Sep 24, 2014
Since deciding to steer his career into international education Martin Leigh has never deliberately targeted a particular country to work in, it’s always been about the role. He’s worked in Dubai and Switzerland before coming to China, and in each case was persuaded by the opportunities and the people involved with the schools.
In the case of China it was much the same: “I’d written down a list of places I didn’t particularly want to work in, and China wasn’t on that list. I’ve been to Kunming with students for a language programme about nine years ago and felt the country was safe, the people were friendly and thought it was somewhere I’d like to return to.”
However, his first experiences were not particularly positive as he was driven, jet-lagged, from Pudong to Suzhou through mile after mile of buildings and put up in a hotel overlooking busy developments.
“It is about as different from Switzerland as you could imagine and I wondered if I was going to be living in working in a concrete jungle. However, fully rested and given the chance to explore more, I see Suzhou in a different way. It’s a big city but has more open space, character and has countryside and lakes.”
A few months on, and the size of Suzhou still stands out; however working so hard to get the Abbey DLD Suzhou school (the International Centre at Blue Tassel School) started has meant that Martin has been unable to really explore the locality: “I feel I owe it to myself to explore the city properly because I am sure it has lots to offer.”
In the meantime though this ambition will likely remain on hold because as Martin acknowledges: “Starting a new school has always been my dream as a school leader, but it takes up a ridiculous amount of time and weekends are just another day at the office. Now that we are up and running things has become a little easier in terms of time, even though the daily challenges keep on coming. My partner, Kate, and I have bought eBikes and these have really given us more freedom to get about and explore. We brought our dog with us and she has also adapted well but we need to find more places to let her run.”
In addition, Martin has also taken up Chinese lessons at his school and more informally at a local bar, where he has learned quickly how to order bottles of beer and beef noodles to take away.
His interesting experiences however don’t stop there. For example, in the first few days after arriving Martin and Kate would find themselves followed around places: “we found it funny that people, particularly small children, would follow us around the supermarket. I think we’re less of a novelty now, or at least we don’t notice it anymore.”
“The whole experience of living here is so different from anywhere I’ve ever worked that I’m always intrigued, but as time goes on less and less surprises me because China is a place where the unexpected happens, and happens quickly. I think of it as surfing the culture wave.”
Surfing the cultural wave is certainly required in work as well as life: “The role of Principal is stressful and living in a new country a real challenge, so the two combined could be a recipe for a breakdown, but I survive and thrive because I am flexible, resilient and maintain a good sense of humour. I am also surrounded by great people at work and have the love and support of my partner here in Suzhou, and my close family only a Skype call away. The dog quite likes me too.”
As for the future, Martin is extremely ambitious for the school: “I didn’t come all this way to go through the motions. I want Abbey DLD Suzhou to be the best school in the city within two years. I firmly believe that with the staff we have here and the awesome new campus that will be finished in a couple of months, we can achieve that aim. In the future I’d like someone to headhunt me for a similar project. I’m not saying I would accept, but it’s nice to be asked!”
About the Column
This series focuses on individuals who have lived in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province for a while and have a tale that’s worth telling. Age, gender, nationality and race are all unimportant in comparison with what adventures the subject has been up to, the experiences they can recount.