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It’s the journey: ISB's Lee Fertig on the future of education

00:14 22/10/2017
International School of Brussels director Lee Fertig on involving students in their education and preparing them for what lies ahead, socially, politically and technologically

This will probably be the easier of the two interviews he’s taken part in today, says Lee Fertig as he settles in to his office in ISB’s 19th-century reception building, called the chateau. Earlier he was cross-examined by some of the school’s sixth-graders for a video project, who were asking some “very difficult questions”. “So I feel warmed up,” he says with a laugh. This kind of interaction with the students is typical of his attitude to education, which he vehemently believes should be something in which children actively participate.

A New Yorker at heart, Fertig landed his first international school job in Ethiopia nearly 30 years ago, sparking a passion that’s taken him, his wife and three children to Brazil, the US, Spain and now Belgium. At the school’s wooded campus in Watermael-Boitsfort, he spoke to ING’s head of expatriates, Dave Deruytter, about savvy students, five-year-old bloggers and equipping kids from 70 countries with the skills to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

What drew you to international schools?

I grew up outside New York City, then went to a liberal arts college in Ohio that was quite socially aware and politically active. That, as well as my home life, shaped me a lot. After college I worked as a maths teacher in a private school and I loved it. But I was young and free… I heard about these international schools and went to a recruitment fair. I left with a contract for a job in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I’m drawn to places that enjoy the challenge of facilitating inter-culturalism.

The kids at international schools are incredibly savvy about what’s going on around them and how to navigate different perspectives. They have resilience, grit and are internationally minded. They can bring in different views and ways of thinking without getting antagonistic, which is what adults in the world sometimes do, especially now. I’m a big believer that these international schools – and ISB is a prime example – are important. I feel that if all pre-teens had at least one semester in one of these schools, the world would be a different place. I really believe that.

Where has your career taken you?

I started in Ethiopia in 1988, which was then a Soviet-backed Marxist state. There were soldiers, there was a midnight curfew… but I absolutely loved it. I got into school administration and I met my wife there. I thought I was crazy to go, yet here was this single young woman from Minnesota.

Fast-forward to 1991, and we moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where I spent five years as a high school principal. We loved it there too – Rio is a striking city. But we wanted to start a family, and our parents were in the US, so we moved to Minneapolis. As a New Yorker, that was one of the more difficult cultural adjustments!

I did some work at the University of Minnesota, and I was the director of a fascinating school in downtown Minneapolis. It was an experiment in voluntary integration, taking kids from Minneapolis, which is a urban school district with lots of students of colour, and brought them together with children from whiter, wealthier suburban districts. My time there was a learning curve; it was phenomenal, and challenging.

But we knew we’d head back overseas because we wanted to give the gift of that lifestyle to our kids. We ended up going to another dream city, Barcelona, where I was director of the American school for four years. We were happy, but then another opportunity came up back in Brazil, at Graded, an American school in São Paulo, which is known as one of the better schools in South America. So we returned with our kids for another six years. In all, my wife and I lived in Brazil for 11 years. We speak Portuguese and are permanent residents.

And then we came here, because another opportunity came up. I heard wonderful things about ISB and about expats living in Brussels. We’ve been here for 18 months and our younger two kids, aged 14 and 18, are with us.

How have you dealt with the transition between countries?

One of the things that has served our family well is we’ve always been happy where we are, so we aren’t leaving due to unhappiness. When that happens, people can put too many expectations on the new place. We leave only for a new opportunity, challenge and adventure.

Our kids are incredibly streetwise as a result. I feel like they can navigate pretty much any city in the world. Language learning really helps. I confess that French is presenting some difficulties! It’s going a little bit slower than the Portuguese and Spanish.

Learning the local language opens doors to culture, to travel opportunities, to meeting new people. We’ve always embraced that concept of ‘when in Rome…’.

How does ISB prepare students for adult life?

The curriculum here combines conceptual learning, competency learning, and character learning – in other words, the knowledge, skills, and dispositions like grit and resilience that are necessary for deep, sustainable learning. I think ISB is a leader in proactively thinking about how things are changing so fast and which knowledge, skills and dispositions are needed.

Kids need to understand things that transcend disciplines and subjects. Increasingly, as they approach an authentic challenge, they can pull from their knowledge systems, from all of those disciplines at the same time, making bridges between fields of knowledge. That’s the kind of stuff I believe employers and universities want.

The skills are about giving and creating, much more than they are about consuming knowledge. When we went to school, teachers would pour information into our heads. We were a receptacle. That still happens in many schools and I think they’re doing a disservice to the kids. We believe kids have to be active participants in knowledge and skills construction. Our kids are blogging and producing their own portfolio of student work from as young as five or six years old.

We teach them digital citizenship: how to be good, active, engaged, appropriate global citizens, using social media. We recently partnered with a French NGO, e-Nable, whose medical engineers came to the school and taught the 14- and 15-year-olds how to design and engineer a prosthetic hand using the school’s 3D printers. We identified families with young kids who needed them and they had a ceremony where they fitted them with these hands. Everybody was crying; it was amazing.

Our students will also be directly involved in an international education conference we’re hosting in March, which includes futurist, innovative educators and masters of emerging technology. The world is increasingly characterised by open knowledge systems and rapid social change, and we’re not going to change the track that train is going down. What’s best is to teach the knowledge and skills and disposition to navigate it. If they make mistakes, if they get into trouble, they’ll learn from it. There’s no safer place to do that than in a school setting.

Is technology changing the role of the teacher?

I think this revolution in the learning landscape makes the teacher’s role even more important. People get nervous, they say the teacher’s job doesn’t exist anymore, we can have a robot teach the kids! But we are raising the bar on kids and what we expect of them. We are asking them to navigate very complex issues, sometimes contentious, politically or socially sensitive issues. They need adults, they need trained educators, and excellence in the faculty, to make sure they approach that navigation safely and with integrity. So we very deliberately recruit teachers who are comfortable working in that environment.

Talking of politics, it’s been quite a year. How do you discuss it in school?

We talk a lot about the international values of the ISB community; we talk about how this is a safe place for those dialogues, even if we make mistakes. I’ll be honest: recent world events have been quite disturbing, especially for an educator. Success in the future depends on our ability to navigate different perspectives. We firmly believe the future is in the hands of the young people, so we’ve got to get it right – and we will.

How is Brussels treating you?

We love it here. People say, “After São Paulo, Brussels must seem small and boring”. But São Paulo can be a complicated city. We have a 14-year-old daughter; over there it’s not like she was getting on the bus and going to meet friends, whereas she can do that here. I find Brussels pretty easy to live in. I have trouble understanding why people wouldn’t find it easy. There is a bureaucracy that some find difficult to navigate, but to be honest, for us it hasn’t been that frustrating because when you live in Brazil you learn patience.

What do you do in your free time?

I try to spend as much time with family as I can. That involves a lot of walking – sometimes running – with our dog, and we like to go out to eat as a family and with friends. When I have long breaks I read something fictional. My wife’s an English teacher so she’s always suggesting things. During the year, when I’m so busy, I’ll read to stay on top of education and international issues. I want to know my landscape. I don’t necessarily have the best balance. I try. I do work a lot. I’ll just leave it at that!

Photo: Bart Dewaele. This article first appeared in ING Expat Time

Written by Paula Dear