Sharyn Baddeley commenced her role as Head of School of the International School of Florence in July 2022. Previously Sharyn was head of The International Bilingual School in Beijing, China, a day and boarding school comprised of 1,800 students from early years up to grade 12 and 460 staff. Sharyn explains the similarities between Chinese and Italian schooling as she settles into life in Florence.
On getting to Florence: I arrived in Florence on July 2 after nine months of visa paperwork. Unfortunately, during that period of time the Italian Embassy was closed because of the zero Covid policy in Beijing—everything is very protected in Beijing. Finally, once the visa was approved, it took us 50 hours of flying and six transits to eventually arrive in Florence since many flights were cancelled due to carrier staffing issues. After one week of my arrival, I caught Covid. My immune system was weak because we were so protected from any illness in China, so I became very sick and that took a while for me to get over. Since my recovery, I feel like I’ve been sprinting ever since!
On similarities between China and Italy: My integration into a different culture has been quite smooth because of the love of family: family is paramount in both China and Italy, where both children and the elderly are cherished. In China, there’s a love of food, like here, and there are similarities with bureaucracy. I’ve also found that the appreciation of education is strong in both Italy and China, where parents value education and want the best for their children. Wherever you go, the issues that we experience in schools are always the same, whether it’s phone usage, social and emotional concerns or classroom management. I’m valuing the ability to collaborate more here in Florence. The community’s not as big as in Beijing, so it’s easier to make professional connections and to get some one-on-one support. When you’re leading a large number of staff and bear the responsibility of children, you need that support.
On her professional career: I’m originally from Melbourne, Australia, where I began my career in private schools. My background is focused on building strong academic schools and implementing new initiatives. I’ve got a Bachelor’s in Business Management, which has been really helpful because it’s also majoring in human resources, and a Bachelor’s in Applied Science. I also did my Master’s in Educational Leadership and also have a Master’s in Cultural Leadership and Coaching. I am currently in the middle of my PhD in Educational Leadership, but I have put that on hold during my transition.
On managing a school in China during the pandemic: When the pandemic hit, most of my 460 staff members were stranded overseas because it was Chinese New Year and the majority travel overseas during this period of time. Many of our teachers were dispersed in countries where they had been holidaying and unable to leave—they had lengthy hotel fees they did not plan for, very little teaching resources to teach their students online, their visas had expired in the country they were visiting and lots of family issues they were confronted with. They all wanted to get back to work, but they were unable to return back to China due to all borders being closed and anyone able to get past the border control was required to do 28 days of strict quarantine. The only avenue for many was to fly to another country or to go back to their home country if they were able to get access. All of this made them feel insecure about their future employment and their family’s wellbeing. My focus was on ensuring that they had financial stability whilst they were enduring these challenges. We also needed to support our staff in China, making sure that they were not forgotten because they were in lockdown and couldn’t leave their compounds at all. However, it was also about making sure that the school was still able to deliver a curriculum that had a positive impact on the children’s learning outcomes. We were one of the only schools in Beijing that had everything ready with all the online learning platforms in place and all staff trained, so we were able to start online straightaway. Enrolments increased significantly because of our plan. It took two years to get the last remaining teacher back into China.
On settling into life at ISF: Although it has only been a couple of months since arriving in Florence, I have been getting my head around how things operate and the culture of the school. Forming relationships is my focus; building the trust of the staff, students and parents is integral. I’ve implemented a number of initiatives to help with communication, to open up the door to let people know that I’m here if you need to talk. I’m having coffee mornings with parents and meeting staff individually. I’m travelling between the two campuses, getting into the classrooms and seeing what’s happening and chatting to the staff. I thoroughly enjoy being in the classroom and connecting with students and staff. I have always tried to be a visible leader: I like to be supportive and to be involved in what is happening in the classrooms. We have some challenges, like many schools, such as flexible class space and a long waiting list of students wanting to join ISF. Those challenges are currently being addressed with the planning for the design of a possible new campus in Bagno a Ripoli, where our junior school campus is located. Hopefully all things will go to plan!
On the ISF community: The International School of Florence is made up of all communities and cultures. When you look at the makeup, there are Italian, American, British, Chinese, Russian, Irish, and Australian students and staff, plus many other nationalities. We are an inclusive school that also caters for diversity, which all international schools should do. Plus, we provide opportunities for all the students to grow at their own pace and ability levels. Holistic education is paramount for our students. Volunteering and contributing within the Florence community has been something we are very proud of and have been doing for many years. ISF is the oldest International Baccalaureate school in Europe and with that title we have connections to provide opportunities for our students to extend their knowledge globally and be more aware of current global issues and concerns. For Italian families, the benefit is the bilingual program, whereby we teach aspects of the Italian curriculum as well as an international curriculum. In public schools in Italy, as in China, classrooms all resemble a lecture-based form of teaching structure where teaching incorporates memorization. However, at ISF, our students are part of their own learning process. They collaborate with each other and utilise their higher order thinking skills by thinking critically. Our curriculum is inquiry-based using research and evaluation to solve problems, so they become independent and resilient students ready to tackle the fast-paced changing world.
On a caring approach: Many children are more resilient, flexible and adaptable due to changes made in education since Covid, although social and emotional issues are present for some students due to isolation and the loss of social interaction and communication during the peak of the virus. At ISF we have a wellbeing program, which follows Martin Seligman’s work, called Positive Psychology. It is extremely important that student wellbeing is incorporated into the core curriculum programme of schools by providing them with knowledge and skills to deal with emotions, relationships, stress and anxiety to name just a few, to work on individual strengths, resilience and develop those skills to cope with the many challenges they will experience over time. I care a lot about our students, staff and community, and my focus will always be to ensure everyone feels valued, cared for and appreciated. Our school community is very family-oriented and working together to solve problems and concerns is very important to me.
On ISF’s 70th anniversary: We’re organizing a huge reunion for all the alumni. It’s been wonderful to see so many alumni make contact with the school, such as Audrey Hepburn’s granddaughter. So many public figures who really want to give back to the school and contribute to its future have been in touch. The school will be having its annual gala event at the end of the year, which has many of our parents involved with the coordination: it really is a popular event on the school calendar. We have already celebrated our 70th with students and staff singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and enjoying a magnificent cake. We also have a very special 70th anniversary book in the works, which looks at the history of the school and the changes made over time. The school has achieved so much over the past 70 years and we are proud to have the title as the oldest school in Europe that has one of the best curriculum frameworks known globally: the International Baccalaureate program.