After 18 years at LANNA, Mr Roy Lewis, our Head of School is leaving, which brings sadness to the many of us who have had the great pleasure to work alongside him. Wishing him the best in this new path of his life, we thank him for transforming LANNA into one of the top British schools in Thailand and Southeast Asia. He talks to Ms Raquel, our Head of Admissions and Communications, about his adventurous past, reflects on how we brought LANNA to what it is today, and speaks on what he wishes to do next for his retirement days.
How many years have you been at LANNA, and what brought you here?
Well, I came to LANNA in 2003; therefore, it will be 18 years in July. I was having differences of opinion with my employers over merit payment schemes over at Bilkent in Ankara, Turkey. I did not like the way things were going, so I decided that I had to look for somewhere else. Harry and Margaret Deelman of Search Associates sort of persuaded me to take this position. Harry was my Search Associate and Margaret was the first Head of LANNA. I had been to Thailand and Chiang Mai before, so I knew a little about the city.
How many years of educational experience did you have when you arrived?
I left the UK in 1989 to go to South Africa. From South Africa (six years) I went briefly to Chile (loved Chile—school, an absolute disaster). Then I went to Turkey (six years) before coming to Thailand. Back in the UK, I taught geography, history, geology. I worked for both public and private schools and my last school was Bristol Grammar School, one of the oldest schools in the UK, which was granted a Royal Charter by King Henry VIII in 1532.
What are the best stories from each of the schools that you worked in before you came?
My first year of teaching was in the late 70s at Cheadle Moseley (outside Manchester), a brand-new boys school built adjacent to the girls schools. They didn’t have enough classrooms—rings a bell [laughs], so for one A Level Geography class, we had to trudge down the hill to the old school to use one of its post-war prefabricated buildings which had been a former science lab. Unfortunately, the door did not work so to get in and out we had to climb through a window. Having no heating, the only warmth in winter was provided by its bunsen burners. There we were—huddled around them for warmth while we studied tropical landforms! I taught an A Level Geology class in the entrance hall—very distracting. And A Level Law was taught in the Deputy Head’s minibus! Yet, in spite of us being spatially challenged, our chairman of the board, who happened to be the local greengrocer, in his speech to parents and staff at the first Speech Day for the new school was able to say “no longer can the women stick their chests out and say look what we have!”
One of the oddest stories was from BGS. The Bristol branch of the Anti-Vivisection League was very militant; it destroyed a shop selling fur just down the street from the school. Bristol University had always been associated with research in cigarette smoking, using dogs I think, so as a protest, it blew up the university’s staff room. The school was virtually next door, so when I turned up for work I found we were all locked out while the bomb squad did a sweep of the school buildings. The “all clear” was given and the squad set off to its base about 100km away. When they were about half way back, they had to be called back because someone found a very suspicious package in the primary school grounds. So, back they came and with one of their robots they delicately moved the package and blew it up. It turned out to be a little boy’s PE kit—his mother was not too pleased.
Oh my God! In South Africa I was still thinking as a European in terms of field trips and not necessarily realising one was dealing with very different cultures. On one particular trip to Kwazulu Natal, which was on the other side of the country, we went with twenty-five Sixth Form students to study rivers and various aspects of settlement geography. We successfully found a crocodile-free river, but my colleague and I forgot that this was a different tribal/political area of the country. When it came to doing a sphere of influence shopping survey, we had to use our students from Swaziland to ask the questions as they were the only ones able to communicate with the local Zulus (the two languages are very similar). This was at a time when South Africa was going through a massive political upheaval. Nelson Mandela had just been released and the whole country was striving to form a new post-apartheid system of government. Like most African countries, South Africa was very tribal; the Zulus were staunch supporters of one political party, the Inkatha Freedom Party. Most of my students were Tswana, who the Zulus despised. Like most tribal groups, the Tswana were supporters of the African National Congress (ANC). So what was meant to be a simple shopping survey turned out to be far from simple. My students were suspected of being ANC spies and we almost caused a tribal war just by asking where people shop. We had to meet with the head man to sort out what could have been a difficult situation.
I remember that four of the students had never seen the sea. To see the look of amazement in their eyes as they gazed out over the Indian Ocean was quite something. What a pleasure, to say the least! They even took a bottle of the seawater back to Mafikeng.
Also, during my time at the International School of South Africa, we were taking a group of students as their afternoon activity to the local game reserve. While watching a pair of white rhinos, the bus just rolled over to settle on its side; it was all in slow motion. Well, we all had to climb out through the windows and call the school for someone to come and get us. At least there were no big predators in the park.
The oddest story, from Turkey, was being arrested [laughs] on a field trip. My IB students were doing a survey of the central business district of a small Turkish town. They were testing the hypothesis that the location and limits of its CBD (central business district) were determined by the local topography. The students were doing land use surveys and measuring gradients with a strange sort of instrument that might have looked suspicious (an Abney level). The next minute we were hauled off to the police station where we were all asked these weird questions about a Turkish terrorist group, the PKK, what we knew about them and what we were doing exactly. We had to phone the school—how embarrassing!
What did you study?
I studied Geography at Manchester University and I then did research on periglacial processes associated with permanent and semi-permanent patches of snow. I had wanted to study the drainage system of a glacier in Arctic Norway, but nobody volunteered to help me and to be on the other end of a rope to descend into the glacier. How strange!
How was the transition from the last place you lived to life in Chiang Mai?
It changed quite significantly. In Turkey almost all the staff lived on campus, basically like a boarding school with no students, so socially it was very different. When we arrived in Chiang Mai, Khun Surin, Mr Yadt and the two School Coordinators were at the airport waiting for us. At that time there were no divisional principals. Unfortunately, they all stood in the wrong terminal [laughs]. Maybe a sign of what I was letting myself in for.
It was my wife who did the house hunting, finding the house where she felt comfortable to live in and we have lived there ever since.
How was LANNA at that time?
Seeing LANNA for the first time, I must admit, was the biggest shock I had ever had. I just could not believe that this was a functioning school—a group of rundown buildings and old playground equipment which Lucy our nurse wanted thrown away because of the danger it posed. I think there was grass on the area of the football pitch, but it very quickly became mud with an oasis of grass in the middle.
Good elementary school as it was then, with some very good teachers. Secondary was very small with only thirty plus students. Years 10-13 had to be taught as a class because there were so few students in this section of the school. This section was academically very weak to say the least. The number of staff were 19 including me. In total there were about 170 students.
What was your position?
I think they called me Principal.
Which teachers or staff have remained at LANNA since you arrived?
None of the teachers from that year. From the support staff: Ms Lucy, now our Primary Nurse; Mr Yadt, our school Registrar; Mr Sombat, the bus driver; and several cleaners. Ms Ketty, our Secondary French teacher; Ms Zhao, Mr Gao’s wife; and Mr Roland were some of my early appointments to our staff.
How and when did you know it was time for hiring principals?
You have to remember the school had two Coordinators when I arrived, but they were not able to do much administratively as they were on full teaching loads. As for appointing principals, I don’t know how other heads do it, but I thought that A) there were enough students and B) it would help me in terms of the workload to organise those divisions. Because at that time I was teaching A Level Business Studies and AS Level Travel and Tourism (27 periods) as well as running a school! In fact, my last time in the classroom as a teacher was three years ago when I covered maternity leave for one semester teaching her AS and A Level Geography classes.
After I think three years being Randolph and Ingrid, our two Coordinators both left. I remember telling Khun Surin that the school was now big enough to have divisional principals rather than continue with coordinators. Mr Kevin became Secondary Principal and Mr Chris (not Physics Chris) became Primary Principal in 2007 to have someone in a stronger position than a Coordinator. Much later we had our first Early Years Principal in 2016 and that was Ms Kristen. She and Kate have been the only Early Years Principals.
Once you joined and got to know the school, which were your first goals?
My first goals were:
- Expand our Secondary School.
- Have a proper academic programme throughout all grade levels.
- Become a Cambridge examination centre for our own external examinations so as not to rely on the British Council for our students to sit external examinations.
Interestingly, I think the Primary School had always had reasonably sized classes. One of the problems had been that many parents just didn’t see the school offering a meaningful Secondary curriculum, so they would tend to look for another school once their children reached Year 6. Thus, it was vital to create a meaningful secondary programme to ensure our parents kept their children at LANNA.
I worked out what type of curriculum and associated syllabuses we needed for the secondary school. I introduced a timetable that is fairly similar to what we have now. We had to find good teachers able to deliver these programmes, which naturally meant an expansion of teaching staff. One of the nicest things about being here has been the relationship I have had with Khun Surin. She trusted and supported my judgement and let me develop the school in the way I thought it should be. In those days we had an Advisory Board; many of the members were ex PTO presidents. I must say we had useful and fruitful discussions on how the school should develop and what programmes we should be offering our students.
Once we achieved some of the academic rigour and a good programme, we started to be seen as an option for parents to send their children to.
Secondly, I started the process of applying to become a Cambridge Examination Centre. We chose Cambridge because it had a good footing in the country, and was both understood and respected by many Thai people. We became a Cambridge Centre in October 2005, 2 years after my arrival, and in June 2006 students sat IGCSE examinations here for the first time.
How was the process of choosing the IGCSE subjects?
Because I had been looking at producing a secondary programme similar to one that most UK schools have, we were able to start considering a wide variety of IGCSE subjects related to what the students were doing: English (obviously), Mathematics, Science, Geography, History, Art, French, Chinese, Thai, and IT were the initial ones. Then as the number of students increased and the programme developed further, we offered PE, Drama and Music as IGCSEs.
When did the school introduce the A Levels?
We were doing IGCSEs for a few years, then it became apparent that we ought to be offering our older students something more than they were doing. In 2007 we offered our first AS and A Levels. And then it took 2-3 more years to offer a wider range.
With the expansion of the AS/A Level programme, new subjects were offered: among them Thinking Skills, Business Studies, and Travel and Tourism. For a variety of reasons we removed some subjects and added others as the school has grown.
Do you remember your first A Level student?
Oh, I do! It was Teak. She did Business Studies taught by me. I had a group of students, but of the group she was good enough to take an external examination. She got a C at A Level. She was LANNA’s first full A Level student.
I also taught Travel and Tourism in those days. It was the first year that Cambridge offered this subject. A major element of the course was the organisation and delivery of an “event” or trip. After analysing several possible options, the students decided they would run a trip to a local buffalo market and Doi Inthanon. They were the tour guides and the tourists were the teachers, and the tour guides presented in Thai and English.
And were you stopped by the police during the field trip?
No, no [laughs]. It was very safe and there were no incidents.
Tell us some highlights of those goals. Those bright moments that kept you going…
Certainly there are several things I am particularly proud of:
- Having introduced Drama, not as an activity but as an academic subject. I have been lucky in appointing excellent Drama teachers. I think that is shown by the quality of the productions we’ve always put on. Initially, Drama was a great way for developing ESL students self-confidence and still is.
- Having introduced Physical Education (PE) as an academic subject at both IGCSE and A Level. I think it is a subject that I am very proud of. The challenge was to make students aware that at this level it is an academic subject and was not just “kicking a ball”. It cuts across biology, business, and leadership. And of course, then we introduced the Sports Leadership Programme, where students are developing skills on how to teach other students and develop various skills.
- Founding the Chiang Mai Model United Nations (MUN). I have always been a great advocate of the MUN, having taken students when I was working at Bilkent to the Hague MUN (THIMUN), one of the oldest MUNs there is. This has over 3,500 delegates. There were already a couple of other people in Chiang Mai wanting to introduce the programme. One of our teachers had experience in a previous school as well as one of the teachers from PREM. Between us, we set the first Chiang Mai Model United Nations and encouraged other schools to join us. That was in 2007. This year I was very impressed to see our first in-house MUN. The General Assembly functioned very well; it was very well chaired, there were some really interesting discussions, and I thought the students equipped themselves extremely well. The whole concept of the MUN is that it is student-led. I would like to think that the next step is for the Chiang Mai MUN to apply to be an affiliate of the THMUN group.
- Developing our library. I value libraries immensely. When I first came, the library was so under-resourced. There were many things on the shelves that were not even library materials such as old catalogues. As I said, a library is such a vital part of every school, so I tried to get a meaningful library budget and to empower the librarian to be responsible for ordering appropriate materials. Gradually we grew a meaningful library with a whole range of materials for all ages—both fiction and non-fiction. Now, we have Kindles, e-books, audiobooks, and online subscriptions, making the library slightly more attractive as a place for students to want to go to and enjoy—that is a great success.
Are there any key job positions that you opened that allowed LANNA to speed up the student body’s academic performance?
Well, I suppose that just increasing the number of qualified staff who are specialists in the subjects we offer. As we expanded, being able—with Khun Surin’s support—to create new positions. It was felt fairly early on that we needed somebody to work with students who did have some academic difficulties. So Ms Gina was appointed. She is one of our longest serving teachers, in fact. She works mainly with Primary students but supports some Secondary students as well.
We also created the position of College Counseling, which later became the Head of Sixth Form. Students under guidance were able to aim for universities which they may have never considered without that help. This year we have a primary counsellor who also helps with particular issues in secondary. I feel that the whole area of counselling and student support needs more trained staff if we are to provide the vital and necessary support all students need.
What are the key elements to generate a caring community within a school?
First of all you need to have teachers who are willing to develop a relationship with their students beyond just the time spent in the classroom. But of course it is also important that the management at all levels encourages the development of the same interactions that they would expect their staff to show. In one sense I suppose at LANNA it has always been there.
Even when I joined there seemed to be something that was different from the other schools. There was a fantastic relationship between all elements of the school community. Being small of course, it wasn’t just the teachers and supporting staff. It was also students supporting students. The older students knew the younger ones and they were able to relate at some sort of level that you don’t see at many schools.
All this helped to build special relationships and to generate the atmosphere/environment that the school has become recognised as having. It is something I think that new teachers recognise almost immediately and quickly fit in and adapt to. I was very lucky in that I did not have to force it because the school already had a caring community when I came. It goes without saying it is something that I wanted to maintain and what I hope will always be part of this school’s character.
What is your management style when leading the Leadership team?
I have always tried at Leadership meetings to encourage everybody to be fully involved in discussing topics on the agenda and hopefully through discussion any decisions would be the result of consensus. Often, it may be one of the colleagues that have been particularly keen on something and if we all agree that is what we would introduce or amend or whatever.
I have never believed in having a meeting where it’s just telling colleagues that these are the decisions that I have made. It’s not my style. I very much believe in discussions and coming up with mutual agreements. I have always believed in a democratic approach to management.
When recruiting a teacher, which are the aspects that you consider?
I suppose that I have been responsible for every teacher employed at LANNA up to last year. Because we never had the financial resources to go to job fairs, recruiting has been very much looking at applicants that have applied by email or through our website. I have always replied to everybody out of professional courtesy. When LANNA was less well off, I would send them a letter explaining what LANNA was like, about our resources, our infrastructure and also about living and working in Chiang Mai. I would then say, if you still remain interested, please get back to me. Very often, families would withdraw at that stage.
Basically my questions were very much linked to knowledge of the subject, the usual questions most interviewers would ask. I also tried to find out if they would be part of the community and try to get a picture of how they would fit in the school outside of their normal teaching duties and responsibilities. In a less formal way, trying to get them to open up. I often felt like not having a stream of formal questions, but getting the information through dialogue, you get quite a lot about somebody that you may not get through questions that people might have rehearsed the answers to.
What is the secret to retaining foreign teachers for so long in our classrooms (knowing that teacher retention is one the biggest challenges of international schools worldwide)?
Retention is an interesting one because teachers have stayed far more than you would expect. We are very lucky to have recruited teachers that enjoy living in Chiang Mai and really do enjoy working at the school. In that sense, they haven’t had the desire to move on. I have always tried to ensure that we give them as much support as possible so they can undertake vital professional development in relevant areas. This support, together with the atmosphere and the mutual respect there is, helps to keep teachers here longer than in many international schools throughout the world.
Any other challenges that the school faces?
Trying to maintain the school ethos and ensuring all of the community thinks of LANNA as a single entity while operating on two sites: trying to keep everybody thinking that they are pretty much one school and not a part of Primary, Early Years or Secondary. I think this is one of the biggest challenges that will be faced more and more while we remain on separate sites. I suspect there are teachers in Primary that don’t know any teacher at Secondary at all, and vice versa and that would also be true for our students.
One of the saddest stories of COVID is that we haven’t had PTO Bake Sales. Ever since I have been here from a very early age, these Bake Sales have been a big feature of the school year. Parents give up their time and money once a month to provide all sorts of delicious foods for the little ones, or the bigger ones for that matter. It has been a huge contribution to PTO funding but even more important is the community spirit it generates. You get parents coming up, setting up their stall, selling and meeting colleagues, fellow parents, and students and generally having a good time. Students really enjoy what they’ve been provided. I hope these events are reintroduced as soon as we are able to.
Do you have a secret formula on how you transformed the small and timid LANNA that welcomed you 18 years ago to one of the top Sixth Form British schools in Thailand?
I don’t have a secret formula. I think that some of it is through luck, some of it is having employed fantastic teachers who have been willing to do so much to the school, and thereby developing all the things I have mentioned before, thus making the school a place that parents want to send their children to and more importantly a school where students want to be, want to study and put pressure on their parents to stay if parents don’t want them to.
Can you share some of the nicest moments you have had at LANNA?
Hard to say because there are many things that at a particular time you have said to yourself “what a fantastic experience”. Going back to what I said about the Travel and Tourism group, something that I think illustrates the caring attitude of the school community: I had just come out of the hospital after a serious operation and I had to watch my diet, so one of the students, Apple, got her mum to prepare a very special lunchtime meal for me, and only me, on the Doi Inthanon trip. That shows so much about the interaction between me as a teacher and my students but also that whole aspect of students caring about other people in the LANNA community.
What will you miss the most?
I think just being around colleagues and staff—even though I don’t mix with the students as much as I would like and used to do. I will miss the general atmosphere of the school, whatever site that is.
What won’t you miss?
Having to get up early every school day.
Now that you are leaving, what will you do next?
Remember I have to come in on average for one day a week although it doesn’t have to be on a regular weekly basis. I would like to renew my reading of travel literature and I would also like to become more involved in bird watching; I have always been an amateur ornithologist. I have a passion for wildlife. So wherever possible try to see as much as I possibly can in my last days.
What message would you like to leave to our community?
Please continue to maintain that atmosphere that the school has always been noted for since I have been there. Be a caring community where we are all involved in helping one another. That to me is just as important as the academics.
Is there any connection between your love for elephants and the school logo?
No, it is a pure coincidence, but what a coincidence!