An Interview with the Former Director of ACE, Ms Louise FitzGerald

By I’mACE Team


I’mACE Magazine recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ms Louise FitzGerald, who was in key management roles at the Australian Centre for Education (ACE), an English school that has been operating in Cambodia since 1992. ACE is. She began as one of ACE’s Director of Studies in 2002 and then became the Director of ACE until her departure in 2012. Read the following interview for an insider’s perspective on the history of ACE and how it has sustained its distinct quality in English language teaching, and to hear from the interviewee about her experiences at the school.

Mrs Louise FitzGerland, second to left celebrating the company's 20th anniversary in Cambodia (2012)


Q: What were some of your key priorities for ACE during your tenure at the school?

A: I spent a lot of energy trying to maintain quality, that is, to ensure that ACE had teachers of international quality. My feeling was and still is that the quality of a school is actually the quality of its teaching. I devoted a lot of energy to improving the standard of our teachers, hiring experienced teachers and ensuring that the teachers we had were qualified to an international standard. I also put a lot of energy into hiring female teachers who could be role models for their Cambodian counterparts and students, and to have a more congenial staff room. When I first arrived, the staff room was very male-centric. I felt that this could be improved, and that having more women was one way to improve it. Another key priority was to improve the tests at ACE by introducing standardised testing for all levels. Prior to my arrival, the IELTS test had recently been as the level 12 benchmark set at 4.5. We then increased the required graduating score from 4.5 to 5.0. That took time, because we had to ensure that we had underpinned this increase, to make sure we had enough students at the right level to pass with that score. 

Q: What is your perspective on ACE’s teaching staff now being approximately 50% Cambodian and 50% expat? In what ways do you think having more Cambodian teachers impacts on the students’ learning?

A: I think having more Cambodian teachers is a good thing. They have gone through learning the language and have been very successful, so they provide positive role models to their students. In addition, they understand the difficulties of English, which are many, for Cambodian students, and can guide their learners to success in the language.

Q: How do you think the quality of the school and its teaching set ACE apart?

A: In a time of huge growth, which is the case in Cambodia now and has been the case for the past six or seven years, it is easy to grow without keeping in mind that the reason ACE has been successful is its quality. When you grow like this it is very easy to lose sight of that. You have to find buildings and teachers and furniture, etc. However, the most important thing to do is to staff the school with quality teachers. Having NEAS accreditation (recognition from a globally recognised body that provides quality assurance services to ELT and vocational providers in Australia and internationally) keeps this at the forefront of your mind, which is very important. I hear from my former colleagues that ACE has managed to do this. It sends a message to the students, teachers, management and the community at large that ACE has priorities other than earning money, which I think is very important.

Q: When you reflect on your time at ACE, what comes to mind?

A: There have been very few Directors over the 26 years of ACE, it is hard to believe; really, only four. It is a testament to our belief, that we could do something positive, professionally for ourselves, but also for the students and the country. ACE has certainly given me huge rewards, just seeing how the schools have gone from strength to strength and the students’ improvement. I often talk to people in Cambodia and when I say I am a former Director of ACE their eyes light up and they all have a story about ACE. It is very positive. Look, you don’t get that often in your life.

Q: What were some qualities of your management style?

A: I tried to be very fair with the teachers and other staff. People respond well to that. In a country where fairness isn’t always  taken for granted, to try to implement that in companies is important. I would say, “We do this because it is fair, and we don’t do this because it isn’t fair”. It was very overt. Also, with students, in management meetings we would talk about making a decision and if I didn’t feel it was fair to students, then I would speak up and say, “I don’t know if that is fair to our students. We have to be fair to our students as well”.

Q: What is your wish for the younger generation of students in the country?

A: I think quality education with critical thinking needs to be a priority. I think critical thinking is something that takes a long time to build up, but it is so important. Good critical thinking and problem solving are hard to teach. With Western families it comes through the family as well as the education, so it is generational. We can teach it and we should teach it. Teachers should challenge their students when they have weak thinking strategies. I think that one thing ACE has done well is that the school is not just teaching English, but we have opened our students’ minds to the world. Hopefully, we have improved their critical thinking as well. It is probably the most difficult thing to teach. Thinking has to be constantly discussed and challenged. If we can get our students to challenge each other and the teacher, that is when we have won.

Certainly, I don’t think that we should try to influence or change students’ deeply-held personal and cultural beliefs. Instilling critical thinking skills in our students doesn’t impact on deep personal and cultural factors. It doesn’t disrupt things, so to say, “This is cultural, so we won’t touch it” would do a very grave disservice to the country, because it is a global world and Cambodia is racing ahead. Cambodia will be deceived if it doesn’t think critically, while other countries do. I don’t think we should allow that to happen.

Cambodia is developing fast. It can only develop as a result of peace, education and welfare. Cambodia is on its feet. It’s great! That certainly wasn’t obviously the case in 2002.

We would like to thank Ms Louise FitzGerald for taking the time to speak with the team and share her knowledge and experiences.

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