Meet the head teacher: Interview with Catherine McKeever, GEMS Switzerland

February 23, 2017

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in education?
I can remember having a conversation with my friends when I was young about “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and I was absolutely astonished that they didn’t know what they wanted to do. I just thought that it was inbuilt and everybody knew what they wanted to do! When I was asked, I always said “Well, I’m going to be a teacher”.
How have your life and work experiences informed your approach to your work?
I first started teaching in California where I lived for five years before moving back to London. I taught in an international school and later moved to a school in the inner city. Those experiences gave me a really precise understanding of what first quality teaching and learning looks like. When you are working in very challenging circumstances, you need to be really clear about what it is that children need to learn. After all, that is our responsibility as educators. There is no better training ground than a challenging inner city school!
After teaching for several years in a range of schools, I was asked if I would like a leadership position. It wasn’t necessarily something I had thought about before because I loved being in the classroom and watching children progress and learn. I did believe though that I could make a bigger contribution outside the classroom and when you are asked for such as position as a teacher, it feels that is something you ought to do if you can. Before I knew it, I was responsible for a whole school as a head teacher and my interests and areas of expertise have broadened to give me a deep understanding of what the big picture in education should be. I think the joy of being a head teacher is that I have a very clear idea of what I want it to look like for the students and I enjoy working out how to convey that vision to the teachers, whilst being careful to ensure that we have high ambitions and high expectations for our students, not just academically, but in music, sports and other extracurricular activities. Students have to reach beyond their potential and say “you know what, why wouldn’t I want to do that? Why wouldn’t that be my end goal?” It’s all about giving students opportunities and I feel if they have all these and they are well executed, everything else will come with it.
From your international school career, what have you learnt from your previous headship positions?
As Head of School for GEMS Switzerland, I have the advantage of working for the same school group. This is helpful as I understand the organisation and how it works. That makes my job somewhat easier because it means I know I have a support network that I can call on.
I think my past experiences allow me to bring a lot to the organisation, things I have learned – not just from being a head teacher, but from being part of the GEMS network. My experience has also shown me that it doesn’t matter how good things are right now, they can always get better. My experience of the GEMS network, of school improvement work, and of running very large teams, can all be applied here with great success. One does however, have to be aware that each school is different and each context is different.
What will characterise a student leaving GEMS World Academy Switzerland under your leadership?
My ambition for our students is that they will be academically strong, multilingual (an essential part of being an IB school), and self-propelling – we wish that when they graduate, they will be able to think for themselves, engage in their own learning and do their own research.
Equally, as part of our programme, they will have undertaken some volunteer work in the community, giving them a sense of duty and compassion. Once you have considered all of these factors and produced an 18-year-old who can do all of these things, it is easy to see why universities across the world like students who have the IB. It’s a very solid base.
GEMS is growing as a school, so what is it that your parents value most?
What they value most is the quality of the teaching and the quality of the children’s learning. That is quite right and should be the most important thing to parents. Yes, we do have a fabulous campus and we do have all the things which would make you want to send your child here. If you ask the children what they like, they will say “the swimming pool, the sports hall, the climbing wall”. Often parents brush past this though, which I think says a lot about what they are buying into; they see the facilities as a given. Our parents talk about the educational experience and picking up happy children who enjoy coming to school. I believe that if you have the right core, then everything else builds from there.
We’ve touched on it already, but how do you get children to do their best academically?
I think that it starts with our little ones because you have to build a very strong foundation in the Early Years, in both English and French, so that the quality of their speaking, listening, communication and their reading and writing in both languages is as strong as we can make it. With that, students are much more capable of engaging with an enquiry from a teacher. It is therefore important to start with the core essentials and work upwards.
It is also important for our parents that they feel they have a listening ear. I always make sure that parents have excellent communication lines with their child’s teacher so that when a student is learning, the parent understands very well how they learn. This parental engagement is very important in helping children succeed.
Which areas of extracurricular activities are you developing?
As I said before, it doesn’t matter how good a school or its facilities are, it can always be better. We are building on our sports programme, with a new Sports Director this year, by focusing on doing some sports really well. For instance, we have a fabulous swimming pool (two in fact) and are making sure that we give the provision for students so that we can have a really good swim squad. We start teaching them to swim when they are very little and then we are developing them into tadpoles, minnows and eventually a GEMS Shark! We have been working hard on areas like football, and are working on building up a strong repertoire of other sports where we can be competitive.
We just had a music recital this morning from our students in the Music Academy. When these students play, the other children think “wow, she sits beside me and I didn’t even know she could do that”. By giving students the opportunity to see their peers playing music, it breaks down resistance to them taking up that type of thing too.
We are also really focusing on our bilingual program because it is absolutely something that our parents ask us for and so we want to make the teaching of English and French as seamless as possible.
We will grow these opportunities as the school grows with us!
You haven’t been in Switzerland a long time, but how are you making the most of everything that Switzerland has to offer?
So far I have been quite busy settling in, but one of the great motivators for me to move to Switzerland was the weather and the opportunity that this climate offers me to do the things that I love. I love outdoors, I love to walk, I love to run, I love to ride my bike and in the winter, I love to ski! I am not so great with hot temperatures, so it makes a nice change to Dubai. I might never leave!
When a new student arrives, what do you do to help them settle in?
We do many things. When a family arrives for the first time, we make sure that they have a tour of the school and we offer an “introduction day” where new students can come and spend a day in the school and classroom. This is very popular because the children can say “I had a great time and I would like to come back”. It helps to reduce the fear factor of coming somewhere new by giving them something to look forward to.
When they become a student, we have a buddy system which pairs them with a friend from the same class who will come down and meet them, take them to class, have lunch and break times together, etc. for them to establish good relationships with the other students in the class.
From a parents’ point of view, we touch base with them on a weekly basis. If the children are little, the teacher will be talking to the parents every day. When the students get a little older and they are in the secondary school we do have a system where the homeroom teacher speaks to the parent regularly. We also make sure that new parents are connected with other parents with similar backgrounds so they don’t feel left out! Everybody becomes part of our active parent group so we always make sure that parents are linked up as much as possible.
Super! Lastly, what are the main trends you are seeing in education at the moment?
I think the idea of providing the right education and making sure that the GEMS student who leaves our school is equipped in every single aspect of life to be able to go to a university of their choice and be really successful, or if they choose not to go to university to be able to go into the world of work or apprenticeship and have all of the knowledge and skills that they need to make that a success for them. That’s our job, and that’s what we are here to do.
It’s hard to predict the future and change is so rapid, but providing we create adaptable students who, when something unknown comes along, can be flexible (I like to use the word nimble and often think we need a brain like an elastic band!), they will not be phased and will be able to handle the situation. That is the challenge of modern education in my opinion, creating adaptive students who are capable of delivering under any circumstances.
Thanks for your time!
No, thank you!

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