Coming home: A teacher’s journey from the Middle East to the Midlands

Sonya Duggan | AIBF
Sonya Duggan, Director at Kilminchy School House.

The path to the UAE is now well-worn by Irish graduates.

Teachers, engineers, influencers and flight attendants have travelled in their droves to the oil-rich Gulf state in search of work, prosperity and Instagram likes.

But it hasn’t always been the ‘destination’ it is today.

Montessori teacher Sonya Duggan first made the journey to the United Arab Emirates back in 1991 when the road was far less travelled.

She told the All-Ireland Business Times that it was a very different place in those days.

“I was there just after the Gulf War,” she said. “Dubai had just three main hotels – it has hundreds of them now.”

“I got the job in an international school through the careers office in Trinity College and boarded a plane after graduation.”

“The first school I worked in was a big school in Sharjah but I was soon moved to their much smaller sister school which was in a very remote area called Ras Al Khaimah.”

“It had none of the comforts of Sharjah and Dubai – It was like being sent from Dublin to the Aran Islands.”

“I travelled by bus on 120 kilometres of empty desert road to arrive at the school.”

“I remember feeling very apprehensive and thinking what have I done – I cried the whole way. The sound of the constant call to prayer from 5.30 am took a little getting used to.”

But Sonya benefitted from working with a small group of first-class children in the new arrangement, which allowed her the time to incorporate her Montessori ethos.

“I really got to work on the creative elements,” she said. “I ended up having a ball.”

The school was sponsored by one of the UAE’s royal families and Sonya’s brilliant work earned her a position tutoring several of its younger members.


Sonya Duggan, Director at Kilminchy School House with her All-Star Accreditation certificate.

The work developed into an opportunity to set up a dedicated Montessori school at a Muslim Ladies Club.

“It was an incredible experience and a steep learning curve, but it was incredibly intense,” she said. “Because you were dealing with the royal families, the stakes were very high.”

“I really benefitted from the experience and actually ended up working for several of the royal families in the UAE throughout my time there.”

Sonya also picked up various teaching contracts through the British Council at third level institutions and training schools like the National Aviation College and the Banking Institute as well as a post at an Islamic Primary/ Secondary School following the British Curriculum.

The postings gave her a unique perspective on education and she relished the cultural experiences that went along with them.

“I worked very hard but I just loved the experience of being immersed in a totally different culture,” she said.

“I thought the different landscapes, the mountains and the beaches were beautiful and I often felt deja vu – I sensed that I’d been there before.”

After ten years of hard work, Sonya moved back to Ireland in June of 1999 and opened her own Montessori school.

The previous year was spent developing her idea and putting it in motion.

Initially, she intended to open a facility in Dublin but ended up settling in Portlaoise, where she had spent a lot of time in her early years.

She found the transition challenging but soon began to feel at home in the midlands.

“The Middle East was a fantastic period in my life but I knew I needed to come home and settle down,” she said.

Sonya opened Kilminchy School House in September of 1999. Today it is the only certified Montessori School in Portlaoise and has won numerous awards to date.

In Kilminchy School House, Sonya has drawn upon her unique and impressive professional experience to develop a nurturing learning environment where children are encouraged to creatively explore their world.

Her overseas experience has given her a unique ability to effectively relate to the parents and children of various nationalities and backgrounds.

The Kilminchy School House Director was recently recognised as a Thought Leader/ Master Practitioner by the All-Ireland Business Foundation for her outstanding contribution to Early Childhood Education.

The accreditation board was particularly impressed with the range of curriculums from which Sonya has developed her own unique syllabus, sources such as Reggio, Steiner & Forest School to name just a few.

“I’m very much into holistic care and working with natural and real materials,” she said. “I like to bring the children into the outdoors to learn about nature and the world around them.”

“I live on a farm so I often bring the children there so they can see where the food they eat comes from.”

“I’m just following my little dream, I never cared about being rich. I’m all about quality and all about trying to do the best for the children, their families and the staff within our care”.

To learn more about Kilminchy School House, visit their All-Star showcase page here.