STRIDES catches up with Dave McMaster, Founding Director of Esol Education’s American School of Bahrain (ASB) to discuss his experiences as a global educator, his motivations and aspirations for his school.
Dave McMaster joined Esol Education as ASB’s Founding Director in the pre-opening years in 2018. Prior to that he led the Canadian International School of Hong Kong (CDNIS) as Principal and Head of School. He also led multiple school capital and building projects, such as with the Fairchild Group of Canada as their Head of Education to design, co-found and establish two schools in Hong Kong. Throughout his career, Dave has been a Teacher, Vice Principal, Principal and Head of School at various public and private schools, ranging in size from 120 to 2,000 students in Canada and Hong Kong. He has also served as Governor and Treasurer of the Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS).
Dave, how do you feel the educational experience differs for students in the West, East and now Middle East? What are some best practices that can be implemented from each of these learning systems?
The big difference, in my opinion, between the educational experience for students in the East (Asia), and West/Middle East is the academic expectation of students. Speaking generally, I found that the academic expectations from parents, teachers, community and the students themselves in Hong Kong were much higher at an earlier age than I experienced in Canada and now Bahrain, which put undue pressure on students at times. Children need a chance to be children when they are in kindergarten and lower elementary. They need to learn through inquiry and play. Thankfully the school I worked at in Hong Kong realized this and worked with the parents and the community to help them understand that students will be better equipped socially, emotionally and academically if they develop a love of learning at an early age through a play-based approach. The myth that you will become a better student by being immersed in academic rigor at a young age is damaging and will not prepare students for an academic life of excellence and joy.
At ASB we work very hard to develop a learning atmosphere where students love to come to school every day. They are excited to step through the doors each morning knowing they will learn something new, face challenges with an open mind and know that every adult in the building cares for them and has their best interest in mind every time they make an educational decision. If a school embraces this and sets this as their priority, the students will be very successful academically and they will not have to sacrifice happiness in an effort to reach new scholarly heights. This should be the practice whether you are an educator in the West, the East or the Middle East.
Be proud to be an educator and know that you have the potential to change lives.
Lastly, as a school leader who has worked in diverse cultures, it has become more apparent each year that it is incumbent on me to understand the culture I am working in and the cultures of the students who attend my school. International school leaders not only need to have high IQ and EQ but they need to have high CQ, cultural intelligence, so that they can meet the learning, social and emotional needs of the students in their school regardless of where they are from. This is applicable in the West, the East and the Middle East.
What are three things that leaders should do to build a positive school culture?
Firstly, the senior team needs to be visible, approachable and remember that every decision they make relates back to the mission and vision of the school. They set the tone for the school and the ethos and atmosphere that is developed starts with them. School leaders must be “human” in the eyes of the students and the staff and model compassion and empathy in everything they do. They need to communicate that risk-taking is encouraged, as is failure, and when something doesn’t work or you fall, you get back up and try it again. Secondly, school leaders need to communicate their vision to all stakeholders, what they believe to be important at the school and how the community will work collectively to achieve this. If the stakeholders don’t know the vision, the school will lack a sense of purpose and direction.
Lastly, school leaders need to model the love and passion they have for educating every student in the building. Communicate this, tell people about it and live it every day. Be proud to be an educator and know that you have the potential to change lives. This will all contribute to a positive school culture.
What aspirations do you have for ASB for the coming years?
I look forward to ASB being viewed as a top-tier school not only in Bahrain, but the Middle East and beyond. This takes time and a lot of effort by the entire community. We must never settle for the status quo, and we need to find a balance of high academic rigor and expectations with an ethos of happiness and a sense of belonging - where everyone in the building is proud to be part of the ASB family. First, we need to ensure the mercury in the “smile index” is always high and that we see building positive relationships as a priority. Academic success will not happen if you do not have a school full of happy, engaged students and teachers. Build a positive atmosphere, hire world-class teachers and the rest comes naturally.
What are the top qualities you look for when recruiting teachers?
I hire teachers who fit into the personality puzzle of the school. I can find their qualifications and experiences on their CV. I can see how they have performed through reference checks. But what I really want to find out is if a teacher has fire in their belly and can hardly wait to get to school every day. I look for teachers who are not afraid of hard work and who are open to risk-taking and change. I have no interest in a teacher who has a suitcase full of lesson plans that have worked the past ten years. Teachers need to constantly re-invent themselves and their craft. I look for teachers who do not teach like I was taught. Otherwise, we will have no chance of educating and shaping the leaders of tomorrow, leaders who will make the world a kinder, more peaceful place.
What has been your most unforgettable experience as an educator?
I have been very fortunate to have a number of unforgettable experiences during my career. Most of these extraordinary experiences are not stand-alone, they are usually a series of special moments over an extended period of time. Being the founding director of ASB and involved from the very start is the most recent unforgettable event and for me the most significant of my career. It is rare than an educator is given the opportunity to start a school from scratch and to hire his own founding team from day one. It has truly been an incredible experience and one that I will be proud of for a very long time.
What motivates you most when you come to school every day?
That’s easy! The smiles on the faces of students and colleagues when they walk in the door in the morning and when they leave in the afternoon. Everything else in between is icing on the cake.