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  • Writer's pictureRed Dot Consulting

Meet Sarah Thomas, Head of Primary & Middle School, IB Section, GESS

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

This week we talk to Sarah Thomas who has been with GESS since the inception of the IB section of the school and hear what she thinks makes it a great school.

Can you tell us about your journey into education and to GESS

I graduated with degrees in both philosophy and education in Canada and on finishing I found myself thinking what shall I do now? Shall I go to the Arctic?! Because really, there wasn’t a lot of teaching work in Canada. A friend suggested I go to Asia and teach English. That was 26 years ago and here I still am!

I taught in Taiwan for four wonderful years in the pre-school and reception at the British School in Taipei, Taiwan. Then I went to mainland China where I moved into primary school teaching and first dipped my toe into the IB programme. I was immediately interested in the PYP with its delivery of the understanding of universal ideas, contextually specific to where you are. With my philosophy background that made perfect sense to me as being the best approach for international learners.

I quickly became an IB coordinator and then an IB Workshop Leader. That led me to Singapore in 2005 when I started as a Grade 1 teacher with GESS, at a time when the IB section was just opening with 80 students. Fast forward 16 years and I am Head of Primary and Middle years for the IB section with almost 900 students. This might account for the fact that I never sleep, but I love it!

What do you think makes GESS a great school?

I think it’s excellent that as a school we have a certain capacity that puts us in the mid-size range, we are big enough to have critical mass, we can offer a range of languages, have competitive sports teams and we have this amazing campus. But it’s so superficial to look at just these things and to judge a school by that. You need to get into the classroom and playground and look at the teachers, see what kind of relationship they are forming with the children and how the children are interacting with each other. That is where the heart of a school lies.

For children, the most important thing about school isn’t the learning, it is about having a friend. Their life exists in the playground. Just put yourself back into childhood. Do you remember your time in the classroom or the playground? For children that is their reality, their world, so we have to make sure that as teachers we get those connections working for them.

Primary School students at GESS - International School

So, it comes back to the teachers. To paying attention to the children and making sure they are ok. Facilitating and fostering friendships; put a lego box out where they can share it, invite them to look at a book with a common interest. Getting the children connected to their teachers and to each other is the most important thing. That is the bulwark against loneliness, being bullied, being lost, disconnected or anxious. A good and clever teacher can do all this more than any facilities.

We may now have this incredible campus but we were just as great a school on our old campus because of our amazing teachers.

What is main area of focus for the Primary & Middle school years in the year ahead?

For me, it’s not about expansion, it’s about consolidating and sharpening our offerings. I want to see us supporting as many mother tongue languages as we can, to have an ethos that our first priority for students is to support their home language. It is no good just layering on the languages for the sake of it, that’s subtractive bilingualism. I want to build up our programme so that we can support the mother tongue and then offer options for additional languages.

We are also adding in electives for the IB section. In the middle school years, students are figuring out who they are. They want to make choices, be in charge of themselves. So, we are giving them 90 minutes a week where they get to choose what they want, where they can really work to their passions, develop their interests and talents. It could be technology, it could be outdoor education, a chance to focus in on what they love. The real world puts real obstacles in our way, so I want this electives programme to really offer real world stuff. In my dream school, you would learn Latin and then go fix an engine!

And lastly, I also want to see us continue to build up the academic rigour of our programmes while having differentiation for different levels. We don’t want to be an exclusive school, we want to be a great school of choice for all comers.

How do you build up that academic rigour of the enquiry-based PYP & MYP?

For years I’ve always said that balance is the watch word. We have to make sure that while the IB focuses on enquiring and conceptual learning, we also deliver rigorous skills and competence. We do hand-writing; we do spelling; we do maths fluency. Some people call it old-fashioned. That’s fine, I’m unapologetically old fashioned. I know that cursive writing benefits the brain. It builds a fluency of thinking. We’re corporeal beings, we learn through our senses especially in the primary years. Swiping on the iPad isn’t going to lock that knowledge in the brain the way that physically forming it by pen does. So as a school, we have times when we are enquiring and conceptual learning, but we also have times when we are just going to learn how to spell.

And lastly, if you could have a super-power what would it be?

This is a conversation that kids love to have and so I have my answer ready as I have these conversations all the time with the kids! For me it's teleportation, it would be just so convenient!


GESS is an international School in Singapore that offers a choice between two curricula: the English-speaking International Baccalaureate (IB) programme and the German Curriculum. We cater to students of all ages, starting from 2 years to graduation at 18 years. To find out more about our school and programmes please see our admissions information here

Read our interview with Christof Martin, Principal, GESS - International School here


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