, January 2022