Day in the life of ISHCMC Head of School Adrian Watts

The International School of Ho Chi Minh City was the first international school in Saigon, having started life as the ‘International Grammar School’ in 1993. Today, ISHCMC is one of the leading International Baccalaureate schools in the country.

Adrian Watts joined ISHCMC, now one of 64 schools in the Cognita group, in August 2013, coming from one of the top schools in Bangkok where he had taught for 13 years. “I felt it was time to take on a new challenge,” he says. “When I was approached by Cognita about the opportunity to move to Vietnam and work at ISHCMC, I didn’t hesitate to accept.”

For many adults whose school years are far, far behind them, the role of a Head of School, in addition to a school principal, can be unfamiliar. “It is the same, in many ways, as the old term ‘Headmaster’ or ‘Head Teacher’,” explains Watts. “The role is huge in a modern 21st-century school. It starts with the monitoring of the mission and values of the school, ensuring that these are embedded throughout and are at the centre of the decision making process.”

On a more day-to-day basis, Watts’s responsibility is equally broad, seeing him involved in the creation of strategic development plans, supporting academic teams, assisting the finance department, overseeing recruitment, creating school schedules and ensuring the safety, security, and social and emotional wellbeing of staff and students. And it doesn’t end there; marketing and communications, monthly and annual reports, arranging evaluation and accreditation visits both locally and internationally, and planning for ISHCMC’s new campus which is due to open in 2017.

Despite the breadth of his responsibilities, the most rewarding part of his job is when he is able to step out of the office, away from the computer, and into the corridors. “When I first arrived at ISHCMC I taught an IB Diploma Economics class. I’d love to still be in the classroom today. I get most pleasure from walking around the school and observing students and teachers at work. I love to see them engaged and energised by their work.”

A Head of School’s day begins at 5am. “I start with a 30 minute walk. I then eat a simple breakfast of soursop juice, natural yogurt, a banana, almonds and walnuts.”

Arriving at school at around 6.15am, it’s no surprise that there is no such thing as a ‘typical day’ for Watts. After checking his emails, conducting a daily air pollution test and greeting his team, Watts will head to the front gate to begin welcoming students and their parents. He also keeps an eye on the traffic flow in front of the school which can, at times, become quite a task.

Once lessons begin, it’s straight into the plethora of administrative tasks that need his attention: meetings, planning, reports, follow-ups and handling any parent, teacher or student issues that have arisen.

Like many of us, a large part of Watts’s day is spent answering emails, something he’ll often do over lunch. “If I’m lucky I’ll grab a few minutes to eat,” he says. When asked what the hardest part of his job is, keeping up with the non-stop flow of electronic communication is the answer. When he does have time, however, he tries to catch up on the latest educational research and articles, sharing them with administrators, teachers and parents.

At the end of the school day, once lessons have ended, he’ll take time to meet students and parents again as they leave the school. Any final meetings of the day will take place and twice a week he’ll put on his sports kit and head off to coach football.

In contrast to holding a similar position at home in the UK, where government intervention often hampers and intervenes with the genuine efforts of its professional educators, Watts enjoys having the freedom (and time) to focus on improving the quality of teaching in his school. “[In the international school system] there is little interference by politicians. This gives a wise Head greater flexibility, and the opportunity to make a difference to student learning without having to wait for a government to make a decision.”

That said, overseeing a school of over 1,000 students, made up of over 50 nationalities and with an age range of between 2 and 18 years, is not without its sacrifices. “I rarely have time to fully relax in the evening as there is always some work to be completed. My relaxation comes from spending time with my son and wife over dinner and at bedtime. When I go home to Thailand my hobby is cutting the grass, planting trees and creating a sustainable farmstead.”

Fortunately, the intense demands of the workplace are not something that keep him awake at night. “I have been lucky over the years. Although I care greatly about my job I can shut it out as soon as my head hits the pillow. I have become even more successful at doing this since I discovered meditation and mindfulness three years ago when I came to ISHCMC.”