Peer Learning Communities: Tom Ulmet’s Commitment to Educator Development

Photo: Tom Ulmet, Executive Director of ACAMIS (right) and Michael Iannini, co-founder of PeerSphere. 

By LeeAnne Lavender, PeerSphere Storyteller

In the world of international education, fostering professional growth and collaboration among educators is a valued and important mission, one that PeerSphere fully embraces. 

Hence, the story of the partnership between the Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS) and PeerSphere is a wonderful model of how collaboration at the regional level can impact professional learning for teachers. 

ACAMIS has supported the growth of peer learning networks for several years, thanks in large part to the dedicated leadership of its Executive Director (ED), Tom Ulmet. With nine years as the ED and five additional years on the Board of Directors, Tom’s passion for education has driven the success of ACAMIS, the Peer Learning Communities (PLCs), and other professional development initiatives within the network. The success of these PLCs has had a direct impact on the development and growth of PeerSphere PLCs as a wider offering for teachers and school staff. 

A bit of background: 

Tom’s journey to ACAMIS leadership is a testament to his adventurous spirit and commitment to education. Before joining ACAMIS as ED, his professional journey included three universities and five international schools. His work abroad began at the American School in London and the International School of Zurich. His diverse career also includes serving as the Director of Duke University’s Talent Identification Program and then the Founding Director of Bonn International School in Germany, where he played a pivotal role in building a new international school and assisting the government as Bonn’s identity was shifting and evolving from the move of the capital to Berlin.

This helped prepare him for the rapidly changing environment in China when he took on the role of Superintendent of Yew Chung International Schools (YCIS) in China in 2001, overseeing the academic operations of eight campuses. After 14 years with YCIS, he was appointed ED of ACAMIS, a connection that began when he first moved to China in 2001. The organization had just started, and he attended his first ACAMIS meeting in Xiamen in 2002.

Tom’s commitment to ACAMIS’s goal of promoting professional development is evident in his collaboration with his close friend and colleague, the late Dr. Jim Kerschen who was the first ACAMIS ED. As a result of the ongoing evolution in the host country and high turnover of leaders, they brainstormed their vision for middle management workshops to prepare China veterans for leadership roles and ensure long-term school improvement.

It was during this process that Dr. Koerschen introduced Tom to Michael Iannini, who then created PDAcademia and who is now also a co-founder of PeerSphere. Michael brought fresh perspectives about nurturing school leadership. Together, Tom and Michael worked to create interactive platforms to facilitate professional development and Michael has been a valuable provider of unique workshops for ACAMIS for 12 years. 

Starting with 10-12 workshops annually, COVID provided the incentive to add online options that helped connect people during difficult times. During COVID, Tom’s numerous written explanations of government and health policy were lifelines for Heads and the international community across China. The need to convey these messages widely helped give birth to PLCs.

The evolution of PLCs…

ACAMIS PLCs emerged as a result of these collaborative efforts. With the vast turnover of teachers and Heads during the past three years, what began as an effort to connect Heads has now become an essential hub for educators, new and veteran, to connect, share, and learn from one another. The vision for ACAMIS PLCs has grown from seven experimental groups in 2022/23 to an impressive four major categories of 39 different PLC roles, including teachers, non-teaching staff, school leaders, and Heads of schools in this current year.

From different generations, Tom’s and Michael’s different styles mesh well with Tom’s non-profit values merging with Michael’s dynamic ability to implement new ideas rapidly. Tom feels Michael’s unique personal qualities, skills, and energy as a connector have been instrumental in creating and expanding professional development opportunities for ACAMIS and now PLCs in the region. 

Tom comments: “What began as an idea to connect Heads, grew through collaboration with Michael, and without his undying energy and commitment, ACAMIS alone could not have come this far this fast. He has made it what it is and it is capable of even more.”

Tom’s commitment to international education has resulted in the growth of ACAMIS from two annual conferences to seven in the current year. This growth reflects the hard work of the ACAMIS team (including Angie Lee and Gary Henderson) over eight years. In addition, their efforts have resulted in the creation of a range of student activities.

Tom’s journey in global education leadership has left an indelible mark on the international education community, reflecting his passion for doing good for others and shaping the future of learning opportunities for students and teachers.

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