Inspiring Women in Education, Tammy Murphy

For International Women’s Day, we celebrate another of WhichSchoolAdvisor.com’s Inspiring Woman in Education, Tammy Murphy. Tammy is CEO and Superintendent of GEMS Dubai American Academy. The school is the only American school in Dubai to have been rated Outstanding for eight consecutive years.
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

Tammy Murphy is a highly experienced American education leader, with a great warmth of personality and an incredible, fizzing energy.  We certainly came away inspired by her! In this interview, we celebrate Tammy's career for International Women’s Day 2020.   

Tammy Muphy is CEO and Superintendent at GEMS Dubai American Academy.

Tammy, can you begin by telling us who or what inspired you to become an Educator?

"Oh I always, always knew I wanted to work with kids. That was clear for me from when I was a small child. I was that neighbourhood kid who babysat for everyone… and I was known for keeping all the local kids organised!

"I always thought that my career would take me into medicine. I had the goal of being a paediatrician and got as far as university with that in mind. But, you know…well, I reached the point of working in hospitals alongside my course and, if I’m honest, I really struggled with the sadness of working with sick kids. I just couldn’t shake it when I went home a night. You need to be able to do that to survive in that world.

"So one night I went to the payphone... I’m old...", Tammy laughs."...We’re talking three decades ago, no mobile phones back then! So I called my Dad and I said "I’m going to have to change my major. I love kids but I just can’t do this! I want to be a teacher..."

"All these years later and I can say that was the right decision for me, no question."


Tammy greets parents at DAA

Can you talk us through your career to date?

"I graduated with a degree in Elementary Teaching. My first teaching role was as a 1st Grade teacher…oh I loved it! I later taught 4th Grade too. Working with those young ones, finally having my own classroom, it was so fulfilling.

"I was a classroom teacher for six years before a wonderful Principal came to me and said “I see something in you”. That was the moment of change for me, a turning point.

"From then my career began to take a path into leadership.

"I became Principal of an Elementary School age 28. I have been serving kids as a school leader for three decades. Yes… you can do the math! It is an incredible privilege to do what I do.

"Having been a Principal for some years, I had an amazing opportunity, which was to create a brand new Middle School for our district. My Superintendent said to me “You’ve got nine months to create the middle school of your dreams”. So much freedom! Imagine being able to create your dream school? Eventually the school became the first in the US North East Corridor to offer the IB Middle Years Programme. We were able to overlay that with lots of other exciting curriculum work.

"They seemed to think I did a decent enough job creating the school, as my next role saw me moving back to Central Office and becoming an Assistant Superintendent. I was working in a district of 12,000 students and for the most part, my role was supporting and supervising the Professional Development and curriculum instruction for more than 1000 teachers and 19 schools.

"I married and had my first baby at 40. Eventually, and after a lot of persuading, my husband convinced me to move to his side of the US, to California. There I was a Superintendent in San Francisco and Santa Barbara. We were in California for 12 years before moving to Dubai.

You were obviously very successful in the US, what brought you to Dubai?

"Well, my husband had lived in Barcelona for 15 years after he graduated from Berkeley, so he always had this different perspective, different way of looking at things having lived abroad. We had a young child and I think that as a parent you are always looking at your kids and trying to decide how you want to raise them. I guess what we wanted was a wider lens than Southern California, as gorgeous as it is!

"I started looking for roles internationally, came across this one and well, here I am! I have been with GEMS Dubai American Academy (DAA) for three years now. My husband is a lecturer in a local university here in Dubai.

"Of course my son now attends DAA, he’s in 10th grade. He’s a good little soul! He just loves this school. We have 110 nationalities at DAA, so the school really fulfils our brief.  As parents, it’s everything we were looking for. It gives him that richness of experience. I’ll give you an example, tonight I have 11, 16-year old boys coming to my house. We often say it’s like dinner with the UN at home! My husband and I agree that Dubai gives our son a really special way to grow up."

What would you describe as the challenges of being a woman in education?

"Well, I think because I started out three decades ago, I was the only woman in the senior leadership team for a long time. There was often that extra layer of challenge that most women will recognise…right?

"I’ll tell you a little funny story. When I fell pregnant, I went to my boss and said “I’m pregnant” and he was like,

“What do you mean…you’re pregnant?” What are we going to do with that? We’ve never had someone at this level be pregnant before. Are you going to need to take a lot of time off?”

[Tammy laughs- a lot!] "I said…well, I guess I’ll need at least a couple of days! They just didn’t know what to do with me at all. And yes, I was at work two days after giving birth. Not for the full day, but there was a project I needed to work on and well, I did what I needed to do.

"Times have definitely changed, thank goodness. But…you know there often still aren’t as many women in leadership. In some organisations, it can still be the case that you have to prove yourself just that little bit more. I think many female leaders will recognise that when a man walks into a room and says, “I’m the Head, I’m in charge here,” it’s just accepted. As a woman, there’s still a sense that you need to explain why you are the Head, what you have done to get there, what you have achieved.

"The world is definitely moving in the right direction, thank goodness! Here at GEMS Education, we are so fortunate, there are a lot of female school leaders in our group. When I go to our leadership meetings, it not like I’m one of just four or five women…I walk in and that room really looks very balanced. As a group I think we can be proud of that!


Tammy Murphy, an Inspiring Woman in Education

What are the benefits to being a woman in education?

"For me it’s not about being a woman, but being a parent. It gives me a different level of empathy and understanding of what a family is going through. I have this little internal mantra “what would I want for my son?” Whatever I want for my son, I should want for every kid that I have the privilege to serve. That’s been a great rudder for me. Whenever a situation is challenging, I just follow that mantra.

"I don’t know if it’s my personality or being a woman, but I am a very empathetic person. In fact, we were having the nature vs nurture debate at home the other night as part of my sons’ psychology project! Wherever it comes from, it helps that I can empathise with staff.

"I have a strong moral compass and I run a tight ship...you have to when you are running a big organisation like this! But I hope people see the warmth. I hope those personality traits create a culture and an ethos where we can all take risks and ask questions. To me, that kind of culture really helps us to advance as a school."

Did you set out to become a School Leader?

"From the outset of my career, I loved teaching but I could see things that weren’t working right in the classroom, in the school and in the district. I always knew that I wanted to get to a place where I can help fix those things and effect change. So yes, I can say that I always had the intention to get into leadership."

You’ve obviously been very successful in your career. What are your goals now for the future?

"My goals have kind of shifted now that I’m heading towards my fortieth year in education. I think what I realise now is that the best gift I can give to this school, to this company and to the children is to keep growing new leaders."

What are the challenge for young Educators today?

"There are so many more accountabilities than when I started. That’s right, it’s as it should be, but what it means is that teachers today have to negotiate so much. They have to negotiate how to be a teacher and all that means, through growing their repertoire as a professional and they have to negotiate parent communities, staff communities and regulatory demands. Young teachers really need great resilience. At DAA we encourage them to have a growth mindset and to be fluid with their thinking.

"Teachers can get pulled in so many directions. So I say to our team that it’s like being on a plane, you put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Wellbeing is vital. We just had a staff training day and we started with wellbeing, with meditation and how to you ground yourself before you go into that classroom. These are things we just didn’t talk about when I started teaching back in the 80s!"

Tammy, last question. Who supports you, and how?

"My husband and my son are my world. Our little family has a strong work ethic, that’s something that is at our core. I work a long day here, because I love it and because there is so much we want to achieve, but to switch off and go home to my family…they fill my bucket for another day!

"Then I would say the staff here at DAA. They are an incredible community of educators and I could never begin to do this job without the people I have here. I’m definitely partial to them! They are extraordinary people and the diversity in their cultures and backgrounds means that everyone brings something to the mix. That’s an absolute strength of our school."

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com was talking to Tammy Murphy, CEO and Superintendent of DAA. Read more Inspiring Women in Education stories below.

The Inspiring Women in Education are:
Hind Al Mualla
Rebecca Annand
Sasha Crabb
Aparna Verma
Zara Harrington
Leanne Fridd
Ruth Burke
Fiona Cottam
Roshi Tandon and Rachna Sharma

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