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Thriving through shared purpose

By Nich Alchin, Head of East Campus
22 December 2021

FIB Science Sustainability Project

Nick Alchin took up the role as Head of UWCSEA East in January 2021. One year into his appointment, the East Campus community will be familiar with his name—hundreds of emails have been sent in his name as we navigate the pandemic—but many will not yet have had a chance to meet the passionate educator.

His commitment to UWCSEA and the UWC mission have fueled 12 months of thoughtful leadership focused on encouraging the development of both students and staff as agents of positive change in the world. He is a believer in the power of shared purpose and hope that comes from being a part of the UWCSEA community with its collective responsibility to our shared mission.

What would you describe as the challenge of leadership? How does this influence you in your role as Head of Campus?

Nick: There’s the need to hold and wrestle with valid opposing ideas and behaviours—while at the same time sticking to our mission and values. It’s a bit of a paradox as it means attempting to find space and occasion to be humble and strong, decisive and open, confident and vulnerable, tough and compassionate, detached and sensitive, symbolic and substantive. It means being absolutely fair, while also being sensitive to particular circumstances. And so on. Leadership is difficult, and it should not be presented as being easy. We can always do better, and frankly, this complexity is why we sometimes get it wrong. But we keep trying! I tend not to think about myself as an individual leader, and find it easier to think about how I can contribute to and shape the leadership of the College. We need all the qualities, and sometimes we have to recognise that no individual can carry them all at once—so the team is really the fundamental unit of leadership. My focus is on trying to create tighter networks of connections, internally and externally. This takes time, and requires enormous trust and resilience and belief—but it’s worthwhile and we’ll end up more robust and resilient as a result.

What are some of the long term innovations that you are most excited about being a part of bringing into life at UWCSEA?

There are many changes underway. Some structural ones are plain to see, some cultural ones are far less visible—but the most recent significant change that I can point to is perhaps the way the College is approaching the extension of our High School programme and the new Grade 9 and 10 programme, which continues the concept–based interdisciplinary approach of our K–8 programme.

At East, and across the College, we’ve collectively created an environment in which thinking, debate and evolution is encouraged, and that has helped us to create a community focused on improving our education for peace and sustainability. And this will—as we have already seen—continue to produce agents of change in the world who will bring our mission, our shared purpose, to life in ways we haven’t even imagined yet. I am also looking forward to continuing the progress we have made on inclusion and wellbeing—much of this work is in its infancy at the moment but from the foundations we are building, or probably better phrased as reconstructing, I am hopeful that we will achieve a real difference in the life of our community and which we will be able to share more broadly as educators, and with the wider world through the actions of our students.

What brought you into education?

As with so many things, there was a lot of serendipity. As a teenager, I signed up to work in America at a summer camp for children with special needs, and returned for many summers. I enjoyed it, and was good at it and so when I was later looking for what might allow me to pursue the things I love, I was drawn back to that experience of working with young people and bringing out the best in them. So after short stints as a computer programmer and as an actuary, I returned to university to train as a teacher. And I have never wanted to do anything else.

You’re what we affectionately call a member of the ‘boomerang club’— you were at Dover Campus and then left for a period before returning to help establish the East Campus High School in 2011. What compelled you to return, and to stay on and lead the school?

Ellie, my wife and I were lucky enough to join Dover as our first international school in 1996. An odd place to spend a honeymoon, but there you go. I taught Maths, Computing and Theory of Knowledge (TOK). Arriving more by good fortune than by design (this was in the days before schools had websites, virtual tours or online interviews) we had applied to jobs advertised in a newspaper, in search of an adventure. The six years we spent in Singapore were a formative experience for both
of us. Ellie is now Director of Teaching and Learning at Dover and we count ourselves blessed to have started our international teaching careers there.

Following Dover, I spent a few years at the International School of Geneva, then seven years at Sevenoaks School in the UK as Head of Maths and Director of IB. From there, we moved to Kenya and taught at the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa where I was Dean of Studies. I came back to UWCSEA to the East Campus because despite being at other fine schools, I didn’t see anywhere with equally powerful aspirations and capacities to implement. And that remains my reason for being here still. All young people have incredible potential and this school nurtures that in a very inspirational and—to my mind—quite unique way. This is made possible by the staff, who are unparalleled. They are here for the same reasons as I am; we share the same purpose and hope in a very powerful mixture. It’s a cliche I know, but it is genuinely humbling to be part of this community.

Quite literally, you ‘wrote the book’ for IB Theory of Knowledge and have been deeply connected to the IB organisation for decades, including serving as Chief Assessor globally for TOK and a stint as Vice Chair of the IB Examining Board. That’s quite a lot to be proud of. We’re interested to know which professional achievements have meant the most to you as an educator?

You know, there was a time that I would have talked about some of the things I’ve been involved in, and been really proud of some of them. Aside from the work with the IB—which you’ve been fairly thorough in researching!—I would perhaps have named some of the opportunities I’ve had to contribute to the teaching and learning of critical thinking. The Clothmaker Schoolteacher Fellowship at New Hall in the University of Cambridge was fascinating, reviewing of programmes for Critical Thinking in schools. I was also pretty proud of being accepted to lecture in Critical Thinking at Nanyang Technological University and California State University during my first stint in Singapore.

But as I get older, honestly the moments are more about individual students and colleagues, and the times when I feel I’ve been able to make a difference to them. Sometimes you know because they tell you; more often than not you just watch them grow, respond, adapt and change and you just think, “I was a part of that in some positive way.” That’s a good feeling. And sometimes you just don’t know, but you take it on faith. I read somewhere this idea that ‘the meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you will never sit.” I love that I think it’s what schools do. I’m still in touch with some of the kids from those summer camps, for example. They are now adults with their own families—and that sort of thing is what keeps me going.

I guess having my own kids now nearly finished school also makes me see it in a whole different way. I didn’t think I ever would have put it this way without this question but I guess I feel quite parental about work now in a way that I wouldn’t have done a few years ago— with all the opportunities and problems that parenting brings, which are many and profound, as most readers here will know.

You’re a prolific blogger, how do you find the time?

Well, I don’t know about prolific—it’s one post each week as a way of sharing ideas about interrelated aspects of education, culture and schooling. Or perhaps not just sharing ideas, but also using the blog as a way to clarify my thoughts by pinning them down in written form. I like the discipline of it, if nothing else.

Visit Nick's blog Education, Schools and Culture to explore more