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To Go Far, Go Together: AISA Celebrates 50 Years

By Brittany Betts, TIE CEO
To Go Far,  Go Together: AISA Celebrates 50 Years

Rhythmic drumming and singing filled the halls of the Cape Town Convention Center on 21 November 2019 as more than 500 attendees flooded into the opening session to kick off the 50th anniversary conference of the Association of International Schools in Africa (AISA). A local African ensemble accompanied the participants into the conference hall with song and dance, beautifully exemplifying the African proverb in AISA Board Chair Dan Jubert’s opening remarks: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” He used the proverb to illustrate the role of AISA, which in bringing people together enables all to achieve so much more than they could individually. “There were really two foci for the conference,” according to Peter Bateman, AISA’s Executive Director. “First was celebrating our rich past and an identity here in Africa, recognizing the true value of where we are and what has been achieved. Second was about acknowledging that this is a learning environment and that the quality of the professional learning here is high. This involves confronting and dispelling the myth implicit in the flippantly used expression, ‘This is Africa,’ as if our location somehow gave us an excuse and created an expectation that we would settle for less. In reality, the quality of what we do is just as good as anywhere else in the world. People can look to AISA and to Africa for quality.” The theme of the conference was, “Learning from the Past, Shaping the Future” and the program included two well-attended pre-conference events devoted to Women in Leadership and Child Protection. “AISA has changed a great deal since it was first created,” Bateman affirms. “Initially, the association predominantly played a support role for school heads and leaders, making sure they had the resources needed to be successful in setting up new schools as embassies moved into the many countries then becoming independent. It was not so outward facing.” Shifting focus Bateman has noted a significant evolution, however. “Now the focus is on professional and student learning programs. When we articulate those programs, we are fundamentally asking, ‘How are we improving student learning?’ Students are always at the center of our mission. Our approach is to look at the needs within schools that they themselves identify.” Centering the needs of member schools in planning this year’s conference, AISA offered attendees 16 deep-dive sessions from which to choose, providing a learning experience that was both intensive and wide-ranging. Topics included: Hard Conversations, Wellbeing Matters, Developing Culturally Competent Students, Growth Mindset, Student Agency, Design Thinking, and Designing Authentic, Performance-Based Tasks and Projects. With the exception of an opening and closing keynote, all conference time during the day was devoted to these hands-on learning sessions, with each attendee committing to a series of deep dives, which they described as “high-quality sessions,” “thought-provoking, intellectually stimulating,” and an “inspiring and invigorating professional development opportunity.” Other conference attendees expressed an appreciation for the experience of “networking and discussing with schools from the same region,” “connecting and collaborating,” and “engaging and learning from and with teachers from all over Africa.” “When we meet and we talk face-to-face, it makes a big difference,” insists Laura Viban of the American International School of Brazzaville. “We just had a workshop on ongoing strategies for growth and development of heads of schools. I’m seeing all of those people sitting there and we’re sharing… The things I’m learning would be hard to read in a book.” Connecting across the continent The community of support created within this region and through AISA in particular constituted a strong undercurrent running through these conversations. For Simon Gillespie, School Head of the International School of Uganda, AISA is a close community. “We have focused on learning being at the core of all we’re doing—student learning and wellbeing,” he explains. “I think those add to the notion that this is a place I can turn to for support. And not just about our challenges, but on what learning looks like in our context and how we can make sure that it remains our focus, despite the challenges we’re encountering.” Gillespie is grateful for the opportunity to regularly “come together and talk about how we are developing the best schools possible, how are we enhancing learning for our children.” Jarrod Dale, who is High School Assistant Principal at the International School of Kenya in Nairobi, echoed this sentiment. “Within AISA, there really is a sense of family… Students are seeing other students, teachers are seeing other teachers, directors are seeing other directors. They benchmark themselves against each other. So that’s definitely a community… It’s great to hear about what they’re up to, what challenges they’re facing, what good things they are experiencing, and sort of learn from one another.” Foregrounding the arts This sense of celebration and community was visually manifested through a masterful weaving of the arts as a backdrop to the conference. Thanks to graphic harvester Sonja Niederhumer, who mapped out many sessions in real-time, attendees could witness the skillful modeling of the very principles of dynamic and agile learning they were discussing. Pop-up exhibitions throughout the conference halls created a bridge between spaces devoted to learning and to socializing while serving as a common tableau in which participants could trace connections across groups. By inviting the continuous presence of music, dance, and visual art, organizers paid tribute to the vibrant African cultures participants had come together to celebrate and the learning they can enhance. “I think the thing that gets people hooked on Africa is the fact that it’s still, to a large extent, a hidden gem,” says Chris Muller who was born and raised in Namibia and was the former Director of the American International School of Lusaka in Zambia. “Africa gets into your heart or it gets in your blood,” confirms Gillespie. “There’s something vital about being able to connect with the people and connect with the land and not only learn from that, but see it enhance who you are and your very being.” Looking back from 50 The Gala Dinner was an opportunity to celebrate and reflect on AISA’s 50-year history with longtime AISA veteran Areta Williams. On stage, as in the 50th-anniversary commemorative book she authored for the occasion, Williams thoughtfully evoked her personal journey with the organization. “Without a doubt, the highlight of the conference for me was Areta Williams’s speech,” Bateman comments. “The care and love she has poured into the organization really set the tone for the conference and gives hope that we can celebrate the past and prepare for the future.” Award recipients honored at the Gala event included Irene Epp, for Outstanding Contribution to an AISA Program, and Andy Page-Smith, for Outstanding Contribution to Educational Leadership. The conference closed with AISA’s trademark “Talking Heads” presentation, ably led by Tim Stuart on Student Learning and Engagement, Fatma Odaymat on the Power of Failure, and Andy Page-Smith on School Culture. “Feedback from attendees has been overwhelmingly positive,” confirms Bateman. Attendees expressed their gratitude for “so many highly experienced and knowledgeable educators” and testified that it was “a stimulating, inspiring, and game-changing conference.” “I’d like to add a ‘thank you’ from me to the AISA Team,” the Executive Director of AISA continues, “who worked so tirelessly to make the event a success. As you can imagine an event like that does not just happen. It has many working parts that all need careful attention in order to ensure the quality of the event remains world-class. The AISA Team did an amazing job. I am very proud of them.” AISA2020 will take place 18–21 November 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa.

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