For this month's blog I would like to take a look at one of the most impressive schools in Thailand: Varee Chiang Mai School (VCS)
The owner and director, Ajarn Varee, has built from scratch a modern and very well equipped school that is on a par with any school in Asia in my opinion. From Kindergarten to High School there is a range of curriculums available that involve just a few hours with an English native-speaker teacher each week to an official English Program all the way to an International School annex. I was fortunate to be involved with VCS in 2004 so can see the remarkable development of the school over the last seven years.
Ajarn Varee is the driving force behind the school. She is an impressive woman who balances steely determination with a warm and open personality. She gets things done. Many of the large private schools in Chiang Mai were founded by foreign missionaries in the late 19th century or early 20th century, and these missionaries had foreign finance and a large support team to help them build their schools. Ajarn Varee has built VCS practically by herself. However, VCS is not the first school she built in Chiang Mai; just behind SEE's building is the original Varee Kindergarten founded way back in 1978 and still going strong
VCS offers three programs to meet Thai students' current English language abilities and future plans. The Thai program, where up to 30% of the curriculum is taught in English by Thai and foreign teachers; the English Program, which is taught exclusively by foreign teachers; and the International School annex, which follows the highly respected Cambridge IGCSE curriculum. Students at VCS leave with qualifications familiar to Thai and foreign institutions.
A few months before the start of the 2004 academic year, I was given the responsibility of finding, hiring and managing a team of foreign teachers to cover the native-speaker teacher component of the coming school year at VCS. Anyone who has hired foreign teachers in Thailand knows that it's not always a straightforward process. An advert on ajarn.com led to an inbox full of CVs but after wading through them, the list of suitable teachers had shortened dramatically. I needed qualified teachers who were available to interview in Chiang Mai. This is very important as Thai schools want to know they are going to employ the right kind of foreigner. Foreign teachers need to look like teachers, so appearance is very important. Personality is another important qualification; a positive and easy-going nature will get you far in Thailand.
The team I finally chose included a range of ages and nationalities. There was Ken the computer whiz from Canada; Suzy was a young Englishwoman, who later moved on to teach in the Middle East; North London Tony added banter to the staffroom; Simon from England is a natural with young learners and now heads the kindergarten and finally Joe who had a theatre background in England and now heads the academic side of the foreign teaching staff.
I have many fond memories of my time at VCS. I remember one day I arrived at the school and was told the Minister of Education (MoE) was in a meeting with Ajarn Varee and wanted to speak to me about our foreign teachers. This was a bit of a surprise as the most exciting thing I had planned for that day up to that point was a service for my Honda Dream motorbike. But, this is Thailand, and the most unlikely events regularly happen unexpectedly at short notice. It's part of the charm of living here, I guess. The meeting started; I smiled a lot; I managed to look as though I knew what I was talking about and everyone seemed pleased with my contribution.
Another day I needed to escort MoE inspectors around the school while they audited the school's English Program (EP). VCS runs one of the few official EP programs in Chiang Mai. Many schools run foreign-teacher programs, but only a few are regulated and officially endorsed by the MoE. This was the EP's first inspection and a positive result was essential for the school. One of the inspectors sampled the English skills of a pratom 1 (grade 1) EP student by asking her a question in broken English. Her teachers, Joe and Simon, were standing nervously next to her, but she didn't need their help. Her answer had elements of present perfect, past simple and future simple verb tenses with a whisper of the passive voice communicated coherently and cohesively. The inspector's English skills weren't strong enough to follow the whole answer, but we knew the student had scored the winning goal for VCS and its EP team.
A few months into the academic year I was invited to a parent-teacher evening at the school. I thought I would just need to show my face, smile a lot and sit next to the ‘puu yais' on the stage. However, when I arrived Ajarn Varee asked me to make a speech to the audience of 3,000 students, parents and teachers. I asked: "when would you like me to speak?" and was told: "in around 2 minutes". I asked: "what would you like me to talk about?" and was told: "up to you". I think I spoke about the importance of English in a century that will be dominated by China. I'm not sure why.
Recently I was invited by the head of the EP program at VCS, Daniel Maxwell, to be a judge at their EP academic competition day. Schools with official EPs across Chiang Mai were invited to send their students to compete in a variety of activities. I was one of the speech contest judges. While I was at the school, Ajarn Varee graciously allowed me to interview her for this blog. This is a transcription of that interview:
1. Why did you choose education as a career?
"In my opinion, every business is a business which needs to earn a living, monetary profits go to companies or individuals; but it is different in the education field because our profit or success comes from students' success, which is not measured in money. I became a teacher because God has given me heart and interest and ability to teach children. I have been interested in teaching since I was young, so I studied and became a teacher. I believe that education is a profession dedicated to building a person to become successful. As a private school, of course, we need to invest and earn our living, but the profit in terms of money I put it all into developing the quality of education at our school. For me, the greatest profit comes from students' achievements and success in life."
2. What made you decide to build your own schools?
"After I studied in an educational field including two bachelor degrees in education and a master degree in education administration, I wanted to have an ideal school which has good quality and qualified teachers who know about child psychology and development . I wanted to have a school which uses a child-centred approach and a curriculum which fulfils a child's development as a whole, in intelligence, moral, spirits, health and physicality, and social skills. A school which provides an excellent creative learning environment for its students and a well-designed buildings featuring hi-tech equipment and resources, these are the key to success.
I realised that if I don't have my own school, I would never have a chance to build an ideal school. I opened my first school, Varee Kindergarten in 1978. In later years, parents started to suggest that I should open primary and secondary levels; they need a school which brings modern methods and an international perspective that can prepare their children for the future. At that time, Chiang Mai did not have a lot of choices in school, so I decided to open Varee Chiangmai School as another choice for parents in 2003. So thanks to all parents who have trust in me, we now have over 2,700 students from kindergarten to higher secondary, and 250 Thai and foreign teachers at VCS."
3. How do you see the future at VCS?
"I can see that there are still rooms for potential growth in the future as the number of students continue to increase as well as new educational opportunities which will come along when the AFTA and ASEAN Community are fully implemented in 2015. Currently, we have expanded to over 40 Rais of land, and we have development plans for the years ahead.
With a determination of having a school of many choices for parents who already trust us in giving their children the best quality education, I feel that I need to improve more and go beyond expectations, so I created another choice for them. Last year we opened an international secondary programme which follows the National Curriculum of the United Kingdom and students would take IGCSE and will continue to ‘A' level qualifications. We have been certified as a Cambridge International Centre by the University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). I see this as the area of greatest growth over the coming years because of the increasing demand for international education in Chiang Mai from both foreigners and Thais. I am planning to develop more resources and a school for our International Programme which will run a UK curriculum starting from Key stage 1. In the future, we believe that we will become a high-standard education hub in Chiang Mai."
4. What makes VCS the preferred choice, in your opinion, for parents in Chiang Mai?
"We create choices for parents by having small classes of 25-35 students per class (15 per class in our International programme) with a teachers-students ratio of 1:11. Classrooms are spacious and equipped with e-learning facilities such as ActiveBoards and wireless Internet around the school. We have modern computer labs, science labs, and libraries, which are actively used as a part of lessons and in students' spare time.
Students learn in a happy environment with quality teaching staff both Thai and foreign. Not only we focus on students' academic achievements, but we also put great emphasis on other learning aspects that will build a person as a whole. This includes languages, which we offer English as a second language and Chinese as a third language, ICT, art, music, and sports, each of which has its own learning centre. Along with all the above education, we encourage and develop students to grow with positive good health, positive spirits and moral, social skills, and intelligence, in order to become a mature member of community.
At Varee Chiangmai School, we regard ourselves as "One School. Endless Opportunities". By offering three programmes that meet Thai Ministry of Education and international standards (a Thai programme, an English programme and an International programme); we are able to meet the needs and requirements of a vast array of parents. It is also possible for students to transfer between these programmes. This gives the students of VCS a rich pool of knowledge and experience they can draw from during their education. We are a school which offer high standards of education from the West and traditional value of respect and cultural self-awareness from the East, making VCS "the Best of Both Worlds"."
5. If you were the education minister, what would you change about the Thai education system?
"If I were the Education Minister, there are a number of things I would change. Firstly, I would look to streamline the working of the Thai Ministry of Education and all its red tape, because at present it seems that even the simplest procedure is difficult and takes time. For example, the process of acquiring teaching license for qualified foreign teachers would be simplified and made more convenient to maintain the status.
Secondly, I would to encourage universities to produce new-generation teachers who are well-equipped with knowledge and new teaching methodologies. I would promote teaching professions so that teachers are highly accepted in the society, which will attract quality students to become qualified teachers for the future of our nation. At the same time, I would develop and train current teachers to adjust their teaching techniques to match with the rapidly changing world of globalisation.
Thirdly, I would encourage and support participation of private schools to work with the government to help develop the education because private schools have strong potentials and ability to provide quality education. With the support from the government, I believe that, together we can bring Thailand to the front row of education countries in ASEAN.
Fourthly, I would look for greater investment in the nation's education and thoroughly provide high quality education to all students throughout the country."
Thank you Ajarn Varee.
I would also like to include an interview with a member of the foreign teaching staff at VCS. I first met Simon way back in the late 90s when I was travelling around India. While on an ashram in Rishikesh, I heard of a young Englishman who was seriously ill with a pretty nasty stomach complaint. A few months later while celebrating Christmas and New Year on a small island called Diu off the coast of Gujarat with a group of fellow travellers, I discovered that the Simon I had met a few days previously was the same Englishman I had heard about previously at the ashram. It was a pretty wild few weeks on Diu but as the holidays ended, my new friends all moved off in different directions. Almost by accident I met Simon again in Chiang Mai a few years later. I had been teaching for a while, but Simon was just about to start his teaching life. Here is Simon's take on VCS kindergarten:
1. Why do you teach kindergarten?
"I have taught all levels from Kindergarten to adult "one on one" classes. Though over time I have found I really enjoy the energy in the kindergarten classroom. I have also found the young learners to be the most rewarding day in day out. You can't have a bad day when you are teaching kindergarten."
2. What are your responsibilities?
"As head of Varee Kindergarten my main role is to oversee the English teachers and to encourage the teachers to teach creatively. I also support the Thai staff and help organize the school shows and other activities. Another main part of the job is to be available to liaise with the parents, foreign and Thai, regarding the children's education and any other problems within the school. It is a fun position that keeps me busy all day long."
3. What kind of qualities are you looking for in a kindergarten teacher?
"Kindergarten teachers are definitely harder to find. Many people think being a kindergarten teacher is just a glorified ‘baby sitter". Well this simply is not the case. We are always looking for hard working energetic teachers that can create a fun vibrant learning environment. All the teachers in our kindergarten have to have plenty of energy and a very positive attitude towards teaching."
4. What makes VCS kindergarten special?
"Varee Kindergarten is a very popular choice for many parents in Chiang Mai due to the fact that our school focuses strongly on English. From nursery to kindergarten 2 we are constantly focusing on their spoken English, with a large portion of this being project based learning. This gives the students confidence when using English. When the students move into Kindergarten 3 our main targets change and focus on their reading skills. Varee Kindergarten uses the "Jolly Phonics" programme that allows our Children to learn on par with students in the UK and the states."
5. What do you do outside of VCS?
"My "Out of school life" has changed dramatically over the past couple of years. I used to have an active social life, but now I am a family man. I married my wife (who I met at Varee) about four years ago and now have a little angel of a daughter. My wife and I are also very busy with our company "Perfect Homes" This is a rental agency which specializes in renting properties to westerners in Chiang Mai."
So that's VCS. In my opinion it's a truly impressive school with an impressive future. It's definitely an Education Beyond Tomorrow.
John Quinn is the course trainer at SEE TEFL in Chiang Mai