Conversations on Empathy - ISM Arusha (*now UWC East Africa)


ISM Arusha is one of our very favourite schools. We first came across them in 2016 when ThoughtBox Director Rachel was living in Tanzania and were immediately struck by just how open, inclusive and welcoming the school was. From the welcome sign (“Karibu” in Swahili) at the school the gate to the excess of green spaces and vibrant learning areas around the campus, this school is something special.

Phil Bowen the Headteacher offers a fresh and vibrant approach to leadership within the school. For a start, his door is always open – literally – and he takes the time to really listen to anyone wanting to talk to him. He knows the staff and the students incredibly well and clearly cares about their whole wellbeing – to the point of even taking home and washing a student’s muddy PE kit when they were struggling to stay on top of things!


When talking with him about the specific approaches the school is following to nurture happy, successful children, he said that there was no clear strategy for the open atmosphere within the school other than they make it clear that nurturing values and supporting each child’s wellbeing sits at the very heart of the school’s purpose.

Whole child learning and empathy are indeed embedded in the ethos of this school, with the open and inclusive policy meaning that children know they can talk openly to their teachers about any issue they feel is important. There are teachers across the school who are happy to talk openly to their students and listen without judgement or embarrassment when exploring issues that may be troubling or puzzling them. The school recognises how important it is to create spaces for young people to talk about what’s on their mind, especially in these current times where mental health and wellbeing amongst young people is so fragile.

It is this openness that feels so energising and vitalising within the school. Anyone walking down the tree-lined driveway - whether visitor, parent, employee or student - enters a place where they are welcomed, listened to and made to truly feel at home. The relaxed relationships between staff and students coupled with an open honest approach to learning across the campus welcomes the whole community to feel a part of the school’s development and success.

This welcome extends also to parents, carers and local residents who are also frequently invited to meet with staff and share their own thoughts and ideas. There is a real sense of harmony and respect that comes from a school community working together to embrace diversity and support whole child wellbeing. Phil shared how the academic success that the school achieves is directly correlated to the happiness and harmony of the staff. He explained how it is clear that the level of happiness of his staff has a direct impact on students’ own emotions and academic achievement, and so the wellbeing of the entire community sits at the heart of the school’s focus.


Olivier Émond is the Life skills teacher within the school and has a tremendously exciting and beautifully unique and inspiring way of teaching. His pedagogy and ideas focus directly on supporting empathy and critical thinking within every child in his classes - and as he teaches across the school, all are lucky enough to share in his wisdom and magic.

I had the pleasure of observing one of Olivier’s lessons and was struck by the richness of his teaching – not just in the warm and inclusive atmosphere of his classroom, but by the insightful and welcoming way he approached the subjects explored. Every child in the room felt that they had a voice, and that their opinion was respected and welcomed within the class. This created a strong sense of connection amongst students as well as between Olivier and the rest of the class.

He shared how he feels children must be open to different ways of seeing and being in the world by embracing diversity and openness so that they can really learn to connect. He also explained how it it is not seen as a sign of weakness to be empathic and caring as a pupil in the school, in fact quite the opposite, as these emotional skills are truly valued and are encouraged in every element of learning across the campus.

ThoughtBox Director Rachel ran a workshop with students during our visit in November 2018 and were impressed with the way that students across year groups worked sympathetically and respectfully with each other. It is rare to see Y13 students ask the opinions of Y7 students, and was a delight to witness and engage in such a positive community of young minds working together for the good of the whole.

Excitingly, the school is transitioning in August 2019 into a UWC (United World Colleges). UWC is a global education movement that makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. Central to the ethos of UWC is the belief that education can bring together young people from all backgrounds on the basis of their shared humanity, to engage with the possibility of social change through courageous action, personal example and selfless leadership. To achieve this, UWC schools and colleges all over the world deliver a challenging and transformational educational experience to a deliberately diverse group of young people, inspiring them to become agents of positive change.

In many ways it feels natural that ISM Arusha will become UWC East Africa as the very nature of the values-based, global-thinking ethos of the school lends itself to seamlessly join this very inspiring global network of changemakers.


We wish them well with the new beginnings as a UWC and look forward to visiting again in the not too distant future to get another big dose of life-learning and inspiration to take back home with us once again.

Rachel MussonComment