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Abu Dhabi educators attend leadership institute at Vanderbilt

Vice principals from United Arab Emirates visited Harding Academy as part of a professional development institute at Peabody. (Photo by Kristin Anderson)

Eleven female vice principals from Abu Dhabi and Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates recently completed a 10-day professional development institute at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development.

The visit, which was sponsored by the professional development department of the Abu Dhabi Education Council, took place from March 30 to April 9. Curriculum for the training program was designed by faculty in Peabody’s Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations.

The institute built on an existing partnership between ADEC and Vanderbilt, which has worked for the past three years to develop leadership capacity among school leaders at 18 schools in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. (Susan Urmy/Vanderbilt)

The vice principals heard presentations by Vanderbilt education experts; visited public, private and charter schools in Nashville; met with community leaders; and participated in working sessions to identify leverage points that schools in Abu Dhabi can use to improve student performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment. The PISA is administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to a representative sample of 15-year-olds from 70 economies. It is a widely used benchmark to assess the educational effectiveness of established and developing nations.

School visits and institute sessions focused on such topics as developing growth mindsets for teachers and students, creating school cultures of care and engagement, mathematics instruction for higher-order thinking skills, understanding the gender gap in achievement, and educational policy and governance.

The institute built on an existing partnership between ADEC and Vanderbilt, which has worked for the past three years to develop leadership capacity among school leaders at 18 schools in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Camilla P. Benbow, Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Peabody addressed the vice principals. (Susan Urmy/Vanderbilt)

“Peabody College has historically been committed to strengthening education for all learners, including learners around the world,” said Camilla P. Benbow, Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Peabody. “Our efforts in Abu Dhabi—including leadership training and classroom instruction—hold promise for students in the emirate while offering our own faculty a chance to learn more about education in a different cultural context. We are grateful for the opportunity to be involved.”

Expanding on this partnership, in September 2013 Vanderbilt faculty began training and providing school-based coaching to a group of female Emirati vice principals who were newly appointed to leadership positions in their schools. The vice principals have met with faculty and locally based leadership coaches biweekly, in addition to having individual coaching sessions at their own schools. The institute in Nashville was an optional program for these participants to further their learning. About half of the total cohort participated.

“I am so honored to be part of this extraordinary experience,” said Zainab Al Obaidli, vice principal at Al Ezzah School in Abu Dhabi. “We interacted with many inspiring leaders and experts who exposed us to different ideas and perspectives, which I plan to adapt and implement into my school.”

“This visit opened my eyes to a lot of things,” said Amna Al Mulla, vice principal at Zakhir Kindergarten in Al Ain. “This whole journey was about looking at different successful practices and pinpointing why it worked in the U.S. context, and how we can adapt those things to improve our own educational system.”

The vice principals especially noted the strong culture of relationships and value placed on education among the schools they visited.

For many of the participants, it was their first time in the United States. (Susan Urmy/Vanderbilt)

“I realize that what really matters in a school is how committed the leaders and teachers are to the learning process,” said Mouza Al Kindi, vice principal at Al Raqia School in Al Ain. “Also, it is so important for teachers to develop a bond with their students, and for school leaders and teachers to build a caring school culture together.”

Both faculty and Nashville school leaders who hosted the visits were very impressed with the level of engagement and the depth of questions asked by the Abu Dhabi vice principals. “The Emirati vice principals were clearly very dedicated to learning, and this was evident in every interaction with Vanderbilt content experts and school leaders,” said Patrick Schuermann, director of the Vanderbilt Abu Dhabi Leadership Development Program.

Institute participants also had the opportunity to visit notable Nashville sites in the evenings and on the weekend, including the renowned Country Music Hall of Fame, Cheekwood Botanical Gardens, and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.

“Beyond just the professional learning and growth that occurred through this experience, this trip also offered a valuable opportunity for intercultural education and dialog, not just about school practices, but also around Emirati and American culture and society,” said Kristin Anderson, Vanderbilt’s director of educational operations in Abu Dhabi. This was the first visit to the United States for almost all of the vice principals.

Participants posed for a group shot at the end of the institute, along with Peabody's Camilla Benbow, Ellen Goldring, Kristin Anderson and others. (Photo by Susan Urmy/Vanderbilt)

Now back in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, the vice principals will continue their work and training with the Vanderbilt team as they prepare to present their formal recommendations for improving Abu Dhabi student learning and performance to an audience of influential ADEC leaders and members of Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council later this month.

“Since I’ve been back, I can’t stop smiling,” Al Mulla said. “I feel so motivated to help guide my teachers and to make improvements in my school and in the education system.”

by Kristin Anderson