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International schools in Hong Kong

GSIS new head gives education a Germanic twist

Acting principal Grit Cichon draws up plan for inclusive education at German Swiss International School

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 October, 2017, 10:59am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 October, 2017, 10:59am

After teaching English and Russian for 10 years in Germany, Grit Cichon decided it was time to see some other parts of the world. For that reason, she took off to the United States via an exchange programme with American teachers to teach English in Pennsylvania for a year.

“That was the start of my change of direction to become more involved in school leadership,” says Cichon, explaining that the experience subsequently led to a move to Hong Kong in mid-2016 as deputy principal at the German Swiss International School (GSIS).

“I’ve always been a fan of New York, but Hong Kong is definitely outdoing New York when it comes to all the skyscrapers,” she says, noting too the abundant greenery enveloping the GSIS campus at Guildford Road on The Peak. “It’s an overwhelming city. When I first came for an interview, I was pleasantly surprised by the view from the principal’s office.”

After the addition last November of new science labs and enhanced facilities for sports and arts, a key initiative this school year is to advocate diversity and inclusion at all levels.

“We started discussing this with teachers to find a good concept that would work for our school and we are now trying to make these ideas happen,” Cichon says. “We looked at what makes us an inclusive school and, from there, began hiring people who are professionals in the related fields.”

For instance, a student centre has been established for primary and secondary pupils to provide support and counselling when necessary on a one-on-one basis.

Cichon notes that, overall, Hong Kong doesn’t have a lot of expertise in dealing with special education needs and is especially short of the required knowledge and opportunities to offer related professional development.

“It’s something we struggle with, but you have to start somewhere,” she says. “In contrast, every local school in Germany is inclusive. To introduce this idea to German schools abroad, special training is arranged.”

Indeed, Cichon herself attended a three-day professional development course in Kuala Lumpur this year, which was initiated by the German government and designed for German school teachers abroad.

The availability of on-campus counselling also helps students deal with the stresses that sometimes result from the nature of the education system in Hong Kong.

“Everyone wants to be successful in today’s world,” Cichon says. “But we are aware of the pressure on our students, which is why we try to offer as many counselling services as we can.”

The school has also initiated a mental health awareness week, when experts in the field hold workshops with teachers and students.

“We are raising parents’ awareness of their children’s stress levels and explaining what they can do to bolster resilience,” Cichon says.

In reflecting on the essence of education, she has made it her mission to develop well-rounded students who are prepared for the challenges of life.

“Education is not only about academic success. We want our students to be attentive to the world, to be critical thinkers, and to make a change. My vision for a school is a place where students like to be and where they meet friends. This is one idea that came to me when I was in the States. In the schools there, all the kids stayed on campus till the end of the day because it was the main place they had their life as a teenager.”

Among the spectrum of international schools in Hong Kong, GSIS is unique in offering an education in German and English. It originally opened in 1969 and now has around 1,300 pupils representing over 30 nationalities, with about one-third being native German speakers.

“We are the only school in Hong Kong offering education to German families abroad, so if you are a German passport holder, it’s safe to say you can get in our school without an assessment,” Cichon says.

The school has distinct German and English streams, but actively promotes cross-stream activities to create an open-minded outlook and an appreciation of different cultures. Aside from celebrating the Oktoberfest, students from both streams take part in an assembly to learn about the history behind the German Reunification Day on October 3. They have also conducted vox pops around the city asking passers-by about the German churchman Martin Luther and his efforts to reform the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago. Parts of this will be made into a video and shown at an assembly.

“To be open to any kind of culture and religion is what I see as part of GSIS’s DNA,” Cichon says.