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Giving Students a Voice at International Schools

Even the best-run operations sometimes need recalibration.

While Hanoi’s British International School (BIS) has empowered students to become self-motivated leaders in the school since day one, they recently saw the need for a greater connection between faculty and students. They therefore established two positions that would be situated in the middle to facilitate discussions and manage the expectations of both sides.

Tien and Valerie, two recently-graduated students, were the first Head Boy and Head Girl in the school’s six-year history. Faculty deemed the role essential because the existing formal student organizations, such as student council and the Keystage leadership groups, were large and did not always fulfil their purpose. There needed to be a stronger “bridge,” in Valerie’s words, between teachers and students so that ideas, decisions and plans could be more effectively communicated, with students feeling their voices were being heard and faculty having a better means to make and explain decisions.


What Makes a Leader?

“A leader should be compassionate, responsible and act with integrity at all times,” Tien explained to Saigoneer when we spoke earlier this month. Valerie added: “A leader is a person people can put their trust in…being there for them and working together. A lot of people think being a leader is just telling someone to do something, but sometimes it’s also setting an example yourself.” These complementary philosophies highlight the variety of skills needed to be an effective Head Boy or Head Girl, and also provide insight into how the pair work together so well.

Considering their resumes, Tien and Valerie were obvious candidates for the inaugural Head Boy and Head Girl positions. Tien, a Hanoi native, has spent his entire academic career at BIS and understands its culture and inner workings. He’s also proven his ability to show initiative via an outside business he runs selling tea. Valerie, who is Malaysian, has only been at the school for four years, but has taken on many leadership roles, including House Captain and Higher Education Ambassador. They thus exemplify the well-rounded individuals with diverse interests and motivations the school seeks to produce. 

They have both enjoyed their time at BIS immensely, and the Head Boy and Girl positions offered a means to give back and implement some of their ideas for making it an even better place for their peers and future generations. Exceptionally ambitious, they also recognized it would give them an opportunity to improve their leadership, communication, and management abilities.


Setting up a Base and Building Bridges

“We do a lot,” Valerie answered when asked what exactly the Head Girl role consists of. She then listed a variety of tasks and initiatives, including establishing the gay-straight alliance as part of an effort to make the school a more welcoming, safe environment; contributing to a video produced to help students adapt to remote learning during the Covid-19 social distancing; composing a letter about acclimating to a return to classes; emceeing school events like the international fair; and serving as student ambassadors for visiting officials such as the British Defence Attache. 

The pair also restructured the student council with clearly-delineated teams to run more efficiently. More specialized sub-committees were formed to address wellbeing, events, service and news. Valerie and Tien chair the council which also helps oversee and train a tutoring program that provides guidance, support and inspiration for younger students. 

One of the Head Boy and Head Girl’s most important tasks is to listen to their peers, see what could be improved, and then work with faculty to make sure changes are agreed and implemented. As the inaugural students to hold the positions, they are mindful of sharing with the next Head Boy and Head Girl what works and what could be done better, such as beginning the year with a leadership introduction and training program for the student council, prefects and heads of the different departments. Tien and Valerie also had to earn the trust of their peers and establish their positions as the point of contact for students to have their voices heard.


Staying True to Your Vision

Being a Head Boy or Girl is not always an easy task. Tien mentioned, for example, a particularly challenging time that helped him recognize that decision-making can be a messy process. A new student suggested that the annual prom be free for everyone, with costs covered by various fundraising efforts. It sounded like a great, egalitarian plan, but Tien and Valerie knew that given the school’s culture and logistics, it wouldn’t be possible to raise funds that way. To maintain the trust of their peers, the pair had to say “no” in a respectful manner that ensured students would continue to see them as an effective bridge to faculty. “We always encourage students to come to us with ideas, but we have to balance them with realities,” Tien noted.

This understanding that making decisions involves tough choices and occasionally disappointing people was an important lesson for Tien. He will attend the University of California-Berkley and notes that what he learned about the practical side of compromises and leadership will be essential for balancing idealism with the desire to “make positive changes.” 

Valerie explains that being Head Girl “has really helped me understand the importance of diversity and looking at different perspectives…you interact with a lot of different people in different situations and [it makes you] perceptive of another person and sensitive to their emotions and it makes you more open-minded.” These skills will certainly be of immense assistance as she pursues a career in international relations beginning with studying in Australia.



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British International School, Vinhomes Riverside, Long Bien, Hanoi