Interview: AOSR's international by design community

Michael Callan, Head of School at AOSR

ROME - The Italian Insider interviewed Michael Callan, Head of Schools at the American Overseas School of Rome (AOSR), on topics as diverse as international schooling, American education and the future of employment. Mr Callan, who has many years of experience teaching around the world, has been Head since July 2016. AOSR is an international school, located within a large, green campus in northern Rome.

Italian Insider: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us a little about the history of the school?

Michael Callan: We began in 1947 as the Overseas School of Rome (OSR), a product of five British parents and five American parents who, after finding out that the allied troops were being moved to Trieste, wished to establish an international, non-denominational school that would combine the best of the UK and American systems. With help from the presiding American and British ambassadors to Italy, this group of passionate parents found a location on Via Nomentana (Villa Torlonia) and officially opened the doors to the school for 60 students on October 16, 1947.

I.I: And what about the school in its current state?

M.C.: Currently we have 600 students from pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade with 48 nationalities represented in our student body. Importantly, no one nationality can exceed more than one third of the total student population. This is our strategy to engineer diversity. While English is the language of instruction and the common social language as well, we offer Italian, French and Spanish as additional languages. The vast majority of our teachers hail from the United States and 72% of them hold advanced degrees. Hiring, nurturing and retaining outstanding teachers is probably the most important thing that I do. 

I.I.: Can you summarise the school philosophy?

M.C.: We strive to educate the whole child because we know that the more a child is nurtured, the more he/she can grow. To maximise this growth, we recognise the importance of having a variety of experiences on offer. Sports, clubs and activities are a vibrant and essential part of our school. Our goal is to help each child become a scholar/artist/athlete and to send them home each day with tired brains, tired bodies and happy faces.

I.I.: What about you? Can you summarise your career before you joined AOSR and briefly tell us how that helps you in your current role?

M.C.: In 1989, I went overseas to teach for a year and never went home. I have made international education both my career and passion and have worked in Japan, Hong Kong, Turkey, the UAE, Malaysia and now Italy. Working on the international school circuit has given me a depth and breath of understanding of teaching and learning that I am not sure I would have been able to gain back home. I am fascinated by the growing population of Third Culture Kids and believe that after so many years, I truly understand them and their unique needs.

I.I.: What sets the school apart from others which are like it?

M.C.: Because of our strategic goal on diversity, I believe we are the most international school in Rome. We understand that athletics and arts enhance academic achievement and our program reflects this. We invest a great amount of time and money recruiting, nurturing and retaining the most highly effective teachers we can because we know the impact exceptional teachers make.

I.I.: AOSR is known for being particularly strong in sports. Can you tell us a little about that?

M.C.: Our sports program is popular and inclusive. With our small school size, it is possible to be the lead of the school play, on student council and play all three seasons of sports. We compete in the Department of Defence schools where competition is strong and we do very well. Recently our boys have come home with gold in basketball, our girls in volleyball and our mixed teams in tennis. Our boys’ soccer team is very strong this year and we are hoping for gold!

I.I.: It is also notable for its location in Rome. Can you tell us a little about the school’s campus, and about how it fits into the wider city?

We are fortunate to have a beautiful campus tucked away off the Cassia. Visitors are surprized when they enter our quad which is truly an oasis in northern Rome.

I.I.: What sort of things have the school’s alumni gone on to do?

M.C.: Recently we celebrated the school’s 70th anniversary and welcomed over 200 alumni back home. We have had children of movie stars and our alumni include former baseball commissioners, politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs. I am a bit of a foodie so I am always proud to tell people that [the Italian television chef] Andrea Borghese is an AOSR grad!

I.I.: What are you particularly keen to emphasis in education? If you could give your pupils one value, what would that be?

M.C.: Narrowing it to one is hard because we believe that educating a child is multifaceted. In the end though, in our students, we try to cultivate the confidence to open any door in front of them.

I.I.: What is your favourite things about AOSR, perhaps something which has surprised you or which you were not expecting before you arrived?

M.C.: I love the students at AOSR. The smile factor is as high as the levels of academic rigor. Each day they reaffirm our belief that great learning should be joyful.

I.I.: Can you talk a little about the role of international schools and “internationalism” in the current political and economic climate, in Italy or elsewhere?

M.C.: International schools such as AOSR give me hope. Understanding our differences is important but embracing our commonalities is essential. When we understand one another and recognise that we have much more in common than we are led to believe, we can move well beyond tolerance and into acceptance.

I.I.: Obviously AOSR promotes, to a certain degree, American education and the American education system. What do you think this offers pupils in countries outside the US?

M.C.: The American education system is about building confidence and competence. It is about risk taking, challenging one self, communicating effectively, behaving ethically and learning to work with one another. These are the skills we all need to develop.

I.I.: Clearly education is changing a lot at the moment. We might think for example of a greater stress on exam results, a growing concern for pupils’ mental health, and an increased debate over what it is appropriate for schools to teach and what should be left to parents. How should schools be adapting to the shifting education environment, and what is AOSR doing?

M.C.: Schools are about relationships and this is something we do very well at AOSR. Every child must be noticed and nurtured. Only then will they be able to meet their potential. Once students feel safe and supported, they take risks in their learning. They learn to fall and get back up because that’s how we define learning. There will always be high stakes testing, I suppose, but it’s how a student approaches challenges such as IB or AP exams that matters.

I.I.: The future for young people today is perhaps less certain than ever. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing educators at the moment?

M.C.: So many people write about preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet. We must help our students develop the skills, and dispositions, they need to succeed in the unknown. We have identified these skills and dispositions in our Profile of the Graduate. AOSR students will: communicate skilfully, collaborate purposefully, think critically, cultivate creativity, live as ethical citizens, be globally minded, demonstrate resilience and balance and succeed academically. Helping students develop these skills and dispositions is our greatest challenge and our greatest joy.

I.I.: If you could give your current pupils one piece of advice, what would that be?

M.C.: I would tell them that academic rigor is not defined by how tired your hand is by how tired your brain is. Learn to enjoy thinking deeply, sharing ideas. Respectfully challenge the ideas of others. Find the joy in learning.

I.I.: A final word?

M.C.: I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to try to convey what makes AOSR so special. In truth, 10 minutes on campus and you will truly understand!


American Overseas School of Rome 
Via Cassia, 811, 00189 Roma RM, Italy