Reflections after two years Teaching in Malaysia by @Susanwalter99

I’m a learner not a teacher

Introduction – Tomorrow Doesn’t Come for Everyone

I’ve now been the Deputy Head at GIS in Malaysia for two years and I have loved it. I will forever be glad we chose to become Expats and take the chance to come here as Asia has been a fantastic home for me and my family and taught us so much. Being here through MH370, the Thai coup, the tragedies of the cyclones across the Philippines and the Nepalese earthquake, makes me even more sure that maximising our opportunities and living for the day – tomorrow doesn’t come for everyone – is absolutely the right way to go. So what has being here taught me – what have I learned?

  • Learning about Learning
  • Learning about Relationships
  • Learning about Life

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Susan Walter and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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I am a teacher and thought I would always be a teacher first, but I know now that I am wrong in this assumption. The single biggest thing I have come to understand since being here is that I am first and foremost, a learner.

Coming to understand that I have gradually moved away from the rather fixed mindset of my
teens and twenties to a much more growth mindset bias has been a fascinating realisation. As I have learned more about mindsets (See my article here touching on Mindsets) and how they impact on our self esteem, our ability to be successful in new areas of life and the impact a change in my mindset has on my child and how he is learning, has been amazing. Do as I do! I am proud that I can say that now. Do as I do – practice your piano, challenge yourself at wakeboarding, do the best to complete your homework well and on time. I can say all those things now and really understand the impact of what I am saying as I too am doing them. OK, I damaged my knee horribly when wakeboarding, but over these two years I have qualified as an RYA Day Skipper, played my flute in the school orchestra, passed my ABRSM Grade 3 Piano exam, written a regular column for Expatriate Lifestyle magazine, and am currently completing the year long International Leadership and Management Programme (ILMP). I am proud to say do as I do!

My now ‘eleven-teen’ year old son has learned so much too. Effort Effort Effort! The opportunities he has had are amazing and I am so proud of how he has taken on the challenge of leading roles so brilliantly in two fantastic school musicals, Matilda and Seussical Jnr.

He has represented the UK in the Malaysian National Wakeboarding Championships, regularly sets his own alarm so that he can get up in time for 6am football training and developed a new found love for all things cricket! He gained his RYA Introduction to Yachting Certificate, earned a Gold Certificate in an international maths competition and passed his Grade 2 and 3 piano exams.

I don’t mean this to sound like a showing-off list of our brilliance because it is not at all
about that.

Effort Effort Effort!

It is about how once you start learning new and exciting things and start achieving things, you want more. Rather like I used to feel after hockey training with my friends at Indian Gymkhana, where the endorphin rush boosted me to travel in all weathers around London for the weekend games. Once the brain is exercised, it wants more and I find that truly exciting.

I saw a quote on the Humans of New York Facebook site recently from a New Yorker that struck a chord with me, and it went like this:

I’ve spent my life trying to undo habits – especially habits of thinking. They narrow your interaction with the world. They’re the phrases that come easily to your mind, like ‘I know what I think’, or ‘I know what I like’, or ‘I know what’s going to happen today’. If you just replace ‘know’ with ‘don’t know’, then you start to move into the unknown. And that’s when the interesting stuff happens.” (Link HERE)

The key habit I’ve had to break to open up to the ‘interesting stuff’ for my son and me has been the habit drummed in from my own schooling, self help books and overcoming-the-odds movies (Rocky, Chariots of Fire, etc.) that it’s the achievement that matters. The achievement that provides the personal satisfaction and growth. The achievement that provides the reward. And we all want rewards, which somehow in the language of the times became referred to as ‘carrots’… which of course were counterbalanced with ‘sticks’ – but back to my point, achievement was everything. This was all amplified further by us English sporting fans who were fed up of hearing ‘1966’, ‘Fred Perry’, and ‘…let’s have a look at the (bottom of the) medal table…’ and were determined that trying hard and being good sportsmen was not enough. And my goodness, think about how our sportsmen and sportswomen have achieved since, from the Rugby World Cup in 2003, through the 2012 London Olympics, Ladies European Hockey triumph a few weeks ago, to – here’s hoping in the Rugby World Cup 2015 as I write!

Habits. They’re hard to break, and when it comes to our national sports heroes, my vote still goes to a winning-is-everything Martin Johnson holding the World Cup aloft rather than an indefatigable Tim Henman interviewing with Sue Barker after losing three match points in the fifth set any day!

When it comes to real life, however, I’ve definitely changed. The learning environment and opportunities here have allowed and encouraged me to revisit and challenge what I knew about the relationship between achievement and reward, break the habit of lionising achievement and instead encourage and praise focussed effort which the research shows the brain abundantly rewards:

‘Mum, you know I don’t like doing my piano practice…’ my son casually mentioned the week after he’d passed his Grade 3 ‘…well, it’s a funny thing…but…when we were practicing every day for two weeks before the exam I really enjoyed it.’

Now I didn’t see that one coming!


One of my absolute ideals is about doing what I can as a school leader to turn common sense into common practice. It is not always as easy as it should be. When learning about relationships, it is important to think about how relationships start – common interests (sporting team mates), common responsibilities (fellow parents) and common roles (colleagues) are often the easiest to find.

Over the last two years, I have come to learn that leadership is a relationship, a relationship that builds capacity when done well. I have spent a lot of my time here trying to improve as a leader and explore the boundaries of how deeply and widely leaders can be empowered within our school community.

And I am talking about leaders at every level in our school community. In an age now, where schools are being structured and run using the tenets and language of business, I have been exploring the boundaries of empowering leadership with the all school’s stakeholders. Why? Because all our stakeholders are in some way leaders, all the children and adults, whether they know it or not, learn and lead within our school. I have a title which labels me as a school leader, but a title doesn’t make a leader. It is about the relationships leaders build with all those around them that does that, and every day I am looking to build relationships across the school with those people who influence, encourage and assist in ensuring quality and deep learning opportunities are provided for all the learners in our school. I think always about how I can model a great attitude to learning, resilience, trust, emotional intelligence, commitment, friendship, discussion, conflict resolution, support and even righteous indignation, and as my colleague Colter (@ColterWatt) advises, ‘eat my frogs’ without procrastination and with genuine compassion.

I have loved getting to know our students and listening to their ideas about how we can get better at learning. Loved working with parents during week in week out workshops, sharing not only what we do at school but why we do it, and building trust in order to develop open and critical discussion on how we can get better. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with our teachers and assistant teachers, parent helpers and PLAs (personal learning assistants) again always looking for their ideas on how we can better support them so that again, we can all get better at learning.

I can feel fingers poised over the comments section for my using such  worthy and rather gushy descriptors, but I make no apology for this as I genuinely mean it.  Our school is a community. A very special community which I have come to appreciate now we live within an expat bubble that I have not before experienced. For example, many of my new friends are work colleagues and parents at the school. I am not saying that I never socialised with my teacher friends in

London, but I did rely heavily on the hockey girls, talking about many professions outside of teaching, which gave me a refreshing break from my work. Here, it has been much more about the school community, and by spending my personal time with people from it, has actually meant that I have developed a much closer relationship with it. Through circumstance and accident, I have gained a much richer and deeper understanding of the potential of a school community and I am thoroughly enjoying seeing how far we can develop together to accelerate the growth of everyone in it.


My husband always says you get one shot at life, so you’d better get on and make the very best of it and I agree. Over the last two amazing years working and living here in Malaysia, I have taken the opportunity to explore through research, thinking and ‘doing stuff’ what that actually means, and for me three things resonate particularly strongly – knowing your story, risk taking, and being ‘compassionately ruthless’.

Knowing Your Story

When I started the International Leadership and Management Programme (ILMP) last year, the first thing I was asked to do was to write my own leadership story. I thought this sounded like an easy thing to do and set about it, only to realise very quickly that I actually didn’t know where to start. Should I start with my first leadership role in education? Perhaps in business? Or even before I started working? Was I born into a leadership role purely by chance, being the oldest in a family of four? On completing my story, I realised what a valuable thing it had been to do as I’d really had to think about and rank every experience, which highlighted not only how they had shaped me but also where the skills I use every day had come from.

This process together with the opportunity to reflect on myself as a ‘learner’ rather than ‘teacher’ specifically makes be believe that what I have learned over the years in business has had a huge impact on me as an educator. So rather than wish I had entered the teaching profession earlier, I now realise that this previous experience has actually made me a better school leader than I might otherwise have been. I have brought the grounding I received in business into my life in education and now partially attribute it to the accelerated trajectory I have taken. At the time, many of the skills I brought were not commonly recognised as essential to teaching, and on reflection I can appreciate now how much I have benefitted from them. Here’s a couple of examples:


I had responsibility for a regional budget, where I had to control both day to day expenses and a complete full office refurbishment. From this, I not only acquired skills of budgeting and finance management but also learnt the necessity for prioritisation, negotiation, and compromise. Once teaching, I therefore thought nothing of taking on responsibility for budgets as diverse as Pupil Premium, playground re-design, and IT.

SMART Targets

Working in sales environments I learnt about SMART targets, and the importance of setting them appropriately to meet the business objective (make target – not make failures) and sharing them clearly in order to achieve them. When in my NQT year therefore, rather than getting bogged down in the huge amounts of ‘essential’ paperwork, I focussed on the areas my tutor highlighted as most important to the quality of my teaching (the obvious objective for an NQT) and made those sections perfect – not surprisingly she wasn’t concerned that the some of the other sections fell way short.

Compassionately Ruthless

My colleague James (@james_wellings), introduced me to many quotes from cycling legend, Sir David Brailsford, but the one that stuck with me immediately was about being ‘compassionately ruthless’. At the time there was much interesting discussion about whether in fact the words should be the other way around, but this short phrase instantly summed up everything I try to be at school. Two words that separately appear to be complete opposites, when put together become genius.


As a school leader, I have had to sometimes make difficult decisions, or have difficult conversations with colleagues and parents that I might not seek out on a personal basis, but I have a professional responsibility to do so. We have a duty of care for our students, and doing everything we can to support them in their learning, so I have to be ruthless about standards, consistency and expectation. On these occasions I think first about why they need to happen, and almost always it comes back to our students, giving them their best shot, doing the right thing by them, and this helps. Ruthless.


Then I think about how I might feel if someone was having that same conversation with me, and what would make it easier to hear. A transparent, timely and thorough process is always essential to this, as is a sensitivity to mitigating circumstances. These can sometimes feel so heartbreaking that trading off a few students getting their ‘best shot’ seems a small price to pay, but having difficult conversations, delivering difficult messages, holding people to account has to be done in order for things to get better. This was a truism I first encountered running a telesales operation in Bristol, where I became very stressed while managing out a popular, but underperforming sales team leader. I was worried not only about the personal impact on the team leader, who had a family to support, but also about its wider effect on morale and performance. To my surprise morale actually rose and sales increased as although the other sales staff genuinely enjoyed the underperformers company they were relieved that he was no longer getting away with not delivering to the high standards we all claimed to strive for. The sales team leader made a decision to step out of management and joined another company in a sales role where he went on to be extremely successful.

Ruthlessly compassionate? No, compassionately ruthless.

Risk Taking

My family took a risk two years ago when we all got on the flight that brought us to a new life in Asia, but it was a mitigated risk – we had already agreed that if it wasn’t for us we would return to London. Not much to lose, but everything to gain. And my, have we gained! We have sailed around the beautiful Thai and Malaysian islands, experienced the jungles of Borneo, the temples of Siem Rep, the bustling streets of Bangkok – the list goes on. We have made extraordinary new friends, eaten amazing food, released baby turtles into the ocean and started to understand the complexities of this amazing continent we live in.

We have also missed home, friends and family, so much that it aches. Not being able to be there during happy and sometimes sad occasions, feeling a very long way away from home. We have still not acclimitised to the constant heat, and I have still not learned how to fully control the humid-induced frizz that was once my hair. We do not always understand local etiquette and therefore can appear rude when we don’t mean to, and we have not yet completely mastered the highway code or how it is actually applied on the roads here. But we took the risk to come and have never once regretted it. Let’s face it, curry for breakfast is most definitely a risk, but be careful – once you take that risk you are guaranteed to develop a long lasting, even loving, relationship with roti cani!

Summary and Question

Being a senior leader at GIS in the beautiful and vibrant environment of Asia has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to research, reflect and ‘do’, at a pace and depth which might not have been possible had we stayed in London these last two years. We’ve consciously sought out opportunities, taken them and maximised on them – ‘there must be somewhere to sail here – let’s get qualifications at the same time – now we’re qualified lets take our friends’ – and two realities have become clear:

  1. I am not a teacher, I am a learner.
  2. ‘Do as I Do’ has accelerated my personal development.

I have committed to Asia for at least the next two years so my family and I will continue to benefit from it’s conducive and fertile learning environment. Even better though, when at some point we move on, I know that both these realities will apply wherever we end up next.

If that’s the case for us that’s the case for everyone, so my question to you is:

Are you a teacher or a learner?

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About Susan Walter 7 Articles
I believe passionately in education; making learning relevant, challenging and exciting for all learners, and in many ways follow the mantra of Dr. Seuss’s Cat In The Hat: “It’s fun to have fun but you’ve got to know how!”
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