Kinderland Malaysia
Kiddy123 Frame
The children's house
Small Wonder Malaysia
Choo Choo Train Baby & Child Care Centre
British Montessori, Ampang
Odyssey, The Global Preschool (Mont Kiara)

Women in Malaysian education: Datin Zara Davies, British Montessori

by on 07/03/2024 3162

Datin Zara Davies was just in her teens when she discovered her passion for teaching children. The veteran educator, who has over 43 years of experience, first cut her teeth at various schools in the United Kingdom, United States, and Malaysia, before deciding to open British Montessori School in Kuala Lumpur. That was three decades ago. 

Today, the school is still going strong, with Datin Zara at the helm. Anyone who speaks to the mother of five can see that she is still very passionate about her work. 

Tell us more about yourself.

My first foray into education was as part of a careers exercise at my high school, where they trained students for specific career paths. I was sent to teach at my old alma mater in Cardiff, Wales, called Gladstone Primary School, where I did a three-year attachment. 

I enjoyed myself very much; the environment and just the innocence of the children–I found it so delightful. So even though teaching was something that I tumbled into, I ended up developing a genuine love for children, and becoming a teacher.

What inspired you to open your own school?

I opened British Montessori School 30 years ago. Prior to that, I had been teaching for a decade, overseas and then in Malaysia. My experience in private schools left me feeling that children were treated as a commodity. They wanted children to attend and parents to pay the fees, but they didn’t really care about what was going on with the kids or if they were prepared for life after school. I couldn’t consciously be a part of that. 

How to Prepare Your Child for Transition to Year 1 From Kindergarten

It became a dream to open my own school. I talked incessantly about it for nine months. Then one day it just came together: I partnered with someone with experience opening a school, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Initially it was 18-hour working days: I painted the school, did the plumbing, cut the grass, cooked the meals, taught the children, and did everything that needed to be done for the school to become. And it did. Along the way, partners left, and I started doing it on my own, and here we are today. 

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a kindergarten owner and an educator? 

The process to get a license can be demanding, as you must liaise with different departments such as the city hall, the fire department, and the Ministry of Health, even before you apply with the Ministry of Education. 

Another challenging part is communicating with first-time parents. You must be gentle as there is a connection that they feel with their child, and you have to respect that. They see themselves in their child, and any pain the child feels, they feel it a hundred-fold. When parents come to me with these emotions, I assure them that it’s okay because it shows that they’re good parents. 

Could you share with us some of the greatest joys in your field of work? 

Getting to see the children, and when they discover something new, which happens daily. If we’re talking about memorable occasions, ones that stand out are when we had two cerebral palsy pupils at the school. 

When they joined, they were in wheelchairs. We encouraged other pupils to support them, such as during recess when they would help bring the girls out to play together. These girls left our school being able to walk unaided. I think the happy environment and the peer support worked and enabled them to do something they couldn’t do when they first came in. 

As a leader, how do you inspire your staff?

I recognise their contributions, and I also encourage parents to show their appreciation for the staff. For example, if the parents are late in picking up their children from school, I don’t charge them an additional fee, but I encourage them to bring something nice for the teachers as a thank you.

Datin Zara Davies

If you build your staff up positively, it helps when you need to address issues. There was an incident once when a parent, who was from a corporate background, wanted me to take a teacher to task because of a minor mistake. While this style may work in corporate, it might not apply to a school environment, and I was able to explain this to the parent who understood my point. 

Yes, rectification may be needed if mistakes are made, but there is a time, place, and manner to doing it. It’s important to build them (the staff) up strong, so that when the time comes, they’re sturdy enough to take it well. Managing these aspects are very important. 

You’re also a mother and grandmother. How do you balance work and family life? 

Being Montessori-trained and in the teaching profession, you apply it at home as well. There was a lot of juggling, but I focused more on (providing my children with) quality time. I’d assign individual time with each of my kids. If I was running an errand, I’d take one child along and spend one-on-one time with them—so we all had a chance to spend time together. I also had a lot of support from my late mother-in-law. 

How to Prepare Your Child for Transition to Year 1 From Kindergarten

My children attended my school, so they were my own students—but it didn’t always work out well! When you’re in early childhood education, people expect you to be a better parent, but the truth is, you’re never going to be perfect. 

It’s all a process, and parents need to accept that at some points in life, you need to guide your children but not guilt trip yourself. At the end of the day, all children are different, so you can only do your best.

What are some improvements that you hope to see in children’s education in Malaysia? 

I think that we need to move towards better regulation, especially with childcare. When young families move to the city in search of jobs, they lose the support of extended family figures such as grandparents (who can help with childcare). 

Educated and qualified women who are taking five to ten years out of the workforce to manage the household not only reduces the available workforce and impacts economic growth, but it is also a recipe for dysfunctional upbringing as it is during these years that most marriages fail, and the father opts out of affording financial support. Child maintenance, especially for divorced Muslim women, is a big issue, and it has negatively impacted families. 

Women in Malaysian education Datin Zara Davies British Montessori

Currently, we have institutionalised taskas and tadikas, as well as the taska di rumah programme. The latter is a good way of giving people who have a genuine love for children the opportunity to take care of kids and play a role in their formative years. For us to have a better society, these women (running taska di rumah) need better support as it is a gateway to more quality childcare facilities. 

I believe there is a knock-on effect to the economy of the country: if these women operators are supported the right way, whether monetarily or with more training, then other women can continue working without worrying about what would happen to their children. If the taska does a good job in the first four years of a child’s life, these children go off to kindergarten, and if they in turn provide children with a place to learn well in a happy and nurturing environment—those are basically the seedlings for your work force.

What advice do you have for women who are keen to forge a path in education? 

Only go into it if you have a genuine love for children. Kids aren’t sweet every day—this is coming from a grandma who just spent two weeks with her nine-year-old grandson. It will be stressful. If you don’t have that love, then don’t go into teaching, as you might end up doing more harm than good.

There are parents who come to me with concerns, where they’ve been told that their child is ‘dumb’. There is no such thing. Saying that is the most damaging thing someone can do. It makes the parent give up on their child, and it makes the child give up on themselves. Every child develops in a different way, and some develop in certain areas more than others.

If you love the child, you won’t use these descriptions on them, and you’ll find a way to help them learn things their way. A teacher is a person who gives the child space and time to grow, understands the development of the human brain, and recognises their methodology may not be the only way for a child to learn. 

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