Chinese mice do not eat cheese

I have heard it said that an elephant is a mouse designed to government specifications.

Schools have always been required to adhere to government compliance regulations.  Most people working in schools would agree that the burdens of compliance and accountability are growing relentlessly.  Many of the requirements may seem onerous, but this is not always the case.

In 2015, the New South Wales Education Standards Authority introduced a requirement that all Responsible Persons (board members and senior leaders) in independent schools must undertake at least four hours of professional development with a NESA-approved training provider.  This requirement was subsequently revised to 12 hours over each three-year period.

This was a brilliant initiative.  In the US (where I served my fifth and last headship), a similar requirement has existed for many years, and schools where this requirement is ignored lose their accreditation and therefore cannot send their graduating students to college or university.  I found that as a general rule the quality of school board governance in the US is generally first-rate, and arguably – on average – better than I have experienced in any of the other countries where I have worked or evaluated boards for accreditation or approval purposes.

Professional development for board members is a sound investment in a school’s future given that:

In spite of overseas experience, this initiative by NESA represented quite a cultural shift for many NSW school boards which were unaccustomed to investing time and resources on their own development.  It remains an alien concept elsewhere in Australia where similar government requirements have not been introduced and thus no such professional development is undertaken – to the detriment of the schools in those states I would argue.

The situation reminds me of a mouse I encountered when I was living and working in Hong Kong a little over a decade ago.

One morning, I discovered that there was a mouse in my office.  Determined to show my competence in solving the problem, I went to the local market and bought a little wire mesh cage.  My plan was to trap the mouse alive using a piece of cheese as bait.

A few days later, the cheese had still not been touched and I was becoming a bit worried because the mouse was obviously still scampering around my office.

One morning, after the cage with the cheese had been lying untouched for about a week, one of the school’s maintenance staff came in to do some repairs, and he happened to see the mouse trap.  He looked at me and said very seriously with a waggle of the finger “Chinese mice do not eat cheese”. 

Okay, it is commonly known that Chinese people do not like cheese.  My PA told me that people of Chinese ethnicity can’t stand the smell of it and to them the taste would be like sun dried rooster’s feet or fermented seaweed to a Westerner (trying to help me imagine such a thing).  However, it had not occurred to me that Chinese mice might not like cheese as well. 

And then I thought about it.  If there was no cheese in the average Chinese home, then even a reasonably intelligent mouse might have trouble figuring out that it was supposed to go into the cage to eat something it never encountered before. 

There had to be a reason that the mouse had not been enticed into the cage, so I asked the man from the maintenance department what a Chinese mouse might prefer to eat.  “Fish” he said confidently, “with soy sauce”.

I had never thought of a mouse eating fish or that a mouse might prefer it with a little dash of soy sauce.  In fact, that would have been the last thing I would have thought of using.  As the maintenance man went out the door he added “Mice like a little ginger on their fish”. 

And so I replaced the cheese with a little left over fish laced with a touch of soy sauce and, of course, some shredded ginger.  Finding this more to his liking, the mouse was caught just a few hours later.

We all know the expression the expression “When in Rome do as the Romans do”, which in its Chinese version is “When visiting a village, ask how the villagers do things”. 

The mouse did not like cheese because he (or maybe she, I didn’t ask) had never tried it.  He (let’s assume it was a ‘he’) had decided he didn’t like it but had never experienced it.  If the mouse had been told by his mother or father or teacher that cheese was dangerous and therefore avoided it, that would make sense.  However, without any knowledge or understanding of cheese, the mouse had decided not to try it.  

I hope you can see the light-hearted point I am trying to make here.  Boards may not be accustomed to engaging in professional development (whether required by government authorities or not), but it makes no sense to reject the idea on the basis of comfort, precedent, resources or ‘other priorities’ without seriously first considering its benefits.

When I was in Hong Kong, I had what I thought was a very good mouse trap.  However, as long as I continued believing it was good, I was prevented from making an excellent mouse trap. 

Eventually I reached the point where I came to others for advice, and through that I achieved excellence – as I am sure the mouse would testify to you today if it had survived. 

In the same way, I hope that as a school leader or board member you will always be open to seeking the advice of others - especially those who are politically neutral and have no ‘skin in the game’ - as you strive for the heights of excellence.  There is no better way to maximise the value of your efforts as you seek to make your great school even better.

Please make it a priority to invest in your own professional development.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Browse the huge range of professional development workshops we offer for school boards and leaders HERE and HERE, and see the feedback we receive for our workshops HERE.

We can also offer individually crafted workshop to suit your unique needs; contact us by e-mail at [email protected] to explore your options.

Professional learning for school leaders and board members is also provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at