Varsha Agarwal Rodewald, Secondary School Principal, Ascend International School

One of the inspirational leaders in education, Varsha Agarwal Rodewald, has come a long way to transform educational practices at Ascend International School as the Secondary School Principal since its inception in 2012. She attended a CBSE school, studied Economics and Political Science at the University of Mumbai, and went on to finish her MBA degree at Edinburgh University Management School in the UK. This broadened her worldview and understanding of the need for international exposure. Studying with people from different cultures and age groups truly taught her to experience things from new perspectives. “Learning a foreign language was something I was passionate about. I learned German from scratch in nine months, achieving the highest level a non-native speaker can achieve in the language. A new language opens up a whole new world towards understanding the nuances of culture and way of life of a whole new set of people who are so different from you. This changed the way I perceived my own culture and identity and made me value my roots more than ever before. I have lived in India, the UK, and Germany and cherish the diversity of experiences I have had and I still encounter,” shares Ms. Varsha. 

Now, on the other side of the table, she takes the time to reflect on what aspects of those years of learning have constituted the person she is today and the approaches she takes in her life. She believes that it is less about the system of education but rather about the teacher who makes or breaks the educational experience of a student. Through innovative education, learning is not just to acquire but to build and nurture continuously. “I am fortunate to be in a profession and in a school environment that allows me a fresh start every year. I choose to carry and consolidate my learnings as I progress through each year, with new learning, new units, new experiences, and also with new mistakes that enable new learning for the next year,” Ms. Varsha says. 

Continually Pioneering Innovation

At Ascend International School, Ms. Varsha tries to find new ways to impart learning. By reading the latest research blogs and articles, she is always tuned in to the recent developments in the field of education. Ms. Varsha actively participates in curriculum reviews led by IB and plans to start her training as an Evaluation Leader of the Middle Years Programme at the IB level of education. Through online workshops and webinars, she continues to learn and research neuroscience in education and how it impacts our understanding of how students learn. Social media has made Ms. Varsha connect with the educational community, school leaders, and faculty from around the globe. “They are a click away from questions and guidance. It comes as a gift that we are a close-knit community of international school leaders in Mumbai who very generously share learnings, thoughts, and ideas,” she shares.

With the support she gets from the school leaders at Ascend, Ms. Varsha believes that there has been a shift in the education space, with more women in educational leadership and becoming an inclusive community that values uniqueness, culture, and gender diversity. “We believe that we need to be surrounded by people who think and act differently from each other. We thrive on the creative conflict because this makes us open-minded individuals who welcome and value different perspectives,” Ms. Varsha shares. She understands that educational leadership is about capability, drive, and willingness to ignite a love for learning. “We are encouraging more women in this space is concerned, the more we support education for girls in our country, the more chances we have to balance gender representation at all administrative and leadership levels of schooling,” she adds. 

Leading the way

Ms. Varsha considers the leadership at Ascend to be inspiring, not just to her but to students and teachers, helping them to grow into the best versions of themselves. As Ms. Varsha was a founding faculty member at Ascend International School, she has worked across all three programs of the IB as an educator and leader. 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of the school and has consistently and organically grown to become a full K12 school offering the IB Primary Year Programme (PYP), Middle Year Programme (MYP), and the Diploma Programme (DP). “With each year, we had new challenges, and my roles demanded thinking, re-thinking, learning, unlearning, and learning again. Hence, each year needed a different version of me as a leader. Evolving into that diverse role, I believe, is my strength,” says Ms. Varsha. 

Through her involvement in teaching, Ms. Varsha understands and empathizes with students and teachers to co-create strategies, policies, and approaches that ensure that teachers feel supported and confident to steer learning and teaching in the classroom. By building an environment that gives room for error, teachers and students thrive on experimenting and learning new ways to learn and teach. It gives them the courage to be creative and think differently. “Within our unique context, we are building our institutional understanding and memory every single day. Leadership is a collaborative process and not the journey of one individual,” says Ms. Varsha. 

Ascending to greater heights

Ascend International School has grown to become one of the best international schools in Mumbai, since its establishment in 2012, under the chairmanship of Mr. Bhagat Patil and the leadership of Mr. Aditya Patil. Ms. Varsha says, “Ascend’s model was developed in partnership with the University Child Development School in Settle, USA. It is about infusing learning with joy in a meaningful context that makes students yearn for more.” Ascend is part of Kasegaon Education Society (KES) that was established nearly 70 years ago with one school in a small village 300 km from Mumbai. This number today has grown to 39 educational institutions across Maharashtra. 

“We started Ascend to ensure that students have the possibility to learn and understand, voice their thinking and truly apply what they are learning to the real world. We built a school, where the learning environment and philosophy allows students to acquire knowledge, skills, and understanding that ‘sticks’ with them for life,” shares Ms. Varsha. By opening the school one grade at a time, the school had the opportunity to optimize its approach gradually through a deeper understanding of the needs of the schools and the students as they evolve with time. 

Encouraging Innovation

Being a passionate person, Ms. Varsha has the drive to foster creativity and innovation among students to create a culture that makes students question their surroundings. Their Project-Based Learning model allows students to identify real-life problems and find sustainable solutions. By doing so, students fully understand the importance of learning concepts, not just for grades, but to clearly realize that what they are learning is has an impact. “We do not follow the ‘sunflower model’ where all students are just facing and listening to the teacher without being motivated to engage in the learning process. Teachers are facilitators who need to ignite student thinking and allow them to charter their learning trajectory by providing continuous and meaningful feedback,” shares Ms. Varsha. 

Teachers at Ascend help students understand that real-life problems involve interdisciplinary solutions. Thus, through authentic curriculum design, teachers help them to apply knowledge and build understanding. The school also invites experts from different industries, institutions, and cultures to engage students and provide them with a new perspective on things. “Our students need to understand the requirements and challenges beyond our environment and extended community to explore career options that these experts so meaningfully portray with the skills and dispositions they bring with them, says Ms. Varsha. 

As sustainability has become an important aspect of today’s generation, the students at Ascend are also encouraged to carry out their part of building a sustainable future. They are continuously coached and made to realize that each one of us has a responsibility to transform the world into a safe, clean, equal, and peaceful place to live a sustainable existence. By using knowledge as a tool to think and develop new solutions, there is a means of fueling critical and creative thinking processes. “Students showcase their performance of understanding to a wider audience. This enhances the quality of their process and product and allows them to receive extended feedback from individuals and experts other than their peers and teachers. Organization, time management, and collaboration are some approaches to learning. They are constantly practising through these learning experiences to achieve mastery before they head for further studies,” shares Ms. Varsha.

Pandemic Diaries

Many in the educational sector have been affected by the pandemic. Teachers especially take on a completely new burden of being technologically proficient on top of having the skills to impart knowledge effectively. Going online was taxing not just for students but also for teachers. Many teachers find it difficult to keep track of the learning process, and online learning may not be practical for all subjects. “It was harder for some subject groups like PE, Art or Music compared to English or Math for example. Collaboration, which is integral to our style of learning, in Zoom breakout rooms did not feel authentic. The most significant challenge, however, was that students required more individual attention because each of them shared their individual stories of fear, uncertainty, renunciation, sickness, and even dealing with death,” Ms. Varsha says. 

But, through it all, teachers continue to work diligently to give it their best and teach students concepts that they will need for the rest of their lives. Teachers were working beyond their regular hours and energy levels to attend to students’ academic and emotional needs while simultaneously balancing their own individual challenges faced by their families. Ms. Varsha shares, “Individualized and personalized instruction and attention is a hallmark of Ascend’s philosophy, and being accustomed to this approach made it less difficult for our teachers. However, keeping up the motivation and engagement levels of students and teachers is an ongoing challenge.”

During these uncertain times, parents have also been very supportive of the Ascend community. “Our doors are always open for them to interact with us on not just matters relating to student progress, but also about innovative ideas, access to resources, opportunities or expertise outside of school,” shares Ms. Varsha. By partnering with their children, they make a huge difference in the extended community and provide their service to help the school. Through open and ongoing communication with parents, the teachers get to know their pupils much better and give them the guidance they need to do their best in academics. Parents are essential to building institutional understanding and ensuring academic success, along with socio-emotional wellbeing. Ascend International School conducts various workshops, coffee mornings, and other events to engage with parents. . These workshops are also curated on various subject areas or assessments to understand the Ascend culture and approach. 

Personal Journey

With no plan of becoming a teacher, Ms. Varsha set out to take over her father’s business at the start of her career. It was only later that she realized her calling was in education and jumped at the opportunity to join Ascend. “My younger self was hastier, aiming for perfection, quickly discovering the fastest route to reach that goal in the shortest time possible. However, I have realized that not all problems can be solved fast, taking the direct path. Sometimes you have to analyze the problem from different angles and perspectives before a solution emerges,” Ms. Varsha shares. Over time, Ms. Varsha understands that slowing down and letting multiple paths unfold before deciding on the most suitable one is the way to go when it comes to important decisions in life. But, on the other hand, she also mentions, “To live in the moment, be less harsh on me and cherish my wins is also something I am trying to do more of.”

Ms. Varsha believes that numbers are not what determines one’s intelligence. The obsession with grades and universities having admission cut-offs is a practice that needs to change as soon as possible. “At Ascend, we continuously highlight the importance of learning and understanding versus achieving higher grades,” she adds. Although grades do matter for the higher classes, especially when they need to get into good universities, seeing the value of a student’s approaches to learning versus their score as a determinant is a better way of understanding how a student can perform in a field. “I would like to see progressive models of assessment take over the redundant grade-based approach, and see more forward-thinking, world-class higher education institutions emerge in India, enabling and promoting education that values creative, innovative, and critical thinking,” shares Ms. Varsha.

Going back to the new normal

As schools are slowly coming back to in-person learning, Ascend has also been adjusting back to the new hybrid education system. The school continues to review the different aspects of the online education model and retain some of it and incorporate it into the new methods of teaching. Now that the school is a complete K12 institution, there are more aspects to consider. Thus, their next crucial objective is to exemplify vertical alignment of the curriculum, analyzing and evaluating the high school program and working backwards to ensure that there is a development of knowledge, skills, and understanding at the pace and depth required from the moment a student starts their learning journey at Ascend. 

Ms. Varsha has never consciously thought about her as a woman in a workspace. Instead, she believes, believes that each of us is a unique individual and has something to offer. She says, “My advice would be to work hard, take risks, make mistakes, unlearn, relearn and pursue your dreams irrespective of your gender.” Today, Ascend plans to expand, with a new building in the works to provide state-of-art spaces for the MYP and DP programs that have incorporated teacher and student feedback and ideas in the design process. “We can’t wait to move into spaces that inspire us to learn, grow and excel at what we set out to accomplish,” concludes Ms. Varsha.

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