The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
Checking in With Headmaster Christopher Nikoloff

Shu Ye ’18 interviewed Headmaster Christopher Nikoloff, who started at TASIS back in July, to learn about how his first year is going, what progress he’s seen so far, and what his hopes are for the future.

Back in June, you were asked what your goals were for your first year at TASIS, and you said, “The number one goal for the first year is to get to know the community—to become acquainted with the School and its people, the geography of the School, the human landscape of the School.” Can you explain some ways in which you’ve begun to meet this goal?
The main ways are being as present as I can in all aspects of the School. Some examples that come to mind are going to as many meals as I can, going to student assemblies, going to special events like those held during International Week, attending Academic Travel twice a year, going on class outings, getting into the classrooms, being available during drop-off times in the morning and pick-up times in the afternoon, meeting with parents—both in the Parent Support Committee and through individual meetings with families—and spending an evening doing dorm duty once a month, which allows me to rotate between the different dorms. I think those are all examples of ways I’ve tried to connect with the texture of the School.

You also said, “My goals will be to understand, to listen, and to see how we can together keep moving the School forward. I believe in continual improvement and hope that I can enlist the greater community here in that journey, which is well underway already.” Can you describe some of the improvements you’ve seen at TASIS in your short time here?
As a leader, I’m a big fan of reflective continual improvement, which means reflecting on what we are doing and asking how we can do it better. Even if we are making lots of small steps, we are always getting better. There is a Japanese philosophy called Kaizen that focuses on continual improvement throughout all aspects of life. When this concept is applied to the workplace, it is built on the idea that if every employee is making even slivers of improvement on a weekly basis, the collective talents within the organization create a powerful engine for growth.

I have found at TASIS a lot of past improvements and growth, whether they are on the operational side—finances, contracts, handbooks, security, etc.—or in academics: looking at the Elementary School program, the teacher professional growth systems, and the curriculum articulation, for example. TASIS is a reflective community that is trying to get better, and I really want to emphasize and honor the good work that has been done in the past. What I have attempted to do in my short tenure here is build on that work, keep it moving, and help some of it come to fruition this year.

I always knew I would like it here—what surprised me is how fast I fell in love.

Now that you’ve had some time to gain a better understanding of how TASIS works, what are some of the changes you’d like to make for year two?
For year two, I want to continue the process I have just mentioned. On the academic side, for example, we have taken a look at the great curriculum work that has been done in the past and are now looking at ways to help families gain a better understanding of the scope and sequence of our K–12 curriculum. It’s simply a matter of taking all the good work TASIS has already been doing and figuring out the most effective ways to communicate it to students and parents next year.

I imagine you had certain expectations of what your first year at TASIS would be like. What has surprised you so far?
I always knew I would like it here—what surprised me is how fast I fell in love. I don’t know how else to say it. Love is irrational. It just comes. You expect to like a place, and I suspected I would or else I wouldn’t have come. But as I was walking around the International Food Fair last night, I just felt really at home. I love this place, I love the students, and I love what it stands for. I guess I’m surprised at how quickly that came.

Have you been impressed with the level of parent involvement at TASIS?
Yes. The parents have a great system with the TASIS Parent Association (TPA) and also a Parent Support Committee (PSC) at each grade level, where I have found they have delivered extremely helpful, accurate, and constructive insights as to how we can improve.

The TPA also does a lot of the heavy lifting for many major community events, including our upcoming Spring Gala, the annual Fall Festival, and the many International Week events that wouldn’t exist without incredible parent support. They are great partners.

You mentioned that the TPA is working with TASIS to plan a Spring Gala on campus this April. What is the purpose of this event, and how does it tie into the School’s future plans?
The main focus of the Gala is to help raise funds for the construction of a new building on the Elementary School campus. The building will be called Valzonico and holds the promise of bringing a number of benefits to the School, including larger and more appropriate classrooms and the consolidation of the Elementary School onto one campus.

With the consolidation, we will have two real benefits. The cultural and pedagogical synergies of the entire Elementary School being together should really elevate the program. The second benefit will come in the form of operational efficiencies. We currently must deal with the overhead of running two separate campuses, and having the Elementary School spread out means we need to have extra transportation and lose time when students based at Focolare need to come to the main campus for special classes. The promise of operational and programmatic efficiencies has us excited about what this new building can bring.

I’m sure that moving from California to Switzerland has also been a major adjustment for your family. How have they been enjoying life in Lugano so far?
They have adjusted very well. This has been another pleasant surprise: I expected them to adjust, but I thought there would naturally be a little bit more of an adjustment period and didn’t know it would be such a welcome adjustment. So far they love the area, the School, and the people, so I’m really happy with the way they’ve all adapted to our new life here in Lugano.


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