Cobus Steyn is Head of Secondary School at the International School of Flanders (ISF) in Belgium. He is originally from South Africa and has lived and worked in Africa, Asia and the UK. Cobus moved to Belgium after working in a leadership role at an international school in the Middle East. At ISF he hopes to gain valuable European leadership experience and aspires to become Head of an international school in the future. TIC helped Cobus to find his position and recently talked to him about his experiences of working and living in Brussels:
A strong international community
“The International School of Flanders is a truly international school. We have a very cosmopolitan staff and student body with over 90 nationalities represented. The majority of our students and staff are expatriates. We do have local students and teachers too, and try hard to incorporate Belgian culture into our curriculum. I think local students come to the school because it offers them an opportunity to complete their education in English, while being exposed to a variety of cultures.
There is a strong sense of community at the school and the dynamic between leadership, staff, students and parents is wonderful. Working at ISF is like working with extended family; communication is open, honest, and always constructive. I love the fact that the school is an ever-changing environment. Most government schools tend to have pattern to them in the way they are led and operate. An international school is an evolving creature in the sense that there are many external factors that impact the school. As an international school leader, it’s important to be adaptable and very creative when it comes to problem solving. This is one reason I continue to work at international schools, as I really enjoy finding solutions to problems.
I previously worked at an international school in the Middle East. The approach to teaching was more authoritarian, partly due to the size of the school I was leading. At ISF the approach is collaborative, and I enjoy this because I believe every member of the team has valuable input to offer. I have also found that the students here are more inclined to want to learn skills, are more content, and do not fixate on the final grade.
Gaining new leadership experiences in Europe
I hope to gain valuable European experience from my position here, and to be in a better place to become the Headmaster of a leading international school in the future. I have had many new experiences at ISF. This is the first time I am working in a Google for Education school, and technology is fully integrated in everything we do. This has an immense impact on the delivery of our curriculum and preparing students for life. It’s also the first time that I am not working in a purpose-built facility, and I must say, it has a great deal of charm to it. The school is set in beautiful grounds with vast green play areas and I like to watch the squirrels running around during summer!
I moved here from a Council of International Schools (CIS) accredited school and ISF is a member school currently seeking accreditation. This provides me with a challenge; because the school is already excellent, it is not simply a case of mirroring my previous experiences but finding how to slightly adapt certain elements for the accreditation process. As ISF is a not-for-profit school, managing budgets plays a big role.
Life with my partner in Belgium
My partner moved with me to Belgium and is also working at ISF as a primary teacher. She is enjoying the experience. I do not have children but Belgium certainly is a very family-friendly environment to be in. The people are polite and helpful, and it’s a very safe country.
It was quite a shock adapting to the taxes in Belgium! I moved from a tax-free country, so this was something that had an immediate impact. Needless to say, salaries in Europe do not compete with those of the Middle East but I believe the quality of life is much better in Europe. Belgium has a lot of bureaucratic red tape, but ISF has been wonderful helping me to navigate this.
Brexit hasn’t affected our school yet as I think multinationals are still awaiting final decisions. We do have British teachers and students and I hope that whatever is decided, it will not affect them negatively.
Advice for teachers considering moving into a leadership role
Ask yourself why you want to pursue a leadership role. If it is about status and power, then I do not think it wise. I believe leadership is about empowering others and serving the school. Once you decide to go for it, have confidence in yourself. From my experience, this has always been the biggest bridge to overcome for teachers moving into middle management. If you always base your decisions on what is best for the students, staff and school, you can be confident that others will follow. Don’t be shy to seek advice from your Head.”
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