Our new Director of Learning Darren Hugill has more than 29 years of experience teaching and leading schools around the world. In this interview, he talks about his personal learning journey and also about his plans for his 3-year mission as Avenor’s leader of teaching and learning.

“I grew up in Burnley, a town north of Manchester in the UK, and I was taught by some inspirational teachers, and some not so good. My primary education was traditional but laid the foundations for lifelong learning. Our Headmistress believed in us as young people, she went the extra mile to ensure that each one of us got a good education. My first Secondary School exposed me to the Sciences and I was taught by a really awe-inspiring classroom practitioner, my Chemistry teacher whose classroom practice I believe lives on in me even to this day. My love for science was ignited and I even developed my own lab in my cellar.

I started work when I was 16, at a bank while I did my A Levels (16 to 18 years old) at the same time. I then got a grant to go to university – I went to Leicester following in the footsteps of my Chemistry teacher – I also worked while at university as a telecom engineer and quality control chemist.

I was the first person in my family to go to university. After my degree, I did my diploma in education and that is when I realised that I had actually found something that I wanted to do.”

First teaching experiences

“I remember vividly my first placement as a student-teacher, teaching an A level Chemistry class, only for one term; I had a mentor, I was doing projects, it was what I was born to do, I think.

The first job I applied for was on the Isle of Man. I was part of a great school for two years and I learned the craft of being a chemistry teacher. I then moved to the USA to probably one of the most prestigious schools on the East Coast. I loved the job – I taught Chemistry and Maths in the International Baccalaureate (IB) system. After two years, I moved to Spain in a very good school as a Chemistry teacher. I assumed it was an English speaking place, but when I got there, in my first class, I didn’t speak a word of Spanish and the class didn’t speak of word of English. That was a very quick language learning experience.

I started feeling that I was drifting from international school to international school and I decided to go back to the UK. Having been a Christian since I was at university, an opportunity arose in a Church school near my home town. I stayed there a number of years eventually becoming the Deputy Head of the Sixth Form, I then moved to be promoted to Head of Science in another school. I was there for 12 years and I became its Headteacher. When I arrived at the school, the results were low and it became my mission to improve them. By the time I finished there, the school got up in the 90% (according to exam results – the percentage of students achieving grades between A* and C). In changing that, the government then identified me and 21 other people in the country as very successful Headteachers and made us work in other schools to help them. I became a national leader and a consultant Headteacher, which basically means I was only spending very little time in my own school; I focused on other schools rather than my own.

I realised that events overtook me and I wasn’t present when they needed really strong leadership. That was one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned in life. Even when you think that you’ve established a system that can cope without you, you must always keep your finger of the pulse.

I was running my own business for three years and I was doing some consulting with schools, but I regretted leaving the classroom. So in August of 2015, I went international again, to see the world a little bit. I decided I had enough of responsibility and that what I wanted to do was just to be a Chemistry teacher again. I applied for three jobs, in Saudi Arabia, China and Kazakhstan. I got all three jobs within two days and decided to go to Kazakhstan.

I was told that my students are the brightest and the best but when I arrived there, I realised that my students were in fact teachers. I was told: ‘You are going to, first of all, teach them how to teach. You are going to teach them what makes a good lesson’.

I had two wonderful years there and hope that I made a real difference. In Kazakhstan existed a trilingual education system, and I had a part to play in the evolution of it. I had maybe about six months of building up trust with people and modelling best practices. So I went into the classrooms, and I learned some Russian and Kazakh, and I would see what they were doing and giving them constructive feedback. These people are now my friends as well as colleagues.”

Lessons Learned

 “Leadership skills develop through a combination of training and experience, I undertook my Principals qualification in the UK, and Advanced courses in Educational Management, these gave me a theoretical understanding of leadership, but real development I now believe comes from experiential learning, and in particular learning from success and mistakes. Educational leadership I have found is fraught with difficulties, on one hand you sometimes need to lead the radical transformation of a situation quickly, and at other times perhaps influence cultural change over a longer period of time. I have learnt that we as leaders need to apply different skills-sets depending on the situation. I have also learned that humans are not systems that respond always in the anticipated way, and dare I say that leading learning is quite unique in that every student has different needs and aspirations, as does every teacher and every school. I have learnt from sometimes difficult situations that it is best to take the ‘considered’ view, and ultimately to always do what is ‘in the best interests of students’.

You have to look backward and ask what your legacy is in a place. I think that when I left my last principal-ship, the school was incredibly successful, the systems were perfect, the students were achieving. I was a systems manager back then. When I went to Kazakhstan, I became an influencer. I look back on that experience and I can’t say that I left perfect systems in place in Kazakhstan, but I left better people – better leaders, better teachers – and they were not relying on policy and practice to make them better, but on themselves.”

Arriving at Avenor

“When I came at Avenor, I felt that the people had energy; they had the propensity to want to move forward. Everybody at Avenor is invested in their own areas, and it was difficult to see the big picture. What the team needed was a sense of unification. I knew that I am good at this and at making those connections.

My plan here, at Avenor, is to empower people. You do need systems and policy here – policy enables people to operate safely because they know what the boundaries are. But they also need to believe in themselves. The most significant thing I told the staff so far was at a staff meeting early on when we were talking about communication. I asked, “who are the best communicators in the world?” They talked about journalists, they talked about news readers. “No, no, no, the greatest communicators in the world are teachers”. Teachers should be able to communicate with every level of society, every single child, every single parent. I think in a society, besides doctors, probably the most important people are teachers because they influence the lives of children and children are the future. Teachers have got to start believing that they are the greatest influencers in the world, alongside parents.

I am at Avenor College for a short period of time to have an impact on the 400 students that you have here, but I can’t impact them directly. Where it is possible for me to impact is through the teachers and through the administration, in two ways. One is to empower the teachers to believe in themselves and to become better teachers, which will positively encourage students. The other is to empower and enable the managers of this school to become greater, to focus on what the core purpose of the school is: to make sure that the students of today are tomorrow’s leaders.

Avenor is 10 years into its journey. It is walking, maybe even running; the next step is to fly and to move from a good school to a great school. I hope to be part of that journey.”