Questions for the head: Jak Kearney



Head of Sotogrande International School selfieHead and CEO of Sotogrande International School, Jak Kearney, kicks off our new school leaders interview series, Questions for the head. Read on for an inside view of international education today and find out about Jak’s greatest achievements, biggest regrets and desert island must-haves.

What is the biggest challenge facing education today?

Phew, there are many. Globally I feel it is helping students to develop their resilience and grit. Understanding that to follow their passions (whatever this is) requires hard work, determination and that along the way there will be opportunities to learn from failure. Our role is to allow students to experience this in a caring and supportive environment.

The toughest question you have ever been asked by a student, and your answer?

The toughest question followed the passing of our previous owner of the school. I had informed the community, was very much present for the community and one student said; “Hi Mr Kearney, I heard about the passing of Mr Templeton. It is such sad news, how are you doing?”  Wow, what great empathy, I had not stopped to allow myself to process the impact of his passing. I stopped, broke down a little and said thank you. Thank you for giving me the time to reflect. I am devastated, but also enthused and encouraged to continue the dream we built together.

What was your best day at school, and why?

My best day at school as a head was my first day as the Head of Sotogrande International School. I held a whole school assembly with over 700 students, over 150 staff, (teachers, administrative staff, support staff, drivers, cleaners, maintenance, kitchen staff etc.).

Connecting the whole school together for the first time was amazing. I did a simple demonstration about determination and perseverance using donuts that enabled students from 4 – 18 to connect. Anytime we connect together as a community there is an amazing feeling. As a community I seriously mean ALL staff, every part of our team all contribute to the sense of community.

Who is your biggest hero, and why?

My biggest hero is my Dad, a little soppy, but he is my go to person. I value his reflective questioning, non-judgmental approach, complete support of all of his kids and views of others. He is a very successful businessman, respected as a coach, mentor, guide and visionary.  I am lucky to have this support pillar in my life and I love that our support is mutual. I am also his ‘go to’ guy.

Name 4 ultimate dinner party guests (dead or alive), and why?

Michael Jordan – I was a fanatical basketball player as a kid (and still play now). I admired his determination.

Nelson Mandela – What an amazing advocate of humanity, courage, forgiveness and dedication.

Leonard da Vinci- He was a man so ahead of his time, a complete visionary with such a wide skill set.

Mother Teresa – Another remarkable person, who had a real sense of others. I feel humbled by her, what she stood for and how she behaved to others. She was also someone my nan admired a great deal and I grew up listening to many stories about her.

If you could change one thing in education what would it be?

I would love to find better ways to test student knowledge. The final exam! There is so much resting on one day following 2 or more years of work. It feels like such a tough rite of passage. This is not the way the world functions, we apply our knowledge to solve problems that we don’t know the answers to. We don’t prep and prepare in the same way that students have to pass an exam. I like the IB because it has made headway into this phenomenon, with the extended essay, TOK, CAS, Personal Project, Community project. These are examples of real life issues, areas of personal interest that enable students to research, apply their learning to a variety of situations and get feedback.

Imagine a business “exam” where the problem posed is…

“You are part of a team of people who need to bring about swift and rapid change to increase revenue in a failing business. You have one week to strategically map out your solution. You will be assessed on your team work, delegation abilities, presentation skills, technical know how, research skills, problem solving ability, conflict management and more.

This would not only be a real test for the real world, but it would be fun!

What 3 items would you take to a deserted island, and why?

I am answering this with the assumption that these are 3 luxury items? The survival obvious would be – an endless supply of food and water, knife, shelter, endless supply of matches, etc.

  1.     My wife. She is my best friend and life on an island would be lonely without company
  2.     Music, I love music. It has the ability to take you to different places, times in your life and reminds you of different people.
  3.   A mask and snorkel. I love diving and snorkeling. I would hope that a desert island would have wonderful coral reefs to explore.

What’s the most important thing you want to achieve as Head of school?

I am a Head of an IB world school. We teach the Early years, PYP, MYP and the Diploma programme.  I would like to develop the “We” aspect of education for all. The education of others, of connectedness and togetherness. Often education focuses on “me”, the development of self, the movement forward of you. However society is lacking social cohesion because we are forgetting others. Developing a sense of others is critical as we help student’s transition into a connected society. At Sotogrande International School, we have a student led NGO called the Kindred Project. This is our tool to enable the education of we. At SIS, we call this the journey from ME to WE.

Is technology in education your friend or foe? Elaborate.

It depends how it is used. The ultimate question is: “Can technology positively impact the teaching / learning process?” This is a question that needs to be asked before technology is used. If the answer is yes – friend, if the answer is no, don’t use it. Never let it be a foe.

What is your greatest regret?

Honestly I don’t believe in regret, I believe in learning, mistakes, lost opportunities, etc are part of the process. I look forward and try to learn from mistakes. Without them I would not be me!

Give an example of how you embrace change in your work.

If there is one thing that is certain, it is change. Having this as the norm at Sotogrande makes it normal for change to happen. We use something called “CANI”; Constant And Neverending Improvement.  It is how we improve, how we adapt, learning from mistakes, changing environments, different developments in technology, research in education and it also allows you to keep what works, what is good. If we lead, live and expect change, so do students. This way they will be prepared for life after school.

If you weren’t working in education, what would you be doing?

I honestly do not know. I love working in education, with learners of all ages. I have found the job of my dreams and I am so lucky.  I guess I would be teaching in a different environment, management consultancy, coaching basketball, wakeboarding, kitesurfing?

Your greatest professional achievement?

My greatest professional achievement is what we have achieved at Sotogrande International School. It is a community of people that have connected under a shared drive, mission and vision. We are really unique place, full of inspirational, dedicated staff, a really open minded student body who embrace change, thrive on our approach and who leave us as highly effective people and learners ready for their next chapter, wherever that might be. It is a community to parents, who trust us and our approaches to learning with their most treasured possessions, their children. What more could we ask for!

What sets you apart from other schools?

3 key things.

  1. Really inspirational and dedicated staff, who really love their subjects, have the ability to dream about activities and opportunities to inspire students and have the ability to make these opportunities happen. An example of this was “The best physics lesson ever”, where we took 18 D1 students skydiving! Now that is inspirational!
  2. A trusting and open community. We are all professionals, we need to have the freedom and autonomy to act, teach, adapt to the needs of each group. Where professionalism is high, trust is high and feedback from all stakeholders is high, we are able to create really inspiring learning opportunities and spaces. This means we have very happy staff, very happy students who are successful and very happy parents.
  3. We are a learning community, not a school. We value all of our stakeholders, we have students and parents on our Advisory Board. We have a parent ambassador programme, where we teach parents more about what we do at Sotogrande. We run a huge number of crazy social events to connect our community, like a family trip to the Atlas mountains in Morocco, a music concert with over 150 students on stage and over 1000 parents in the audience as some examples.

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