24 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

‘Teachers have to be lifelong learners’

Poonam Bhojani, CEO and founder of Innoventures Education, who pioneered the International Baccalaureate system in the UAE, tells Shiva Kumar Thekkepat what it takes to be a good educator

Shiva Kumar Thekkepat
26 Sep 2016 | 11:18 am
  • Poonam Bhojani

    Source:Aiza Castillo-Domingo/ANM

You were an IT professional before you entered the education sector. Was the change difficult?

I was in the IT section of the banking industry. I started out in India, moved to Belgium, the US, Hong Kong, Sweden, the Netherlands, Oman and then the UAE. On my last posting I was heading the IT section of the ABN Amro regional office based out of Dubai.

There are so many similarities between IT and education that you can just connect the dots. Firstly, IT is a huge component of managing and leading schools just from the infrastructure perspective. Two, it is such an important tool in enhancing the learning of students that it has become indispensable, not only in education, but in any walk of life.

IT also teaches you a certain structured way of thinking that you then apply across various areas, which is essential in navigating the education sector too. Most of all, being in the IT profession you have to remain a lifelong learner. We try to inculcate that in our staff. And isn’t that what education all about?

What was the immediate reason to start a school?

My job in the IT industry had involved travelling extensively, which meant that I often had to leave my two sons. When 
they were five and three, I felt I was not doing enough as a mother. I quit and never looked back. I turned full-time mother, doing school runs and looking after every single aspect of their lives. For three years I stuck to it, but I still managed projects on the side on a freelance basis.

I was the kind of mother who loves to be involved in every aspect of their child’s school life. From homework and activities to asking questions and looking at things that could be improved, I was a very hyperactive parent, – just the kind schools are wary of! That’s why we welcome highly engaged mothers at our schools, we like them and encourage them!

I realised that while the education my children were getting at their school was good, there was no challenge. They were capable of much more than was asked of them.

I felt schools should offer more. I started experimenting with different schools for my younger son. He went to three schools in a period of three years. None of them ticked all the boxes for me. That’s what got me to consider starting a school that would offer all that I felt was required for a complete education. And of course I became obsessive about it!

Without any background in education or entrepreneurship, how did you go about it?

For me, it was not about business. I saw it from a mother’s perspective. It was in 2003 that I first started to seriously think of starting my own school. There was also a shortage of schools at that time. So my husband and I put up a case study for a school.

We were clear that we wanted to bring a new kind of international education to Dubai. Our research showed that the International Baccalaureate (IB) system would suit Dubai best because it combines all elements of internationalism with rigour and a holistic approach. At that point there were no schools offering the IB programme from entry level to completion.

The sceptics here felt that IB was not the way forward. Now of course many schools offer IB, but we were the first to see the need. Though we were unknown then, it met the requirements of the community so well that we succeeded. So we launched Innoventures Education in 2005 with Dubai International Academy (DIA).

But there were so many challenges because we were breaking fresh ground. First we had to educate parents about the IB system. They found it strange there were no textbooks in the primary years, and students are not given homework. Students instead are asked to do projects so that they learn how to apply what they learn in school to real life. This inculcates critical thinking in children.

It was very difficult to find staff as there were few trained in the IB system. So we invested a lot in staff training and development. We hired good teachers and trained them. We also had to work at retaining them as they were in great demand as other IB schools started coming up.

Now DIA has become the first and only IB school to be rated outstanding by the KHDA. Even now there are only seven schools that offer the full IB programme from primary level.

And then in 2008 we had a break when Emaar pulled out of the education sector – the Raffles International School and Raffles World Academy and nine nurseries – and the chairman of Emaar Mohammad Ali Al Abbar offered us the opportunity to take over. Now, with the Collegiate American School founded in 2011, Innoventure Education has four schools and nine nursery schools.

We have students from our schools being welcomed at Ivy League and Oxbridge schools. In fact my elder son, who is now 24, was from the second batch of students from the DIA, and among the first to be admitted to Yale University. My second son just graduated from Cambridge.

For the third year now, our schools have churned out a 45-pointer, which is the highest number of points a student can get. There are 150,000 students across the world who sit for the IB examination each year. Less than 101 manage to get 45 points.

Apart from the curriculum, what’s different about your schools?

We run our schools on the philosophy that parents contribute very effectively to the education process. We follow a truly open-door policy. We listen to the parents. We recognise the fact that we are not perfect. There is always room for improvement. We welcome parents’ feedback and complaints. We ensure there is no hesitation on their part to approach us. We see it as an opportunity to improve ourselves. We see parents as stakeholders as we both have a common interest – our children. So, in our schools there are no conflicts, only teamwork.

What’s a typical day for you?

I still do what I did as a mother of two kids in school – I walk along the corridors of my schools talking to mothers, understanding what’s going on. Looking at things from the students’ and parents’ point of view. Now we have over 1,000 staff, including teachers, administrators and support staff, so I have to look into their welfare. I also look into the lessons. I plan which of our schools or nurseries I’d visit a week in advance.

I also play a role in the IB community in the region. I was the president of the Middle East IB Association of Schools for four years, and during my tenure the membership went up from 12 to 85 schools across Morocco, Africa and the Middle East.

What does it take to be a good educator?

First of all, passion. You have to be a learner yourself. Over the years I’ve been studying what makes some teachers outstanding. I’ve discovered that when excellence becomes a habit, they become outstanding. When they do their best, and a little more.

And with the advent of technology the role of the teacher has changed a lot. 
They are no more just the information disseminators. From being ‘the sage on the stage’, they have become ‘the guide by their side’. 

What do you consider your biggest achievements?

Well, I’ve been named CEO of the Year by Arabian Business magazine, the Indian Female Entrepreneur of the Year by ITP, and listed among Top Indian Leaders by Forbes Middle East. But I’d point to our philosophy of focusing on personalised learning, that every child learns according to his or her pace – that’s what I am most proud of.

Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

Features Writer