Introducing Derek Smith: ALA’s Sixth Dean of the Academy

After a thorough global search process, Derek Smith has been appointed as the sixth Dean of the African Leadership Academy (ALA). He brings a strong educational background and a deep commitment to nurturing leadership and academic excellence to this role. Derek’s journey as an educator started in 1995 when he volunteered as a math teacher in rural Guinea-Bissau. He has since gained extensive experience in education and school leadership across West Africa, with a brief international experience in Poland. His dedication to African schools has led him to teach and lead in Togo, the Gambia, and Nigeria.

Words from the New Dean, Derek Smith

I am Dean Derek Smith, the new Dean of the Academy. I am very pleased to share some of the journey that brought me to the African Leadership Academy and my vision for my time here.

I first came to Africa around 28 years ago to teach in a government school in a small town in Guinea Bissau, West Africa. I only knew a little about the country; I couldn’t speak the language and didn’t understand the education system I was expected to teach in. This will help me empathize with, our Year 1 students – particularly those who arrive here from Arabic, Francophone, or Lusophone countries – to take on the challenge of learning in a completely new environment and fulfilling their academic and leadership potential.

When I arrived in Guinea Bissau, I didn’t have a passion for the continent and didn’t expect to be on the continent for more than my two-year contract, never mind more than twenty-five years. However, as I began to acquire the language, get to know the people in the town where I lived, and understand the difficult situation that people and the country were in, I realized I had something I could contribute to improve the community. I couldn’t build the bridge the town needed across the river; I needed to learn about construction. I couldn’t improve crop yields; anything I plant seems to die. I couldn’t help the teachers get their salaries; I had no influence on the government. But I did know a little about education.

Over the following twenty-five years, I worked in different roles in many countries across the continent. It has been, and continues to be, an amazing journey. Still, at the fundamental level, everywhere I have been, I have tried to do the same thing: teach young people, contribute to making learning more effective and efficient and help teachers improve their practice so that the individuals whose lives we impact can have a greater impact in their community, their country and across the continent. Unsurprisingly, my journey has brought me to the African Leadership Academy.

I first learnt of ALA in 2009 when one of the students I had been teaching in Nigeria joined the second cohort of students here. I kept in touch with the family, and their time at ALA was a great success. Since then, I have followed the development of the academy for over a decade. The vision and mission to transform Africa by developing a powerful network of young leaders who will work together to enable lasting peace and shared prosperity is a powerful vision.

I continued to take on educational roles across Africa. Always with one eye on how ALA was progressing. I visited the campus a number of times, brought groups of students, and encouraged a number of graduates from schools I led to join the two-year diploma program.

Late last year, I was informed that ALA was looking to appoint a Dean. I talked to several of my mentors and people involved with the academy, both past and present. I reflected on my career and what I would be able to offer in the role. Following an intense two-way process to ensure this was a good fit for ALA and my family, here I am.

As I start the next stage of my education journey in Africa, I continue learning so much about ALA. How we now have 1500 alumni of the diploma program; we have young people whom Anzisha and our other programs have impacted, we have former staffulty contributing in schools and organizations worldwide. Those of us here now stand on the shoulders of the giants who have laid the foundations of this great cathedral. This leads me to reflect on what small contribution I can make to help take this cathedral to the next level.

At heart, I am a teacher. While I have spent many years leading schools and education projects, I am happiest helping people learn. I left behind a career in engineering because I love teaching, so that time in the classroom won’t feel like work at all. ALA is more than a school; this means more than collaborating with our alumni community throughout their career and developing entrepreneurial leadership through projects such as Anzisha. Within the two-year diploma program, we also expect more of our students.

As we continue to develop our unique leadership development program, I look forward to supporting staffulty to develop their own leadership and teaching practices. In doing this, we will develop a pool of teacher-leaders who can not only impact the students at ALA but, through working with teachers across the continent, can have an impact on learning and leadership more widely.

So, as I take the next step on my education journey, as I come to live in a new country, join a thriving and growing community that is held together by the shared vision to transform Africa and the shared community values of integrity, curiosity, humility, compassion, diversity, and excellence, I am excited and inspired by the opportunity. I look forward to building the cathedral in Honeydew that will transform Africa by developing a powerful network of young leaders who will work together to address Africa’s greatest challenges, achieve extraordinary social impact, and accelerate the continent’s growth trajectory.

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