Meet The New Head at AIS

WhichSchoolAdvisor meets Anita Simpson, who joins the American International School (AIS) in August 2019 as head of school.
Meet The New Head at AIS
By Carli Allan
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American International School (AIS) enters a new era for the start of the 2019-20 academic year. Anita Simpson steps into the role of head of school, replacing long-serving Cameron Fox who has been at the helm for the past 19 years. It’s an exciting move overseas for Canadian-born Simpson who has spent the past two years at GEMS Dubai American Academy (DAA) in the UAE. But while the country may be new to Simpson, the focus on an American education is not.

Simpson has more than 15 years’ experience in school leadership from KG to Grade 12, each offering a wide range of American and Canadian curricula and programmes including AP and the IB programme. One of her key achievements has been to receive the ORION Leadership Award for Innovation in Education in 2017, which recognised her work in leading innovative blended learning.

WhichSchoolAdvisor speaks to Simpson about why student diversity matters, what makes the US curriculum so appealing, and how her previous career in the arts has given her the empathy to teach.

Read our review of the American International School (AIS) here.


American International School, Hong Kong

You’ve spent the past two years at GEMS DAA where you have been leading the amalgamation of two elementary schools into a new, purpose-built campus. Why have you decided to move from the UAE to Hong Kong, and what attracted you to AIS?

Hong Kong and South East Asia as a whole are a desirable choice for many educators in the world for a variety of reasons, ranging from the culture and climate to the value that they place on education and study.

Why AIS? Well, this school has so many features that I found attractive. For example, they are the first school in the world to use the world ‘love’ in their core values, alongside justice and knowledge. As an educator, I feel that relationships are at the centre of learning and that children who feel loved and cared for can learn; otherwise it can be a challenge. I found that really powerful and I was immediately curious to know more about this school. Then, when I visited AIS, I could see the manifestation of these core values in the culture of the campus.

AIS talks about offering a truly wrap-around education. As well as valuing the academics, it offers a large number of activities that focus on the arts, athletics and everything else that makes us human and ‘whole’. There is a lovely balance here.

Cameron Fox has described you as a “proven educational leader, award-winning innovator, and experienced international educator”, and your previous roles in the UAE and Canada range from vice principal and principal to arts consultant and superintendent of program and innovation. How has your past experience equipped you for this new role at AIS?

I previously looked after 107 schools in Ontario, both primary and secondary, for seven years prior to coming to GEMS, and I’ve been a principal of every division. It’s such privilege to become head of school at AIS, and to be given the opportunity to set the vision, the tone and the direction of the school. There’s a saying that ‘when the principal sneezes, everyone catches a cold’. I know just how important this role is for fostering a collaborative culture and making a school a place that students, parents and staff want to come into every day. I also fully understand that if your teachers are happy then your students are happy, because teachers create the weather in every classroom

The training and skills that I bring are centred on the heart, such as restorative practices. We look at poor choices as opportunities to learn rather than opportunities to punish. We try to make it right and say, ‘you are not a bad person, you made a bad choice’.

Prior to teaching, you performed for seven years in film, stage, television and radio after graduating from the National Theatre School of Canada. How has this experience in the arts helped to shape you as an educator?

I come from a background in the arts but there’s also a very academically rigorous part of me. What it means is that I come in as an educator with heart. Part of that heart was brought on through acting – through growing empathy for others and being asked to put myself in someone else’s shoes and look at the world from a different perspective. It means that I really care about the child as a whole.

How do you plan to spend your first year as head of school at AIS?

There’s a lot of listening and learning in that first year. I’m very mindful that AIS has had a fantastic leader for the past 19 years so there are big shoes to fill. I will focus on getting to know student leaders, staff and parents and understanding what they value – and what must continue.

Conversations are the cornerstone of relationships, so I’ll be doing a lot of listening in the first few weeks by meeting with people who have made the school what it is. This school is working beautifully so it’s more about how can I grow the good things that the school already has, rather than how can I repair something.

The UAE has the second largest international schools market in the world, and now you’re moving to Hong Kong where AIS is one of more than 50 international schools. What has your time at GEMS DAA taught you about the international schools’ sector?

I now understand that the diversity of the student body and the parent community is such a rich resource to an international school. Fostering, sharing and celebrating that diversity is something that we’ve done at GEMS, and I’m looking forward to finding out how to grow that sharing amongst students and families because we’re better and richer when we work together.

You’re moving from one international American school to another, both of which have a very international student body. With more than 800 students from over 30 countries, only 13% of students at AIS are in American and other nationalities include Hong Kong, South Korea and China. What is the appeal of the US curriculum to expat students?

Parents know that the US curriculum brings with it many opportunities for when their child finishes their Grade 12 education. There’s also a wholeness about an American education which, for example, values creativity in the arts and innovation. It teaches them the ability to thrive in adverse circumstances, and parents want their children exposed to that. They don’t want their children to be equipped with skills and knowledge that won’t set them up for success in terms of their life beyond school.

Founded more than 30 years ago, AIS is one of Hong Kong’s most well-established schools. Do you feel the school is moving with the times to deliver a forward-thinking education?

Absolutely! AIS has redeveloped its classrooms so that they look more like Starbucks-style collaborative spaces rather than the typical rows of desks. Also, AIS has created really unique learning opportunities for students to work with others on week-long projects that solve real-life challenges, which benefit both the school and the wider community. Skills that future-proof your children involve communication, collaboration, creativity and problem-solving – and you don’t develop those skills if you’re sitting in a little bubble at your own desk.

And finally! What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I’ll be exploring Hong Kong as it will be my new backyard, and I want to learn about the people and the culture – and enjoy the food!

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