What initially inspired you to pursue a career in education?
Firstly, by the time I came to choose a career, mastery of French and Italian was a big part of my identity and influenced the way I saw the world. I wanted children to love language learning as much I did.
Secondly, I had some really inspiring teachers at school and some rather poor ones. I felt very strongly then, and still do, that good teachers transform lives. I wanted to see if I could be one of those teachers that did that!
Before leading Ecolint, what was your career path?
I started out as a teacher of French and Italian in London. At , I became a head of department for years and then took a career break to bring up my two young children. Once they were both at school, I went to work at London University’s Institute of Education, training beginner teachers which was a fantastic opportunity. In 1996, after years as a Deputy Head in a London day school, I was appointed Principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, the renowned UK boarding school which has a great mix of international as well as British students. I stayed there for 15 years during which time we introduced the International Baccalaureate. It was a truly remarkable, joyful school; an extraordinary learning community.
How do your own life/work experiences inform your approach to your work?
Where to begin?!
- Fail to prepare and prepare to fail! I inherited a great work ethic from my mother. You cannot succeed as a teacher or as a school leader unless you prepare well and have a lot of self-discipline. School leaders must be reliable and organised, able to keep plenty of plates spinning at the same time, be calm under pressure, resilient and highly reflective.
- A good education is a holistic one. Throughout my career but particularly in my time at Cheltenham, my concept of a holistic education has influenced my approach. High quality classroom learning goes hand-in-hand with excellent mentoring and care together with plenty of opportunities in the co-curricular programme: theatre, music, sport, community service etc. Young people have extraordinary potential and many of my sweetest memories are of students performing in plays or concerts, competing in matches, organising a fun-filled fundraising activity that involved the whole school community, being original and showing leadership. So much of their confidence and self-belief comes from these opportunities. At the same time, it can be tough being a teenager so the nurturing support of staff is also an important element of our schools.
- There can’t be autonomy without accountability. It’s a fine balance to strike between requiring professionals, one’s colleagues, to meet a set of high expectations and giving them enough freedom and discretion to be their own person in the classroom. Teachers are rightfully independent spirits and we don’t want a cloned workforce. As long as everyone understands that autonomy and accountability accompany each other, all will be well.
- The more you give, the more you get back. Teaching is a vocation, an opportunity to influence lives. Former students always reminisce warmly about the teachers who went the extra mile for them, believed in them.
- Have fun at work. Although I take my work very seriously, I have always been lucky enough to have some colleagues with a great sense of humour. This has always helped when the going gets tough.
- It’s all about the team. Both at Cheltenham and at Ecolint, I have had the opportunity to build a great senior leadership team. Such a team is essential for successful schools today. There are few things more fulfilling professionally than watching highly competent people you have appointed having a positive impact.
What have you learnt from your time as a headteacher of an international school?
The experience has been deeply enriching because your assumptions are constantly being challenged: the highly diverse community means that there are always interesting perspectives and nothing can be taken for granted. You have to do even more listening and even more reflecting. Colleagues are accessing research and training from around the world so the level of pedagogical discourse is much higher, in my experience, than in a national school which makes it very exciting. Also, at least here in Geneva, there is no shelter from the world’s complexities and dilemmas – you genuinely feel that you are educating your students for this world stage. It makes me even more resolved to provide a first class education.
What characterises the students graduating from your school?
Quite genuinely, they leave the school hopeful that they can make the world a better place by living according to the values of respect and tolerance that have been fostered during their time with us, in particular through having lived and studied alongside students of 139 other nationalities. As someone said: “Ecolint is where human beings learn about being human.” We know from talking to our alumni of all ages that they feel a great affection and sense of connection with their alma mater even when they are far away from Switzerland. They tell us that Ecolint was a place where they learned how to learn, and, because they were allowed to be themselves, developed self-confidence and open-mindedness.
The other important characteristic, of course, is that most of our students leave bilingual and many have mastery of one or two other languages too.
What would you say makes the learning environment extra special?
It has to be, firstly, our core values of a child-centred pedagogy; educating for peace; respecting the equal value of all human beings and promoting bilingualism as a part of international mindedness that inspire our work.
We have an incredibly talented and dedicated staff, including a large number of specialist educators focused on language acquisition and support for children with particular learning needs. Our facilities for learning are of a high standard. In the past five years we have transformed our provision for use of technology for learning.
Which features of the school do parents value the most?
Above all they appreciate the very positive staff: student relationships. Parents are happy because their children are happy to come to school!
Then, it’s the ones mentioned above: international diversity and bilingualism; our humanitarian values and culture; our learning support and extended support programme which means we are able to cater for individual needs; our ability to motivate students who have been failed in the public system or other private schools so that they find their self-belief and go on to succeed academically and socially. Parents also appreciate our university guidance and the general approachability of teachers and management if they have a concern. Although our fees are not the lowest, parents appreciate the fact that we are a ‘not-for-profit’ institution and that our spending choices are always based on what is right for the students, not based on commercial imperatives.
What are the main principles and philosophies you promote at the school?
Again, it’s the aforementioned principles: the equal value and respect owed to all human beings; the importance of dialogue and collaboration; recognising that ‘no man is an island’, but that our fulfilment in life comes from the contribution we will make to the communities we will join; the sense that students have choices and are responsible for their lives so we hope to equip them with the wherewithal to be independent and astute in the choices they will make.
How do you get children to do their best academically?
- Recruiting, inspiring and enabling teachers who exude a passion for learning, making it a journey of discovery
- Knowing the students well so you can gauge where they are at and where they can go next, making the learning challenging but accessible, spotting what might be getting in the way and also allowing early intervention
- Continuing to place an emphasis on literacy, accurate spelling and grammar
- Discouraging the teacher from doing all the talking
- Giving regular constructive feedback and moderate but meaningful praise
- Getting students to self-evaluate, articulate what and how they have learnt, teach others
- Make it clear that there is no substitute for hard work
- Foster ambition so that they have goals and drive
Which other areas of education and extracurricular activities are you developing?
In each of the eight schools of the Foundation, we are focusing on what we consider to be the key domains of a relevant 21st century education: These include information and scientific literacy; critical thinking; creativity and entrepreneurship; STEM learning; the development of character; concepts-focused learning; health and mindfulness; service learning and international mindedness; learning support and assessment. This is leading to a number of exciting developments from the creation of an outdoor learning centre at our Early Years school in Pregny, to the development of a STEM centre at La Grande Boissière; from a programme of philosophy for children at LGB’s primary school to technology camps at Campus des Nations, from entrepreneurship opportunities at La Châtaigneraie to a programme to help students understand the refugee crisis at LGB middle school.
How do you encourage understanding between cultures and nationalities?
I feel that this is daily life at Ecolint but perhaps our most visible manifestation of this is our annual Student League of Nations held in one of the huge debating chambers at the United Nations. Students are allocated different countries which they represent in a series of four resolutions which are discussed over a period of two full days. The resolutions, proposed and presented by students, cover the social, political and technological issues of the day, for example, the military intervention of foreign powers; mass migration and the refugee crisis; internet pornography and artificial intelligence. Every year, I never fail to be inspired by our students’ mastery and ability to debate the issues from the perspective of their allocated country.
What is the best thing about leading an international school in Switzerland?
The real privilege is not so much being in Switzerland, despite all its advantages in terms of quality of life, but being in Geneva, the city of peace and the base for so many international organisations. When Ecolint was founded, as the first ever international school, it was with the intent to serve this international community and we are proud of our rich heritage and our part in the history of the international school movement, particularly the development of the International Baccalaureate in the 1960s.
How do you make the most of everything Switzerland has to offer?
I would say that the best thing here at Ecolint is actually the diversity. No other school in the world has 140 nationalities and 80 mother tongues, and that, really, is the real bonus for me, my colleagues and all our students.
That apart, we take full advantage of our surroundings with ski days for our primary children, many expeditions in the mountains, particularly for students undertaking the International Award, and also strongly leverage our long-standing connections with the United Nations and other Swiss-based organizations to provide pedagogical opportunities for our students.
Switzerland is a beautiful, safe and stable country so a wonderful place to bring up children. I cannot think of another country where parents can give their children such a carefree and healthy childhood.
How do you help international students settle in when they first arrive?
With so many nationalities and over 90 years of experience, we believe that the whole community is accustomed to welcoming new students and helping them to settle. We never underestimate how much our students support and teach each other well away from our gaze. More specifically, we have a large team of specialist educators offering support in English or French as an additional language to enable new students to access the curriculum as swiftly as possible.
The future of education:
What are the main trends in education that you are seeing at the moment?
A focus on mindfulness and wellbeing, no doubt in response to the worrying statistics about mental health among young people. The other big buzz word is ‘resilience’ and how to develop it. Then, the challenge to make sure that our use of technology is genuinely adding to the quality of learning.
What are the main challenges for education as a whole in the future and how are you equipping your students for future success?
The questions we must ask ourselves as educators are manifold, but some of the key ones include: “What will be the role of school and of university when so much can be learned via a computer?”, “What will we need to assess and how, or in other words, what is the future of exams?”, “How do we make sure the partnership with parents evolves in the most positive way?”
The most important, I believe is “How will we prepare our students for the volatile, uncertain and complex world which awaits them after leaving school?” Students need to learn to form strong values; to learn how to learn so they can go on learning; to have close, sustaining friendships and a network of contacts that is global; to have not been spoon-fed; to be able to live with doubt and pressure and to believe that life can be fun and beautiful! I think we are doing quite well!
Photo credits: Ecolint