Brett Penny, Director, American International School Of Budapest

  • 27 Jan 2021 4:47 PM
Brett Penny, Director, American International School Of Budapest
Brett was born in Mosgiel, New Zealand. After graduating from Dunedin College of Education and Otago University, he moved to Auckland, where he taught in private education. In 2000, Brett moved to Bangkok, Thailand, to assume his first international post. 

From Thailand, Brett moved with his wife Debbie to Zürich, Switzerland, where he held Deputy Principal and Principal's roles at a leading international school. Following eight years in Zürich, Brett and Debbie, together with their children Liam and Hannah, moved back to Bangkok, where Brett worked as Elementary Principal and then Head of School. 

From early in his career, Brett was fortunate to work with outstanding leaders who invested in his development. Brett was selected as a Klingenstein Fellow, completing his Master of Arts in Private School Leadership at Columbia University. In more recent years, he completed an MBA in International Education from Keele University.

As a leader, Brett understands the influence school culture has on students and their learning. As such, he works hard to support teachers in their work, removing barriers to ensure their success in the classroom. He strives to support a positive school culture where all community members feel valued and experience a strong sense of belonging. 

Currently, Brett is leading the revision of the school's guiding statements. He is excited to commence work on AISB's next strategic plan to consider the future of learning and how AISB can provide its students with unique learning opportunities. 

Brett's wife, Debbie, works as an EAL teacher in the Elementary School, and their son Liam is in High School and daughter Hannah in Middle School. 

In his free time, Brett enjoys spending time outdoors with his family, researching his Land Rover restoration project, and taking time to keep abreast of developments in education. 

1. When did you arrive in Hungary and what brought you here?

I arrived at the end of July, to start work here on the 1st of August. Due to Covid travel restrictions we were very grateful to get here and overcome those challenges. 

Previously we were living in Thailand, where the Covid measures were incredibly tight. At the time of moving to Hungary my wife and the children were in Canada, and at that point the borders were closed here. So we are very thankful to get over as planned, for this great placement at a school I have known for many years and was on my list of places to work.

When the job came up I jumped at the chance. AISB’s reputation globally is outstanding, for the professionalism of the faculty here, and also the resources as this is a phenomenal campus, there are not so many schools like this - so all that is what attracted us here.

2. Have you ever been an expatriate elsewhere?

I lived in New Zealand up until 2000, that’s when I decided to go overseas for a couple of years to save some money, as at that point I was a little despondent about teaching to be honest. Then I discovered the world of international education, and really discovered the professionalism that exists in this community.

It was while working in Thailand that I met my wife, and in total we had nine really happy years there, with eight years in Switzerland before. Eventually I moved from teaching into the role of principal, we got married in Thailand, our kids were born there, and we loved it.

I came to really value this international community, and think I was fortunate to live in a really diverse communities with so many nationalities – there are about sixty here, and sixty-five in my previous school - and I just love that richness, and think it is a real privilege to be part of it.

3. What surprised you most about Hungary?

I had a couple of visits when I came over for interviews, so I saw Hungary eighteen months before starting the job, spending a weekend here. When I arrived here, I was just blown away, it is such a beautiful city. I walked around for the whole weekend thinking wow, everywhere you look is stunning. Friendly, friendly people! People go out of their way to be helpful. That was my very first impression.

I visited for the second time just as Covid was kicking off, around March 2020, and things started to be more serious. I managed to come across to Hungary, but I could not visit the school because it had such strict restrictions in place at that point, but I managed to see a bit more of Budapest during that visit and again I just loved it.

Budapest is such a beautiful place. When I joined here in July I was looking at it differently, as our new home, and I thought about how each of those previous visits were in different seasons. It is also lovely to see the city now that it is winter. 

4. Friends are in Budapest for a weekend - what must they absolutely see and do? 

I probably haven’t seen as much as I would have because of Covid, and the demands in the first few months here, but some of our favorite things to do would be contrasting walks, both through the city, taking in the beautiful old buildings, walking up to the Castle district and looking down on the city, and also a walk in the forest. I mean, how many places can you do that in within such close proximity? You have nature at your doorstep, history at your doorstep, what a wonderful combination.

5. What is your favourite Hungarian food?

I love desserts, I mean I love all food, but I really love sweet food. Somlói Galuska is exceptional, and my favorite. My first meal here, when I came over for the second time with my son, was at an every-day place, nothing special. That Hungarian meal is memourable, we had chicken paprikas with local noodles, and my son said he thought it was the best meal he had ever eaten. I loved it too, we love the food here and the variety on offer. 

6. What is never missing from your refrigerator?

Hungarian wine and bubbles. The wine here is spectacular, it really is. In Thailand the wine was incredibly expensive, because of the import tax. I am from New Zealand, and so I know good wine, there for a really average wine costing 10 dollars, however you would pay 30 dollars for it in Thailand at a supermarket. Here an average bottle of wine is exceptional, and a very good wine is just superb.

7. What is your favourite Hungarian word?

I can’t say I have a favourite yet, unfortunately I haven’t managed to get to that point. Maybe the one people say when they are leaving, “Szia”, is something I would say in English, and so feels familiar.

8. What do you miss most from home? 

For me it would be access to family. We can in a normal year see family during holidays, but it is not the same as to see them every day even for just five minutes. Family relationships are different this way, I guess, and that is a challenge.

9. What career other than yours would you love to pursue?

I had quite a few jobs when I was younger, as I started working from the age of about 12 years old, and there has never been a job up to now that I didn’t like. I think you can always find the good in everything, when I worked on camping grounds, or when jack hammering or laboring, I enjoyed them all at the time.

To answer the question, I think I would say something aligned to my hobbies. For example I am restoring a 1962 Land Rover, in Canada. I have it at the house and although I am not so mechanically-minded it is enjoyable, so I would say I would do something to do with cars, a totally different career!

10. What's a job you would definitely never want?

I applied, when younger, to go into the police force, however I ended up getting into teaching instead. I think it was a good decision, just because I get to look at life through the most optimistic lense, I think policing is a really challenging profession.

11. Where did you spend your last vacation?

In Canada on the way here, in lockdown for two weeks :-)

12. Where do you hope to spend your next holiday?

My hope would be in Canada this summer, but being realistic due to Covid that may not be possible. Having said that, we just had our Christmas break here because we could not travel, and I think it was one of the most enjoyable breaks we’ve had. A holiday at home, just wonderful, getting out for walks each day. Summer here would be a lovely thing, even if we would not get to see family.

13. Apart of temptation what can't you resist?

I am probably going back to those Hungarian desserts here; as I struggle to walk past a place with Somlói Galuska.

14. What was your favourite band, film, or hobby as a teen?

Music: I really liked U2 when I was growing up.
Movies: probably the first three Star Wars films, I enjoy watching them these days with the kids.
Hobby: I was played basketball, that was my love then, whatever I did was based around basketball.

15. Red wine or white?

Red. One favourite is Sauska Cuveé 7.

16. Book or movie?

For me books are all around my work. Anything I read is on leadership, educational improvement, and those sorts of topics. So I only read non-fiction, and I only watch fiction.

17. Morning person or night person?

Night, in fact late night, I do struggle in the mornings.

18. Which social issue do you feel most strongly about?

For me because I work in a school, the biggest social issue that concerns me is the social media influence on this generation. When we were kids, we could make mistakes with not too many people watching, and it would soon be forgotten. This generation does not have that privilege. Social media is so powerful and great in many ways, but it can negatively affect children later in life, and so they are less fortunate than us in that regard.

19. Buda or Pest side?

I have to say Buda - we live on the top of District 2, it is a beautiful area with the forest very close, plus we are close to the school, it’s beautiful.

20. What would you say is your personal motto? 

Treat everyone with the respect you would hope to receive – this is the way I was raised, and to see the good in people, and I think so often now many people see the negative, but we need to be reminded daily how good people are and not lose sight of it.

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