That feeling of being in the right place at the right time isn’t something that happens. It’s something you make happen, says Lolland International School Principal Dom Maher.
Photographer: Rochelle Coote Photography
Text: Sarah Redohl
Dominic Maher met his wife, Maria, at the open-air beer garden of the Victory Hotel in Brisbane, Australia. Nestled between skyscrapers in the heart of the city's central business district, 'The Vic' dubs itself "Brisbane's favourite meeting place" - a sentiment with which Dom and Maria indeed agree.
Maria, a Dane studying in Australia, had bumped into Dom at The Vic several times - the first time, literally - before the couple began dating. Though, if pressed, Dom admits it wasn't an accident. "I saw her friend pointing over to me before," he jokes. That was more than 20 years ago and 15,565 kilometres away from their current home in Køge, Denmark.
"I always expected we'd live in Denmark at some point," Dom said. "I knew that if I was going to build a relationship with someone from another country that we'd live in their country, too."
When Maria finished her master's degree in business administration, the couple realised Denmark was finally a possibility. In 2012, they put their Brisbane home on the market, anticipating they could acclimate to the idea of moving while they waited for the house to sell. "Then, we ended up selling it in a day," Dom said. Within five weeks, they resigned from their jobs, packed and shipped a container of belongings, and hopped aboard a plane with their children to a new life on the other side of the world.
Although Dom didn't see the rapid sale of the house as a sign, he did see it as "a sign we had a good-looking house!" He doesn't tend to believe in fate. "I think the sense of 'right time, right place' is more about a willingness to grab opportunities when they are in front of you, rather than shy away or take a wait and see approach."
After nearly a decade living in Denmark, Dom feels confident that he and his family are in the right place at the right time. "We took a risk moving to Denmark," he said, "but we landed on our feet. It's like we didn't skip a beat changing countries." This fall, Dom will be guiding the brand new Lolland International School into its inaugural year as the school's first principal - a position that feels just right for an international with 25 years of experience in education.
Community in Køge
For the first month the family lived in Denmark, they rented a summer home in the seaport town of Køge, 40 kilometres southwest of Copenhagen. Known for its historic town centre, Køge is home to several half-timbered buildings, including the oldest in the country dating back to 1527. Situated on a natural harbour, Køge has long been a market town, and its market square is one of the best-preserved medieval squares in Denmark.
Located halfway between Maria's family and Copenhagen, where they both expected to find work, Køge quickly felt like home.
"We bought a home in a neighbourhood we like that's going through exciting changes," Dom said. Built in the 1970s, many original residents of the neighbourhood have retired elsewhere, and families with children of similar ages to their children have moved in. "Everyone is on board to start up community Facebook pages, social groups, summer lawn parties, and running clubs." Dom's own contribution to the neighbourhood's social calendar is a Men & Beer night, copying off the neighbourhood's Women & Wine nights.
It's the type of neighbourhood where people say hello to one another, borrow tools, and keep an eye on each other's children. "You always hear internationals say how hard it is to develop close relationships with Danes because, in a way, it's like they're not accepting applications for their friendship circle," he laughed. Dom's approach to building relationships with Danes has been a bit different. "I'm grateful to fit into a community where we know one another. That's belonging; I'm not expecting more."
"One of Dom's biggest concerns when the family moved to Denmark was how their children would settle in."
Dom believes he came to Denmark with the right attitude. "I think if you're pessimistic, every small frustration feels huge," he said. Instead, Dom chose optimism, jumping in with both feet from the very beginning. Upon his arrival, he immediately contacted several sports clubs, including an organisation of Danish rugby referees (he refereed rugby in Australia). "I figured it was something I could give back and a way to connect with my community."
Dom's approach to life has always been to raise his hand for new opportunities. Professionally, this has led him to teach in a variety of settings, from teaching at boarding schools and building up a primary school in Australia to substitute teaching in London and starting his career from the ground up in Denmark.
When the family moved to Denmark, the only teaching position Dom could find at that time of year was as a teacher's assistant at Rygaards International School. However, it was only two months before he was teaching his own grade four classroom when a colleague left on maternity leave. "That's how I rebooted my career in Denmark," Dom said. "I've always been the type of person who puts their hand up and says, 'I'll help with that.'"
Eventually, he became the coordinator of the international programme at St. Josef's in Roskilde. During his tenure, the programme grew from 30 to 200 children. So when the role of vice-principal opened up at St. Josef's, Dom raised his hand. And when the role of principal at Lolland International School opened up, Dom again raised his hand. "I'd built up a school twice before, so I can bring that experience."
Bilingual kids, bilingual school
One of Dom's biggest concerns, when the family moved to Denmark, was how their children would settle in. The family exclusively spoke English in Australia, so Danish was relatively new to the children. "Their mother tried to speak Danish to them when they were kids, but they just looked at her like she was speaking gobbledygook," Dom said.
Their eldest, Emilia, now 15, was 6 years old when they first moved. She attended an early-start school programme where she quickly learned Danish before beginning primary school the following August. "By the time that came around, she was speaking without any problems," Dom said. "She's always been good with language."
A bilingual model school, half of Lolland International School's courses will be taught in Danish and half in English. "For families like mine, where our children speak two languages, this would have been a very attractive option."
Noah, now 11, had only just begun to speak English when the family moved. At age 2, he stopped speaking English altogether to focus on learning Danish - "the playground language," as Dom refers to it. "Noah sounds like a Danish person speaking English, whereas our other two children don't have that accent when they speak English."
Their youngest, Elliot, now 6, was born in Denmark but prefers to speak English. "He uses English even when he plays by himself," Dom said. "It's funny how they've all taken to the two languages in slightly different ways."
This experience was an exercise in differentiated learning, where various approaches are employed to accommodate each child's learning needs. Differentiated learning will be key to Lolland International School's classrooms. "The idea of differentiated learning is a new concept to some Danish classrooms," Dom said, suggesting that this might be a result of Danes' trademark equality. "With our model of having multi-age classes with different language abilities, differentiated learning will be essential."
Located in Maribo, Lolland International School is Denmark's first public international school, with a recognised international curriculum and an independent leader, board, and budget. Fully funded by Lolland Municipality, the school is the first to implement the Municipal International Foundation school law (Kommunale Internationale grundskole love). The law was passed in 2017 and enables municipalities to establish public international schools.
A bilingual model school, half of Lolland International School's courses will be taught in Danish and half in English. "For families like mine, where our children speak two languages, this would have been a very attractive option," Dom said.
Although many international families choose to send their children to international schools, Dom and Maria opted to send their children to Danish public school. Not only had Maria been educated at Danish public schools, but the family also thought it would fit their long-term plans as a family. When the family moved, they knew they were committing themselves to a minimum of two years in Denmark - and likely between five and 10 years. "We weren't coming with a short term point of view," Dom said. "We thought public school fits well with our long term vision and approach."
"Many families have a short-term view on their time in Denmark, but then they fall in love with the place and want to stay," Dom said. In addition, a bilingual school ensures their children are prepared for further studies, whether or not they choose to study in Denmark. And if a family's stay does turn out to be short-term? "Their kids' life is all the richer for having had that experience while here, and it probably made their time here better. Also, I think it helps people engage more with Danish society."
Other families seem to see the benefits of bilingual education. Lolland International School has already enrolled 55 students for the fall semester - half their total capacity and more than double the enrollment they'd anticipated for the school's first year. "I think our model solves the problems of families having to choose between a purely international school and a Danish one," Dom said.
Right time, right place
When Dom and Maria moved to Denmark, they knew they didn't want to live in Copenhagen, but they anticipated the capital would hold many professional opportunities.
That's what initially brought them to Køge. As it has turned out, neither Dom nor Maria have worked much in Copenhagen during their time in Denmark. "Copenhagen isn't the end-all, be-all for internationals," Dom said. "If you come in with optimism, you'll see opportunities everywhere."
"Other regions are opening up to a more international approach," he said. At the end of May, the Danish government announced 25 new higher education programmes around the country while reducing admissions to universities in Copenhagen by 10 percent. The goal is to more evenly distribute educational programmes around the country and give local communities a boost. Following a recent expansion of its hospital, Køge will be home to those studying medicine.
"There have been a lot of big investments in the region, from the hospital expansion to transport centres and warehouses," Dom said. "I think it also comes down to attitude. You have to put your hand up, and that's what this town has done."
He's seen a similar mentality within Lolland. "They recognise the Femern tunnel will increase the number of internationals in this area," Dom said. Slated to open in 2029, the 18 kilometre tunnel beneath the Baltic Sea will connect the island of Lolland with the German island of Fehmarn. This will shorten the travel time from 45 minutes by ferry to 10 minutes by car and seven minutes by train.
"Everyone is super positive and excited to take advantage of the new opportunities with the tunnel, the rebranding of Lolland, and the increased internationalisation in the area," Dom said. "And Lolland International School is a piece of that puzzle."