We chat to the school’s new director, Kathryne Imabayashi, about the power of questioning, the importance of play, and the school’s forward-thinking vision.

Kathryne Imabayashi is one of those people whom you could say has lived a life less ordinary. After growing up in a small Canadian town, she spread her wings by moving to Vancouver where she discovered her passion for early years education. Since then, she has lived and worked as a teacher and school principal in multiple countries including Japan, Lebanon, Georgia, Thailand, and Qatar – all the while nurturing her talent for working with young children and helping parents raise the “kind of kids who are able to make decisions independently.” As she takes up her new role as school director at Summerhill International School, she sat down with us to share how things are changing for the better at one of Tokyo’s most popular international kindergartens.

What originally brought you to Japan?

It was an impulsive decision, made after reading “Shogun” by James Clavell – something about the book just spoke to me. It was 1985, and I ended up teaching at Fukuoka International School’s kindergarten. After 12 years, I set up my own school together with my husband. It was a lovely little school, and perhaps a little ahead of its time – back then, people didn’t quite grasp that you could learn a language well without actually paying much attention to language; and that play is an important part of child development. We ran the school for seven years before relocating to Lebanon.

Since then, you’ve been away from Japan for 12 years. What made you choose Summerhill for your next role?

Summerhill has a focus on play and inquiry, and really is a place – as the logo says – where the children are happy. Last year, the school was bought by new owners, and I have been very impressed by their vision. They have a desire to help improve the quality of education in Japan, so that the way of thinking changes. Instead of solely being this intelligent society that is brilliant with rote learning, they want to help to create a society that also recognizes the power of questioning rather than answering; of people who are allowed to be creative; and of being able to make independent decisions, especially in the case of emergencies.

summerhill international school

How do you plan to realize these goals?

We have begun incorporating the International Baccalaureate (IB) framework [an international education program that’s known for its high standards of teaching, pedagogical leadership and student achievement]. This means that there is some guarantee on the quality, focus, and philosophy of the education. Within the IB framework, we have been approved as a candidate school for the Primary Years Programme (PYP), and have begun working towards becoming authorized. This means there will be quite a bit of professional development for our already wonderful teachers. For my part, I will be assisting with this development, and offering workshops for parents.

What kind of workshops?

The first one I’m holding is about communication. I’ll be offering parents easy tips to recognize the impact of the way you talk and listen. I will also be doing something on discipline, and on gender differences in terms of recognizing the differences between girls and boys when it comes to education. My aim is not to impose my ideas on parents. I encourage people to research the different avenues they can follow to get the answers they’re looking for. But in the end, I think we’ve got all the answers; we’re just not confident enough to follow through on them.

Your career has focused mostly on early education. Why is that?

There is a purity and an honesty in young children that I find fascinating. Also, part of the reason is possibly because I feel that early years education is so unrecognized. You should have your very best people with the youngest of children, and they should be the most qualified and recognized teachers. Because is there anything more important than a child understanding that they are safe, loved, and treated with respect? And in raising children who are thinking about the big picture?

For more info, visit www.summerhill.jp

Photographs by Keren Louis Photography

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