First, let us have a glimpse into your personal life and your educational and professional background. Who is George Damon and what brought him to the presidency of ACS Lebanon?
I was born in Istanbul, Turkey, and I was connected to this part of the world from birth. My grandmother’s brother was married to Elizabeth Dodge, whose family is a long-time supporter of education in both Lebanon and Turkey. I grew up in Washington, DC and had the opportunity to encounter many people from various parts of the world but in particular from the Middle East, as my father was a diplomat in the US Foreign Service. I was first introduced to the Arabic language in Morocco where I met my future wife. We went back to the US to study at the graduate school, then returned to Morocco with two beautiful girls, one of whom, Arwa, is a CNN correspondent in the Middle East. I was a university professor for quite a long time. Fortunately, I ended up getting a job back at Robert College, where my grandfather had been teaching. I worked there for 10 years and my daughters graduated from there. I moved later to Izmir, Turkey, and started a new school there.
I was thinking what to do next when I found the advertisement for this position in a newspaper. After a couple of interviews, I was invited to head up the school in 2003. I knew the previous head, Catherine Bashur, and had a lot of respect for her as an educator. She carried the school right through the war and then rebuilt it afterwards quite successfully. I came here twice and realized that this was an exciting place for me as an educator because of its highly energetic community and educators who were interested in moving themselves forward on reflection and good practice and in building on the work of their predecessors.
What were the major milestones that you have achieved throughout your presence at ACS and were there any plans you had for the school but did not materialize?
Ten years is a long time so there has been a great deal. We took on this old city educational campus and we’ve renewed every part of it. We were thinking how we could actually impact what happens to the students every day and that means things from a better library to adding a multipurpose area for the young children to creating a green environment so the students feel connected to nature when they go outside. We also created the first artificial green football field and the first gym.
We developed a new program so we reviewed our total curriculum and generated new frameworks. Our early years’ program, which was a wonderful Montessori program is now expanded to include Reggio Emilia and approaches to engage very young people to shape their thinking through actions and interactions with very challenging environments. We have active arts programs and I have a very clear bias toward making sure that students have experience in the arts and in health and PE as these make us more sensitive, perceptive and empathetic individuals.
If we just focus on the traditional academic subjects, we really are missing a huge part of what it means to be a human being. We are not all mathematicians and scientists. A huge amount of research has proved that our brain has at least 8 or 10 different types of intelligence and we have to nurture those in young people if we want to create leaders that are sensitive to the needs of others. The planet is shrinking and we have to be working for us, not just for me. How do you develop that concept? You should believe that your existence is important to my existence and we are somehow interdependent. This is a very difficult concept. What we did was bring in educators who would stay in Lebanon for 3, 5 or 8 years so that the school could develop what I call pillars of understanding in education and build on those. These are pillars but they are not rigid, they are dynamic, they change, they grow, they have shape, but they have a solid inner core.
We have used technology and integrated it into our life. But technology is just a tool. It enables us to have access to information and to collaborate with people in other parts of the world and have different types of conversation. Learning is really acting on what I am trying to understand. In the past learning was “I do it myself”. Today, learning is no longer one individual competing with another for the best grade, but us collaborating on understanding. It is moving away slowly from individuals to small, large and very large groups.
Something as simple as bathrooms and lockers and bus services were focus points to us. We improved the spaces for teachers and the opportunities that they have to grow themselves. We created the Model United Nations LebMUN. We are not afraid of taking the risk of trying something new and see if we can make it work, and if it doesn’t work, then we modify it or we stop doing it.
The only thing we haven’t been able to do is to build a whole new campus, as it is not really feasible. However, we do have a campus development plan, which is a conscious effort to make sure that every year we are looking at what our needs are. Although not a big building, the new block we are building is the first in 65 years and it is expected to impact every part of the school and the learning experience. There is one thing that we promised ourselves, which is when we do something, if we can do it with a certain level of quality because we cannot afford to for whatever reason, then we are not going to do it.
ACS is greatly known for enrolling students from different backgrounds and nationalities. How do you address diversity within your classrooms?
We do not have a program for students with special needs. We take international students and have over 40 nationalities inside the school and we also have a very strong Lebanese population. The diversity comes from the fact that these students are in the classroom together, but the diversity also means that within a certain spectrum, they’re working at different levels. But we’ve all had this kind of situation in our classrooms. You grew up in a classroom where people had different capabilities and so did I. We do have support from counselors and advisors to address this issue and we pride ourselves in trying to help people grow up. We are very active in community service. We have over 30 community service projects that students either lead or participate in. They include helping an elderly person or going to refugee camps or cancer centers, etc.
Have you admitted any Syrian students since the outbreak of conflict in Syria and how are they adapting to the new environment?
Of course. We have a sister school in Damascus. It’s been a year and a half since it was closed and the Damascus Community School students had to go all over the world and certainly some of them came to Beirut. Students had to go through an admission process and those we took in were academically capable of grasping our program. Those students are traumatized and they need to move, like everybody, into a safe and nurturing environment. Social and emotional development is another key factor that our counselors and we have been focusing in order to treat each and every student as an individual, not just a number in the classroom. We always strive to open ourselves up to all foreigners coming here for either a short or a long time.
Having been active in the Lebanese education field for 10 years, how do you assess the education sector in Lebanon?
There’s a lot of potential for improvement, but the rapid changes in governments have made it very difficult. I’ve known every minister of education since I’ve arrived here. I mean, I’ve been here for ten years and I think there have been 5 ministers of education. They are all good people but it is very hard to create a program and move it forward if you are there only for one year or two. They have made massive improvements, but this is a country where 60% of people go to private schools. The biggest challenge the private sector faces is how to train and support teachers. Almost every discipline has annual conferences and opportunities aimed at improving a particular subject. Why don’t we invest in professional development for teachers the way we do for journalists, businessmen, bankers, etc? I believe a national center for teacher training and evaluation would dramatically impact the public sector.
This is one of the most complicated professions in the world. You have in front of you between twenty to forty individuals, and each of them wants and needs your attention. Only a few other disciplines require equal understanding continuously throughout the day. Yes, we do need physical environment and other tools, but the biggest tool is the teacher. If you invest in the teacher, the teacher will find a tool. Lebanon has a reputation for a high rate of education, but you need to sustain it and invest in it.
Now that you are passing the torch after 10 years at ACS, is there a final word you would like to say to your successor?
I have told him a lot of things. The school is very fortunate in having an excellent educator coming to lead the school. He has many years of experience in leading schools and he’s an excellent listener and that’s what you do when you work at a school. You listen and find the heart beat of your institution. And when you feel the heart beat, you nurture it and find ways to support people so that they are empowered to make themselves better. I just tell him to have patience.