Creating an Ecosystem of Learning: Meet Prem Tinsulanonda International School’s new head, Rachel Keys
“The world we live in today is incredibly interconnected and through all manner of media, students have access to and engage with all kinds of complex world issues,” said Rachel Keys, Prem Tinsulanonda International School’s new Head of School. “It is therefore essential, that we provide students with critical thinking skills and a range of perspectives so that they can navigate the news, and each global concern, from a position of informed opinion. We need to prepare our students for the future they will face and so naturally the more they experience persistent problem-solving, creatively seeking solutions and collaboration when approaching challenges, the better prepared they will be.
Prem, with its spectacularly beautiful and well equipped campus, has set itself apart for its investment in educating thoroughly well-rounded students since it was founded nearly twenty years ago. Its campus boasts accommodations for hundreds; for the 160 boarding students and teachers who care for them and the 5,000 students from around the world who visit annually for camps, workshops and other activities. It boasts multiple sports programmes with professional sports teachers and athletes while also hosting international tournaments from golf to cricket and tennis to track. Its music department currently supports four full bands and its Artist in Residency programme has attracted some of the world’s most renowned actors, philosophers, thespians and artists who regularly come to the school to work alongside students and teachers. Prem has been environmentally aware and concerned before most of the current students were even born, and has recently set up a committee comprising students, teachers and parents who will focus on the annual pollution crisis, amongst many other laudable environmental initiatives. Regular cultural, adventure, sporting and environmental field trips keeps students connected with the neighbouring community and the world at large, and all this while its over 500 students work towards their rigorous IB diplomas, eventually graduating from highly ranked universities worldwide, and producing a formidable alumni who, in turn, are giving back to the school.
Prem has become its founder Mom Tri Devakul’s vision; an ecosystem of learning, community, activism and academic excellence.
“I visited Prem many years ago on a Visiting Schools Programme (VSP) when I brought students here from Harrow, Bangkok,” said Keys of her first impression of Prem. “I was most impressed by the scope of the Traidhos Three-Generation Community for Learning (TTG) organisation that provided such amazing outdoor education and experiential learning opportunities.”
Keys, a graduate of Oxford University, began her career in Italy teaching English as a second language to international adult students. She says that that experience, of seeing and hearing so many different perspectives, was the starting point for her lifelong fascination with international education. Over the years she has worked in Oman, Monaco, Germany, China, Switzerland as well as Bangkok, where her daughter enjoyed her early childhood.
“Young people today have access to news and inevitably they are engaging with issues of global importance all the time. If you believe in building leadership qualities, then you have to engage in issues of importance such as equal rights, democracy and the environment. I believe in giving students an education within which they are obliged to consider each issue from a range of different perspectives.”
Since Keys’ arrival at Prem with her husband, daughter and young son, she has spent much of her time learning and talking to people; teachers, parents, students, alum – all the stakeholders.
“I’d like to pay homage to the teachers who bring a wealth of experience, especially in IB, to the school,” said Keys. “I have also found the parents to be very involved, and since I firmly believe that learning doesn’t finish at the end of the school day, it is really important that the parents are also engaged with their children’s education. I am a proponent of having many protocols that allow this to happen; open meetings, drawing on members of the community into discussions, bridging cultural divides, getting people involved. To that end we now have several committees that parents, students and teachers feed into including the Wellbeing and Air Quality Committee.”
Keys is looking to create a community beyond the classroom and seeks to utilise skills and experiences which are widely available here in Chiang Mai. Her vision for Prem is for a school which is active on all fronts, of students who are all happy, stimulated and fulfilled, students who learn not just from books, but from experience.
“Each stage of school life is an incredibly formative and precious time and we must constantly seek to inspire, uplift and support our students…providing them with the skills, life experiences and critical thinking to enable them to choose a life in which they will flourish, a life they will value and to which they will add value,” Keys wrote to the parents of Prem’s students, prior to her recent arrival.
To achieve this vision, Keys will be working on teachers’ developments, with trainings, retreats, workshops and upskilling, because teachers’ well-being is of great importance as they help students to learn and engage. She is looking to become very proactive on the pollution front, having set up a committee to come up with a strategy beyond the upgrade of air-purifiers in all classrooms and accommodation, into a school that forges change rather than reacts to it. She also wishes to engage with the Chiang Mai community at large, opening up the school’s many state-of-the-art facilities from its sporting grounds, its meetings and theatre halls and its lush tropical grounds to more public participation and events.
“The Artist in Residence programme, for instance,” explained Keys, “has exceeded my expectations. I am sure that the Chiang Mai community would also like to participate with some of the great people we bring in. We can facilitate festivals, conferences, practitioners in a variety of fields and become truly involved in the community. With such exposure, our students can only but benefit.”
Prem has no intention of resting on its academic laurels, however, and has already added a new careers programme to its IB curriculum, allowing students to begin interning and learning in a more pragmatic way in various industries while still at school, so that they will have already gained hands-on experience before they even graduate.
“Within our campus of great natural beauty, we wish to nurture our students’ social, emotional, sustainable and spiritual lives alongside their academic lives,” said Keys. “We will mindfully and reflectively orientate young people in the challenging and frequently changing world they will find themselves in, equipping every single student with the competencies and qualifications that employers and higher education establishments value. I am delighted to be leading a four-programme IB school and I know my children are similarly excited.”