My family lost everything when we were expelled from Uganda in 1972. We literally arrived with the clothes we were wearing.
Refugee, father of five, and Principal at Shekou International School, Shenzhen, China, Harish Kanabar shares a life story that is not only inspirational to international school educators but encouraging to people everywhere: never give up on your circumstances.
This 25-year veteran of overseas education describes his family’s early years:
As a new immigrant, and from the trauma of leaving at a moment’s notice, my father never really recovered. He went from being an affluent businessman to landing a job as a bus driver. With four young boys, things were never going to be easy for our family.
Harish and his brothers were raised in a brand new, almost exclusively white, council estate in Leicester, England. The norm in Harish’s school was for students to drop out at 16 to begin work. He followed suit. He explains,
Life during that time was really about how to earn some money, help out your family, and buy clothes that allowed you to fit in. The question of what I was going to do in the future wasn’t really asked.
Harish discovered life outside of Leicester and a world of possibilities at the age of 18 when he visited a cousin in London. Upon his return home, he enrolled in night classes while working full time. Despite not knowing what he wanted to “become,” Harish continued with community college. He loved his Business Studies coursework where he found himself within a close network of classmates and supportive teachers. Having built a reputation as someone who provided “useful counsel,” Harish began to realize his true calling:
Business Studies had two work placements, and my second one happened to be in a school. It was at that point I came to the realization that helping others was really what I enjoyed the most. In addition, I realized that people like me were under-represented in schools, and I felt that I could serve as a positive role model for other minorities within the school system.
Harish heard conversations about working overseas, but the idea did not resonate while he was pursuing his Bachelor of Education in Brighton. After teaching for a couple of years in the UK, he realized that doing what he loved while getting a chance to travel and meet new people would be very good.
An advertisement in The Times Educational Supplement from a school in Kuwait prompted Harish to apply, and he got the job. It was in Kuwait that he discovered Search Associates (SEARCH) by attending an information session for all schools in the country. He recalls,
I learned about vacancies available in many countries, which was incredibly useful and exciting. . . Later on, I was fortunate to connect with Senior Associate Harry Deelman. He has been a positive influence on my international career, often keeping tabs on me and supporting my advancement.
Since his first placement in Kuwait, Harish has worked in overseas schools in Singapore, Qatar, and now China. His Singapore experience was in a highly reputable, English language school where he advanced to managing two centers, with 60 staff members and 1,500 students. Wanting to return to teaching in an international school setting, he worked with SEARCH in 2005. By that time, he had a family, with Paula Brunning, a teacher who had completed her Master’s degree to become a counselor. When Harish and Paula attended the SEARCH fair in Bangkok in 2005, they came away feeling inspired, grateful, and recognized for their skills. He explains why:
My wife and I decided to make the most of Search Bangkok by being open-minded to learn about new locations, initiating relationships, and focusing on our experiences both as specialist teachers and as parents. We ended up walking away with a number of offers, despite having a large family; at that time our fourth was on her way!
With Harry’s support, Harish accepted a specialist EAL position for Qatar Foundation. The couple worked together in Qatar Academy, Doha for many years until, after several roles that developed Harish’s leadership within school teams, IT, and training for the International Baccalaureate Organization, Harish moved over to a sister school for a Principal position. He has just now received word of his promotion to Head of School beginning August 2022!
Since then, Harish has attended many job fairs on the other side of the table. He thoroughly enjoys helping others and bringing out the best in the people with whom he works—students, staff, parents, and candidates! These days, Harish is Primary Principal at Shekou International School, and as a recruiter, he does his best to make all the people he speaks to feel valued and offer guidance where appropriate. He adds,
I have strong empathy for people putting themselves out there and always offer encouragement and get to know who they are. This is a small way I can support others and recognize that our paths may cross again in this world of international education.
Despite the frustration that the COVID-19 pandemic is “still here,” Harish feels fortunate that Shekou International School has great teachers supporting students and that he and his family were able to be on site in Shekou to work within the time zone of his school and support all staff as they returned. Even though his school was fortunate to only remain closed between February and early May 2020, Harish says,
During that time, I think we learned to value what is really important about the face-to-face schooling experience.
Harish loves the dynamism of international schooling, with more resources to support innovation, and adventurous teachers who are brave enough to leave their home countries and willing to travel to new places. In his experience, overseas schools are highly valued by the communities they serve. He adds,
Our five children have had many more opportunities than they might have been afforded in our home countries. They have participated in multiple, experiential learning trips as well as international conferences and sports competitions. And importantly to us as parents, they have had access to a breadth of diversity of people and thought, which serves them well to become kind human beings.
While Harish Kanabar and Paula Brunning encourage you to take that leap into international education, they insist that you “keep an open mind and make the most of wherever you end up, with its advantages and challenges. Living and working overseas is about embracing all the experiences that are made available.”