International Start-Ups: The Second Year Comes After the First!

by Jean-Luc Aupoix

In the Beginning

Starting up an international school is much more than assembling elements together – elements that are important and crucial in building a good school and meeting the Founding Board’s vision. Above all, this is a personal and collective journey that unites people with a common and shared goal.

Embarking on the Journey

When starting a new school, there is a sense of excitement and pride to be amongst the “chosen few”, to be part of this unique challenge. Idealism and energy combined with cultural agility, experience, creativity and resilience will lead the way to add one more step towards education for all. The definition of an international school is as multiform as international schools themselves. You do not embark on a journey in the same way for a single school that is the life dream of its founders(s) or for a school belonging to a group or a movement that is already very clear on its structure, values, leadership and governance, market and curriculum. However, the process follows similar steps and people are at the heart of the adventure. The willingness to be part of something unique shapes the profile of the founding “dream team”. 

Building an Identity

Risk-takers, innovators, and team players are needed to instil the needed energy and reactivity as well as the odd amount of craziness. To the question, “Can you send me photos of the school?”, I was once asked when recruiting the founding teachers for a start-up project in Central Africa, I responded: “There are no photos because… there is no school, no buildings…yet!”. After a pause, the candidate said …“OK”, affirming their willingness to join. This African project started after I accepted the position without thinking too much.

I just wanted to do something new, something different and was flattered by the trust the founders had in me. This was as much a professional as a personal decision to humbly create a legacy where aligned values and systems would lead to good education and learning.

Building identity and integrating your legacy right from the beginning will give coherence to any project and will ease communication with all the stakeholders. Thinking about the future as part of the action and development plan is important. Building succession, promotion and development with projections of various scenarios in terms of enrolment and revenues will help facing challenges and uncertainty.  

Several ‘Must-dos’ Come Naturally:    

Creating a strong mission and vision in line with the founding Board – there is never enough communication with the Board:

  •  Develop a clear and compelling school mission and vision that reflects the values and aspirations of the school community.
  •  This mission and vision will serve as the foundation for the school’s identity and legacy, guiding decision-making and priority setting.

Foster a Sense of Belonging:

  •  Implement signature programs, events, and traditions that encourage community engagement and participation.
  • Focus on creating opportunities for students and staff to connect and build relationships, as these connections contribute to a sense of belonging and school identity.

Engage the Community:

  • Encourage active participation in decision-making processes, as this helps create a sense of ownership and investment in the school’s identity and legacy.

Adapt to Change and Growth:

  •  Recognise the need for flexibility in a start-up environment and be open to adjusting traditions and programs as the school evolves.
  •  Encourage continuous improvement and adaptation, ensuring that the school’s core values are preserved while remaining responsive to changing needs and contexts.

All of this can only happen if the founding team is part of the decision-making process, understands its role and is supported whenever it is needed. Camaraderie, a sense of humour, long days and a “flexible approach to the definition of the weekend“ are the definite ingredients of the success. Then, the unloading of a container full of furniture and academic resources on a Sunday morning becomes a new milestone and is celebrated as such. Sharing pizzas and local delicacies late in the evening, stopping work on a Friday afternoon earlier than usual (if you are still in the founding phase and there are no students yet and sometimes no buildings!) will cement the team, fuel team spirit and make tomorrow’s memories.

Finally, after many ups and downs, doubts and questioning and also laughs and (silly) jokes, the school is ready for its opening. It can be in temporary facilities or on a brand-new campus. Whichever comes first, your students and parents are present, teachers are ready, and systems are in place. The first year carries a feeling of uniqueness once again, and hopefully, the Board is proud. Everyone is a founding member – students, parents, teachers, admin and support staff, local authorities who have been part of the adventure, the friends we made along the way (neighbours, managers of the Electricity and Telecom Offices, colleagues from other schools, consultants who have been much more than consultants).

From Nothing to Something.

You may be fortunate that the first year goes well, problems are fixed when they arise, and everyone has a little extra energy and flexibility to make things work. And then…comes the second year! A totally different game. The new stakeholders (students, parents, teachers)  have new and completely different expectations. They believe the school is like any other school and therefore the expectations for a full, complete and fully functioning institution are very high, however, they can sometimes be unrealistic. The founding “family” may even sometimes be seen as dinosaurs talking about their exploits of the past, which are only a few months old! This is what happened several times in a start-up context. In the school I started in China, we as the founding team, worked on establishing a culture and identity matching the founders’ vision and integrating the full ethos and philosophy of the IBDP. Getting IB authorisation in 8 months, with Chinese speed! while teaching the first cohort of Grade 10 students who were guaranteed high academic standards, individual personal growth and development was a real achievement. The first year was a year of excitement, difficult decisions to make and success in starting during the COVID-19 era.  But once again, our second year with new students, new teachers, and new parents proved that the adventurous journey, yet present (this was another Year 1 for our DP1 and faculty and staff ) was seen as something of the past.

In Summary

In any international school start-up, the first year is so important. Remember –  even if everything cannot be perfectly in place, your systems, policies and procedures, and alignment of the academic and operational sides need to be thoroughly thought through. This will prepare the coming years with a solid foundation and a common ground of a set of shared values, objectives and their understanding. This is particularly true in individual schools where the exciting yet scary page is a blank one at the beginning! But above all, remember that the second year comes after the first. 

Thanks for reading.

Jean-Luc Aupoix is the Executive Principal of CWA, China World Academy, Changshu

To connect with Jean-Luc on LinkedIn, click here

LYIS is proud to partner with TIC Recruitment

1 thought on “<strong>International Start-Ups: The Second Year Comes After the First!</strong>”

  1. Thank you Jean-Luc for this blog, really really useful!
    The founding team’s characteristics are crucial! It requires risk-takers, innovators, and team players with a sense of humor and flexibility to navigate challenges.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *