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Meet James Dalziel, Head of School, NIST International School

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

In this edition of Education Matters, we talk school leadership with James Dalziel, Head of School at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand.


What was your journey to NIST International School?

I started my educational journey first in outdoor education and then as a learning support special education teacher, running a behaviour classroom in the basement of an old town hall in Canada for boys who had been expelled out of all the local schools. It helps you reframe what success looks like.

Then in 1991, my wife and I came to Singapore to join Canadian International school, to help establish a middle school at a time when it was just 420 children in a campus on Toh Tuck Road. From there, I went to UWCSEA in 2006 where again the goal was to create a middle school. Fast-forward three years and I became Head of the new East Campus, which was under construction. That was an amazing first year of how do you build a school from scratch? How do you build a culture? An amazing opportunity.

Then in 2017, I shifted to GEMS Education and became the Director of Operations in Europe, which was an insightful jump into a for-profit environment before coming to NIST International School. In fact, an element of what brought my family and I to NIST was its not-for-profit element. It is a school with a history of 30 years, but with a very strong desire to lift and put some formality around its curriculum and to create the best programme possible in terms of curriculum, outdoor education and service.

What is your leadership approach?

One of the lessons I learnt early which was helpful was, 'There is the leader you want to be and there is the leader that the school needs.' It’s not about you. It is about what do people need right now and what is my role in helping to move forwards towards that. Leadership is all about careful listening. People don’t always know exactly what they want, but you’ve got to listen and understand what they are valuing, and then align everyone to a direction that is actually even more positive than the one they would have expected.

My approach is about listening and leading, and always leading with kindness and purpose.

You joined the school in the middle of a pandemic. What impact did that have on how you had to introduce yourself as a leader and connect with the school community?

Having to adapt! Relationships and connections have always been the most important part of any job, and so online leadership is just a challenge. However, we can still do our best and adapt. So, when I found myself, and my family, arriving to our new roles at the start of this academic year and having my opening sessions with colleagues and parents via Zoom, I could either feel sorry for myself or just do the best that I could.

Likewise, the challenge at the start of the year was about adapting to the emergency of a Covid response. How do we go online? How do we deliver our content? And now, as we come back face-to-face, it’s about how do we re-engage our students before we start worrying about the content itself. Our students have been disengaged, they’ve lost a voice, they’ve lost connection, they’ve lost the sense of magic of being in-person. So how do we help with the re-socialisation of the students who have been isolated? For me, this goes further still. How do we help our staff re-engage if they are going to help our students, as they’ve also been in the same situation?

We love the Japanese proverb, fall down eight times, get up nine. What are the mistakes that you have made in your leadership journey which you have most learnt from?

How much time do you have! To take that proverb, one of my most favourite Mike Tyson quotes is, 'Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.' For me, that is leadership. This job is all about constantly being knocked back and getting up again, and it needs to be. If we aren’t getting knocked down, we aren’t engaging, and if we aren’t engaging, we aren’t doing anything.

As leaders, we need to be listening and highly sensitive, to be really in tune with what people around us are saying, even when it is in anger. If you put up barriers and say the easiest way to not get knocked down is to just not enter the ring, then you’re not going to be growing. You aren’t going to be getting better. It’s about learning how not to get knocked down in the same way. I don’t mind getting knocked down a different way! It’s about shifting the mindset from, 'there is a right way of doing,' to constantly adapting and getting better, which means constantly being a little uncomfortable because learning happens just outside the comfort zone.

Who would you credit with being the most influential person in your career to date?

Hundreds of people! I can think of so many people who gave me a nudge at the right time, or the wrong time, who I’ve learned from along the way. People who just make me passionate about learning.

Deb Welch, the Director of the Academy for International School Heads, has helped me understand that my work is in schools as a relationship building, as a facilitator, that it's not about carrying an ego which carries the school along with it. Bambi Betts, the Director of the Principal’s Training Centre, has helped me understand that there is no substitute for getting on and doing the work, rather than just learning the theory. While Martin Skelton has taught me not to get caught up in the work for the work’s sake, always connect it to the eventual goal of making the most of student outcomes.

NIST is well known for its impactful global citizenship diploma. Are there any other elements of a NIST education that you would describe as positively disruptive?

Well, we are still at the early stages, but we are looking directly at curriculum articulation and giving teachers 'permission' to teach content again and to use enquiry in a more complex way.

We are going to shift the pendulum back to strong foundational structures, strong collectively developed understandings and knowledge. There is a big difference between accessible knowledge out there in Google, and actual knowledge that is working in experiential ways. So, I think giving a curriculum permission to have knowledge is a big step forward. It’s ok to know the countries of the world. It’s ok to know where they are located. It actually really helps to understand conflict when you understand the geographical position of it. So that is a big step forward for us.

Another area is experiential learning. Shifting our outdoor education from trips to another high-quality opportunity for our students to be age-appropriately challenged. To provide an environment where children learn about themselves and others.

If you hadn’t become an educator, what would you have liked to be?

In one of my previous schools, we did a 'What colour is your parachute' training session, where you look at your individual talents and skills. My profile came out as being perfectly suited to a hotel concierge and I thought, 'I kind of love that actually'! In a way, it’s what school leaders do, you manage without people knowing you are managing, you lead without people knowing you are leading. It’s about, 'If the answer is always yes, what’s the question?' We are going to figure this out, and I’m going to steer and guide you towards it. I believe in moments, in positive experiences, and that’s part of my role. How do we create moments for kids that either connect, celebrate or reinforce. So yes, I’d love to be a hotel concierge and make the magic happen for people!


NIST International School was the first and only full, not-for-profit IB international school in Bangkok, Thailand, established in 1992 with the support of the United Nations. The school now welcomes over 1,500 students of over 50 nationalities and provides all three IB programmes. For more information on the school and admissions please click here


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