What sets an American Education Apart? An Interview with Dr. Bea Cameron

Dr. Bea Cameron is a Regional Education Officer (REO) in the Office of Overseas Schools in the US Department of State, serving Near East, South Asia, the Mediterranean, Canada, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. She has served as an REO since 1992.

Prior to joining the Department of State, Dr. Cameron was Associate Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia, where she served for 25 years. Her career began as a clinical psychologist working with autistic children at Chicago’s Orthogenic School with Bruno Bettelheim.  She has lived overseas in Zaria, Nigeria, while working on a Ford Foundation project; taught on the faculty of Columbia University; and participated as Senior Research Associate on the staff of the Joint Commission on the Mental Health of Children. Bea was responsible for strategic planning, policy development, legal issues, research and testing, program evaluation, “big picture” studies, curriculum development, special programs and services for the gifted and the disabled, student services, and administration of schools.

Since joining the Office of Overseas Schools, Dr. Cameron, in addition to her responsibilities as REO, has developed and maintained annual professional development opportunities for overseas educators including Project AERO (an American standard based curriculum support system), the Overseas Schools Leadership Institute at Potomac, the Jefferson Overseas Schools Technology Institute, and new directors training. She also established the NESA Virtual School Project in 2002 which has become the World Virtual School Project.

During a visit to TAISM this month, Dr. Cameron sat down for an interview about her long-time relationship with the school and its mission, and her views on the American standards-based learning system.

Dr. Cameron, you evaluate schools all throughout the region. What do you think about your trips to Oman?

Oman is very special. There are lots of things to do!  By being in Oman, you’re giving your child a gift.  It's not only about TAISM being a great school. You can go to the empty quarter, go up to the mountains, go to the forts, go look at the turtles…. I tell people all of the time that Oman is a fabulous place to raise a family.

By being in Oman, you’re giving your child a gift. 

On the topic of TAISM history – how have you been involved in the school over the years?

TAISM was the second school I helped to establish globally. When the Board was looking for a new Director, I helped recruit Kevin Schafer – this was over 20 years ago. I was involved in the initial planning, financing and even architectural arrangements of the new facility.  I also invited Board Member (now Board Chairman) Fawzi Mushuntaf to Washington DC to visit and observe American schools and their spacious layouts. He has since enjoyed showing me the growth of TAISM’s campus and the large size of its classrooms over the years on my visits!

Can you share the way in which you find the American standards-based learning system different from other curricula worldwide?

First of all, the pedagogy is very different in an American standards-based learning system. I get a kick out of people calling things “a new program” in the teaching world.  For example, project-based learning. It’s nothing new, it’s simply being rediscovered. This was the basis of American education, even as far back as 1933.  Americans have always focused on experiential, engaging learning that supports the development of the whole child.  It’s not lectures, memorizing, and taking notes, but hands-on activities, but learning to ask questions, critical thinking, using multiple resources and the teacher as a facilitator. I still remember my own 4th grade diorama project!

It’s not lectures, memorizing, and taking notes, but hands-on activities.  I still remember my own 4th grade diorama project!

Do you find that the American system is able to prepare students well for college and careers, compared to other models?

Many other types of curricula in the English-speaking world use a model of education that requires students to decide on a future career track at quite a young age. The American system is unique.  We’re much more focused on the social and emotional development of students, with the expectation that they finish school at 18, with no early, hard-and-fast decisions on future careers.  We focus on all academic subjects plus the arts, PE, and music, for a much more well-rounded experience.

You are a Member of the Board of Trustees of NESA – the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools.  How does this organization support and benefit its members?

By being a part of organizations like NESA, TAISM and its fellow member schools have managed to gain decades of experience by working collaboratively. Throughout the years, schools in NESA faced challenges, and all schools learned from these together. For example, some schools in NESA started virtual school back in 2001, because of political unrest. Imagine: 20 years of periodically experiencing online and hybrid learning!  H1N1 as well shut down many schools physically in the MENA region and they moved all schools online.  When Covid-19 hit, NESA schools were well-positioned and aware of the steps they’d need to take to ensure safe and continuous learning.

When Covid-19 hit, NESA schools were well-positioned and aware of the steps they’d need to take to ensure safe and continuous learning.

NESA provides TAISM with professional development support to keep connected to American education, and to bring specialists to the region.  In fact, TAISM was one of the very first pilot schools for the MAP testing program, which is a standardized, adaptive test. It was so successful; it’s now spread to being used in each of the international school regions.

What is something you think is special about TAISM, out of all the schools you visit and evaluate in your role at the State Department Office of Overseas Schools?

One of the things that I think families should appreciate greatly is that TAISM has really embodied and continued an American tradition. They haven't tried to be somebody else. Frequently, what happens to overseas schools and Americans is that we are flexible, and we try to incorporate. Sometimes we incorporate so much that the school loses its identity. You no longer know who you are. You've lost your mission and your vision. But one thing that’s been possible by having the leadership here for so long and with a consistently strong Board, is that this school has enormous tradition and stability in achieving its mission.

As Dr. Cameron retires from her career this December, our whole school would like to say a special thank you and offer our appreciation for the incredible support and insight she has offered over the years.  We wish Dr. Cameron all the best in her well-deserved retirement and the adventures still to come.