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Better Call Sal

Inspiring, tattooed, a lover of motorbikes and speaker of Bahasa Bali, Sal Gordon is Head of Teaching and Learning (Principal) at Green School Bali.

Sal Gordon’s path to his current role is somewhat different from the normal school principal, but then again Green School Bali is not your normal school. After completing a Science degree in the late 1990s – and taking a gap-year before starting a post-grad medical degree – Sal lived and worked in India for a Health and Environment NGO. He quickly realised that most of what he had learned in more than 15 years of schooling was meaningless in the real world.

In a way, he realised that school had impeded his education. Sal’s gap-year turned into a gap decade. He travelled and worked around the world, learning new languages, customs, cultures; working different jobs and upgrading his life-skills: sailing boats, writing books, working white-collar as well as blue-collar jobs (you name it, he probably did it); adapting to everything new (again and again), building resilience and fine-tuning his love of people, for learning, and for this beautiful planet. After 10 years, when starting a family, he knew his true calling was in teaching and learning – after all, that’s all he had been doing all of his life.

Sal is an education revolutionary and he believes that Green School Bali, as a new model of what a school of the future needs to do and be, is well-placed to drive the revolution that this planet needs.

Sal is passionate about how humans need to adapt (to bend like bamboo) – and how life-skills and values need to be the foundation of all learning experiences for all students. Living in an ever-changing world, education systems have an obligation to adapt to new and current world problems. As Sal puts it: “Children’s ability to adapt will determine the future of humans on this planet.” We caught up with him to chat further.

Sal, what’s a typical day for you as Principal at Green School Bali?

“There’s no real typical day at the Green School Bali’s eight-hectare bamboo, wall-less campus, but I usually start with a 5km run and then a motorcycle ride to school, swinging past the local warung in Sibang Kaja, called Pak Ajik’s, for a quick Kopi Bali and chat with my Balinese family before starting the work day at the Green School Bali campus.

“I usually greet students, teachers and parents at the bamboo gate or near the school coffee shop inside the school. Then it’s a quick campus walkabout to say hello to everyone.

“I’m in and out of my office (which is in a wall-less bamboo hut with the rest of the leadership) where there is no shortage of noise and experiences –  dogs, the odd snake, students, staff and sometimes parents pop in and out all day.  It’s not unusual to hear gamelan, music and art classes going on as all our classrooms are wall-less.

“We often say ‘Green School is more than just a school’, and it’s true – we are a community of learners, meaning teachers, parents and staff are all learning alongside students. Teaching and learning doesn’t just start and end at school or in the classroom. It is beyond what a normal school would look like. We have built and designed our own curriculum to help build this – putting the same weight on skills and values as academics.”

What brought you to this island and ultimately to Green School Bali?

“I was working in the public school system in Australia and designing some cool sustainability units. I was so distressed by the type of educational system and where it was for my kids that I was planning on home-schooling. I felt like despite being part of that system, and helping to create innovation in it (traditional education), it wasn’t the place for my kids. I found Green School Bali – a place that was innovative and wasn’t stuck in the traditional paradigm of learning and was looking at skilling kids up for the future. As a parent, I was more than happy to bring my kids to the school. That was seven years ago.”

How do you think Green School Bali fits into life on this island?

“Living in Bali and being part of Balinese culture is very important to us. I have never been someone who likes to think that expressing an idea is enough – you have to walk the talk. Personal integrity and doing the right thing. Which is why I felt it was important to learn not just Bahasa Indonesia but Bahasa Bali.

“This is also one of the reasons I felt it necessary that Green School Bali’s Community integration programme, known as Kul Kul Connection, be one of the recognised Learning Neighbourhoods at Green School. There were originally four Learning Neighbourhoods – Early Years, Primary, Middle School and High School. Kul Kul Connection is Green School Bali’s part-time local scholar programme. We have more than 40 full time local scholars studying at the school but with Kul Kul Connection approximately 300 local Balinese students come to Green School to learn English and sustainability lessons in exchange for trash in the ‘Trash for Class Program’. The entire Green School Community benefits from the program as an international school that’s both locally contributing and globally learning.”

What have you learned from the global pandemic?

“The pandemic has been the ultimate challenge that has provided the ultimate opportunity to dig deeper into the relationships we have with each other, the relationships we have with the planet; the understanding of what is real in our life – friendships, connections and the losing of that. Peter Tosh, Reggae legend, says it best: ‘you never miss the water until your well runs dry’. The planet is now understanding what the water is. It’s not the ‘next best thing’ or something you buy in the shop, it is the relationships you have with your families, friends, teachers, community and with Mother Nature and our natural environment.

“Life on earth has come to a standstill and times are uncertain. This is the time for education to step up. But what we feel certain about is that, now more than ever, our children need life skills to navigate an ever-changing world. We need to nurture values of respect and empathy in our future leaders, to educate for sustainability and be guardians of the earth. At Green School Bali, we are not talking about getting ‘back to school’, we are looking at how we can get ‘forward to school’.

“We are the school for now. How are we regenerating our community, how are we making the most out of this challenge. We are bending like bamboo and looking at ways that we create magic to help ‘move forward’ to school as we work through this. Our school created an awesome distance learning programme known as Green School Everywhere, which balances both asynchronous and synchronous learning, ensuring we still have elements of the most important aspects of the Green School curriculum – experiential learning and connection time. Of course this doesn’t replace the face-to-face and real campus learning, but we are adapting to create hybrid experiences.”

Sal Gordon, many thanks for your time.



More articles and speeches from Sal Gordon:

Bend Like Bamboo – Adapt (Spark Talks)

Putting the love into education

Bamboo News – How we do numbers in the jungle


Listening To Sound Healer Shervin Boloorian