International School Community Member Spotlight #18: Sheldon Smith (An international teacher currently working at Al Khor International School)
November 2, 2012
Currently my family and I reside in Qatar but I got here via Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. I left Vancouver, Canada, June 1998 to meet up with some friends who worked for an international airline and decided to make Kota Kinabalu their base. Previously I founded and was the owner / operator of Woodsmith Hardwood Floors which I sold but still exists today and has become quite a brand in the Vancouver flooring industry. After working in the flooring trade for 17 years I had to give it up. We weren’t aware of the dangers of the industrial components we were using (lacquers, polyurethanes, solvents, etc) and my body literally could not take the toxicity levels anymore. So, I sold ‘lock, stock and barrel’ and began working casually with a friend in a language centre teaching English to Chinese children.
How did you get started in the international teaching community?
When I arrived at Kota Kinabalu I wasn’t really looking for work as I had recently sold my business and the rest of my worldly goods before leaving and was quite happy ‘living the life of Riley’. Amongst the people I met was a local lawyer; an Indian man with the loudest voice I ever heard and one of the funniest persons I have ever met. One day, over a coffee, he asked me what I planned on doing since my funds would dry up some day. I told him what I had done and mentioned the brief teaching experience I had before leaving Vancouver. He then sat straight up and asked if I wanted to meet a friend of his, the principal of Kota Kinabalu International School. A phone call and 10 minutes later a very hot and sweaty cyclist pulled up, ordered an ice coffee, declared he was just on his way back from a 10 km ride and introduced himself as the principal in question. Within 15 minutes he had asked me what my plans were and offered me a teaching job at his school. For the next 8 months I spent my Mondays to Fridays with some Taiwanese teens and my international teaching was underway.
Which international schools have you worked at? Please share some aspects of the schools that made them unique and fun places in which to work.
After teaching at the International School of Kota Kinabalu, I taught at a language centre at Medan, Indonesia then at another in Nilai, Malaysia then a small prep school in Bangkok called Sabai Jai International School (Sabai Jai means happy heart in Thai) where I taught the graduating class – K3. From there I began my first real international school experience when I was hired to work at Shrewsbury International School, Bangkok; a franchise-type of sorts based on the Shrewsbury School in the UK, where Charles Darwin was a student by the way. Then, after 5 ½ years, I moved my family to Qatar where after 4 years I still work for Al Khor International School.
The various places I have lived at and the different people I have met along the way have given me a broader perspective for language, religious and cultural diversity. There is beauty everywhere on the planet. I never knew other people would be so interested in what a foreign westerner had to offer or say. Previous to leaving Canada I would, as do most people, head to some hot sunny spot for a 3 week holiday and feel I understood the people and customs of that place. How far from the truth that was. Teaching and living in different communities has helped me to really get to know intimately the traditions and cultural beauty of people up close. I have frequently been invited to local families’ homes for dinners and have had wonderful opportunities getting to know local people really well; almost like I was adopted by some. The students in South East Asia are so well behaved and polite; it really is quite a different experience any teacher from a western country would encounter. The schools I have worked at have been very generous in the salaries and accommodation, and have been very supportive for my own professional development. Over the past 14 years I have met and still keep in touch with so many colleagues. I can travel to almost any country and know someone to meet up with.
Describe your latest cultural encounter (or reverse cultural encounter) in your current placement, one that put a smile on your face.
My latest cultural encounter entails a recent charity fair we had at our school. To raise money, some of the local Qatari lads brought falcons to school. Students paid money to pet and hold the birds. The lads looked so proud in their local dress holding their beloved falcons. I certainly don’t recall that happening when I went to school.
Qatar, as most know, has been blessed with copious amounts of natural gas; Rasgas and Qatargas are the world’s leading distributors of LNG (liquid natural gas). This has shot this small country up to the top of the GNP scale – now at approximately USD 80,000 per family. Now about 20 years on, the children have adopted a different approach to what many may expect. Recently, during one of my business studies lessons, I explained how the students needed to come up with a project. Before launching their project though, they would have to do the normal due diligence of enterprise – brain storm, mind-map, SWOT, SMART targets, risk assessment, etc – to support the coursework part of the course which would be externally marked. They looked at each other and then looking quite confused and perplexed one lad raised his hand and asked why. “If I like something, I buy it. When I get bored of it, I throw it away. If I want to make a project, I do it. OK, if it fails, I just do something else. Why do all that other stuff?” Money is a disposable concept here and this not only put smile on my face but it put me in my place.
What are some important things that you look for when you are searching for a new position at an international school?
I really can’t stress enough how no matter what international school is advertising, investigating as thoroughly as possible is a must. I would also stress avoiding websites that seem to serve as platforms for disgruntled teachers. No school is perfect for every teacher’s situation – being calm, flexible and keeping my sense of humour have been my weapons for personal success. In searching for new post at a new international school, I am interested in the school’s philosophy, aims and goals. I am interested in who the owners are and how keen they are in branding their school. I am not interested in schools which are content in the mid-stream. Personally, I am really looking for upstart schools and working at the school’s foundation level as I did when Shrewsbury International was just beginning. Being a part of the initial growth, seeing the founding students and staff work through the first couple of years and seeing it all come together is so rewarding – very rigourous but very rewarding.
In exactly 5 words, how would you describe the international school teaching experience?
Open-minded Professional Dedicated Discovery Fun
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Want to work for an international school in the Qatar like Sheldon? Currently, we have 23 international schools listed in the Qatar on International School Community. Here are a few that have had comments and information submitted on their profiles:
• American School of Doha (13 Comments)
• Newton International School (23 Comments)
• Al Jazeera Academy (9 Comments)
• Qatar Leadership Academy (9 Comments)
• Al Hekma International School (Qatar) (15 Comments)
• Awsaj Institute of Education (20 Comments)