Nestled in the East Village, Nord Anglia International School New York offers a global education in the heart of one of the world’s great cities. Craig Halsall joined Nord Anglia following a spell as head of a leading British School in Kazakhstan. He has extensive experience in independent, public and commercial educational sectors including secondary and primary schools in the UK, Middle East and Asia. A family man with a wife and 5 children, Craig’s zest for life is immediately apparent the moment you meet him. This passion shines through in his approach to school leadership. We talked to him during a recent visit to New York about his background, the school, and his vision.
What inspired you to get into education in the first place?
I come from a working-class background, and while doing my A Levels at age 17, I was looking for work to pay my way in the family. Unfortunately, I had two severe knee injuries at the time, and my leg was in a splint for a long time. My grandfather agreed to drive me from house to house if I was able to get any work teaching, so I placed an ad in the local newspaper, and I did!
Having finished my degree, I put applications out to universities and colleges to teach. I was fortunate that a top A-level tutorial college in Birmingham took me on, and that’s where the teaching career started.
You’ve worked in the UK, Kazakhstan, Kuwait and now the USA. How have those experiences shaped your attitude to teaching?
My roles in Kazakhstan and Kuwait were leadership positions, but they still informed my understanding of various pedagogical approaches. Both experiences shaped my understanding of how to lead a school in a different country with different expectations and cultures.
The objectives in all schools are specific, and therefore how you put together solutions must be very tailored. In an international school, it’s important to remember that what works in London won’t work in Kuwait. While New York is another completely different environment, I think that without those experiences, I wouldn’t have been well placed to take this job.
I’ve also got five children, and one of the big motivations for going overseas was to give them exposure to a world and life that they didn’t know. You learn a lot about yourself and others living abroad, and how to be flexible and understanding of others, their values and cultures.
Have you learned anything else about being a head teacher at an international school?
It is really about understanding your market. When you move from one region of the world to another – from the Middle East to Asia to the US and Europe – people’s values are very different. This means you absolutely cannot take the same approach to the curriculum and the mission of the school. You’ve got to be open to really understanding what makes them tick.
In Kazakhstan, for example, there is an absolute passion for math. In particular, math Olympiads, which can shape people’s lives. Math Olympiads can get children from non-privileged backgrounds scholarships to universities that they could otherwise never dream of going to. So, in that particular market, with the support of the local shareholders and the governors of that school, we did something truly unique. We offered a dual program that combined math Olympiads at the very highest level, alongside the British curriculum. This meant that children could be successful in math Olympiads without compromising on the A-level grades they needed for university or the entrance requirements for the top UK and US boarding schools.
Obviously, that strategy in Kazakhstan is not what’s needed in New York. My job as the head of the school is to engage the whole community of parents, teachers, students, and others to understand what is most needed in the school, and to devise a strategy to deliver results. It’s critical to build trust and be able to demonstrate the impact you are having for the benefit of the students.
What characterizes a student at Nord Anglia? What qualities do they end up with when they graduate or when they leave you after three years? What’s the legacy?
Every school wants to produce great academic results, and in that aspect, we are in the top tier. However, the broader philosophy of the whole Nord Anglia group is “Be Ambitious”. You shouldn’t be a head teacher in a Nord Anglia school if you don’t honestly believe in that.
We offer an integrated approach to education to prepare students for a future that we don’t yet quite have a grasp of. Nobody knows precisely what skillsets our children are going to need for jobs in 10 or 15 years, so we’re aiming to produce students who have got a solid, broad academic base, enabling them to go off in any direction they want. I know this is what both employers and parents appreciate.
I want our students to be able to express themselves confidently and to be genuinely good citizens. Students must be able to operate as team players, as well as offer leadership qualities when appropriate. They must learn to behave amongst a group of people that they don’t know, including showing respect towards people of other cultures and backgrounds.
What makes the learning environment special at Nord Anglia International School New York?
There are three major things to highlight.
Firstly, our small class sizes. Being a small school, we can offer genuinely personalized learning to achieve consistent results. I’ve been in schools with class sizes of 30 plus and also classes of 10, and everything in between. Every teacher does their best to give each student attention, but when you have 12 or 15 students in front of you, you can genuinely personalize the learning in a way that you probably cannot when you have 32 students in the class.
Secondly, the quality of the teachers. There are no weak links in this school, and we have a very strong team. For the past four years in our annual survey, 97% of parents say that the teachers are absolutely superb here, beyond anything they can get in most comparable schools elsewhere in New York City.
Finally, the community that we’re able to offer – both locally and globally – as part of the broader Nord Anglia group adds real value. Students get the best of both worlds: a small school with a personalized approach, but without compromising on the social sporting networks and opportunities which a bigger school would bring.
Where do you do sports and extra-curricular activities?
Our school has excellent facilities, especially for New York, including a Julliard dance studio and dedicated physical development facilities for our early years’ students. We have a fantastic indoor sports facility, where we host weekly inter-school competitive games.
We also connect with our network in the local communities. So, we block out the local YMCA pool every Tuesday to teach swimming – a fantastically important life skill. Five-minutes’ walk from here we have great outdoor sports facilities and drama space at the Kraine Theatre. We also have a beautiful big rooftop playground which is excellent for recess and children can relax and have a great view and better air quality.
What other areas of education or extracurricular activities are you developing?
This year we’ve founded a new sports league along with nine other New York international/private schools. In fact, we’ve just broken some new ground by introducing a lower elementary, primary competitive league, which is unique in New York City.
We also have a Nord Anglia sports competition called the global games, which are the Olympics for Nord Anglia schools in the Americas. All schools come together every year in Florida to compete with each other in sports from soccer, archery, swimming, running, and other activities.
The Nord Anglia global campus also brings together students in multiple countries within the Nord Anglia family to do activities from sports to art, to writing. Right now, Nord Anglia School Chicago Lincoln Park is running an excellent art competition that we are looking to participate in.
We are also hosting the UNICEF United Nations student summit in this school with students from across the Nord Anglia family around the world.
All of these activities create endless international connections and friendships for life between children in our schools. It’s a wonderful thing.
What do you like doing in your spare time and how do you get the best out of living in New York?
New York is like no other city, and we love it here, and it’s an experience of a lifetime to live here. Who couldn’t love this city with the sort of vibrancy, diversity, and the opportunity it brings?
We enjoy going out and watching sports at any opportunity. I also love being able to go to the theatre. Whether it’s Broadway or not, it’s just great.
How do you help international students settle in?
We’re very confident that the offering that we have – the small class sizes, the experienced teachers, the international community within the classrooms, and our lovely students – will make them feel welcome.
We try to get as much personal information about students before they’ve even thought about coming to New York so we can understand the children before they arrive. We connect with parents and ask them in-depth questions. We also Skype with them so we can meet them at least on camera and get a feel for what they love.
We try to plan a magical moment for each child when they arrive. For example, if we know that child loves music, and we know that they have recently performed a piece in front of their school, we can engineer for them to visit at a time when they can be in a music lesson. Perhaps they can play that piece again, and they can become the centre of attention in a way that they feel confident.
Our existing parent community also helps settle new families. We connect the new family with a list of parents if they want to choose themselves, or we pick people who either have an interest in terms of the age of the children, where they’re from, or where they’re going to be living. This helps, for example, children to have play dates with other local children, so they do not feel isolated.
We want to build a warm, trusting relationship with parents and children, which is why I’m outside school every day for half an hour. Every parent sees me, so if they want to discuss an issue or question with me, I’m always there.
What in your opinion are the main challenges facing education today?
As I mentioned, most of the jobs that these students will perform do not exist yet. We are determined not to be naive or arrogant about that issue – I don’t believe anybody has the answer to which specific skills students will need. All we can do is to do our best to try and understand where trends might go. For example, coding is part of our curriculum, and we have students who do coding from six years old. With our older students, we go further and are also looking at things like the ethical issues surrounding code built, for example, for driverless cars.
A major challenge for education now and where it’s going in the future is, can our students understand and articulate the issues related to how things like driverless cars will impact different countries, and what the implications will be, for example, in China versus in Europe.
To prepare our students for the future, we need to be ambitious and equip them with problem-solving skills, teamwork skills, leadership skills, and the critical thinking skills to be able to apply them to new, yet unseen challenges. And that’s what I think education is all about for all schools, not just ours.
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