Located in landlocked Niger in West Africa, the American International School of Niamey (AISN) might not be on the top of international educators’ preferred destinations. However, a closer look at both the country and the school reveals a fascinating story of community, optimism, and resilience. An interview with AISN’s school director, Jeff Duckett, follows.
Jeff, can you tell us where you are originally from? How did you end up working at AISN?
I’m originally from Northern California. When I was very young, my parents were international educators, and I lived for two years in American Samoa from 1969 to 1971. We then moved back to California, and my dad worked for the California Department of State for many years. When I graduated from high school, my parents informed me that they were going back overseas to work at a school in Liberia. So I guess I’ve always had kind of an international background and always wanted to be an international educator. I went to school and received my teaching credential, and in 1993 I landed my first job in Cairo. I’ve been international ever since.
How long have you been at AISN in your current role?
This is my fourth year.
Not many people may know a lot about living and working in Niger, so if you had a prospective teacher or potential family considering relocation to Niamey, what would you tell them about life and work over there?
I try to be honest and paint as realistic of a picture of what it really is like here. There’s a lot of wonderful, culturally rich experiences, but it is off the beaten path. I like to say it’s [Niamey] the most exotic capital in Africa. Niamey is a small town, not a big metropolis. It is rural, rustic, and diverse. Niamey certainly has its share of problems, infrastructure and all that, but once somebody can look past that you can see really the beauty of the people and the culture as well as the openness and friendliness of the local population here. It can be quite a nice place to live.
You mentioned that you consider Niamey to be the most exotic capital in Africa. Can you elaborate on that a bit more?
I guess I say it’s the most exotic capital in terms that no one would really go there for a holiday. It’s not a tourist destination; it is off the beaten path. It’s a melting pot of West Africa and the Sahara – the region is called the Sahel, which means shore in Arabic and where the Sahara Desert meets tropical West Africa. It’s a fascinating region with a mix of various cultures. You can find lots of products in the local markets, but there are no shopping malls. There is a movie theater here now that shows Western movies, but it’s not a Western-style place at all. So I guess when I say exotic, I mean that it’s not what we would be used to in terms of westernized places.
Presumably, one of the critical questions that someone would ask about living and working in Niger would be about safety. Are there any legitimate safety concerns that prospective teachers and parents should be aware of from your point of view?
There is a lot of conflict in the region. There are also security concerns that have to do with the bordering countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria. There is some terrorist activity that has spread into Niger, but the capital city is surrounded by various checkpoints on the roads coming into the city. Security-wise, the U.S. Embassy requires its employees and dependents to travel only within these checkpoints, and as a school we follow their lead. Within this zone, you can go shopping, to the market, to the hotels, and out to eat.
Have there been any specific safety situations or concerns that have come up with either students or staff in recent times?
Nothing I know of in regards to the expat community outside our school. There have been a few incidents that are outside the city at some of the prisons, but the local forces react to those situations pretty quickly. But it [safety] is something that is in the back of our minds. We do maintain a certain security level and protocol at the school. Each NGO (non-profit organization) and embassy has their set of security policies and regulations that their families follow. We follow the U.S. Embassy protocols, which are not necessarily the strictest, but day-to-day life is very safe in terms of shopping and going out.
Being a director of a small school in West Africa is a unique combination that is very different from many other international schools in the world. When a lot of people think about being a school director, they might assume that the roles at different schools are similar. With that said, I’m wondering if you could walk us through a typical day as the school director of a small school in West Africa. What does that look like?
It depends on the day, but I can find myself doing almost anything from being in the classroom and substitute teaching to fixing electrical or plumbing problems to working with the maintenance staff on a particular issue to security issues to trimming trees. Being the only administrator at the school, you tend to wear many hats, so I do get involved with not just curriculum, but with plumbing, electricity, growing grass, and gardening – essentially everything to do with the operation of the school.
What would you say that you enjoy most about working at AISN? And what do you find to be your biggest challenge?
I enjoy getting involved with all aspects of the school, but it can also be a big challenge because it tends to take time away from some of the important stuff. I get stretched too thin and am not able to focus my time on important issues regarding teaching and learning or the curriculum, because I’m dealing with electrical problems, flooding, or something like that.
What’s your school’s current enrollment, and what is the typical mixture of students in terms of demographics from the local community versus embassies, NGOs, and private companies?
I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but our current enrollment is at 94; we’re up about four students from this time last year. About 40 percent of our students are American passport holders, with 13 students officially from the embassy. I think we’re at about 23 different nationalities which are a mix of expats from West Africa as well as places like Italy and Spain. Roughly, I would estimate our population to be around 35 percent American, about 60 percent from Niger and then the rest from various other countries.
How large is your faculty, and how many of your staff are expat versus local?
Our faculty size is currently 23, and of that number 17 are expat hires and the rest are local hires. When I say local hire, it just means they live in the country and we hire them. They’re not necessarily Nigerien.
So like a trailing spouse?
Correct. Trailing spouse, maybe somebody who’s here working in the country who applied.
I saw on your website that the school’s enrollment can fluctuate between 70 and 100 each year. So with that in mind, that could mean a 30 percent revenue swing in either direction from year to year. How do you manage that kind of volatility while keeping the educational program consistent?
It’s difficult. Those numbers come from when I started here in 2016. The enrollment was at 68. Since then, we’ve had a steady increase in enrollment each year, so we haven’t had to deal with a downturn.
The strategic plan that the board and previous boards have put in place is to build for a growing school population. The U.S. Embassy is right next door to the school, and on the other side of the school is the French Embassy. The U.S. Embassy is currently building a new facility, which should open in a few months. When they move, they’re looking at an increase of about 30 positions there.
So the idea was to have the school geared up to be able to support the influx of official mission dependents and families. Luckily, we haven’t faced a downturn yet, but we do have a contingency plan in place. We have an investment account that has three different areas that we fund. We hold aside money for an emergency fund, a contingency fund, and a long term financial fund. So there is money there in the event that there is a significant downturn in enrollment and we can adjust by having a cushion for a certain amount of time while we figure out what we’re going to do. It could mean cutting staff, but we would want to honor whatever existing contracts there are. So we have a fund that is in place to take care of that.
I know that you said future enrollment is expected to grow due to the U.S. Embassy expansion, but you also mentioned that in the four years you have been there, the enrollment has steadily gone up. What are some of the factors that you attribute to the enrollment having gone up over the past four years?
It’s hard to say. I think that raising the quality of education, putting in clear policies and procedures, and communicating who we are to the community at large about who we are has had an impact. We have built the reputation of the school so that people feel it is the place of choice, the school of choice in the Niamey for an international education. There’s also been an influx of NGOs in the country – International Red Cross, Save the Children, Rescue International, and several other secular types of organizations that are bringing families. I think the influx of students has come in those areas, not necessarily the U.S. mission.
What are some of the qualities that you look for in teaching candidates that align with AISN’s school philosophy and culture?
What I look for is people who are dedicated educators to both the kids and their profession. That’s probably the main characteristic that I would look for. I explain the pros and cons of what it’s like to live and work in Niger because I want to paint a clear picture of the reality of what life is like here. At that point, it all depends upon their reaction to that and what they tell me about their professional preferences, such as what kind of environment feel most comfortable in. If you need a big city, and you need shopping malls, and you need a lot of nightlife, then my advice would be that this isn’t the place for you. If you are interested in an authentic international experience and in working in a culturally rich place, this would be a good location. At the same time, it is not necessarily the most technologically advanced, and the infrastructure is not so great, but if those kinds of things don’t bother you, then yeah, this is probably a good place for you. But if you’re going to be expecting the power to be on all the time and paved roads – things like that – then we wouldn’t want to have that conversation.
So I look for people that are really that kind of the quintessential international educator who are looking for something different, who are looking to experience an international situation and not necessarily just work outside of their own country.
Where have you had the most success in terms of finding good candidates for AISN?
We’re a member of Search Associates. We also advertise on TIE (The International Educator), TES (Times Educational Supplement), and we have also posted job openings on the Peace Corps website. We’ve actually picked up a few Peace Corps volunteers who have come out of the Peace Corps and are looking for jobs in education.
Are most of your hires being interviewed through Skype, or do you still prefer the meet-and-greet environment of a job fair?
It’s changed a lot over the last five to eight years. Now, I tend to do all my interviews through Skype initially. Many people aren’t necessarily going to the job fairs that I’m going to, and it would be difficult price-wise to travel to all of the different job fairs. I find that we tend to do a lot more hiring over Skype. Generally, I have two or three Skype interviews and then follow up to make sure every question is asked and that we have communicated what needs to be communicated. I would say most of my hires now are done through Skype.
As a result of being a small school, your grade levels are grouped. What kind of challenges or benefits do you see in terms of grouping grade levels together in the same classroom?
It works out pretty well because we have small class sizes. We group kids after Kindergarten. So it’s Grade 1-2 together, Grades 3-4 together, and Grades 5-6 together. This arrangement requires differentiation, probably more so than a homogeneous grouping of classes.
We try to create homogeneous groupings for core subjects, so we break the students up for math and language arts. In the mornings, we group them more by their grade level, but it depends on what they’re ready for. We have a saying at the school that we teach kids, not subjects. So whatever the kids need is what we teach them. For English language arts and math, we try to put them into groups so that the teacher can focus on the things that the kids need. Science and social studies is an integrated curriculum. That’s how the groupings work. Again, a bit more differentiation is required, but the small class sizes help a lot with that.
There’s a lot of notions about what an American school is and what an international school is. What does having the words “American” and “international” in your school name mean to you?
Initially, the school’s name was the American School of Niamey. The international part was added later, I think to recognize the fact that we are not just American students but that we have a significant population of international students. Even some of our teaching and faculty are international.
The curriculum model that we use is American and we’ve implemented the AERO (American Education Reaches Out) standards. We also use resources that are purchased from the States, so in that sense, we’re an American school. But, we have an international student body and faculty. We’re also a member of AISA (Association of International Schools in Africa), so we follow the ideals of international schools in terms of international mindedness and celebrating different cultures and different nationalities. We add items into our curriculum to support internationalism, but the foundational core of the curriculum is based on AERO Common Core.
As a result of being an Office of Overseas supported school, does your board structure include representation from the U.S. Embassy?
That is correct and is pretty much standard structure. The ambassador appoints a member of the board to represent the embassy. The Association owns the school, so the parents own it. The land that the school sits on is leased from the U.S. government for one dollar every 12 years. The parents own the buildings and everything else. The board is then an elected board, and they represent the Association with one appointee from the embassy.
I took a look at your school calendar, and it looks like you have several community events, such as a basketball booking, softball, karaoke, happy hour football, etc. It seems like the school itself is a bit of a recreation and a community center for not just school members, but the community at large.
It’s an interesting dynamic. The school is here, of course, to support the educational needs of the various expat families as well as the local parents who want to send their students to an English speaking school in a French-speaking country. At 4:00 p.m. every day, the school becomes what’s called the American International School Rec Center. It’s kind of like a club – actually it is a club. People can purchase memberships – family memberships, single memberships – and not just members of the Association, but also members of the community at large can join the club. There is a vetting process and we send the applications over for background checks, things like that. For members, we offer facilities at the school, which include the athletic field, grass, lighted tennis courts, tennis lessons, swimming pool, restaurant, and cafe. There’s even a bar on campus.
The community will then book events. For example, the embassy team books our field for softball practice every Sunday to prepare for their softball tournament that’s happening next month. There’s a group that comes over and plays basketball. Many people take tennis lessons. There is a happy hour, which is every Friday night and a big community event. On the first and last Friday of each month, we hold either quiz night or karaoke open mic night. We set the stage up and people come down to karaoke and can play their guitars or do whatever. So, yes, the community is a significant aspect of what we do at the school and supporting the community, giving them a place where they can come in a safe, secure environment where they can come and sit and have dinner. The kids can run and play in a safe and secure environment.
It’s part of that whole strategic goal of developing the school. And the rec center has been here for quite a long time at the school and has grown a lot. Even if you’re not a member of the Association or a parent at the school, you can still become part of the community. Many of the members are single people that are working at the embassy who don’t have kids and therefore would not necessarily be involved in the school, but it’s a place for them to come relax and swim. We have a gym with workout equipment. The facilities are open to the community, and we’re trying to promote them as much as we can because there’s not a lot to do here.
What an interesting initiative – it seems like this would go a long way towards staff morale, a sense of belonging, and general quality of life.
The teachers are told that they’re automatically members of the Association, and by extension they’re also members of the rec center. So after a tough day’s work, teachers can use the pool, use the gym, take tennis lessons, or play in the local football club. We’ve been promoting the rec center a lot over the last three years and membership has started to increase.
I’m sure there are a lot of significant accomplishments during your four years, but could you share a couple of the ones you’re most proud of? And also, what are some big goals and objectives for the school going forward?
I think the biggest thing that we’ve been able to accomplish so far is the building projects. We spent 1.3 million dollars on upgrading the facilities. The board decided to invest to develop the school so that when the new embassy development was completed, the school would be in a position to welcome new students and families.
Some of the new facilities include the cafeteria, changing rooms, dance studio, upstairs workout room, covered basketball court, grass field, floodlights on the field, new pool, and outdoor pool cafe. All of these projects were extremely challenging but have also had tremendous impact. There are still some upgrades to do. We’re just finishing rewiring the whole school. Electrical problems are the norm here, so we’ve been investing to make sure that we upgrade the health and safety aspect of the school and that all wiring is up to code. Then the last thing to do is knock out the old toilets and put in a new art room. We’re upgrading the art room and then the science lab. This year we’ve got new science desks coming in which are standalone with a sink, electric, gas, plumbing built in. If enrollment continues to increase, we’re going to have to think about adding more classroom space. It depends on the grade level, but we could probably get in at least 50 more students, depending on the spread, before we had to start thinking about building.
What does the future hold for yourself? You’ve been there for four years. What do you see going forward for yourself personally and professionally at AISN?
At the moment, I see myself here in Niger. The decision to leave is always a difficult one, especially when you have invested so much of your time and effort into a place. If I ever left, though, I would look for another challenge and help develop a school. I had a lot of success doing this project and developing a school to change from one iteration to the next. So I’d maybe look for a position where a school is interested in growing and developing. It is something that would seem interesting to me at this point.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about AISN that we haven’t talked about?
Just because we’re a small school doesn’t mean we can’t do big things. Everything that the school earns goes back into the school. We are a not-for-profit, and it is a good quality of education. If you are thinking of coming to the region, get in touch with us. Let us know how we can help you.