Leadership Lessons from my Middle School

Leadership Lessons from my Middle School

Leadership Lessons from my Middle School



Karim Ajania

Skyping with the Cutlers

Early this year, in January of 2015, Pencils for Africa skyped with Alan and Anne Cutler, who were teachers in Kenya and now live in Canada. The Cutlers taught at Hospital Hill School (HHS) in Nairobi, Kenya when I was in middle school there, and Alan was my class teacher.

(Click here to read the reflections by the PFA Team on the skype call with the Cutlers).

When we skyped with the Cutlers back in January, Nicolas was our Editor-in-Chief, and his mother Joyce was also present for the skyping. Also present were Colin, Ben, Shannon and Blanche, all of whom are now in high school, as is Nicolas.


Nicolas Meringolo, CEO of One Pencil Per Child

It was really interesting to find out more about Mr. Ajania and where he is from.

The Cutlers talked a lot about the “ripple effect” which I thought was a particularly interesting topic. They encouraged that small acts of charity to multiple organizations can truly make a big difference. To me personally, the Skype call with the Cutlers gave me an inspiration to work harder and put more thought into our organization, Pencils for Africa.

— Nicolas

More recently, just a few days ago, our Pencils for Africa Executive Director, Lisa Handley, skyped with the Cutlers. It was clear to Lisa, after she skyped with the Cutlers, that many of the lessons that I had learned from my middle school class teacher Alan Cutler in his class when I was just 11 years old, are lessons that I have now integrated into the Pencils for Africa program.

To begin to understand why my middle school experience in Kenya was so profoundly positive for me here is a recent video clip of the Cutlers discussing the values of Hospital Hill School:

‘School in Kenya’ by Anne Cutler

Anne Cutler, the wife of my class teacher Alan Cutler, wrote a lovely piece about Hospital Hill School for the African Peace Journal which I edit. Anne grew up in Kenya while Alan came to Kenya from England to become a teacher. They met at Hospital Hill School as teachers.

(Click here to read ‘School in Kenya’ by Anne Cutler).


Lion Conservationist George Adamson (in green shorts)

Experiential Learning

My middle school teacher Mr. Cutler, was a beacon in my life, and a motivating mentor for me.

These days, the modern vernacular for what Mr. Cutler created for me and my classmates is “Experiential Learning”. He always thought out of the box, was always innovative and creative.

I had several other mentors when I was in middle school, such as my scoutmaster, Mr. Guffer.


Joy Adamson, whom I met when I was in middle school

— Karim

Nearby our school, was the National Museums of Kenya where some of the most pioneering research was taking place in disciplines such as wildlife and environmental conservation.



Carly, CEO of Portfolio PFA

Through this interview, I learned how much a teacher can affect someone’s life. Mr Ajania would not be where he is today without the help and encouragement of Mr. Cutler.

— Carly


My scoutmaster had the foresight to take me and a few other boy scouts to the National Museums, to meet with renowned paleontologist Dr. Louis Leakey, and his young researcher, Jane Goodall.

A few months later, he took us boy scouts over again, this time to meet Joy and George Adamson, whose conservation work with lions was made into a narrative film called ‘Born Free’. We met other intrepid conservationists at the National Museums, such as Iain Douglas-Hamilton.

In Mr. Alan Cutler’s class, one of my classmates was Michael Wherike, who became a well-known rhino conservationist and was later known around the world as The Rhino Man.


Alan’s student and my classmate Michael Werikhe ‘The Rhino Man’

Werikhe’s approach was creative, his goal straightforward: undertaking long walks to help save the animal he viewed as the symbol of environmental crisis.

On these “Rhino Walks” Werikhe educated people who joined him and raised funds for rhino conservation programs. This work was dangerous as he was threatened by poachers.

— Citation from Goldman Environmental Prize (Click here to learn more)

In Mrs. Anne Cutler’s class, one of her students, Amolo Ng’weno, went on to receive advanced degrees from Princeton and Harvard, and to become a director of the Global Development Program for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. My middle school upperclassman mentor Liaquat Ahamed, went on to receive advanced degrees from Cambridge and Harvard and then went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his first book, The Lords of Finance.



Blanche, PFA Assistant Editor

Thank you Mr. Cutler for giving Mr. Ajania the gift of wonder in giving back to the world, you are the roots of our PFA program.

— Blanche


Above, Mr. Alan Cutler and his students at Hospital Hill School

Below, Mrs. Anne Cutler and her students at Hospital Hill School


I had absolutely no idea how far reaching these early connections were, when I was just 11 years old in middle school, and how they would weave a fabric throughout the years to come.

For example, I met Jane Goodall when I was 11 years old and, over 30 years later, when I was principal of a charter middle school in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Jane came to visit our school, stayed with our teachers, and helped set up the Roots and Shoots program at our school.

(Click here for Roots and Shoots).


Jane Goodall, whom I first met when I was 11 years old

— Karim

As an 11 year old, I met anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey, and 10 years later, when I was in college, I got a summer internship with his son, anthropologist Richard Leakey, working out of the National Museums of Kenya, where I got to work alongside ecologists, zoologists, botanists, ethnographers and wildlife conservationists. I am in touch with Richard Leakey to this day and maintain an active interest in his scientific research at the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya.

(Click here for the Turkana Basin Institute).

Charlotte, Pencils for Africa Co-Editor-in-Chief

I loved when, at the end, Mr. Ajania walked in to have a conversation with his old teacher Alan.

Mr. Ajania got so sentimental and it was so nice to see the chat they had. They were all a big community at Hospital Hill School and really cared about each other, teachers and students.

— Charlotte


My Hope for Pencils for Africa

My hope for the Pencils for Africa team, is that they will one day weave the connections they are currently making around the world, through Skype calls and interviews, into their own individual fabric of unique and productive lives. Below, are some of the people whom I met when I was in middle school thanks to the “Experiential Learning” innovations of my teachers and mentors.


Colin Yoon

Colin Yoon, CEO of Unscramble for Africa

At first the Cutlers were afraid to teach, having grown up with only one race, but soon realized how amazing and special all their students were. They overcame the views that they had been taught and instead saw everyone as a person. It was amazing to for me meet the Cutlers.

— Colin


My middle school mentor Liaqaut Ahamed, pictured above (left),

with Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank.

For his first book, Lords of Finance, Liaquat won the Pulitzer Prize.



Lucia, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Pencils for Africa

Seeing Mr. Ajania react to Mr. Cutler with the same respect that he gave him when he was 11, really affected me in a special way. When I looked at my teachers the next day I respected them because it showed me how much a teacher can give you the confidence to go out into the world and start something like Pencils For Africa. Mr. Ajania said that PFA would not even be around if it were not for Mr. Cutler.

— Lucia


Richard Leakey, whom I worked for on wildlife conservation in Kenya

seen above burning ivory he had confiscated from elephant poachers

which his wildlife rangers had spent months tracking down.



Shannon, Editor-in-Chief, African Kitchen Table

I learned about the history of the school, and why it was founded.

The Cutler’s told us about how there was segregation in the schools in Africa.

These schools were based on racial differences, keeping Africans seperate from the European students. During the Scramble for Africa, the Europeans took over many parts of Africa, including Kenya. When the Cutler’s began to teach at Hospital Hill School, they wanted to make it a place where students were not segregated, and all could learn.

I think that the school did a very good thing to become a racially indifferent school.

Hospital Hill School teachers set an example of kindness and bravery. I am happy to have met Anne and Alan Cutler and hope to carry on their tradition of openness and acceptance.

— Shannon

toservethemalldays 3

To Serve Them All My Days

HHS'72.1 3Karim, PFA Founder

Dear Mr. Cutler,

I would not have become a school teacher or a headmaster had it not been for the exemplary example you set for me. In the same year that you were my teacher at Hospital Hill School, after which you became headmaster of the school, I read a just published novel about the life of a school teacher. The book was To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield.

I naturally associated this book with my time in your classroom and the dedication and care you demonstrated to serve your students. It seemed that your motto was “to serve them all my days”.

It seemed that your motto was “to serve them all my days”.

— Karim

Over a decade later, I was an investment banker on Wall Street and I wanted to change professions toward a vocation that was more meaningful and fulfilling. I reached for my tattered old copy of Delderfield’s novel on my bookshelf, dusted it off, and read it through once again.

The book triggered memories of my happy time in your classroom and a renewed respect for the teaching profession. A few weeks later, I was teaching high school in Harlem, New York.

I have not looked back since.



delderfield 2