We talk to Ciarán Cunningham-Watson, Principal of Belvedere British School, Abu Dhabi, about what he’s learned from his teaching career around the world.
From Ascot to Abu Dhabi, Ciarán Cunningham-Watson’s teaching career has taken him all over world, but where did it all begin? We interviewed him to find out what he’s learned on his travels! Where did your teaching career begin and where has it taken you?
I originally trained as a secondary school History teacher in Bristol, England. I have taught Politics, Geography, Religious Studies, PSHE, General Studies, Theory of Knowledge (ToK), and led on the IB DP Extended Essay, and held varied positions including Head of EAL Department, Boarding Housemaster, Deputy Head, Director of Boarding, Boarding Schools' Association Tutor, Designated Safeguarding Lead, Head of eSafety, and School Principal. The places I’ve worked are Northern Ireland (Belfast and Derry), England (Portsmouth, Ardingly, Ascot), Spain (Barcelona), Mexico (Mérida), and now the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi). Wow – you’ve worked in a lot of countries! Have you noticed any key differences or similarities between them?
I’ve experienced numerous similar, very positive experiences working with intellectually curious students and inspirational teachers and administration staff. Everybody is different and it is important to adapt and work with all school stakeholders, so although I have encountered many differences, my positive experiences far outweigh any negative ones. One notable difference that I have noticed is the lifestyles of families in some countries – it is important to understand both the experiences of children and their parents, to try to fully understand their perspectives and approaches to education and teachers.You’re currently Principal of Belvedere British School in Abu Dhabi. What’s the best thing about living and working in Abu Dhabi?
Meeting people from all over the world and being on a continuous learning journey helps make this an invigorating place to live and work. In particular, I love the continuous sunshine, palm trees, the turquoise sea and abundance of delicious world cuisine. Tell us more about your school and what you’re most proud of!
We spend a substantial amount of time making sure there are clear opportunities for planning, review and development in all areas of the school. We involve students, staff and parents in all areas that directly or indirectly affect them, including our pastoral programme, school events, staff recruitment, CPD, parental associations, governance, and PR and marketing. We have very recently received our ADEK school inspection report and we have improved significantly across all areas of the school. We have made remarkable progress in a relatively short amount of time and we will continue to improve. Our improved reputation as a school is also developing at a pace and we now need to continue to develop accordingly to meet the standards we set for ourselves. That is our greatest challenge at the moment and one that we will meet and achieve by working together as a cohesive school community.With such a broad range of experiences to draw on, what would you say is the key issue facing international schools at the moment, and how are you addressing it at your school?
International schools usually cater for a wide mix of parents, students and staff, while retaining a central vision and mission. It is difficult to appeal to all, whilst retaining a vision and mission that sets the school apart from others and providing the best education possible. Parents in Abu Dhabi have a lot of good schools to choose from and the same is true for staff. We are working hard to engage with existing and potential members of our school community, to ensure that who we are and what we offer are as good as we can be. You’re very experienced in teacher recruitment. How are you responding to the challenges posed by the teacher recruitment crisis that international schools are currently facing?
We try to find teachers who have enthusiasm for teaching and an open-minded approach to living and working in an international environment. Ultimately, we try to find out about the character and skillset of each candidate we consider for a teaching or leadership position. It is easy to see what a candidate has done, but I always focus on trying to figure out the potential for each one and if school and candidate are a good fit for each other. For international schools in general, a big challenge is recruiting and keeping good quality teachers who have the right perspective on work and free time. Time and resources invested in recruitment and retention are very important to get right, but ultimately may be decided upon by factors outside of the schools' control… So open and effective communication between schools and teachers and recruitment consultants is a key area that is worth investing in. What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned from teaching around the world? Is there anything you wish you’d known earlier?
I am still learning about the different perspectives on education, its purpose and practice and individual/group experiences, from people of all ages and cultural backgrounds. Although I have worked in multicultural settings for a significant time now, the best piece of advice I can give is to listen and consider as many perspectives as possible before making decisions. Always question all options to make sure the decision is the right one, but once the decision is made, stick with it and see it through. This is true when considering strategic planning, change management, policy or procedural changes, or even considering a new place of work. If you could offer one piece of advice to any teacher or leader entering international education, what would it be?
Be as flexible and open minded to alternative perspectives, approaches and ideas as possible.
A big thank you to Ciarán Cunningham-Watson for sharing his international experiences. He is happy to be contacted by anyone in Education looking for help or guidance. Feel free to reach out to him here on the Community, email him, or connect with him on LinkedIn.If you’d like to share your own story with the community, get in touch! Read more stories from educators around the world in our Real Lives blog posts.