David Lowder is from the UK and has been leading international schools for 20 years. He has worked in schools in nine countries and is currently Principal of the International School of Koje, in South Korea. TIC helped David to find his leadership position there. Here, David talks about the challenges and experiences he’s had working and living in Geoje and shows, in his pictures, that even with the great challenges as a Principal, he can still be loads of fun with the students!:

“I have worked in many international schools across the world. The big difference between the International School of Koje (ISK) and my previous schools is that ISK has totally embraced an international curriculum (from Fieldwork Education) in the form of the International Early Years Curriculum (IEYC), International Primary Curriculum (IPC) and International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC). Most of my previous schools used the National Curriculum of England, though I have also introduced the IPC to two other international schools. The success of the curriculum is down to the ISK teachers’ commitment and passion for teaching the curriculum. 

ISK has some very impressive facilities. The building is only five years old and contains spacious classrooms and a range of specialist teaching rooms. We have art rooms, music rooms, an ICT suite, library, a generous sized sports hall, theatre with lighting and sound equipment, two maker space rooms, a state-of-the-art science lab, two spacious outside play areas, and a canteen. This range of facilities far exceeds several of my previous schools and the resourcing level is of a very high standard.

A changing school for a specific market

The marketplace that ISK functions in is very different from any other city I have worked in.

All the families who attend ISK are entirely from the shipbuilding or related oil industry; there is no other expatriate employment available in Geoje. Consequently, the school’s student roll is totally dictated by the projects in the shipbuilding industry. At its height, before I joined the school, there were 500 students, but during the last two years the ship building industry has been adversely affected by world economics. This has resulted in a downturn in families being brought out to South Korea, as part of cost cutting. The student roll has dropped significantly; ISK now has 140 students across an age range of 2-15. The student demographic is very international with around 30 different nationalities; Indian, Norwegian and USA are the main groups. The teaching staff is also international, with 11 different nationalities represented.

Embracing new challenges

As the new Principal of ISK, I had to respect the turbulent period the school had gone through in the year prior to my appointment. I was appointed in December 2017 and had visited the school twice before I actually arrived in Korea, so I had a good sense of the kind of state the school was in. Consequently, my leadership approach at ISK has been quite different to other posts. I needed to stabilise a school that had to recover from a drop of 500 to 140 students, and a staff downsizing of 65 to 25!

When I arrived, there was a lack of confidence in the school from parents, so much so that some families left to join other schools. I also had to diplomatically lead the school in tandem with a Korean admin management level, who report to one of the two major shipbuilding yards in the world. I made it clear to both the Korean management and the teaching and support staff that ISK was now a new school, with a new leadership structure, five new staff and new pressures. We collectively needed to understand the school would operate differently.

This is not the first time I have been involved in this kind of situation. In my professional career as a leader of schools both in the UK and internationally, I have worked at schools that were in a state of flux for various reasons, and I as the leader needed to unravel the situation to try and get the organization ‘back on track’. It demands a lot in terms of both professional and emotional energy.

A new start, and a new approach

The school is currently re-establishing itself. It already had impressive facilities compared with many schools in the area, and is well respected in the world of education. Since being here, we have added more facilities like a state-of-the-art science lab.

The most dramatic change will happen in September (2018), when the school extends its age range to offer Year 10 and 11 (IGCSE). We have also recruited five new secondary teachers to help with this expansion. This will be an attraction to families with secondary aged children, who previously had to commute for two hours a day. There is now a strong, quality alternative schooling option in Geoje.

I have been leading ISK with an honest and self-effacing approach, both with the staff and parents. ISK was ‘on trial’, as a result of the previous year. To re-establish confidence in the community and within the school, and to reassure the staff that ISK did have a future, we concentrated on what the school does best, which is deliver a very effective curriculum and offer a very human service to both students and parents.

I provided constant opportunities for open discussion with parents, and made sure they were always kept in the picture about what was happening in the school. I made myself available at all times during the week, so parents knew they could always come and talk to me about anything and everything.

The only true international school in Geoje

We settled the school in every respect and as a result re-established a strong level of confidence. It’s not been smooth sailing; I have had to make some difficult professional standpoints both with the Korean management, the teaching staff, and parents in the best interest of the school. I am continuing this approach by having to lead the settling-in of an embryonic secondary section.

I hope, during my time here, I will manage to reinstate ISK as the first-choice international school in the region, and I believe introducing a secondary section will help to do this. I also hope that I can successfully gain reaccreditation with Fieldwork Education and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).

Life in South Korea

South Korea is the ninth country I have worked in as a leader, and it is of course different to other countries I have worked in. It’s welcoming, safe and offers a range of interesting cultural experiences for an expatriate. The Korean staff who work at ISK are fiercely loyal and hardworking, and devoted to making the school improve in any way possible. Collectively, this makes taking up a teaching post in South Korea a very attractive proposition!

Aiming for an international school Principal position

If you are a senior leader and aiming for a position as a Principal in an international school, I would, without reservation say, ‘go for it’. You will not look back, and you will open up a plethora of unforgettable experiences for you and your family.

One note of caution is to ensure you investigate and do your research thoroughly. Research both the post, and the country you are considering before you sign on the dotted line.

My experience with TIC Recruitment

TIC Recruitment is an established organisation that has years of experience in assisting the placement of both teachers and senior leaders. TIC has a very extensive professional network internationally that comes with known credibility.

I have worked with Andrew Wigford and his team for quite a few years, both as a school recruiter and as somebody being recruited, which is how I got my current post. Consequently, I know from firsthand experience that TIC is very professional in how they support their clients. They give good advice and ensure every step of the process is dealt with in an honest manner.”

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