Former superintendent reflects on his education adventures
Bob Gross worked as Brainerd School District educator for 31 years and enjoyed his job. In 1999, however, he and his wife, Judy, reached a point where they were ready to try a new life.
Gross accepted a job as superintendent of the Singapore American School and later worked as an educator for the U.S. State Department, resulting in his visiting somewhere between 40 and 50 countries in the last decade or so.
"It’s been quite an adventure,” he told an audience Monday at the Chalberg Theatre at Central Lakes College. The presentation, entitled “Education — Around the World and Back Again,” was sponsored by the Center for Lifelong Learning and the Brainerd Public Schools Foundation.
The career change from Minnesota school superintendent to an administrator for American schools abroad has apparently suited the 69-year-old Gross, who professed enthusiasm for his continuing endeavors in education.
“I enjoy work,” he said, confessing that he never really developed hobbies.
Gross advised other individuals to “do what feels right to you” when it comes to retirement.
After eight years in Singapore, he worked as regional education officer for Europe with the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Overseas Schools, which supports diplomatic communities. Gross resigned that post in April and has accepted offers to work with schools in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and Vienna, Austria in the coming years.
In 2006, he was named International School Superintendent of the Year by the Association for the Advancement of International Education.
Among the interesting adventures he’s experienced was heading the Singapore American School in the wake of the 9/11 attack, when many feared for the lives of Americans abroad. The school tried to keep a low profile, even repainting its school buses to be less distinctive and having guards with bayonets and AK-47s at the schools. In the initial days after the terrorist attacks he bucked the advice of some parents who had suggested closing the schools, realizing the hardships posed by shutting down classes.
“I remember what it was like to close schools during snow days,” he said.
Changes relating to security were made at the Singapore school, but he said it was never certain how necessary they were.
“Some of the things we had to do because it made people feel better,” Gross said.
The biggest changes he experienced as a school administrator were not brought about by the change in countries but the changes from working in the private sector, compared to the public sector. Parents wanted their children to attend the Singapore American School and were very supportive of the school’s mission. Unlike the public sector, he said, where 75 to 80 percent of the population did not have children in school, the private school in Singapore was run by a school board that was selected by the students’ parents. Those parents, Gross said, were achievement-oriented with high expectations for their children’s academic progress. Behavior problems, were few, he said, because the school could simply ask problem students to leave. There were few students with special needs, unlike the public school system, he said.
And there was no media to contend with since it was a private school.
Jim Hunt, a Brainerd School Board member who served as Brainerd High School principal under Gross was moderator of Monday’s discussion. He pointed out Brainerd Dispatch photographer Steve Kohls, who was photographing the presentation and said that Gross didn’t have someone like the news photographer following him around.
“We wouldn’t allow him,” Gross joked. “We had guards at the door to prevent that.”
Gross was Brainerd School District superintendent for 18 years. He began his teaching career in Waubun, where he taught classes in business law, typing, physical education and health. In the Brainerd School District he was assistant high school principal, junior high principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent between 1968 and 1999.
In his eight years in Singapore he never experienced one news story, letter to the editor or editorial that was disparaging of his teachers.
Those teachers were revered, he said, even though they “were not one bit better than we had in Brainerd.”
It’s difficult to educate children in a situation where teachers are constantly taken to task, he said. And in his opinion, he said, much of the criticism teachers face is unfair. The negative criticism of teachers, he said, doesn’t encourage young people to enter the field of education.
Gross reminded the audience that the student population that once lived at the former Brainerd State Hospital has now been incorporated into the public school systems. A transition such as that, he said doesn’t come without the need for a substantial increase in revenue.
Many of the parents he dealt with at the Singapore American School pushed their children at levels which would be considered unhealthy in the U.S.
“My gosh, some of them were just obsessed,” he said.
While he admired the test scores that many foreign students achieved, he said that non-Americans admired the creativity and spirit of entrepreneurship found in American schools.
In a question and answer session, Gross said that Italy was a charming country that he would like to visit as a tourist and he found the people in Vietnam to be welcoming and industrious.
“It’s a great country to visit,” Gross said.
Certain eastern European nations that were formerly part of the Soviet union were countries that were interesting to see once but ones that “you wouldn’t put on your bucket list.”
He said his first language while growing up was German but English was widely spoken throughout the world because it is the language of the international business community.
Gross also said he had tremendous mentors in Brainerd from school administrators such as Elliot Whoolery and Don Adamson.