A School's Perspective: Preparing for the Big First Day

A School's Perspective: Preparing for the Big First Day
By C Hoppe
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While many of us will spend the next ten days dashing between uniform suppliers and stationary shops, spare a thought for the many UAE principals who are right now, preparing their schools (some for the very first time)- for the start of a new school year.

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com caught up with Sasha Crabb, Principal at Victory Heights Primary School,  Beat Sommer, Head of School at Swiss International Scientific School Dubai, Jennifer Stephen Executive Director at Hartland International School, and Christopher John Mcdermott, Principal/ CEO of GEMS International School Al Khail to see just how they’re preparing for the BIG first day.


What in your view is the role of principal in the final preparations before school begins?

Sasha: To ensure that all staff are clear about the main aims for the school year, while motivating and inspiring the team so that they can use their renewed energy after the summer holidays smartly.

Beat: Making sure all the details fall into place!

Jennifer: The Principal is like the swan parading serenely over the lake with its legs pounding away beneath. The final weeks of the summer holiday are frantically busy for a Principal. New staff has to be welcomed and made to feel a part of the team, results have to be examined, any necessary lessons from them learnt and promulgated to staff, targets set for the year and the content of that crucial first staff meeting and first assembly decided upon and written – these meetings can set the tone for the year. There are always a host of recruitment and pupil number issues at the start of a term: people who find themselves posted at a moment’s notice abroad, and are desperate to find a place for their child, and the reverse – the family who suddenly find they have to move and need both advice and their existing school’s help in finding a new school. Then there are staff who have a last-minute change of heart about the job they’ve accepted. And in a school that is opening for the first time, as with Hartland International, everything is new and has to be tested and, if needs be, changed.

Christopher: To ensure that he or she has overseen that everything is in place regarding the induction of new teachers and the preparation of returning teachers. This includes a huge number of things, including meeting people from the airport, preparing accommodation, and ensuring that teachers are clear about expectations when school starts. In terms of parents and students, messages have to go out so that it is understood when people should arrive and what they need to have with them!

What are your primary objectives in the final two weeks before school starts?

Sasha: That classrooms are well organised and inviting .Existing parents are clearly informed about any back to school arrangements and new families are aware of practicalities. And, obviously to ensure that all of the Victory Heights the team are informed on the road map ahead.

Beat: Coordinating, checking and making sure preparations run on time. Ensuring all new staff are ready and comfortable, and building relationships amongst teaching and administrative staff.

Jennifer: The prime objective is to ensure that the first day of term sends every pupil home happy and tired, excited by the challenges ahead but reassured that their school will help them meet those challenges.

Christopher: Two things:

  1. A happy and focused staff.
  2. Clarity of objectives for all the school community - this is our school, this is what we stand for and this is how we shall set about achieving it.

Tell us about the arrival/orientation of any new teachers?

 Sasha: Our new teachers will be arriving a week before all the staff return so as to get settled into their apartments and orientate themselves around Dubai . They will meet with the leadership team and start getting to know their new extended school family.

Beat: At The Swiss International Scientific School Dubai we’ve been welcoming teachers since the beginning of August to give them two weeks to nest and find their feet in Dubai- familiarising themselves with their surroundings. Official induction starts two weeks prior to the start of the school year. All teachers will be thoroughly induced to our school, our philosophy and values, the academic programme, our IT systems, but also to Dubai, the UAE culture and Islamic heritage.

Jennifer: Hartland is a start-up school, so the orientation (we call it Induction) is even more important for us. We take three weeks over it, and contents of our induction range from talks on Arabian culture to an introduction to the Hartland Gifted and Talented programme. But most of all, we want to make staff feel part of the team, that they really are listened to and know and understand the Hartland Way.

Christopher: All new teachers are met from the airport. We make sure that they are happy and settled as this will ensure a positive start to the school year for all. There is an orientation programme of one week for the new teachers by themselves and a further week for the new teachers and the returning teachers, making two weeks in total for the new teachers. Orientation focuses on ethos, systems and expectations as well as ensuring that those new to the country have a good understanding of local culture and expectations.

Tell us about the preparation of your facilities?

Sasha: At Victory Heights Primary School we are really excited that our new phase 2 block is opening with a huge gym, massive library, two new year groups admin block and science lab .We are also really looking forward to unveiling our new Foundation Stage 1 block. Fresh paint and maintenance will also ensure that the whole school is looking tip top!

Beat: Since completion of the Swiss International Scientific School Dubai- school building, more than 20 different suppliers have been installing their equipment (everything from IT and security systems, to canteen material and furniture). All equipment has to be ready to be used by the time the school opens in the end of August. Final fine-tuning of our sports facilities and the playgrounds has also been made.

Jennifer: All our facilities are new! We think we have buildings that are among the most stunning in Dubai, and intend to do them full justice.

Christopher: Work is always being done. This summer, for example, we have re-configured the location of offices in the school and re-laid some new astro-turf, in addition to removing a school generator. The preparation of existing facilities such as the library and classrooms are ongoing in the weeks leading up to the start of term with new resources allocated and all rooms refreshed and ready for the arrival of the children.


What are your teachers currently working on?

Sasha: Preparing their classrooms, planning from key objectives and reviewing transition information.

Beat: Preparing classrooms with supplies ordered, reviewing student files, training on new software, collaboratively planning, developing their shared understanding of the IB PYP, team building, learning the local culture, meeting parents with special needs students in advance, organizing their personal lives (housing, visa, etc.).

Jennifer: You name it, they’re working on it, from setting up their school Ipads and their classrooms, to looking at their teaching programmes and doing lesson plans. They’re also opting for what they want to contribute to what used to be called extra-curricular activities, but what we call co-curricular, because we believe they’re equally important with what goes on in the classroom. Senior staff are helping the new staff to settle in; new staff members are working at learning the culture of their new school. In established schools, staff should also be going through their results and seeing what they can learn from them, as well as the pupils.

Christopher: Mainly planning and preparation, ready for the busy term ahead, but also reminding ourselves of the systems that we follow and our Mission and Vision for the school and for our organisation. In general , teachers like as much time as possible to get their classrooms teaching and learning environments prepared.

What in your view, is the perfect ‘first-day?’

Sasha: That the children and parents leave the school smiling.

Beat: A celebration of the community (staff, parents, students) with motivated students and parents with happy faces.

Jennifer: It’s the first day when every teacher and every pupil turn up in good time, the IT network works perfectly, there is no gridlock on the Dubai roads, all the photocopiers work perfectly as does the air conditioning and every piece of machinery in school, there isn’t a power failure in the canteen an hour before lunch, and all the supplies ordered over the holiday prove to have turned up in boxes that actually contain what they say they do. Every child is picked up in good time, none of them have cried during the day or felt ill or sick, and none of them have lost a piece of equipment or an item of uniform. And, of course, none of them have fallen over in the playground, and none of the new pupils have got lost. That’s the perfect first day. And I defy anyone to say it’s ever actually happened.

Christopher: It is a day full of smiles and welcomes. For those little ones attending school for the first time, a day when there are some tears as parents wave goodbye to their child for a few hours for the first time, but a day filled with excitement for the children themselves as they start their educational journey; it is a day sometimes of slight nervousness that all will feel but undoubtedly, it is always a day that by its end, is transformed by feelings of happiness, achievement and promising anticipation for the days and weeks ahead.

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