Meet Melissa Maria, Principal, Global Indian International School (GIIS) SMART Campus, Singapore
Being a teacher for life is not just a career path, but a lifelong passion for GIIS SMART Campus principal, Ms Melissa Maria. For over 25 years, Ms Maria has been at the forefront of bringing new ideas and methodologies to education. In this interview, we talk to Ms Maria on what drives her passion for education.
Can you tell us about your journey as an educator?
I always wanted to be an educator, for as long as I can remember. My maiden teaching assignment was at a church school, where I taught English and History to middle schoolers everyday, from 7.30 in the morning. I would finish by 10 am and then rush to college for my own studies. I was only 16, but the teaching bug had already caught me.
Later, I taught primary, middle school and high school students; and continued in the field after completing my Master’s degree in History and Bachelor’s degree in Education. After more than a decade of being a teacher and curriculum coordinator in India, I moved to the Middle East as a Vice Principal of a school in Oman. I spent 7 years there, before being hand picked by Global Indian International School in Singapore. I served as a Vice-principal in GIIS’ Balestier campus, then was promoted to the post of Principal at Balestier. After that, I was Principal at GIIS’ East Coast Campus and now the SMART Campus in Punggol.
Every school that I’ve worked at has been a different yet satisfying experience. The schools in India and Oman helped me build a strong foundation for myself as a teacher. In Singapore, my leadership roles have allowed me to make meaningful connections with a large number of students and a diverse community of parents. It has been an exciting journey so far! In fact, this year we made history with our IB Diploma results - more than 53% of the 2021 graduating cohort scored above the coveted 40-point mark and we had a record-breaking number of World Toppers (16) who scored a perfect 45/45 for their IBDP exams.
Wherever I have worked though, I’ve come to realise that children, whether they are 6 or 16, want to be appreciated and acknowledged. All they need is good guidance and a bit of nurturing.
Tell us about the learning culture at GIIS and your role in promoting it.
I believe that every student is a unique individual with unlimited potential. This gels well with the GIIS mission to help students be the best version of themselves. We strive to achieve this through academic excellence, and excellence in other areas of personal and social growth. GIIS has developed a proprietary 9GEMS Framework, which is holistic with nine identified areas, like arts, sports, personality development, leadership, community service and other values, for students to be nurtured in.
The school does this through specially designed programmes and activities through different platforms, throughout the year. We use technology to enhance our learning outcomes, and encourage students to further their inherent talents, or develop new ones. Even our pedagogical approach is set on skill development, so that every student’s potential is maximised in a field of their choice.
All this information is captured by our teachers through our data analytics system, which keeps track of individual student progress, and then nudges them to work on their weaknesses and enhance their strengths.
How does the GIIS’ campus foster better learning experiences?
For me, it is the focus on collaboration within a tech-savvy environment. GIIS has thoughtfully and deliberately created an interconnected community and learning environment, which allows students to communicate and collaborate freely with their peers and teachers.
The SMART Campus has custom-built skill-based studios, labs and digital classrooms which allows our students to explore new technologies, develop new skills and collaborate on innovations with their peers. We also have learning commons where students have spaces to sit, read and work together or discuss their project ideas, outside the classroom.
These days, it is no longer about teachers reading out text or imparting knowledge from the front of the classroom, but it’s a two-way street where discussions happen at every step. Our teachers are trained to listen to students, encourage them to think independently and more importantly to develop their own voice in and outside the classroom.
GIIS offers multiple international curricula in its campuses, how does the school ensure a balanced experience?
We believe in allowing students to choose their own path to academic success. This means giving students multiple curriculum options that are best suited for their strengths. It is important that students know which path they want to pursue and which will give them the maximum success in the future.
We offer the International Baccalaureate, the Cambridge and the Indian Central Board curricula - these three curricula are well-renowned and known to produce globally competitive, future-ready students.
Each of the curricula have their own requirements around pedagogy, rigour and assessments. Our 9GEMS framework is implemented alongside all three, which ensures students are groomed into all-rounders. In the end, it’s not about which curriculum they are affiliated to, but how the curriculum is imparted to make them the best version of themselves.
What is your favourite time on a regular school day?
I enjoy each and every moment I get to spend in school. But I would say one of my most favourite times is when I wait each morning at the main entrance of the school, to watch the students and staff walking in. It is an absolute joy to see all these smiling faces come in, ready to start a new day. There is always a shy face, a sheepish smile or a friendly greeting coming your way. Discussions happen on a daily basis - whether it is with the faculty on improvements to a particular process or with students on the introduction of new ideas in school.
This small ritual of mine has helped me not just remember students by their names, but also allowed a special bond to form with them and their parents. This brings a certain level of respect and approachability between us.
What was that one dream of yours for the school that is now a reality?
I have had the good fortune of working for three large educational institutions including GIIS. I am a firm believer in education as a source of joy for teachers and students. Which is why I brought in the concept of having a Happiness Index and measuring it regularly - this ensures that the student community is happy within the school environment. Over the years, this idea has not only won awards for us, but also been adapted by other schools.
Now, my aim is to create collaborative communities within the campus to foster learning and bring real world experiences closer to home. Collaboration is critical for learning, and the more we allow exchange of ideas, the more we will encourage our students to think out of the box.
As an educator, what is your take on failure?
Failure is a part of life, the other side of the proverbial coin of success. It is inevitable and part of any learning process. I believe that students should be given the freedom of choice, and allowed to fail in a safe environment, as long as we also teach them how to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and try again.
It is very essential that students, and even teachers and parents, are made to understand that failure is one more step in the ladder to success, because it teaches us what not to do.
How do you take parents along in this journey?
There is a common thread that binds educators to parents, which is wanting the best for the children.
Our parents come from different backgrounds and are volunteers, enthusiastic participants in many school events, and zealous organisers. Our parents are also guides, mentors and collaborators who partner with teachers, and give their time and expertise to pass the baton of knowledge down the line to other parents, and students.
We have many engagement activities throughout the year especially for parents - like Coffee Mornings, Sports events for parents (Badminton and cricket tournaments), Parent Webinar series, Grandparents day etc.
I would say there is no ‘next’, there is only continuity. As values are an integral part of being a global citizen, a key aspect that we focus on in the inculcation of values in students.
For the last two years, at GIIS, we’ve been working on instilling R.I.S.E among students - R.I.S.E stands for respect, integrity, skills and empathy - very important universal values to be truly global citizens and leaders of tomorrow. At GIIS, we do this through events, activities, and engagement programmes.
We try to reiterate these values all the time, for every new student, teacher or parent who joins us. There is a constant reaffirming of our beliefs, our pedagogy. And I like to think we are doing it very well.
GIIS is a frontrunner in international school education from Nursery to Grade 12 in Asia. We offer students a choice between international curricula like the IB, Cambridge and the Indian CBSE curriculum. Our excellent academic results, dedicated teachers and holistic education contribute towards making our students well-rounded individuals and global leaders of the 21st century. To know more about GIIS, do get in touch with us now.