With his depth of knowledge and breadth of experience spanning many years in international education, Conrad Hughes (MA, PhD, EdD) shares his insights on leadership in an introductory interview with TIE Editor, Shwetangna Chakrabarty. As a start to his leadership series, A Leadership Journey, this excerpt from the interview serves as an inspiration to aspiring as well as seasoned leaders in international education.
SC: Take us through your professional journey, what has been your guiding light?
CH: I went from a brutal schooling system in Apartheid South Africa based on humiliation and corporal punishment to an international education system based on mutual understanding and humanity. In my first school, I felt that none of the adults saw any potential in me. I was a “good for nothing.” In my second school, I had teachers who believed in me and told me that. This has formed the most powerful conviction I have in education and in life: we need to lift each other up, look ahead, and believe in each other. Our job as educators is not to be gatekeepers or to break young people’s confidence, it’s to identify gifts within them and create conditions for those gifts to shine. The educator’s mindset should be about seeing potential and building up students’ dignity and self-worth by drawing out that potential.
SC: You have led many inspirational workshops, training sessions, and have been the keynote speaker for many conferences, what keeps you intrinsically motivated to meet the expectations of the community?
CH: I feel blessed to have been given so many wonderful opportunities to meet extraordinary people on all continents of the globe. Ultimately, I transmit my passion and my convictions: I speak from the heart. I’m not sure there is any other way really. My intrinsic motivation comes from doing what I love: I love big ideas, taking action, and designing future scenarios through education. Whenever I speak or present, I want the community to feel that energy and to resonate with it because, at the end of the day, I think we all share that same deeply human spark, which is the spark of lifelong learning.
Something that perhaps makes me a little different to other speakers is that I always contextualize what I present historically, politically, and culturally. To me, it is vital to see ideas as anchored in time and place.
SC: What are you hoping teaching and learning look like in the near future and how do you communicate that vision? (Embodying Visionary Leadership)
CH: I think that the future of teaching and learning should, and hopefully will, be centered on a broader range of human competencies than the current disproportionately academic dimensions of learning. I am a strong believer in the necessity to master content and the beauty of knowledge, but our educational systems have to allow all stars to shine and we have to be intentionally inclusive enough in assessment design to ensure that different types of human gifts are recognized and rewarded. This is essentially why we are developing a powerful new transcript at my school called the Learner Passport. By broadening assessment, we open a more generous discussion about what it means to be educated.
In terms of leadership, I think that there are many different elements to discuss but ultimately, it is about aligning vision with operation and bringing each person to the frontiers of their capabilities. Leaders have to be humane, compassionate, and humble but also inspirational, strong, and bold. Not easy!
SC: What do you view as your most important contribution as an international school leader?
CH: I believe that the coalition to honour all learning that I convened about a year and a half ago, consisting of fifty schools and universities to look closely at alternative transcripts, is a useful contribution because it’s about moving forward on the necessity to innovate for a broader assessment design for students at the end of high school. If more forces join the coalition and implement alternative transcripts, we will move more quickly and more aptly to a model that is less narrow, less high stakes, and more imaginative and student-centered.
SC: What skills are needed to ensure success as a modern school leader?
CH: It depends on where you are in your organizational journey, what the culture and context are, and where the performance and opportunity gaps are. Universalist approaches can be a bit wooden, but I will state the obvious nonetheless:
SC: What are some of the challenges faced by international schools after the pandemic and how can these be solved?
CH: The main challenges are the social, psychological, and emotional scars that Covid left behind. Schools need to build back community and ensure that rallying points, face-to-face encounters, school cultural events, and care and kindness are emphasized. There are extraordinary opportunities to be even stronger because of Covid. I wrote a fairly extended piece on this if you would like to find out more on my position.
SC: As a thought leader what would be your advice to aspiring international school leaders?
CH: I would encourage you to go into school leadership because you can be a force for good in an area of human study that is extremely significant for our collective legacy here on earth. Above all, stay integral to your beliefs and remember that leadership is primarily an ethical act. Your north star should always be “students first” but don’t turn this into a reason to lose your humanity. Everybody counts in a school, and everyone deserves respect.
SC: What is the future of leadership in international schools?
CH: Greater diversity, greater competencies.
SC: How would you describe your leadership style?
CH: I try to be inclusive, I believe in teaming and letting team leads get on with the work. I don’t like leaders who micromanage or interfere with others. There has to be some trust, some letting go. I try to remember every day that I have been given an opportunity to make people’s lives happier and more productive, and therefore, my decisions have to be aligned with that. You can't please everybody though and you have to have the courage to stand up for the values of the school and put student learning first, but this can always be done through discussion, listening, guidance, and collective efforts.
SC: How do you ensure that Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice are celebrated in the school community?
CH: First, recruitment. My leadership team has gender balance and six different nationalities; cross sections of humanity are represented throughout my teams. There’s little point in preaching diversity if your team is not diverse. What message are you sending out to students? Then, decolonize the curriculum. Finally, celebrate different cultures so that students and faculty become culturally sensitive and competent at your school. Above all, do this with joy and pride.
In his series, A Leadership Journey, Conrad will explore his thoughts on and experience with Leadership and Innovation, Leadership and Culture, Leadership and Teaming, and Leadership and Mission Alignment.
Conrad Hughes (MA, PhD, EdD) is the Campus and Secondary Principal at the International School of Geneva, La Grande Boissière. He has been a School Principal, Director of Education, International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme Coordinator, and a teacher in schools in Switzerland, France, India, and the Netherlands. He is also a Senior Fellow at UNESCO's International Bureau of Education, a member of the advisory board for the University of the People, and a research assistant at the University of Geneva's department of psychology and education. He teaches philosophy.