While Matt Letham has a passion for taking things and turning them around, his last seven years in Brunei have been particularly busy! He turned around a struggling school, met and married his wife Jess, adopted a dog and three cats, and completed his Ph.D. A New Zealander who has lived many years in the U.K., Matt has been in education for over 30 years and educational leadership for 20. Now, with the help of Search Associates (SEARCH), he starts his next appointment as Middle and High School Principal at Al-Bayan International School (BIS), Kuwait, in August 2023.
Matt remembers as far back as high school, “wanting the incredible privilege to have an influence on the next generation, to foster citizens who will be open minded and empathic.” He calls himself an all-rounder, a generalist. He first taught in middle school before switching to primary school. After being promoted to Head Teacher and Lead Head Teacher for a trust of schools in the UK, Matt realized that leadership was his calling, within schools as well as working with other school leaders. He discovered his niche, “Taking schools that are struggling and turning them around.” Matt describes his last school in the UK:
It was in bad shape, at risk of being judged inadequate by the UK inspectorate, even though the people were great. I went across town to help lead them, and within a couple of years, we turned it around.
In 2010, Matt took a sabbatical to work for the organization Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). He traveled to the north of Namibia where he would drive a 4-wheel drive to tiny village schools “to help foster good education and leadership…a wonderful experience…crazy during the rainy season!”
Upon his return, Matt took his first international administrative job through the Brunei Ministry of Education, which among other things, included transforming Brunei’s only sports school, which had been given its final warning and was at risk of closure. Matt stayed for five years leading the school with dramatic improvements in both academic and sports results. The school also received one of the highest inspection gradings within the country. He says,
It doesn’t get better than that, to get recognized and validated externally, to tell a room full of people who work hard that they passed inspection…It was very rewarding because it’s a small school, and there were incredible teachers who just needed fostering and guidance… I was trying to make the school a model of good practice.
During Matt’s second contract with the Brunei Ministry of Education, he started his doctoral thesis part-time through the University of Southern Queensland, which has now been successfully completed. Meanwhile, colleagues who had left Brunei for their next international school appointments encouraged Matt to register with SEARCH. During a holiday at home in New Zealand, he contacted Senior Associate Gez Hayden with whom Matt says he had “great rapport.”
After that initial conversation with Gez in September 2022, Matt prepared his profile and gathered and uploaded all the necessary documents, which took him about two months. All the while, Gez “answered questions promptly and did not dress it up.” Matt adds,
Getting your profile set up is quite a big process. Once it’s done, it’s easy, and it’s absolutely invaluable having all your credentials in one place.
At the SEARCH Singapore Leadership Fair in November 2022, Matt landed his second international administrative job. His final interview—his seventh with seven different schools— with Al Bayan International School (BIS) won Matt over. The event certainly delivered:
It was great because it gave you that initial conversation that is hard to get when your resume is just one of many. …It was a privilege to talk to people face-to-face… The fair gives you a chance to get a feel for the school and the people involved… This particular job fair was well laid out, and it’s cost effective.
Matt will be moving to Kuwait with a sizeable crew. His wife Jess will be joining him in Kuwait. She has just completed a nine-month course on curriculum development—her superpower—through the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER). Also moving to Kuwait will be Aiko the dog and the cats Rambo, Scarface, and Smudge. Matt explains,
It’s incredibly important. Aside from a year in the UK at the University of Warwick completing her Master of Educational Assessment, Jess, who is Chinese-Bruneian, has not lived overseas. We need to make sure that the dog and the three cats join us. There were two cats, but a new one has sneaked in.
Jess and Matt met through the Brunei Ministry of Education during a professional development session with colleagues presenting. Jess was Head of the Science Unit in the Curriculum Development Department. Passionate about rescuing dogs and cats, Jess was working the room between sessions, trying to place a cat. After they “got to talking,” Matt offered to take a troubled dog that Jess was fostering for a run in the jungle. Matt says, “Jess has a very big heart, always looking out for the underdog (no pun intended.)”
When Matt and Jess married four years ago, he and Aiko adopted each other. Excited for the family’s next chapter and his new appointment, Matt encourages you to pursue life and work in international schools:
Go for it. It’s an absolute privilege and honor. You will have a diverse range of experiences. People become friends and family to you, and you get to keep those relationships over a lifetime. Embrace all the opportunities you can get. Work in a context to achieve something to be proud of. And give everything to it.