The Interview: Magic Will Happen at DIS

Veteran educator Ruth Burke comes with 28 years of experience out of which almost 19 years have been in the UAE. She replaces Jeff Smith, who was with Deira International School for six years.
The Interview: Magic Will Happen at DIS
By Veathika
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Deira International School's (DIS) new Director comes with serious pedigree, armed with a Masters in Arts, Education and Leadership Management, but, most importantly28 years of experience, out of which almost 19 years have been in the UAE. 

Before joining DIS, Ms Burke was the Principal and CEO of Outstanding rated GEMS Wellington International School for three years. Before that, she held several positions at another Outstanding school, Jumeriah English Speaking School, departing as its Head  in 2015.

Deira International School is Ms Burke's first non-Outstanding rated school, although it sits on the precipice of becoming one. Currently rated Very Good by the Dubai School Inspection Bureau, DIS is owned and operated by Al Futtaim Education Foundation, has 1700 children and offers IGCSE up to 16, and then the IB Diploma programme. went to find out about Ms Burke's role as a Director, the experience she thinks she brings that will add value to DIS, what she sees as the strengths of the school that she can build on, and her priorities for the first year in the new job.

We began however by asking...

What drew you into education in the first place..?

My mum tells the story that on my first day at school I said I was going to be a teacher. I never changed my mind.

Teaching has been a fantastic journey for me. I started as a primary teacher, got into early years teaching, I managed a pre-school nursery before becoming a deputy head. What always attracted me to teaching was the magical moments when you inspire children and see them progress - at this school right through from 3 to 18. 

Magical things really do happen in schools - not just in Dubai, but in the world in general. And I think there is ever more opportunity to weave those spells: I think we now know more in terms of how the brain develops, we know more about how emotional intelligence impacts learning. It is an exciting time to be in the field.

What do you teach?

I have a degree in English. My primary focus has been early years and primary education, but I have taught secondary as well. I taught English as a foreign language right through university, and while I was training to be a teacher. I teach piano as well. I have always had that interest in imparting knowledge and skills to other people. I just get a huge buzz seeing a student develop.

Will you be teaching at DIS?

Perhaps more as different type of teacher. As a leader of learning. I hope to be inspiring teachers to do great things, while making sure they have got the tools to make magic happen in classrooms. That is really what my main role is.

I have a track record in raising attainment and progress in the schools I have led, but much more importantly, I think, I have helped make the learning journey as rich as possible. Students only get one Year 3, one Year 4... 

The building blocks are lessons, and every lesson matters. That is what I want to instil in the thinking of teachers at DIS. To make lessons rich, DIS educators need to plan precisely, use the data available carefully, and ensure that they are maximizing opportunities for each student to feel successful and happy in each class they take.

What are the strengths of DIS that you aim to build on?

We have very strong teachers. You can see that over various inspection cycles. Subject knowledge is a real strength here with high levels of commitment across departments. We are a very caring school with a superb doctor and the medical team. We also have a very strong wellbeing philosophy, while our careers department is truly cohesive. We are also strong in Arabic. Students do really well in the subject, particularly as a second language in primary. Combined these put us in a great position to get really strong academic outcomes.

So is academic excellence your focus at DIS?

We are a highly inclusive school and that’s not going to change. But we will also make sure that every child firstly establishes what their goals are, and then we will do everything we can to help each student achieve them.

To do this we need to build the pathways for each child.

We currently offer the IBDP for those very academic students, as well as the CP – careers programme - which is a more vocational pathway. We are also an IGCSE school, which is a qualification for 16-year-olds. We will make sure that at, at each critical phase, our children equipped for the challenges of the next section of their school life.

Apart from the academics, what other areas will you be building on at DIS?

The potential here for sports and performing arts is immense.

We have got such a large plot and great outdoor spaces, and there’s investment planned for those spaces.

We want to have B and C teams to get more students involved in sport. We work with swimming, football and karate third parties already, and we are trying to make our parents understand that these extras are really worthwhile.

We will also be developing more extra curricular activities, and initiatives within the wider community as well.

So what are your immediate priorities?

Improving academic standards, increasing participation in sports, and building a cohesive community of learners. I think the sky is the limit for where we can take DIS. It is a hidden gem in Dubai, very much under the radar, and I want to raise its profile. That will be great for the staff, and great for students and their families.

How will you lead the school?

I am very hands on. I like to get into the classrooms, meet people and students. In terms of taking the schools forward, it is the team that will do it. Everyone has a voice. Students, parents, staff... Everyone needs to be involved in the decision making with the priority that students are the first, second and the third priority within the school.

If children are at the heart of each decision then people buy into changes more readily. Change, as we know, is not always easy.

In terms of change, you have been in the UAE for 19 years. What are the differences you see today, from your first day here?

Most recently we have seen the importance of the happiness agenda contributing greatly to the wellbeing debate in UAE schools. Teachers today are better able and work harder to help students develop their softer skills, to help maximise their potential and all round skills with opportunities for learning in and outside of the classroom.

Over the last 15-16 years in Dubai we have seen the growth of extra curricular activities. This school, like many others in the city, has a wide range of activities on offer after school. Parents love that, and as educationists we know its immensely beneficial to children and their development.

In the last 10 years we have also seen schools as a whole improve as a result of inspections and regulation.

For example the KHDA emphasis on Arabic is undoubtedly raising attainment and making a difference. A rich STEM and STEAM based curriculum is now in most schools and Dubai, with its level of expertise and subject knowledge, is now managing to attract some of the world's best teachers...

All these initiatives continue to build on each other. The net effect is that today the teaching landscape is very different from when I first arrived, and really it has moved only in one direction - better. 

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