Alumni Stories - Nimet Rener, Gordonstoun

By Sam Currie on 17/01/2018

Nimet Rener heads up one of the agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network, which supports over 200 schools and education programmes from pre-primary to secondary, predominantly in rural areas, across 13 countries in East Africa, Central and South East Asia.

But her story begins when at the age of nine, along with her family, she left Tanzania in the early 1970’s to escape the political uncertainty of a country finding its way after recent independence from British rule. 

Once her family had settled in Europe, Nimet was one of the first intake of female students at Gordonstoun, a Round Square school in Scotland. There, she found herself in an environment “infused with Round Square values” and where “girls were encouraged to seek new opportunities and experiences”.

Nimet modestly describes herself at that time as a “very average” young girl: “I didn't have a clear idea of what I might do. There was an assumption at home that I would get married, have children and be a homemaker. There were no high articulated expectations from my parents that I should follow a specific career. There was much encouragement to do what felt right."

Many of her tutors, she says, were caring and compassionate, and her memories of the kindness of some have stayed with her to this day. The school provided a stable supportive environment, and one that helped Nimet discover a passion that would inspire her future career.

With her Round Square school’s focus on Service, Nimet was encouraged to seek opportunities to help others and at the age of 13, she started volunteering at a nursery school once a week, an experience which she says gave her an incredible sense of independence and early insight into the world of education from an adults’ perspective: “Even though I was only 13 or 14 years-old at the time, I felt respected and valued by the nursery teachers. They trusted me with the children and I found it fun to interact with them. I remember the prestige of being invited to join the teachers for their coffee break, the taste of the delicious milky coffee, and just feeling so chuffed to be part of this grown-up environment.

In her current role, Nimet leads a network of schools across different geographic, socio–economic and cultural environments. The schools focus on giving young children access to a quality education. Emphasis is placed on early childhood education and ensuring access for girls. Core values such as pluralism and service underpin the programmes offered at the Aga Khan schools.

Nimet is responsible for a global workforce and recognises that her school experiences influenced her style of team management and leadership. At Gordonstoun, Nimet gained her first experience of team leadership, when she was appointed captain of the basketball team: “Despite being only a little over 5 feet tall, I played in the basketball team. I might not have had the typical stature of a basketball player, and I was not necessarily a strong player, but I put in 110%.  We had a fantastic coach who encouraged us. One particular time he stopped the game to point out a move I had made that had enabled another player to shoot a ball through the hoop. His affirmation embedded in me the belief that I could help others to succeed and that this was a good thing to do.  He must have recognised something within me as he made me team captain! I wasn’t the best in the team in terms of my skills but I made up for it in enthusiasm and team spirit!

Having opportunities to take leadership roles at the school helped me understand that leadership isn't necessarily about being the first or necessarily the best, but being the one who can bring people together as a team to work towards a shared goal or purpose. I started to learn that Leadership isn't about making yourself the priority, it's about representing your team members.  Over time I have come to realise that leadership at its core is about stewardship and service.

With schools located across diverse geographies, Nimet is often required to travel for work, and to visit schools, of which many are in remote or difficult terrain. Some of the countries are facing difficult circumstances, such as political instability or economic turbulence. Yet whatever the circumstances, most of the time she seems to be able to respond to each situation with her typical ‘gung-ho’ spirit; an attitude which she recognises was fostered at school.

At Gordonstoun, Nimet participated in the Ocean Spirit programme, which involved two weeks out at sea, sometimes facing icy sea temperatures and mercurial weather. She recalls: “Everyone had a role. If the tide changed at 4 am, then we had to get up on deck and deal with that. Everyone was involved in the basics of survival, including food preparation: there was no time for needless hierarchy.  And everyone had to pull together when the weather turned rough.”

The adventure experiences Nimet encountered at Gordonstoun encouraged a hardiness that she draws upon to this day, “It showed me that everything is possible and taught me to just go for it,” she says.

In addition to the Ocean Spirit programme, Nimet participated in a range of camping and hiking expeditions: “Experiences such as these definitely helped me learn to go with the flow and not be precious about small comforts,” she says. “Even today, in my trips around the world, colleagues are often surprised with how relaxed and indeed happy I am when in rural areas and that roughing it is not an issue!”

With such a tapestry of experiences to draw upon, Nimet looks back on her school days with great fondness, and attributes her optimism and willingness to try new things to her time at school: “As I’ve matured, I’ve often looked back upon those years at Gordonstoun. They have definitely developed my openness to new experiences and to not saying ‘no’ as my first response: it’s allowed me to say ‘yes’ more often.

Nimet’s current role in the Aga Khan Development Network follows a rich career in the education sector, where over time she has gained experience and a growing understanding of the issues and solutions for achieving the best outcomes for children. She says, “it’s a journey and as my understanding and experience grows so does the realisation that there is more to know and understand and more to discover.”

After Gordonstoun, Nimet read Developmental Psychology at the University of Sussex. She then went onto a one year post graduate experience in Early Childhood Education at the High Scope Institute in the United States. Mid-career she gained a Master’s degree in Organisational Change Management from the University of Surrey. Whilst in the United States, Nimet had the opportunity to not only work with young students but also to train parents and trainee teachers. She felt she was, “learning on the job. I learnt it was important to trust myself and give it a go.” She returned to complete a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) from the University of London’s Institute of Education and into her first job back into the nursery environment, this time as a teacher in a school in London. She was offered a role as head teacher of a daycare centre soon after.

Nimet broadened the reach of her work in her subsequent role, as a trainer and educational consultant, focusing on early childhood development and organisational change. Her clients included local education authorities, voluntary organisations, international non-government organisations, social service departments and universities. She worked as a facilitator, trainer, and executive coach to senior executives and management teams in both the corporate and education sector, and ran numerous parenting programmes: “Raising children is one of the most fundamental roles in society and yet little support is given to parents. When the family unit thrives then it benefits the health of communities and our society at large. We need to prioritise the early years and support to parents. I believe that it is essential for human development and the future outcomes and quality of life for children.

In designing some of her training programmes for teachers, school leaders and parents, Nimet drew upon her own experiences as a student and mother of two sons: “Each child has his or her own unique abilities and I believe that these need to be affirmed, supported and valued. This includes affirming their acts of kindness and generosity. The coaching and training programmes I ran focussed on building relationships among child and adult peer groups and between adults and children -  understanding the role of emotions and the power of deep listening from the heart, being present, giving feedback that was respectful, and setting boundaries. At that time, the notion of Emotional Intelligence (EI) was not yet mainstreamed. Today, I would say that much of what I was offering was an accessible curriculum on developing EI with compassion and love.”

Nimet was approached to join the Aga Khan Development Network in 2002 as a Senior Education Officer and was offered the role of Director of the Aga Khan Education Services in 2010. She welcomed the chance to be part of an organisation that sought to improve standards not only in the schools of the Aga Khan Development Network itself but also to reach out to and support other schools: “One of the many inspirational lessons I have learnt from His Highness the Aga Khan is one of ‘generosity in action’ at an organisational level. When planning programmes we always seek, where possible, to consider lifting the tide for others too. The welfare of our neighbours is as important as our own.”

Nimet’s passion for education has taken her from the small nursery setting where she first volunteered at school, right through to her management of educational programmes reaching over 75,000 students around the world: “I cannot think of anything more privileged than the opportunity to participate in a role that I believe to be fundamentally about stewardship. What we do now and the decisions we make will influence what we leave for those who will come after. That is a heavy responsibility.”

Nimet’s organisation has taken on some of the biggest challenges in education from contributing to increasing access to education in the remote and rural parts of the world to changing attitudes in certain societies about the importance of access to education for girls.  She is driven by the belief that change for the better is possible: “I continue to draw upon my experiences from my school days – just because I am a Director, doesn’t mean I now know everything I need to know. When I don’t know something, I know that it can be figured out. I am fortunate that there always seem to be big hearted and wise people around to provide a steer. I am a great believer in the existence of grace. It comes in the most unexpected of forms. I have come to learn that if what we are endeavouring to do is worthwhile, we can draw deep and find the courage to have a go and not put limits on ourselves. It is amazing how pathways open up and what seemed insurmountable now becomes possible.

 

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