When I first went to university, I planned to become an accountant! During the first year of my degree, it slowly dawned on me that my life would be spent in an office and that just wasn’t what I wanted. One of my best friends was studying to become a PE teacher and described to me her first placement – well, it sounded fantastic and exciting and set a seed that eventually meant I applied to train as a secondary PE teacher in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Despite initially planning to work with older children, my first placement in a primary school helped me to see that working with young children was where I could have the most impact. I mean, you get to teach them for everything – where else can you say that!
I myself was trained by some amazing teachers, most of whom had a dual role – they were class teachers and had leadership roles combined. They were my role models and mentors. There was one in particular who I will never forget, her name was Bernie Leonard. Bernie was Deputy Head of a very challenging school. The way Bernie taught and led people inspired me to see setbacks as opportunities.
The children I have met along the way have also inspired me. During my early career, I met a little boy who had faced a lot of difficult times in his personal life by the time I met him. I will never forget him. He was a brilliant rugby player, but he couldn’t read or write. I think I have always had a soft spot for kids who defy the odds – and he certainly did that! He quickly made such incredible progress and eventually I was able to help him get a scholarship to a very special boarding school, Dilworth School for Boys in South Auckland, somewhere where I knew he would get the stability he needed right up until university age. It’s this kind of impact on lives that keeps me doing what I do.
I did my first two years in a high school setting. Mostly with year 7 and 8 children in the South Island of New Zealand. The area is a big farming community – it really couldn’t be more different to Dubai! I was also the youngest teacher by about 25 years in that first school, but it meant I benefited from the experience and expertise of the older teachers – I was well trained!
I then moved to Auckland, to a school that was seen as one of the most forward thinking schools in New Zealand. There was a real focus on constant professional development, something that has stayed with me now that I am a leader.
An exciting job at GEMS Wellington Primary in Dubai brought me to the UAE. I was Senior Leader for Learning and Teaching. The role taught me so much about the culture of this amazing place and the context of education here.
I then was incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to come to Safa Community School (SCS) as Vice Principal. Here, I think I have managed to find a great combination of everything I want in a role: all the great things I learnt in New Zealand, educating children in the UAE and the positive and forward thinking direction of where this school is going.
When the previous Head left, the owners were interviewing a range of people but I really felt that we had started something so special here, created a really definite direction and that a new person well, they would want to put their own mark on things and make changes. I believed the staff needed continuity, above all else so I applied and eventually I was appointed Head Teacher at the age of 30, something I am very proud of. I have the most incredible support from the owners of SCS and I just wouldn’t want to work with anywhere else.
I was raised by my Dad, he was a single parent and he encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be in life. I don’t think I grew up seeing the typical barriers that other women perhaps do, because of my Dad being my primary role model as a child. I am a massively positive person, I look at things that stand in my way as something to be overcome – that’s it!
So there was my Dad, but also - look at where I come from! I am so proud that in New Zealand we have a new female president who is expecting her first child while in office. That equality was also there when I was growing up, she is a great example kind of public role models we have at home.
So in answer to the question, yes, I am surrounded by male leaders – at SCS and in other schools, but I just don’t see that as relevant to me, or to what I am trying to achieve here. I would also say that I am proud that the Safa family (as we call it) has also just appointed another strong female Principal – Zara Harrington at Safa British School.
When I was few years into my teaching career, I went for a team leader role and I didn’t get it. I think that was a moment when I realised, I can’t look at myself and think I’ve got this far and I am good, I need to look at myself and keep focussed on being ‘better’. That has become a key focus for me. Here at SCS we try to role model grit, resilience, perseverance and positive ways to deal with setbacks to the children, and not getting that role was the same lesson for me as an adult.
My goals have definitely moved forward, yes. I never thought I would be working internationally for a start! My current goals are to create in SCS a model school. By that I don’t just mean a model school for attainment and progress but for the wellbeing of the staff too. I want to inspire them and I want our future leaders to be ‘Safa grown’. What I mean is that I want whoever steps into my position down the line to have come through the Safa family. Eventually, I suppose I will want to take the amazing things I have learnt here and apply them in another context, but for the long foreseeable future I am committed to making this school the very best it can possibly be.
Always, always the children! When I do break-time duties out in the playground, there is usually something so funny that comes from the kids, I tend to go back to the office with a big smile on my face. The wonderful thing about teaching is always if you are having a bad day all you have to do is spend an hour or so hanging out with the children and you are all right again!
A recent special memory for me was the BSME (British Schools in the Middle East) games, where one of our little boys knocked a boy from another school down during a race. He stopped, helped the other boy up and then carried on running. That is why I work in this industry – working towards instilling those special values in children.
I do sometimes worry that I have taken myself away from special moments with individual children by leaving the classroom, but I remind myself that in leadership I can have a wider impact. Not only on children but on staff. It’s really important to me to create a great culture for the staff. I want this to be a place where careers thrive. Recently, I interviewed one of our young teachers for a more senior role, she was very nervous and confessed that she felt a bit out of her depth, but she also said that that ‘SCS was a place where people can do anything’. For me, if that is what our staff feel in this environment, that kind of means you are doing something right!
Definitely Bernie Leonard, who I mentioned before. She is an incredible woman. For me, she was both a brilliant teacher and a brilliant leader. She was Deputy Head when we worked together, but also looked after a range of children with different needs who weren’t really getting the support they needed outside of school. She was someone who looked beyond what was expected of those kids. She looked at the ‘bigger picture’ of caring for a child. She was my first mentor and we still keep in contact until this day. Bernie had a big heart but on the exterior you probably didn’t see that at first! I found her petrifying when we first met but after a while you could see her heart was in the right place. I think the teachers and staff respected her more for that.
I think the one thing for my younger female leaders at SCS, they don’t know whether they should be pushing forward in their career or getting married and starting a family. Societal pressure means some still feel they have to make a choice between the two avenues in life. I want to help them to see that is not the case.
I believe education is a career where you can move forward in all sorts of ways and at a pace that works for you. Young teachers need to see that they don’t have to follow a traditional trajectory. I like to help young female leaders really understand the opportunities that are open to them, whatever way they decide to balance their life.
At the end of the day, I never thought I was going to be a Head Teacher! Women are still underrepresented in leadership in education, and they need to see ways through to those top roles.
My first year last year as a Head Teacher was exciting but there were definitely challenging times. This year I have been able to put in place a team to support me and drive forward the changes that I wanted to make, and they have made my life much easier. Rachel my PA is incredible, I couldn’t be without her!
My family are very important to me. My brother, sister and I are very similar, we have all been successful in our chosen careers. My brother is 34 and owns an incredibly successful construction company in Christchurch and my sister is 29 and writes public policy for the District Health Board in Wellington. We are all achievers in our own fields and we are all very supportive of each other. We understand each other. I don’t get home enough, but they all understand and we remain very close.
The owners of the two Safa Schools (Sameer Merchant and Louay Khatib) are a fundamental support network to me. I am probably harder on myself then they are on me! We have formed our ‘Safa Family’ and I do genuinely believe that that is part of our success.