TLP: Ed Ladd, The American School in Japan

TLP: Ed Ladd, The American School in Japan
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Few school leaders have worked at as many high performing international schools as Ed Ladd, Head of School at the American School in Japan.  With a career that includes leadership positions in London, Israel, Taiwan, Qatar and Japan, Mr. Ladd’s experience has undoubtedly been a vital component in returning ASIJ to normalcy after the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis that struck Japan in March 2011.

Before meeting Mr. Ladd, I had heard his leadership style described as sometimes aggressive and demanding, but often effective.  What I found in our interview was an innovator who is passionate about “pushing the envelope” and a detective for genuine learning, something we should all hope to see in our schools but don’t always.  With obvious enthusiasm for positive change, it’s not surprising that Mr. Ladd has helped transform international education while others have been left watching.

(If not specifically quoted, Mr. Ladd’s answers to these questions have been paraphrased)

You’ve held overseas positions in many locations do you have a favorite? 

“They’ve been so different I’ve really liked them all.  [I guess] my wife and I would probably say London because it was our first experience, and because I went there as a teacher and not as an administrator.”

When and why did you decide to step into leadership?

“Quite frankly I don’t think I was thinking ‘I want to be a leader’ or ‘I want to be an administrator’.”  It all started when I had an opportunity to apply to become the dean of students in London, but didn’t get the position.  Fortunately, a few years later I was asked to step in during a sabbatical and took the opportunity.  “[The truth is] I never really intended to follow this path…[but] once I got into it, my mentors down the line always encouraged me to continue forward on this path.”

ASIJ BuildingIt sounds like great mentors have been an important part of your development, what else?

“It’s probably threefold, I’d say mentoring has been most important.  Number two is just experience itself; you make mistakes and you learn from them.  The third piece is the PD you get along the way.”

“I’ve been lucky to work with some really great people, and they’ve all influenced me, although sometimes you don’t realize how much they have until much later.”

Like some great heads I’ve interviewed, you chose to forgo a doctorate, why?

Before accepting the high school principal position in Israel, I was offered an opportunity to work on a doctorate program in the USA.  After discussing it with a mentor, we concluded that experience would teach me a lot more then another degree. “I know there are a lot of schools that look for [that level of education], but quite frankly I don’t think I’ve ever been handicapped for not having a doctorate.”

So what specific skills have your experiences helped you develop?

I think I’m more of a creative thinker.  “I’m the guy who likes to push the envelope, and I really believe that when we read research we should respond to it.”  I’ve been the kind guy who rants and raves against the old industrial complex.  I like to think that I’m really an ideas person…for example, I was an early user and adopter of technology in the classroom.

Another example would be the campus I helped develop at the American School in Doha.  “[There] I had the opportunity to help design and build a new school, [even though] I had no experience in building schools…[What I had was] a lot of philosophical ideas about how spaces could increase or enrich the learning experience, [which played a big role in the final design].”

I’ve been in wars, typhoons and disease, but I’ve never been in a situation where the emotional reaction was so strong.”

Speaking of your work in Doha, ASD was founded in 1988 while ASIJ is over a 100 years old, does the difference in age challenge the way you lead each school?  

“Absolutely, but I think the differences are more than just the age of the school.  Doha is still in a tremendous growth spurt, so you don’t have to worry about enrollment…and the energy around that is very positive.  In Japan we’re in an economy that’s suffering and the earthquake created a lot of fears about radiation, which has led to a shrinking expat population [and thus] declining enrollment.”

“Doha is a great example, where you’re able to mold the culture through the recruiting process because you hire people that are specifically in tune with a certain philosophy.  When you come to a well established school where there is little turnover it makes change much more challenging…[Plus] people have been very successful here, so you have to be respectful of that success, but at the same time my MO is that of change.”  ASIJ was already a great school when I arrived; Doha was not but wanted to be great.

“[Personally] it challenges your skill set, but it also makes you self-reflect on your leadership decisions.”

asij SumoSince change does take longer at an older school, what’s your priority when choosing new administrators at ASIJ?

“I’m really looking for people who not only are highly qualified, but also people who are forward looking.  I’m really trying to find people who are really enthralled and excited about best practices and some of the changes and new opportunities we see in education…for me it’s really about finding people who are forward looking.”

“I don’t want anybody coming in to do status quo work…If you really want to be a leading school [in the world,] or in the case of ASIJ, to continue being a leading school [in the world], you need to have a certain number of admin on your staff who are willing to think outside the box and push the envelope of people’s thinking.”

I’m sure no matter a person’s experience it’s hard to really prepare for the disaster Japan went through in 2011, what were your priorities throughout the crisis?

“Obviously our first priority was safety.  In the immediate aftermath it was how to take care of kids and get kids home…and safety for staff and our staff families.  The second priority, which lasted a long time, was gathering accurate information and communicating…timely and often, and responding to a lot of inaccurate information…the communication part was huge.  Then the third piece came down to how do we safeguard the school year in terms of education.”  

I think looking back the thing that we did well was trying to value the perspective of those who had a different emotional reaction to the event.  “[For example] to not make judgments of the family that didn’t come back because they were scared…we really tried not to make judgments about that.  Finally we had to eventually draw a line in the sand with faculty and say either you come back or you don’t…that was very difficult but fortunately almost everyone came back.  I’ve been in wars, typhoons and disease, but I’ve never been in a situation where the emotional reaction was so strong.”

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Click here for other interviews of Ed Leaders, including James MacDonald, former head of Yokohama International School, and TIm Carr Head of Jakarta International School

Have you seen any good come out of the chaos from those days?

“I do think there were a number of us who do see this change forced upon us as an opportunity, but I think the silver lining is that our kids and many of our faculty and admin have had an opportunity to live out the mission of the school, which has come through service.”  We partnered with a school devastated by the tsunami to resupply their classrooms, help teach English, and last year we had a group go [up to the school] for 3 major holidays, basically just to put on a party for them. “It’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of, and one of the thing I had the least responsibility for.”

What’s next for ASIJ?

“We hope that we can normalize.  That enrollment issues and financial issues would become more stable than last year and that will allow us to do the kind of work we should be doing, which is focusing how to improve teaching and learning at the school.”

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

“My only advice would be to look and grab any experience that’s available to you.”  


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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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