Interview with Inter-Community School Zurich, Head of School – Lucy Gowdie

Established in 1960, Inter-Community School (ICS) is the only school in Zurich offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) Programme for Primary Years, Middle Years, and Diploma Studies.

Affording personalised education for students aged 18 months to 18 years, ICS prepares young people to thrive in today’s changing world, with a supportive community and rigorous curriculum.

We spoke with Head of School, Lucy Gowdie, about her approach to education, the trends we’re seeing, and the exciting prospects ahead for ICS.

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in education and how did that journey bring you to Switzerland?

When I was younger, I struggled to love learning – never believing I was capable. I was a very sporty student, I loved sport – and actually went to a school for sport. I wasn’t really very academic, and my parents were not university graduates, so I didn’t have the inspiration to understand what academia was – until I entered Year 9 Literature, where a teacher opened up avenues of insight into the world, from Whitman, to Keats, to Dickinson – my whole world changed. 

I decided I wanted to do for others, what that teacher had unknowingly done for me.

When I finished school, I had a choice – go into the workforce and do sports administration or choose university. I chose the latter, and was awarded a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor of Arts and graduated in 2001. I ended up moving to Japan for a gap year, where I taught. I went back to Australia at the tender age of 21 and spent seven years at an all-girls Catholic school – during that time I bought a house, had two children, moved to the Peninsula and spent 10 years teaching at a boarding school. 

I became fascinated upon my return from Japan by multi-culturalism and inter-cultural learning and wanted to build these connections in the school I was at. I used to wonder, particularly for our Boarders, why immersion was so challenging, and what we were doing wrong in our attempt to create an authentic learning experience in a truly representative and inclusive way. 

2012 was a turning point for me when a colleague my age passed away. I remember committing to myself then that I needed to live an extraordinary life, and to commit to myself that when my own time came, I could at least say I followed my dreams. 

I applied for a job in Hong Kong, and in 2013 I was appointed Head of EAL at the Australian School in Hong Kong. My family and I moved over and spent two of the greatest years of my life doing what I loved doing – I was teaching, I could travel, but more than anything, I finally found the diversity I was looking for – a natural, authentic, multicultural society, where everyone was equal, where you didn’t look at the colour of someone’s skin, you just looked at and attempted to enhance through your teaching, their character.

After two years, I realised I had been out of university for 14 years, and I wanted to upskill my qualifications – at this point I was really just a classroom teacher with some leadership experience, and I knew (as does every ambitious teacher), that I needed a Masters and more experience in different environments.

I studied International Education and Policy at the University of Sydney, and in 2018. I wrote my thesis on the rise of charter schools in America, and the danger of corporatisation and commodification of education in China.

During the COVID pandemic, I knew I needed change, I had thoroughly relished studying and wanted to apply this newfound knowledge. I knew that the school I was at, and the mentor who had guided me, had taken me to a place where I could stand and lead on my own. And so it was that I found my way to ICS in Zurich.

What have you learnt from your time in day, boarding, and international education?

I have learnt that no two days are ever the same; and while I manage what comes my way, I understand and embrace the uniqueness of the school eco-systems. It’s what makes schools such an enjoyable place to work in – I have learnt that when you place students at the centre of all you do, you will always be walking in the right direction.

In the space of acceptance, and the space of understanding, and tolerance – ICS is a very strong school, one that really understands the word ‘community’ and intercultural identity. There has been a lot of work done in the place of acceptance for individual learning, and so everyone can reach their potential.

How would you characterise students graduating from ICS?

Without a doubt, they are globally minded, humble, and determined young people. They understand the strength they possess from the education they have experienced, and they drive with a quiet confidence towards creating change.

The school is in a wonderful position to really celebrate and propel exactly what society should replicate around notions of inclusivity and diversity, around tolerance and acceptance, and getting that right for young people from a very early age.

What would you say makes the learning environment of ICS extra special?

The notion of community, without a doubt, makes our school unique – and the learning environment safe and profound. It is not a token, or a motto – it is deeply engrained in our history.

ICS was built by families from all over the world, who wanted an English-speaking school for their children, as the world opened up in the 1960’s and 70’s. This foundation has placed us in good stead for the present as we continue to unite as a community centred on the uniqueness of every individual. 

Which features of the school do parents value the most?

Parents value the togetherness and sense of belonging, and the authenticity of our teachers. They understand that quality teaching is the key to success for our students, and they value the ethos of the school – that we pursue our passion, reach our potential, and live responsibly. This is a fundamental quality that is lived out every single day.

The parents understand that they are united with the commonality in learning, and having a common understanding. They accept the way we do things, because they understand the diversity of the group is based on the circumstances which brought them here.

When I have spoken with parents, even from the kindergarten years, they really understand and appreciate the richness of our curriculum, and the quality of the teachers we have.

Which other areas of education and extra-curricular activities would you like to develop?

We continue to refine our programmes, so that students can have as many opportunities as possible. We want to continue to develop our Athletics and Performance Arts programmes. 

Our Campus Hub is a new multi-million-dollar facility, which will accommodate both – and it’s an exciting development in the life of the school. It’s ultimately a building designed to enable freedom of movement, in an environment for teachers and students, it will become a cultural heartland – a centre for the whole school to be able to evolve, together.

The IB curriculum and including the student voice lends itself perfectly to building on the profile of understanding young people today. I think we have to be brave in education – step into the conversation around ‘woke’ and ‘cancel’ culture – these are the things young people are talking about, being able to have these conversations should be an expectation the students have of their educators.

What we do, what we think, what we challenge – can only be done from a place of understanding, and of knowledge; we owe this to our children, to provide for them the facts, and the support to understand those facts, free from judgement. 

What excites you about the prospect of leading an international school in Switzerland?

I am excited by the uniqueness of the school, and the strength of the student body. 

Leading a school whose foundation is steeped in learning and centred on the student, is an absolute privilege. I have said many times, the fact that our school is in Switzerland is a bonus – if you were to put this school in any country, you would know how unique and wonderful it is to work here, and I would feel just the same. 

What are the main trends in education that you’re seeing now?

I come from the most locked down place on earth, so I have a deep sense of understanding of the trauma that many children have endured during the pandemic. I wish I could say that we were in a post-COVID context, but we are not – we can’t live as freely as we did prior to COVID, but hopefully by the end of this year, we’ll have some sense of normality.

I think trends in education today are predominately dictated by what COVID has actually taught us, what really matters in education and that’s the human connection and using technology to support that connection; be it our wellbeing, our understanding of others and our acceptance of the unknown. 

I see a divergence – away from technology as teacher, to technology as a purposeful tool – and I am enthused by the way our teachers are understanding that the most powerful tool in the technological sphere is thought – teaching students to think is one, if not the, most important elements in education today. Applying this thinking in different contexts is the hallmark of ICS, from our local forest, to the glaciers around us, to the Research Garden on campus, how we think about our world, matters more now than it ever has before. 

I think the other space worthy of attention, and of critical importance to schools today, is policy. 

I see the necessity of policy in education, beginning to better define the responsibilities of schools to protect their communities, this is something COVID has taught us. 

How do you make the most of Switzerland, and what are your hobbies?

I’ve only lived here a short time, so I’ve not done too much – but I’m an avid paddle and snow boarder, and I know I’ve landed in the right country! There are times when the landscape truly takes your breath away, and I’m privileged to be here. 

I make the most of my weekends by travelling out to the mountains – to breathe in the air and find space. Fresh air, and time are two of the most important components in order to lead well. 

I love being with my family, we have always travelled and gone to different places, and we love spending time together. I don’t really talk about work at home, which is actually quite hard to do – because they all talk about what they’re doing, and I get to listen. They’re looking forward to seeing snow for the first time this year!

About Inter-Community School Zurich

ICS is committed to ‘whole child’ development, and provides a culture of learning, high expectations, and care. Their hard-earned reputation for outstanding teaching, pedagogical leadership, and student achievement is a testament to how the school is providing a nurturing environment, and a ticket to thrive.

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