Ella Budenbender '23 interviewed Physical Education Department Chair and Director of Residential Life Mr. Tom Lill, who has been associated with TASIS since 2010 and has juggled these two important roles since 2019.
When did you start at TASIS, and what are your current roles at the school?
My connection with TASIS started in 2010 when I began working as a French teacher and counselor at a summer program called Chateau-d'Oex, and I did that for two summers. Then a PE position came up at the school, and I was a Middle School dorm head and PE teacher for my first year back in 2011. Now I am Director of Residential Life across the Middle School and High School. I am also the Department Chair for the PE Department, and I teach 9th-grade PE. I've been the Director of Residential Life for five years, and this is my third year as the PE Department Chair.
Can you please describe your educational background and briefly summarize your professional experiences prior to your arrival at TASIS?
I grew up in France, so I got an education there. I moved to the United States when I was nine. While I was in the states, I was at an international school that had bilingual French and English, but I remained in the French section. So up until I was about 14, I did all my math and science and all that in French. Then we moved to Canada and later to the UK. In the UK, that's where I did my A-Levels and then got my university degree.
I took a little break from education, did a little bit of traveling, and then went back to get my teaching certificate in 2016, which was in Modern Languages and Physical Education. It’s not a typical combination, but the UK government was offering grants if you were willing to teach a foreign language. Because I was bilingual, I thought, “Why not?” It was an easy way to do this, but as soon as I got into my first job, it was more PE than teaching French. I then got my first international job in Tanzania in 2008, and that was all PE, as I was the Head of the PE Department. I then went back to the UK for a little bit because I wanted to come back to Europe to be closer to family, and after that I got the job at TASIS.
What are your primary responsibilities as the Chair of the Physical Education Department?
The primary responsibility is to oversee PE across the three divisions from Pre-K right through to grade ten. (We don't have any PE classes for grades 11 and 12.) We have six teachers for PE classes, and at the moment my plan is to align our vision so that the Elementary, Middle, and High School are all moving in the same direction. The department has been together for a while, actually, so it’s nice to be working with people who know the school and know what my method is. It all flows quite nicely, so I think we’re making good progress.
How would you describe your teaching philosophy when it comes to physical education?
Honestly, it's evolved. If you speak to some of the students who were in my class 10 years ago, I was definitely more of the old-school PE teacher doing the Cooper & beep test, and there are probably still some rumors that linger around about how strict I was. Maybe I am getting softer as I grow older, but now my philosophy is that I want to get students to enjoy just being physically active and to hopefully gain an understanding of how important that is for their health. So really what we want to do in PE at TASIS is introduce students to a range of different ways that they can be physically active, and that can be anything from playing basketball to going for a hike to ice skating. This year we’re introducing archery as we look to include as many ways as possible to be physically active.
What is your vision for the future of physical education at TASIS?
I'd love to develop not only the practical part of our subject but also the health part. One of the big things that Ms. Sarcevic and I have done at the High School level—and I should say that our Middle School PE teachers, Mr. Morton and Mr. Yo, are on the same page—is that we would like to make our first aid unit a bit stronger. I would like to make first aid qualification a graduation requirement. I think everybody should graduate school with it—not just at TASIS but across the world. I think it's such a simple thing that we can have our students do, and it pays off so much. They can add something valuable to their CVs while also gaining critical experience. Maybe they will even help save somebody's life at some point. We've already seen this happen once: a student in Middle School helped his sister by putting her in the recovery position, and I always use that as my example. I’ve probably taught maybe 1000 plus students by now, but I only need one student to use the skills we've taught them and be successful to make it worthwhile.
Why is it important for a school like TASIS to deliver a comprehensive physical education and health program to students all the way from Pre-Kindergarten through grade 12?
I think the current pandemic and the lockdowns that we've had have shown how important it is for us as human beings to be physically active. Yes, screen time is almost impossible to avoid. That's the direction we're going in with these current circumstances, but the long-term effects that will have on our bodies will be negative. So if we could inspire a generation to still enjoy being physically fit, then that's the direction we want to go in. The main aim is to introduce students to being physically active from the fitness room to playing badminton and just enjoying it, whether it’s competitive or not.
You also oversee a substantial boarding program in your role as the Director of Residential Life. How do you manage to balance these two significant roles at TASIS?
They are definitely challenging, especially during this pandemic. What I like to call curveballs—no pun intended with the physical education part—keep on coming. I have a great team of dorm parents and dorm heads, and that helps immensely. I’ve gained a lot of knowledge from having been involved with sports, and I try to apply that to how I manage my residential life team (as I also do with the PE team). We have been working together for a while, so we're all in our grooves. There are little changes to be made, but we're not digging up all the roots of the program and trying to redo everything.
I try to maintain clear lines of communication in both of the departments. Yes, it's a bit of a challenge overall, but I'm hoping they would all say that things are moving in the right direction.
How have you seen the Residential Life Program change since you took over as director five years ago?
When I first arrived, the position didn't really exist. But considering that boarding is one of the most important aspects of the school—it's how the school started, in fact—I believed that we needed to make sure we addressed certain needs in the dorms. Having worked in both the Middle School and High School dorms as a dorm head, I wanted to try to align certain things—everything from common rooms to sleepover space for dorm parents who live off campus to discipline in the dorm. And we've evolved over the years with all of that, with valuable input from the dorm heads as well.
We've got a lot of experience on our team. Two years ago when I did my orientation, I counted up the years of experience that dorm parents have had specifically at TASIS—not counting anything they've done before. At the time we had 172 years of experience, which means you can pull on a lot of knowledge and expertise, and this allows us to deliver a strong residential life program.
What is your vision for the future of residential life at TASIS?
We like to say that this is a “home away from home” for students, so creating a safe and comfortable environment is essential. We are a community and will have our ups and downs, but hopefully we can have an open dialogue about any issues that arise. We have to provide a space in which students feel comfortable that they can have these conversations because it’s so important to develop these skills for when they leave school and go out into the world. The goal is to help students have these skills—to be able to communicate effectively when they are not happy. Or even when they are happy because it doesn’t always have to be the negative side of things.
I want to try to bring the community together. We are a small village in a way. We call it the bubble at times, and you can be up here and think there is nothing else going on around the world. Students need to know that they’re a part of a community and that we are all here to support each other.
What do you like most about working at TASIS?
From an academic point of view, I love the freedom that allows classes to focus on a specific topic and go into great detail. I am not required to adhere to a governing body that tells me I need to stick to a six-week plan of delivering these lessons. If my class is enjoying learning about nutrition—or a specific part of it, like our unit on sugar—we can expand on that, and we can go for a few more lessons. On the other hand, if they are not really into a topic, we can adapt our approach. The Olympics are coming up, for example, so we will throw a lesson about the Winter Olympics into the PE and health classes, and if we get a vibe that they are enjoying it, we can expand that. It’s nice to have that freedom and know that the school trusts us to be professionals.
Continuing from the last question, what do you think sets TASIS apart from other boarding schools and other schools in general?
Apart from the location—we have an ice rink with one of the best views in the world!—our Academic Travel Program is immense. We offer such a range of activities that, from a residential point of view, our community and the travel opportunities we present do set us apart from other schools. Our access to trains (and to airports in non-Covid times) allows us to easily travel all around Europe, which is a big advantage of coming to TASIS. Sadly Covid is putting the brakes on that a little bit, but we are hoping that things will begin to open back up soon. Before the pandemic it was not uncommon during long weekends for our students to go to Barcelona, Rome, Paris, Bucharest, and so on—and that’s one of the big ideas behind TASIS: allowing students to experience Europe. We are all wishing for Covid to go away so that we can get back to it.
In your current roles, how have you had to adjust due to Covid?
I manage nine buildings and eight dorms, but now I also manage an extra dorm, which is our quarantine and isolation facility. That evolves. Last week, we had some students who needed to either quarantine or isolate. We put in place what we needed to do in the morning, and then the government changed the rules that same afternoon, so we had to change our plans. We are continually adapting our policies and procedures. As soon as you think you have it figured out, it changes again. That’s the difficult part, and what I wish I could say to students is, “All right, Covid is going to finish at the end of January. In February, travel will open up, and our weekend activities will change.” Unfortunately, I can’t do that as we remain at the mercy of this unpredictable pandemic, and as I said, I hope it disappears quickly.
In terms of how Covid has affected us for PE, it has forced us to think outside the box in how we deliver certain units. We introduced an orienteering and hiking unit, archery, and ice skating, with the new rink coming in last year. I was able to put a proposal in, and that happened very quickly, which was nice. There have definitely been some advantages to Covid coming in and making us rethink how we deliver our units. That’s been one positive aspect of all this.