Leading the unique LEAF Academy – From Harvard to Bratislava: The story of principal Matej Sapák

“Why did I try to get to Harvard? My answer is that I knew it was possible! It is important to know that things are possible,” says Matej Sapák, the principal of an international Bratislava-based high school LEAF Academy, about his decision to attend the prestigious university.

As a curious teenager, he ventured to a boarding school in England and thanks to his interest in mathematics, he went on to study applied maths at Harvard College. Later, he attended Harvard Law School and earned his law degree. After completing his studies, Matej Sapák worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Company. He was appointed as advisor at the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Education of the Slovak Republic. His interest in people and their stories is a theme that he carried throughout his studies and early career. He was aware that a change of Slovakia can come from people, from the inspiring stories of its citizens; and that is how he found his way to an extraordinary high school, LEAF Academy.

What makes LEAF Academy different from other international high schools in Slovakia?

Its community and learning outcomes. We have a great privilege to gather talented students and enthusiastic teachers from all over Slovakia, Central Europe and, to some extent, the world, all in one place. It is a joy to work with them and to see how they inspire, complement and move each other forward.

At LEAF Academy, however, our view of the mission is quite different. It is not only to pass on knowledge to students or to prepare them for their university studies either at home or abroad. We want to achieve a lot more – to help them acquire knowledge, skills and values, which will help them succeed in life and contribute to the development of this region. Slovakia and Central Europe at large are in a dire need of a new generation of leaders who will be able to develop their countries in accordance with moral principles. And by this, I do not mean just political leaders, but also those in the business sector, public life or even fine arts. That is why in addition to traditional academic subjects, we focus on teamwork in student-run companies, collaboration in partner projects of our programs of entrepreneurial leadership or personal and character development, at our seminars and in programs of learning by experience. In fact, our curriculum has very little in common with traditional high schools or other international high schools.

Do you consider these areas important for the future success of your students?

I recently attended a conference on education organized by the European parliament. At the beginning of his speech, Harvard professor Tony Wagner showed us a clip from the Future of Work movie. He showed what machines can already do now and what they will be capable of in the near future: drive cars, build homes, perform surgeries on injuries or analyze contracts. If education focuses merely on knowledge and on practicing known methods and algorithms, it only teaches us things that computers can already do better than us – none of us can compete with Google in the amount of knowledge.

We need to teach our students not only to acquire knowledge, but also to use it in innovative ways. Steve Jobs once said that creativity is the ability to put things together. Therefore, education must do two things. To give students enough knowledge to put together, but also to help them gain new skills that are necessary to find new knowledge by themselves. To know how to connect information and how to evaluate, present and sell their ideas.

The interest in studying at your school must be big. What do entrance exams look like? Do you have high expectations of your applicants?

We do not assess the students we are looking for according to their grades. We are primarily interested in their activities, hobbies, projects, which they started themselves or which they were part of. Their grades do not reflect their inner motivation and attitude, which is also why in our on-line application, we ask questions such as “Describe a thing in which you were successful and are proud of” or questions regarding their ideas of their own future.

In the second round of the entrance exams, the students take a test which will show whether they are ready to study in English, and to think logically and critically. In the third round, we invite successful students to an online interview.

The application to LEAF Academy is a bonus application and does not count into the number of applications defined by law. Our aim is not to have difficult exams that would stress students out, but to find clever students with potential and a will to grow. The application can be submitted until February 28, 2019.

As the principal of LEAF Academy, you have a number of responsibilities. Is it difficult to find time for teaching?

At the academy, each of us has several functions. Given that we are not only supposed to teach but also to build a community of learners, most of us teach and work with students at the dormitories, leading various clubs or counseling small student groups. This enables us to get to know our students in various situations and help them better in developing their fortes. The students, on the other hand, have access to adults, which is very important for their growth and comfort at the boarding school.

My work is then much easier than the work of many of my colleagues – my duties do not allow me to have my own student group or counsel at our dorms. That is one of the reasons why teaching is so important for me: it helps me to stay in touch with the students and at the same time, to understand what we require from our colleagues.

What do your lessons look like?

It depends! Sometimes, students work on their own projects, they present them and discuss what they have learned on their own. Sometimes, they work in groups on assignments that I have prepared for them. Other times, I find myself standing in front of the board, leading the discussion or explaining something.

I don’t think there is just one right way to teach. It is important to involve as many students as possible in the lesson. They need to work with the knowledge, think about it, to use what they had learned in a new, relevant context.

It is paradoxical that the teacher is actually one of the dangers of teaching – especially if he or she gives clear and enticing lectures. This will cause that instead of studying, students listen to a story. It is interesting and entertaining, the lesson is very catchy and the teacher is popular. A few days later, though, the students don’t remember anything. We call it the fluency illusion – the feeling that if we can follow something and it makes sense, we also understand and remember it.

Do teachers at your school have opportunities for growth?

All of us should constantly learn new things. That’s exactly why at LEAF Academy, we strive to create a community of learners – not just the students, but all of us. All beginning teachers have a more experienced mentor at LEAF Academy. Each week, we devote time to lessons at which we bring new knowledge or offer trainings to teachers. Two to three times a year during the school holidays, we devote a day to teacher development. Teaching is a profession just like any other – it is not enough to learn it once. It is important to follow the development of knowledge and the newest research, deciding which trends to adopt and which not to.

Boarding schools in Slovakia are not common, how do parents and students react to them?

Of course it is difficult for every parent to leave his or her child to leave home for a boarding school which can be hundreds or thousands of miles away. The children also often experience a culture shock when they have to adapt to a new environment, friends or roommates. We strive to make this transition as smooth as possible. A group of teachers lives at the dormitories, present there anytime during the day or night and ready to help or give advice to students. In addition, there are the so-called residential advisors at our dorms – older students who help to organize various activities or offer advice and support to younger students. If there are larger issues, there are peers around, along with professional adult counselors.

At the end of the day, the boarding school environment is a key element of our academy. It’s here that the student learn to be independent, help each other study, and think about important issues away from the classroom. And all of that takes place in an interesting international community which can only be so diverse at a boarding school like ours.

What brought you back to Slovakia after having studied at Harvard?

The opportunities and a chance to bring about a positive change. With good education and hard work, it is still possible to get an interesting and meaningful job in Slovakia, both in the public sector and the private sector. My return to Slovakia was also partly facilitated by the National Scholarship of M. R. Štefánik, which meant I did not need to take a student loan, which I would only be able to pay out if I worked in London or New York. Instead, I could work first as a lawyer at the Ministry of Finance, and later as a advisor at the Ministry of Education. It was the latter project at the Ministry of Education that helped me connect my interest in informal education with my job. I could then continue working in a similar fashion at LEAF and LEAF Academy as well.

Was it difficult for you to change your focus and become the principal of LEAF Academy?

No. In a way, it was a natural development. I devoted years to both formal and informal education. While studying, I could also teach economics at Harvard; and while working at the ministry, I also taught negotiation at the Faculty of Law of Comenius University in Bratislava. I spent years volunteering in scouting, local debate program and summer schools. The founding of LEAF Academy thus created the right space in the right moment of my life to fully devote my time to education.

This, of course, does not mean that leading a newly-founded international school is easy. Anyone who works in a quickly-growing start-up organization or in education knows that you face difficult challenges every day. But when you see how both your colleagues and students grow each year and become more and more passionate about contributing to the improvement of our region, it’s all worth it.

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