PANTHERS OF ISKL #28 - RAMI MADANI - THE VISIONARY LEADER
As we started our new academic year, we had the honor of interviewing our Head of School, Mr. Rami Madani, who has been the Head of School since July 2019 and has been working at ISKL since 2009.
Originally from Damascus, Syria, we learn about Mr. Madani's life story, why he chose to leave Syria and move to Germany, his life lessons and passions. We also learn why he believes in the power of education and his views on the future of learning and education in the 21st century.
Here is his story:
"I was born in Damascus, Syria, where I lived until the age of twenty two. Although we grew up poor and isolated, my childhood was fascinating. At the time, it was a very caring community with a highly compassionate culture. However, I had big dreams that I was keen to pursue. I knew that to achieve what I wanted, I had to do a lot more than an average person would need to do to prove themselves. I needed to expand my opportunities to allow me to live the life I am privileged to live now. I was fortunate to have a very loving family that allowed and supported me to be the person I am today.
I have always been ambitious and very intentional about my life choices. My mindset has never been about accepting the status quo. Instead, I believe we make decisions to improve our lives for our community and ourselves. That's who I am, and I think that opportunities arise for those who look out for them and who are willing to take advantage of them.
From an early age I have always had very particular views on life. For example, I wanted to be a vegetarian (I am vegan now), and I was interested in philosophy, religion, spirituality, and music. I knew that learning languages would provide me with a window to the world and myself, and I've studied them because of my passion. I speak four languages: German, English, French, and Arabic. The more I learn about people, culture, and languages, the richer life becomes!
My father impacted me a lot when I was young. He was very hardworking, but due to his upbringing he found it hard to trust others. He, like many from his generation, spent a lot of his life and energy protecting himself and building boundaries between him and society. I had an inner drive to trust people as I believe in the importance of peace, collective growth, and interdependence of all citizens in order to make a better world. I am someone who has benefited from trusting others. Yes, sometimes people do take advantage of that, but that's what makes you wiser and stronger. To me, trusting people is an essential disposition that you have to commit to instead of waiting to find someone else you trust. That allowed me to believe in where my life journey is taking me. If I was too scared to take risks and try the unknown, I would not be where I am now.
I left Syria because of an inner desire to live a life of harmony. I wanted to experience being engaged in the arts, music, learning, and education. I wanted to be far away from how war and instability impacted the systems, culture, and mindset of my country at that time.
After studying in Syria, I moved to Germany to follow my passion for studying music. I studied piano (which I have played since I was a young), at a music college in Lübeck and became a concert pianist and a teacher of piano. I went on to live in Germany for over ten years, then moved with my family to Yemen where I started teaching. From there I worked in different schools and countries, England, Zambia, India and finally I moved to Malaysia to join ISKL.
My life’s journey has not always taken a smooth and easy path. However, whenever I face hardships, I do not build boundaries around myself. Instead I choose to view them as opportunities to learn and grow.
My life philosophy – which is connected to my role at The International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) – is that I deeply believe people should develop passions and competencies in an area that the world needs. I believe the overlap between our passions and what our world needs is essential for education. This empowers our students to transform conditions for themselves, others, and the enrichment.
Some people want stability in their lives – they accept the known present, or choose money and a stable career, but don’t necessarily enjoy what they do. I am incredibly passionate about what I do, and I sincerely believe in the value of education to create better lives for everyone.
The challenges we face today are because the world is not developing homogeneously. The global situation is best summarized by the seventeen areas outlined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These areas reflect the contrasts that we live in, from poverty to wealth, health to war, environmentally sustainable communities to people less inclined to do so. The role of education is to help everyone understand, respect, and act according to what's best for others, not only for their own benefit. The world's most significant challenges are, at the same time, the world's greatest opportunities; for work, employment, and prosperity.
I deeply believe that education is the way to transform ourselves and our world. I’ve always been very focused on developing myself, learning, and staying optimistic in the face of adversity. I have not allowed myself to make excuses or think of myself as a victim. Rather than feeling that "I can't do much" or "I wasn’t born into the right family" or even that “I didn't go to the right school” I’ve chosen to focus instead on working hard, making the right choices and taking opportunities as they arise.
If there is something that I would like our students to know and understand, is that each of us is in charge of how we think, feel, and act and that our emotions and responses are under our control. We should not see ourselves as victims of someone else's doing. If we experience a bad situation or encounter adverse conditions, view it as an opportunity for growth and learning. Life is beautiful, and our roles and responsibilities are significant. I believe that our students will make faster progress in life when they understand that they control what they think, feel, and do.
When we look at the vision and mission statements of many schools, they tend to be similar in terms of students’ long-term success and their positive impact on others. But the reality of the school itself can be very different from the truth of that mission and vision statement. For example, the school may unknowingly focus solely on grades and academics at the expense of vital life skills which prepare students for their future.
At ISKL, I believe we are doing it the right way. We are developing individuals who can transform conditions for themselves, others and the environment. To do that, we have to help them believe in and be passionate about a range of things and develop competencies in these areas, making the world a better place.
The way we decide on our success as a school is not only based on the academic results and grades, but also by the stories that our students demonstrate throughout their learning journey.
The world does not just need people who have high grades, degrees, Masters or PhDs - the world needs people who can make it a better place. Taking this perspective challenges us, as educators, to decide what counts as success. When viewed from the angle of "are we successful when we only focus on university entrance?" then yes, results, grades, and university admissions are measures of success. But the important question is, are we successful in supporting our students to live the life that is right for them?
A few years ago, I remember an ISKL high school student from Syria, Farah, who worked with us on our sustainability and service-learning projects with refugees in Kuala Lumpur. She made a difference to many of them through perseverance, education, care, kindness, and compassion. What struck me most is when she went to study in the US, she did the same thing – she established a club that helps refugees and those in need. It's always wonderful to see that these passion-based activities continue after ISKL and that our students are not doing it to enhance their CV – they're doing it because it is the right thing to do.
With that, one of my essential roles is to establish ISKL’s Vision and to inspire others to follow it. The challenge is that it is a very demanding busy job in terms of time, regardless, I must dedicate time to be strategic, to reflect on our Mission and Vision, and think, "how do I inspire the people I lead?" If a Head of School does not invest the time to do that, it will be to the detriment of the school and its community.
Schools are learning institutions, and learning is changing because our present – and hence our future – is changing. The students we teach are changing, so we need to adapt. My role is to clarify where we are headed, given all the changes and needs, to learn where our true north is. In the absence of that, schools run the risk of remaining rigid and traditional, doing what they’ve done for decades.
At ISKL we are developing and offering new pathways for learning at ISKL that are more authentic, innovative, and not confined to the traditional curriculum. We are an inclusive school that believes diversity needs to be honored – whether cultural, beliefs or learning differences.
All of these are attributes that build our identity as a school. We need to nurture programs that honor that diversity. The pathways we launched this academic year do that – they allow our teachers to break traditional boundaries and help students take ownership of their learning, exercise agency, and self-advocate.
I love ISKL and would like to serve this school for many, many years to come. My family and I love Malaysia, and we're hoping to remain and retire here. The people are lovely, and the country is great.
ISKL's future is very bright, with the quality, commitment and community spirit of our families, students, teachers, administrators, and board members – we have all that we need to be the excellent school that we are. It took me a long time to find my way into teaching at an international school. That journey never finished and I am enjoying my life, learning and working at ISKL.”
What does Be All You Are mean to you?
“To me, it means acknowledging and actively nurturing all our needs as human beings. As Maslow put it, we nurture our physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs and move even higher by being actively engaged in areas that honor our potential and capabilities. This is the drive to be the most that one can be.”
This story was featured on Humans of Kuala Lumpur.
Here are a few more interesting facts about Rami!
Hobbies: 'I’m passionate about photography and find great enjoyment in playing the piano. I also like exercising – Zumba, yoga, running, and sometimes I just sit, relax, and watch Netflix!
What are you watching on Netflix now?: 'One documentary I am watching on Netflix is about the Second World War. It is a new rendition of the story, showing the complexity and different perspectives of the situation. Many people tried to stop it, many people made wrong decisions, and there were many opportunities for the war to be stopped in various ways before it even began. Yet, the way things evolved prolonged the war for many years, severely impacting lives.
Favorite TV show: 'My favorite program is Planet Earth by David Attenborough. As for films, it's funny, but I like The Matrix. It's just that type of "is it real, or is it fake; the life we live? Who are we serving? And how do we know what real is?" I also like the dimensions and the cinematography.
Most emotional moment: ‘Watching the birth of my first child. I was in the operating theatre when he came into the world, and I cannot think of any other emotional experience at that level. I felt joy, fear, curiosity, and a lot of love – it was such an overwhelming feeling. I think that's why I feel like I'm the father of everyone on campus. Our students, our employees – I care about them all and how they think about ISKL.’
Favorite piano piece: 'My favorite pieces to play on the piano would be by Chopin. I have always loved Chopin. To play Chopin on the piano was the highlight of my youth, especially his nocturnes and études. It is my passion.’
Tell us something about your role that people might not know about: 'One of the things that people may not know about the role of a Head of School (HoS) is the importance of communication. At ISKL we have students representing more than 65 nationalities and I need to communicate with everyone effectively and also take in all their ideas and suggestions. These are often incredibly diverse and sometimes conflicting – ranging from too many activities, or not enough events, too-long lunch breaks, to not enough time at lunch! There are so many different expectations. But the way we deal with this at ISKL is that we listen. We are an empathetic, caring school, and we respect everyone's views. We constantly refer back to our Mission and Vision, we look at best practice research and its application. Based on this we then make data driven decisions to help us make ISKL an even better school.
About Rami Madani
Rami Madani is an educational leader with more than 20 years of experience in international schools in Asia, Africa, and Europe. His expertise in learning, leadership, and governance is recognised across the Asia Pacific where he has provided strategic consultancy services for international schools and educational conferences.
Rami assumed leadership of The International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) as Head of School in 2019. He was previously Director of Learning at ISKL, a position held for six years. Previous roles as Head of Secondary School at Ecole Mondiale, Mumbai, India, and positions such as Curriculum Coordinator, Dean, and IB teacher, ensure Rami has a comprehensive understanding of the needs of 21st-Century learners. Rami holds a BSc, Mathematical Sciences (Hons) and an MA, (Education).
Since 2004 he has conducted/participated in school accreditations and verification visits for the International Baccalaureate Organization, Council of International Schools, and Western Association of Schools and Colleges.