Greg and Kim Rayl are both originally from the Pacific Northwest of the United States, yet met while on the international school circuit. They are currently in the middle of a sabbatical year after leaving their most recent positions as Superintendent and Director of Teaching and Learning at the American International School of Lagos (AISL) in Nigeria. Greg and Kim were kind enough to reflect upon their international experience, their time off, and their plans going forward with SchoolRubric.
How did the two of you get into international education?
Kim: After I graduated from university back in 1997, I went to Egypt. I had been there previously doing a study abroad, and I had a postgraduate fellowship grant to do work for a year. I ended up staying and continued to do documentary videography work. I fell into teaching when I was in Egypt at a local proprietary school, and for me, it was a great way to cut my teeth on the idea of teaching since I did not have a teaching background. I ended up going back to the States in 2000 and obtained my Masters of Art in teaching. I taught in the States for a year but always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to go back overseas because it was a good fit for me, and I knew there were great opportunities.
Greg: I first went overseas in 2005 after working in the States for 12 years – five as a teacher and seven as an administrator at two different schools. My last school was almost 1600 students grades 9-12, and I just wanted something different out of education and I felt that I could get it internationally. After speaking to a couple of people who had experience internationally, I went to a job fair but left without a job. I had two interviews and was really bummed. On the way out, Peter Godfrey of Modern English School in Cairo told me something on an escalator as he was going up and I was going down: “don’t worry, good things happen to good people.” Three months later, at 3 a.m., they called me and said, “our first choice for the Principal in the American section could not take the job. Are you interested?” “Sure,” I said. It was a one year gig to go and help them do some transition work, so I went to Egypt and was in Cairo for a year.
I came back in 2006 and helped start an online virtual high school here in Washington state. While I was doing that, I completed my Superintendent’s certification. When I finished in 2008, I was hired as the Superintendent of the International School of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. And so that is what started my administrative career in Mongolia, and I later worked in Bolivia, Indonesia, and Nigeria.
Where did the two of you meet?
Greg: We initially met through interviewing for a job opportunity in Mongolia, and I had hired Kim to come and work at the school there. Although we had both been in Egypt, we were there at different times.
When we were interviewing, I saw on her CV that she’d been in Egypt, and I’d mentioned that I had been there also and she asked, “how did you like the BLTs at Lucille’s?” Lucille’s is a little restaurant on Road 9 in an area of Cairo where I lived, and Lucille – I think she is an American woman who is married to an Egyptian gentleman – made a lot of familiar foods that drew Americans to the restaurant. Being in a Muslim country, the bacon was beef bacon, so I commented about the beef bacon, and then she knew that I truly had been there and wasn’t just blowing smoke.
Greg, you mentioned that you went to a job fair but ended up leaving without a job. Just to clarify, which job far was it?
Greg: That was an ISS fair. Jane Larson was a consultant for them at the time. Jane was the person that I first met and interacted with to try to get work overseas, and that started my friendship with Jane back in February of 2005.
You last worked at the American International School of Lagos in Nigeria as the Superintendent [Greg] and Director of Teaching and Learning [Kim]. What would you describe as some of the major accomplishments during your time there?
Greg: The school was founded in 1964 and was one of the first international schools that originally came out of the Office of Overseas Schools so it has a long, long history. The partnership between AISL and the Tacoma School District here in Washington state has the distinction of being the longest serving school-to-school partnership within the State Department. There have only been two Superintendents in the school to have served at least five years – Tom Shearer and me. Tom and Lori [Tom’s wife] were there in the 90s when he was a principal and he was then Superintendent from 2006 to 2011.
I’m proud of the fact that we significantly increased the rigor and opportunities for kids through the creation of service learning and addition of various courses such as IB (International Baccalaureate) Arabic, archaeology and sports medicine. We increased teacher retention; teachers were staying an average of five-plus years. When you have that kind of stability with your teachers and administrative team, you’re able to accomplish a lot of things. There was also a lot of trust-building that went on with parents.
We developed a good reputation out in the consulates of various countries, the U.S. and others, as well as the business community. One example is when the country had several reported Ebola cases. That year, the school was anticipating 765 students to return. However, people left the country, and as a result the school decided to offer classes online. When all was said and done and everyone came back, we had 745 kids. And so by being able to go online and being flexible, the teachers working together to make things happen for the kids, and the parents trusting us, we were able to keep the school going. I was very proud of that.
What do you see as some areas of continued growth and development for the school?
Greg: One of the challenges of AISL is the same as many international schools – the student body is changing. It’s no longer only expats. It’s no longer just the State Department or international business people. There are more local students coming in and more local teachers in some locations of the world. Sometimes it’s a struggle to try and get people to trust us enough to come and work in a place like Lagos. You have places like that all over the world. There are not enough teachers in the United States and administrators to fill roles, and we certainly don’t have them internationally, either. So I think one of the challenges for AISL and other schools is growing competent teachers – teachers that have high standards for students, can manage a classroom, and who are willing to deal with the cultural issues that come with an international school.
International schools are important. International schools fill a niche by allowing businesses and embassies to bring in top-notch executives and diplomats into the country. If their children are not in a good school that is equivalent or better than what they have at home, it is hard to bring excellent people into the country. I sometimes jokingly say that when someone tells their spouse about a job offer overseas, the first question is often “What are the schools like where we’re going to live?”
In Lagos, we had a 27 percent turnover of students every year and our challenge was to try to keep a consistent culture and to be welcoming. We worked hard to value all cultures that we had – over 58 – at the school and most importantly we worked hard to make sure things did not fall through the cracks, which is something that doesn’t happen without that kind of turnover. Keeping that culture of family, togetherness, and welcoming with a 27-30 percent turnover in students at an international school is a challenge.
Finally, how does a school stay cutting edge enough so that the students are getting a top-quality 21st-century education that will allow them to go to any university in the world? I think those are challenging things. How do you keep staff happy in a place that is not home? How do you keep staff safe in a place that is not home? Keeping this all going is a dedication of political will by the Board and administration, teachers working together, and the parents’ buy-in to make it all happen.
Kim, can you share with us some of the major accomplishments and areas for growth in Teaching and Learning at AISL?
Kim: We were able to work a lot on alignments and systems building in terms of building a collective sense of efficacy around the work. We offered a lot of professional development for teachers with both internally and externally organized sessions. We sent people to conferences and workshops depending on what our needs were, but we also did a really good job of building an internal professional development program that included our instructional assistants, maintenance, security and cleaning staff.
Creating a feeling where we’re collectively responsible for our students starts with the idea that we all understand the direction that we’re going in. We started by communicating a clear vision and mission so that we had a shared definition of success. This was achieved through a five-year strategic action plan that was very participative with folks from all of the school community: kids, parents, instructional assistants, local staff, board members, and administrators. There were representatives from all groups. Although there were many good things that were happening at AISL, [the strategic action plan process] generated new cohesion and a collective will to move toward a shared vision. One example is a training to bring a sense of efficacy so staff could have a conversation about standards-based grading with parents. This happened because I had Tom Schimmer come work with the team and he’s going back next year to continue that work. So when we roll out our standards-based report card, which is happening this year, all of that groundwork was laid over the last four to five years.
Beyond that, we hosted the Nigerian Schools Conference, which is an annual conference for local educators and administrators. We hosted the inaugural AISA (Association of International Schools in Africa) Invitational Conference for West Africa, where our administrators and teachers led almost all of the workshops. I think that if we had tried one or two years earlier to host, we would not have been successful. Our staff really grew professionally due to the high quality of professional development they had received which made them knowledgeable and confident. This created an attitude of “I’m doing something really awesome in my classroom that I can share with administrators and teachers, not just from Nigeria, but from Ghana and other countries in West Africa.” For me, that was a real defining moment for the school – that internally, we have the expertise, we have that collective efficacy, we can provide a venue, and we have the interest to give up weekends and the time to put things together.
I think all schools have to figure out how to maintain the momentum and how to keep going towards the strategic goals and not deviate from that direction when staff and administrators change. So how do you maintain that momentum? That’s the challenge that I see for the school. How do they continue to move forward, modify, and adapt based on new information and what’s important to this community so we have some sense of what should or shouldn’t change throughout the course?
Greg: Kim mentioned something that I’d like to reiterate about being very proud of, and that’s the professional development that we did bring in. We have the view that the fire won’t burn out if you keep feeding the fire, so keep throwing a log on. People are the same way. If you keep providing meaningful professional development that they can utilize, then they see that vision through the strategic action plan. They see that vision, they see the mission, and they see that they’re part of making these things happen, and they see the successes. It’s up to administrators to highlight the accomplishments, celebrate the successes, and keep the vision at the forefront. The professional development at AISL was for everybody. When we had our half-day professional development, our custodians would stop work and go to training. They would be trained on chemicals, safe practices, or whatever it was that our facilities supervisor felt that they needed to know. The maintenance team was managed the same way; they were trained on how to use safety tools, how to handle new equipment, how to do a specific job, or how to take a PH test on our water treatment plant. There was very job-specific training. Our instructional assistants trained in many of the same things as teachers such as autism, classroom management, and readers and writers workshop to bring up their professional skills and toolkit. Because if the only people getting training are your teachers, and they’re going to leave in a few years, then what does the school have? To me, you have to bring up the folks that are going to be there and that are the bedrock of your school community; this helps the school continue to grow and continue to build, and so I was very proud that we were able to do that. The second year, we were getting into things such as healthcare. We would lose one or two of our workers each year to death for simple health reasons that could have been prevented if they had gone and used the medical care they had with their insurance. It might have been diabetes, high blood pressure, or whatever, but they needed to know about it. And we also taught them how to balance a checkbook!
Kim: It was essentially a life skills class that we were offering.
Greg: So all staff had some form of professional development. If I bought donuts for the teachers, I’d buy donuts for the custodians. It was remarkable to see that camaraderie and the sense that we’re all in this together. You probably know the story about a janitor at NASA before they landed on the moon. It is said that a reporter asked the janitor, “What’s your job here?” and the janitor’s response was “to get a man on the moon.” Everybody focused on getting a man on the moon. And what I was trying to do – to get everybody to realize that they are part of the educational system. It’s a people business.
There are a number of couples who work in international schools as teachers, but far fewer that work as administrative teaching couples. Could you help readers understand how the experience has been working as an administrative teaching couple?
Kim: We love working together, and I think people that have worked with us would say that we’re very effective. We bring a synergy to the table in terms of having a Superintendent and a curriculum person working towards the same goals, which is good for any school. We have a shared passion which I think adds real value. I love my husband, and I love that I get to go to work with him. Our Friday nights were often spent together editing the school newsletter, but at least we were doing it together. The time working together at the school was such a blessing and such a joy for us both.
The flip side is that we worked so much that it was sometimes difficult to turn it off. We never went home and complained about our day, but we had difficulty not talking about our day. It was more like a continuous dialog about the job. I think that having a good work-life balance is essential, and I’m not sure we managed that piece of it well in terms of our personal lives and our own need for quality downtime. Being able to switch off when both people are administrators and working on the same big goals and projects is important.
Greg: We talked about things a lot even when we were not at school. How do you move this project forward? How do you know what is going to be the best way to incorporate project-based learning, tech integration, or bring in service-learning? What’s the best way to do it? So we would be discussing it over dinner or brunch or in an airplane going on a vacation somewhere because it was just something that we enjoyed discussing. Then we would take it back to admin meetings and talk to the principals about it. I think for us, it worked very well. Kim had a number of people that would try to get messages to me, but Kim was very good at drawing a line and requesting that people use the appropriate lines of communication for reaching me. There wasn’t any back door.
Kim: I’m not an HR (human resources) manager, and I’m not his personal assistant – but I am happy to help you with the curriculum!
Greg: Those lines in the sand are essential. There’s no doubt that at school, I was the Superintendent. I wouldn’t step into the role of curriculum and instruction because that’s hers. Even though I’m the Superintendent, I wasn’t going to do that any more than I’d get into student services or teaching social studies or anything like that. I have my role, we each have our roles, and we respect those roles.
Kim: I think respect is a real key piece of that. I have no problem when we are working together. Understanding that Greg is the Superintendent, he has no problem telling me no if he believes it’s the right thing, and I respect the decision that he made. At the end of the day, Greg is the Superintendent. Greg did all those extra years of education and hard work to get the position, so it was quite easy for me to never cross that line because of the respect that we have for each other. But you know, I was the boss at home, so that made it really good – you know, we just timeshare!
The two of you have considerable international experience across different continents and countries that are quite different from Nigeria to Mongolia to Egypt. What kind of advice do you have for people in terms of adapting and adjusting to new environments? Because ultimately, when people feel more comfortable with both the school and their local environment, they generally do a better job.
Kim: I grew up in a… well, I can’t even say a small town because I was out in the middle of the countryside where there’s a general store down the street. And as we’ve been in these big places overseas in Cairo and Lagos – cities with millions of people – it always makes me laugh and smile that I’m a small-town country girl. I think what worked for me is that I did a study abroad in Cairo. I honestly had no idea what to expect, and I definitely experienced quite a bit of culture shock, but it was a fabulous experience for me. After I graduated, I went back to Egypt and spent three years there, and the last year was spent teaching at a proprietary school that had nothing. In the last couple of months of school, we had no running water, but I still had 20 fifth graders that I had to show up for five days a week. Their education was really important to me. So when I go to places like Lagos or Mongolia, the experience has been easier than those very first experiences of being overseas and doing it on my own. Those first early difficult experiences help make me appreciate the level of support that we have enjoyed.
I like to say that having a home and being comfortable is very important to me, but I can do that anywhere in the world. We lived aboard our sailboat for one year, and that will either make or break a couple. People also say that about living overseas. On the boat, I had very few clothes, and you just kind of adapt and make it work. For me, I’m amused by the small stuff in life and often with the most difficult things I can usually smile and just think it’s pretty funny. I’ll get over it just by keeping that positive mindset. I feel immensely grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to live overseas coming from a background where I don’t think anybody in my high school would have voted me to be most likely to graduate college, let alone living overseas, in multiple countries, and doing the things I have done. It’s just about being grateful.
Greg: I think going to new places, and Kim touched on it, is that they’re [schools] set up to help us, and I relied on that. I don’t know all the answers. I know I’m going into a situation where I may not know the language. I would sign legal documents that were written in Mongolian, and I would turn to my deputy director and ask, “What does this say?” I would ask if I was signing away my firstborn child and my house, but that’s what you do. You are representing the school. You’re the legal representative of the school, and the Board and the community have entrusted you, so you trust the people around you. In time you get your feet under you, and you get moving a little bit more. You understand you’re going to make cultural mistakes, but Kim and I tell people the job that we do, you can do it anywhere. We do the same job people do in Olympia or any town in America. But we do it in fascinating places, and it’s so cool that we can do that.
As far as the job itself, most schools are pretty much the same. You have the same issues and you deal with the same things. The goals are different, but once you have that strategy and action plan, you do the job to make those things happen. And then it’s dealing with people, and it’s dealing with personalities – the kids are always the easiest part of the whole equation. To me, it’s an understanding that I am putting myself into a situation every three to five years where I have to rely on the team around me. I have to rely on the goodwill of good people, and good people are everywhere in the world. Like everyone else, they want to love their family, take care of their kids, and provide. They want to have a beer or a cup of tea with their friends or they just want to sit at home with their spouse. They want to have something meaningful going on in life. The kindness of strangers is something I marvel about all the time.
You’re currently taking a year off in Washington state and spending some time sailing. How is that going, and what else have you the two of you been up to during your time off?
Kim: It’s been fabulous. It’s such a blessing to have the time and the resources to say that we’re going to take some time off and allow ourselves mentally to do that. We’re both quite driven, but it’s great to be able to stop for a bit and “just be” for a little while. It’s also important to us that we have been able to see our families, as both of our parents are getting older.
I’m from southern Oregon and my dad is there with his lovely wife, Roma. We’ve been able to spend a week down there with them and hopefully, they’ll come up to see us, too. We went to New Mexico to see my mom and her husband. We’ve seen Greg’s mom and sister, and I’ve seen my brother who’s here in Washington state. There’s been a lot of family time which has been lovely, and time on the boat. But, I never wanted to sail.
So Greg was the one that got you into it!
Kim: [Laughs] Yes. But once I tried it, I loved it. I was all in. Three years ago, we bought a house but never lived in it. We jokingly say that we moved our things out of the storage unit into a bigger, more expensive storage unit. It’s nice to live in our house for the first time, and we’ve been doing projects, yard work, eradicating blackberry vines, and, you know, just making our house a home. It’s been lovely.
Greg: We’ve talked for ten years about getting a dog and a cat. So we now have a dog and a cat, and we’re going to a vet appointment a little later this afternoon. You [Kim] mentioned working in the yard and working on the boat. I’m taking a fly tying class because it’s creative, and I’ve always wanted to be able to do something like that. I am taking a few other courses that I wanted to do for fun but haven’t been able to do before. We’ll go down to a little dive restaurant that we like and have breakfast there. We are busier than we thought we would be.
Kim: We went to the state fair. I’ve never been to a state fair, and I hadn’t been to any fair in about 25 years. We went and looked at the animals, walked through the art exhibits, got some fair food and hung out for a few hours. We’re just trying to reconnect with the community and the culture of the States. It’s been interesting. Usually, in the summers, when I would come back and go into a grocery store and be confronted with all of the choices, I would just stand paralyzed. I wasn’t sure which box of cereal to buy because there are 50 choices! I’m over that now and I’m not shellshocked any more. Now we just have this feeling that we’re part of the community here in the States, and that’s been nice.
Greg: Being overseas, you can suffer from culture shock. I remember when I first had it in Egypt, I didn’t know why I was feeling the way I was. Somebody mentioned the term “culture shock,” so I Googled it and thought, “Yeah, it’s real. What do I need to do to get through it?” Now I do those things. It happens every place we go. It’s not something debilitating, but you need to do certain things and you will be fine. I know it happens to me around Thanksgiving every year when we’re overseas. But coming back to the States, we’ve had reverse culture shock, too. People expect you to know the latest pop artist on America’s Got Talent or The Voice. Or on some random show we should know who the actors are, and we have no idea. They’ll refer to this thing that happened, and we don’t know. Or you have an idea of how to get into town, but all of a sudden, a freeway pops up through what used to be a two-lane road. It was those kinds of things that we had to get used to. Being aware of that reverse culture shock is important because it does happen.
As your sabbatical comes to a close and you look for your next opportunity, what are some of the characteristics that you’re looking for to try to find the best fit for you personally and professionally?
Kim: We’re in a unique position, because we’re both administrators. I would say that we’re open to opportunities and are looking for a good fit for both of us. What that means exactly, I don’t know. I know that I’m interested in consulting, and I’m interested in taking my career in new directions. So if Greg is a Superintendent at a school internationally, me having a position at the school isn’t something that we necessarily need to have. I feel lucky because I have the opportunity to consider different options. We’re looking for good work, exciting work, and the next challenge. I’m personally very motivated by looking at things that I haven’t done and drawing on my experience and training to expand into other areas. I’m just very open.
Greg: I certainly like challenges in a school, but I want them to be challenges that can be met. I want a place where I feel we can fit into. Two of the places we’ve been – Mongolia and Bolivia – we really liked them not only for the school but for the ability to access the country. We’ve been blessed by the people that have been around us and have befriended us everywhere we’ve been. It’s a richness in our life. And whenever you come to our home, you will see trinkets, pictures, sculptures and all sorts of things from all over the world. It’s very eclectic, but it’s from all the places we’ve been and memories that we have.
Mongolia and Bolivia stick out because we were able to get in the four-wheel-drive vehicle we had and drive. We could go anywhere we wanted. We didn’t have the language skills, but we could pantomime, laugh, and get the idea across, and we could follow a map. And so the job challenge is certainly important, but the freedom to be able to live life is as well. Those are things that we valued in Mongolia and Bolivia. We were able to, on a week’s vacation, drive our vehicle to the South Gobi Desert. We stayed in camps, and we saw the Flaming Cliffs where dinosaur bones were first found. We hiked down Vulture Gorge, which is so narrow it has ice and snow in it in the middle of the summer. We interacted with local nomads that carved spoons with horsehead tops on them that are here in our house. It’s the richness of the life that we live that is fascinating. We’re looking for a place that we’re able to have the freedom to do that.
As both experienced school administrators, what kind of advice would you have to young teachers and/or aspiring school leaders?
Greg: Do not limit yourself by location. Be willing to go anywhere. It doesn’t matter. So many people I’ve talked to think that they want to go abroad to Europe. Why do you want to go to Europe? What about Africa, India, Southeast Asia, or China? Getting a job in Europe on the first shot is not necessarily going to happen, and you may find that a location in the world is maybe something you don’t want. You may not want to live in a city of 22 million people like in Lagos, Nigeria. You may prefer 3.5 million people in Guatemala. Be open to opportunity and be willing to go. I mean, it’s only two to three years – go learn and experience it! The worst that is going to happen is you’re going to have better stories that no one else in your circle back home has. So when you’re starting off, take that opportunity to go wherever it is that the job fits you. Don’t worry about the location. You can work your way back to wherever it is you think you want to be.
School Superintendents get emails from applicants saying that they are a native English speaker and they really want to come and live in such-and-such place. Well, that’s great, but do you have a teaching certificate? What are your credentials? What is your experience? Those people oftentimes think in the international world that you don’t have the same standards that you have back home, but we do – maybe even stronger or higher. So if you’re interested in being a teacher overseas, make sure your credentials are in order. Make sure you’ve got solid experience. Make sure that you really like education and like kids and then look at yourself. Are you a person that wants to live behind a white picket fence all your life, or are you somebody who wants to go out and have a little bit of an adventure?
You need to know what kind of person you are because it is taxing living abroad, and it does put a strain on you in certain areas that you don’t have back home. But the flip side is that you’re living an amazing opportunity. Be willing to go anywhere the job is, especially in the beginning. Then as you get the experience and knowledge and know what’s going on, you can be a little pickier.
Kim: I would say for women in particular, we sometimes feel like we have to be able to tick every single box on a job description or application sheet. I would say don’t wait until you have all of the qualifications. Don’t wait until you have had all of the experience. If you see something that you want, go for it. It doesn’t matter. If you don’t get it, then you have that much more experience in terms of looking for that opportunity. I think that applies to anyone, but I think women in particular hold themselves back. Personally, if there’s something that scares me about a job or position, I have to do it. I have learned that if I’m nervous or scared about something, I have to go for it.
There are lots of people out there who are helpful. Find somebody who can be a mentor, whether it’s somebody that you admire or maybe to coach you, and ask questions. That’s been an important piece for me – having a trusted person that I can ask questions to either before I have the job or on the job. This [Lagos] was my first big administrative position. On our admin team, I was incredibly lucky to work with the principals that I worked with. I would go to different members of that team for different purposes. If I needed a little bit of positive coaching in one area, I knew who I wanted to go have that talk with to help me through that. If I had something that was more of a technical matter I would go to a different person. So for me, it’s always “Who can I go to and for what purpose?”
Greg: I’d like to throw out something that I told Kim, and that’s for women to make sure you don’t always make the coffee, and don’t always take the notes. For male administrators, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that the women aren’t always the ones taking notes and aren’t always the ones that are getting coffee. Everybody should do office housekeeping. In our meetings, I used to make the coffee and I purposely set my chair so I could because women fall into that role too often. It’s incumbent upon all of us to not allow that to happen so that women leaders are viewed as a member of the team in their own right.
Thank you very much. We appreciate both of you for taking the time to speak with me today about your professional experiences and living abroad.