The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
Faculty Feature: Mr. Patrick Alava

Joy Mack ’21 sat down with Middle School Math and History Teacher Mr. Patrick Alava, who began teaching at TASIS in 2011 and was honored to receive the Khan-Page Master Teacher Award in 2018.

Patrick AlavaWhen did you start at TASIS and what subjects do you teach?
I began teaching at TASIS in 2011, and I’ve been teaching math and history in the Middle School ever since. I am also the Coordinator of the Middle School History Department and have served as a dorm parent in the Middle School dormitory (Belvedere) for the past eight years

What else are you involved with in the Middle School?
I’m a 7th-grade advisor, I lead the Climbing Club and the Ski and Snowboard Club, and I run a Service Learning group called Poverty Awareness.

Please describe your educational background and your career in education prior to TASIS?
I was pre-med, but I didn’t really get to decide. I graduated high school when I was 15, and my dad said “you’re doing pre-med” because he always had this plan for me to be a doctor, so I finished my pre-med undergraduate degree when I was 19.

But I said, “I don’t know if I want to be a doctor because I don’t know if it’s for me,” and I went and got a job where I worked in Information Technology consulting for five years and then got my MBA. I continued consulting for the following six years until I moved back to Canada, where I started to teach rock climbing to kids on the weekends. And then my friend said, “If you love it so much, why don’t you just become a teacher?”

And so I did. I went back to school and did a PGCE. I taught for a year in Canada, a semester in Japan, and two years in Turkey, and during a 2011 hiring event in London, I met the headmaster of TASIS at the time.

How would you describe your teaching philosophy in essence?
The thing I do on the first day of school is I ask the kids, “Who is the most important person in the room?” And most of the time they respond, “The teacher.” Then we talk about how the most important person in the room is not the teacher, it’s them as the students.

Something we also do on the first day is talk about what a safe, supportive, and joyful place of learning is because that is what a classroom needs to be. If kids don’t feel safe, if they don’t feel supported, or if they’re not happy to be learning, then I can’t teach. In fact, I won’t be able to teach them anything. We talk about what the kids need to feel safe and supported and joyful in a classroom, and that’s our starting point.

I also think about how in Middle School, my job is to make kids love math and history, so I’m constantly thinking of ways to make the material accessible and entertaining by looking at documents and asking students to interpret what they mean, as real historians do. It’s the kids trying to make sense of what they see. History is also always about perspective and teaching students to look at different perspectives on one piece of information, so that is why I love teaching history.

For me, teaching math is about teaching good habits. When we try to solve a math problem, if you have discipline and good habits, then math doesn’t have to be this scary subject. You just go through the steps, try to understand them, and try to tell a story.

What do you like most about working at TASIS?
I think TASIS creates a space where you can have a lot of teachers with many different teaching philosophies, and the school trusts us to teach our students based on what we feel the students need while teaching to the curriculum and keeping learning standards in mind. I do a lot of experimenting in my classroom, and I am grateful that TASIS allows me that room to not only help my students grow and learn but to also help myself improve as a teacher in the process.

“If kids don’t feel safe, if they don’t feel supported, or if they’re not happy to be learning, then I can’t teach.”

What historical event affected your life the most?
In 1972, when I was four years old, martial law was declared in the Philippines. One of our past presidents, Ferdinand Marcos, wanted to hold onto power, so what he did was take absolute power.

This is one of my first memories as a kid. I remember my dad would put me on the windowsill, and even though it was early in the night, it was so quiet outside—there was absolutely no sound. I asked my dad, “Why is it so quiet?” and he told me, “No one is allowed to go outside.” And this was the sort of quiet that’s heavy and oppressive. 

That was my first experience of, at a very young age, knowing what it’s like for people to not be able to speak their minds or to just have a dialogue. That continued for about 15 years, and I saw how it affected the people around me. I also knew of people who had disappeared or had been wrongfully imprisoned, even killed. I knew of fellow students who had participated in demonstrations and then were taken away. That shaped a lot of my life because I have an idea of what it is like to have your freedom taken away, and freedom is something a lot of kids take for granted.

Who is the most significant person in all of history in your opinion?
I’m very partial to Gandhi. I support a lot of what he teaches: non-violence and trying to get what you want through peaceful means and by engaging in dialogue. His life was all about trying to achieve what he wanted by listening to others and being peaceful, which is something we need so much more of today. Often these days we don’t try to sit down at a table like civilized people and talk. When does that happen? Often, people can’t talk to each other anymore just because of their political affiliation, and so there’s no room for conversation. That’s why I am partial to Gandhi—because he achieved a lot in his life through dialogue and non-violence.

Did you ever see yourself teaching history, or was it just a subject you enjoyed studying in school?
Well, the first school I worked in was very small, and they asked me to teach English, math, and history. I actually started out thinking I would be an elementary school teacher because the first year I taught I worked mostly with younger students. I was all set to continue working with grades four and five, but when I came here the headmaster asked me to teach math and history, and the school has been kind enough to let me stick with that.

I think my life would be simpler if I just taught math, but I really enjoy history. It’s not an easy subject to teach because it’s a challenge to make history interesting and accessible, and that’s something that cuts both ways. It is exciting for me, but it can be challenging to make things concrete in history because I cannot physically demonstrate, for example, the decline of Feudalism. It’s a subject that can be challenging and maddening but also very rewarding.

What is unique about teaching at TASIS?
What I described to you earlier is not unique to TASIS, but it is rare to find in a school. I think just the combination of the trust that the school gives to me in terms of teaching the way I think students should be taught, the beauty of the school, and my love for constantly being surrounded by all these different languages is what really makes TASIS unique.

In addition to the professional advantages, TASIS also offers me a lot personally. There’s a lot to be said for teaching here because in terms of learning languages and having new experiences, this is a good place to be. I always say, with every new year it gets harder and harder to leave because I see my former Middle School students who are now juniors or seniors. On any given night here I can just sit in De Nobili and say hello, and they’ll sit down for a chat. That’s hard to give up.

Patrick Alava with students

What is one moment or breakthrough you’ve had in your career that you will never forget?
Part of the reason I love teaching is that there are always challenges, but this gives you a chance to sit with that challenge, work on it, reflect on it, and ultimately try new things. These challenges are what fuel the breakthroughs.

I have a student with a learning difference, and just last week he finally went up to the board and asked, “Can I present?” That for me is a breakthrough. Teaching is about those small breakthroughs that happen daily that you need to honor and celebrate.

Last week on Thursday, a student who struggles with anxiety and has struggled with math all year was calling out answers as we were doing work on the board and getting everything right. Those are the breakthroughs I treasure—I can’t just pin it on one. In my view, if I defined a breakthrough as a giant leap, I would lose sight of these small things that happen every day and make teaching worthwhile. At the end of the day, I love to look back and say, “This happened today. This was a breakthrough.’’

What is one piece of wisdom you always try to impart to your students?
Sometimes I tell my students that there’s a lot that is in their control. They have a lot of choices. They have the choice to take ownership of their learning, the choice to find joy in studying something.

One thing I learned later in life is that learning is fun. That’s why I’m still studying today. Every time I have a chance to study, I do. I study languages by myself because learning is really fun if you can find a way to be open to the possibility that it is. I think that learning is the most amazing thing, and it’s not so much about acquiring wisdom as it is an invitation to all my students to open their minds and be open to the possibility of learning being fun.

When we sit down to do a math problem, for example, it’s actually a detective story. When you sit down to do history and are able to draw parallels between things that people did and begin to see that there are patterns and themes in history, that’s fun.

I hope that when I teach, they can take away some of my enthusiasm for math and history. Who knows, maybe they can also develop their own love and affection for those subjects. That’s what I hope to do every day when I show up to teach.

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