Future School Leaders, Katie Williams

Katie Williams, is a Science Teacher, IB Careers Programme Coordinator and Head of the Urban Farming Programme at Fairgreen International School. Katie’s colleagues nominated her for WhichSchoolAdvisor.com’s Future School Leader interview series. Read on to find out why.
Future School Leaders, Katie Williams
By Jenny Mollon
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Katie Williams is in the midst of helping design Fairgreen International School’s IB Career and Diploma programmes , both of which are set to launch in September 2021. Her colleagues describe her as “incredibly passionate about [embedding into the curricula] our mission to promote sustainability and to teach students to be ambassadors for these ideals”.

Katie was a founding member of Fairgreen, while her husband, Adam, is a teacher at Dunecrest American School. We are told that, should you ask students who their favourite teachers are, Katie and Adam are usually the first names they say!

Katie, can you tell us about your career to date?

I’m from Colorado in the US, and my first experience of teaching was actually coaching softball!  I will never forget one young player who has having the hardest time figuring out how to hit the ball. After lots of perseverance and effort, there was this moment when it just clicked for him. It was such a wonderful moment for him…but also for me! I realised then that education was something I wanted to explore more.

I have a Master’s Degree in Science, Sport and Exercise Science from the University of Northern Colorado and I have now been lucky enough to teach in many different parts of the world, including Puerto Rico, China, the US and now the UAE.

When I first went in to teaching, I was working with students in the 4th and 5th Grade. As an elementary teacher I was teaching all subjects. Later, whilst teaching at Shanghai American School, my colleagues and I approached the Principal and asked if we could ‘departmentalise’, meaning that I would focus on teaching science and writing, and my colleague was would take math and reading. Having more of a focus on teaching science, allowed me to dig deeper into the subject and helped my students experience science on a deeper level.

A move to a school in Dubai gave me my first experience of teaching the IB curriculum. When ESOL opened Fairgreen International School, I saw it as a unique opportunity. I found the mission and vision of the school really inspiring! For me, the IB curriculum really fits in with my values around education, so it was like a fish finally finding water when I arrived at Fairgreen! I am now so excited to be introducing the IB Career related programme. Our unique programme, in partnership with the Sustainability Management School (SUMAS) from Switzerland, combines and makes use of this fantastic location we have in Sustainable City with the school's complete focus on sustainability.

Katie leads a rooftop yoga session at Fairgreen International School

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

I think the main thing is that I am a solution-based problem solver, and as a relatively new school, that is something that people find really valuable! I can give you some examples…When Fairgreen first opened, we had all these resources and boxes and we were trying to figure out how we were going to use it in the best way possible. I took responsibility for learning how to use the urban farming equipment – things like our tower gardens and mobile kitchen. I also asked if I could do a professional development session for the teachers, where I rolled out the kitchen and made mint lemonade and caprese salad all from produce grown in our garden. Really, it was about looking at our amazing resources and finding the best ways to make them come to life for our students. This year, I’ve created a rooftop garden at the school. Due to the Covid regulations, students are in their classrooms a lot, because they can’t move around like they normally would, they can’t interact with other age groups and we are not allowed to leave campus. Last year we were able to go off into Sustainable City to use the bio domes and the gardens but this year we needed to innovate.

One of the great things about the Fairgreen community is that when you put things out there, people really get behind you. So, when I said I wanted to start the rooftop garden, the people at Sustainable City offered to come in and build the garden beds and our families donated tyres and shovels and seeds. It was a full community effort, and now we have this rooftop space that grows cucumbers, peas, tomatoes and more. I even did a yoga session with Grade 10 up there! It’s really turned into this space that all our children, of all ages can use.

Katie and her students, hard at work in the new Fairgreen International School rooftop garden

Why teach in the UAE?

One of the things that I really like about the UAE is the constant focus on innovation. I mean, look at the Mars Hope Probe project! This country is really getting behind sustainable innovation like urban farming, and the green economy.

Another thing that I really value about teaching here is that as part of the KHDA inspection process, schools are asked to look at gender bias. So, when we look at progress, we are asked to look at whether there is a disparity between the girls and the boys. This really helps schools and teachers to teach in an as unbiased a manner as possible.

Lastly, I appreciate all of the Covid safety precautions in place in the UAE. It is amazing that we have been able to be in school, in person for so long when other parts of the world have not managed that. Not only do the authorities put these regulations in place, they continue to check and make sure that schools are complying with them, whereas if we were in other parts of the world, I know I wouldn’t feel nearly as safe in a classroom. Teaching right now is definitely a bit weird and there are some things we can’t do they way we would like to as a teacher, but at least we are with our students in person – I am so grateful for that!

Do you think that teaching in the UAE has changed the direction of your career?

Yes and no! No in that I would be in education no matter what, and I would be focussing on Sciences no matter what, because it’s just what I was meant to do.

As far as being involved with introducing the IB CP programme, I feel that that was something where the stars just aligned in the way that it worked out for me! I happen to be starting a programme in a school where the mission and vision is focussed around sustainability, in partnership with SUMAS who have their own focus on Sustainability Management. Plus, look at where we are located. Our school has so many wonderful things right on our doorstep! Have all those things come together is very rare, and I am very fortunate.

Katie, you are CP Co-ordinator at Fairgreen International School. How do you see vocational education evolving in the UAE in the coming years?

Vocational education is beginning to flourish in the UAE. The career related study programme is the newest part of the IB programme, and I think that reflects that globally there is this greater appreciation of learning outside of traditional education. For me, it goes back to that idea of the UAE being focussed on innovation…innovative courses help students develop those critical thinking skills, skills that really benefit them in the school and in university, but also outside learning and in the workplace.

BTEC has been around a long time, but this is the first time that the SUMAS programme is going to be offered here in Dubai. All in all, it’s great that students are going to be offered more opportunities to follow their passions, their talents and their interests. Ultimately, it’s about having students leave school with a confidence and an empowerment to be the best version of themselves and having a variety of pathways open to students helps this to happen.

What do you think is different for your generation of teachers?

I almost feel like that this question can be answered differently pre Covid and post Covid! Because Covid changed everything for everybody, no matter what generation of teacher you are. In the last year and a half, we have all had to learn how to teach virtually and in the classroom (and also to do both at the same time!) that is quite a challenge! It goes back to what we want for our students too – to be flexible, to be dynamic and to be creative critical thinkers. That is what teachers have had to do on a higher level since the pandemic.

What advice do you have for new teachers?

I think just to take a deep breath! Breathe! As long as you are trying to do what is best for the students, you will be doing enough of it right. You will make mistakes, we all do, just like our students make mistakes. It is ok. We are all trying to figure out what our students need, and we just make adjustments as we go along. As an industry, we are all figuring it out together.

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