Future School Leaders, Ben Cooper

Ben Cooper has recently been appointed Primary Principal at GEMS Wellington Academy - Al Khail. An award-winning teacher, with a passion for teaching and learning, Ben shares his knowledge and ideas with other teachers worldwide via his popular blog and YouTube videos.
This article is part of an editorial series on Future School Leaders
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This article is part of an editorial series on Future School Leaders

Ben Cooper leads the primary school at GEMS Wellington Academy Al Khail. Alongside his busy career, Mr Cooper commits his spare time to sharing his skills, knowledge and ideas with teachers around the world via his blog and YouTube channel. We interviewed him to find out more.

Mr Cooper, you are primary specialist, but do you have an ambition to run an all through school one day?

Yes definitely! Not too soon, as I want to develop my experience in terms of being a primary principal but in the future, it is something I would like to look in to.

Primary and secondary teachers can learn a lot from each other, and all through schools are a great way to facilitate that. In primary, the pedagogy is very much around child development, child psychology and classroom management, whereas in secondary those teachers are subject specialists first before their teacher training. They develop different skills but there as so many ways in which we can help one another.

Why do you think you were nominated as a Future School Leader?

Well first of all, I’ve been at GEMS Wellington Academy Al Khail for seven years so I know the school exceptionally well…in fact, they were still putting windows in the classrooms when I first arrived!

When I was back in the UK I set up a website in my spare time. It started as a literacy website as I was writing lots of short stories to inspire my Year 6 class. I began by sharing the stories and resources online and writing a blog to go along with them. The blog quickly became more popular than the resources!

The blog then evolved into something called WAGOLL Teaching. WAGOLL stands for “What A Good One Looks Like”, so it’s simply a very good example of something. The main aim of the site is to share short simple videos, blogs and content that gives teachers quick ideas to take into the classroom. A teacher’s workload can be unbelievable at times, and sometimes the thing that gets dropped is professional development, which is bizarre considering we are the educationalists!

WAGOLL Teaching works as it allows teachers to see simple ideas in short snippets, usually 5-10 minute videos. Conventional training courses can day a full day or afternoon, and often deliver big ideas that take a lot of time to implement. With this, you can take something small and just give it a try.

Who or what inspired you to become a teacher?

I think I can put it down to two of my teachers. Mr Oates was one of my primary teachers and my first ever male teacher. I just remember having a really good time in his class and being impressed that he was a male teacher. My Mum would always say that I wanted to be a teacher from that point on.

At secondary school, I wasn’t that strong in English to begin with. One Year 10 teacher, Miss Barker just brought literacy to life and changed how I felt about reading. Before her, I didn’t read much at all, but that changed totally from Year 10.

Why teach in the UAE?

I have loved learning about the culture here and the experience of working in an international school with 80+ nationalities. I have learnt so much about the Islamic faith and how different cultures can work alongside one another.

I think I have also really enjoyed the amazing school facilities here! I was in an old Victorian building back in Manchester and things like technological resources could be quite limited. Here, the facilities and resources have allowed me to express myself more as a teacher, in terms of my passions for technology, creativity and giving children lots of opportunity.

What are the challenges of working in the UAE?

One thing that has been hard over the past two years is being away from our family support network. I am lucky to have my wife and family here, but I feel for the young, single expat teachers. At schools at home, you don’t need as much support as we all have our private support networks. As an expat teacher there’s a different dynamic in terms of your own wellbeing. The school becomes your support network.

Ben Cooper, GEMS Wellington Al Khail

Has coming to the UAE changed you as a teacher?

Being here has made me more aware of different viewpoints in education. I trained in the UK where there is one culture of education and everyone pretty much believes in doing things a certain way. Here, there are lots of different nationalities and cultures who all view education in slightly different ways. It’s not that any-one group is right or wrong, but trying to incorporate all the viewpoints in one education institution can be challenging.

Home learning is a good example of this! We find that some parents want no home learning at all, whilst others want all the home learning! We have developed a flexible model where families can pick and choose what they want to do and what fits in with their family life. Overall, it’s been enjoyable to see things from a different perspective.

What is different for your generation of teachers?

Of course, the use of technology stands out. Back in the 1980s a school would have computer, which you got to go on for a few minutes if you were good! Now technology is a huge part of education and one which we have to continually work to find a balance in to make sure it doesn’t replace other types of important learning.

This year, our entire leadership team has been working on a project around the science of learning, based upon neuroscience and how the brain learns best. What has been fascinating to see is that this study tells us that some of the most effective learning strategies are in fact some of the simplest. Some initiatives have been in classes as far back as the 1990s…at the time teachers knew it worked, but weren’t sure why. Now, we can see the research to prove the theories. We find ourselves going back to some strategies that were seen as outdated, but actually they now coming back full circle into the classroom.

What advice do you have for the next generation of teachers, especially those embarking on a career in the UAE?

Be prepared to work hard! There’s no getting around it. I think there is a misconception that you come to work abroad internationally and it's easier…it’s not! I think you work harder here, but for all the right reasons. It can take more time to think about the using the facilities, resources and technology you have got. Other than that, I would just say – embrace it all! Embrace the challenges and opportunities alike.

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