Liz Free – An Example of Tenacity and Hard Work

Location – International School Rheintal, Aeulistrasse 10,
9470 Buchs, Switzerland

Website –

Contact +41 81 750 63 00

A dedicated educational leader is driven by the enthusiasm to educate others. They are passionate, hardworking, and always focused on learning something new. One such enthusiastic and positive leader with the zeal to educate others and strive for excellence in every activity undertaken is none other than Liz Free, she is CEO and director of the International School Rheintal, Switzerland.  She was listed as the 33rd most influential international educator in 2021 (ICS).  Liz is a global board member for TES, a board member of SGIS, and a global strategic lead for @WomenED, with responsibility for Europe.

She has led schools across the world and also led the professional development arm of Oxford University Press and founded the International Leadership Academy in The Hague.  Liz has written extensively on school leadership and harnessing the potential of the profession. Liz is a Founding Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching and Fellow of the RSA. She is a passionate advocate for continuing professional development and learning within the education profession and in promoting education equality for all.

Past in a Glance

I always knew that I wanted to have a life of service where I would make a positive contribution to those around me. In 2000 I trained as a teacher in my home country, Wales.  I worked in a deprived area in a wonderful school.  This is where I learnt my craft.  Initially with 36 students in Grade 4, of whom a third were on the special needs register, and over half on free school lunches (a measure of economic deprivation), I learnt quickly how important a safe, consistent and high aspirations environment is for all young people.  What I learnt then has stayed with me and informed my work now. 

We need safe, caring and nurturing environments with high academic aspiration and a drive to see every student succeed. My passion for teaching then is only matched by my passion for teaching today.

Fast forward over twenty years, I have been a head teacher in three countries, head of teacher professional development at Oxford University Press, Oxford University, Founding Director of the International Leadership Academy, and, now, the CEO and Director of the International School Rheintal in Switzerland.

I have studied school improvement, leadership development for improved student outcomes and how to develop empowering environments. This work has led me to Switzerland where we are working as an international team of educators to develop a world-class IB continuum community school where we deliver the best of international mindedness and curriculum with the best of community environment and engagement.

My school was originally described to me as small but mighty, although I prefer small and mighty!  We are unapologetically small; this is our trademark, our stamp of who we are.  Our aspiration is to create a model of community international school; where we create grounded globally minded leaders of the future.

Use of Technology in the Classroom

Technology, like any other tool in the educators’ toolbox, is precisely that; a tool. At ISR we believe in the use of education technologies as a vehicle to open the world and bring the outside into learning.  We are a Google school that utilises the applications for increased collaboration and connectedness. Students have 1:1 devices and our infrastructure of learning is built around these tools and others such as ManageBac and learning tools for teachers such as BlueSky and Educare.

In 2023 we move to a new ecologically-designed campus with interactive technologies being embedded into the design of the building and the learning environment  From smart use of technologies for climate control through to interactive boards and digital security solutions that allow for zoning in the building, we embrace technology to increase access, security and safety as well as ed tech in the pedagogical toolbox.

We also believe in a life beyond technology. We activate a no mobile phone policy on campus to avoid the continuous distraction of TikTok, YouTube etc.  The day after we made this decision, we saw all the students talking, reading or playing at break times.  The noise levels and human face-to-face interaction increased.  This is good not only for developing relationships but also for connection, purpose and a sense of being present.  Since removing mobiles, we have also seen a decline in mental health concerns amongst young people.

Appropriate use of tech for life enhancement is encouraged alongside the value of the individual and person-to-person relationships and engagement.

Contribution to Institutions

This is hard.  I am entering my third year at ISR, a school that is now twenty years old and developing from a non profit start-up initially  to a high-performing and established school. I have brought the experience of growing and stabilising organisations; building infrastructure and empowering the people within the organisation to lead the charge.  In essence, my greatest contribution is to empower the contribution of others. After all, a greater leader cannot exceed the quality, impact and reach of their team.

We now have distributed leadership throughout the school; from fixed term projects where staff deep dive into an area of development to greater clarity and segmentation of roles where staff can be operational but also have their eye to the long term strategic ambition within a clear area, and driven by our underpinning guiding statements. I am building middle leadership capability and removing barriers to teaching and learning.  Unnecessary paperwork, processes, approaches that get in the way of teaching are removed and everything that we do is focussed on the students of our school.

I strive for excellence in everything that I, and we, do.  From a website that reflects the learning environment, to how we interact with each other, to student achievement and attainment.   We model what we value.  And, at ISR, we want to offer the very best experiences for everyone in our community. We aspire to being caring, responsible people that make a difference in the world

About International School Rheintal

Students aged 3-19 in 3 divisions: Kindergarten, Primary School, Senior School.  ISR was founded in 2002 and opened with 19 students in Grades 1-7. Grade levels were added each successive year and the first Diploma class graduated in 2008. ISR has offered all three IB programmes since 2006. Almost all ISR graduates go on to study at university, and although ISR is not academically selective, the overall Diploma pass rate and average score are consistently above the world average, with the school currently ranked in the top ten in Switzerland. The school is a non-profit association partnered by Hilti, the key international employer in the area. ISR continues to grow and will move a short distance to a new, purpose-built campus in summer 2023, designed by Zurich architects of Kämpfen Zinke + Partner.

Overcoming Challenges with a Positive Attitude

At Oxford, my team supported over 120,000 teachers a year and my current role is to support a  community of over 165 students. However, whether large or small, challenges always exist and my approach has been consistent.  Communication and clarity of mission and vision is everything; especially during periods of volatility, uncertainty and change.

In 2020, I moved from the Netherlands to Switzerland, in the middle of the pandemic. I wasn’t even able to meet our students in person before the school year started. Through this we have made decisions about physically opening, closing, blended learning and at the core, how do we keep our community safe through a period of time where the world is not safe. For every decision, we consulted the experts, looked at the known information, consulted with our community and made decisions that put our community at its heart.  This rigour, honesty, and clarity of communication, helped to build trust.

In spring 2022, we were faced with the migration of refugees into our part of Switzerland as they fled the Ukraine situation. Using the same rigorous approach of being informed, sharing information and engaging with the community, we were able to set up a Scholarship programme for displaced Ukrainian students in Switzerland.  Raising over 700k CHF in our community we have been able to live our mission of being globally responsible citizens where we live the values of an International Baccalaureate approach.

Of course, leading in this way is deeply personal.  I care about every person in our community.  In order to maintain this level of attention and deep connection, I also have to look after myself, and my team also need to do this.  I monitor workload carefully, give myself and my staff time to engage with professional learning and time to think and engage with the profession. I do not work weekends unless it is a critical situation and I always take my holiday in the summer. I work hard but I also work hard at the things from which I experience joy; such as being a mother, a wife, hiking in the beautiful Swiss Alps and eating wonderful food (sometimes a little too much!).

Motivation and Goals

It is quite simple for me; making a positive difference. I hope to leave the world and the people/places I have encountered in a better way than if we had never met.

Like most teachers, it was a teacher. Mrs Kramer, an English teacher extraordinaire, saw things in me that I had never seen in myself.  She believed in me.  I now pay this forward in all that I do.

To lead ISR through to the new campus and its bold future as a world-leading community IB continuum school where every person in the community strives for better and thrives in our school.

Towards a Future of Endless Possibilities

I do a lot of voluntary work for the profession.  As a global leader with #WomendEd, it dismays me that women continue to lack representation on a global scale in terms of access to and leadership of education.  Whether we are looking at girls’ access to education, a massive continuing global issue of inequity, or the continuing discromination experienced in the profession where women make up over two thirds of the global profession and yet represent less than half of school leadership, we need to do better.  If we are to realise the potential of every person, we need to take action in our communities to ensure that there is enquiry and representation at every table, in every classroom and in every boardroom.

Message for the Emerging Students I would like every student to know that they are always enough and to celebrate their unique beautiful place in the world.  It is not perfection that we seek but the ability to make a difference, to be empowered and to empower others as leaders, thinkers, innovators and responsible citizens of the world.

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