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Dennis MacKinnon leaves behind a learning legacy

As we prepare to officially congratulate Riki Teteina on his promotion as the new Head of School at the Phuket International Day School (PIADS), The Phuket News recently had one final sit-down with the outgoing head, Dennis MacKinnon.

By Steven Layne

Friday 27 June 2014, 05:29PM

The seasoned educator – whose 35 years of service to educational leadership has contributed to an invaluable legacy of international curricula – is now truly ready for retirement in his home in the Bahamas. Though he’ll certainly be missed here in Phuket, he didn’t leave us empty-handed.

Reflecting on the last two years at PIADS – did you accomplish what you intended to?
When I came here in 2012, I was given three mandates from the board of directors. The first one was to see the International Baccalaureate or IB – the PYP [Primary Years Programme], MYP [Middle Years Programme] and the Diploma – programmes authorized. The second was to lay the ground for the accreditation exercise. The third was to maintain the school’s commitment to social and emotional learning, and mindfulness. We’ve done all those three – we have the authorization for the PYP which was accomplished in 2012, and the Diploma program, which we got this year. We’re currently waiting on the decision for the MYP. And as for the ability of the school to be able to display itself as an international school of note – an accredited international school, we’ve obtained candidate status from the Council of International Schools and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges for proceeding, which began with a preliminary visit by visitors from the two agencies in December 2013.

So what’s the next step in accreditation?
Next year there will be an intensive journey into the inner workings of the school; not simply the education but also the governance; not simply the facilities but also the finances – the whole caboodle. Then a team will come in around December 2016, basically to verify that what the school has said about itself is what is actually happening.

How about the mandate for mindfulness?
The commitment to social and emotional learning and mindfulness (SELM) is very firm. We’ve become a world leader in the field. Our director of SELM, Krysten Fort-Catanese – she’s been in demand all over the world for her expertise, wisdom, knowledge and understanding of the programmes. And for the third year running we’re going to be holding the mindfulness conference here at PIADS in October, which will attract people from all over the world. I should also mention that set up for next year is a major IB regional conference... that all considered, I was snatched out of impending retirement and as far as I’m concerned, the job’s done.

Snatched out of retirement?
I’d been trying to retire for years, this was the third attempt ... It’s time. Over the course of the past year, we – my wife Christina and I – have decided we wanted to spend some time after we’ve left here travelling before going to our home in the bahamas.

Back to the Bahamas?
Eventually ... We’ll leave here [Phuket] at the end of July. And then we’ll spend a month more in Asia and about six months in Australia and New Zealand. Our daughter Rachel is married to an American and lives in Australia, and our son Andrew is married to a Canadian and lives in China. Then, we’ll take a boat from Sydney, crossing the pacific ocean up to Alaska, and then taking the cross-continental railway, and pick up a car in Toronto and probably drive down as far as Miami, where we’ll continue onto Nassau ...

Did you say you’ll take a boat from Sydney to North America?
[Winks] I’ve got the time now.


When I first spoke to you two years ago, you said there is no where else you’d rather be. Has that changed now?
I think that the school’s development of the vision and mission statements show that at the very heart of the school, there’s a commitment to the values that I know and appreciate. And I still believe that the potential here is enormous.

And how about Phuket itself?
I haven’t seen much of Phuket... I’ve been working most of the time. School administration is a full time job and then some. I’ve enjoyed living on the north of the island. Sometime’s we pack our passports and go to the west coast to enjoy some of the tourist sites.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced over the last two years?
One of the major challenges was how to deal with a school whose enrollment was growing and make sure the quality of the education remained good... We’ve been very fortunate with our recruiting exercises. We’re not the highest payers in the world, but people come here on philosophy and vision, so we’ve been able to attract a good number of people who come here inspired by what the school stands for – it’s not your run-of-the-mill, skill and drill sort of school. It’s a school based on philosphy... on mindfulness, and which seeks to work that out in practice... Our teachers represent nine nationalities, while there are 28 different nationalities amongst the kids. I think the rapid enrollment growth of the school is testament to the fact that we’re offering an education which is sufficiently different from what’s available in other good schools, to attract a certain person who wants a liberal progressive education, as opposed to the knowledge-based curriculum of yesterday.

What type of enrollment growth?
When we started in August 2012, the enrollment was 214, today we’re at 256, and we’re budgeting conservatively on 305 for August – so basically about a 48 per cent increase over two years... The problems of growth are very real. And so the challenge is that we maintain the quality of education in the growth. Sadly, a number of our classes are now full – I say sadly because we’d like to take every kid that comes but you can’t if you don’t have the space or the teachers to do it.

We’ve talked about what the school has gained, is gaining. Is there anything you’ve gained from the school?
Very much so. I’ve been in educational leadership roles for 35 years, and what’s been very pleasant at the end of my career is to be in a school which reflects the values that I hold dear. When I was younger – much younger – when living in Germany, I was heavily involved in the [establishment of the] IB PYP and I chaired what was then called the International Schools Curriculum Project, which was the precursor of the PYP. As one of the architects of the curriculum, it was such a kick to come to a school where the same learner profile trays were ubiquitous ... The joy of that and having worked with such good colleagues from all over the world, has been a pleasure.

On your way out, do you have any parting advice for Riki Teteina?
[Laughs] Because Riki and I have worked together for two years, it was clear that he was the heir apparent. We’d been able to talk on a daily basis, and increasingly so over the last several months, about the transition. Thus, the transition should be as seamless as it possibly can. Obviously, a new head coming in will make some changes, which is absolutely necessary. It comes down to how those changes will be managed. I think the challenge of good school leadership is holding on to what’s good from the past, but ever looking ahead toward the future. If I had to sum it up in an entrée to deliver to him, I would say, ‘Excellence is an ever-moving target – you never get there.’ It’s a constant journey, you’re constantly seeking to achieve more, and thus you should never ever think that you’ve arrived, that you really are on a constant journey towards excellence, that weaving journey towards something which is ever just over the hill.

That said, being retired and all – have you arrived yet?
Still going. I’ve got books I want to read, places I want to go, a couple of grandchildren I want to spend time with and I’m really looking forward to that. We’ve lived in nine different countries and you always leave a little bit of yourself wherever you leave, and you always take a little bit of wherever you’ve been with you. This is true for Thailand. We’ll leave a little bit of our hearts and take away very pleasant memories of people we’ve known here.



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