A Teaching & Learning Journey

Article by Brian Lalor

I have always loved the word ‘sojourn’. The word means “to stay or reside somewhere temporarily,” but, to me, it has always had more of the connotation of a journey; of how life is one short journey with many stops along the way. Everywhere I sojourn, it is my hope that I can make a difference in the lives of those I meet.

I grew up in the rural south of Ireland in the province of Munster and began to sojourn at the age of 18, when I left my home for university. It was there in Limerick on the banks of the Shannon that I earned my first degree in manufacturing and learned I had a desire for leadership. While at university, I excelled in sports, winning an all-Ireland for the university in rugby.

Afteruniversity, I set out to do what many Irish graduates were doing – travel around Australia. I had a friend in Jakarta, Indonesia and I decided to stop off there first. In Jakarta, I experienced culture shock for the first time. I was petrified by police carrying AK-47s and how everybody would stare at me. I quickly learned to recognize the word, “bule” – foreigner. For the first week, I was afraid to leave the apartment without my friend’s guidance. After the culture shock wore off, however, I fell in love with Asia, through Indonesia, with its rich, diverse culture, loving people and tropical climate! In order to stay in Jakarta I needed a job, so I applied to be an English teacher in a local kindergarten. During this time, I found my first teaching mentor, a wonderful Indonesian lady called Kristina. She taught me how to be a kindergarten teacher and instilled in me a love of teaching. I would make my students laugh each day and could see how I could make a difference in the lives of others.21

After teaching English in Indonesia for just over a year, my colleagues were encouraging me to make teaching my career. One principal in particular, Ibu Lari,told me that I would be great in the curriculum development. At this stage, this was a distant dream but her words were like a prophecy, waiting to unfold. In order to become a qualified teacher and get a job in one of the excellent international schools in Asia, I would need to go back to university. Having already obtained a Bachelor’s degree, the easiest way to do this was either by taking a course in the U.K. called a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) or a Graduate Diploma (GradDip) in Australia. I decided to go with the GradDip program as it allowed me to complete the courses online and work at the same time. I found a job teaching in a primary school in Hanoi, Vietnam where the leadership had faith in me and my potential and sponsored my GradDip studies. It was in this wonderful country that I began to hone my trade.

I spent nine years in Hanoi, a powerful and proud Communist stronghold in the north of Vietnam, quite close to China. The differences between the north and the south of Vietnam are many. The south, with its bustling capitalist city of Saigon, could not be more different to the traditional and proud north. The rural mindset of the north and the strength of a culture that experienced hundreds of years of colonial war reminded me of Ireland and I felt right at home. By this time, I was a curriculum coordinator and my school decided to invest in me further, in order to persuade me to sign a longer contract. To learn more about leadership and management, two very different things, I began a Master’s degree in Education Leadership. This is the minimum requirement to be a principal in most schools.22

While teaching in Hanoi, I met another mentor, Noel. Noel sat me down and explained how research works. The end goal,as he explained it to me, is to publish a book on a research topic. One way to research for and begin most of the writing is by doing a PhD. Noel taught me how to plan my future carefully and to kill two birds with one stone by laying the foundation for a PhD during my Master’s studies. He then explained to me that, in his experience as a university lecturer, a research Master’s is the most valued in the educational community. He encouraged me to identify a topic of interest during the first half of my Master’s. The topic I identified was Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). He then showed me how to base the second half, or research pathway, of my degree on PLCs. I wrote my thesis on this topic and am waiting for the opportunity to take this study to the next level.23

After finishing my degree in leadership and being in school leadership for three years, we decided to move on so I could learn new skills. I say ‘we’ because, during my Hanoi years, I had met and married the love of my life, Kirsten, and had two beautiful children, Zoe and Eliyah. Writing my thesis on PLCs got me very interested in the International Baccalaureate programs. One of the core components of the IB is collaboration, which is at the heart of PLCs. We joined a recruiting agency called Search Associates because we knew many of the best schools were representedthere. They were holding a job fair in Bangkok so we all went to the fair. I was very fortunate to receive three good job offers in IB schools. After careful consideration,we decided to take the position offered by Xi’an Hi-Tech International School, and thus began my Chinese adventure.

Coming to Xi’an was like moving from Ireland to England or from Holland to Belgium. The culture here seemed so similar to Vietnam yet so different at the same time. We received an incredible welcome from our new colleagues at XHIS, and our transition to Xi’an was seamless. The school also turned out to be a wonderful challenge for me, as I was immediately stretched to learn best practices such as: Understanding by Design, Concept Based Teaching, Inquiry, Transdisciplinary Teaching and Visible Thinking Routines. As Head of Primary, I have tried to surround myself with people more knowledgeable than myself, in different areas. From Early Childhood through Year 6, from Chinese language to Art to Physical Education to Music, I am surrounded by masters in their fields. I do most of my learning from these experts every day!

So, my sojourn is currently in Xi’an; the start of the Silk Road is where my journey has stopped for now. If I was to give advice to a young educator, starting out in the trade, I would say that teaching is a unique profession where you can make an incredible impact on the lives of children and their families. I would advise you to identify mentors and people who you can learn from in your current school. You should “Eat the meat and throw away the bones,” because, as I am sure you already know, nobody is perfect. Follow leaders in the fields I mentioned above through their blogs and through social media sites such as Twitter. Most of all, be positive and speak of others the way the way you would like others to speak about you.