Interview with the Head of College: Dr. Dale Taylor

Dr. Dale Taylor joined the UWC movement as Head of UWC Mahindra College in July 2021. Before that, Dr. Taylor served as the Head of The Aga Khan School in Dhaka, SEV American College in Istanbul, and ACS Doha (of which she was the Founding Principal). She has a strong interest in educational innovation and design, educational research, and developing educational leaders. 

You have been a school leader for about a decade now – and have headed schools of different sizes and in varied cultural settings. What are the core principles that you follow as a leader, regardless of the context?

There are about three core principles I follow. First, there’s the popular idea put forth by James C. Collins of organizations being “built to last.” As a leader, one is expected to think about how their organization will thrive over 20, 30, or even 50 years. But on the other hand, we live in a time of constant exponential growth in knowledge, so it is hard to keep up. We’ve gone from making five-year strategic plans to only three-year plans. So to strike a balance, it is important to maintain a strong core ideology – which is the school’s vision, mission, operational principles, and values. A leader that I really admire is Anna Wintour and one of her tenets that resonates with me strongly is to lead your team “with a strong point of view.” And “to absorb what is happening culturally” so one is open to hearing others’ perspectives.

For this to happen, strong leadership at all levels is crucial – and by that, I don’t necessarily mean charismatic leadership. Charismatic leaders come and go, but a leader who consistently makes good decisions, makes steady improvements over time while consulting with others, and stays grounded is very valuable. So I try my best to be that. 

I also subscribe to Hallowell’s model, which is a cycle of excellence. I’ll speak briefly about the first two steps – which are “Select” and “Connect.” One of the most important decisions one makes as a leader is who to hire. My personal belief is that you’re only as strong as your weakest employee. Your program is only as strong as the education you offer your weakest students or the professional development you provide to your weakest teacher. What often happens in education is that great teachers are often elevated to positions of leadership. But the skill set required for a great leader may be somewhat different from what is required from a great teacher. Not only does the school lose a great teacher in the classroom, but without the proper training or attitude, the individual flounders in the leadership position as well. So it’s vital to find the right fit.

It is important to get everyone in the same room to connect and collaborate. As an aside, I recently watched a documentary film about the phenomenon of groupthink. One of the insights in the film was that groupthink mentality was one of the key factors that led to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster because there were dissenting voices that were shut down. This is why I believe that an additional consideration to be made at this step is to make sure the room is diverse. A plurality of voices and perspectives – including but not restricted to traditionally marginalized groups, be it the differently-abled, women, people of color, individuals on the LGBTQ+ spectrum – needs to be present in the room and be taken seriously.

As an educator, I believe it is imperative that we don’t view students as one monolithic group. We teach humans before we teach subjects. 

What are the aspects of teaching that you miss most as a school leader? How do you ensure that you still retain a sense of the everyday student and teacher experience?

I miss being able to witness the gradual growth in students over an academic year. I miss the many moments of laughter! So I try to sit in on as many classes as possible – and I ask a lot of questions about everything from learning to living. It is much easier here than in day schools because there is plenty of time and scope to interact with students and teachers during meals, Wada meetings, at the gym, and so on.

What do you see as your most valuable contribution as a leader?

I’m pretty good at spotting talent and spotting talent that people might not even know that they have. So I challenge people to be better and to do things differently. And honestly, this has been one of my biggest challenges as a leader. It is not correcting people and holding them accountable but getting these talented people to step up! Sometimes, people start to find contentment in coasting by and not stepping outside their comfort zone. And that to me is undermining the self. To not use one’s talents like that, unimaginable! (laughs) So I believe in pushing people, especially when it means maximizing their potential and benefiting the community at large.

What drew you to the UWC movement?

One of the things that immediately drew me to UWC was that one of the core values is “a sense of idealism.” and that is something you simply don’t see in many organizational statements as the ‘raison d’être’. So it was that, coupled with the focus on being proactive in terms of social responsibility, diversity, inclusivity, and respect for other cultures.

I have known about the UWC movement for a long time. A few years ago, I was part of an evaluation visit. During that visit, the governance structure of the movement sparked my interest. I like that there are specific and unique schools worldwide, but they also have a laudable mission tying them together. Many years ago, when I was a student at McGill, a few of my co-years were from a UWC school. And even though I might not have necessarily agreed with their views all the time, I was very taken with the way they thought and the confidence they had drawn from the secondary education they received. I found myself becoming incredibly jealous!

So when people ask me why I chose MUWCI, it is actually MUWCI that chose me. And when the opportunity to interview for this position was put in front of me, it felt like the right time and the right fit.   

What is something that has pleasantly surprised you about MUWCI in your first few months?

So I knew our students would be intelligent, but I didn’t expect them to be so collaborative – and almost professional in their approach to the Student Orientation Week. It was absolutely amazing!  Not only was it very well executed, but it was also highly interactive. They did a great job breaking down the essential components of MUWCI and putting them across in a very digestible manner to the incoming students.

The other factor that I appreciate is the commitment to social and emotional support. Often times, that can simply be lip service. But when I joined the Wada 5 meeting, even as an adult, it felt like a really comforting and empowering space that was trying its best to support everyone.

Have you been able to identify a project that excites you?

Yes, there are two, actually. First, I’m interested in raising the profile of MUWCI through collaborations with external organizations – the most natural partner being the wider UWC Movement. Specifically, I am interested in the United World College Global Diploma. It is born from the need to develop genuinely 21st-century learning and inclusive practices. This group of educators is dedicated to developing a global diploma that does justice to a wide spectrum of intelligence and abilities. I think that is phenomenal!

The other projects that excite me are the Atal Tinkering Lab, which is a STEAM-based innovation project, and the exploration of IBCP – which is the International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme. This rigorous core curriculum will issue unique certification in a field that the student has identified as a potential career path. I’m currently working with a small group, including the Head of Academics, and a science teacher to determine whether we can conduct a feasibility study for the IBCP at MUWCI. We already have the Project-Based Certificate here that compliments this project beautifully.

I think a significant challenge for educational institutions today is to stay relevant. To not be complacent, to not rest on their past laurels. Not to change for the sake of it, but change to remain excellent. In addition to that, I’m proud of the high passing rate that MUWCI students have achieved. But it is also important to seriously consider the cases of students who have not been able to pass – what was the issue? Was IB not suited to their needs? What additional support did they need? As I said earlier, progress must happen synchronously for everyone – as the quote goes, “a rising tide raises all ships.”

What are three books and three films that you recommend and why?

Interestingly, I could come up with two right away but struggled with the third. I wonder why that is. So, books first!

De Profundis by Oscar Wilde – I love Oscar Wilde – the Irishness, the wit, the gift of the gab! This book is one long letter to his lover that he wrote while imprisoned in Reading, Gaol. And just to think of the circumstances and the reasons for which he wrote this – it is therapy; the narrative is so deeply personal and heartbreaking.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison – I think this is one of the first times I felt the pain of being a minority reflected in literature. At one point the main character Pecola thinks – if only I had blue eyes, if only I had light skin, my life would be so much easier. And the truism in that is profound. But then having to negotiate not being that, is something I deeply identified with.

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie – When I was in grade eight, one of my language teachers gave us a list of books to read. And most of them sounded quite drab – except this one because it had murder in the title! So I read it, and I fell in love with the book and the genre. They’re just so entertaining, have great characterization and constant intrigue. I find it a great way to relax.

Cabaret by Bob Fosse – I love musicals! Bob Fosse and Liza Minelli are incredibly talented and it is such an entertaining film. But what really fascinates me about this film is that the politics are so subtle, yet glaring – the way that a fascist regime comes into power during the Weimar Republic, while a city is busy partying.

My Life as a Dog by Lasse Hallström – What a wonderful film about the poignancy of childhood! It is full of unusual characters and quirky Scandinavians intrigue me.

The Things I Cannot Change by Tanya Ballantyne – This is a documentary I watched in one of my first sociology classes. In the West, you see so much wealth around you and it leads to these naive questions like – why does poverty exist in upwardly mobile and affluent countries? Why can’t people get out of poverty? Why are multiple generations living in poverty in an upwardly mobile society like Canada? But this film started to open up my mind to understand the psychological toll that poverty can have. That there are many shades of grey and no easy answers for those questions.