TLP: Dr. Don Bergman, Nido de Aguilas
One of the benefits of working in education is the opportunity to work near artists everyday. Whether in the ELC or the upper school, it seems like most schools are always filled with student art. For an art novice like myself, it’s hard to describe what makes a piece of art great; it just is. Although I have little artistic ability myself, I can relate with the process of creation that drives an artist. It may not feel like it all the time but in many ways administrators are like artists with schools as their canvas. I spoke with Dr. Don Bergman, Head of School at Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile, who used this analogy to describe his work in schools.
Like great artists, great administrators often get that way through experience, something Dr. Bergman has no shortage of. Dr. Bergman has worked in some of the best schools in international education including Cairo American College, Jakarta International School, Singapore American School, and International School of Manila, among others. When asked how he knew what to add or subtract to the school’s canvas at Nido he explained,” I don’t think it’s a unique talent, it’s more a combination of experience and having kind of a gut feeling about what building blocks are necessary to help that occur in very diverse setting.” Although I think he’s right in describing the value of experience, I argue that having that “gut feeling” is often what separates the good artists/administrators from the great ones.
(If not specifically quoted, Dr. Bergman’s responses to these questions have been paraphrased)
You’ve worked continuously overseas for almost 30 years, when and why did you decide to step into leadership?
“To tell you the truth I really enjoyed teaching. I was a history/geography/PE teacher and a coach. I always had good rapport with students and [spent] my days working with content areas that I really enjoyed…but what really prompted me to assume more responsibility and take a leadership position” was an experience I had while working next door to a teacher whose classroom always seemed chaotic. “I always felt badly for the kids [in that room, but didn’t feel like there was much I could do about it] “since it was outside my sphere of influence”…[but] I always asked myself if there was something that could be done to improve the experience the kids were having on the other side of the wall.”
At the same time the school was having some leadership problems and at a certain point I felt that “[I] can either sit here…and be critical of others about why the program isn’t progressing, or [I] can assume some responsibility [myself] and see if [I] can do something about it. I was really fortunate along the way, as a young administrator, for the people who give me [some great opportunities].”
You were the Superintendent at Singapore American School in the 90s during a critical growth time, you were then asked to step in as the interim head at ISM, before being asked to come to NIdo, do you have a specific set of skills that schools are looking for?
That’s really a tough question to answer because I believe “there is no substitute for experience.” I’ve been very fortunate to work in good schools and “good schools that got a lot better while I was there. Not necessarily because of my role individually, but because of my ability to team-build, to put together a strong and well organized team of committed educators…with high expectations for quality.”
“I’ve always felt that every school has the potential to be a tier 1 school and that’s my primary responsibility. That includes the quality of the academic program, which is generally a reflection of the quality of the staff you can hire…It’s really all about people. I’m only as successful as the quality of the administrative team that I put together and by extension the quality of the faculty we hire.”
So what does it take from a leader to help make a great school?
The challenge in a large school like Singapore American School with over 3000 students or Nido with over 1700 students, is keeping people accountable to high standards while still having a healthy positive working environment. It’s not an easy task, but if you’re going to be an effective leader, and promote progress, you’ll have to make some decisions that aren’t popular. It really comes down to making decisions that continually improve the school while also “[being successful at balancing] politics, communication, diplomacy, dealing with unions and personnel, and having to make tough decisions, but in a way that still shows compassion, dignity and understanding. There’s no magic for that, it’s just part of a persons personality and hopefully we learn from experience to make decisions that are in the best interest of the organization, not just for the short term but for the long term”
How do you decide what should stay and what should go from a school’s program?
I’m not sure if I can articulate that process, as it is a skill developed over the years. “I’ve been able to help [build successful organizations] both in terms of facilities and programs, and community. I don’t think it’s a unique talent, it’s just experience and knowing what building blocks are necessary to help that occur in very diverse settings.” In a way, I think it is similar to the process an artist goes through when they create a piece of art.
You mentioned that a school’s success is tied to the quality of its teachers but what is your greatest priority when choosing administrators?
“I’ve been at Nido long enough that I’ve been able to choose all the administrative leaders, and it is a very strong administrative team…When you get the right team together it’s very important to keep that team together [just like in baseball], when you get the right line up, you want to keep that team together.” So a priority I’ve always emphasized with our school board is the importance of keeping our administrative team together. “Right now, we have at least two principals who, if they wanted to, could probably leave to become heads at other schools, and I’ll be supportive of that when or if they choose to do that. In the meantime my loyalty is to this school and I’d rather keep them here, so I want to be supportive of them in terms of salary and benefits to encourage them to stay.”
More importantly, I try to mentor our administrators by empowering and trusting them to make decisions. “That means that sometimes I’m going to get in hot water with them, but I know it’s not from a lack of commitment or professionalism on their part. Maybe a lack of experience or not being able to always predict the outcomes…By empowering and giving them independence, what I find is it’s the best mentoring I can do for young administrators.”
Is Nido a good place to develop as a leader?
“Yes, absolutely.” I think when you’re at a tier 1 school like ISB, SAS, or Nido, it’s already assumed that in your role as a teacher, department chair, etc. you are already improving in a way that makes you better at your job and a better leader. This is especially true if you were to step out of that role and assume a higher level of leadership at a new school, because schools of this caliber already represent quality no matter what role you’re in.
Do you have any advice for the next generation of international ED leaders?
“You’ve got to be people and kid oriented…kids come before content.” I think it’s a given that we want our students to be successful academically, and there are a lot of people out there who can help them with that. But what’s most important to me is finding people who are also concerned about helping our students become better people, more self-confident and reminding students of their value and potential.
Remember, we are role models to our students. Many of our students come from privileged, yet deficient households and many of them look to their teachers as a guide to what successful adulthood looks like.