So I managed to read a number of truly inspiring and thought provoking books over the summer, which I will talk about in future posts, but none of them resonated with me as much as The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor. I had read it before, about 7 or 8 years ago after watching his popular TED Talk, but reading it again this time around felt a little different.
You see, I have been thinking a lot about the field of positive psychology lately and how it relates to education and student learning, and his research around the 7 principles of lasting positive change helped shape and focus my approach to this school year. I’ve always been a firm believer that the foundation of any great school begins with the culture and relationships that are present in the building, and if you can get the culture and relationships right then the really important work of schools can begin. So, with that firmly in mind, and with two years of culture and collaboration work behind us as a faculty, we have started the year with a focus on the importance and power of things like gratitude and optimism and happiness, and how we can begin cultivating these mindsets with our kids…and with each other.
To go hand in hand with this, we have also intensified our focus on the social curriculum, and ramped up our commitment to giving weight to the social and emotional learning of our students each and every day. We’ve made a commitment as a team to hold on to the people around us…each other…and to individually “being the weather” so to speak when approaching all our conversations and interactions with adults and students. We’ve committed to presuming positive intent, finding the educational courage to have the conversations that we need to have, and going to the source when we have issues or miscommunications. We’ve committed to being grateful for the opportunity that we have as educators and as change agents, and we are modeling this approach to life and learning for our kids and community.
It’s no surprise that this has been a truly amazing start to the school year, with this focus playing out palpably already in the hallways and classrooms, and the positive energy of our lower school humming at a fever pitch. Changing our own mindsets as adults has had a profound effect on how we come to school each day, and my challenge for all of us is to keep it up…and to turn this wonderful start into just “the way we do things around here”. If you haven’t read Achor’s book yet, then do yourself a favor and pick it up. It’s an easy read but a very powerful one, and a book that can truly help you leverage that happiness advantage.
Anyway, being a world class educator begins with who you are as a person for the people that you meet throughout the day, and what mindset you bring to school with you when you enter the building…so keep those smiles burning bright, cultivate that joy, and be grateful. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.
Quote of the Week….Everywhere you go, take a smile with you – Sasha Azevedo
So when you enter the front gate of our school this year you’ll notice a large photo of a beautiful little boy in our early childhood program. His smile is wide and he’s bursting with joy and the caption below is a quote of his from last year when he had just turned four…it reads, “school is my favorite time of the year!”, and you know what, I absolutely agree with him.
I don’t know about you but I couldn’t wait for the school year to begin and for the kids to arrive. I couldn’t sleep the night before and when that first bus arrived in the parking lot last Wednesday, I could barely contain myself…actually, I didn’t as I danced and sang and high-fived and hugged everyone in sight. There’s something about the start of a new school year that makes my heart want to burst, and in my opinion it is absolutely the most beautiful day of the calendar year.
From an educator’s perspective that first day of the year represents so much hope and promise…it’s such an opportunity, and a perfect clean slate waiting for us to make this year the best year of our teaching lives. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been teaching, or what role you play within the school, the level of excitement that is mixed with that little bit of nervousness is magical and unique to that first day. From a student’s perspective it’s kind of the same I think…excitement and nervousness and hope and promise. It’s all there, rolled out in front of us all and ready for the taking…that first day of the year, a perfect white canvas…it doesn’t get any better than that.
I love standing back at times throughout that first day and watching the teachers interact with the kids and the kids interacting with each other. I love the noise and the smiles and awkwardness and all the connections, new and old. Everyone is trying so hard to make the first day go smoothly…perfectly…and when it does, like it did for us this year, you leave at the end of the day inspired and feeling on top of the world, and eager for day two.
My challenge to you, and the challenge that I’m giving to myself this year, is to find ways to bottle up that first day feeling, that magic, and keep that level of joy and excitement rolling throughout the year. Finding ways to treat everyday like the first day, and to bring our best selves to work each and every morning. We might not sing and dance and jump up and down like I did last week, but the focus, the purpose, and the commitment that we all brought to that first day of school can become a daily occurrence if we pay attention to it. I love coming to school, I always have, and like another little kid said to us on the first day this year, “school is my favorite place in town”, and you know what, it’s mine too.
I want to wish you all a fantastic beginning to the year, and I want to thank you for making the first few days so amazing for our kids…keep it up and open that bottle of magic each and every day. There’s something special in the air this year, and there is no reason why this year can’t be our best year ever…treat every day like the first day of school and there’s no way that it won’t be. Have a wonderful week two everyone, and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.
Quote of the Week…First day of school! Wake up! Come on. First day of school! – Finding Nemo
so what is it like to move back to the States after 6 years of living and teaching abroad?
it’s basically wonderful. but that may be because i moved ‘back’ to the greatest city on Earth.
for me, this is the first time i’ve lived alone (no significant other, no roommates) in the US. it’s the first time i’ve lived in the US without debt (college loans paid off, no credit card debt). it’s the first time i bought new furniture that’s actually pretty nice, and that i intend to keep for the foreseeable future.
on the trickier side of things, it’s the first time i’ve lived in New York City; the first city i’ve moved to in the US alone; and my first time teaching in a private school in the US.
some things are lonely. compared to the international school bubble where work=play and colleagues are automatically the people you hang out with all the time, people here have their own lives, some in faraway neighborhoods across the river with backyards. they have things to do and people to go home to at the end of the day. (and so might you, eventually). it’s not as easy to make an instant friend just by speaking the same language; there’s none of that desperate and clingy sense of connection when you find someone from the same region of the US as you.
i could say that some people might feel a sort of lack of magic upon moving home. especially compared to living in Buenos Aires, a city of streetlit cobblestones and mournful accordions, life in the US can feel less poetic. the mail system actually functions; you can read your full rental contract; every sign and billboard is explicit and annoying instead of being a puzzling linguistic mystery. when you overhear strangers’ conversations, it’s no longer a secret thrill, now, it’s just mundane. your photos are less foreign and inspiring and people no longer spend thousands of dollars to come visit you with stars in their eyes. you no longer feel so impressive at the airport when you wait in line under ‘Residents’ at Immigration. and yet…
there is something so intensely satisfying at being back and immersed in my native culture (all the layers that apply): i feel refreshed, restored, relieved, reabsorbed; redeemed, almost. it’s so much *easier*. i know and trust the systems. i have some basis for understanding the interactions i encounter every day. i know what to expect, generally – at a bar or a grocery store or a doctor’s office. i have many fewer daily experiences of anxiety about misunderstanding. it’s fun, rather than frustrating, to unpack some cultural norm.
also: there are excellent public libraries! the subway has air conditioning! i can get amazing food from around the world or a decent $1.50 pizza slice!
and so, so happily, i am in New York, where i still encounter languages i don’t speak, people i find fascinating, and many, many layers of complex culture and history and possible ways to live.
my new job at an international school here began today, and students arrive in early September. i am so interested to meet them and to start working together.
Plagiarism is serious issue for most high schools. It is rare to find a school without a detailed plagiarism policy. Most of these policies have a few tiers, because it is common for students to commit plagiarism more than once in their academic career.
Unfortunately, the tools educators rely on only cover a small portion of things students can plagiarize. In the last decade I have seen inauthentic:
Computer Science projects
Math internal assessments (IB)
Research papers with a perfect Turn It In score
Foreign language course work
In many of these cases, the student and their parents argued that the work was not plagiarized. These people had full legal ownership of the end product, because they paid for the work, or paid for someone to help guide the work.
The work is often a result of tutoring, where the student did technically do the work, but was aided along the way. Sometimes this support did result in the tutor physically contributing to the final product.
These situations are complicated. They are well beyond someone simply copying an academic paper.
Identifying Inauthentic Work and Projects
As soon as I mention plagiarism, people are quick to react. In every conversation, people ask me, “How did you know it was not their work?” or “How did you prove they did not do it on their own?”.
I find the first problem with most project-based planning is a lack of pre-assessment. Students need a baseline assessment. Teachers should be assessing projects on some sort of trendline. The measurements being used need to monitor growth, and not simply check off rubric boxes.
If teachers set baseline assessments for every project, they can clearly find students who are developing seemingly accelerated skills in a very short time. If the teacher suspects a problem, they can require all the students to do an in-class timed assignment. These assignments need to encourage the students to practice their skills without risking their grades. Students who have been submitting inauthentic work will most likely show signs of stress, become angry, and/or ask to leave the room.
Rubrics Can Be a Roadmap for Cheating
Rubrics should guide students toward a standard, but they should be flexible enough that the end result is a product of a student’s imagination and creativity. In fact, if a student has a great idea, the rubric could be put to the side (a discussion for another time.)
I have seen an increase in teachers providing students with highly detailed rubrics, designed to meet detailed criteria. In those cases, it does seem as if the teacher would like all the student work to be nearly identical. Those highly detailed rubrics are essentially a blueprint for a tutor.
Rubrics that leave no room for personalization, are going to increase cheating. There is a sense that students need to be trusted, and educators must trust students to make good decisions. However, schools usually do not let students use phones during exams, or walk into copy rooms with cameras. Why? Because they are young and impulsive. They will sometimes make bad choices, and simply using good practice to remove temptation is not a violation of trust.
Projects are Assessments, Plan them Accordingly
Many schools have an assessment calendar or planner. These are used to ensure students do not have three or four tests (or exams) on a single day. Projects are often left off of these planning documents. I have made this mistake numerous times leading project-based courses.
Project due dates are often pushed and changed, and therefore the final due date may shift. Adding a due date to an assessment calendar requires other teachers to plan their assessments around those dates. Changing those dates can create havoc. Not being able to change those dates can impact students who need more time, or were denied time due to some unforeseen past issue.
When students feel the pressure of a final project they might make the choice to seek outside help. Having a tutor is not plagiarism, but often project-based disciplines lead to the tutor doing the work on behalf of the student.
Planning projects with three or four important due dates allows student work to be assessed in stages and reduces the risk of missing the final deadline. I personally feel that having multiple stages reduces stress, although my evidence is purely anecdotal.
Current technology and online services cannot identify cheating within project-based courses. Teachers need to know their students, and plan accordingly to reduce those impulsive and misguided choices teenagers often make.
is for those starting a first international school gig, or those in a new
position/country who could use a reminder about beginning again. Share this
with your colleagues who may fall into those categories.
Arrival: Your brain as a large sieve
You are holding onto only the basics, and letting the rest filter out, like through the holes of a (very) large sieve. You might be astonished at what you are unable to retain. At this arrival stage, you are discarding all but the most essential information so as not to clutter your mind. When a well-intentioned colleague offers tips on a restaurant they went to in a cool part of the city, your eyes glaze over; you have no idea where that is and can’t pronounce the name of the restaurant; you’ll never remember it. When a teammate mentions a unit coming up in January, you wonder if you will still be around then. An incredible amount of input is firing at you. You feel overwhelmed, like you are not keeping up. Doesn’t help that you probably are still living out of a suitcase to some extent. It’s not your fault, it’s totally normal, and it will get better!
Settling In: Your brain as a medium sieve
A couple of months in, you begin to recognize yourself again somewhat, though you are probably less organized than usual, and are still having to apologize for dropping the ball in situations when you normally wouldn’t. Your new living space is functional, if not yet beautiful. You’ve learned how to independently meet basic needs in your new location, such as getting groceries, submitting supplies requests, and saying hello/good-bye in the local language. You’ve got a number of new friends and colleagues whose company and support you are grateful for. You realize with relief that you are retaining more details – those metaphoric holes in your brain are narrowing. Your capacities are beginning to return from the chaos of the arrival, but your stamina may also be waning.
Second Semester: Your brain as a fine sieve
The background noise of life in your new place has quieted, and you are starting to shine at work. Your students’ faces, and even those of their parents, have become familiar. You know what makes your students tick, and can personalize your lessons to suit. You have established favourite spots in town to get a coffee, go for a run, get your hair cut. You’re already thinking ahead to what local souvenirs and gifts you want to bring back for friends and family this summer. You may even be inquiring about taking on additional roles at work for next year. When you get new information now, you are able to categorize and retain it appropriately.
By this time next year: A full sieve set
You’ll have an established set of sieves and will be able to determine and customize which to use in any given situation, expertly juggling between them and even anticipating in advance which to have ready. Hang in there – the adventure of a first year may feel overwhelming at times, but it will be over before you know it.
What are your tips to make it through the first
We go home to Minnesota every summer. We have a cabin on a lake. Really, in Minnesota, who doesn’t have a cabin on the lake, after all, it is the land of 10,000 lakes. You can’t drive for ten minutes without running into another lake. In our case, our cabin is in Northern Minnesota on land that has been in my wife’s family for four generations, if you include our children’s generation. It was homesteaded by her grandfather about a century ago. For a long time, the area remained very pristine. I remember when we were first married, we would go to the cabin and look out over the lake. There was no one there. One whole side of the lake was government property. One side was owned by the descendants of other homesteaders who had lost interest in the place decades before. There was only one other cabin, on the far side of the lake, over two miles away, owned by the author of children’s books who made an occasional foray to this remote location. A small river flowed from the lake and was home to one other cabin where an 80-year-old bush pilot lived surviving off of canned soups, Winston cigarettes, and coffee that he only mixed with brown sugar – the secret to a long life he once told me. The entire region was similar. Many old timers fondly recalled the old days when people logged, trapped, and lived off the land. If one took time to listen, there were stories to be heard about the people who had settled in this area and were remembered by many still living at the time. You could hear an appreciation for the land, the challenges it offered, and the respect held for those who had struggled to make it their home.
When my wife and I went overseas to teach in the early ‘90’s, we would return for a visit to this cabin each summer. There was something almost magical about returning from our overseas life each year to a place that seemed to be sitting still, content in the daily challenges’ life had to offer, and at peace with both the hardships of grueling winters, and melancholy evenings of summers on a lake. Each summer, when we returned, there were reports that one person had passed away, or another, as the older generation who were the history of the region began to move on. I barely knew many of these people, but for my wife and her family, they represented a slow change in a place they once knew and felt intimately about. A place that represented a way of life that was a part of their fabric, their memories, and who they are.
One summer, we returned, and it seemed everything had changed. Gradually, some “city slicker,” as he had been described to me, had been buying up the properties on the side of the lake that had been homesteaded by various people. He now owned all of that side of the lake and had moved forward with a development project subdividing the properties into lots. These lots were not cheap, and were largely purchased by what can be described as the “upper crust,” people from large cities looking to buy into a piece of “paradise” spending occasional holiday time in the large lake homes they built. Fortunately, they tended to be a good bunch of folks, building their homes off the lake and developing covenants that respected the land, the lake, and the people of the area. There is no doubt they introduced a new demographic though, and it is from this the true purpose of this piece is derived.
We’ve slowly come to know some of the new folks on the lake. During the summer, we will occasionally see them and wave, exchange pleasantries, even get together for an occasional coffee and light meal. It was during one of these get togethers one of these folks described her experience volunteering at a community center in one of the local townships. She had been helping out with a day camp there, and made a comment about how difficult life is for these kids and how little they had. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I found her comment a bit curious. I had been coming to this area for years, even before I had met my wife. I had always kind of envied the folks here, and the lives many of the kids lived. It was true, life is hard in that area of Minnesota, especially in the winter, and the folks who live there have to be hardy. Kids living there often have to pitch in chopping wood, working in gardens, and helping out in ways we don’t see in the cities anymore. They don’t have access to a lot of the junk food found in the cities, and, in many cases, lack reliable access to the internet, mobile phone service, and even electricity. That said, those same kids run around in the woods, hunt, fish, and seem to spend more quality time with family than I usually see in families from other economic demographic groups. Yes, life is hard there, but there are benefits as well, and I think the benefits are worth the hardships for many people.
This whole experience got me thinking about my good friend, Linda, who unfortunately passed away from cancer a few months ago. At one point she and I were talking, and she described to me an experience she had traveling through rural Myanmar with a friend of hers. While traveling, they came across kids running around barefoot, kids working in rice paddies, kids looking after younger siblings, and kids walking along the sides of roads to get from one place to another. At one point, the friend commented on how sad it was to see kids living like this. Linda told me, “you know, it was strange, but I saw the situation differently. I saw kids having the freedom to run around without shoes and feel the earth beneath their feet. I saw kids who had a sense of pride contributing to their families and helping out. I saw kids who were able to really experience life. I wasn’t quite sure what was so sad about it.”
These experiences have caused me to think about how we tend to observe and interpret other cultures. It seems we often approach other cultures with a bit of a deficit mentality. We assume others must want what we have, and therefor are suffering if they don’t have it. We’ve come across that in our own family. A few years ago, we took in a nine-year-old street boy, whom we were eventually given guardianship of. At the time we took him in, he had never worn a pair of shoes in his life. He was used to sleeping under bridges and benches, in culverts, and in parks. He ran with a group of other street kids whom he could sometimes trust, and at other times feared. When we took him in, we perceived ourselves doing a great thing, and saw ourselves as really making a difference in this boy’s life. I don’t want to say we haven’t made a difference. I think he is definitely better off with us, and is certainly happy. He is having experiences he would never have had before. In fact, while I write this he is in China participating in a soccer tournament, a game he has proven quite skilled at. From time to time, we talk about his life before he came to us. I remember the first time he talked to me about his life on the streets. His English was just developing, but he was able to clearly articulate for me his perception of life there. It wasn’t the terrible life I was expecting to hear about. Instead, he talked about what it was like hanging with a group of boys who looked after each other, knowing they were there for him if anyone else wanted to hurt him. He talked about the different shops he used to go to for handouts of food, the things he did for fun, the excitement of experiencing holiday celebrations on the streets, and the relationships he had with everyone from the police to the bus drivers. In many ways, what he described to me sounded a bit Huck Finnish, and I realized I had only been viewing his past through my own perceptual lens. When I reframed my lens, I really began to understand what life had been like for him. Yes, his life had been hard, and there had been people who hurt him and took advantage of him, but his perception of those experiences was not the same as mine. Many people have commented to us over time on how well adjusted our son is considering what he has come from. We’re very proud of him, but we’re also very cognizant of the fact that he is who he is because of his experiences and because of how he has perceived them. We’re very careful not to make him ashamed of what he has come from, and we try very hard to listen and hear how he sees himself.
The discussion we had with our neighbor at the lake this past summer really set me on a path of reflection. My wife and I are in our 28th year as international educators. There is no doubt in my mind that when we first went overseas we viewed things from a deficit perspective. I think this has changed for me though. I’ve come to appreciate and respect differences, and understand the way we do things is not always best. Whether I’m in Minnesota, Myanmar, or some other country, there is so much to learn and appreciate. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to engage with so much of it.
Stress at the start of the school year is normal. I firmly believe that a positive start leads to a positive year. Here are some suggestions I like to give to people at the start of the year.
What do you need to start the school year?
Students. Teachers. And a place for them to meet. Many of the things people stress about are not required to actually start the school year. Remember, not everything can be the most important. If everything is critical, and everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.
No, really, what do you need to start the school year?
Here is a core checklist for the school start-up:
A roster of students who should be attending
A roster of students who left, to make certain they do not return without re-enrollment
Schedules (or at least a plan for the first week while scheduling is being sorted)
Lunch planning needs to be sorted and should be running smoothly; food is important; the communal time is important
Two to three weeks of lesson plans that can be executed with the resources from the previous year
Buddies for new staff, with a simple schedule to keep them connected and interacting
Short meetings scheduled to touch base on facilities issues; administrators should take the issues down and get everyone back to work
If the technology is being unreliable, remove layers of complexity, and simply give people access to the internet; new management protocols and summer updates can take weeks to sort out
Keep students connecting socially, and offline; build community first and the curriculum will be easier to deliver
Consider Staying Offline for a Few Days
For students under USA grade level 3, I would keep them offline for 2-3 weeks. Focus on social interactivity, building a relationship with their teachers, and learning how everything works within the learning environment.
For students in who are USA grade levels 3 -5 and middle school grades 6-8, I would keep them offline for at least a week. I would make sure they do a full review of the school’s AUP and Digital Citizenship program.
High school students in USA grade levels 12 and 11 should be the main focus of IT for the first two days of school. Grades 9-10 can wait. Once the upper grade technology is sorted, move down to 9-10. Remember, high school students are flexible, and they can meet IT for support in varying intervals. High school should be all online within the first four days of school.
The Big Bang is Not Good for Stress
The Big Bang Implementation Approach (big bang), is something schools tend to do annually. Basically, they try to do everything for everyone at once. For example, connecting all BYOD devices K-12 in one day. Think about who needs access, and when they need it. Consider the curriculum. What percentage of a grade level’s content is only available with a device in hand? Do the higher percentages first, and the rest later following a steady pace.
Communicate the planning to everyone. Take a breath. And keep the school start steady, positive, and peaceful.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I discovered the US college admissions process as an educator and not as a student. As a French native, the process to go to university was painless back in the 90’s. You had to obtain your baccalaureate and you could go to pretty much any university, except maybe some elite schools where a little more than a baccalaureate was needed. In the UK, I discovered the process to apply to post-secondary programmes as an educator working in a state school. Some students went to university and they needed certain grades in their final exams (A levels) to attend this or that programme in this or that university. So I started feeling students’ exam-related distress and how we, as educators, had to support students through these difficult times.
In Istanbul, I really started experiencing the US college admissions process and all its ramifications: transcripts, GPA, challenging curriculum, extra curricular activities, SAT/ACT, recommendation letters, key dates and so forth. I have always admired our students trying to do two things at the same time: continue and finish their High School education and apply to colleges. For most students, doing both is very hard as the admissions process is usually quite time-consuming. At times, I wonder what is the main focus for some students: finishing strong or getting into college. So we support our students going through this absurd dichotomy: students can be so focussed on the admission process that, at times, their studies may be put on the back burner for a while. But, at the same time, students need good grades to be accepted into college. Exposing young adults to so much contradiction and so much stress is indeed puzzling.
Back in 2016, our college counsellor talked to me about a report released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education called Turning the Tide. The report pointed out that colleges could change their admissions process by focussing on applicants’ meaningful community service and on reducing test-related stress. This report was endorsed by 50 colleges including MIT, Yale, Harvard of course and others. We felt that it was a step in the right direction and the beginning of something new.
In March 2019 the same Harvard Graduate School of Education released Turning the Tide 2, endorsed by 159 colleges and universities. It focuses on « the critical role of high schools and parents in supporting teens in developing core ethical capacities, including a sense of responsibility for others and their communities and reducing achievement-related stress. »
The report outlines seven main points to guide parents and seven others to support High Schools. The audience is not exactly the same but those recommendations for parents and for schools are quite similar: the words ethic and authentic, and their derivatives, are all over the report. Meaningful also comes back quite a lot. There is a lot about contributing to communities and about reducing academic stress. This focus on character building is refreshing and gives me hope at the beginning of this school year. This message aligns very nicely with what we strive for in international schools: doing meaningful community service and choosing the right track to keep a balanced life between academics, sports, social life, community contributions and so on. To me, this sounds like US colleges are rolling up their sleeves and they are telling us: « look, what we really want and need in this world is good people who can support others, act ethically, and balance their lives ». And I also applaud the reality check that the report offers us: if those students and their parents are going though the US application process, they are part of a tiny proportion of lucky ones and there are so many options out there that they will find the right one for them. So all the report reinforces our message and I can’t wait to talk about it with students and parents this year. Finally, I will end this entry by this quote from the report:
« Despite persuasive research suggesting that certain cognitive, social, and ethical capacities—including the ability to take multiple perspectives, empathy, self-awareness, gratitude, curiosity, and a sense of responsibility for one’s communities—are at the heart of both doing good and doing well in college and beyond (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011; Felton, 2016; Sansone & Sansone, 2010; Syvertsen, Metzger, & Wray-Lake, 2013; Taylor,] Oberle, Durlak, & Weissberg, 2017), many parents also fail to be ethical role models during the admissions process by allowing teens to mislead on applications, letting their own voice intrude in application essays, hiring expensive tutors and coaches without any sense of equity or fairness, treating their teen’s peers simply as competitors for college spots, and failing to nurture in their teen any sense of gratitude for the privilege of attending a four-year college. College admissions may well be a test for parents, but it’s not a test of status or even achievement—it’s a test of character. (Weissbourd, 2019) »
Have a great start to the year everyone and enjoy the beginning of the year madness!
For what it’s worth…
Weissbourd, R. (2019). Turning the tide II: How parents and high schools can cultivate ethical character and reduce distress in the college admissions process.
I like this cartoon. It dispels a myth and confirms a truth.
The myth is that good ideas are born that way. The truth is that imagination generates new ideas and judgement determines whether they are good or not. To ignore these two steps is to ignore the laws of thinking.
The best way to have a good idea is to have many ideas and that is a logical advantage to us working in groups. However, that advantage is lost if we ignore the laws of thinking. The laws of thinking require us to suspend judgement until the idea has been imagined. It is impossible for us to fully imagine an idea and judge it simultaneously and to try is symptomatic of ‘Yes but… Syndrome (YBS).’
As individuals and in groups, YBS prevents us from consistently generating and maximizing the potential of good ideas for the benefit of our students. I speak from experience.
As an individual, until relatively recently, I suffered from YBS. I would spend more time judging my ideas than imagining them. Yes but it will be probably be too much work. Yes but it has probably been done before. Yes but it will probably be too expensive. Yes but it probably will not work. Any one of these internal judgments would prevent me from fully imagining an idea and would certainly prevent me from sharing it. Upon reflection, what I was really doing was predicting how other people would judge them. This in itself was quite irrational given that I have always had the pleasure of working with very open minded people who have positively encouraged those ideas that somehow slipped out.
Every now and then, I have a relapse of YBS but an understanding of the laws of thinking and two significant mind shifts have allowed me to manage it. Both of these mind shifts are connected and grounded in two Adaptive Schools’ Norms of Collaboration: Presuming Positive Intentions and Putting Ideas on the Table.
Presuming Positive Intentions
Members of effective collaborative groups consistently presume positive intentions in the thinking and actions of their colleagues. Presuming that an idea has been put forward to help the group allows members to welcome, listen to and inquire into an idea. I have never had any issue presuming positive intentions in those that I work with. I welcome the ideas of others in the belief that these ideas are shared for the benefit of the group and ultimately our students. Presuming that others will also welcome my ideas in this way has helped me to overcome YBS as has the knowledge that I am sharing ideas for the good of the group and our students. In this sense, presuming positive intentions in myself is my antidote to YBS.
Putting Ideas on the Table
Presuming positive intentions in myself allows me to fully imagine and share my ideas. Distancing myself from my ideas once I have put them on the table is what allows me to suspend judgement. Bob Garmston, founder of Adaptive Schools, often talks about not getting up on the table with your idea. I interpret this to mean that once you have shared an idea, it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the group. It is then the responsibility of the group to inquire into it, refine it, and ultimately, judge it. Absolving myself of this responsibility to judge my own ideas has enabled me to share my ideas more freely. It is not for me to say whether my ideas are good or bad and if my ideas turn out to be bad, it is not for me to defend them. The best way to have a good idea is to have many ideas and an understanding of this law of thinking, coupled with my positive intent in sharing my ideas, keeps me off the table so the group can judge them.
YBS is not suffered from alone. Groups also suffer from YBS and group members and leaders must be cognizant of this. As it is for individuals, Group YBS is avoidable and Adaptive Schools describes some practical strategies that can ensure group efficacy is not undermined by it.
Dialogue v Discussion
It is very important that all members of a group are clear as to whether the group is imagining or judging ideas. If some members of a group are imagining ideas while others are simultaneously judging them, ideas will not be fully imagined. An understanding of the distinction between dialogue and discussion as described by Adaptive Schools is useful in this situation. Dialogue is employed to fully understand an idea and discussion refers to what occurs when a decision is being made. Facilitators and meeting agendas that make explicit reference to when dialogue and discussion are to be entered into will allow ideas to be fully imagined and effectively judged.
I am sure that it is clear by now that ‘Who has a good idea?’ might not be the best question to ask of those suffering from YBS. To encourage the sharing of as many ideas as possible, a skilled facilitator or group member will use exploratory language. Instead of asking ‘How can we raise reading scores?’ a better way to frame that question might be, ‘Given our experience as teachers of reading, what might be some things that we could try to raise reading scores?’ The question remains the same but the use of exploratory language (might, could) implies that there is more than one answer and the more ideas we have on the table, the better our chances of raising reading scores.
To some degree, we all live with YBS and if our students are the ultimate beneficiaries of our ideas, it is very important that we manage it.
What’s the hurry? What I’ve come to believe about change
I consider myself to be an agent of change. I’m in my forth headship in 17 years. In each of these positions, I’ve approached them with the firm belief and personal understanding my role is to advocate and initiate change. This is partially due to the life cycle existing in schools. It is my opinion schools have a life cycle. This life cycle is determined by different factors whether it is the age of the school, financial considerations, political factors outside the school, community demographics, or other factors. At different points in the cycle, a school needs different leaders with different skill sets to move the school along until it reaches the next phase. When I come into a school, I try to be very clear about my skill set and the change I will initiate. If hired, I believe it is because it is perceived what I bring to the school is a match for where the school is at in its life cycle. The other reason I see myself as an agent of change is because I believe we have a responsibility as educators to always do everything we can to provide the very best education possible for our students. I believe it was Michael Fullan who made the point a school that isn’t changing isn’t learning. I sincerely believe this. We need to be constantly setting our sites on what is best for students, and continually evolve and change to accomplish that.
So, what have I learned about change? I think the most important thing I’ve learned is change is a process, it doesn’t create immediate results. This process is difficult in schools, especially international schools, where there is constant turnover in students, faculty, board members, and others. There is a tendency to anticipate immediate results. In my current school, The International School Yangon (ISY), we began a process of change aimed at environmental sustainability. We were still in the discussion stage when many people were already expecting to see a difference. I’ll never forget during a school event during this time hearing a comment, “here we’ve been taking about doing something different about the environment, yet all I see is the same old thing.” Michael Fullan (2013) tells us we need to look at three-year trends. From the time a change is initiated, it takes three years to really see a difference. Kotter (2011) indicates it is important people notice some improvement in 12 – 24 months, but the reality is it will take at least three years before a change is fully realized. He describes the expectation of results too soon as being one of the challenges of successful change efforts. For my part, I see a cycle of change that is generally four years. My experience has been I spend the first year in a school learning about what we need to do to build on what we are doing well, and identify what we could be doing better. The second year is about building buy in, whether that is through strategic planning, a SWOT process, professional development, or the use of a consultant. Ultimately, there needs to be a base of people supporting change, and a plan created for moving forward. The third year is a key one. This is the year change really begins to take hold in a school. It becomes clearly visible, and a sense of urgency develops. This is also a time when turnover begins to occur and key people might move on, meaning there is a need to maintain the focus and bring others along. In a sense then, this year is about momentum and focus. Year four is the year we begin to realize results. The work that has gone into change begins to see its rewards. In a sense, a new system has come into place. Then, in years four and year five, we begin to fine tune, look for ways to improve, and look for new changes to initiate as a part of that constant cycle of school improvement.
Change is not easy, and it is not without conflict. Heifetz and Linsky (2011) tell us conflict is a necessary part of change. One conflict is a result of a feeling things are moving too fast, the pace of change is too quick. In fact, when it comes to change, I’ve often been asked, “What’s the hurry? Why are we moving so quickly?” I would argue change is never too fast. In international schools, it is an absolute necessity we move quickly due to the constant turnover that takes place in the school community. We need to take advantage of those who feel ownership over a change effort. While we try to build that ownership in new folks, it is never quite the same. Beyond that, if we really believe the change we are pursuing is meaningful for student learning, then it needs to be pursued at a rapid pace so all students can benefit. Kotter (2011) agrees on the importance of urgency to the change process. He sees a sense of urgency as perhaps the most important factor for effective change, citing it as the force generating a sense of momentum for change to be successful. Garvin and Roberto (2011) concur, stating that in the absence of a sense of urgency, most people will simply continue doing what they have already done. Many international schools have a history of going through a quick succession of leaders. Garvin and Roberto describe that sense of urgency to be even more important in these organizations. It is easy to resist in these situations and find reasons to condemn the new champion of change. Urgency helps to create a climate that we are moving forward. Early in my career I became head of a school that had experience nine heads in its eleven-year history. As I began to initiate change, and confronted resistance, one teacher bluntly told me, “I’ve outlived five heads before you, I’ll outlive you as well!” I publicly reminded him of this during my welcome back address four years later.
Encouraging faculty to support change can be a challenge. There are always people who strongly support a change effort, and were a part of initiating the process. They are the base, and are the ones who can move things forward. Unfortunately, they are not the loudest. The ones we hear from most are those who resist the change. They are the ones who run to different members of the community to complain the change is destroying the school, they are too overwhelmed, or they are not being listened to. Garvin and Roberto (2011) describe these behaviors as dysfunctional routines. Early in my career, I used to pay too much attention to these voices, believing I need to “win” them over. I’ve since changed my opinion. Reeves (2209) describes the types of people we find in an organization where change has been initiated. He says roughly 17% of the people are leaders, people who can be counted on to move the effort forward. He describes 81% as middle of the road, either followers or fence sitters. Then, he describes the remaining 2% as the toxic 2%. Unfortunately, these are the ones we tend to hear the most from, and so tend to give the most attention to. Alternatively, he says we need to focus our attention on the 17% who are leaders as they will guide the middle 81% forward, leaving the toxic 2% behind. Heifetz and Linsky (2011) go further. They believe it is essential to court the middle group. It is essential they see the change is serious, including the termination of those who constitute the unwilling, so they begin to see a need to get on board. Fortunately, there are ways to filter out the toxic 2%. At ISY, we engage in an annual SWOT activity. During these meetings, various members of the school community have voiced their support for the changes taking place. While some teachers have voiced resistance, others have voiced their strong support. In our most recent SWOT analysis, one teacher even described the changes taking place as nothing short of “transformational.” We hear these same sentiments in our end of year teacher interviews, and our annual community climate surveys, where it is clear the support is strong for the changes taking place across the community. I have found find ways to hear how the majority feel about a change process can eliminate the power the toxic 2% take on by being the loudest.
I want to be clear and acknowledge change is not easy. It is hard work, but it is necessary work. I believe most educators support the idea of change, knowing it means a better education for our students. Change is also stressful. According to Heifetz and Linsky (2011), stress is important for change to occur. It creates an awareness and motivation for moving forward. In fact, they indicate complaints of stress around change are a good thing. It is an indication something is happening, people are being asked to act differently, and are moving forward. I personally believe stress is important, but we need to balance the stress and put it into perspective while not falling back onto complacency. We owe it to our students to be constantly learning, to be in a hurry to provide them the best education they deserve.
STEPHEN DEXTER, a native of New England, has been a teacher and administrator since 1994. He finally discovered that the Swiss stay thin on a diet of chocolate, cheese and wine by walking a lot and not eating or drinking to excess. He is currently taking a gap year in the Swiss Alps to rediscover his passion for education and to understand what chief innovation officers really do.
DANIEL KERR is now Lower School Director at the American School of Paris. He previously served as Intermediate Division Principal at Academia Cotopaxi American International School in Quito, Ecuador, and prior to that was the Middle School Principal at SCIS in Shanghai, China. Dan has also worked at JIS in Jakarta, Indonesia and he began his International career in Abu Dhabi. Dan is thrilled to be joining the ASP family and will be accompanied by his wife, Jocelyn, who will be working as a counselor, and his two children, Max and Gabby.
KASSI COWLES is an IB English and TOK teacher currently based in Shanghai. She has worked in international education for the last 8 years in Canada, Togo and China. Her writing explores issues of educational reform and how to create authentic and creative learning communities.
MATTHEW GOOD & NIAMH CONWAY are international school teachers who met while working at the British School of Lome, in Togo, West Africa. They later moved to Uzbekistan, where they spent four years at Tashkent International School, each summer exploring another slice of the world by bike. Their Pedalgogy website allows users to follow the touring teachers on their two-year bike trip around the world.
BARRY DEQUANNE is currently working as the Director at the International School of Zug and Luzern (ISZL). His blog explores topics in K-12 education and school leadership within the framework of five focus areas: Academics, Activities, Arts, Leadership, and Service. The blog also explores professional articles and highlights recently read books.
EMILY MEADOWS is an alumni of international schools and has worked as a professional educator and counselor across the world, serving children and families in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. She holds master’s degrees in the fields of Counseling and Sexual Health, and is a PhD candidate researching inclusive policy and practice for LGBTQ+ students. Emily is a consultant on gender and sexual diversity and inclusion in international schools: www.emilymeadows.org
DAVID PENBERG is an urban and international educational leader/consultant with a deep commitment to progressive education, understanding global mindedness, and new school creation. He abides by the dictum of E.E. Cummings who said: “ I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing, than teach ten thousand stars not to dance.” He is presently the Head of School of Innovate Manhattan Charter School in New York City.
SHANNON FEHSE Shannon Fehse has spent her entire teaching career overseas, having lived and worked in China, Mexico, Colombia, Taiwan, and presently, the UAE. As a textbook definition extrovert, she talks to anyone, and enjoys listening to stories and different perspectives on life. Shannon has a somewhat faulty filter and often says what other people are thinking, but this typically works out favorably. She offers opinions and insight into the benefits and challenges of job hunting, dating overseas, and general issues that affect international educators.
MIKE SIMPSON is the Director of Curriculum and Learning at The International School Yangon. Originally a lawyer from New Zealand, Mike has also worked in schools in Qatar, Venezuela, and Lesotho. Mike has a particular interest in the development of collaborative and innovative learning communities. He hopes that his blog might be of interest to other teachers and school leaders as they nurture these communities in their own schools.
GREGORY HEDGER Dr. Gregory Hedger has recently been appointed to be the head of the International School Yangon, in Myanmar, beginning in fall 2016. A native of Minnesota, Greg has served in education for over 25 years, including 13 years in the role of School Director at Cayman International School, Qatar Academy, and most recently as Superintendent at Escuela Campo Alegre in Venezuela. Greg promotes international education through his service on the boards of AAIE, AASSA, and his work with the International Task Force for Child Protection, his contributions to various periodicals, and his work to promote the next generation of leaders through workshops and teaching.
LINDSAY LYON is a seasoned English and Theory of Knowledge teacher currently working at JIS. She and her husband have taught abroad as a teaching team for fifteen years in Venezuela, Thailand, China, Saudi Arabia, and now Indonesia. They write about expat life with a focus on money and savings in their blog The Haggard Lyon. Here you will find some of the same, and other musings from Lindsay on life overseas with kids, teaching, technology, and staying balanced in a busy world.
NICHOLAS ALCHIN is High School Principal at the United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who has lived and taught in the UK, Switzerland, Kenya, and Singapore, he has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes and speaks widely on educational matters. He enjoys traveling with wife Ellie, and kids Tom (10), Millie (13) and Ruth (16).
TONY DEPRATO Tony DePrato has a Master’s Degree in Educational Technology from Pepperdine University and has been working as a Director of Educational Technology since 2009. He has worked in the United Arab Emirates and China where he has consulted with schools in both regions on various technology topics. In 2013, Tony DePrato released The BYOD Playbook a free guide for schools looking to discuss or plan a Bring Your Own Device program. Tony is originally from the US, and worked in multimedia, website development, and freelance video production. Tony is married to Kendra Perkins, who is a librarian.
ETTIE ZILBER is a consultant to International School Communities and Families in Transition and a veteran international school educator and school leader. She has served in independent international schools in Israel, Singapore, Spain, Guatemala, China, and most recently in the USA. Her expertise extends to such topics as international school models, second/foreign language acquisition, communicating between diverse groups, the impact of international mobility and relocation on children, parents and staff, the special family experience of the educators’ children, the orientation of newcomers, multi-cultural communities, catalysts for teaching internationally, and marketing of international schools. She is the author of Third Culture Kids: The Children of International School Educators. She can be contacted at email@example.com
HELEN KELLY has taught in and led schools in Africa, Europe and Asia over the last twenty years. She has led educational technology teams in three schools. Helen is currently the Lower School Principal at Canadian International School of Hong Kong, where she leads Project Innovate, a Pre-K-12 initiative to bring future-ready learning to the school. Helen completed her Ed.D in 2017 on the emotional challenges that school leaders face in the course of their role. She leads workshops on improving the wellbeing of leaders and educators in international schools.
TRAE HOLLAND is the Director of Academia Cotopaxi’s The ONE Institute, has been a leader in both the non-profit and business sectors, and has 19 years experience teaching both in the US and in international schools, with a specialization in learning differentiation. You can reach his website at www.traeholland.com.
FREDERIC BORDAGUIBEL-LABAYLE is the High School Associate Principal and IB Diploma Coordinator at Academia Cotopaxi American International School in Quito, Ecuador. Fred was born and raised in the South West of France; he finished his studies and started teaching in the UK, then went on to Istanbul and he is currently in Quito. Fred likes to pause, reflect and share his experience as an international educator and administrator.
SUE EASTON is the Director of the Teacher Training Center. She has worked with international schools for the past eleven years, on four continents, in roles focused on enhancing teaching and learning practices. This experience has made her passionate about the topic of change and how to best make change to support students and student learning. Her blog will explore this topic through the lens of PTC, TTC and CTC trainers’ words of wisdom.
ALLISON POIROT is currently teaching IB History, Modern World History, and Psychology at Asociación Escuelas Lincoln in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She taught previously at King’s Academy in Madaba, Jordan, and at public and charter schools in and around Boston, Massachusetts. She has a deep interest in progressive pedagogy and believes in fostering student autonomy and empowerment.
The International Educator (TIE) is a non-profit organization committed to matching the best educators with the best international schools around the world.