Name: Nicholas Gunn
Title: Headmaster, Jinseki International School
Hometown: Rustington, United Kingdom
DoB: March 5, 1969
Years in Japan: 15
With over 25 years of global experience in education, Nicholas Gunn is driven by the responsibility to help children develop into individuals who can confidently make their way through the world.
Much of Gunn’s career has taken shape in Japan, a country he is deeply connected to. Gunn came to Japan for the first time in 1995 when he moved to a suburban neighborhood in Tokyo to teach at an eikaiwa (English conversation) school. It is a path many Westerners take to come to Japan, but for Gunn, the lifestyle was missing something.
“I always felt that I really enjoyed the country but that I wasn’t able to do it justice,” Gunn said.
Gunn knew little about Japan at the time. He moved to the country shortly after graduating from college in order to make a living while traveling. After a year of teaching English, Gunn felt his situation prevented him from experiencing Japan in a meaningful way. “I was spending 90 percent of my time working and the other 10 percent sleeping. As such, I didn’t have the opportunity to develop myself as a teacher or my knowledge of Japan.”
Gunn chose to return to the U.K. to acquire teaching credentials. He returned to Japan in 1999 and has since developed an illustrious career in teaching and leadership roles domestically and abroad, including head of middle school at The British School in Tokyo; founding deputy head at Makuhari International School; and principal at King’s College Doha, in Qatar.
His approach to education focuses on addressing children’s social needs. “Academics are important, but if you don’t get children in the right place, there’s not so much to build on,” said Gunn. “At my schools, we prioritize in making sure the children feel supported, that they’re developing important personal qualities.”
The importance Gunn places on the social aspects of early education derives from his own childhood. Educated at a traditional boarding school, Gunn described how his social environment as a child significantly shaped him as an individual. “I didn’t always have the best grades, but a lot of what I learned was how to get along with other people; the academics came second.”
For Gunn, the learning environment takes precedent over the minutiae of academic content. “If you don’t get children in the right place, they don’t learn nearly as well,” he said. “If you ask me which I benefited more learning about at school — myself and how to deal with people, or the facts about Henry VIII — the answer is definitely the former. The doors that have opened for me have been through the type of person I am, rather than the pieces of paper I got at school.”
As headmaster of Jinseki International School — Japan’s first British curriculum boarding school, owned by Minako Suematsu, chairperson of The Japan Times — Gunn is incorporating what he believes to be the most valuable aspects of varied educational approaches.
Scheduled to open in 2020, the dual-language school is located in the Chugoku mountains, with the surrounding nature giving educators ample opportunity to incorporate the great outdoors into their lessons and create more memorable learning experiences for their students.
“Education shouldn’t be just about learning facts; it should be about applying knowledge to the real world,” he said. “If you have chickens down the road, why not base a math lesson on chickens, explaining concepts by weighing grain and calculating how long it takes to lay eggs?”
Gunn believes it’s important that children leave school with fond memories. “My own experience at school was amazing, and it was one of the happiest times in my life,” he said. “The best friends I have today I made at boarding school, and similarly I want the students who leave my school to feel they have developed friendships for life.”
With his new position at Jinseki International School, Gunn plans to remain in Japan for the long haul. “This is a project I can really get my teeth into, and I’ve never felt stronger about really wanting to make a school work” he said, albeit hesitantly, noting that international school headmasters often tend to have shorter tenures than those in the U.K. “With that said, such is the potential of this project that I believe this school will continue to develop, and even if I were to leave in five years, I don’t think I would feel it would be anywhere near complete.”
Over the course of his combined 15 years in Japan, Gunn has come to admire many aspects of Japanese culture, especially the importance placed on family. “In Japanese schools, there’s a wonderful and genuine love for cultural observances such as Respect for the Aged Day. The children understand the background of these events and prepare for them in creative ways.” Gunn also feels that in Japan, parents seem to respect teachers more so than in many other countries.
Although Gunn is busy preparing for the school’s opening, he is excited for the change of pace. “One of my personal goals is to create a better work-life balance than I’ve had in some of my previous roles,” he said. When in the city, Gunn found it difficult to escape the bustle and unwind after work. He believes the charming countryside and the town of Jinsekikogen’s lush nature will lead to more opportunities to relax and discover new aspects of Japan.
Eikaiwa role marked first step as educator
Nicholas Gunn is the founding headmaster of Jinseki International School. Since first coming to Japan in 1995 to teach at an eikaiwa school, Gunn has gone on to assume numerous teaching and leadership roles in global education and has advised many schools through various inspections and accreditations. He attended Brighton College and has completed the U.K.’s National Professional Qualification for Headship.
He is also an experienced international school inspector.
The father of bilingual children, Gunn is proud of the opportunities his children have had to make friends of various nationalities and to travel the world. One of his goals is to improve his Japanese ability so his children will not feel the need to correct him when he slips up a certain word or expression. He also looks forward to getting in shape while enjoying the waterfalls, rivers and scenic mountain views accompanying his new post in the countryside.
The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.