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Educator or Entrepreneur? Opening a School Requires a Little Crazy!

The first KSI Panama team poses for a group photo, 2013. The first KSI Panama team poses for a group photo, 2013.
  • Volume: 1
  • Issue: 1


InterACT / 15 May, 2019

I was never one of those people who grew up knowing that I wanted to teach, and while I love working with children and I think I am an excellent teacher, I always knew that a role in educational leadership was what I wanted to pursue. I have been fortunate to have a robust and thrilling career as a result of my work in international education. From the moment I accepted my first position as the Elementary School Curriculum Coordinator at the American School Foundation of Monterrey, Mexico, in 1999, I have been presented with many opportunities to grow and extend myself as an educator and school leader. However, it was the opportunity to open a new school that would be my ultimate professional and life challenge; one that I knew I was destined to undertake but was not entirely prepared for.

I recently read an article on LinkedIn by Jack Ma in which he encourages employers to consider hiring not the most “qualified” person, but instead they should hire the “craziest.” Jack claims that there is one invaluable thing all the “crazy” people have - periscope vision, which he defines as the mental capability to look just around the corner. When I think about my decision to accept the challenge of opening a new school, I would agree that there was an element of craziness in my decision making. It was risky and crazy for sure, and I went into the project understanding some of the challenges that would lie ahead, but it was the “crazy” element of my personality and that “periscope vision” that allowed me to persevere and ultimately see the project through to success.

When I made the decision to start a new school in Panama as its founding Director, I was already an experienced school leader, and through working with great international school educators, I had developed a strong skill set. I was a founding member of Project AERO (American Education Reaches Out), I had presented at many international and national conferences, and in 2005, I was the recipient of the National Distinguished Principal Award for my work at the International School of Belgrade (ISB). I was also experiencing great success in my work at the International School of Panama (ISP) where I had been the Elementary Principal for four years. It was during my time at ISP that I was approached by one of the parents to open a new school, an opportunity that few educators are given, and one that even fewer would consider taking. But it was a challenge that I knew I wanted and I enthusiastically, naively, and crazily accepted. I liken my experience of opening the school to jumping out of an airplane without fully understanding how to open my parachute. I would eventually figure out how the chute worked, but would I do it in time?

The Panama Pacifico Academy (PPA) sign at the entrance during the first year of operation, 2012.

Large school groups support many start-up schools, and they have marketing teams, finance teams, and school start-up procedures to secure a strong opening, but that was not the case for my school. Without all of those supports, I think it is easy to say that the first year of operating the school was the most challenging year of my life. Low enrollment, demanding parents, an inexperienced leadership team, low funding, along with my own inexperience as the school Director made every single day an enormous challenge. There were many stressful days that I was not sure I would live through, but amazingly enough I never considered quitting. Was it periscope vision or pure insanity? I am not entirely sure, but I persevered because I believed in our mission and vision. The mission and vision were special because they truly focused on making students better people. We had built a community service pro- gram into the curriculum and we aimed to have a strong emphasis on environmental education; blended with the International Baccalaureate Learner Profile our curriculum really focused on the development of global citizens. We also had a strong emphasis on technology, with the mission to develop ethical and responsible users of technology. These were ideals that I was passionate about but each teacher that joined our team also felt strongly about our focus and purpose, and I was committed to the faculty and families that put their trust in me. How- ever, no matter how hard I worked or how many hours I committed, it just was not enough to keep our doors open, and the original school did not make it beyond the first year. As the person who was the chief architect of and sold the vision, it was difficult to face parents, students, and colleagues; my failures were very public and it was difficult to walk in the community with my head high. It was at this moment where I needed to set aside my bruised ego, my dreams of being a part-owner of a school and reevaluate; I needed to look at the bigger picture and thanks to that periscope vision, I did.

One of the classrooms prior to renovation.

What is incredible about this story is how the original team of professionals pulled together to be a part of the solution. I believe this happened because I, like Jack Ma recommends, hired many crazies. There were several times that year that I had difficulty making payroll and yet the staff stayed and hung onto the vision because they were determined to see it through. Working with the team, drawing them in to be part of the solution and being transparent with everyone about the challenges empowered stakeholders to keep clearing the path to success. In the end, no matter how much love, work, time, and energy we devoted, we just did not have enough student enrollment to sustain the school and we needed to find a solution or close our doors. It was very fortunate that an organization that was very similar to our school’s vision, Knightsbridge Schools International, was found to invest in our school and all was not lost; employees did not lose their jobs, parents did not lose their investments and students continued on their journey of learning, and yes, I even continued on as the Director.

My introduction into the world of business was harsh, as there was little support, and it was not the collaborative, caring world that I knew as an educator. While I am still a rookie in the world of business, I have come to learn what it takes to open a successful school. Some might argue that educators should not even lead schools because they are not versed in business development, but I would beg to differ. My failures did not arise out of incompetence, but rather due to lack of knowledge and experience. If I were to make a suggestion to any educator who is considering opening their own school, do your homework! Yes, you can hire a great Head of Finance and that, of course, will help - but take the time to learn more about the business of schools. I took a crash course in school business and I don’t particularly recommend it. What I know now that I did not know then is that the housing development where the school is located was not ready for an international school of the caliber (price point) that I designed, but I drank the Kool-Aid that was being sold and did so willingly out of naivety. Hindsight is a beautiful thing! All schools need strong business leaders whether they are proprietary or not-for-profit, but in the end, it is still the educators that build excellent programs, create caring school communities, hire outstanding faculty (the crazies), and set the standard of excellence for teaching and learning. It is the educator that ultimately designs the “product” that parents and students buy. However, having said that, the reality is that the school will not be successful without strong business leadership and so it is true that one cannot exist without the other. So to all aspiring school leaders out there, be sure you are well versed in both business and education. Take the time to inform yourself so that you can be the best leader for your community.

I persevered because I believed in our mission and vision. The mission and vision were special because they truly focused on making students better people.

Even after being acquired by a school group, building the school continued to be challenging, and leading a team through difficult times was something I had to manage daily. I wore my cheerleader outfit to school every single day when often I felt as though I should be wearing black to attend a funeral. I knew it was up to me to set the tone, to create a positive climate and to reassure everyone that we would make it. To keep us all motivated and fixated on our goal of achieving a U.S. accreditation we adopted NASA’s “Failure is not an option” motto. We used it as humor and to stay focused when we were all exhausted from wearing ten different hats, but it was this team that understood what was necessary to ensure the school’s success. It was this team that achieved the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) authorization within three years of opening, and Advanc-Ed accreditation and Primary Years Programme (PYP) authorization within five years. Only a crazy team can pull this off, and ultimately it built confidence within our parent community and put us on an equal playing field with other international schools in the city.

PPA to KSI Panama: A School Timeline

Today, Knightsbridge School International Panama continues to grow and continually improve, and many of the initial faculty and staff remain. It has been seven years since I opened the school, and this will be my last. I leave the school with a heavy heart, but I know that it is time for me to move on and that the school will benefit from having a new Director with a new perspective that will help the school flourish. I am going to take some time off and return to school; I have always wanted to complete my doctorate degree and so I plan to take some time to continue to learn and develop my skills as a leader and quite possibly write my dissertation on women in the business side of schools. Many people ask me if I would do it again, and like all “crazy” people, I continue to say, yes. It is the kind of work that inspires me, drives me to be a better leader and ultimately provides me with an immense amount of gratification. Despite the challenges and the many obstacles that I had to overcome, I leave the school seeing and feeling great success. I have not done it alone, but I have led and was instrumental in building a school that was failing to one that is now thriving; an accredited school with an excellent academic program that has a beautiful professional, collaborative and collegial culture, and a community that is incredibly supportive and caring. I often ask myself why I am leaving this fabulous environment and these amazing people, and I can only come up with one response - I must be crazy!

Wendy McArthur

Wendy McArthur is excited and motivated to be the newest member of the SchoolRubric team working to connect, inform, and share valuable information with the education community. Wendy is an experienced, passionate educator with a great sense of humor! Wendy has a Bachelor’s degree in History and Education and has a Master’s Degree in Education. Wendy has twenty years of experience in international school leadership and over twenty-seven years of experience in education; she has worked in international schools in Mexico, Serbia, and Panama. In 2005, Wendy was recognized for her dedication and commitment as a school leader when she was the recipient of the National Distinguished Principal’s awarded for the Office of Overseas Schools. Wendy is well versed in the International Baccalaureate program, American curricula, and school accreditation processes. Wendy is known throughout the international community as a leader and a presenter, presenting at conferences in the United States and regional international school conferences. Wendy believes that schools should be led with laughter and empathy if they are to transform into places where great learning takes place. If you would like to learn more about Wendy, you can find more information at www.wendymcarthur.work.