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After over 30 years of service, The American School Foundation's beloved Executive Director, Mr. Paul Williams, is retiring at the end of the 2017-18 school year. To honor his multifaceted career at the school, we got up close and personal with him for a last interview. Rather than write an article about him, we allowed him to tell his story in his own words. What follows is a Q&A session with Paul, which begins with the pasts and navigates towards the future, both for Paul and for the school. As sad as we are to see Mr. Williams go, the invaluable legacy he has left at ASF will carry the school towards a bright future.
Why did you decide to come to Mexico? What drew you here in the first place?
I originally came to Mexico during an intersession program when I was in college and I began to really love the culture. After my undergraduate degree, I looked at different options to come back, because I wanted to study Latin American Studies and I saw a great opportunity of studying at the UNAM, so that's what drew me here on a full-time basis. I came to study my Masters' in Latin American Studies at the UNAM and then I stayed on, working for the SEP.
What made you leave your work at SEP and come to ASF?
I worked for the SEP for about five years, until I went to work for the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla for a year before an opportunity came up to work at The American School Foundation.
What was your first impression of ASF?
I found it a very friendly place. 33 years ago, just as we were starting school –we had been in school for around 2 weeks–, we had the big earthquake on September 19, 1985. So I found it was wonderful to see students and faculty coming together to help others through different relief efforts, and I found it a great, welcoming place.
What positions did you hold at ASF?
I have been a teacher, a department head, head of the summer school program and the curriculum coordinator. Next, I became the curriculum director and later I was the head of Human Resources. After this, I left the school to become headmaster at the Westhill school. From there, I had the opportunity to come back under the new administration as the head of Upper School. Next, I became the associate executive director for academic affairs, and finally I was named executive director.
Why were you interested in taking on so many different roles at ASF?
I think sometimes I get bored easily so that's why I like my job now, as I get to be involved in a little bit of everything. I started as a teacher and worked in curriculum development, I had the opportunity to coordinate the afterschool and summer school programs and so many different opportunities would arise and I would take on the challenge.
Of all the roles you took on, which one was your favorite?
My favorite role is working with curriculums, because it gives you a chance to really build on what students are looking at and what they are learning in class.
What has been your most challenging moment at ASF?
I don't think I could just name one. One of the most challenging moments is definitely when we have a student who isn't working as hard as he or she could, and you have to have tough conversations. It's very hard sometimes, because my philosophy is we always have to go out of the way to help someone as much as possible, but those are definitely hard conversations.
What are you most proud of, during your career?
There are so many moments that make me proud. Last week I saw the continuity we've had with the model MUN program, –I coordinated the program from 1987 to 1993–, and to see that it continues to grow into a solid program, making it the longest standing student activity on campus, makes me proud. Seeing what our students are capable of, whether it's a play or a jazz concert or sports, these are the moments that make me really proud. That's one of the things I think is really good about ASF. People can find a place and be successful.
Can you tell us about some of the innovations or new programs you implemented?
There have been several. Probably one of the biggest was working and looking at the implementation of the International Baccalaureate Programme. It was a Board initiative in the year 2000 and the school decided to embrace all three programs, PYP, MYP and IB. It was a lot of work trying to get it all together and getting everyone on board. Some people were saying, "this is crazy, how are we going to do this?" I think it's all about best practice. A best practice can be looked at in different molds. I was coordinating the curriculum at that time, we had our coordinators for IB and took on the diploma, so it was quick. People questioned how we could take on all three at the same time, but the programs were actually spaced out. We were authorized in 2001 for the Diploma, 2003 for the MYP and 2005 for the PYP. I think this was one of the initiatives that helped us change a lot of the curriculum, the programs and the thinking at ASF.
Also, watching the new buildings come up over the years. For a long time, the Middle School was the "new building", which was finished in 1994, and now I think we are very fortunate to have all of the renovations made in the Upper School, as well as the Wellness Center and the Ángles Espinosa Yglesias Fine Arts Center. These great facilities enhance the learning experience, and students can really take advantage of having these high quality facilities as they step up to the challenge and come up with state-of-the-art productions.
What's your general overview of education in Mexico?
Before working at ASF, I worked for the Secretariat of Public Education for several years, and looked at all the different types of programs, which is where a lot of my curriculum enthusiasm comes from. I think there are very solid programs in Mexico. I don't think we always have the resources to follow them, but I think that if there were more of an effort in general to set them in motion despite the lack of resources, we would see Mexico has a superior curriculum to many other countries in the world. When we talk about education in Mexico, there are excellent public schools, private schools and religious schools in the country. I think there has to be flexibility in the curriculums, to suit each school's students' best needs.
What future do you envision for ASF?
I think the school is going to continue to grow in its programs. I see much more growth in student and faculty efforts and community service. By next year we should have a Community Service Coordinator K-12, who is going to help us put things together, so I think there is going to be a big focus on service learning. As long as we can maintain our excellent faculty, our programs should continue to thrive.
I think also, as we look forward to new buildings and facilities in general, it will also spur much more interest and growth in our programs.
What will you miss most at ASF?
The people, especially the students. I'm very fortunate because lots of the kids pop by and visit me, and so those are great moments because kids are so authentic and natural, if they are having a bad day, they'll come in and tell me about it, just helping them take a stance and reflect on what they are doing is what I'll miss the most.
How do you feel about all the people congratulating you and thanking you?
I feel mixed emotions, because I am very grateful that they want to thank me and recognize me but at the same time, it's something I'm going to miss. I am very pleased and I'm honored that so many people are showing their genuine care.
Who would you say was your role model at ASF?
I have been very fortunate and had very good role models in general, we've had many outstanding directors at the school and I have learned from all of them. I think in general, working alongside my peers is the most rewarding. I think there isn't necessary a hierarchy but rather a work environment where people can be genuine.
What's next for you?
Good question! Maybe I'll take up surfing, after being dunked... I'll try something new, maybe take up swimming (laughs)... I'm going to be working with a private foundation in education, helping some public schools, doing a little bit of consulting. I'm going to be coming and going between the United States and Mexico, so I don't have a completely set plan. I'll rest up a bit, because when you work or study at the American School you really become absorbed and put in lots of hours, so I'll take some time to reflect and rest. In reality, the future is completely open...