TLP: Bill Gerritz, International School Bangkok

TLP: Bill Gerritz, International School Bangkok
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Dr. Bill Gerritz, Head of School at the International School Bangkok, is a self-described “nerd” who views much of his work with the eyes of an engineer.  In fact much of what Dr. Gerritz has achieved while leading various international schools around the world could be described as visionary engineering.  Most recently he’s helped to pioneer the ISB invention Center, which will create a “system for kids who are interested in science and math [a place to] actually create new machines” and think like engineers.

After 11 years at ISB, and over two decades overseas, Bill is ending his international school career to make room for new endeavors.  When asked about retirement he was quick to explain, “I’m not calling it retirement, [because] retiring implies going to sleep or going off somewhere.  I’m calling it being on the loose or a very long summer.”  So if you happen to be in Estes Park, CO this summer watch out for Dr. Gerritz who will be officially on the loose and anxious to start his new adventureThankfully before he takes off, I had the opportunity to listen to him reflect on his leadership experience in international education.

(If not specifically quoted, Dr. Gerritz’s responses to these questions have been paraphrased)

You’ve had the opportunity to work all over the world, what’s surprised you the most about working in Bangkok?

“Thai culture is very peaceful, gentle, and funny.  This is the most humorous place I’ve ever worked at…[there’s] a lot of joking and laughing and fooling around.”

 Are there other schools or administrators that inspire the way you lead ISB?

I think that question is too simplistic or doesn’t get to the root of what we do as leaders at ISB, because to understand leadership one must first understand the difference between leading and managing.  “[I think] unless you’re a good manager…you’ll have neither the time nor the authority to do any kind of leadership in terms of moving things ahead.  It’s a mistake I see  some emerging leaders make …being a principal for example [many think] is about leadership, but I think it’s about 95% management.   Then if you do a really good job with management, you can move ahead and improve things.”

However, before coming to ISB I spent 4 years on the faculty at UC Berkley “so I had a pretty good idea about what good teaching and learning should be.”

“[For instance], unlike almost any other organization, schools [in general] focus on process not on results, they focus on teaching not on learning.  So the big goal was to turn ISB into a learning-focused school, where we pay just as much attention to the results as to how the process goes on.  For example we’ve changed our whole teacher appraisal system, so instead of a traditional one where we watch what teachers do, we watch the quality of learning going on and make an assessment on that.”

What’s been most fundamental in your own personal development as a leader?

“A lot of reading and a lot of worshipping of Michael Fullan.”  I think the work he is doing to develop the capacity of leaders to produce positive change is really fascinating.

In your role as Head, what specific set of skills do you bring to the school?

“I try to keep it real simple–I work as hard as I can, I focus on the student learning getting better, and that a student’s time at the school is positive.”

“It’s something that’s deeper then skills, to be an effective school leader or manager you need to have a high level of social and emotional intelligence and a high verbal intelligence. [In fact] people that [don’t have these skills] won’t be successful administrators.  [Also] you need to be really good at critical thinking and problem solving.”

What do you believe are some of your most important roles as Head?

I’ve found that schools are always full of conflict and that’s ok. Conflict is inevitable given the diversity among students, parents and staff.  Therefore as head it’s my job to manage and use the conflict to identify what systems are working and don’t need any attention and what systems are broken, in conflict, and ripe for improvement and change. 

Creating an environment that accepts change is really important because as head I must “sing the song of continual improvement.  [The idea] that everything can be improved and that’s part of everybody’s work.”

Also I’ve found that international schools are often filled with a climate of fear.  Some schools have poor administrators that don’t tolerate mistakes and create an environment where mistakes are punished.  At ISB we’ve tried, “to get rid of a climate of fear…by never punishing people for having an opinion that’s different then [mine] or who disagrees with [me]…all it takes is one teacher who gets disciplined for disagreeing with the party line to ruin the culture for months and years afterwards.”  I also do this by, “publically admitting my own mistakes, and I expect the same from my principals.”

“I value honest conversations with teachers” and try to encourage this by allowing a time for teachers to come and share their peace or problems with me.  I don’t do this in an attempt to build consensus, but to allow teachers an opportunity to share their thinking. Most often, their ideas and perspective lead to substantially more effective implementation, “but it’s not like a majority rules or building a consensus or anything like that.  Some of the most important things I’ve done here I didn’t have a lot of support for.”

What’s your greatest priority when hiring administrators for ISB?

“Finding people who can focus on results, and who can improve learning at the school, and make the life of the kids better.  There’s also a need to have a diversity of backgrounds and have a good mix of styles… I always try to hire people who are smarter than I am…I don’t actually do very much at the school, the real work is done by other people, so I want people who are smarter me and have different skills sets than I have.”

How do you develop leadership talent?

“We try to identify emerging leaders and [maybe] people who don’t have administration on their life plan, but they have the capacity to be a good administrator…but I actually don’t think we do a good job at ISB of supporting emerging leaders…it’s just not our priority…but the flip side is we have a good number of very capable emerging administrators at the school, which has just happened.”

What advice do you have for the next generation of international administrators?

“[Avoid] shared endarkenment.”  I use this term to describe what I see happening at a lot of schools…”leaders that pay too much attention to what’s going on in their own school,” rather then looking at what other schools are doing and reading the literature.

“[Switch] from a focus on teaching to learning and… from a focus on process to results.”

“Whenever you have a conflict with somebody…and you don’t want to go talk to them, go talk to them.”

“Trust takes a long time to develop and can be lost in a sentence, so be scrupulously honest with people”

“A lot of administrators think it’s a political job, they think it’s about pleasing people and about getting people to approve of them and their performance.  That doesn’t work…what’s really important is to have a really clear and simple set of goals…and stay focused on them.”


Author: Andy Aldrich

Andy is a founder of Learn[ed]Leadership as well as a school administrator at Punahou School in Honolulu, HI. In addition to pontificating on ideas in education, Andy stays busy chasing after his daughter and impressing his wife with his big muscles.

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