On chalk, letterman jackets, and education: a chat with ISB’s next Head of School

Daniel Rubenstein and family

By Lynnie C, Grade 11 (interview by Lynnie and Grade 11 students Emory S, Allen F)

At approximately 8:00 pm – much earlier than we’d expected – Daniel Rubenstein pinged into our Teams call. The International School of Beijing (ISB) is due to welcome him as its new Head of School for the 2021-2022 year, alongside his son, Morton (Grade 7), and daughter, Celia (Grade 11), as well as his wife, Melanie, who will all be joining the ISB community.

Mr. Rubenstein was calling from New York, where he heads a coalition of schools called Prospect Schools, which he also co-founded in 2009. We were grateful when he agreed to join our interview, especially at such an hour. It was 7:00 am in New York, the dawn breaking before a busy day of work for our interviewee.

Mr. Rubenstein’s succession as ISB’s Head of School was announced by the ISB Board of Trustees last September, after the Board considered over 60 other applicants for the position. Mr. Rubenstein has almost 30 years of experience with various teaching and administrative roles in schools in New York, Washington D.C., and even in China. In 2002, while he was still a classroom teacher, he was recognized with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

A teacher origin story

With such a formidable history and profile behind Mr. Rubenstein as an educator, we wondered what kept him in the field for so long, what set him on this path at the start, and what his experiences abroad were like. More than that, we wanted our interview to give the ISB community a sense of Mr. Rubenstein beyond the impression of his formal headshot and resume.

Our new Head of School’s story first unfolds with his pedagogical beginnings. He loved and excelled in one subject – math. He labels this his “teacher origin story.” But what really inspired him was his calculus teacher in 11th grade. This teacher always donned a white lab coat to class and wrote complex equations on chalkboards so furiously that chalk dust would be flying everywhere. Those classroom years left a deep impression on Mr. Rubenstein: “It felt like an exciting discovery was made every day for [this teacher].”

After he graduated college, he had tentative ambitions to become a teacher, but it was his experiences in a Beijing Study Abroad program in the late 1990s that truly cemented this resolve.

Daniel Rubenstein on the Wall
Mr. Rubenstein was an assistant director of a Study Abroad program in Beijing in the 1990s

He remembers rubbing shoulders with “some international teachers there who were the most dedicated and passionate people that I’d ever met.”

Mr. Rubenstein said, “I once met an incredible guy from Hanoi who was teaching there, and he was leading a school during that time that had nothing. They didn’t even have proper glass windows! But the kids there were so into the classes, and just so excited about learning.

“Just talking to this guy from Hanoi and learning how impactful he was as an educator was so meaningful to me. I learned that teaching wasn’t just about being in a classroom, that schools can take on many roles, and how educating may serve others.”

Life-changing potential

“Another thing that convinced me was the students in the program,” Mr. Rubenstein explained. As an assistant director of the Study Abroad scheme in Beijing, he led young people from across the U.S. in a cultural immersion program based in Beijing Normal University. The students studied three hours of Mandarin every day and often had trips to the raw Chinese countryside.

Mr. Rubenstein didn’t truly realize the full impact of this education until he learned that over half the students were still using skills they had learned during Study Abroad, like speaking Mandarin, after they graduated college. To him, it was empowering to see just how education and teachers could be so life changing.

His international experiences were also transformative to his principles today. When he was asked why he chose to join the ISB community, he answered, “I always thought that an international experience was an essential and wonderful opportunity.”

Learning from those you teach

Finally, we asked Mr. Rubenstein to tell us about some memorable moments with his past students. Was it possible to learn from those you teach? “There was this one girl from the Leadership Society Club I once led,” he chuckled. “She was a very passionate singer…, so I was very confused when she proposed to add a new football team to the school.

“It turns out she watched High School Musical and just wanted football letterman jackets! At that moment, I realized that, while school was a timeline of incredible substance, orienting our futures, and defining ourselves, it is also about the absolutely trivial. But what may seem trivial to me may not be as trivial to the student herself."

Mr. Rubenstein can certainly relate this to his own schooling and the furious scribbling coming from the white lab coat at the front of the class. “It reminds me of how when I was in high school, things that were so important to me back then seem laughable now. I can still remember the chalk my teacher used. Maybe if he’d used a whiteboard back then, I wouldn’t be the teacher that I am today.”

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