Creating the Outstanding School: Everyone’s Dream

As a principal focused on improving student learning I was heartened by the recent presentations at the Dubai International Education Conference recently held at Al Ghurair University, Dubai. With the key message that the teacher is the centre of improving student attainment, the various keynote and concurrent presentations offered insight into the effective impact of the role of the “Teacher as researcher.”

As a principal focused on improving student learning I was heartened by the recent presentations at the Dubai International Education Conference recently held at Al Ghurair University, Dubai. With the key message that the teacher is the centre of improving student attainment, the various keynote and concurrent presentations offered insight into the effective impact of the role of the “Teacher as researcher.”

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The teacher as researcher can be distinguished from their colleagues as they attempt to better understand their TEACHing practice and how it impacts upon their students. In researching the relationship between teaching and learning the teacher researcher actively contributes to the conversation of what makes a difference to student learning. This is an evidenced based process and involves reflective inquiry, working in collaboration with other teachers, their students, parents and the community.

Interpreting real time data, analysing the data and them making informed decisions based upon this information is pivotal to improving the school outcomes. The challenge is ensuring that all schools improve. However, as shared by Professor David Lynch (Southern Cross University):

“It is interesting to note that the latest figures released by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (Dubai’s education authority) show that the number of private schools in Dubai will reach 250 by the year 2020 or 16 per year. There are currently 169 private schools in Dubai as of last year, but this number will increase by almost 50% in the next six years to accommodate the projected 50% increase in student population from the current 243,000 level to 366,000 by 2020 or by 24,000 per year. One of the big challenges for the UAE is to prepare or engage enough teachers to meet this demand profile.”

With the rapid increase in the number of schools in Dubai to meet the increasing demand and the KHDA prescribed inspection process identifying what makes an “outstanding school” on what constitutes an outstanding school will continue to create much debate. To help foster the dialogue perhaps our latest publication “Creating the Outstanding School” will help.

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Driving in Dubai

No matter how much someone tells you how a particular experience will be, it is not until you experience first hand that you ‘really’ understand. This was my experience with driving in Dubai.

Firstly I had to contend with the left hand drive phenomenon. It felt not only like I was driving a sidecar motorbike but also I felt like the car was going to topple over. Years of looking right, then left, then right again is a bad habit to overcome. Mark Treadwell, international guru on how the brain learns, says we can retrain our brain but I’m not sure he has driven in Dubai for a while.

The second phenomenon is the unexplained ability of the Dubai traffic to fit four lanes of traffic into three. A 15 km route to work in the morning takes around 25 minutes however, the return journey in the afternoon can take up to hour and a half.


If there is a silver lining it might just be found in my pocket. Or more precisely in the savings. My first tank of petrol (66 litres) only cost me the equivalent of $33.00 Australian dollars.

The First Moments in a New Country

When you first arrive in a new country your senses are more alert as you experience the newness of the land. For me the Dubai airport was the gateway to this new world that I have been preparing for.

Stepping off the plane and into the terminal there was a sea of nations wandering through the terminal all seeking a hasty exit. The richness of many languages being uttered as families and travellers alike jostled through customs and immigration could be heard as you joined the crowd to the exit lines.

Once through the security and into the open air I was first hit by the heat. Arriving in mid August, it should be expected that the temperature would be in the high 30s but probably not at 4:30 am.

This is a land that needs exploring!


Arriving in Dubai

My arrival into Dubai has been quite a whirlwind with many of the great hallmarks of “misadventure”, beginning with the initial packing of bags and deciding what to bring. Being a reflective fellow I thoughtfully laid out my clothes on the bed and was feeling confident that I had covered all bases. I then began to ponder about my new life overseas. Can this suitcase of clothes define my future? Given that I was moving overseas, was this all I needed to live my new life?

packing pageWith a suitcase that weighed 27.8 kgs I embarked on the journey to Dubai. Having noted my seat was close to an exit, giving me more leg room, I was feeling confident about the 15 hour flight. Until the young couple with their 15 month old baby came and sat next to me. I took a closer look around and saw that I was sitting in the middle of a number of couples with their babies. With flight attendants scurrying around finding bassinets to hang on the wall and parents wielding large bags of baby gear, it was at that point I felt the rising panic and I wasn’t disappointed. The little one used his lungs to awaken his colleagues around me. And that continued well into the flight.

Having survived the flight and profound lack of sleep, albeit a little battled scarred, I was fortunate to be collected from the airport and taken to my accommodation. Besides the fact that for me, everyone was driving on the other side of the road, the sudden braking and accelerating that continued for the next 20 minutes as the car fought with other cars for positions in the lanes, certainly ensured the sleep deprivation was instantly cast aside. I was totally awake. (For the record, my first driving experience when I was behind the wheel is a story for another time).

The initial experiences of getting to Dubai was extremely interesting but, by necessity, needed to take back seat when focusing on the reason I was here. My first few days at school made the initial trip all worthwhile beginning with the induction of new staff.

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Transition Week

A positive part of being appointed as principal of a new school is not only the opportunity to build upon your current experience but also to learn new skills.

How you approach your new role will have lasting effects on your leadership influence. Reading the school culture incorrectly could put you on the back foot and inhibit the quality of your decision making.

For me, a necessary beginning point is to visit the new school. There is nothing more important than meeting the people you are going to work with, taking the opportunity to immerse yourself into the culture of the school and getting an intuitive feel for how things operate. Visiting the school allows you to begin to ‘get a handle’ on school logistics.

My recent “Transition Week” at dar al Marefa offered the unique opportunity to begin my leadership journey at the school on the right foot. While everyone will have a few tips for the new principal, after having had a few principal appointments over the years, I find the following four insights useful in shaping how you should approach your new appointment:

1. Understanding History. Beginning with previous school improvement plans a new principal can digest the thinking that has shaped the school to be what it is today. To make effective decisions, the new leader needs to know why things are the way they are. Take time to understand the traditions, celebrations and why things run the way they do.

2. Get to know your staff and school community. In the early stages, (commonly know as the honeymoon period), it is imperative to develop positive relationships with each member of the community. Don’t forget spending time in classrooms and the playground to get to know the students.

3. Get Learning. Discovering what you don’t know is a key task in the early days. Locating the paperwork should be an initial goal. Reading the paperwork is the next! Items from parent handbooks to teacher appraisal processes to curriculum expectations help to establish an understanding of the school and most importantly, the culture.

4. Gather relevant information to design a short term action plan. While the school may have an action plan, as a new leader you bring a new ‘vision’ to the school and, after listening and learning, you will begin to craft your own views on what ‘needs to be done’. Developing your own action plan will help to connect the dots and and allow you to focus on short achievable goals.

Everyone approaches their new appointment differently. Whatever action you take it is most important that the new leader enjoys coming to work each day. My transition week at dar al Marefa Private School was exciting  and immensely interesting. Many people to meet, many things to take in! From any aspect my new appointment is going to be challenging and loaded with learning opportunity. I have no doubt I will enjoy coming to work each day.

Announcing Your Resignation

Often it is easier looking for a new position than it is accepting the new appointment. Once your decision has been made you have to come to terms with announcing your resignation. Often the announcement is a shock as no-one knows that you were contemplating a new job.

Some will be happy, some will be disappointed (happy for you but disappointed for the organisation), others will begin to reflect on how the leadership change will affect them and others will want to know what’s wrong; Why would you want to leave them?

For me, this was most confronting.

As a principal who has put their heart and soul into the school, leading from the front, assisting from the side and following behind, telling staff that I was leaving our beloved school to take up a new position in a foreign country was extraordinarily difficult.

There are a number of layers to announcing your decision to resign. For me , once  I accepted the new appointment and determined a starting date, I followed the Stephen Covey’s principle of starting with the end point in mind. My end point was the date I fly out to my new school.

Working backwards four weeks from my last day at school I then had the final date to hand in my resignation. From there I was able to plan the timing of the resignation letter and then informing our staff and wider community.

Sounds straight forward.

Sharing the news with my staff was quite a task. Knowing how attached I was (and still am) to the school and after working closely with the staff on our learning platform has been an amazing experience. Reflecting on our journey together over the past ten years and witnessing the grow of our staff, both professionally and in their personal lives, has been a humbling experience. Luckily I had the foresight to write a brief resignation speech to announce my news and to capture my thanks for helping me to be more than I am.

The next big task is the farewell assembly with the students.



Learning About Expat Life

Once I came to the decision to to accept a principalship at an international school I began to read through the various Expat forums. This, to me, was an important leisure time activity. After registering with  I began to read all about the escapades of those that have gone before me. I wasn’t only interested in the adventures but more  about the practicalities. As a husband and father it was important for me to develop some insight into relevant family matters like the cost of living (see the Numbeo site or Expatistan site) and issues surrounding moving (or in my case leaving) the family. Various personal blogs, not only about living in Dubai but also other countries, helped garner information.

A key information site for me was Living in Dubai. This site offered a great overview for the naive would be Dubai resident. From accommodation to eating out to purchasing a mobile phone ,this site provided a number of elements one needs to consider when moving. It was from this site that I would then ‘google’ for further information. Another important jewel for understanding life in and moving to Dubai was Expatwoman. While written by women for women, a lot of the information shared still applies to men as well.

One site leads to another which leads to another. Before long you end up with not only a plethora of information but at times, conflicting answers. It is wise to discern the information as many sites offer personal opinions that are immersed in facts.

Probably, for me anyway, the best site I visited frequently was called Definitely Dubai. This site offered everything you need to know about both visiting and living in Dubai. It provide me with a springboard of actions needed to prepare for living permanently abroad.

No doubt there are many more gems out there to assist people in being more informed about moving into an Expat life.




Fascinated By the Dubai Mindset

Having had a few nibbles on the job front I was excited by the prospect of a head of school position in Dubai. Notwithstanding the opportunity of working (and learning) in a K-12 school in an international setting, living and experiencing another culture  is appealing.

However, having not lived overseas and only travelled internationally for short work related activities, my lived experience in this area is relatively thin (it is a daunting prospect choosing a new place to live).

So how do you begin to acquire the necessary information? Well, as one does, the extended use of Youtube became my window into a brave new world.

My first foray into Dubai was via the Strip the City episode where an explanation of how the city was built intrigued me. I was fascinated by the sheer scale of the thinking, creativity and engineering feats that I devoured the youtube videos for more information (some of my favourites are listed below).

There were many other helpful websites that allowed me to paint a picture of Dubai including:

Perusing the internet searching for tidbits highlights the power of personalised learning and the necessity for our schools to pursue opportunities for our learners to use technology. Living in a connected world with information at their fingertips, our children have the world at their feet (and so do we).


Researching the International School Sector

The biggest stumbling block (for a very green international  job seeker) was trying to determine where to start. Searching online can be a most time consuming activity and depending where you’d like to further your leadership and experience (from Asia to the Middle East to the Americas) there are many different paths you can travel to get there. Like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland says, “If you don’t know where you want to go, it doesn’t matter which path you take”, and if you are not careful, after many hours of internet surfing, you could find yourself in the same place where you started.

It is important you think about what you want to get out of teaching/leading and what kind of school will best suit your needs. Each school has its own ethos, culture and learning atmosphere which is shaped by the school leadership team and the vision of its community.

Once a type of school is decided upon the next step is to seek actual positions. In short, for me, I distilled my online searching to the following sites. Some require lengthy applications, others a simple CV. Some required an application fee while others were free. (For the record, in my experience, the free ones were most helpful).

However, it was International Teachers Plus that were most beneficial in supporting my application and securing my appointment in Dubai.

Then, when you have noticed a school with a vacancy it might be useful to research and find out about its student body, staff members, school reputation, how the community is involved, the educational goals and and vision of the school, an overview of recent and planned initiatives and the type of extracurricular activities they provide.

Finding a school to best fit your needs should be the priority. Happy hunting!

First Step to Personal (and Professional) Growth – Identifying the Need

I have been a principal in schools across three educational jurisdictions and two states in Australia for over twenty years. My current principalship, in a very successful school, in a beautiful part of the Mid North Coast of NSW, has reached the ten year mark.

There is a tendency for leaders to cement their stance on a school and then enter the plateau phase of leadership. Some say it’s best to leave on a high, before the sedentary side of leadership takes hold.

That said, life long learners seek further learning opportunities. They need the next challenge to keep relevant and on top of their game. For me, coming to that realisation has been tough as, like all people looking at their future, there is more at stake than what’s in it for me. There’s family to consider, mortgages, kids’ schooling, spouse’s career, your own ageing parents and extended family members, and even your friendship circles.

There are many reasons one decides to take the leap into a new job. Once decided and announced that you are leaving, people only see the top of the iceberg, they don’t see what is happening under the water, or the myriad of contexts, conversations, rationales, barriers, that lead to the decision. Usually the first response, naturally, is how your decision will impact them?

This introduction brings me to the purpose of this blog!

I have, with the blessing of my family, made the decision to resign my position to take up an international leadership position in Dubai. This blog will be an attempt to share my journey, firstly with my family, who will, for the first part, remain in Australia, until our youngest finishes her HSC in 2015.

I hope to chronicle my experiences, more as a therapeutic or reflective process, but hopefully, like other similar blogs, offer insight into the highs and lows of moving into an expat life.