All posts by Proserpina Dhlamini-Fisher

Proserpina Dhlamini-Fisher is the Founding CEO of Educational Aspirations Ltd, a Global Educational Consultancy. She has studied and worked in international schools and organisations (IBO and UWCI) in Eswatini, USA, France, South Africa, Switzerland, Germany, Dubai and the UK in diverse roles. She is passionate about cultural diversity, teaching and learning, inclusion as well as leadership in international education. She is an advocate for student and teacher agency and shares her thoughts and her experiences as an African female school leader and educator in the international and global educational space. She is interested in the historical development of international education and the place people of colour hold in these institutions in the 21st century.

Racism alive in 2020- As school leaders what are the lessons we are teaching our international school communities?

As the sun goes down in beautiful Surrey tonight, tensions are high in my multi cultural household of 3 people. A caucasiian husband, african black mother and a biracial child who identifies strongly with both cultures, and is comfortable with who she is. We are all processing the events of the past week from our individual perspectives as well as the family collective ones. Some conversations have been safe and exploratory whilst others have been heated and unforgiving. Our daughter is an activist on social media with very strong opinions on social injustice and is feeling that it is a wee bit too late for big corporations to be making statements of support, she is asking what exactly they are doing about it besides making a public statement for positive publicity. How will their actions actually make a difference to how black people continue to be treated in this world?

As an active and vocal international educator who has for years tried to make other international educators understand and be conscious of the discrimination people of colour contnue to experience in recruitment practices from recruiters, school boards of directors and school leaders; with one breadth, I am grateful that the conversation has been forced upon us by the recent events in Minneapolis , and I am saddened that in 2020, little has changed in this space. Racism is alive and bubbling and it continues to be systematic. I am grateful that those that have been silent all these years can no longer continue in their ignorance and discomfort and that they are being forced to delve deeply into their consciousness and reflect on what they can do to change practices, understandings and perceptions of white privilege and how they can support others.

Our role as international educators has never been more important as it is today. We have a moral duty to all our students to model leadership as activists and also build community, love, empathy, respect, understanding and all soft skills that will open the door for better communication and collaboration access for all cultures, races and peoples.

What is sad? I have not seen any statement from international schools or recruiters, making a stand against racism especially as many of our students globally are affected by what has happened in recent days.

Passport – race – accent – inequality- culture -black lives matter – people of colour – international mindedness – diversity – white privilege – implicit biases.


School leadership during Covid-19 – what does it actually mean?

I am always fascinated by the interpretation of this role across the world, and what different school boards identify as priority when they are recruiting a new head. I say this because I have experienced serving with several school heads who were totally different in role and personality and influenced the school in diverse ways. This got me thinking about the reality of the expectations of this role and the pressure put on some heads to produce totally unrealistic outcomes. My father was a school head in several schools and he always told me that his role consisted of 80% of skills he did not train for but embraced. I am told he was successful, and have heard that results in his school were excellent. Over the years, I have come across people my father taught (he was also a teaching head) who say thank you because he believed in them and pushed them to do great things and that is why they were what they had become professionally today. I have never spoken to any of the teachers who worked in his schools, but at least I do have anecdotal stories from his students. One of his dearest students spoke at his funeral, representing many generations of students he had taught and led, which was touching, especially as I was by then an educator myself.

I do enjoy reading about school leadership and what it means to the different authors that write about it, but I have always found that it is much more telling to speak with the students, staff and the parents about what their expectations are of a head of school, and many a time, we realise that these expectations are attainable if sometimes unreasonable, but usually very different from what the board expects. Bravo to the schools that have finally separated the role of the Operations Director and that of the school Director/Head, allowing the latter to focus on all things truly educational.
We all know that not all heads of school are business minded, get excited about building projects, are fundraisers and quite a few are not even the best recruiters. But for some reason, in this wonderful world of ours in international education, we seem to expect these people to be at the door to meet the students every morning, inspire the teachers with the latest educational best practice, visit classrooms frequently, hire excellent teachers who never complain and smile all the time, hold coffee mornings with parents and reassure them that their children are in good hands and well behaved, make important financial decisions that save the board of governors loads of money, ensure successful accreditations and inspections and still know all the students, parents, teaching and non teaching staff by their first names, no matter how big the school.
We also have very high standards for these leaders, and want them to be able to inspire, communicate, collaborate, ooze positive energy, be resilient, be great listeners, be willing to be lifelong learners, empathetic, be servant leaders, highly intelligent, finance savvy and of course think on their feet when an emergency lands on their feet.

Although different school leaders and boards reacted differently to our current situation with Covid-19, the most reassuring action I saw was that our school leaders were able to accept that they did not have to know everything and they did not have all the answers. They were working on solutions and focusing on students and teachers to ensure a continuity of learning for their students, and over and over again, we saw them sharing ideas, supporting each other, listening, encouraging, reacting, being risk takers and basically entering the unknown and trusting that the educators in their schools would do the right thing by their students, they had to let go. This I believe was the toughest test yet for our international school leadership and even though we do not know what the future truly holds, we have students, teachers and parents who got on with the new reality.

Life did continue and what happened to the role was a big reset and paradigm shift into understanding that in school leadership it is important to be informed, curious, aware, flexible, appreciative and be ready for the unknown because even the best risk management policy won’t prepare you fully for what you have never seen. I have already started seeing offers of new School Leadership courses as a reaction to the pandemic and all I can say is, school leadership is definitely not for the light hearted soul. Praise also to our school leaders’ leadership! I look forward to learning and reading more about school leadership during and after Covid-19 and possibly seeing some new traits and styles in that leadership.

Home schooling, virtual learning, blended learning… what are we actually doing?

The reality of the past few months is that we were all propelled into a new world and forced to react and act all at the same time. Governments made decisions about schools and schooling with assumptions that many schools were already operating in the 21st century, so would be ready for what we have been saying for many years, …’the unknown.’ But the reality was that in our educational space, we needed very strong and calm leaders who were going to take school leadership to the next level by changing the one ‘modus operandi’ we have all known since our very own experiences at school.

As schools closed across the globe, we spoke of virtual learning, and as this started unfolding, we realised that depending on where the school was, what resources it had, the demographics of the stakeholders, this virtual learning was definitely not going to be a similar experience for all students forced to stay at home, and definitely not all age groups . Our reality was that we were on the cusp of entering true 21st century style learning where we were using the 21st century skills on a daily basis, or we could have been a disaster waiting to happen.

SEN educators were forced to definitely think out of the box about supporting those students remotely at home who struggle to concentrate in class, never mind on their own in front of a screen. Schools had to have solid plans to improve on and yet consider the fact that there are still many children who do not have gadgets at home, have to share them, and might just not have a space to actually work constructively. In some developing countries, lessons were conducted over the radio and on TV.

As we reacted as educators, we did not really consider our own well being and that of our teachers who were also in a state of shock, wherever they were, and how this change would also affect them; how they work, discover their flexibility, creativity, strengths and confidence, using IT to teach on a daily basis and how they were going to take care of themselves and their loved ones. Overnight, home, work and school became one bog blended blur.

Most parents interpreted this whole process as ‘home schooling’, and were petrified that they were not prepared, were they expected to teach the children or just to set up a space for them to communicate with their teachers. They now had their children home 24/7, no real breaks and had to be both ‘good cop and bad cop’, just to try and keep the peace in the house. They were now parents, teachers, principal, playground monitors, cafeteria staff, extra curricula supervisors and much more. Worries about delivering work for some from the non existent home-office, keeping kids on the straight and narrow, remembering to remove your pyjama tops before a Zoom call and carrying on like a ‘normal ‘human being seemed to get more and more remote with each passing day. Yet we all had to continue in our new norm and do the best we could with what we had.

Pamoja, an online learning platform in partnership with the IB has been offering IBDP courses online for several years now. One thing that was obvious from the onset was that not all students in the IBDP were eligible candidates for an independent online course, so schools had to create eligibility plans so that those students who studied a course through Pamoja would be successful. This has definitely worked in most cases, but the reality of it is that not all students and teachers actually enjoy this virtual learning and are able to stay focused, creative, engaged and excited for the duration.

Most schools have had to use blended learning and the diverse tools and times available to enable contact time ( with time differences to be considered for international schools), independent learning and discovery, as well as some interaction by students in smaller groups. Applications such as Kahoot and others have probably played a more prominent role than in the past. The actual classroom this time has been the gadget being used and monitoring continues to be sketchy.

A mother from my previous school reached out to me last week to say she needed to talk urgently. We arranged a Zoom meeting with her and her 3 children aged between 12 and 17 years old, and they all confused to being frustrated and bored. What started out as maybe an interesting adventure was now monotonous and the children were missing socialising with their friends and that human interaction. I asked about the lessons, and the students said they were ok, but they still missed their friends. I realised that this was surely more about the ‘cabin fever’ rather than the quality of lessons offered. They were going through the slump like the rest of us and were tired. They wanted their routine back, and this new life was creating frustration and anger. I was honoured that she felt that I could change the world from my little corner in Surrey, but I did remind them all that they were doing great and had responded to the unknown very well and that there will still be changes and challenges in the next year and probably more. I did emphasize that none of us have experienced this before and we are all doing the best we can, but it was important to take care of each other, ensure that everyone is responsible for each other’s wellness and that there will be good and bad days. I ended by telling them that they needed to remember that the whole world is going through the same thing and it is an unknown enemy that we are fighting and change was inevitable, and will continue to be so for many years to come. We are making history!

For some strange reason, they all seemed reassured and actually waved goodbye enthusiastically at the end of the call.

Whilst on Lockdown – praise to the educators!

Whilst on lockdown.. Hail and praise be to all Educators!

No one would have ever believed that in 2020 we would be globally fighting an invisible enemy that would bring schools as we know them to a standstill and would force us to come together and really bring 21st century thinking skills to life. As an educator, I have been part of a school of thought that was making noise about the need to act and stop talking about changing our educational space. Before I knew what had happened, it had happened. I am the first to raise my hand and say that I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was and I was still going about my business visiting schools, operating in 20th century mode. Now all that has changed of course, forcing me to go back to the original thoughts of differentiating between education, teaching and learning and schools.

There has been an automatic synergy between these concepts for the longest time, but the reality today is that we are now forced to think differently in international and national education, and accept that how we run schools (‘an institution (physical) at which instruction is given’..Oxford) is not sustainable and really relevant to our current lives.

Enter virtual education. Praise be to all school leaders and teachers who were able to organise themselves as everyone reacted to the pandemic that was forcing us to stay at home and operate differently for our own safety. Teachers, parents and children have had the opportunity to continue teaching and learning through whatever gadgets and means they have at home and were forced to use most elements of the 21st century skills such as: Learning and Innovation; Digital Literacy and Career and Life. But the key words here,no matter our age, are that we were all forced to learn together and act immediately to ensure that learning was continuing.

And lessons for school leaders? You have been forced to be fast thinking and visionary, flexible and trusting of your teaching staff and to believe that most if not all your teachers want the best for their students. Virtual school communities should be about learning and output and not what you can see. It should be about space to make mistakes and to try again. It should be about celebrating small successes and not looking to point out failures because right now, no one is failing and everyone is trying to do the best they can with what they have. What happened to the Growth Mindset? We are all required to be creative, think out of the box and on our feet, carry on living, and try and explain to ourselves first, what we think is happening, and then to make a serious effort to understand it and the most difficult is to explain it to those we are leading in a way that it makes sense, without showing our fears and insecurities. While all this is happening, we also have to consider the wellbeing of ourselves and our families. International educators are spread all over the world, far away from their families and holding on to dear life to the school family that they have and can only be in touch with virtually. This is probably the toughest challenge for our school leaders on the ground as you are required to show your leadership not only to your teachers, but to the students, parents, board of governors and your non teaching staff as they all look to you for answers you probably don’t have yet, especially about next steps and the future. You as the school leaders need to stand strong with your leadership team to ensure calm, continuity and trust. You need to show strength and commitment and most importantly support and honesty at this time. You have taken the baton to show respect, authenticity, empathy, care and be eloquent communicators at this time.

How will we survive this onslaught into what we thought we knew about education? The answer is we don’t really know because as we were forced to react and put contingency plans in place, we don’t know how long it will last and if we will be opening our physical schools or not in the fall of 2020.

But the most important questions to ask ourselves are: how relevant was/is our education yesterday, today and tomorrow? What do we really mean when we talk about education? What do we want to achieve and how formal and structured does it have to be? Are we assessing learning in the best possible way, or are we still confined to assessing learning in more traditional ways?. After our present experience, how will we collaborate as a global society to educate our students in more meaningful and practical ways to truly prepare them for a tomorrow that is not guaranteed and most importantly, unknown? What will have changed when we think of education when we return to our school buildings?

Hail and Praise be to all educators!!