Enjoying school so much that she decided to never leave it behind? Definitely an A+ decision for Karen Bøttger, who's now leading the school towards the vision of students taking action in the world.
Photographs: Terumi Mascarenhas - www.fjordfoto.dk
Text: Michaela Medveďová
When we move abroad, the one thing that we all long for is a sense of community. The children attending the North Zealand International Schools (NIS), along with their parents, find it within the school network. Helmed by Head of School Karen Bøttger, the school currently welcomes kids from families coming from more than 50 different countries. And as someone who, after relocating to Denmark, found a warm welcome in the NIS community, Karen truly walks the talk of the school.
A joy to learn - and teach
Karen's upbringing in Britain was quite monocultural compared to her NIS learners. But her British family loved to travel! So with summers spent in her family caravan, Karen discovered countries throughout Europe - and along with them, languages. "The possibility to learn another language always intrigued me. I had learned other languages in school, then Danish arrived and overpowered anything I've learned."
The joy of learning exceeded the realm of languages. As a good student, Karen enjoyed her time at school, and it came as no surprise when she decided to become a teacher. "I really loved school - so much that I've never left," laughs Karen. She also always liked working with children - volunteering with different organisations and working with holiday camps, even while still at school. "I always found it rewarding and enjoyed my days. The time just went quickly. So I always knew I wanted to do that."
When studying to be a teacher in England, one can qualify as a subject specialist for older students or primary school teachers, educating younger pupils in all subjects. Karen chose the latter and became a qualified teacher at quite the young age of 22.
Layers of connections
While she did teach in Britain for a while, her travelling spirit was not a thing of the past. So combining her profession with the tempting possibility of living in a different country, she went on a one-year working visa to teach in Australia.
And in a textbook case of the right time, right place, she met her future husband while backpacking.
He's why Karen decided to move to Denmark in 1998 and still lives in Copenhagen with their two grown-up children. The couple hasn't backpacked since they met, but with their silver wedding coming up, Karen laughs that they should celebrate the occasion by revisiting their adventurous roots in Australia.
Moving to Denmark was an adventure on its own, though - at the turn of millennia, it wasn't exactly full of foreigners. "I first moved to Jutland, and it was rare to hear English spoken." Not even Copenhagen was the multicultural place it's becoming now.
But she wasn't lonely – she had been working from the start, teaching at some of the other international schools in the Copenhagen area before starting at NIS in 2000. "In international schools, the sense of community goes through all the layers. It's something the children feel, and friendships in class are made quickly. Parents are great at reaching out to new families and welcoming them to the school community. But the teachers do the same for each other." With the school staff and Danish language classes Karen attended, she quickly made great friends that she still has today.
A teacher's ambition
As a teacher, she never really lacked in essential bonds. While certainly not replacing the parents, Karen thinks teachers need to collaborate with them, so the kids have different perspectives and role models in their lives. "I think it's important to have a teacher that really sees them. The current COVID situation brought to light how all-encompassing teachers are and how there's so much more going on than just teaching maths and English."
The teachers that stand out the most in Karen's memory of her own school days are the ones that clearly enjoyed being in the classroom. But while that's the cornerstone, being an educator is so complex. Apart from being strong academically, in her view, they should be aware of the well-being of the children in their classroom, track how learning is progressing, keep on top of new research in education, and adapt it in practice. "The ambition is to do all those things. Of course, it's not possible all of the time, but it's something we certainly aim for."
In Denmark, Karen is also qualified to teach children who find literacy learning a challenge. "I could see that it was hard for children to get the right kind of support they needed to develop their skills if they had specific learning difficulties. So I decided to get myself qualified so that we could better support our learners at NIS."
Not all children learn in the same way, and for Karen, finding different ways to reach individual children is the hardest thing about being a teacher. "On the other hand, when it does work, when you see that 'Oh' and they've just got something they really struggled with, that's fantastic." But it's not only about teaching children specific things - but it's also encouraging them to change their mindset about learning so they know that learning is possible. And if they can't do it now, they should just keep practising, and they'll get better. "Getting the growth mindset is really important because you know they can use that again and again. When you've turned a hesitant child who has been scared to try something new or scared of making a mistake into someone brave enough to give things a go, that's just so special."
But the learners (that's how NIS calls students, because what are they, if not learning?) need to have an active role in the process of their own learning. "We really encourage them to think for themselves, to ask. We don't want them to just passively absorb what happens around them or wait for the next instruction." There are no school uniforms in sight, and the learners call the teachers by their first names. "There's a lot more openness - the learners do get some insight into who we, the teachers, are as people."
Karen spent 10 years as a class teacher at NIS and could probably tell you the names of most of the children that went through her classes. Many of them come back to visit, and a handful of former learners also returned to work at the school as substitute teachers. For Karen, seeing her former students as colleagues is simply fantastic - and an example of how well the school community works. "They are really well-positioned to help us. They can just slot right in as substitute teachers because they know the values of the school and what we stand for."
With all the bustle of a busy school, it's no wonder Karen took up quieter hobbies over time. "You have to find your outlets, things that you enjoy doing, that can give you a break. I love reading, I love running. So eight o'clock would come, my husband would put the children to bed, and I'd put my headphones on, go for a run, and just shut the rest of the world out."
NIS has a big focus on subject teaching and being clear about each lesson's learning goal, with the learners having possibilities to influence what it looks like. "But a huge thing that we do really well in our school is being explicit in what the personal learning is." So while a specific subject-based goal is learning about coordinates on a map for a geography lesson, the teachers also point out that while working in groups, they will use their personal collaborating skills or practice being a communicator.
Apart from that, NIS focuses on international learning, referred to as global competency - a mindset that sets international schools apart. "It's about being able to take action to make the world a better place. We encourage even the youngest children and show them how to do it. It doesn't have to be a great big project - they can just be a good classmate or help out in the school community."
Teaching in an international setting like NIS has been a calling for Karen before taking a year in Australia. She appreciates that the children come from so many different backgrounds and have different perspectives, which are beneficial for other learners to hear - and learn how to respect. "I really think it's going to be valuable for them in a world with all the different situations they will find themselves in."
But with the great diversity of the school, there inevitably come goodbyes as friends come and go. There's a turnover as families leave, albeit not as high because the school is situated outside of Copenhagen, and families that chose NIS are perhaps looking to stay longer. "It's always hard when you hear a family who has been a big part of the community is moving on to new adventures." But Karen is happy to see that many of the children keep in touch and have created a global network - and in quite a few cases, families who leave Denmark return a few years later and rejoin the school community.
With all the bustle of a busy school, it's no wonder Karen took up quieter hobbies over time. "You have to find your outlets, things that you enjoy doing, that can give you a break. I love reading, I love running. So eight o'clock would come, my husband would put the children to bed, and I'd put my headphones on, go for a run, and just shut the rest of the world out." As someone who teaches small children and with two young kids at home, Karen was simply needed all the time. But how was the transition from teacher Karen to mom Karen? "You'd have to ask my children," she laughs. Juggling the roles and switching between them was easier than she expected. Some of her teaching experience helped her with parenting and vice versa. "You can do both without being the other. But I could use experience from one life in the other one."
But as Karen gradually took on more and more roles in the school organically, she set out on the path to becoming the Head of School of NIS, a position she's held since 2015.
"We need to teach the learners to be capable of strong collaboration, to be respectful, adaptable, to be able to think critically."
At NIS, the leadership team is currently all female - something that’s not a given, as internationally, women in leadership roles in the education sector are underrepresented compared to the wider teaching population, where they make up the largest proportion. In Denmark, however, there is more parity, and in international education in general, equality and diversity are central values - so happily, Karen didn’t experience limited professional advancement for taking a career break. “Having a supportive leader meant I was able to take a period of extended leave from my teaching position to look after my two small children. I strongly believe that a flexible career path should not hinder a woman’s opportunity to lead a school or any organisation or team, for that matter.” She believes schools have a responsibility to show young women they can move forward with any career direction they choose - but also that all learners, girls or boys, need to have equal access to opportunities to lead. Karen is happy to note that at NIS, there are many great role models for all of their learners.
Having a vision for the school, and the idea of improving it and developing an action plan was the fuel behind her decision to be a school leader. What she loved about teaching was how varied her days were - no matter how well planned, things didn't always go in the direction she expected. And being a school leader only brings more variety. She's got a team of teachers to lead and ensure they have all the resources and motivation they need to do their jobs well; she's creating the strategic direction for the school and moving it forward in that direction. But that's hardly all. "Just this morning, I was on playground duty because some of our staff are affected with Covid. So I can go from a strategic leadership meeting to having a chat with children on the playground about their sore throat or hurt ankle," laughs Karen. She still teaches from time to time - for example, when there's a gap in staff that needs covering - but not as much as she'd like. "I do get in the classrooms, even if I'm not teaching. I still get to talk to the learners about how they're feeling about their learning."
With a school full of young international learners, Karen has a clear vision for them - equip them for the workplaces of the future and jobs they're going to have, some of which don't even exist yet. "We need to teach the learners to be capable of strong collaboration, to be respectful, adaptable, to be able to think critically." Luckily, it's not something the school does alone. Supported by a curriculum that reflects the approach, the teachers work together with parents and the learners themselves.
"Our responsibility as a school is to develop these personal attributes in learners, and give them opportunities to take action, locally and eventually also globally."