Ruth Burke: Building high-performance teams through synergy

Ruth Burke, Principal, Swiss International Scientific School Dubai

Ruth Burke, the Principal of Swiss International Scientific School Dubai , is a passionate and inspiring educator, with a career spanning more than three decades – teaching in Ireland, the UK and the UAE. She  has a deep understanding of the International Baccalaureate education programme, which aims to develop students’ intellectual, emotional, personal and social skills ready for a globalised world.

Having served as a principal at three Dubai schools in the past 13 years, Burke has unrivalled experience of what it means to teach and manage schools in a truly multicultural environment. Her achievements include improving academic outcomes, increasing attainment for UAE nationals, developing better parent/teacher communications, transparency and engagement, and achieving improvements across the board at all her schools. She has also driven her schools to receive ‘Outstanding’ ratings from the KHDA. 

Burke holds a Bachelor of Education degree with Honours from Trinity College, Dublin and a Masters in Educational Leadership and Management from the UK’s University of Bath.

Education Middle East spoke to Burke about the significant changes in the education industry in the past 20 years, how she drove most schools to receive ‘Outstanding’ ratings from the KHDA, how IB is different from other curriculum and more. 

You have a career spanning more than three decades. Can you share some of the  most memorable experiences from your 30-year journey? 

As a teacher first and foremost, my fondest  memories revolve around students making progress across a range of skills in ways that transformed their opportunities for future success. Contributing to students’ learning  journeys, where barriers to learning exist, is always particularly rewarding, and I’ve been  blessed with having opportunities and resources available to ensure provision and practice, in a range of settings, that have positively influenced student achievement and quality of life. 

Similarly, in my role as a school leader, it has been wonderful to support aspiring leaders and  enable opportunities for their professional growth, observing first-hand how teachers seek to grow and develop as professionals, to take on new roles and expand their sphere of  influence. 

Memorable too are the range of amazing leaders I have been privileged to work with. Benefiting from observing great mentorship and inspirational leadership has, in no small  way, given me so much to aspire to. 

What are some of the significant changes that you’ve seen in the education landscape in the 20 years that you’ve been in Dubai? 

The educational landscape continues to evolve and particularly in Dubai where over the past 20 years the range of schools’ curricula and price points has expanded; change is our one constant. 

With regard to holistic provision, inspection, National Agenda priorities, targets and testing, inclusion, wellbeing and reading as key priorities have all kept school leaders focused and ambitious in their approaches. Collaboration within and across schools in Dubai has evolved  too, with school leaders understanding and embracing the benefits of being outward facing and willing to share expertise. COVID-19 and distance learning of course, saw all  elements of school life retransformed, with the use of technology and virtual classes and meetings becoming commonplace. As parents we all learned the true value of schools,  teachers and being united in learning. 

During your tenure you have driven most schools to receive ‘Outstanding’ ratings from the KHDA. How did you achieve such strong results? 

Improving schools and developing opportunities for students and staff is a passion. I feel very lucky to enjoy the journey of nurturing a school, while being ambitious in approach and systematic in prioritising and planning next steps. 

A relentless focus on students, ensuring their well-being and progress is prioritised, supporting all staff in delivering great teaching and exciting learning opportunities will result in school  development. The real magic is building teams where synergies support the core purpose and all members of the team thrive in a common purpose. Where school communities focus on quality, enabling the best of experiences, approaches and opportunities – all  elements of school success are enhanced. 

We are told that you have a deep understanding of the International Baccalaureate  (IB) education programme. How are the teaching methodologies of IB different from  other curriculum? 

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Great teaching focuses on students. Building on students’ curiosity, interests and needs  accelerates progress and harnesses high levels of engagement. The IB is a programme that  develops skills as well as knowledge, and revolves around the concepts of inquiry,  reflection, thinking, communication and being principled. Facilitating learning is at the core  of the framework rather than a focus on memorisation and/or adult-led knowledge -focused experiences. In addition, the approach allows teachers to build creativity and  exploration of concepts into the daily provision. Trans-disciplinary approaches to learning engages students in real life active learning; it’s exciting! 

Feedback from employers and success in tertiary education further supports the IB approach; research is clear that IB graduates succeed in university in terms of matriculation, and going onto Masters level courses is more common than with graduates from traditional curriculum pathways. In addition, the ability to think outside the box, problem solving and think independently are key features of IB students, and critical to success in a constantly  evolving job market. I love the fact that the IB instills a love of learning for life.

What do you think are the top 3 qualities that a school leader should possess? 

Top 3 qualities for me are passion, purpose and a great sense of humour. 

Any teacher that you really look up to or has inspired you? 

My earliest memory is being a student in an Early Years classroom. I loved all aspects of  school life from an early age, but the classroom I recall from memory was filled with  beautiful books and a role play shop. My passion for teachers, facilitating great learning, through active approaches, most likely started there. In latter years. I recall language  teachers who were passionate in their approaches to teaching literature and who  facilitated high levels of engagement through exciting texts – as an avid reader, this was  genuinely inspiring and opened a whole world of learning that for me enabled great  personal and professional experiences and opportunities. 

Do you think women make better leaders? 

Leadership is complex and as we all know, different approaches are required in different  contexts. Great leaders, both men and women, bring a range of skills to every situation. I  have seen both superb male and female leaders at work and admire so many in  education, who judiciously balance the various requirements of school development in  these very changeable times. Being authentic will always ensure transparency and  humility that people will respond positively to. In addition, sharing a vision clearly and  signposting the journey, reflecting and celebrating the wins along the way will maintain high levels of engagement. Men and women with purpose and passion both do it very  well! 

Tell us about the bilingual approach at SISD. How does it make an impact? 

I have worked in a range of schools over the years, but nothing compares to the multilingual and vibrant community of learners that is Swiss International Scientific School in  Dubai. Global citizens, who are internationally-minded abound, and supported  significantly in the acquisition of languages with our approach to bilingualism at the core.  Two teachers in bilingual classrooms, providing instruction in two languages, expert co teaching systems, nurturing the building of close relationships enables superb levels of  instruction and consolidation through Early Years and Primary classes. This results in strong  bilingual communicators who confidently code-switch and accommodate a range of  linguistic skills authentically and confidently. And when you overlay a boarding school on top of this, you have something very special and very unique. The outcomes, as demonstrated in the graduating class of 2022 for example, include a student with no French spoken at home graduating with a full bilingual Diploma, Early Years students negotiate story, phonics and emerging reading skills in both German and English or French and English, and a buzz of languages being utilised in playtimes, specialist lessons and transition.  These approaches ensure great progress and superb engagement at all levels. 

How has SISD prepared for the new academic year?  

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Planning for the new academic year started early at SISD, following significant growth last summer set to continue into 2022. The development of amazing learning spaces,  both indoors and out, will ensure great wellbeing and sports are enabled, with additional pitches and play areas for all phases in process and much to look forward to; our world-class facilities are supporting immense opportunities. 

Catering for significant growth of student numbers necessitates increased recruitment and  we began our international and local searches for talented, experienced and committed  teachers back in November. Additional leaders, inclusion staff, specialist teachers and  assistants are all embracing the induction process, sharing information with new classes,  writing letters, attending virtual training, planning collaboratively; demonstrating the  highest levels of engagement and commitment to all that is SISD. 

In terms of student preparation, all of our Grade 10 students have benefited from 1-1 academic and careers counseling to ensure their IBDP (IB Diploma Programme) and IBCP (IB Career-related Programme) subject selection will  secure them the most positive outcomes, while our Grade 5 students transitioning to our  Secondary School thoroughly enjoyed a very deliberate, highly scaffolded transition to  ensure a seamless move to the IBMYP (IB Middle Years Programme); one that will build on great BEST successes of  Bilingual, Excellence, Sustainability and Togetherness. 

For our existing staff and teachers the new school year looks bright – a growth in all  departments, the introduction of new subject choices e.g. Economics and Spanish,  additional staff supporting all elements of personalised learning, development of our site  and enrichment opportunities…I have no doubt that our high engagement levels will  continue to grow and SISD can look forward to our BEST year yet!