About eight years ago, Jim Koerschen, or Dr. K as we fondly referred to him, and I had one of our monthly meetings as Heads of neighboring international schools to discuss the complexities of leading and developing international schools in the rapidly and ever-changing environment of emerging China. Jim and I had become close friends not only through our Christian beliefs but having had the good fortune to spend half our careers in universities and then transition to international schools. We relished those times for discussion (and venting), for we both faced similar macro-development issues in different parts of Shanghai, he in Pudong and I in Puxi where local education bureaus would often interpret education policy differently, resulting in contradictory outcomes for similar schools. Such complexities occupied enormous amounts of time, political awareness, cultural sensitivity and ability to explain to the public what was often not understandable or easily explainable.
We also served together in two professional organizations in China, the first was Shanghai International Schools Association (SISA) and later the Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS). Knowing that other Heads across China who were members of ACAMIS faced similar problems, we contemplated how they could perform their different, demanding roles and still meet the expectations of a leader that bright and mobile parents and teachers brought with them from previous experiences in other countries. We concluded that we were fortunate to have gained valuable insights from our university experiences that could ultimately have a human impact that makes a difference such as: in independent education we have an opportunity, if not obligation, to create distinctive models of international education; with the high degree of transience among parents and teachers in developing countries, every opportunity to greet or meet someone is precious and should be treated as special; we realized from our interactions that we benefitted from experiencing highly collegial and congenial working environments in university; to create special learning models, we needed a steady flow of highly motivated teachers and leaders who could adapt quickly to a different culture, both within the host country and within the school…special people who look as these opportunities not as a job, but as a way of life and also commit to the unique philosophies of each school that guide the creation of the model; and that such special people need ongoing professional development and a voice in the development of the school.
This was fun stuff and a great deal of our interactions with others was reinforced through these monthly meetings. We knew that with all of the diversions we experienced from the normal responsibilities of a Head of School, we needed to rely on middle management roles and develop a group of leaders who were prepared to make the same commitment to creating unique models that we made. But as many of the experienced leaders, no matter what the specific role, came from state education in different countries, our greatest concern was to avoid establishing authority realms that were guided by a 200-page policy manual. We had to find a way to train or retrain middle managers to think first about the philosophy of the school and then creatively bring the philosophy to life, to be good listeners and ask questions in order to understand concerns that are raised in the various constituencies, to allow teachers to have a voice, to set goals and seek input from many sources as to how to attain them, to encourage student input on relevant issues and to explore ways that students could be given responsibility and become independent thinkers and learners so they can better shape their futures. Most of all, while we valued experience, we prized those who, rather than providing all the answers, knew how to engage others to build teams and teamwork in order to have as many people part of and contributing to solutions as possible which not only utilized the insights of others, it contributed to their own growth as aspiring leaders.
As we each set about trying to accomplish those initiatives in our own schools, we also contemplated how this might be done in a larger forum to assist other international schools with their development. ACAMIS provided an incredible opportunity to do this. We were both elected to the ACAMIS Board of Directors and two years earlier the ACAMIS Board had authorized the idea of a Middle Management Conference that attracted about 100 participants from the 48 ACAMIS member schools at that time and a prominent workshop leader was contracted from abroad to lead the conference. About a week before the event, the speaker indicated he could not come and the conference had to be cancelled. Naturally, the Board was reluctant to try that again. Two years later, during one of our “what do we need and how can we provide it” discussions, we realized the negative hangover from having cancelled an event for aspiring leaders, but felt we needed to try again. Instead of thinking bigger, we decided to start small. Instead of inviting anyone who wanted to come, we set a limit on the number of participants and were determined to create a special interactive environment where participants could interact, question, share, discover, inspire and be inspired. Neither of us had time to develop the idea or the content so we began the same way we worked to build great schools, seeking someone with special personal qualities and experience who could facilitate rather than lecture, relate to and utilize examples from the everyday realities of participants rather than textbook theory and who could define skill sets from participants’ experiences while providing an inspirational, encouraging and fun workshop environment.
As we did in selecting our own leadership teams, we chose to seek an articulate, dynamic, highly-motivated, confident individual with an outgoing personality and strong personal qualities who could create a special workshop environment and make things happen. After relating our set of criteria to candidates, we easily agreed that Michael Iannini had the qualities and ideas we were looking for and we were not disappointed. From the resurrection of the Middle Management Workshop that remains one of our most popular ACAMIS workshops, Michael has developed over thirty different types of workshops in eight years that he rotates from year to year in helping us to define and meet the needs of our members. Eight years later, also learning from those in his workshops, he has become the kind of independent, creative thinking, inspiring leader we hope he shapes for us in our schools to lead from the middle and has put his experiences into print to keep us moving in that direction.
Executive Director, The Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS)