You could say that Vienna International School’s new director, Lisa Biasillo, was predestined for the job. Beginning with that card she made in kindergarten:
“There’s a photo of me in a cardigan, sit ting at the teacher’s desk and it says ‘I want to be a teacher when I grow up.’” She plods through to the punch line; she’s told it a million times and doesn’t care that it might sound corny. Because the fact is, she really liked school, she tells me outside the Vienna International School cafeteria, recounting the curiosity and wonder she remembers feeling when she was younger. “I wanted to be part of a school that replicates that, where kids can take risks and be themselves.”
Before Vienna International School, she was director of two other international schools – one in Cambodia and one in Rwanda. She relishes being part of a diverse community. “When you have different cultural beliefs, mindsets, and perceptions, sometimes it takes longer to come to a consensus, but I still think it’s worth it.”
Biasillo’s hometown was deep in the countryside of upstate New York, small and insular, anything but diverse. “I had never traveled,” she confesses. “All those experiences came later in my life.” Having just finished her undergraduate degree in art history, a newlywed Biasillo had her sights set on a possible college-level teaching job. “That’s what I thought I wanted to do,” she says, “but, then life changes and you pivot.”
That change happened during a six month backpacking trip with her husband through India and Southeast Asia. “It was a real turning point,” she says. Seeing other young, ambitious “do-gooders like us” starting NGOs was inspiring, but sometimes also frustrating “people offering ‘slum tours’ poverty porn type stuff totally inappropriate.”
Many of them, she felt, had “good intentions, but didn’t know any better.” This spurred a conversation, which led Biasillo and her husband to both start the same master’s degree in poverty reduction and development management remotely, from the University of Birmingham. “There are huge bodies of research. You should educate yourself – find out what works and what doesn’t.” This insight was decisive. “If we hadn’t done that trip, I don’t know if I’d have done the same degree,” she speculates. “It really took the blinders off.”
After moving to Cambodia in 2010 and finishing her thesis, Biasillo spent what she describes as “probably the best year of my life” teaching fourth grade at the Footprints International School in Phnom Penh. The shift back to teaching was a breath of fresh air. “Honestly, I never felt the Sunday-night blues. I loved going to work. I loved the students.”
The following year, when the school needed a new director, Biasillo decided to apply. “There was a lot of risk-taking on both sides,” she remembers. “Neither party knew if it was going to work, but they supported me.” She began as a kind of one-woman band – no HR person, no admissions, no marketing team. “So I had to do them all.” Gradually she built a staff, and over the next six years added a new grade level each year, expanding from an elemen tary school on one campus to a full secondary and high school program across five campuses. “It was blood, sweat and tears!
My whole life went into that school.” Just as a good movie director takes an interest in each member of the crew, Biasillo’s passion for learning keeps her interest in both the personnel and the systems that make a school work.
“One of the things I love about leader ship is you’re never an expert in any field. Besides education, part of my job is also to know about finance and marketing.” Rwanda’s Green Hills Academy had a kitchen staff of 25 when she was there, tasked with making 1,800 lunches and snacks every day. “You have to know a bit about kitchen management,” she says, wryly. It’s all part of running a school.
It was also at Green Hills that she got to know the International Baccalaureate Program (IB). “I love all the choices in it,” she enthuses. “It isn’t ‘sit down, look at your textbook, and do your multiplication tables.’ It’s rigorous, but there’s agency in it. And it’s about collaboration. That’s how we work in real life.”
Corona regulations are now presenting a whole new set of challenges. “We’re adapting,” she says, taking a deep breath. “We’re trying to replicate normalcy for the students.” Biasillo is determined to see it through. “If I have to work nonstop on this to make sure everything is in place and safe and as non-disruptive as humanly possible – then that’s my goal.” It’s clear, though, that Biasillo’s trajectory has prepared her well for this. “Education is con stantly changing,” she says. “You have to be a lifelong learner.”