The difference between winning and succeeding

Coach Wooden

This week I have been thinking and reading a lot about competition and whether or not it has a place in education.

In 1986, Alfie Kohn wrote No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Kohn needs no introduction as an American academic who studies and writes extensively on human behavior, education, and parenting. He believes that competition, which he defines as one person succeeding at the expense of another, is always unnecessary and inappropriate at school, at play, and at home. Kohn makes very persuasive arguments against competition and rewards that continue to be widely discussed and debated.

I believe that there is a difference between winning and success and I looked up definitions of both words. Kohn also makes a distinction between winning and success. Here are the Cambridge Dictionary’s definitions of both words:

Win – to achieve first position and/or get a prize in a competition, election, fight, etc

Succeed – to achieve something that you have been aiming for

While I was searching for definitions, I stumbled across a wonderful TED Talk by John Wooden. Wooden was a very successful basketball coach. He is regarded as one of the greatest coaches, of any sport, ever. Needless to say, his teams won a lot.

Wooden’s TED Talk, The Difference Between Winning and Succeeding, has some absolute pearls of wisdom from a man who shunned many of the conventions of competition to win more NCAA championships than any other college basketball coach.

Wooden developed his own definition of success as a peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable. He felt that he needed to develop his own definition to make him a better teacher and coach and to give his students something to aspire to other than a grade or a score.

Wooden developed his definition from beliefs that were grounded in the teachings of his parents and his own experience. I have reproduced these beliefs in Wooden’s own words:

  • Never try to be better than someone else. Always learn from others. Never cease trying to be the best you can be. That’s under your control. If you get too engrossed and involved and concerned in regard to the things over which you have no control, it will adversely affect the things over which you have control.
  • If you make the effort to do the best of which you’re capable, trying to improve the situation that exists for you, I think that’s success, and I don’t think others can judge that.
  • I believe that we must believe, truly believe. Not just give it word service, believe that things will work out as they should, providing we do what we should. I think our tendency is to hope things will turn out the way we want them to much of the time, but we don’t do the things that are necessary to make those things become reality.
  • You never heard me mention winning. Never mention winning. My idea is that you can lose when you outscore somebody in a game, and you can win when you’re outscored. I’ve felt that way on certain occasions, at various times. And I just wanted them to be able to hold their head up after a game. I used to say that when a game is over, and you see somebody that didn’t know the outcome, I hope they couldn’t tell by your actions whether you outscored an opponent or the opponent outscored you.
  • If you make an effort to do the best you can regularly, the results will be about what they should be. Not necessarily what you’d want them to be but they’ll be about what they should. I wanted the score of a game to be the by-product of these other things, and not the end itself.

If we can develop Wooden’s peace of mind in our children, arguments for or against competition in education become moot. Regardless of the context, competitive or uncompetitive, our children will be able to take control and succeed – win or lose.

Posted in Mike Simpson | Leave a comment

What’s Your Outlet?

So I’m constantly amazed and inspired by how hard educators work each and every day for the students and for the school and for the community. I’m not just talking about the school day though, where we teach, plan, collaborate, assess, attend meetings and all the rest, but also about the time that we spend at night and on the weekends, and even during our holidays. Countless hours thinking about how to do better and be better for our kids, and for our school, and for our world. It’s a job that is never ever finished, and even though it’s super rewarding and spirit lifting on so many levels, it can also take a toll on a person’s mental health. 

Educators pour so much of their souls into their jobs, and we take it all home with us, and ultimately, teaching and our passion for education is very much who we are…it defines many of us. In my opinion, there is no better vocation on the planet, and I think that no other job is as important as what educators give to the future of our world, but the truth of it is if we’re not careful, it can absolutely be a burnout endeavor. Today I want to strongly advocate for the notion of taking time for yourself, and finding a daily outlet where you can decompress, re-energize, and reconnect to the most important person in your life…you. 

Education can be a very stressful profession as you know, particularly at excellent, high performing schools, and it can be difficult to juggle all that you want to achieve at work with all that you need to take care of at home. Often times we can strike a balance that seems to work to keep us on top of everything, but what can be lost and sacrificed in finding that work-life balance is our own mental health…our “me time”, which is ultimately is the key to being your best self. I guess I’m asking you this week to reflect on how much time you are actually spending on yourself each day, and if you find that it’s hardly any at all then you need to commit to making a change. I know that’s easier said then done for many of us, and carving out a daily 30 minutes or so can be a daunting task, but really, it’s something that you need to do. I struggled with this for a very long time early in my career until I found an outlet and a routine that worked. It meant getting up 45 minutes earlier than usual but the change that I’ve noticed by giving 30 minutes of my life to me each morning has been transformative and profound.

When I get up and hit the streets for my early morning runs, it’s a gift that continues giving throughout the day. It gives me time to think, and to dream, and to celebrate, and to reflect, and it gives me that endorphin rush that I carry with me to school every morning. It was hard to get into the routine for sure, but now it’s a habit that I couldn’t even think of breaking. Anyway, it certainly doesn’t have to be running, and it doesn’t have to be early in the morning, but the idea of carving out some time each and every day, and finding that outlet where you can connect with yourself is a good one…I promise it will positively impact your life, your job, and your mental health in tremendously positive ways. At the heart of it is this…you can’t be your best self for others if you don’t make yourself the top priority. So, what’s your outlet? If you have one, well done and keep it up, if you don’t then find one and watch your life start to get immeasurably better. Have a wonderful week everyone, and remember to be great for our kids and good to each other. 

Quote of the Week…Do not let a day go by without taking time for yourself – some time you spend in pure pleasure, as you see it-Napoleon Hill

Inspiring Videos –Kids Making a DifferenceOpening Doors and HeartsHow to Stop Screwing Yourself OverHow to Gain Control of Your Free TimeDelivery Man

Related Articles –“Me Time” EverydaySchedule the TimeClaiming More TimeYou Deserve a BreakReduce Your Stress

Posted in Daniel Kerr | Leave a comment

“Exciting” Expat

So why do it?

Why leave the country you were born in and grew up in to live your life overseas? Ask any international teacher and you may get a variety of answers. However, the one that will usually surface more than any other is “adventure”. What does that mean? Our friends at Wikipedia define it in part as “an exciting or unusual experience”. As I typed this in my last year in Saudi Arabia, I must admit thinking– my lifestyle choice is unusual…but exciting? Not so much.


What I have noticed about expats, including myself, after living in five foreign countries and visiting many others, is most expats recreate their western lives in the foreign city in which they live. There are very few expats who immerse themselves in the local customs, culture and language of the foreign country they find themselves in. Even those expats who marry locally never fully assimilate into the local community. While working and living in Thailand, I used to go to a local bar called the Tamarind and visit with other expat men, many who had married Thai wives. A few things struck me about them:

  1. Many spoke very little Thai.
  2. Many of them complained about the city/country they lived in and how it was substandard to the  country they had come from.
  3. Many times the Thai wives all sat together at one table chatting while the expat men sat at the bar carrying on about topics that were usually quite Western focused.

I guess this is not so unusual as it is very difficult to change from the culture you grew up. Additionally,  once moving abroad many expats find they are even more proud of where they come from. We see this in the West as well. Sure, it is the melting pot, but for every person in that pot, there is most likely an area of the country, or city, or neighborhood that caters to his/her particular heritage, be it language, restaurants, grocery stores or entertainment. It’s most likely a good thing. This is what keeps different cultures rich and unique and thriving in a global society. Also, many expats simply don’t want to assimilate to the local culture. As much as Americans expect immigrants to assimilate to American culture, very few of those Americans would be willing or able to assimilate to another culture even if they lived in one. Many times, even if you wanted to, there simply isn’t enough time.

To adapt to a new culture, one that you may know very little about, takes a lot of time. Even for the expat who stays at a post for decades, this process is not a hasty undertaking. But for the international teacher, whose usual tenure is two to five years, there is simply not enough time to assimilate to the culture in which he lives, even if it is a priority. This does not mean he cannot appreciate and enjoy the local culture, but to move beyond that can prove rather difficult. So many expats are content with simply appreciating the local culture and taking advantage (in a good way) of any opportunities it may present. However, most still cling to the culture from which they came.

I noticed this first during that trip to Venezuela. While there, I was struck by how similarly decorated my future in-laws’ house was to most other Texas homes I had visited (they are originally from Texas). In addition to the decor, most everything else was Western – the dinners we ate were family favorites, the language we spoke was English and the channels on the TV were showing American sitcoms. Two years later when my wife and I coincidentally got teaching jobs in Venezuela, we too replicated a life similar to the ones we’d had in the U.S. I see nothing particularly wrong with this — it is most likely natural and healthy. However, I wouldn’t define it as exciting…..unusual, yes, but exciting, no.

The Real Excitement: Travel

If you were to ask most international teachers, they would most likely tell you that the exciting part does not necessarily come from where you live and work, but rather where you travel during those extended vacations so prevalent in the teaching field. Herein lies the irony. Much like the American couple who work, take care of kids and watch a bit of TV in the evening, the expat couple is doing the same thing. And just like the American couple who long to get away on vacation in order to experience a break from the monotony of life, the expat couple does the same. Since daily life….work, kids, dinner, sleep, repeat is a bit tedious, we all look forward to something different… adventure if you will. But for the average American this can be difficult. Whether it is our Puritan work ethic, financial responsibilities or just the feeling that the office cannot go on without us the average American takes only thirteen days of vacation a year. Less than two weeks for the entire year.

Sri Lankan Hammock

Is the all-inclusive vacation a reflection of this limited vacation time most Americans are granted? With an entire year to daydream about an adventure, about some excitement, about leaving the tedium of daily life, a holiday of overindulgence and extravagance starts to look pretty damned good. Whether it is or not is debatable, but the fact is that during the cycle of the weekly grind, looking forward to a little escape in our life is a guilty pleasure. And the international teacher is no different. The American worker in the cubicle may daydream about giving it all up and moving to Thailand to become a teacher (which, incidentally, is not that difficult to do), but even if he did, his life may not be that different. It would be an unusual experience sure, but exciting? Not likely. The international teacher, much like the cubicle dweller, also daydreams about vacations, about a break from the monotony of life. The difference is these folks have a lot more vacation time coming to them, whether they want it or not, and most do.

The top three things international teachers talk about when together are work, kids and vacations. In many places, this is all you may have to talk about. Holidays hold a special place in the heart of the international teacher. This IS the exciting component to the adventure they all craved when going into the profession. So they take them pretty seriously. If you ask a group of international teachers where they are going on holiday (internationally its holiday, not vacation), the responses are mind blowing. You will get a list of the most exotic and interesting places you could imagine. One winter holiday, I left my then-home in the Middle East to enjoy the sunny beaches of Sri Lanka. The list of places my colleagues went to included Finland, France, Italy, Australia, South Africa, India, Zambia and Kenya, as well as others.

The Cost of the “Excitement”

The price tag of these vacations is not something most teachers talk about, but it was refreshing to hear one teacher, when asked how is holiday was, respond with a dollar figure. “How was your trip?” I asked. “$8,000,” he replied. This couple had gone “home” for the winter break. Home to the expat is wherever he grew up and/or still has family. No matter that he’s not lived there for fifteen years; it’s still referred to as home. Many teachers do go “home” for the holidays, especially the long winter break, which is usually two to three weeks long. Almost all teachers go “home” for the summer. But this is not referred to as a holiday. This is just the annual two month break that we all grow to expect. To many it’s not seen so much as a holiday, but time extended family expects to see you since you’ve been away the entire year. However, once couples start having children, many feel the pull to head back not only for the summer, but also for the winter break. This is why my colleague answered the way he did. He went from Saudi Arabia to Canada and back in the span of eighteen days. Not only is this a grueling travel itinerary, but is obviously quite expensive. The eight grand was not just for the airline tickets, but all that comes with going home, especially during Christmas – presents for the family you never get to see, a bit of shopping for yourself and any other pleasures not available in your overseas home. Is $8,000 on the high end of travel for winter holiday vacations? Not necessarily. While I traveled to Sri Lanka for nine days and spent $4,000, the family that went to Finland shelled out $10,000.

Was it worth it? Depends who you ask. Not to the guy with jet lag and eight grand missing from his bank account. Not to me, who realized, as many parents with toddlers do, that nine days in a hotel room and nightly restaurant visits with small children is more punishment than holiday. But most would say yes. They saw family, they visited a new country…they finally had an adventure. Even the colleague who bemoaned the $8,000 vacation was, a few weeks later, in the same teacher’s lounge, in the same chair, talking excitedly about his Spring Break plans which included a trip to Thailand and a room with “a huge balcony and awesome ocean view”.

Sri Lanka First Trip

For the international teacher, the idea of not traveling during a holiday is unheard of. Why would you forego the opportunity to travel? Because it is difficult?  That is irrelevant because seeing the world is what drew the international teacher to move abroad in the first place. And seeing the world isn’t always easy. To save money? Sacrilege. We are not here to save money, we are bigger than that. We are buying memories. You only live once. These are some of the responses I have gotten upon telling colleagues that I will not be going away during a break.

Saving and Investing: Exciting?

Seeking financial independence by saving and investing has about as much credence in the international teaching world as it does in the overbought, overextended suburbs of the United States. Most international teachers are no better with money than their U.S. counterparts. Most are still living the American culture of consumerism and consumption – albeit on the other side of the world.  All they have done is replaced the McMansion and SUV,  the embodiment of the skewed American Dream, with ridiculously-overpriced holidays to far-off destinations, which they believe symbolize what it means to “see the world”. Not only does this create an illusion of “living the dream”, more importantly, it robs them the opportunity to obtain financial independence and realize true freedom.

So, exciting expat? Yes, sometimes. But the cost is sometimes great and the wait long, just like it is for all working people out there.

–Originally published in The Haggard Lyon

Posted in Lindsay Lyon | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Pets Abroad: Why we finally got a dog

Adelle Grass

Living the nomad expat life, getting a pet of any kind is a big decision. That’s not to say that it isn’t always a big decision, but there are factors that might make it bigger than a different kind of life, like, say, living in your home country with family around.


In the past 15 years, my husband and I have had 7 cats (I think). The first one, Frodo, came with us from the States to Venezuela and then back to the States. Frodo found a home with a friend in the States because at that time I couldn’t imagine him traveling 35+ hours with us to Thailand when we moved to Phuket.

In Phuket, our first cat, Suzy, was super cool. Fun, loving, adventurous. So adventurous that she disappeared one day and we never knew what happened to her. Maybe she found a new home, maybe she was eaten by a king cobra or a monitor lizard in the lagoon behind our house. Who knows. We were sad.

Our next cat in Phuket, Sang Som, is still alive, as far as we know, and is living the dream in our old neighborhood. Our dear friends and neighbors “The Brits” took him after we left and he joined the pack of friendly dogs on Soi Namjai. But again, we left him behind.

In Saudi, we tried having cats with kids. The first one scratched my 6-month-old on the face and went straight back to his owner. The second one, “Mr. Kitty,” was sweet but older and simply did not suit our lives. He found a home with a former school employee who really needed a friend to keep him company in his new apartment.

Jaka the Cat

Then we moved to Jakarta and got the most perfect cat: Jaka, named for our new city.

Jaka came to us as a kitten and was like a dog from the beginning. He followed the kids around, let my son carry him by the neck without scratching him, loved to play and be near us, and seemed to love us.

He was adventurous and would occasionally leave for a few days. He liked to be out at night carousing, but it seemed like he would always come back. Until he didn’t, this past December.

The Dog Decision

Heartbroken, I thought–this is it: time to get a dog. A dog will never leave us. Over the past years, we have seriously weighed the difficulty of this decision. Specifically:

  1. We are travelers–what do we do with the dog when we travel?
  2. Summers–we leave for 7 weeks plus. Again, is this mean to the dog?
  3. Time and effort–all the regular questions. Who will get up with her? Who will walk her? Are we ready for the commitment?
  4. Money–Dogs are a “luxury” expense anywhere, but if you are overseas, the costs are exponential when it comes to moving. Our dog is most likely going to live for 12+ years, and we probably have two more countries left in our careers. Is this something to seriously consider? Are we ready for the visas, paperwork, and possible quarantines that are in our future?

These are big things to think about, and because we recently moved, we put the decision on hold. But, after living in Jakarta for almost two years now, along with the sad disappearance of Jaka, we took the plunge, and enter sweet Adelle.

Adelle Close Up

It seemed like we made the decision rather quickly, but we were able to only because we had done the research earlier and thought we understand the costs (time, money, effort).

It’s not unheard of for expats to have dogs, but it’s not the norm. We have never been afraid of being different, so here we are.

So far, here are the answers to our difficult questions:

  1. Travel: We’re leaving her with the maid.
  2. Summer: Same as above.
  3. Time and Effort: As expected.  Yes, it’s a lot, and it’s mostly me (the mom), which comes as no surprise. She is basically my “accidental child” who is making me young and tired again, but worth it in the end. (At least that’s what I’m telling myself).
  4. Money: So far, not so bad, but she is tiny (still 4-5 pounds) and we are not moving. That expense will come later, and we will suck it up.

Living abroad is not always easy, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t live a full life, which in our case at this point in time, involves owning a dog.

**Originally published on The Haggard Lyon

Posted in Lindsay Lyon | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

I wonder how to begin

I write this from China. From one of the many elite private schools that offer the “best of east and west” in education. The school has a clear mission: to get Chinese nationals into top universities abroad.

It takes nearly all the hours of a Chinese student’s life to achieve this goal. Their parents place them on the rails of this dream from birth and by the time they get into a private high school their rhythm is something like this: wake up before 6:00 am, classes all day, reading, memorizing, planning, researching, producing, uploading. When classes end, it’s highly structured extracurriculars to diversify their personalities, then supervised study until 9pm. During school sanctioned holidays they don’t rest much; they go to SAT prep school; prestigious summer programs at places like Yale and Emerson, where they hope to gain an edge in their university applications. They do hours and hours of homework set by their teachers, and the teachers who have not set hours of homework are considered “shuǐ,” like water: weak.

In the yoga class I teach after school, I see their bodies are soft from underuse. They can’t touch their toes; their spines are permanently bent towards a device that’s not there. Most have been wearing glasses for years, eyesight weakened at a young age by LED screens. They bear the bodies of their nation’s rapid progress. No moment undesignated. Study is All.

So when the list of acceptances and scholarships arrive in our inboxes and the students’ eyes glaze with joy, relief, and exhaustion, we know we have succeeded as a school. After years of monastic discipline and sacrifice, they have a bright future.

In the news, headlines about climate change become looming deadlines for climate catastrophe. We have 12 years to drastically alter our relationship to the earth before we are warring over water and food. Before millions will experience poverty, drought, famine, natural disasters. Is it true?

And if it’s true, what do I possibly teach that will matter?

At this level, a Chinese student’s life purpose is to get into university abroad. That the planet is dying is not relevant to this goal. Climate catastrophe, like the outdoors in general, is a vague blur on the periphery of their computer screens.

As a teacher, I feel I am failing them. At what point in their jam-packed day, in classes where we are forensically examining rubric criteria, when they are inundated with tasks, deadlines, assessments, do I find a moment to tell them that I’m worried for their future? Not only because of the uncertainties of climate change, but because there is no space to plant the seeds of activism in their young bodies. How will they fight for a planet that they have not yet learned to love?

I think about my own childhood in comparison. I was a latch-key kid, nannied by the local parks and ravines. My earliest education was from nature. By brother and I spent hours away from home getting dirty, testing the limits of our bodies. I remember climbing trees that were too high for me and figuring out how to get down, alone. I remember covering my body with clay from the river and then finding leeches on my skin. And then learning what leeches do, just as I learned the power of a bee sting from getting too close to a nest. And many, many times, I underestimated the sun and came home red and blistered and defeated by nature.

And of course, I learned that nature is beautiful; that grass will stain your skin green and dandelions, yellow; that water feels like velvet if I walk up the river and drag my fingers behind me; that the sun sets in the big blue unpolluted sky, and the stars come out in shapes that I can trace with my finger, and that it happens every day and yet each time it’s magic.

I realize now what this education has meant for me. I was chosen by nature—stained, scraped, scarred–initiated into the environment as a child: tribal marked. So the violence we are perpetrating on the planet, and all the impending catastrophe, feels personal. As it should.

But I have not passed this on. I was recruited to China to share my western expertise, and I have failed. Because I didn’t find the way to share the best aspect of my educational experience, this truth I have taken for granted: we belong to the earth and the earth to us, and we have a duty to protect it as we would our family and our nation. With the same fire with which we pursue getting into top universities. I didn’t find the way to teach my students what I learned from the natural world, so that they might feel curious to seek their own experiences with the planet.

And now I wonder how to begin.

Posted in Forrest Broman | Leave a comment

Saying Sorry

So this past week I was reminded on several occasions, by both children and adults, about the healing powers of saying you’re sorry for a mistake that you’ve made, and of course, how difficult it can be for all of us to say these two magic words…I’m sorry. A sincere apology as we all know can be healing, cathartic, and it can absolutely strengthen relationships between people and groups…but it’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s hard to own up to a mistake that you’ve made, and ultimately it takes courage and strength of character to sincerely apologize for something that you’ve done wrong. 

Admitting that you are wrong and asking for forgiveness makes you vulnerable, it can hurt your pride, it can make you feel incompetent or inadequate, and in many cases it makes you feel ashamed. It’s far easier for people to simply stay in denial, or to deflect blame, or to make excuses, or even to prioritize being right over making things right…it’s also interesting to me how in many instances it seems easier for kids to say sorry then it is for adults, but as grown ups we need to find the courage to model this soul bearing behavior for the little ones who are looking for us to set positive examples at every turn.  

I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences recently, and over the past several years, when I’ve put myself in a position where I need to make a sincere apology for a mistake that I’ve made, I’ve realized that the first thing that happens is that I become defensive. I feel myself coming up with excuses and looking for ways to put the blame on the other person…I deflect and sometimes I get angry, but over time I’ve been able to recognize those emotions as ego, pride, embarrassment, and shame, and I have learned that saying sorry actually makes me stronger, not weaker, and it strengthens the relationships with people that I care about more than anything else…being right doesn’t matter that much to me anymore, and making things right is now my top and only priority.

Anyway, in all the experiences that I was involved in over this past week I came away inspired. A sincere apology eventually got everyone to a better place, and in all cases, with both adults and children, relationships were strengthened. We all came away feeling heard, validated, and forgiven, and hopefully some life lessons were learned and internalized. As one little kid said at the end of a difficult situation with his friend, “thank you for apologizing to me…it’s all that I needed to hear”. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. 

Quote of the Week…Never ruin an apology with an excuse!

Inspiring Videos –Birthday PresentElectric WheelchairPut Your Phone Down
Playgrounds of the Imagination

Related Articles –It’s Never Too LateHealing PowersFalse ApologiesSay You’re Sorry

Posted in Daniel Kerr | Leave a comment

deeper knowledge

I think too many teachers treat knowledge as a pool when actually, it’s an ocean.

They set themselves up as the be-all and end-all, the source of knowledge in the classroom, and expect and desire students to show them that they, the students have absorbed all the knowledge they, the teachers provide, and reflect it back. They see students as mirrors, as imitators, as people who will confirm their own self-image.

I don’t want my students to expect that I know everything they need to know.

I don’t want them to think I remember everything I’ve ever studied. I don’t want them to think I have all the insights.

Instead, I want them to understand that teaching isn’t about providing knowledge, it’s about providing guidance to knowledge, and self-confidence in navigating that knowledge, and energy and interest to pursue more knowledge.

I don’t want them to see me as a guru- I’d rather they see me as a guide.

Instead of them thinking that I’m going to teach them “all about” World War One, or European imperialism, or the Cold War, I want them to feel that there’s never enough time to learn all there is to know.

I want them to be baffled and awed by how much knowledge there is, and humbled by the little they ‘know’– but also excited, engaged, and proud that they have ways to think about and access it.

Instead of me showing them a pool and saying, “Here’s everything,” I want to show them an ocean, and hold their hand as they explore a little corner of it.

I’ll point out what I think is important or interesting, but also hear their questions about what lies beyond, or beneath.

I’ll accompany them as they fully explore a little inlet, but not block them from seeing or wanting to explore the areas beyond it, the vastness that surrounds.

I won’t lie to them and say “Oh yes, we know it all; this knowledge is set and done; you are now prepared for anything.”

I’d rather say, “We did this much, and it’s not a lot- but hopefully you have practicing in thinking, and interest in exploring, and some slight understanding of what more you can see next.”

Posted in Allison Poirot | Leave a comment

Out Yourself


Presenting at the International School Counselor Association 2019 Annual Conference in Brussels, Belgium.

This post is the first of a two-part series on coming out.

I presented at the International School Counselor Association 2019 Annual Conference in Brussels earlier this month. The enthusiastic encouragement of my research on inclusive schools for gender and sexual minority students (sometimes called LGBTQ) astonished me. It was within recent memory that colleagues would blush, clear their throats, and look down at their shoes at mention of my work. However, I was even more surprised by the number of attendees who turned up for the session. It was right after lunch on the last day of a busy conference, and I thought it might be just me and a precious few. I was wrong: 40+ counselors packed the space to learn how to support gender minority students (sometimes called transgender, gender non-conforming, gender diverse, non-binary, etc.).

A common question during my trip to Brussels was around the international element of supporting gender and sexual minority (GSM) children. Surely the recommendations for American schools aren’t applicable to those of us working in countries where, for example, homosexuality is criminalized. What can we do then?

I’ve got several answers to that question, but the first is always: keep your students and yourself safe. You’re no good to anybody if you’ve been thrown out of the school (or the country). And you must absolutely never put children into a dangerous position. I try to avoid absolutes like always and never, but this seems an appropriate circumstance to break that rule.

The second recommendation is to out yourself. I do not mean for GSM professionals to come out – that’s an entirely personal decision. I am recommending, however, that you come out as an ally. Evaluate the security of your role within the school and your community. Reflect on your level of credibility, and how well you appreciate the context you are working in. Understand the risks you are taking, and your level of comfort with this assessment. At that point, consider ways of coming out.

Straight, cisgender people carry the privilege of not having to worry about coming out. Cishet (short for cisgender, heterosexual) people don’t need to correct those who wrongly assume their gender or sexuality. They don’t have to plan the when/where/how of their many comings-out (to family, friends, colleagues, new friends, new colleagues, etc.) Cishet people aren’t burdened with concerns about how others may react, or what the personal and professional consequences might be when they reveal that they are bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex, or queer.

In contrast to coming out as GSM, outing yourself as an ally is a relatively minor reveal. Still, safety comes first, and you’ll want to evaluate how and when to do so. Here are five fairly simple and innocuous suggestions for how to come out as an ally.  

Five Ways to Come Out as an Ally

  1. Hang a safe space poster in your classroom or office. (These are readily available to print online, in many languages.)
  2. Stock your bookshelf with queer-friendly books.
  3. Wear rainbow gear, such as a lanyard or pin, or put rainbow decorations up in your work space.
  4. Stand up for others when you see or hear discrimination. (And refrain from laughing when people make jokes at the expense of GSM people.)
  5. Show your ally pride on social media by posting on the topic, liking others’ posts, or making note of it in your profile.

While many of these gestures are subtle, and may go under the radar for many, the gender and sexual minority kids in your school will notice, and it can make a significant difference to them. When GSM students can identify even one supportive adult at school, they experience improved mental health outcomes and even have better attendance records[1]. You could be that supportive adult.

How do you show you are an ally for gender and sexual minority students?  

[1] Seelman, K. L., Forge, N., Walls, N. E., & Bridges, N. (2015). School engagement among LGBTQ high school students: The roles of safe adults and gay-straight alliance characteristics. Children and Youth Services Review, 57, 19-29.

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A Collection of Tales from the Road: #4 Austria

Austria was the second country of nine cycled across in six days during the world record attempt called ‘9in9’.  Here’s a newspaper article about it. I remember whizzing down sunny mountain valleys from a high lake at the border with Italy, north and then west to Liechtenstein.

I was joined by two teaching colleagues and a friend. It was the springtime in the Alps and after a rough patch in my life, I had just learned that I would be moving to teach in West Africa, so I was full of optimism and excitement. We crossed the start line in a ceremonial roll-out in front of some press and many red uniformed students at the Priory School in Hertfordshire, before getting into a packed minivan support vehicle and heading to the English Channel. I also felt good embarking on this serious physical challenge with a purpose having raised a lot of funds for the Children with Cancer charity, as one of our students had been battling the disease.

Austria, in hindsight became the cause of the reason why I am not an official Guinness World Record holder. We had meticulously prepared the paperwork and the necessary details as stipulated by Guinness in advance of the ‘Epic Journey’ attempt. However, the official record still stands at seven countries in a week, not nine as we had covered. Guinness told me in retrospect that we required police testimonies from each town stating that we all arrived and left by bicycle. This was a horrible surprise to say the least. It was the first mention of a need to involve police in the attempt. It would certainly have been time consuming and a headache to have done so, and therefore may be one of the reasons why the old record still stands.

Whenever I think back to our ride through Austria, one split-second springs to mind. As we approached a tunnel on the mountain road, surrounded by packed snow and ice, we noticed a policeman in his car in a bay by the road. I had researched ahead of time, and knew that it was legal to cycle through this tunnel, but this tunnel looked a bit too dark and tricky, so a flashing thought about stopping came to my mind. But we did not stop to ask the policeman for an escort. Had we done so, and had we known to ask for evidence from him that we had cycled through, maybe I would not always feel angry when I hear any mention of Guinness World Records. Maybe I would be one of 4 official record holders. We know we rode the entire way, and we know that it makes us record breakers, but alas, our names are not carved in stone.

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School Visits – Great PD

So this week we are hosting a Middle School MUN event with over 250 students from around the world, and I managed to have lunch with a couple of teacher chaperones from Panama yesterday on campus. We started talking about the amazing and powerful learning opportunities that these trips can provide for kids, but then the conversation turned to the opportunity that trips like these actually afford adult educators as well. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that some of the greatest professional development a teacher can receive is through visiting other schools. The power of school visits are immeasurable, and the take aways for educators can be profound. It’s almost impossible to leave a school visit without some new and fresh ideas, some inspiration, and of course some new human and collaborative connections that quickly build your personal learning community. 

We left in agreement that when thinking about professional development, we universally don’t think of school visits as a traditional top priority… but maybe we should. Obviously there is value in attending the right educational conference, and of course bringing in the right consultant can move us all forward professionally, and the best professional development might just be in our own buildings with teachers teaching teachers, but what about going to see other schools in action? I think we should start creating networks across the the regions so that we get into the spirit of home and away visits so to speak….setting up targeted visits with both public and international schools to work more closely together, to learn from each other, to create meaningful collaborative relationships, and to leverage the power of reciprocity. 

Thinking back on my own professional development experiences throughout my career, the times that I went on school visits, either on an accreditation team or with another colleague or two, truly stick out in my mind as some of the best learning that I’ve ever had. Last year for example, I had the opportunity to visit both IZL in Switzerland and IICS in Istanbul, to see their outstanding early childhood programs in action, and later this Spring I’ll head to AIS Vienna and hopefully ASL London to share and learn about our individual approaches to student inquiry, and some innovative ways to report out on student learning. I always return home from a school visit with new ideas, plenty of inspiration, and some new professional connections that make me a better educator and a better leader. I want to start encouraging teachers to consider school visits when thinking about their annual PD, and to find schools (and other teachers working in these schools) that can help to improve their practice, and provide a boost to their current day to day classroom experience…you really can’t go wrong if you choose the right school and the right colleague. 

Anyway, yesterday’s conversation with my new Panamanian friends was a great one, and I was excited to hear that they have found inspiration from a few things that we are currently doing here at ASP. It feels good to know that this experience has been a good one for their kids, but also an enriching one for them. I guess I’m asking you all to think about your current approach to personal PD, and start to begin thinking about a possible school visit to add to the possibilities…you won’t be disappointed. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. 

Quote of the Week…Behold the turtle: He only makes progress when he sticks his neck out- James Bryant Conant

Inspiring Videos – A Girl and her DuckGender RolesWhy Be Kind?Their Autistic SonMotivation

TED Talk –It’s Okay to be Bored

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