Inspiring Women in Education, Ruth Burke

This International Women’s Day, celebrates the achievements and outstanding career of UAE education stalwart, Ruth Burke.  Ruth has recently been appointed Director of Deira International School, an Al Futtaim Education Foundation school.
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

Ruth Burke has recently been appointed Director of Deira International School, an Al Futtaim Education Foundation school, and is on a mission to take the school from Very Good to Outstanding. 

Despite one of the more successful careers in the UAE the newly appointed Director of DIS says she sets no personal goals, "goes with the flow" and believes that all is coming - if you love what you do... Interested? Well read on!

Ruth, who or what inspired you to become an educator?

I wanted to be a teacher right from my very first day at school.  I felt immediately at home at school and teaching was truly all I ever wanted to do.  I never deviated or considered anything else.

As to the ‘who?’ – well, there was one teacher I remember who had great hats and handbags – maybe she was my real inspiration! 

Can you describe your career so far?

I’m from Ireland and studied at Trinity College, Dublin.  After graduating, my first job was with a Christian Brothers school in Dublin.  I remember being just so delighted to have this job early on!  The school was part of an organisation that operated like a large group or trust would these days.  It meant I had a huge variety of experiences and challenges early on, and I had to meet very high expectations for my own performance. 

This first school really helped me to set my own personal standards of what I still believe every great school should do; offer a broad, well rounded education, with lots of opportunities for every child.  Not only that, but I believe that schools need to face outward to their community - this is what we were trying for back then and this is what I still aim for today.

My career continued to progress after I moved to the UK to be with my British husband.  One of my first leadership roles was as an Early Years Head in a school in England.  We operated quite differently to schools here, offering two ‘shifts’ (morning and afternoon) to 57 children per session.  To say it was busy is an understatement.  I learnt to spin a lot of plates at once – that really stands you in good stead for a career in education!

We moved to the UAE in 2000.  At first, I took a step back and went back to being a classroom teacher.  That taught me a lot:  about independent private schooling, about having a very discerning parent body and about meeting their expectations as well as my own.  I began to climb the leadership ranks again, and eventually I became Head of JESS Jumeirah, for seven years. 

After, JESS, a not for profit school, I moved to GEMS where I led GEMS Wellington International School for three years.  It was time to understand the ‘other side’ of education here.  Working life in a big education group was fantastic - I had incredible support during my time at GEMS and a truly fabulous team. 

This year I joined The Al Futtaim Education Foundation and I am now Director of Deira International School, another not for profit school.  I immediately saw the potential here and thought to myself; “Go on! Take on that challenge…take a school from Very Good to Outstanding”. 

So that is what I am going to do at Deira International School.  We are on a journey to 'Outstanding'. At Al Futtaim, I am fortunate to have the backing of a truly inspirational leader, Mr Omar Al Futtaim.  He is very passionate about quality education and really understands what we need to do to achieve our goals.

What are the challenges of being a woman in education?

I’m not sure it’s solely in education, but a woman (particularly a mother), in the world of work well, we have a lot to juggle!  That goes without saying.  But it’s nothing we can’t work around, with good support and planning.    

What are the benefits of being a woman in education? 

For me, it’s more about the benefits of being a parent when you are working in education.  Of, course there are lots of absolutely amazing teachers who don’t have children, but I do think that when teachers become parents themselves – it gives them another little piece of empathy for parents in their school community. 

We understand the tough times, the days when children simply don’t want to do their homework, don’t want to join in.  This is especially important if there are any special education needs, as parents we just have that instinct to connect and support on a personal level.

Was there a moment or event that changed your career, life or outlook?

We have three children, two older and now grown up, and a 6 year old (who joined Deira International School at the same time as me).  I think having another child later in life made me unpick some of the things that we do as teachers

It might be because I have I have seen the whole education system, right the way through, from both a parent and a teacher’s perspective.  I now know that some of the things we worry about when they are very young – they’re just not that important in the grand scheme of things.   It’s wonderful to have that insight now.

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

I don’t really set goals – I go with the flow.  It’s true to say that I have had some very lucky breaks!  That said, I believe that good luck comes with working hard.  I have a real sense of pride in my career.  I know that every day matters, and I try to give 100% as much as possible. 

Working hard and achieving is so much easier when you love what you do!  I love my job, it never really feels ‘hard’.  I thoroughly enjoy working in education.

Can you tell us about a woman (or women) who has inspired you?

My mum first and foremost!  She wasn’t a teacher, although she would have made a wonderful one.  Her career was in accountancy, but she was just totally interested in how people learn.  She was ahead of her time in terms of her views about education - she took a holistic approach even back then and made sure that my siblings and I had access to lots of different challenges, sports and activities.  We had such a busy schedule it was almost like we were private school kids – which we definitely weren’t! 

Mum instilled in me the value of hard work.  She had an outstanding work ethic and drive.  She was also an absolute stickler and for reading and for books – just as I am now!

I was educated in convent schools and there was one teacher I will always remember, Sister Juliana.  She was also ahead of her time, like my Mum.  She had a strong commitment to nurturing children as individuals, for creating personalised learning and, for young children, she really ‘got’ the value of learning through play.  Very forward thinking!  I learnt so much from her. 

Do you feel that the next generation of female educators have specific challenges? If yes, how would you advise them to overcome these challenges?

I’d say for all young educators, make sure that you get plan well and get yourself in roles that you can excel and shine in.  Make sure whatever your do, you do with love.  It’s easy to succeed if you love what you do

Who supports you and how?

I have a great family – a supportive husband and of course my grown up children, who are now out in the world pursuing their own careers.  My youngest son of course helps to make sure there’s a bit of balance to my life.  We can all be a bit ‘all about the job’, but my family remind me to break out and just be ‘Ruth’!

In all the schools I have worked in, I have always had great teams around me.  I have been in the UAE for such a long time now, when I come to put a team together for a school, I can hand pick people.  The teams you have at school are key, you spend so much time with them for a start!

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