International School Community Member Spotlight #25: Laura Swash (A veteran int’l school educator currently working at Pajoma Education)
June 24, 2013
I am originally from England, from Colchester in Essex. Just under twenty years ago, I was teaching Sociology and History at The Sixth Form College in Colchester. I took my BA and did my doctorate at Essex University and my PGCE at the Institute of Education in London.
How did you get started in the international teaching community?
A friend of mine moved in 1994 to Oman, and invited me to visit her. While I was out there I met an international teacher. Before that, I thought you could only teach ESL overseas. I had no idea that international schools even existed. A tiny seed lodged in my brain, and two years later I set out to teach Humanities in Thailand.
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.
I started at TCIS (Thai-Chinese Int’l School Bangkok) in Bangkok, in 1996. It had only been open for two years then, and was a very exciting place to work. The students were wonderful, and all of the teachers were thrilled to be in at the start of something big. Since then I have worked at several international schools, the most memorable of which were AIS (the American International School in Cairo) and the International School of Tanganyika, in Dar es Salaam. I now teach IB Diploma Psychology online for Pamoja Education, and write materials for MYP and DP.
What made these schools unique was the nature of the students: in these years I was teaching firstly a mixture of Thai and Taiwanese students – extremely polite and charming and in general very keen to learn, but often afraid to admit to not understanding; then the Egyptian students – much more challenging when it came to classroom management, but very warm and humorous with some great characters in the classes; finally, at IST in Dar es Salaam, there was quite an international mix of students and a huge opportunity to learn about many different cultures in a wonderful location.
In all of the international schools in which I have worked, the teachers have also been sometimes crazy, always interesting and always committed to education in its broadest sense.
Describe your latest cultural encounter (or reverse cultural encounter) in your current placement, one that put a smile on your face.
I am a little puzzled by the term ‘reverse cultural encounter’ – they are all just cultural encounters, I think. There have been several memorable ones. The earliest (rather than the latest) is one of the funniest. TCIS In Bangkok supplied a white minibus to take the teachers from the housing compound where most of us lived to the school. It used to pick us up outside the small launderette on the compound. During our first week, several of us new teachers were waiting for the bus. It came, and the driver popped into the shop with his washing, while we got in. When he came out, he did not seem to know the way to the school, so we assumed he was a new driver, and showed him with a map, as our Thai was as non-existent as his English. On arrival at the school, the security guards would not let him in: it seems he was a driver just dropping off his washing, and nothing to do with the school. He had been startled by the five foreigners sitting in his bus and thought it was best to do what they asked! Poor man…and a real introduction to the warmth of the Thai people.
A more recent example happened at IST in Dar es Salaam. We had a severe water shortage and a message was sent around asking us all to conserve water at school. The school gardener immediately turned on the hosepipe. When we asked him what he was doing, his reply was that he needed to water the garden before the water ran out. An example of the different ways of thinking that are possible.
What are some important things that you look for when you are searching for a new position at an international school?
I am past that now, but important things that I used to look for were the educational philosophy and curriculum (preference given to IB); quality of the training given to teachers; the health care package; the location of the school; the teachers’ housing; the attitude of the local community to women; and nature of the social and sporting life outside the school; the profile of the students and teaching staff.
It sounds like a lot, and none of these was a real ‘deal breaker’ but together they make the experience.
In exactly 5 words, how would you describe the international school teaching experience?
Eye-opening, educational, humbling, challenging, fulfilling.
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