Meet the Principals
Tico Oms, ISB Senior School
In this interview, Tico talks about reverse cultural shocks, calculated risk-taking and the power of quitting at the right time
- Let's start from the beginning. Tell us a bit about your origins.
My parents are both from Cuba. They met in the US and I was born there. I grew up speaking Spanish. My dad was in the US army, so we moved to a new country every few years. Shortly after I was born, we moved to Germany and a few years later to Italy.
When we moved back to Texas when I was 10, I had lived most of my life outside the US and I could speak fluent Spanish, English and Italian. I think I felt the same way some of our students do now when they go back home. I experienced a reverse culture shock, in the sense that it was my home and my passport, but it felt very strange for me to be back in the US.
- On the professional side, what has been your path before coming to ISB?
I studied mechanical engineering in university and it also paid for school. I did this Co-Op program where I worked for an engineering firm in aerospace on stealth and carbon materials for the space shuttle – I even had a top secret clearance in college while working on these projects. In reality, I didn't really like engineering that much. I was just good at maths.
After I graduated, I was feeling a bit out of place. Within a week, I was in Japan teaching English in Osaka. Even though I had a job in Dallas waiting for me as an engineer, I decided not to take it, so I stayed in Japan for five years. Afterwards, I did an MBA in North Carolina and started to work for Dell computers. I moved up the ladder quickly and within a year I became product manager for laptops for Asia Pacific.
However, deep inside I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. So after working for Dell for four years and later on for some Internet companies in Thailand, I decided to go into education. I got a Master’s Degree in Education from Harvard and started teaching right away. I was convinced I would retire as a teacher, because I love teaching and I'm really good at it. But at some point, my “leadership blood” kicked in. Going from the business world into leadership and then into teaching is very stereotypical, but it makes sense, because you bring different perspectives.
- What brought you to ISB? What attracted you to take this role?
I need to work in a dynamic place; I can’t work in a place that moves slowly or is bureaucratic. I was very happy at Dell computers because in technology you move fast and I felt like this school was poised for change. When I joined ISB back in 2019, it was already a very good school, but there was an ambition to become better all the time, to take the school to the next level and I wanted to be part of that journey. This ambition still exists and is what attracted me to take the role of Principal (back then, in Middle School).
In addition to the job itself, when I visited the school and discovered Switzerland, I fell in love fast and had no doubt I really wanted to join ISB.
- What are your priorities in your new role as Senior School Principal?
There are a number of things that we are looking at this year. One of my main priorities is to take the time to understand the Senior School and build relationships before we move too fast. In addition, there are a few things we have already identified we could do better.
On the academic side, we're looking at formative assessment and grading and reporting. Another strategic priority is student wellbeing, which is currently a big concern. Our goal is to ensure that every student is known, understood and cared for here. We really want our students to feel like they have more voice in the school and more leadership opportunities (what we usually call “student agency”).
To work on these priorities, we are taking a critical look at our systems and structures, which are the foundations of our programmes. I do see our teachers working really hard, so I need to make sure our systems support that hard work so that they can get the results that their hard work deserves.
- What part of your work as Principal do you enjoy most?
The best part of being Principal in Senior School is being able to work in such a dynamic place. I'm surrounded by so many caring professionals; teachers who take their jobs very seriously and really care about students, but at the same time they are fun and energetic. Getting to know these amazing teachers has been a highlight for me. I feel like I'm at a place where there is a sense of belonging.
- What challenges have you faced in your first couple of months and how have you overcome them?
ISB is a big school and there is a lot going on, with so many activities, clubs, initiatives, etc. So it's difficult to understand every aspect of it and our systems can be sometimes complicated. From the surface things may look simple, but when you take a closer look you find multiple layers.
One of my favorite quotes is “For every complicated question there's a simple solution”. That works in engineering, but not so much in education. Getting my head around all this complexity is going to take me a bit of time.
- Which part of the ISB Mission resonates most with you?
I do like each of the four statements of our Mission and choosing one is really hard. I would choose two, each for a different reason. I like “We all have fun” because of my personality. I do like working with joy. When it comes to my values, and what I think makes the world a better place, is “We all help”. Trying to get a service-oriented mindset for our students, carrying global citizens, that's very important to me and this part of the Mission truly resonates with me.
- And from the IB Learners Profile, which aspect do you identify most with?
That's easy: Risk-taker. I think it’s because of my background. I have moved so many times and every time you move you take a risk. Every time you change jobs or countries, you take a risk. I left a great mechanical engineering job to teach English in Japan, where I didn't speak a word of Japanese. These calculated, thoughtful risks that I've taken over the years have given me an incredibly rich life.
- Finally, if you could give advice for life to your students, what would it be?
Probably there are two pieces of advice that I would give to Senior School kids, although they could be seen as counter-intuitive. The first one goes with the risk-taker I am: Quit things fast. Now, let me explain that. If the problem is that you can't handle adversity and obstacles, then you need to learn grit and determination, quitting is not going to help you. But there are times when your intuition tells you that what you are trying so hard to achieve is not a good fit for you. In life, there are “necessary endings” that help you go to a better place. So the idea that you should never quit it's just not great advice in my view.
The second piece of advice: Stop listening to people my age! The pace of change and the impact of all these changes on students’ lives is making their life totally different to that of my generation. It’s just such a different world. So while I like to think that I have some wisdom that I'd like to share, don't overrate what I or people from my generation are going to tell you. You face a very different world and you are well placed to figure it out.