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UWC Atlantic Principal Peter Howe on his Journey with UWC

25 August 2016

Interview by Hannah Tümpel

“You’re not going to get everything you want right away. But if you leave it better than you found it, that’s a good thing.”

Peter Howe, currently Head of UWC Maastricht and in-coming Principal of UWC Atlantic, met with Hannah Tümpel, Director of Communication and Engagement at UWC International, for a chat about UWC in general and in particular: from the changes he has seen over the years, to the challenges ahead at UWC Atlantic, his loves and laments about UWC as well as how UWC has changed him.

HT: Before we speak about what UWC is today and what it will be tomorrow, can you tell us how your UWC journey started?

PH: [Laughs] It started in 2001 when I joined the curriculum development team of the IB for World Arts and Cultures - a course developed at UWC Adriatic - and we had a meeting in Vienna. Henry Thomas [English and 'World Arts and Cultures' teacher at UWCAD from 1995-2012, ed.] from UWCAD was there and he was the first “UWC person” I met. Henry and I really clicked from the beginning. We are both art historians, we are both passionate about education. When he told me about UWC, I couldn’t believe that something like it actually existed. I thought - it’s too good to be true.

I then started writing to all the UWC Heads to see whether I could get into a UWC with no success save for a response from David Sutcliffe [former Head of UWC Atlantic, founding Head of UWC Adriatic and co-founder of UWC Mostar, ed.] - who at the time was working on the UWC in Mostar project - and he wrote back saying “UWC needs people just like you, I am sorry the project has been delayed but I think you would be a great addition to any UWC.” So that was encouraging! We then ran a workshop in 2005 at UWC Adriatic for World, Arts and Cultures and I met Marc Abrioux, who was the “Rettore” at the time, who told me that they were looking for a head of economics – which was one of the courses I taught – and an IBDP coordinator. The interview went well I thought but I did not hear anything over the next few days. Then Marc phoned me in Toronto and said: “I thought I would see you again before you left. I want to offer you the job.” That was May of 2005 – and I started in Duino in August of 2005.

HT: After having spent 11 years within UWC, what still surprises you about the UWC movement?

PH: [Laughs loud and then sighs] It’s better, it’s so much better than it used to be! But the lack of frank sort of flares up. I think, one of the most powerful things about the UWC educational model is bringing differences to the table and being able to speak about them. And hear them. Yet for some reason in the larger UWC community we are sometimes afraid to do that. But the best, most interesting UWC meetings I have been to are when this happens. In too many of them, however, it does not happen - they remain superficial or gloss over or pretend otherwise. I think I am now infamous for saying at meetings “we need to address the elephant in the room” or “the fish on the table”. Nevertheless there often remains a resistance to addressing these issues with the response that “we do it differently here” - sort of a lone wolf approach (which I think was the mindset of many of the founding heads). I really think we have to move towards a co-creation model where we’re mentoring young staff to take on leadership roles and give them responsibility like we do with students versus the heroic head model.

HT: You spoke about fear of frank discussions. Fear is different from lone wolf mentality – where do you think that fear comes from

PH: I think they are connected and relate to many things – trust, allowing one’s self to be emotionally vulnerable. I think we have so much to learn from our students. They are amazing at going outside their comfort zone, being emotionally vulnerable, willing to make mistakes. And yet sometimes on the international level - across the UWC movement - we don’t have enough trust and therefore we don’t want to admit what we’re not doing well or what we don’t know. We are worried that such statements might get into the UWC public domain and mean that NC’s won’t send us students or other consequences [NC standing for national committee, referring to the 154 UWC national committees worldwide in charge of selecting UWC students, ed.]. So there’s a lot of unnecessary competition – or at least even an impression that there’s competition – when actually we can benefit from working together – it doesn’t need to be competitive.

HT: Let’s talk a bit about UWC Maastricht. When you look back at the last 4 years, what are the most striking changes you would say you have seen?

PH: I think the most striking shift has been the level of student autonomy, especially at the diploma programme level, and our collective trust in students. When I arrived there was deep distrust towards UWC and by extension towards NC selected students in particular. There was a lot of cynicism and suspicion of ulterior motives when in fact UWC students are pretty pure at heart. Their ulterior motive may be to stay out after curfew but it’s not to undermine the school. But now the level of student initiative is just mind-blowing and part of that is that students and staff are now equally engaged. It’s a win-win culture.

HT: UWC Maastricht is a full school - from primary school to the IB programme. This makes it a very different UWC to UWC Adriatic. What is your big lesson learned of heading a ‘full school’ UWC?

PH: For me it’s the potential of it. If I’m being critical of UWC, what UWC has done an exceptional job of doing, historically, is selecting students. To be honest I sometimes wonder about the value added we bring as UWC other than to put these people together as peers. There is an exceptional synergy that takes place with these outliers who have self-identified, come to work and study together and to be part of the most supportive community they have ever discovered. When they think back to their time at their colleges, they credit the UWC for that when in fact it was the ability of the UWC NC’s to select these kids who were already +90% ‘UWC’. And in fact, NC nominated kids are outliers of some sort, and self-motivated - the sole fact that they initiate the application I think is a big part of that. So, for the middle years and primary years, what we’re really working on is how do we prepare ‘average’ kids to be at that level when they start the Diploma Programm, particularly in terms of motivation and a desire to change the world? We are a non-selective school on the day student side. To manage this, we've introduced what we call co-curricular classes - and have cut down on academic teaching time to create space for them. We have introduced an active global citizenship programme in the upper middle years. For the younger ones we focus on project planning etc. In the upper primary we now do a version of CAS: We put 4 students of each grade level together forming teams of 12. As a team they do six weeks of services, then six weeks of a creative activity and then six weeks of a physical activity.

There was a great story last week: A family came in and gave gifts to all the kids in the primary class because their father/grandfather had just died, and they said all he’s talked about for the last year, the only thing that was meaningful to him, was the visits from the primary kids. And so they wanted to thank the students for the service they had done for the past year by going to the old age home and being with this guy.

That’s the power of the UWC mission. For primary, pre-puberty kids, the UWC mission is their DNA – that’s what young kids are all about. They don’t question it in any way. Their is none of that cynicism of puberty and those early teenage years.

HT: This sounds like a strong endorsement to make more UWCs be part of a whole school model?

PH: Yes, I really do believe they deliver on the UWC mission, which is why I’m a believer in the whole schools. If we can develop a programme that allows students to transition through puberty into the upper teenage years of the traditional UWC and take that cynicism out of teenagehood, their creativity, their energy, their passion would be exceptional. And I do think the average UWC national committee student is trying to escape cynicism and they want to be in an idealistic community and that’s what’s so powerful about traditional UWC’s. It’s that you’re surrounded by idealists with whom you can dream of changing the world. That said, there is still something pretty special about the 100% residential UWC colleges that is unique.

HT: UWC Maastricht was an existing school before it became a UWC. We have the same situation now with the new UWC Thailand which was the Phuket International Academy before it became a UWC on 1 August 2016. What would be the three lessons learned you would share with them with regard to transitioning from a “normal” school to a UWC?

PH: Firstly, I think having a “top-heavy” school is essential, so having big IB diploma classes with the majority of those students being residential and at least 90% of those students national committee nominated. That’s the place to start. I think that’s the secret DNA for a whole school and for a conversion of a whole school to a UWC. Secondly, I think changing school culture is incredibly challenging – and disrupting the previous culture by adding a big residential community is a great driver. And thirdly, I believe you have to insert “UWC DNA”. For us that meant adding a lot of new staff. In the past 3 years I’ve appointed about 50 new staff - also due to our growth - and of those, over 20 have direct UWC experience, either as alumni or because they previously worked within UWC.

HT: Why do you think it is so relevant to have UWC alums and teachers with previous UWC experience among your staff?

PH: Because at the end of the day, as an educator, UWC is a leap of faith. Earlier I talked about emotional vulnerability, releasing control, trusting – those aren’t natural to a teacher who is used to being in control. It was the same for me when I joined UWC Adriatic - I had to learn to trust the students. Today, it is how I approach everything I do. The students respond so much to that trust. But you can’t go half way. It’s the Hahnian thing about authenticity - particularly authentic responsibility. And it’s also authentic trust. You can’t be saying one thing to the student and turning around to your colleague with a cynical comment. Dark sarcasm in the classroom (to quote Pink Floyd), that’s one of the most negative things that can happen at a school. But if you emotionally invest in, trust and value your students, then the sky is the limit - and UWC alums and UWC teachers know this.

HT: If you had to define the ideal student that would fully thrive at UWC Maastricht, what would that student look like?

PH: To be honest I don’t think I have an ideal student. One of the things I love about UWC is that I don’t know what I’m getting from year to year. That’s another reason why I think the NC system is so great - they select students who they think will be a good fit for the school - and why so many new heads of school find it so difficult to understand the NC system. Because they’re so used to having a direct say in their admissions and must release that control.

This year’s graduating class - the 2014-2016 generation - was the greatest I‘ve experienced in my time within UWC - it was really an exceptional year. And when I reflect on why, I think it was because there was an absence of big egos amongst the group. In my previous 10 years of UWC experience, there were always a handful of students who in their second year developed big egos. Around March or April they became cynical and became a negative drag on the school. And for whatever reason, in this year’s leaving class there were no big egos. I think part of it is that we got rid of some cult leader type faculty members who preyed on that, because I do think UWC students are vulnerable to flattery – particularly intellectual flattery. I think that just led to an amazing distributive leadership amongst the leaving class this year – a double digit number of whom just did exceptional things, who drove initiatives which will still be here 20 years from now.

So my ideal student has to have humility. They have to allow themselves to be emotionally vulnerable, open to difference.

And the students have to be willing to speak out. I mention this because I think silence is a dangerous thing at UWC. There is a sort of teenage perception that it has to stay within the student population, that you can’t reach out to adults on certain things. I don’t know how we get around that. Some of my most memorable experiences within UWC are when a single student spoke out and then suddenly there’s this huge movement towards that person. She or he thought they were alone and then spoke out at a community meeting and realised, wow, I spoke for the majority here and I had the courage to say it.

HT: Now you have a big change ahead: you will leave UWC Maastricht behind and go to UWC Atlantic. Why?

PH: I can’t deny that there’s a certain amount of pride involved. AC is the original UWC and to be the principal there is the ultimate position within UWC arguably. During my time in UWC I’ve been absolutely inspired and supported by so many AC alums. Their willingness to give back and their belief in the the movement is just exceptional. That said, their perception of UWC is often totally framed by Atlantic College - and it seems sometimes not clear that UWC Atlantic is now one in a group of sixteen schools. So, I think bringing my experience of working at two other UWCs, and the additional perspective it provides, will be really healthy. Whenever I visit Atlantic College – and it’s not a Harry Potter thing – I am struck by the exceptional beauty of the campus. I don’t think there is another campus within UWC that has the physical potential of Atlantic College: a working farm, an Orchard, the seafront, the acres of land that they have.

I’m really interested in ‘outside the classroom’ education, experiential education. For this the Atlantic diploma has a lot of potential, but my sense is that right now it’s perhaps too prescriptive. I’m also a huge fan of John Dewey and the laboratory school model that he set up in Chicago, and I think every UWC should be a laboratory school - and AC and its facilities are the ultimate laboratory.

Finally, I love the size of AC - having 350 students at once. I think a number of UWCs are too small and AC has a good critical mass.

So I’m really excited: all the raw materials are there for a really exciting experiment in education.

HT: As you are now discovering UWC Atlantic, I suppose it’s a bit like discovering a new country. What are the things which you find strange?

PH: Other than Welsh? No, seriously: I guess one of the things I find strange is that I perceive a fear or distrust of the UWC movement at UWC AC. What’s strange is there does not seem to be a deep desire to be at the heart of the movement - and there is even a concern that serving the movement may somehow compromise AC. In my final interview I said to the search committee that my desire is to make UWC Atlantic the best school in the world and if I do that job then it will be the flagship for the UWC movement. They’re not mutually exclusive in any way.

HT: And what is the key to making UWC Atlantic the “best school in the world”?

PH: I think the territory UWC should be occupying is the extreme end of progressive education.When you study the philosophy and history of education you realise that progressive education has been around for half a millennium. But now with the obsession with testing and ‘measurable’ results, progressive education is more under threat today than ever before because it’s not quantifiable in the same way. There’s no standardised test to measure whether progressive education is being successful, because at the heart of progressive education is meeting individual students’ needs. Meeting each student where they are at and moving them forward from that place. I think there’s just an exceptional opportunity for UWC to develop a holistic, progressive curriculum that puts as much emphasis on what takes place outside the classroom as what takes place inside the classroom. And then, to proudly champion this position. That will make us world leaders, and renowned within the world of education.

Coming back to AC - I think it has the potential to do all of that because you can have an exceptional outdoor education programme on campus and combine it with its legacy in terms of social justice, peace and conflict studies and global politics. All these wonderful curricula that have been developed there. Plus AC’s alumni network in which 50+ generations are involved in all corners of the world and in all industries, all NGO’s etc. It’s all there to be harvested.

I think the world needs defenders of progressive education and once we get our act together UWC will step up and occupy that space in a very public and strident way.

HT: Does that mean you would stop offering the IB programme?

PH: Well, what I would propose, and I do think we have again a unique opportunity with David Hawley as the Chief Academic Officer at the IB, is that we be given the permission within the IB to try out new things. The IB recognises that it has painted itself into a corner with its obsession with assessment etc. They claim they value the whole student, and yet 42 of the 45 points are for academic results, and TOK and the EE are part of the 3 diploma points, so maybe 1 point is actually for CAS. And they know they need to change. But the only way to change, is by piloting stuff at schools. I’ve felt since my first day in a UWC classroom that we have a unique student body. And that if we were to try something radical for a term or more, and it was not successful that we could turn to the students and say ‘you know what, this isn’t working, I’m going to have to lecture for the next three months to catch up.’ And the students would embrace that, they wouldn’t complain. They would be like ‘oh, it’s great to be part of something experimental’. But to be able to do this, we need to be really careful in our selection of students. If we’re wanting to compete in the fee-paying private school student [market], parents are likely to be less willing to be involved in experiments. They are looking for the delivery of their student to a prestigious university. But if one of our unique selling points is that we’re an experimental educational movement and we tell parents that their student will emerge as a better and a more capable person as a result of this ‘experiment’, and that we will meet all demonstrated need to prove our commitment, then I think that it is possible.

HT: What do you hope to learn from your AC experience?

PH: I want to learn if I’m crazy having taken on this position [laughs]. I think I want to find out whether we can develop a UWC diploma that captures everything we value within UWC. I think it’s possible, but I don’t know.

HT: But on a more personal level - what would you like to learn during your time at AC?

PH: To dance? [laughs] Because you know, believe it or not I’m a very shy, introverted person and I am terrified of dancing.

HT: One would not necessarily tell.

PH: So yes, what do I want to learn? For me a driver - which is not intentional, but something I can’t help even to my detriment - is to speak out when I don’t think something is right or when there is BS present. And I also feel compelled, rather than to complain, to try and do something about a problem or challenge. And to me, that’s not grand vision stuff, that’s incremental gain stuff. For me it’s about making things better and trying to keep the complaining down. I think that’s what I love once again about the best UWC students. And that’s what I really try and impart on them. Don’t just complain - do something about it! Come up with solutions! It’s about incremental gain. You’re not going to get everything you want right away. But if you leave the place better than you found it, that’s a good thing. Finally what I’m increasingly learning, and I hope I continue to learn at AC, is trusting that I’m not alone on that journey.

HT: And what lessons learned at UWC Maastricht will you bring to UWC Atlantic?

PH: I do think I’ve come to rely on people more here, in particular students, than I did at Adriatic. When I think back to some of the student initiative proposals at Adriatic, I was probably too suspicious at times or not 100% convinced of their good intentions. Whereas here at Maastricht I’m always 100% convinced they do it for good reason. And probably because I’m thinking that they adopt that mindset as well. And that is something I want to develop and nurture at UWC AC - a culture of trust.

I hope that - as I do here - I can count on the support and trust of the students since they are such a powerful force for change. That force is not controllable in a strict sense. It’s not a road we’re on. Rather it is a river we are navigating and we have to trust that it is flowing in the right direction even if we sometimes end up on unexpected tributaries.

HT: In 2016 UWC as a movement is focusing on developing the next strategic plan for UWC. You have mentioned some of your ideas on where UWC education should develop. But what are in your eyes the other areas which are of paramount importance for the next UWC strategy?

PH: If I look at UWC what we do exceptionally well is service, generally speaking. Most schools and colleges do a really good job as well, in some sort of outdoor pursuit and creativity. I think we have a lot of growth potential in our pastoral care, particularly our social and emotional support. I think UWC has historically been crazily under resourced in terms of psychological support for students, particularly with more students joining us from conflict, post-conflict areas or with a refugee background. So I think there are huge gains to be made in investing in rock solid social/emotional support. For example we now have two full time psychologists here at UWC Maastricht because we have seen the benefit of having that expertise in house.

I think where we have fallen behind is classroom teaching. In my experience, UWC’s tend to deliver curriculum in an extremely traditional manner - and I’m just as guilty of it as anybody in my classroom. The students are so much better at this. A favourite story from this year is that we were hosting a donor event about our progressive educational model and how we prided ourselves in “thinking outside the box”. But then Roua, a student from Sudan said, ‘Why is there a box?’. I do think there is a box in the sense of traditional curriculum delivery, and I do think we need to get rid of it somehow. This is where I’d love to see us partner with Harvard Project Zero, or Ashoka or the Klingenstein Centre at Columbia Univerity, or Bath University, and so on. That would be so cool! I think these progressive, teachers’ colleges or departments of education would love to have us as their laboratories. In the strategic plan, we definitely have to develop those partnerships. I’d love the research and financial capacity of a Harvard or Columbia behind what we’re doing. Because everyone who’s spent a bit of time at a UWC ‘feels it’, but we don’t have the data to back it up, we don’t have the research to back it up. But we do have the empirical experience to know that it’s true. But it’s sort of like a faith proposition right now. “Believe us, it’s true” versus “well, look at this, we can prove it.”

HT: If you could have any resources you wanted and you could put them into UWC, what’s the one thing you would invest them in.

PH: Hmm... so do I have money left over if I meet all demonstrated need? That’s a non-negotiable. Or is that part of how I spend my money?

HT: So your first priority would be to meet full demonstrated need for all students?

PH: Yeah, absolutely – 100%. I think that is the most important thing.

HT: And would that go along with having all students selected by a NC?

PH: Well, I wouldn’t say all NC selected, because I think other organisations and NGOs, like Ashoka and Teach for All, are great partners as well and could also select the students we need. And some students would not be eligible for NC selections for various reasons. I don’t think that we should oversell or over estimate the capacity of NCs - they remain predominantly volunteer run after all - to get into all difficult areas of the world and be accessible for all potential students. But I think all students should be national committee endorsed. That would be a lovely thing.

HT: So now you still have money or staff capacity or partners - or whatever other resource you need left. What would you do?

PH: That’s not something I have ever thought about. I don’t know what I’d do, but I think it would be something around professional development. One of the things I’d love to develop at AC - because I think it’s desperately needed within the movement and I think AC would be a great location - is a UWC Teacher and Leadership Training Centre.

I would in general invest more into the “adult” side. I would want every college to have enough money that they could nominate faculty for sabbaticals or internships or the ability to spend time at another UWC for a term. To be able to give promising young faculty members the opportunity for exposure to other UWCs in order to help them grow into leadership positions.

HT: Coming to the end of our interview one final question. If I’d ask your best friend who you were eleven years ago - before joining UWC - and who you are today what would I be told? What is the biggest change?

PH: I would say I’m much more idealistic than I was 11 years ago. My belief in students has grown every single year that I’ve been involved in UWC. And the other thing is that I’m much more emotionally vulnerable than I was 11 years ago, which is both scary and thrilling. Or it could just be middle age! But the number of times I tear up at student things now? It’s really almost embarrassing. But I’m just so inspired by these students.