Neil Allen – Secondary Principal Interview

The start of the 2019-20 school year marks two decades in education and the beginning of Neil’s sixteenth year in international education. Having worked in England and then at international schools in Egypt and Oman, Neil and his family spent eight years at the International School of Brussels in which he performed many roles, notably being the Head of the English Department and a Teacher Workshop Leader for the International Baccalaureate and for various professional development providers including InThinking.

Neil’s passion has always been with the relationships between teachers and students and the power of effective classroom teaching and learning, so it was a pleasure for him to spend the past academic year leading this focus at LIS. He is extremely proud and honoured to be leading an excellent team of staff and teachers and leading the learning of the students of the school as Secondary Principal.

Tell us a little about what brought you to teaching.

I was attracted to teaching because it seemed to me a profession that could be combine with travel and getting to know the world. I had studied a Bachelor of Arts’ degree in English Literature and Philosophy and decided to get a Post Graduate Certificate of Education, which is a common path into teaching in the UK. I got my teaching qualification in Secondary English and Drama at the University of York and began teaching in a school in the area for my Newly Qualified Teaching year. It was here that I met my wife Gillian (LIS Athletic Director). We worked there for three years.

Our first international job was in Cairo from 2004 to 2006, then Oman from 2006 to 2010 where we had our two children. In 2010 we moved to Brussels where we stayed until our move to Leipzig in 2018.

What brought you to a position of leadership in education?

I completed a Master’s in Education Leadership and Management on a part time basis at the University of Bath, as well as the Principals Training Centre’s Certificate in International Leadership.

I had a desire not just to teach well but to shape learning using the things I have learned in 20+ years on the job. My background was always more or less a full-time teacher. During my first or second year in Brussels, I was asked if I wanted to become an IB teacher trainer. So I do teacher training for the IB as well. I quite enjoyed that and it brought to me to think more about leadership in schools, how you define it, and how you observe and support it.

I started at LIS as Teaching and Learning Leader and have integrated this position into my new role as Secondary Principal as I feel they inherently have the same responsibilities.

What are those responsibilities/what is your role as Secondary Principal?

Largely my responsibility is to observe and support. The job does have a considerable administrative side but I feel that by continuing to teach I will and must remain in contact with what it is we are here to do. I don’t want to lose touch with the classroom reality of this job.

Too often the job becomes an admin position where someone sits in a room, appoints people to do various things and doesn’t oversee them because they don’t know what they’re overseeing.

What does the position of Teaching and Learning Leader entail?

Well a lot of what I did last year was observe lessons, which is a dying practice in international schools and I will say there is a lack of intervention and a tendency to intellectualise not watching teaching. Some leadership theory says people don’t improve by having a school leader go around and tell them how they should teach and therefore that leaders shouldn’t trouble teachers in the classroom. I did my dissertation on this subject and based on my research in this area we found that people are crying out for acknowledgement of the work they are doing and for feedback on it. I found this was reiterated here when I got into classrooms, which is a common trend everywhere.

Not getting involved at a classroom level always seems to me like an abdication of responsibility.

What are some of the challenges unique to being a leader in an educational organisation?

Finding the institutional balance between content and form.

Teaching is not an exact art or science, no two teachers are the same. My job is to focus and distil common practice without demanding everyone do the same thing.

What is something that all good classroom environments have in common?

Of all the hundreds of lesson observations I have carried out in the past fifteen years, it’s classroom management. We can manage a classroom with our subject knowledge and our engagement but also timing. We have a 40 minute lesson and it’s important to give students a sense of pace. Verbal cues can ensure that no one is allowed to sit in the back and disengage.

You can have incredible subject expertise but if you can’t manage the room, you will not be able to get students to apply methods as taught. This is complicated further in that we are living in a time of great digital distraction. We have to be rigorous in making sure we have complete attention before speaking, things like that.  

Who is your team?

Predominantly, we have two teams of leadership, there is a Secondary Leadership Team made up of heads of department. We have a Secondary Management Team: the Principal, two Assistant Principals and Curriculum & Assessment Leader. And, of course, the Secondary Office, which has a major role in the running of the Secondary School.

What are some of the benefits and challenges of teaching in an international setting?

Well, I’ve taught the majority of my career in an international setting and I have seen there are definitely challenges in having a number of transient people. The school often needs to be more than just a school; it needs to be a home.

We have the benefit, though, of not being pigeon-holed by nationalities and stereotypes but still being exposed to a multitude of perspectives. Present climate and global crises and inequality require international solutions, almost by definition.

We therefore have a duty as an international school, which understands these challenges on a micro scale, to find international solutions for the macro scale. How do you try to imbue young people with ideas and ideals that think beyond short-term, border-oriented ideologies? You don’t create critical thinkers by just replacing one propaganda system with another. Personally, I think the IB is the right tool for this challenge.

Could you define your leadership role?

Showing you are prepared to think and listen and not force a one-size-fits-all idea on people.

I also feel it’s important to model good teaching as a leader. I’ve worked in seven schools now and run into places where the heads of school openly say they are not expert teachers and I find that quite odd. In how many other industries is it ok ayfor non-experts to run a department where they have no knowledge of what is being done on the ground? I want to lead by example and by example I mean, look at what really good teachers do with kids, especially with older kids, and find a best practice that we can work towards institutionally.

One of the hardest things to measure is leadership. Its impact, by definition, isn’t direct so it’s very hard to say, ‘Look I’m doing a good job because results are good.’ None the less I believe coherence and coordination are beneficial to all.

What are some of the biggest challenges?

Time. Finding the time to do everything.

What attracted you to LIS?

The IB! I’m an IB guy.

I believe in the IB goals and curriculum and I think the outcomes are fair and consistent. We all complain about individual outcomes going one way or another but generally when I ask people, do you get kids who you know could get 7’s that are getting 4’s? the answer is no.

To echo the sentiments of the admissions officers of universities – they say the IB kids are always much better prepared for university than other systems.

And I think if you look at our results compared to other schools in Europe we are doing outstandingly well, which is a testament to the teachers and the good things that are going on here. And when it comes to making comparisons with our direct competitors in German Gymnasiums, the system most certainly doesn’t discriminate against IB students. IB results are always recognised at German universities, and in 2019 six of our students (more than 12%) gained a 1.0 in the German Arbitur. This is alongside all of the other benefits an IB education brings, such as confident ability to speak and present publicly in a number of languages, an awareness of global issues, a commitment to service learning, and a philosophical understanding of knowledge and how it is constructed, evidenced in the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) core course.

How do you deal with the stress and pressure?

Try and make sure I don’t do some of the more stressful parts of the job at certain times of the day.

I’m normally in here by 7:30 and don’t get away until after 17:00 and usually without breaks. I think then it’s reasonable not to be checking school email at 22:00. In the two week holiday I just worked on things I enjoy, policy document etc.

What is your vision for the future?

Systematising innovation. We are trying to look at all the good things we are doing and pull them into some overarching coherent vision. So we do lots of good things, enrichment things that are not really policy, like some sport, some music. Trying to make sure that everything is part of an aligned unit. Make sure we’re not relying on adhoc systems or people to make great things happen. We’re trying to make sure it becomes part of who we are.

We all have a vision of what we want to do with our facilities, how we would like to expand what we’ve got but I would very much like to continue the excellence of academics.

What values are most important to you as a leader?

I feel that treating people respectfully and professionally is paramount. I try to model that practice myself. For the vast majority this is common but people work hard, work is stressful and sometimes one doesn’t like a certain direction things are taking. It helps to listen to people and make them feel heard and supported. I hope to maintain the idea that everyone is here for the right reasons and conversations about differences of opinion and work can occur respectfully.

Why should parents send their kids to LIS?

In short, we offer an education that blends a commitment to academic excellence, with a broad, holistic programme of sports, arts and languages. Our students get the benefit of a rigorous yet balanced, inquiry-based education inclusive of all abilities. And at the end, they have access to universities and the world of work all around the globe, with IB results that stand comparison against bigger international schools in Europe, and academic outcomes that match and indeed outperform local schools. We aim to keep our promises in the Secondary School, to include, inspire, inquire.

You have your own children at LIS. How do you experience the school as a parent?

I’m still delighted that we came. We’ve seen a real impact on our children both socially and academically. They’ve both had plenty of opportunities already and enjoy school. This must be a good thing.

What makes a good teacher?

John Hattie argues that the greatest single factor influencing student learning is that of the relationship with teachers. I have found this to be true. There is, of course, good and better pedagogy – I believe that and have tried to deconstruct and scaffold those skills for institutional progress – but none of that matters if the teacher doesn’t like the students and vice versa. The best teachers want the best for the kids and are willing to give them their time and expertise to this end.

Is it important to model good leadership for students?

Absolutely. But it’s also important to remember that students are young and inexperienced people, too, reliant on us for the right kind of guidance. This should always be fair and well-intentioned, but sometimes, for the good of everyone else in the institution, it also needs to be firm. One of our Learning Principles in the Secondary School is about teaching for the learning ‘of communicative, collaborative and social skills, to enable students to live and work effectively in their future personal and professional teams.’ We have a duty to teach students that sometimes it is just not okay to behave in any way they see fit, regardless of the impact upon others. And sometimes to teach that message, there needs to be strong consequences in places to support, in a utilitarian sense, the learning and a positive environment for everyone else.

What is your vision for the next five years?

I would love to see a school in which there was a common language and discussion of what great teaching and learning looks like, a school in which teachers regularly visited each other’s classrooms and had rich, substantive conversations about excellent practice and the impact upon the kids. I would love to see a school in which the traditional pillars of enrichment – Visual Arts, Performing Arts, Athletics – were flourishing with excellent facilities (improved sports’ facilities, an exhibition centre, and a theatre and music centre), numerous events, and maximum involvement from students, families and members of the community alike. Finally, I’d love for this holistic and internationalist learning to grow in all directions, so students and teachers were engaged in scientific, mathematical and technological activities, politics and debating, language exchanges and partnerships with international schools and businesses that share our mission and values.

Read our other Leadership Intereviews:

LIS Board Interview

Thomas Pessara – Commercial Director Interview

Kjersti Nichols – Primary Principal Interview

Tim Belfield – Primary Principal Interview

Neil Allen – Secondary Principal Interview

David Smith – Head of School Interview

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