TLP: Elsa Lamb, AAIE

TLP: Elsa Lamb, AAIE
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At the end of each of my interviews, I always make sure to ask the question “What advice do you have for the next generation of international administrators?”  The answers have varied from cliché, to practical, to deeply philosophical, but all have served the purpose of providing a small window into a career filled with hard-earned wisdom.  However, few have gone as far as Elsa Lamb, Director of the Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE), to preserve practical and functional lessons for leaders in international education.  With Ms. Lamb’s leadership AAIE has created the online Institute for International School Leadership to help provide practical lessons and support for international school heads and leaders.  With help from other experienced leaders in international education, including fellow Leadership Project interviewees Harlan Lyso, Monica Greeley, and Sherry Miller, the AAIE institute will be one of the few formal places leaders can get relevant teaching, advice and mentoring for leadership in international schools.

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

After working overseas for a number of years and in three different countries, does it feel odd to be back in the states?

It really depends on the situation.  There are some things about living in the states that can be great and certainly things are more convenient “[because] whatever you need, you can find it somewhere…[However], it was harder to come back than it was to go overseas…because when you’re in a school you’re [also] in a community.  I came back to the USA never having lived in Florida…so there was no community.  The other thing is I came to a job I’ve never done before.  It’s different to come back a couple times a year then it is to come back and live here, so there has been a lot of things to adjust and adapt to.”

Your first headship was at the American School of Barcelona, why did you decide to step into leadership?

“I didn’t decide.  [Like many] women my age [we] sort of fell into our careers, [where as] fortunately today women plan their careers.”  I was working as a teacher at ASB when the head was fired and the deputy head left with him in solidarity.  So 2 months into the school year the board scrambled to search for a permanent replacement, and asked me to take over in the meantime.  

Why do you think they came to you?

The board asked the teachers for input and my name was put forward. “I think they suggested me for a couple of reasons.  One was I had started taking some classes in administration [mostly just to fulfill the credit hours].”  I also had some experience with teacher training back in the states, so I think others viewed me as someone who had done more then just teach.  Also I was bilingual so I could communicate clearly with everyone on the board and with the school community.

“Two months later I came to school and the board chair was waiting to tell me ‘the board met last night and decided we’d like you to take this job’; and I said ‘no, are you crazy? I’ve never done this before’.”  But after taking sometime to think about it I realized that no one is ever going to give me this chance again, so I said ‘yes’ and ended up staying for 12 years.

Besides ‘falling’ into a headship, what else encouraged you to pursue leadership?

“[It’s] being able to really impact and bring about change, if I have a good enough idea at an international school, all I have to do is sell the board on it, then get the community to buy into it, and [we] can do it…In an international school you can make [change] happen.”

What else has helped develop you for leadership in a school?

“What gave me the best background to do the job [was my experiences as a special education teacher]…When you’re a special ed. teacher…no one knows what you’re doing, you have to sell the program to the principal, you have to get the teachers on board with it, you’re constantly counseling parents, and counseling students…everybody.”  I think my time in SPED really helped me learn people skills and how to clearly communicate to all stakeholders.   “[What I’ve found is that] administration is about 90% people…[and you have to have] people skills…because if you cannot connect with the community…you can’t get the job done.”

In addition to people skills have you found that there are certain skills that are necessary to be successful as an international school head?

There are a number of important skills heads need to know in order to be successful, which is really why we decided to start the Institute for International School Leadership at AAIE.  “[As a mentor] I became more and more aware of people who were actually brand new heads who were frankly getting shot out of the saddle in the first days. What I was seeing was people who I think have a lot of potential, but were running into problems very early on and sometimes those problems meant that they left the position. So with the desire to provide some more tangible training I started to look into creating the online institute.”

“I started with one question, which was ‘what are the critical competencies an international school head has to have to be successful?’…So I discussed the questions with a number of peers and we came up with eight competencies so far, which include:


Leading for Learning (Curriculum)

School Culture

Diplomacy and Situational Awareness



Mission and Vision

Continuous professional growth

However, since the job description for an international head can be so different from what’s needed in the states we really wanted to make sure the content was specialized for international education.  So we’ve worked closely with a number of international school heads to create and focus the curriculum. “There are also people who need a mentor…so if you take the 2-year course, you’ll be assigned a trained mentor from the very beginning.” Which is great because for someone like myself who’s nearing the end of my career, I don’t want what I’ve learned to just stay with me.

Are there common mistakes that you see a lot of new heads make?

“One of the mistakes I see so many heads make, particularly new ones, is that they become so focused on [their] school that you forget to connect at an international level…[which is too bad because] although the international teaching community is spread out all over the world, it’s incredibly tight and I’ve learned so much from colleagues [who understand the challenges unique to our field]…If you become just focused on your school you’re not going to grow.  You’ve got to become part of the larger international school community…It gives you a bigger view.  When I was on various boards, my schools always reaped the benefits…because your school benefits from those connections.”  

You’ve shared a lot of great thoughts, but do you have any specific advice for upcoming international administrators?

“You need to focus on your own professional growth…and never stop learning.”

“Reach beyond your school.”

When making tough decisions “as long as people respect you as being fair, they’ll live with your decisions, even if they don’t like 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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