Interview: Head of AOSR on education during lockdown

Mr. Michael Callan, Head of School, pictured with AOSR's Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) Executive Board: Treasurer, Cindy Jones, President, Terra Donlon, Head of School, Mr. Michael Callan, Secretary, Yvonne Hansen, Vice President, Theoni Huse

ROME - The Italian Insider interviewed Michael Callan, School Head at the American Overseas School of Rome (AOSR), during a testing time for heads of education everywhere, about how the school is not only coping, but thriving, during lockdown. AOSR is an American-International school located within a beautiful campus in northern Rome.


II: In what must have been unprecedented moment in the school’s history, how quickly were the AOSR Ed Tech team able to react to changing circumstances and shift education online?

Michael Callan: I was both impressed and very proud of our faculty staff and students who made a very quick and seamless transition to online. For years we have been investing heavily into our network and professional development. Our goal has always been to provide ubiquitous access to technology when it is the best tool for learning. Wisely, we had built the platform, skills, and confidence to immediately switch to online learning. 


II: How has the AOSR community adapted to online learning?

MC: It hasn’t been without its challenges. Online learning was developed for the adult brain. Adapting it to learners from three to 18 years old has been a task. We learned from or network of the best international schools around the world and through trial and error and valuable feedback, we continue to make adjustments daily to make this new platform as effective as possible.


II: Are there any school projects or personal projects your students have completed during their time in lockdown that you’re particularly proud of?

MC: I have been impressed with so much that I have seen and hope that we will take what we have learned into our new normal in September. I have seen incredible creativity, agency and ownership of learning from our students. I have also witnessed wonderful levels of collaboration from students and adults alike.


II: What about events, are there any that the school has had to postpone, or have they been moved online?

MC: Some events have worked wonderfully online such as Parent/Student/ Teacher conferences and Parent Coffees and we hope to continue with this format in the future. We even set up elementary and secondary school virtual open houses, which were a huge success. There were families who joined from around the globe, and we hope to host more virtual open houses over the summer and next academic school year. Disappointingly, it looks like our Graduation ceremony will have to be online and while what we have planned will be amazing, I will be missing those handshakes and hugs of celebration for the Class of 2020.


II: What are some of the challenges that individual subjects raise during lockdown?

MC: Some subjects are easier to teach online than others. Music comes immediately to mind as a hard one to teach through technology. Our teachers are doing an amazing job though given the limitation we face.


II: Can you describe the school’s unique campus, and whether anything will have changed about it once the students return?

MC: We are fortunate to have a beautiful campus with lots of space. Social distancing requirements will be a challenge though and we are making plans just in case we must both limit the number of students physically on campus while at the same time, maximising the capacity and number of safe learning spaces. We will be practicing heightened hygiene which is a good thing and will have a very positive effect in the short and long term.


II: What is it that makes an American education in Rome so special?

MC: Community, opportunity, and choice. We are engineered to be the most international school in Rome with strict nationality caps. We proudly nurture the scholar, athlete, artist and humanitarian in every child and give them countless opportunities to develop in these areas. We believe in choice and offer students choice in their learning from three year olds to high school where we are the only school in Rome to offer both the IB Programme as well as 18 Advanced Placement courses.


II: Can you speak to the school’s strategic diversity policy, and the rewards of a diverse student body? 

MC: In our strategic plan, it clearly states that our student body should be one third American, one third Italian, and one third International. We are American in name and international in perspective. Nationality is not the only form of diversity we seek. We are a welcoming and accepting community who believe that common beliefs unite far more that differences divide. Because many of our students are children of diplomats, students come and go at AOSR. I like to say that new kids don’t stay new for very long at AOSR because everyone remembers what it is like to be new. There is a sense of care and empathy that accelerates the transition period for both our students and their families.


II: Also, what are the challenges of such an international collective? Have there been any additional complications during lockdown because of the school’s international makeup?

MC: Some of our students returned to their home countries during this COVID crisis and this has made synchronous learning challenging for some. I believe we struck a good balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning though and have kept high levels of connections across many time zones.


II: Can you tell us about the school’s mission?

MC: I believe that our Mission is both inspiring and actionable. It is wonderful that so much of what we talked about in this interview is directly connected to our Mission and the key words and phrases therein: supportive learning environment, diverse student body, engaging, inspiring, and courageous. At AOSR, we truly live our Mission.


II: What do you think your students have taught you over the time you’ve spent at AOSR?

MC: My students have constantly reminded me of the importance that relationships play in schools. They are the foundation on which all learning is developed. Know them, challenge them and nurture them and they can and will achieve anything.


II: Can you think of one story or moment from this academic year that captures the spirit of AOSR?

MC: I can think of so many but as relationships are at the forefront of my mind, I will tell you a story of connection, confidence and comfort. 

Earlier in the year I was sitting in the audience waiting for our Secondary School Music Concert to begin when a kindergartener, we’ll call him Justin, skipped over and sat next to me. I was reading the program and was wearing my reading glasses. Justin had never seen me wearing my glasses so he asked “Mr. Callan, why are you wearing those?” I replied, “These are my reading glasses, I need them to read the program”. Then I asked Justin “do you wear glasses?” to which Justin quickly replied with a little indignation “I can’t read”. 

Looking back, I marvel at the level of comfort and confidence that Justin displayed and the ease with which he made that connection with me. At AOSR, I believe that we help students develop the confidence and competence to open any door in front of them. Oh, and we do teach them to read as well!


Phone: +39.06.334.381
Address: Via Cassia, 811 00189 Roma