I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
- Maya Angelou
Bob Hetzel is one of those few people who leave an indelible mark on others with their kindness and inclusivity. Having started his journey as a teacher, he went on to become the Director at American Embassy School which is consistently ranked amongst the top three international schools in the world.
Bob hails from a humble background, with his father working at a blue collar job. When he was a teenager, his father took him aside and told him that he wanted only two things for him – one, to always be a gentleman, and two, for him to work at a job that required him to wear a white shirt and a tie. For Bob, education was the route to that. Since he was a teenager, he knew he wanted to be a teacher. He loved going to school and as a teacher and subsequent principal, he wanted to create an environment that kids, other teachers and parents were happy to come to.
Today, he is one of the most legendary educators in the country and most definitely one of the most respected. People who have worked with him cannot stop commending him and hold a genuine deep-founded reverence for him.
On why he chose India
In college, Bob was part of the Peace Corps and discovered a passion for working in other cultures. While working in the public schools of the US, he realized he had to make the move soon or it may never happen. He then applied for the first available job which took him to Cairo. He stayed there for 5 years and then wanted to go to another country. The first opening he saw was in India. He knew nothing about the country and came with the idea of staying for 3-5 years. But he stayed on for 18 years!
“India is not so much a place as it is an experience.”
“When I got here, I had no idea how diverse and vibrant India was, and how unpredictable living here can be.” He also credits the fact that he made India home to his wonderful job, school, peers and friends. He finally could not think of a good reason to leave the country.
On his exceptional people skills
Everyone who has worked with Bob cannot stop commenting on how great a ‘human being manager’ he is. The two key ingredients, he divulges, are trust and caring.
“For me, one of the greatest compliments I have ever received was from a teacher who said that when she was with me, she felt like the most important person in the world. And for that while, she was, because I truly was with her. When I am with people, I’m really with them. I listen, I don’t just think about what I want to say.”
Bob also follows one golden rule – treat others as you would like to be treated. He notes that if people are treated like dedicated and competent professionals, they also act dedicated and competent.
People he interacts with report feeling ‘ten feet tall’ with him. He says that that is also because he attributes a lot of value to others’ opinions. In his experience with parents, students and teachers, he has found that people feel nice if their opinions are heard and validated.
Challenges with AES
“My predecessor had a tough time there. So one of the first challenges was regaining trust and credibility.” The existing faculty had been sort of disappointed with the management. There was also the hurdle of working things out with the American Embassy. AES has a unique relationship with the Embassy, unlike any other school.
“Like any other organization, there is the drive to grow without forsaking quality.” Trying to manage the benefits of growth such as more resources and more diversity and doing that without overwhelming the institution and maintaining quality, was a challenge.
“The quality of a school is actually the quality of its faculty. And there is a limit to how many qualified professionals are available. So you want to grow at a rate that doesn’t dilute that.”
Diff between American and Indian education
Bob says that the single biggest difference between the education systems in the two countries is that in India, students are taught a right answer. However, in the US, there are only right questions and different ways to answer them. The 12th grade board exams in India are such high stakes that the focus has to be on getting it right. The concept of a national exam is very different from the US where the emphasis is on state-controlled, local-controlled schools.
What should India change
Bob says that there are two important questions. “In what way can we all be alike so it benefits students and in what way can we all be different so it benefits our students?”
The way to be alike in India, starts with having access to equal opportunities and an equal playing field. He also thinks that all students should be alike in terms of certain content such as the country’s history. However, one of the problems with India, he says, is that there is so much centralized control over content that it’s very hard to change it. He suggests that there should be greater autonomy with the state over content and methodology.