How do your children describe their education? Would words such as “exciting,” “engaging,” or “captivating” come to their lips? These are descriptions Clonlara School Founder Pat Montgomery and her daughter, former Executive Director Chandra Montgomery Nicol, believed should describe every child’s learning path. Under the leadership of Clonlara’s first non-Montgomery family member, Executive Director Sofia Gallis, our students continue to express this same delight in their Clonlara journey.
Based in Portugal, Sofia has been part of Clonlara School at every level of the organization and is the proud mother of two Clonlara students. After a successful year with Sofia at Clonlara’s helm, we thought it would be a great time to learn a little more about what brought Sofia into her role, her reflections on the past year, and her vision for Clonlara’s future.
Please enjoy this interview with Sofia Gallis.
How would you describe your learning path?
Happy and creative. A sensitive child, I loved to play and found ways to keep my joy even when I was not that interested in a class. From the age of 3 or 4 years old, I participated in ballet, sang in a choir, learned music, and performed in plays. At school, I would use my creativity to make learning more engaging.
As a student, I always had an active voice at schools and in my family. I grew up finding ways to improve my environment while looking for an escape from the boredom of school. I asked teachers to start clubs and organize festivals, and I helped them do it. While at university, I heard everyone asking for changes and improvement, so I reinstated the student council and represented fellow students at board meetings. Instead of complaining, I learned the diplomatic power of finding and implementing solutions.
How did you become interested in education?
Funny as it is, when I was young, my sister and I pretended to have a school and take care of children. I forgot about this until I decided to open a Clonlara School in Portugal. I always loved to play with and take care of younger kids.
At age 14, I interviewed to be a kids club facilitator in a five-star hotel. They loved my ideas but didn’t ask my age until the end of the interview. They were surprised and not sure what to do, but they decided to hire me on the condition that no one at the hotel should know my real age. I learned a lot about myself, my skills, and my capacities during that summer. (Now that I look back, that was crazy, but it felt very natural for me.)
I also had great educators who were good role models for me, including my mom who worked in education all her life.
Did you begin studying education right away, then?
No. Setting out on a path of self-discovery, I dedicated myself to the performing arts as an extension of my expression. While pursuing a theater degree, I worked as an actress and producer, and eventually became involved in education through art, teaching classes at public schools. Working at schools, it was difficult to “just do my job” because I was not aligned with what was happening, and I tried to help others understand that there are alternative methods for learning and teaching.
Before becoming a mom, I researched a variety of education approaches such as Montessori, Waldorf, and Integral Education. I concluded that one approach was not enough and came to believe different methods can be applied to different children depending on their needs.
How did your learning journey lead you to Clonlara School?
As a mother, I wanted to stay with my kids to support and provide rich experiences for them, allowing them to be who they are. I co-founded the Portuguese National Association for the Freedom of Education (Movimento Educação Livre, in Portuguese—or M.E.L.) to empower parents to make the best educational choices for their children in the institutional world of education. Through this work, I learned about Clonlara School and was later invited to start Clonlara’s Off-Campus Program in Portuguese.
I always wanted my children to attend the school to which I was connected, so I am currently the proud mother of Clonlara students. I have served Clonlara as program advisor, and I have enjoyed leadership team roles as Portuguese program director, European director, and global research and development director.
Tell us about your first year as Clonlara’s executive director.
Having followed in the footsteps of Clonlara School Founder Pat Montgomery and her daughter, Executive Director Chandra Montgomery Nicol, I realize their guiding principles and mine are the same.
Pat, wondering how she could transform education to make it better, began “the school that is inside her” with just a handful of students. Chandra, wanting to protect what her mother had founded but also seeing the need for refinement, built upon Pat’s vision to improve our student services and work culture.
I, too, have always been the kind of person who looks at life and asks, “What can we change to make it better?” and I think this instinct has helped me to perpetuate Pat and Chandra’s momentum to continue Clonlara’s legacy of transforming education on a global scale.
Over the past year, I learned that “you can’t run a house of three the same as a house of six!” Because we saw incredible growth, both with our staff and in the number of students we serve, I focused on tightening up our processes and procedures to ensure great service for our families. I also continued to cultivate the “Culture of Trust” that Chandra implemented to make certain our work culture exudes not only productivity but also joy.
What is your vision for Clonlara’s future?
We are so proud of the teamwork we’ve developed across our programs and departments to support our growing number of international students. Our internal culture will continue to be a place where our mission-driven staff experiences joy in their work.
We are working on several exclusive resources to increase our support for students and families. Currently, we have a team developing the Teacher Training Program (TTP)—a course designed to train our staff using the Full Circle Learning (FCL) Model, and we plan to make it available as a tool for parents, teachers, and others interested in implementing the FCL process. I can’t share yet about our other exciting resources but be on the lookout for some exciting announcements in the next year or so.
As a leader in the education sector, Clonlara plans to commission academic research to study and formally document the effectiveness of our methods. With the growing interest in our implementation of personalized education, our partnership program is getting more attention, and you will see more Clonlara affiliates and branch schools opening around the world. We also expect an increase in the demand for our in-person, off-campus, and hybrid options.
For 56 years, we have championed a student-centered approach to education. Ultimately, my vision is that Clonlara will continue to play a leading role in promoting educational freedom around the world by changing the paradigm of institutional schooling on a global scale.
What encouragement do you have for Clonlara families?
As a mother of two wonderful human beings, I can’t imagine accepting an education offering anything less than freedom, responsibility, and independence. For me, working at Clonlara is living a true mission—contributing to a more conscious, sustainable, and respectful education that helps students achieve their full potential!
I believe each person has the capacity to bring positive impact to those around them—to be a “changemaker.” Transforming education on a global scale starts with each little action we do every day when we work with each other and when we work with our families. Together, I hope we can promote authenticity, autonomy, and joy in our own learning processes at Clonlara, too.
Parents, remember to trust yourselves! Your children are thinking and feeling human beings, which means you can trust them, too, as they communicate their needs. We believe you have an active role in the school life and education of your children, and we are here to support you every step of the way.
Thank you for the inspiration, Sofia. We are glad you are leading our team!
What comments or questions do you have for Executive Director Sofia Gallis? Please share them below.