06/23/2024 by Art Charles |

Leading in a War Zone: An Interview with Trae Holland, School Director at Pechersk School International in Kyiv, Ukraine

Carney, Sandoe & Associates International Practice has the privilege of working with schools around the globe.  They are offered the unique opportunity to learn about the different cultures that shape a school and how it influences the curriculum, faculty, and students.  International schools provide opportunities for cultural awareness, global citizenship, and social-emotional learning.

Senior Consultant, Art Charles, recently had a conversation with Trae Holland, Head of Pechersk School International (PSI) in Kyiv, Ukraine.  Art met Trea almost a decade ago and had gotten to know him through different searches over the years.  Two years ago, Trae reached out to Art to find out more information about the PSI position in Ukraine. He asked Art, having known him for some time at this point if he thought he would be a good candidate for the role.  Art’s advice was simply to say, “Go for it!” Trae applied and was appointed to that position a month or so later.

When Trae arrived in Kyiv in August 2023, there were 84 students at Pechersk, compared to 500 at the start of the war.  Now, in May 2024, PSI has 110 students on campus.  They have 121 students enrolled for next year, with a goal of 160 students.  The faculty numbers have now reached 37 people, 60% of whom are international.  Trae co-recruited teachers with Rachel Caldwell, the former head of PSI, and was happy to see that they shared the same goals for recruits – capable, caring teachers who also had a disposition for working in a war zone.

Trae is proud of the community they are building at PSI despite a challenging situation.  The war has caused trauma and anxiety which has deeply affected both the students and their teachers, who need to be trained in caring for their charges during these troubling times.  Their main goal has been to keep the school open.  When he started at PSI, they had lost 80% of the staff; all his curriculum coordinators were new; they needed to re-invent a culture of care, love, and responsibility.

Can you describe how your career in education began?

I graduated from college in 1989 and went to Durham, NC to play in a band.  After six months, I realized that I needed a job, so I found a teaching post at a small experimental school for marginalized students.  In many ways, the school was ahead of its time, with a focus on student-centered, multidisciplinary, experiential, and social-emotional learning.  In the years to come, this experience provided me with a solid basis for good pedagogy.

After a decade there, I went to my first international school in Venezuela where I met my wife, a fellow teacher.  I loved the time I spent in the classroom teaching students.

What prompted your interest in leadership?

I took a break from schools in 2007 to work in the private sector with a civil engineering team.  While I am not an advocate of running schools like a business firm, I did acquire some useful management skills. For example, once I understood the importance of empowering others, I could not go back.  I enjoyed seeing students and teachers thrive.  For me, that’s where life in a school is.

While working at Academia Cotopaxi in Quito, I learned about the Executive Director position at Camino Seguro / Safe Passage in Guatemala.   Safe Passage is a unique, life-changing institution that provides the kind of environment where students and parents can feel safe, grow in learning, and prepare for secure jobs after graduation.

What are some examples of your flexibility and adaptability?

For example, the internet might go down or a siren may go off and the teachers and I need to rush students into bomb shelters.  At Safe Passage, we needed to provide continuity of the learning process despite occasional shootings outside the school.  I have learned that a school leader can have a vision but cannot always predict what will happen, so I need to create a sense of solidity while keeping track of the psychological health of my staff who are doing the same for their students.  I remind teachers daily that so much of the situation is out of their control, so they need to work harder at what they can control – for example, the school’s values, safety protocols, how they care for each other, and ensuring paychecks arrive on time.

My situation is further complicated by the fact that, due to the situation in Ukraine, my wife and younger son are in Warsaw.

What is one thing you have learned about yourself since you accepted the position at PSI?

You need good people around you who trust each other but are not afraid to have difficult conversations; there is a real need for authenticity. I always have been the type of leader who wants to empower people – I take this role of creating teams and school culture very seriously. I have found that another side of leadership is providing stability in situations where people feel you have answers that they don’t.

I have learned that I am calm under stress. In Guatemala, there were frequent shootings around the school; however, for each shooting, there was a beginning and end. In Kyiv, there are constant sirens and bombings and people are tired.  I need to find ways to shake off the constant stress and take care of myself, which I often do by playing music and having conversations with the people around me.

Do you have a motto, quote, or saying that you try to live and lead by?

I find that as school leaders, we encourage teachers to help students direct their learning; however, we don’t focus enough on teachers doing the same. For me, a learning community is about all of us.

I have worked in places where it would have been easy to lose faith in humanity.  However, the more suffering I have seen around me, the more heightened my sense is of how caring humans can be.  I am in awe of the beauty of humanity.

What advice would you like to share with aspiring leaders?

I would have told my younger self ten years ago to spend less time being terrified of failure, worried about not having all the right “tools” and just to lean into the person you are.  I believe you just need character, creativity, and good mentors – be able to love people and listen to them and you’ll learn the rest.

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