AAIE Superintendent of the Year Rose Puffer: Life & Leadership
Rose Puffer was recently recognized as the AAIE (Association for the Advancement of International Education) 2019 Superintendent of the Year. As a lifelong educator and learner, Rose has worked in a variety of roles such as teacher, coordinator, principal, and superintendent in Peru, Saudia Arabia, and Pakistan. Her most recent appointment as superintendent of the International School of Islamabad (ISOI), Pakistan is also her longest, having served in this role since 2005.
In addition to her work at ISOI, Rose is also active in a variety of leadership initiatives such as serving as the President of the NESA (Near East Asia Council of Overseas Schools) board and regularly mentoring young school administrators. Rose recently took time out of her busy schedule and sat down with SchoolRubric’s Wallace Ting to discuss her recent recognition, leadership lessons, and her remarkable journey around the world the past 30 years.
Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us today. I wanted to start by congratulating you for being named AAIE’s 2019 superintendent of the year. What does this recognition mean to you in the context of your work as a school leader and educator?
It has been completely overwhelming. I had no idea. I was thrilled to be nominated – Darrell Russell nominated me. He was my superintendent in Riyadh and then I worked for him here in Pakistan. And when he mentioned it [the nomination] to me, I thought it was such a long shot. I didn’t understand why it would be someone like me at a little school like this. But he was very persistent and it has been such an honor and a privilege because so many superintendents are doing so much, whether as international diplomats or international businessmen representing the U.S. with a completely fresh and honest view of what the United States is like.
The U.S. Embassy here has been supporting the school for 16 years without any dependents, and I think this was not so much about me but about the school. I really love the school – how else do you stay in Pakistan for 28 years? I felt this was a way to really show the world what a wonderful school it is. A lot of people know and recognize the school, but there are also lots of people who don’t know us at all – so it was a way to put a spotlight on the school. I also didn’t expect that NESA (Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools) would put a spotlight on it either, but due to my role as president of the NESA board they had a news release and all these framed posters made when I came back from the AAIE ceremony, so everyone on campus knew about it. It has been a continual congratulations and has been very rewarding, but very humbling as well.
That’s a great way to put it. Maybe we can back up a little bit and talk about what made you decide to decide to pursue a career internationally and how in the world you ended up in Pakistan of all places.
My ex-husband is the one who really wanted to travel. We decided to become international teachers when we were in our early thirties. Our first overseas assignment was at Colegio Roosevelt in Peru and I had been brought there to create a middle school – this was in 1980. I had been teaching at one of the few real middle schools in the United States that was really well developed at that time and it was in New Hampshire, right outside of UNH (University of New Hampshire). Back then, the Ford Foundation was doing the reading and writing workshop at UNH which was fabulous. I was a clinical reading specialist and wasn’t thinking about administration, but the superintendent in Peru convinced me that he wanted to start a middle school and he thought I had the wherewithal to do it. It’s pretty hard to start a middle school as a young female with without an administrative background. Additionally, I worked alongside two very seasoned male administrators who felt the elementary school and secondary school were theirs. Ultimately, it was a fabulous and successful experience, and I think the most amazing thing was that we adopted a son in Peru and as a result, suddenly became an international family.
After five years in Peru, I went to the Saudi Arabian international school in Riyadh with Darrell Russell. It was one of the biggest schools in the world back then, around 2300 to 2400 students. However, I really did not like living on a compound and I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t drive. Living in a compound that felt like a small part of the United States was also challenging, so we headed back to the States.
My ex-husband completed his Master’s degree at Tufts University and then his doctorate at Harvard. I had been teaching in public and private schools in New England. But in 1989, we just felt that living in Boston wasn’t doing it for us, and we knew that our son could get a fabulous education overseas. So we went recruiting again and ended up in Islamabad. When I got to that school I said “this is the school I want David to graduate from.” There’s just something about the school, and I don’t know exactly what it is. But everybody who comes to the school really feels they’re at home and they stay close to the people there whether it’s faculty or students. Anybody that I talked to who has left for other places always says it’s one of the best places they’ve ever lived and one of the most memorable and positive experiences they’ve ever had.
Once I started hearing people talk about the school this way, I realized that this is a great school and also wanted it for myself. But then life happens – and so first of all, I became a single parent. Then David was off to college and I was at Lehigh University working on my administration degree and thinking about pursuing a doctorate. But my mother wasn’t well and I didn’t want to start my doctoral studies, but I worked on my practicum to become a licensed administrator.
Then, 9/11 happened. Suddenly, we were trying to figure out how to do virtual school – but this was 2001, and Internet wasn’t really a big thing back then. It was actually 2002, because after 9/11 the Americans came back and then there was a huge bombing at one of the churches in the diplomatic enclave. We lost a student and even had some injured teachers and parents, and the Americans haven’t been back since. When all of this happened, we realized that for the kids to go home in February, they couldn’t just enroll in another school – we weren’t an IB (International Baccalaureate) school then – and leaving their friends in such an abrupt manner was difficult after such a traumatic experience. So, Rob Ambrogi connected with the Thomas Jefferson School High School of Science and Technology in Fairfax County and that’s how the NESA virtual school was started back then. Rob and I would teach classes at the school in the morning. He’d do all of the science and I’d do all the English with the kids that were still at Islamabad, and then 12:00 p.m. on we’d do online classes with the teachers who had been evacuated. It was just crazy, crazy times. But it worked and it grew and the virtual school that we started in Islamabad when we were down to fewer than 100 children actually included schools from other countries such as Saudi Arabia to participate. So it’s now known as the worldwide virtual school, but it all started here.
After 9/11, two major administrators of the school left. I was the secondary principal at the time and the person who came in as the superintendent just wasn’t a good fit for the community. And so I became an interim superintendent and was then asked to take part in the worldwide search and was one of three finalists. When I was appointed, it became a vocation not only to work at the school, but to keep it one of the best schools in the world. And I really feel that it is. We have great college acceptances despite the fact that we have tiny groups of kids – around 12 per group. Currently, we’re up to around 290 students but it’s been up and down. At one point we were almost up to 400 and then the 2008 Marriott bombing happened. The U.N. pulled out but is returning this year.
So I think it’s this vocation by profession that is to keep the school open and to keep it a school of excellence. In many ways, I feel like our school is sort of a beacon that can give encouragement to other international schools because unfortunately, every school in the world has to worry about the kinds of things that before only we had to worry about. I think one of the things that saddens me most is when I was recruiting right after Marriott bombing and couldn’t find people to come here, Pakistan was considered to be the most dangerous country in the world. And I would tell candidates that we have all of these emergency drills and commandos in place, and they would look at me like “what are you talking about?” But in the last five or six years, it seems like these things are more commonplace and normal. To have those things happen to education all over the world is just horrific.
So it seems like in many ways you have been thrust into leadership roles due to life circumstances, right place/right time, things like that. What have been some of the biggest learning curves for you as a school leader?
I’ve never been the head of a big school, so the biggest learning curve for me was that I was now responsible for educating the educators and mentoring the educators. And I love it. Over the past 14 years, I’ve mentored five or six people into administration with more coming along, which is great in a small school. That’s been very rewarding.
The other big learning curve is that in a small school you do everything – I mean everything. I’m really glad that I had to work my way through different aspects of a school throughout my career. My first teaching job was at a Catholic school and I had to work during the Summer, so I have a school office background. In a small school, having people understand the whole school is also very important.
For me personally, I’m at a point in my career where I’ve been overseas since 1980. The continual technology learning curve has been a challenge. And in 2008, our strategic planning committee which consists of students, alumni, and parents decided that we would become an IB school, and I knew nothing about the IB. So in the past eight to ten years I’ve also become a bit of an IB educator. And because we’re the only international IB school in Pakistan in the sense that the other IB schools here do not have international teachers, I’ve been very involved with the IB organization by helping with the unannounced exam visits and also serve as a link between the Pakistani schools and the IB in Asia Pacific as well as Africa, Europe, and the Middle East because we’re sort of right between the two. So that’s all been very exciting for me.
I guess the learning curve is that you’ve always learning and you have to do so many things – whether I’m furnishing houses for teacher recruits, balancing the budget or dealing with future base budget and lower than expected enrollment. I’m pretty knowledgeable about security. There are two commando teams that work under a director of security who’s a retired colonel in the Pakistan army. It’s pretty impressive. You know, we have a school of 290 kids with 210 employees. We’re on a 23 acre campus and it’s huge, so there’s a lot to do with managing security, finances, and the facility without a lot of money to pour into a campus that’s 40 years old but still amazing.
We recently had some alumni come back that graduated in 2004 – others that graduated before 9/11 and they were with their kids the other day. They just loved being back at school and you see these 35 year old people saying “thank goodness they will have the brownies in the cafeteria again!” It’s hysterical how at home they feel at this school.
You talked a little bit about keeping the school as a school of excellence. I think there are probably a lot of definitions out there about what an excellent school is or isn’t, so for you personally, what are the factors that you look at to determine if it has been a successful year?
How well did we meet the needs of our students and how successful were we in having them improve and meet their potential. Last year, we had a number of university acceptances including Georgetown, Tufts, and St. Andrew’s. Our students get accepted at fabulous schools but it’s more important that they get accepted at the schools where they’ll be successful.
I feel just as proud of our ability to put a program together for Pakistani children who have come back from Canada or the UK and have never been in Pakistan and suddenly they’re Pakistani and school is the only place where they feel at home. I feel successful when I look at Chinese, Malaysian, or South Korean children who come into the school speaking very little English and all of a sudden they’re becoming great friends and doing presentations and translating for their parents. Their self-esteem is so important. Every child is a work in progress, and I keep reminding the faculty of that. It’s fabulous being in a school small enough so that you know all your students and can really relish that growth. It’s a real blessing and a gift that I have here at this school.
It’s not a secret that safety and security are probably a few of the biggest challenges about living and working in Pakistan as a foreigner. Maybe you could help us put this into context with some specific examples of how that manifests itself in everyday life.
Islamabad is very different than Karachi, Lahore or the rest of Pakistan. A lot of people don’t realize that Islamabad is a custom-built city like Brasilia. It is a grid city that was designed by a Greek. We’re at the foothills of the Himalayas and there are several walking trails that teachers can go to. I have two teachers that bicycle to school every morning right now. We’re starting to get some air quality issues as the city grows, but in general it’s a clean, green city. We have four seasons with a hard frost in the Winter, a monsoon season, and a hot season. It’s a lovely climate to live in. We live in the neighborhoods. We don’t live on compounds and Pakistanis are very family oriented and the extended family is very important to them. So when you’re a part of our school, you’re part of the Pakistani family. When I lived in South America, I couldn’t wear jewelry. I couldn’t carry a lot of money. I had to worry about my safety and security at home or in the car. I couldn’t have any gold on or wear my wedding ring. I don’t have any of those issues here.
I have household help, and that’s my way of giving back to the local community. I know all their children have been well educated and they see me as someone that they’re responsible for. I often tease people about why I would retire when this is the cheapest assisted living in the world. For teaching couples with children, you can have live-in help that can become part of your family. But it’s different, too. It’s about going into the shop and being known. I mean, everybody knows where their teachers live and yet we feel very safe in our homes. I drive myself everywhere – I don’t have a driver, I don’t have any armed guards. The school has to be a hard target because we are the American school and not because of the Pakistanis that we’re interacting with on a day-to-day basis, but because of the extremists that exist everywhere else in the world.
Maybe that feeds in the next question which is a little bit about teacher recruitment. Perhaps initially, Pakistan may not be at the top of a teacher’s list when they go to an international job fair. What has been your approach to teacher recruitment and finding quality staff that will do well in Pakistan?
For the past two or three years, I’ve finished all of my recruiting before Christmas. Skype is a fabulous tool as we’re seeing right now, and it gives our whole leadership team the ability to interview, because as a small school I would attend recruiting fairs alone. I’ve been overseas since 1980, so this allows me to get firsthand references from the network of international educators that I’ve come to know and work with over the years.
I work really closely with recruiting agencies, and have found that top teachers with international experience do best here. Most of the teachers who come here either already knew about our school or knew people who taught here. We have quite a number of teachers who stay here for quite a while and we have a wonderful package. Our Board of Directors feels that I should be recruiting and competing with the American School of Doha, the American School of Dubai, the American School of New Delhi or any of the other big schools in the Middle East or South Asia, so our package has to be comparable.
Our teachers can live in houses instead of apartments, though – and I actually choose the houses myself because I know what they’ll be comfortable in. We give them a vehicle. We have really happy families. The majority of my recruits are American. I really want it to remain an American school even though we have a lot of international people.
I’ve been fortunate and I’d say probably right now I have one of the strongest staffs I’ve ever had. They are gifted teachers and they collaborate well together and they are a real gift to the school. Students appreciate them which is really important because teachers don’t become teachers because they want to earn a lot of money or they want a lot of perks – teachers become teachers because they want to make a difference, and they want to be appreciated for being able to help kids reach their potential. And having that collaboration with their peers and with parents helps them achieve those opportunities here.
Let’s talk a little bit about leadership and your role as a school director. Studies out there indicate that one of the main challenges for school directors or superintendents is maintaining positive relationships with their school boards. What kind of advice do you have for school leaders out there on how to best maintain and cultivate that positive relationship with their school boards?
I’m going to try to not promote something, but one of my other leadership positions is president of the NESA board, and as a board we realized that we were doing all this professional development for teachers but we also needed to support schools, boards, and superintendents working together. I was vice president of the board at the time and Kevin Schaefer appointed me to head a task force on governance, and as a result we sponsored an entire curriculum on international school governance. So as the chair of the NESA board I have seen governance from both sides and the relationship between the head and the board is extremely important. I don’t know that we do enough training with heads or new heads on how to interact with their boards.
That doesn’t mean it’s always going to be easy, just like it’s not always easy on admin teams and sometimes you just don’t get the right mix. We have huge turnover on our board. The American ambassador appoints two members and they are only here for a year, sometimes two. Right now we have a German DCM (deputy chief of mission), a Malaysian attaché, the British management counselor, the wife of the British political counselor, and two Pakistanis. It really is a continual challenge unless the head and the chair of the board see eye to eye and I see it again and again since I’ve had a lot of time with this task force to study. I’ve also looked at some of my other colleagues and how they interact with their boards and how they’re able to professionally show the boards what has to be done and help facilitate board training, not just for the board members but the administrators as well that have to work with those boards. It’s an area of development that needs a lot of work. We like to think that in NESA we’re really working at it from the ground up. I can tell you at our own board meeting in Jordan where I’m heading next week we’ll be examining how well we’re using the best practices for trustees. And my hope is that my colleagues that are on that board that represent nine international schools in the region will realize their role as a board member as well as the other side. So it’s been a gift to me to have the experience that we support because it helps me provide the leadership that my board needs and my board chair needs.
Great. So there’s a lot of young aspiring administrators out there that are looking to get their foot in the door – you’ve mentioned that you’ve mentored several of them. There’s also quite a number of young administrators who are in year one or year two of hopefully a very long career. What kind of advice would you give these youngsters about some leadership lessons or tips?
Professional development isn’t just for teachers. You need to be there with your teachers when they’re getting professional development and be a part of it to show your ownership of it whether it’s IB courses or whether it’s NESA conferences. You need to interact with your peers. You need to have people that you can trust and that you can go to that will be honest with you and that can give you that collegial help that you need.
Where do you find those people? You find them by going to your regional association leadership conferences. You don’t find them so much at IB conferences because there’s 1800 delegates. You find them at the Academy of International School Heads (AISH). You find them at AAIE. Those are not junkets. They are opportunities to really personally get to know your colleagues so that they are there to support you and you are there to support them because everybody needs that support. There have been times if I didn’t have three or four trusted heads that I could turn to, I don’t know that I could have gotten through some of the challenges. I would also like to hope that I’m there for them as well when they need a shoulder to cry on or just someone to give a different perspective on an issue. There have been people that have had to face child protection issues, people with personal issues with their boards, and people that have issues with faculty. I mean, we all have them – it’s part of the job.
I think also being a principal before you become a school head is really helpful. The AAIE and AISH aspiring heads institutes are excellent. I know the people that run them and I think they’re really well qualified. But again, that continual interaction and the continual collaboration with your heads, because being a head of school is a very lonely job. The amount of confidentiality and the backpack that you carry home every night is huge. I happen to have the added responsibility of ensuring that it is safe for faculty to be here. It is, because if it weren’t safe the school wouldn’t be open. But I have that support from my colleagues which is completely invaluable, and they’re all over the world. It’s so much easier now than it was 20 years ago with Skype and everything else.
I’ve read studies out there that indicate the average tenure of an international school director is anywhere between 2.8 to 3 years. You’ve been at the same school for around two decades and the superintendent since 2005. What would you self-identify as some of the qualities that have allowed you to persist so long and buck the trend?
It would be interesting for somebody to do a new study because I was just talking to our board about this. When I look around the region, the director in Muscat has been there for around 19 years. The director in Karachi probably 15 or 16 years. The heads in Mumbai and Chennai have negotiated with their boards so that instead of leaving they’re continuing. I guess the key is the board relationship and your ability to show your students and parents you can really improve the school. Your ability to recruit very talented people is important. Your level of trust between the board and the superintendent as well as between the superintendent and the faculty is key, because you know that the faculty can also go around and go to the board and plant those seeds as well. That level of trust and that level of honesty that you have to have with the faculty, parents, and the board is really important. I mean, they’re all interrelated.
Board success is tough. Once you’ve made it through your third board chair, you’re probably going to stay for a longer time. And with a big turnover of board chairs you have a better chance of staying a shorter time, although I can’t say that’s been my case. I think I’ve worked for eight or nine board chairs and they’ve all had very different backgrounds. So I guess it’s just working at that relationship with your staff and your relationship with your board.
I know you are still planning on being at the school for some time, but I guess the question is when the time comes for you to move on, how would you hope that people look back at your accomplishments and contributions over your career to the school and community?
I hope that they will continue to appreciate what a fabulous school it is and the effort that it took to keep it open and to keep it a school of excellence – not only on my part, but on the part of the support staff that was there and the boards that were there. We’ve been through a lot, probably more than most schools – and yet we still love the school and love being there and love going to school every day. The dedication. I hope they appreciate the dedication and the longevity of the number of people that were there that really contributed to keeping it open and keeping it a school of excellence.
Final question: we have a large number of folks on our mailing lists and social media followers – mostly educators or people with an interest in education. Is there anything else that you would like the readers to know about that we haven’t had a chance to talk about today?
I think if anyone has the opportunity to be an international educator or to have their children attend an international school, it is just such a wonderful way of life and such an incredible opportunity for children.
The mini United Nations environment and the cultural awareness and skills that are developed are very different than going to school in your home country. And I think it is a real gift to your children as well as a gift to yourself. If you love education and you know you can always go home in three or four years, it really is an experience that both educators and parents should grasp.
Thanks for speaking with us. We’re excited to share your story with the community and for people to learn from your experience. Thank you. I will share your publication with our staff. I think it’s a fabulous endeavor and I hope to be able to support it.
This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.