Day in the Life: What it's like to manage a boarding school in Dubai

Ashley Fitzgibbons will oversee the lives of 100 pupils in the new school year

A day in the life of a boarding school head

A day in the life of a boarding school head
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A Day in the Life allows you to step into the shoes of a UAE resident to experience a typical 24 hours in their work and home life.

Being responsible for 100 children waking up and going to bed on time alongside studies, activities and meals, Ashley Fitzgibbons has a busy job.

In her role as head of boarding at Swiss International School Dubai (SISD), she also oversees finances, planning weekend itineraries and working with pastoral staff on emotional support for pupils.

The Irish-born educator, 35, who joined the International Baccalaureate curriculum school five years ago, shares with The National how her weekdays can look.

6am: Early start to plan the day

Usually already awake, this is when Ms Fitzgibbons' day begins as she reviews the calendar for birthdays, children off, any tournaments taking place or flights planned.

“A quick check to see if they have done washing up the night before and our housekeeping team start cleaning the common areas,” she says.

“We have 70 kids in the boarding houses, but have 100 enrolled next academic year, over 20 nationalities … that brings a nice vibrancy.”

6.40am: Wake up to music

Time to rouse sleepy youngsters in Geneva House (the boys), and Zurich House (girls) – each floor has a member of the 14 boarding staff living alongside.

I’ve been in education for 13 years and this is the most rewarding position I’ve had
Ashley Fitzgibbons

“We turn the radio on for 20 minutes,” says Ms Fitzgibbons. “Once it’s off, they know to be downstairs, together in the canteen for 7.30am for a lovely buffet breakfast, each morning based on different countries.”

Boarders scan into an attendance system that reveals any absentees.

“There’s always one who didn’t put out all their laundry and is looking for shorts or a T-shirt or has forgotten swimming gear or a laptop.”

As part of the curriculum’s community service element, clothes left by departed boarders are washed and donated to clothing banks.

8am: Problem-solving and teaching life skills

Boarders head into school and Ms Fitzgibbons receives a canteen report revealing popular food options and feedback ahead of meal planning discussions.

Pupils exhibiting sniffles visit the onsite clinic and house checks ensure nothing is broken. The matron liaises with cleaners and reports to Ms Fitzgibbons if additional bedroom checks are needed.

“We address whatever concerns are there and when the student comes back that evening,” she says, revealing male boarders keep rooms tidier. “I think it’s because the girls have too many clothes and shoes.”

Ahead of graduation, she taught some boys how to iron shirts and prepare a smoothie, but she once witnessed children mistakenly putting milk in a kettle.

“Those life skills, simple things like reading clothes labels, you have to train them and we plan to develop our programme even more. They’ve done lots of baking, healthy snack making … we really want to dig into cooking next year.”

8.30am: Admissions meeting

An admissions meeting examines numbers for the next academic year – boarding is from ages 11 to 18/19.

Ms Fitzgibbons handles rooming arrangements, moving older pupils to higher floors, as well as allocating newcomers.

“We pack their first week with activities so they don’t have much time to think about being away from home,” she says.

“In their rooms, the homesickness will kick in, so we do games and quiz nights, cinema night, get the popcorn and find a movie.

“When they’ve moved into our boarding school, they won’t always put themselves forward … it’s our job to uncover their talents.”

8-10am: Team talks

Discussions with support staff plus laundry personnel.

“The boarding team might be running an activity and need to order resources,” says Ms Fitzgibbons, who also oversees the boarding Instagram account. “Any sports activities or trips, we’ll take photos and pop them on to update parents.”

Come late August, she will have to get 100 boarders into uniforms, so checks supplies alongside meeting and discussing academic progress with the secondary team.

“Our Amazon account looks interesting. We could be ordering anything,” she reveals.

“From luggage tags for new kids coming in to water guns … we ran boarding Olympics and the kids wanted a water fight. It was great fun.”

10-2pm: Squeeze in time to relax

Admin work before a “grab and go” lunch around noon.

“My secretary is good at making sure I have time off during the middle of the day, to just go for a walk or coffee.”

Beside her head of boarding role, Ms Fitzgibbons teaches business management, but her afternoons can also involve consulting parents for end-of-year feedback, interviewing new boarding house pupils, or giving a tour.

3.30pm: Afterschool activities

School finishes and roll call happens ahead of afterschool activities including swimming, debate club, jiu-jitsu. Some pupils remain for study time.

“We’re really pushing the enrichment side and making sure they are fully rounded … they can’t be hitting the books all the time. And we have to match their schedule to everything else that’s going on, it’s not one-size-fits-all.”

5-6pm: Sports or more learning

Boarders head either to sport such as badminton or basketball, or academic support with teachers dropping in to assist.

“You build really strong relationships with the kids, I’ve seen so many of their journeys,” says Ms Fitzgibbons.

“The ones who wander around in pyjamas, who asked random questions like ‘can I cook pasta in an air fryer?’ More than likely, they’re going to be with us when they get university offers.”

7pm: Time for dinner

Dinner is in the dining hall until about eight “when the houses start to wind down”.

But if it’s her turn to work a weekend, Saturday is takeaway night for 70.

“We ordered Shake Shack and 10 delivery drivers arrived, one after another,” Ms Fitzgibbons recalls.

9-10pm: Favourite time of the day

Final roll call to ensure everyone is in.

“My favourite time of the day … they come and sit in the foyer, tell you about their day or plans for the weekend. Two kids had Tamagotchis yesterday; they’re becoming a trend again."

All children should be in bed at 10pm, but sometimes “love playing 'knock and run' on each other”.

A final email check before Ms Fitzgibbons falls asleep about 11.30pm.

With holidays imminent, hectic days beckon ensuring everyone makes flights home or overseeing 50 room moves.

“Spreadsheets are colour coded, numbered, in different tab. I wouldn’t be able to cope without Excel. And we all pitch in, there are some amazing people,” adds the head of boarding.

“I’ve been in education for 13 years and this is the most rewarding position I’ve had. Long days, but definitely the most rewarding.

Updated: November 10, 2023, 12:22 PM