TLP: Kevin Dunning, Hong Kong International School
Few schools around the world have gained a reputation for excellence like Hong Kong International School. Situated in the hub of commerce between east and west, it’s not surprising that the residents of Hong Kong would demand such a school. Unless you have experience running a school similar in size to HKIS, it’s not easy to contemplate the complexity that comes with just making everyday decisions. With enrollment over 2600 students and over 500 faculty and staff at two campuses, just scheduling facilities can become a very intricate task. Yet this is simple in comparison to overseeing the hiring process, developing a new primary building, keeping academic excellence high, not to mention working with Hong Kong government officials. Obviously it takes a special kind of leader to step into a headship at HKIS, this might be why Head of School, Kevin Dunning described it as a “calling.”
I had the chance to interview Mr. Dunning at the end of his first year and just days before the commencement ceremony. New to international education, he had some thoughtful insights on our industry and honest reflections on his performance this year.
(If not specifically quoted, Mr. Dunning’s responses to these questions have been paraphrased)
You’ve had a lot of experience working within the Lutheran private school network in the US, why did you decide to make the jump to international education?
“[When the position opened up] I had been at my previous school in the United States for 13 years and the school had grown from about 450 kids when I got there to about 1325 when I left. Four building had been built on campus when I was there and it seemed like the school was in a good place. Personally, our kids are grown, so it just seemed like it might be the right time to take this opportunity.
Had you ever considered working at an international school in the past?
“I’ve actually had an off and on relationship with HKIS [over the years].” When I was just a new teacher, in something like my second year, I interviewed for a position here, but didn’t have enough experience. About 7 years ago I was invited to consider being on the list of candidates when they were looking for a new head, but it wasn’t the right time.
Have there been any particular challenges or surprises you’ve had to overcome in your first year?
“I don’t know if it was surprise, but when you get faced with the reality of [the enormity] of HKIS…it kind of hits you in the face…It’s an amazingly complicated place, from scheduling facilities, hiring teachers, etc. Then the other personnel issues that bubble up from 500 employees it can be simply very taxing. Fortunately we’ve got great leaders here who have been put in place far longer than I have who can help manage that.
Also I entered HKIS at a somewhat tenuous time in our history. “There has been a historic identity crisis that HKIS has had in trying to serve a very diverse community, but being still faithful to the mission of its founders and its relationship to the church.” The church decided they wanted to choose a head that aligned more closely with its values. The original search process had chosen the associate head of school, who was very well respected, to become the new head. However, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), which founded the school, wouldn’t approve the choice. So when I was chosen, I was put in the position of replacing a popular and respected head that hadn’t anticipated leaving…”[So] because of the nature of the search process, I knew that there would be a level of distrust in the community.”
In addition there is a redevelopment program for our lower-primary building, which appeared to be underway before I arrived. Unfortunately the procedures for getting permission to start that process through the Hong Kong government had changed and the project had not moved as smoothly.
Being new to international education have you felt any division between those who have been around a long time versus a new person?
“I think that it definitely exists. I think some people who spend a lot of time in international schools feel like that gives them a better sense of the culture of a given place, and they believe it improves their ability to adapt to new cultural situations that a rookie like me doesn’t necessarily have. So there is a little bit of a divide that way and I’ve certainly made some mistake along the way, but I’m willing to learn and hopefully that mediates the attitude that international school veterans have.”
Now that you’re here, do you feel like you bring a certain set of skills to the position?
“I think I’m fairly decisive.” I try to gather as much information as possible and then make a decision. Based on what some people have told me “there has been a tendency at HKIS to have some paralysis through analysis.” Others have been afraid to make a decision because they know it might be unpopular and they’ve talked about it for years. “They’re plenty of things to do here, so the more things I can get off my plate and move onto the next subject, the easier it is to manage the school.”
Also I think the LCMS, chose me because they felt that I was “someone who could provide some more overt spiritual leadership for the school… I think it’s important that when people walk onto campus that they can tell that this is a Christian school. If you spend anytime here, I would hope that at the end of my tenure that it would [feel] that there is a distinctly Christian air about the school.”
Has there been pushback from some regarding an increased emphasis on the Christian faith?
“One of things that people are looking at during my tenure…is whether or not I’m going to only hire Christian teachers, or only hire Lutheran teachers, or force everyone to take religion classes in all 12 grades…I think about a 1/3 of our families would like it to be a little bit more overtly Christian, a 1/3 would prefer no religious aspect to it at all that it would simply be like the American public schools in Hong Kong, and a 1/3 of our families kind of like it the way it is. Either way, we certainly have a great diversity of beliefs amongst the students here, including a lot of Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist students.
“Our mission statement talks about being grounded in the Christian faith and respecting the spiritual diversity of all, and we’re really good at respecting the spiritual diversity of all, [but] I have some questions about how good we are at being ground in the Christian faith.” When I talk to students, they talk about studying the bible and learning about bible stories in the lower grades, but it seems as kids leave the lower school you’d be hard pressed to find any other curriculums that place any emphasis again on Christian theology or biblical studies.
You mentioned hiring practices, what is your greatest priority when choosing administrators and teachers at HKIS?
“The priority here is hiring the best teachers. In some areas it’s very difficult to hire well-qualified Christian teachers…[and] we will continue to hire the best teachers, but when we’re hiring them we want to make sure that they’re comfortable being in an environment where being grounded in the Christian faith is an important part of our mission…We expect our teachers to respect that Christianity is the ethos that it operates within. That being said I think it’s critically important to have a strong nucleus of both strong Christian and Lutheran teachers, because it’s an important element of our school culture.”
“[As for administrators,] I think in general I’m looking for people who can manage people. Who can take difficult situations and use the appropriate deft touch to calm those situations down. People who others look at with respect and for wisdom.”
Now that the school year has nearly ended how will you measure if it was successful?
“I think it will be successful if I have earned the respect of the leadership team with whom I work. I hope to assess that in some conversations I will have with some people as we draw down here the last two weeks. I think if they’re happy and glad that I came…then I think, in that sense, it’ll be a good year because then we built some relationships on which we can move forward together. My style of leadership is very much consensus building…that’s one of the things I’ll look at, whether the leadership team is satisfied with the level of leadership they’re getting from me.” Then in the end you look at whether you got anything done.
What advice do you have for the next generation of international education administrators?
“I think it’s important that you keep a good sense of humor.”
“Remember that school is important, but it’s not the most important thing.”
“I think it’s important to encourage the heart.” From what I’ve witnessed during my limited time in international education is that people work really hard. So it’s important to try and help people strike a healthy work/life balance and you should try to find a way to congratulate a person for the things that are going on in their life in and outside of school.