TLP: James Dalziel, United World College Singapore

TLP: James Dalziel, United World College Singapore
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There’s been a lot written in education theory lately about the power of play and its ability to form students who are creative, inquisitive and thoughtful. In his book Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner highlights this when he notes that the common thread between numerous successful innovators he interviewed was play, passion and purpose. As we begin to see more schools move away from a curricula that has over emphasized high test scores, towards one that focuses on encouraging students to find their passions, it will be critical to find educators who can model this to the students. After my interview with James Dalziel, Head of East Campus at United World College South East Asia in Singapore, it’s clear that he is one of these people.  Passionate and purposeful about his work Mr. Dalziel adds “I really see work as play…there’s rarely a day where I wake up and don’t think I can’t wait to get at it.  For the most part it’s really energizing and enjoyable.”

Situated on two campuses in Singapore, UWCSEA provides values-based education to nearly 5000 students from kindergarten through Grade 12 (ages 4 to 18). UWCSEA is committed to the mission of the UWC movement to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. UWCSEA reflects the diversity of Singapore with an anticipated student population peaking at 5400 by 2015, many of whom come from very different backgrounds. Although managing a large campus poses many challenges it’s obvious that with the leadership of Mr. Dalziel and his colleagues, the UWCSEA East team is focused on taking advantage of the many opportunities it sees for its students.

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

When and why did you decide to step into leadership?

Honestly, I don’t know if it was a conscious decision. I often say I don’t think I chose leadership; it keeps choosing me in different ways. However, I would say I’ve pursued it when the opportunity has comes along, so it has been a conscious decision as well. Leadership is something I enjoy, generating the ideas are a part of it and then taking those ideas…and making it happen.”

What else do you enjoy about being in leadership?

“I’ve especially enjoyed the different roles I’ve worked in, from Deputy Head of the Canadian International School in Singapore, to Middle School Principal at UWCSEA Dover, and now Head of the East Campus. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to dive into leadership, and try to bring everything together, and also get to work on the big picture and have those mission and vision conversations, but then take it down to the enacting part as well…I also really enjoy the people part.” 

What specific skills have you developed as a leader?

“Big picture thinking is something I really enjoy doing. I would also suggest that I have an unusual amount of optimism…so it can also be easy for me to get lost in the big picture sometimes. So an area that I’m working on is getting the details done. Bringing people together to communicate a clear vision is another strength, which for me begins with empathy because when I’m able to step into their roles and think about how they see the situation it helps me understand how to communicate the message to the receiver…seeing how it fits with their goals and their belief structures.

“I think another one of my strengths is to stay learning-focused…and [the key is] to be specific about what that learning is and then to be able to shape that message…One of the things I learned from Bill Gerritz [Former Head at IS Bangkok] is that great education is about learning and results. [We’ve all heard the catchphrase in education,] ‘It’s about learning,’ but Bill took it to the next level by saying ‘and the learning we need to see are these results.’ It sounds really simple, but it’s so important because it guides and helps protect you from getting distracted and doing a lot of things that don’t focus on student learning.”

How do you ensure that everything UWCSEA East does is focused on student learning?

“First of all, it’s about understanding what learning is. One of the most powerful things we did a few years ago is define what it is we know about learning. So we did a lot of research…and we came up with our learning principles, which was an important start, because if you don’t know what you know about learning you can get off in a hundred different directions. The second most important thing we did was develop a learning profile [that describes the kind of learners we want our students to be]…The third part of the puzzle was to define what our learning program was, which differentiates UWCSEA from other international schools. So when someone wants to start a new program or activity at our school that doesn’t support our learning goals you have to have a conversation about whether it fits. [Truthfully], it’s not a hard conversation to have because as you begin discussing the school goals the person usually realizes that their idea might be more of a distraction. [The key is] to not stop there. You then ask, how can we use what you’re passionate about to get us where we want to go?”

With such a high functioning student population how do you help your students find balance?

“I think balance is [overvalued]. If you think that anyone ever achieved anything great by living a balanced life, I think you’re living a dream. There’s no way that Edison said ‘oh it’s 5 o’clock, I’ve got to go home and have dinner with my family.’ When you’re passionate about something, your life is not in balance, you achieve greatness when your life is not in balance. I think you should be conscious that your life is not in balance and it’s not sustainable to do that forever…but if you’re passionate about doing something…there are late nights, times where you’re not going to see your family, and you’re going to miss the odd meal…That’s all a part of achieving great things. [But since it’s not sustainable] at a certain point in time you have to…recharge your batteries…and this is why our school holidays are so important. We’ve got students and teachers working at 100% all the time, and I want them to be doing that…with the understanding that when those holidays come around you take them, change gears, spend time with your family, and restore those energy levels. I wouldn’t see it as a day to day balance, but more of a long term balance.”

What about pressure from parents on students to overload with lots of activities and classes because they think it betters their child’s chances at getting into a university?

“I don’t think you fight it because you can’t deny peoples’ cultural belief systems and the way they were raised. However, I do believe you can educate people around what the new reality is…One of the groups we leverage the most when discussing this topic with our community is our alumni. We’ve had incredibly successful alumni, and what our current parents want to hear is how their journey through school shaped their lives…I can tell parents [how their beliefs about academics might not be accurate]…but [what’s much more effective is] to have an alumnus say ‘it wasn’t my math scores that got me into Harvard, it was my service…and the leadership work I did’…When [our alumni] start sharing their stories…our parents start to get a different view about what’s important. The message is always that they found something they were passionate about. Then we have a conversation with parents about their child’s passions.”

Obviously finding great educators to facilitate the learning is key, so what are your greatest priorities when hiring new administrators?

“I’m a firm believer [that everyone in the] building [needs to be able to] work with kids.  That goes from people coming in at lunch time to help with violin lessons, to the Vice Principal, to a chemistry teacher, to a school secretary…every adult in the building matters. They have to have that energy, passion and belief aligned with our beliefs…and [what’s critical] is finding those great people who are passionate about what they do and their work with kids.

“The leadership piece is about people for me, it’s carrying that passion through, having incredible optimism, a belief that aligns with what we’re trying to do at UWCSEA and also, for me, a belief in people. There’s not a leader at our school who doesn’t like working with people…you’ve got to actually care enough about the other people on your team that you’re going to have the conversations to bring them along. Success in what we’re doing isn’t just about achieving a goal; it’s about building the capacity of the team along the way towards that goal too. We don’t just judge success based on whether you accomplished a task on time and under budget. What matters to us is how you build the team along the way, because in the process if the team is destroyed or team doesn’t trust you…[regardless, of the end product] it will be a failure in our eyes.  The power of trust is absolutely critical.”

Is UWCSEA a good place to develop as a leader?

“We’re becoming one…we’re moving away from a model where a leader has the same job [every year]…[because] what we don’t want is the same person to be here for 15 years and do the same job for 15 years, because instead of 15 years of experience, you end up with 1 year of experience 15 times. That doesn’t get anyone closer to taking the next step up in the organization. So we’ve shifted to a model where every year [leaders] have the opportunity to take on a different role. Maybe it’s a finance role one year, the next year it’s hiring, and then the next year you oversee professional development for staff. So that at the end of five years you’ve actually had your hands in many different [areas], which helps you enhance your skill set and your understanding of the school.”  

What advice do you have for aspiring international administrators?

“Find out what you’re passionate about and find out what you’re skill sets are…what are you good at?

“Learn, learn, learn. We have to learn from others around us, because as a leader you’re going to make mistakes and learning from those experiences and the advice of others is absolutely critical.

“You have to stay focused on learning … and you have to be conscious of what those results are. You can’t have a real target that is ‘I want to improve learning for kids’ but not know what the learning is that you want to improve.”

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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