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Lisa R. Johnson: Preparing the next generation of Emirati women to be leaders

Lisa R. Johnson is the Principal of American Academy for Girls, a Taaleem school founded in 2005 to provide a nurturing and rigorous American education for girls aged 3 to 18 years. She has also led schools in the United States, Vietnam and Thailand and has a great track record of transforming schools and creating strong teacher teams.

Her career began in America where she spent eight years as a classroom teacher and 14 years as a head of school in an urban secondary school. She has also been a Head of School in Bangkok, Thailand, for five years. Prior to that, she had assignments in China as a classroom teacher and as head of school in Vietnam.  Johnson holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Northeastern University, a Master’s in School Administration from the University of Oklahoma and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Northcentral University where she examined the acculturation rates of Third Culture Kids. Her findings supported her belief that diverse schools have the potential to unite people and cultures in a way that can dramatically shape the future.

While leading Taft in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Johnson was responsible for initiating programmes that dramatically increased student academic attainment and attendance resulting in the school being recognized as runner up Urban School of the Year. During this tenure, Johnson was recognized as District Principal of the Year and for significant contributions to the Asian and Latino communities in Oklahoma City.

Prior to joining American Academy for Girls, Johnson was the Head of School at Berkeley International School in Bangkok. In this role, she was responsible for solidifying a standards-based grading system, initiating a new mathematics programme and streamlining the SEND programme to better meet the needs of the diverse learning population. While at Berkeley, Johnson also oversaw the completion of a multi-million dollar capital improvement project and doubled school membership.

Johnson is passionate about the evolving role of education and the potential it has to empower students to be change agents in the world. As the leader at AAG, she looks forward to preparing the next generation of Emirati women to be leaders in the UAE and the larger global community! Education Middle East spoke to Lisa R. Johnson about her accomplishments as an educationist and issues that are close to her heart.

What inspired you to choose education as a career?  

My great grandmother was an amazing woman who grew up in the Ozark mountains in Qualls, Oklahoma. She was widowed quite young but managed to own a country store, was one of the first female postmasters in Oklahoma and importantly, she started the one room schoolhouse where her sister was the teacher. Education was important to her even though she was not formally educated, and I think this was always felt in our family. I always wanted to be a teacher, in fact, it is the only job I have ever held. 

You have spent considerable time as a teacher in many parts of the world. Has the experience been any different in the UAE? If so, how?

I have lived and worked in several countries but no other country compares to the UAE with regard to the priority placed on education as a National Agenda. Clearly, the visionary leadership that has moved this country so far so quickly will ensure that the UAE is at the forefront of educational leadership. It is exciting to be a part of this! 

Tell us about your stint at American Academy for Girls (AAG)? List some of the challenges when you started out at the school and how you managed to overcome them?  

My assignment at AAG is my first experience working in an all-girls school. I am motivated and inspired by the young women in our school and the potential we have at AAG to develop the talents and skills of our students to be leaders in the UAE and abroad. The teaching staff is also all female and it is very empowering to be a part of such a fantastic team.  

How do you keep your staff motivated? Share some tips. 

At AAG, our mission is to empower our students to become extraordinary thinkers, innovators and solution designers in an environment of trust and encouragement. In doing so we prepare young women to have a voice for themselves and agency to make a difference in the global community.  

It sounds simplistic but keeping my team focused on this is really what motivates and inspires us to power through the more challenging obstacles associated with being modern day educators. When you can see the macro perspective of how your work is part of a bigger picture, you truly feel empowered to challenge yourself and your colleagues to reach further than you thought possible.  

What have been the major learnings from the pandemic for the education community? 

There have been many valuable insights learned from managing a school through a pandemic. First and foremost, we have learned to be creative about how we approach education. Long-held rules about attendance and classroom structure became less of a priority as we focused on maintaining a sense of community and prioritizing student wellbeing. We have also learned that hybrid models of instruction will be the way forward for schools. I do think we have found that nothing will ever replace the experience of students being in a classroom with an amazing teacher and classroom of friends but there is plenty of space for online instruction to enhance this experience.  

As students in the UAE return to full-time in-person classes, what could be the best practices to re-engage them?

Our students and teachers are so excited to have everyone attending in person, honestly, the air is electric with student learning. We are able to once again host field trips and with the Expo starting -this has been an exciting time to be in school. We are taking extra care to monitor student wellbeing as students who have been attending fully online for two years reintegrate into full attendance but our initial data collection is showing that student wellbeing has benefited greatly from a return to in-person attendance.  

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