Inspiring Women in Education, Dr Saima Rana

Dr Saima Rana is the newly appointed Principal-CEO of GEMS World Academy, Dubai. She is also Chief Education Ambassador for the Varkey Foundation and one of WhichSchoolAdvisor.com’s Inspiring Women in Education.
This article is part of an editorial series on Inspiring Women in Education
Inspiring Women in Education
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Inspiring Women in Education
This article is part of an editorial series on Inspiring Women in Education

Dr Saima Rana, the newly appointed Principal-CEO of GEMS World Academy, Dubai, is also Chief Education Ambassador for the Varkey Foundation. Today she adds entry onto WhichSchoolAdvisor.com’s list of Inspiring Women in Education. Her journey to this point has, however, not all been easy, and has been marked by hard work and perseverance, fuelled by a love of what she does. So we began by asking Dr Rana: Who or what inspired you to become an educator?

I think about this quite often, and honestly, it is simple, it was the wonderful teachers that I had.

I grew up in a very multi-cultural part of West London. There were lots of things that weren’t easy in a place like West London, 30 years ago. Growing up, I saw how my teachers helped communities, helped children and helped parents. I wanted to be a part of that.   My views on the importance of education haven’t changed. My vision of a school is that of a place in the community where religion happens, where love happens and where learning happens.

Ultimately, I wanted to become a teacher because I thought it was one way in which I could change the world!

As a child, I loved reading and learning about philosophers like Aristotle and Confucius…for me these were people who had incredible knowledge. I wanted to have knowledge and to share knowledge with others.  

Was Education the only career you considered?

[Laughing!] Well, when I was very young, I wanted to be a spy! My parents wanted me to be a doctor but, once I had got past the spy thing, it was only education for me. I knew it was where I could have an impact and make a difference to other people’s lives.


Dr Saima Rana greets her new students, 2020 style!

Dr Rana, tell us about your career until now?

I started off my career in a secondary school in a less prosperous area of West London. From the first moment, I absolutely fell in love with the community, with the curriculum and with the school. I just knew, the minute I stepped in to that classroom that I was born for this. Teaching is the best job on the planet! That first school quickly helped me to see the power of young children going to university. When I say that, I mean not the first in their family, but often the first in any of the generations of their family to have gone to college, let alone university. Right before my eyes it was evidence of the life changing power that education has.

I stayed at that wonderful school for several years and I was quickly promoted into leadership. Those promotions came on the back of working really hard. Over time, I have come to accept that I just won’t apologise for working hard (and I used to when I was younger!). The harder I worked, the more successful I became and the more successful my students. Hard work became my recipe of success.

Later, what I wanted to do was to really understand how education worked in the United Kingdom. I knew how the school system worked, but I didn’t quite understand how the bigger picture worked, so I was very lucky to land myself an outstanding job with Cambridge Education, working as a School Improvement Officer and Consultant. It was an amazing, amazing experience. I worked in pupil referral units, in hospital schools, I worked in primary schools, secondary schools, free schools. I saw a whole array of challenges that children have to face. When you watch children who are terminally ill, preparing for their GCSEs…well, that it does something to you...it changes you.

The role also saw me working as someone who helped to design schools, to help improve the infrastructure of schools and of course improve the educational provision. I loved that job, but eventually I was seconded as a Deputy Head Teacher in one of the schools I was working with. This was great because in every step of my career I have wanted to make sure I remain connected with the classroom.

Later, I moved to a school in Westminster, London. And…oh! I just fell in love when I walked in. There was a real magic to that school. It was an incredibly tough school, at the time really not doing very well, but you could just feel that there was something special in that school. I thought I would be there for two years, but I ended up being there for about 10 years! The place became my family. It was a school that gave me so much hope and strength and confidence. It’s now a very successful school, I am pleased to say.

Alongside my career, I have always enjoyed charity work. My efforts focus on building schools. I have helped to build schools in places like Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sudan, Morocco and Palestine. I am especially keen on ensuring girls have access to have education in places where there may be resistance to that. This really sits at the heart of my philosophy of being an educator. That is how I came upon meeting Mr Varkey [Mr Varkey is Founder and Executive Chairman of GEMS Education]. I just loved his ambition, his entrepreneurial spirit, his education spirit and his spirit for charity and philanthropy.

Having met Mr Varkey, I just couldn’t say no when I received the offer to join GEMS World Academy. Of course, the pandemic has meant that it has been a challenging time to join a new school, but you know…most people are having a really challenging time at the moment and I have felt so supported by my new school community, it’s been great.

What are the benefits to being a woman in education?

It’s really interesting. I’ve never really liked to make much of my gender. I just want to be seen as a leader, I want to be seen as a professional, and I don’t want anyone to make any concessions for me because of my gender.

That said, sadly, we can’t get away from the fact that there is sexism and gender politics in the world.  I have seen that over the course of my career. In some parts of the world, people still find it hard to see women in leadership positions. My philosophy and my truth is that I will always call it out and I will always stamp it out. I think you have to. Mr Varkey does not see gender, he just sees excellence in the leadership that he appoints. Working with people like that helps you to grow and excel as a leader.

I admire many women working in education today. They are the women that are tenacious, smart, authoritative, funny, respectful, daring, sassy, thoughtful, cool, dynamic, sophisticated honest and kind. But then, I like those qualities in men as well! I have read many of the interviews in your Inspiring Women series, and the women you feature are all those things!


Dr Rana greets a young student at GEMS World Academy

Are your goals today the same as when you started your career?

When I started my career, I simply fell in love with the classroom. I still love to be in a classroom and I still teach. My subject areas are economics, computer science and mathematics but, if ever I can take a food technology lesson, I will! I love cooking with children. Preparing food is so meaningful, especially in an expat or refugee community. Food connects us to our heritage, our family, our grandparents in the same way language and genetics do, it’s wonderful.

Back to my goals…what I set out to be was a great teacher. I think children are just the most amazing people on the planet. They deserve great teachers. They are so funny, so honest. They are risk takers…I could go on…they are just brilliant! I love being in learning environments, I love being engaged and immersed in the work of children and teachers. Leadership was something that just sort of happened as am outcome of all this.

Do you have goals for the future?

I think now I have reached a point where I feel like I need to have some goals for the future, because I have been very fortunate to have travelled a great career. I have been very blessed, very lucky. To be able to say that every single day I have loved my job, I have never not loved it, I think that is a big deal!

I have always been interested in helping communities, especially communities that are having real difficulties in setting up education. I still do a lot of charity work. I love building schools from scratch. The world can be a cruel place for children in some societies, so for me I want to help my fellow human beings by just making sure that I give them access to education. I am very grateful to be working for someone like Mr Varkey who has very similar interests in promoting education. It’s in this area that many of my future goals lie.

Do you have any advice for young Educators today?

I think they need to be able to accept that the world is ever more complicated. Of course, Covid has been challenging, what a year to start your teaching career!

One huge impact on our work place today is the revolution in technologies that are available to teachers. I think it is great in fact, I am a bit of nerd when it comes to tech! But young teachers should know that there are challenges in schools that technology won’t fix. There are more important things like the mental health and wellbeing of our children and staff.

I would urge young educators to think about what is needed to grow global citizens. Global citizens who will be able to take on the challenges that are confronting our societies today. This is not an easy world to be in right now. I think educators need to encourage deep creativity and imagination, tenacity and grit, much than just thinking about the criteria needed to pass an exam.

Who supports you and how?

I think I build teams of people who support me, both formally and informally. Being a senior leader is really tough at times, there are days that you are on your own, making tough decisions and you have to try please everyone in the community! It can be exhausting and challenging. I build teams around me that are not just high performing teams but are also teams that can support me with my work.

What I love most is when a parent, staff member or student says “thank you”, or “it’s so lovely to see you”. That for me is just incredible support! I suppose my champions are very much my community. If I have the love and respect of my community, I have all the support I need.

Dr Saima Rana, Principal-CEO of GEMS World Academy was talking to WhichSchoolAdvisor.com

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