WHAT DID I LEARN DURING MY FIRST YEAR AS AN EXPAT?

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After being inspired by both my favorite blogger, ExpatEducator, and International School Services, I opted to reflect on my first year of International School teaching, August 2001-2002.

Here goes:

Teamwork is essential. 

Your teaching team is your lifeline. You must focus on friendly, respectful communication. Keep all opinions about teaching practices and school environment to yourself for the entire first year. Your team will help you survive your posting. They can also make your first year miserable. I was very lucky, in this regard. My teammates were funny, supportive, foodies, and sympathetic to my struggles.

Stress is merely another obstacle to conquer.

The stress during your first year overseas is immense. It gets easier. Realize that you are in for an overhaul of so many preconceived notions. I arrived in Singapore two weeks before 9/11. Walking past machine gunnery and bomb sniffing dogs each day to teach ten-year olds made for an incredibly difficult year.

You are a guest.

Do everything that you can to learn and show appreciation of your foster country. Treat your newfound address as you would your hometown. Read up the local politics. Take time to understand the local issues. Listen to the people around you and get help to understand. Again, keep your opinions to yourself, however.

Learn the language. Taking a summer off during my second stint in Asia to learn conversational Japanese was a huge break for me. Many doors opened up for me. I regret not learning Mandarin while in Singapore. Where ever you are, learn the language. People have used LiveMocha. It is an incredible resource and I recommend it highly.

Smile often and expect problems.

Live conservatively, volunteer, and take pubic transportation. Save your money. I got to travel the world, visit Hawaii and Bali, but finished the year as broke as when I started. Do not do this.

Find friends not associated with your school. International school teaching is incredibly demanding. Find friends outside your realm that will not remind you of work.

Accept yourself and your current situation. My dad told me often that I am going to have to learn to appreciate being alone if I am to survive overseas. He was so very right. I remember him specifically telling me to quit feeling sorry for myself and that if you are experiencing culture shock in Singapore….”Try moving to Mississippi!”

You are a professional, act like one. Do not personalize decisions made from your administrators. Move on.

Shop in the summer. Let’s just say that nothing fits and leave it at that.

Parents need help too. I learned quickly that my students’ parents were dealing with the same degree or more of homesickness and isolation. To be effective, I needed to cultivate relationships with parents even more so than back in the states.

You are a work in progress. Take it easy on yourself. You will make many mistakes but you will see it through. Finishing my first year overseas was a major life-affirming event. I am now into my eleventh year as an expat teacher and I could not be more happy.

 

What did you learn about your first year overseas? Educators and Parents, please feel free to write to me. If YOU are movingoverseas for the first time, please keep use me as a resource.

Good Luck!

You can find me on Twitter @LarryHermanHK

You can read my blog @ ExpatTeacherMan.com

 

Parc Aventure

We all need to build risk into our lives in order to grow
We all need to build risk into our lives in order to grow

No, that’s not a typo…Parc Aventure is a high ropes course in Aigle, Switzerland. Though nearly within view of our mountain village of Leysin, it’s about as physically distant (though not psychologically) as you can get from my day job.

Exactly.

Although we are often surprised by the things that happen at school on a daily basis, how many things really put us outside of our comfort zones so that we can really grow (and learn)? Preparation is the name of the game. Structure. Predictability.

My hope during these summer months is that you throw all of that out the window and go outside, WAY outside of your comfort zone. Maybe it will give you a little indication of what a new student feels like on the first day in your class. I am terrified of heights. So, I went on the high ropes course and walked between two trees, fifty metres off the ground, on a wobbly ladder.

Did you see Nik Wallenda walk across the Grand Canyon in the USA the other day WITHOUT a safety harness? If that doesn’t say third grade teacher I don’t know what does. And this is a guy who lost seven family members doing the same thing. He said, (I paraphrase), that either you die or you feel more alive than ever. Now we don’t want every day at work to be like that, but it isn’t so bad feeling more alive than ever from time to time.

Not that I’m encouraging you to put your lives at risk (Parc Aventure after all had safety harnesses), but get out there with that sweetness of summer at your fingertips and take a big risk that has absolutely nothing to do with your job and everything to do with embracing life. It will make you a better educator and a better leader.

See you on the zip line.

TEDxHongKong Thoughts

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The following post is cross posted from Expat Teacher Man


“There is no great genius without a mixture of madness.”

Aristotle

I  attended TEDxHongKongED  event to “exchange ideas, discuss thoughts and ask questions.” I listened to some influential people speak about learning and the power of discovery. Below is a series of questions that I wrote in my notebook during the course of the day.

Parents

Why do you send your kids to school each day? We haven’t always taught children in a classroom setting…why do we now? Are you satisfied with your child’s academic growth? Is the classroom setting the best avenue for learning? Can we do better? Does sending your kid to school each day makes economic and intellectual sense? Do your kids complain of boredom? Is educational technology used often and appropriately in your child’s classroom? Is your school doing what is right for your child? Is your school doing what is right for the future of the planet? Does your school preach classroom management over individuality? Are you aware that nearly 20% of American students suffer from some sort of mental disorder? (Merikangas KR, etal. 2010)

Teachers

How do you feel about your career path? Does the digital age frighten you? Is this possibly the golden age of teaching or will only the best, brightest and luckiest be well compensated? Are schools truly future focused?  Do teachers develop a curriculum that above all else, keeps them employed? Why do you still teach inside a classroom setting? Can you effectively reach more children online? Could you be better compensated online? Do we let kids truly discover? Or rather, do we set them up to discover what we consider is important? Do we censor too much? Is the school day too long? Do we pay enough attention to physical fitness and the arts? Do your students look bored? Do your kids complain of bullying? Do your kids receive individualized and proper services? What percentage of your students need counseling support?

Administrators

Do you treat all with fairness, dignity and respect? Do you offer multiple ways for student learning? Do you trust your staff? Are you effective in conflict resolution? Are families involved in improving curriculum? Do you support continuous improvement? Are you using your time wisely? Do you have effective communication skills? Are you willing to hear bad news? Do you inspire your staff to do great work? Are you socially innovative? Is creativity a part of your school’s mission? Do your students create music? Do you allow students to discover mathematics? Do you offer an environment where students can learn from failure?

TEDxHongKongED was most definitely time well spent. I look forward to the speeches being uploaded so that I can share them with my professional learning network.

 Reference:

Merikangas KR, He J, Burstein M, Swanson SA, Avenevoli S, Cui L, Benjet C, Georgiades K, Swendsen J. Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in U.S. adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Study-Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2010 Oct. 49(10):980-989.

 

The same, but different…

graduates

This story popped up in the American news media last week. I watched it shortly after reading Bambi Betts’ blog posting on . It got me thinking about another institutional structure standing in the way of progress; the GPA sorting system. This feeds into the arcane assessment structures of many schools, which of course feeds into the grading system, the grade level sorting, and the ultimate institutional marker, the transcript. At South Medford High School in Oregon, 21 students were deemed worthy of valedictorian honors, leading many experts to display skepticism, watering down of standards, everyone gets a ribbon, dumbing down of the curriculum, etc.

What I found noteworthy was the disconnect on both sides of the issue. The Principal praised the students for “having the work ethic and training to get through college.” One of the students said “I know what I have accomplished and I know what others have accomplished. And we’ve all accomplished different things.”

Hmmm. This is going to cause problems. As schools start becoming less ‘institutional’ and more dynamic, student centered spaces for learning, these systems are going to break down. Having one or twenty one valedictorians is not the point. Accomplishing different things but ending up with the same ‘number’ is. What are we going to consider learning and how we are going to continue to feel the need to provide proof of such for those other institutions called ‘higher learning?’ After all, aren’t we still going to have to measure this stuff?

I definitely don’t have the answer. But if we are going to continue to move the conversation away from conformity and calculations of achievement based on chemistry grades and more toward “accomplishing different things” then it’s going to be a mess, albeit a very interesting one.

Save Your Best For Last

So for this final post of the 2012-13 school year I want to do three things……….I want to quickly thank you all, and celebrate the incredible work that you did for our students and for our community over the last ten months. I also want to send out a general caution and reminder about the importance of the final week of the year with our kids, and then finally, I want to wish you all a relaxing, happy, and re-energizing summer break. It’s hard for me to believe that we’re already at the end honestly……..it went by so quickly, and we accomplished so much as a team. Looking back and reflecting on the year that was makes me very proud however, and gives me an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction because I truly believe that we’ve taken some huge steps forward as a school, and more importantly, we’ve become better educators for our students.

This was a challenging year as you all know, and in many ways a year of positive change. We rolled out a few game changing initiatives that took us all some getting used to…………the new report card and engagement rubric, the electronic portfolios, and the in-house professional development SIPS just to name a few. All of this of course was on top of the successful lead up and completion of our WASC self study/accreditation that really validated so much of what we feel good about as a school. To come through the year so positively as a faculty is a true comment on your professionalism, your quality as educators, and your unwavering focus on the betterment of our students……saying thank you doesn’t come anywhere close to expressing the gratitude that I have for you all (and specifically for your effort and collective contributions) but please know that I feel honored and privileged to have had the opportunity to work with you this year……..I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together, and I’m excited about how we’ve set ourselves up for an even better year next year!

Before we all head off for a much deserved summer holiday though, I would like to ask that you make these final five days your best to date for our kids. We all have our sights set on Friday afternoon I know, but please remember that the final week of a school year is an incredibly emotional time for the students. As seasoned adults, we have learned over time how to deal with change, and sadness, and our emotions……..but even with that life experience it’s still hard to say goodbye and find closure with the year. Because international schools tend to be very transient environments, we have a large number of families who will be heading off to new adventures in a few days time, and this can be very, very difficult for the kids. Please keep a close eye on our beautiful students this week, and be patient with them as their emotions ramp up and get the best of them. I’m sure some of them will act a little out of character as they struggle to deal with all that they’re feeling, and they need your compassion, guidance, and mentorship this week more than ever…………. Kids remember the teacher that you are in June so save your best for last!

Have a wonderful summer everyone, and to those of you who are leaving us…..you’ll be missed terribly……all the best and good luck! To those of you returning or joining us next year, get ready for another amazing ride, as we take the next step toward becoming a great school. Thank you all for an incredible year, and for making this the best year of my professional life…….. and as always, remember to be great for our students and good to each other……..

Quote of the Week…………
What do I want to take home from my summer vacation? Time. The wonderful luxury of being at rest. The days when you shut down the mental machinery that keeps life on track and let life simply wander. The days when you stop planning, analyzing, thinking and just are. Summer is my period of grace. — Ellen Goodman

Attachment – A Something in a Summer’s Day (Emily Dickinson) A something in a summer

TED Talk – The Happy Secret to Better Work (Shawn Achor)
http://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work.html

It was a VERY Good Year.

My kids took many pre-assessments for learning. This one is for the Fantasy unit.
My kids took many pre-assessments for learning. This one is for the Fantasy unit.

 

As an elementary school teacher, this was a very good year.

I helped kids successfully manage their standardized tests. Taught kids to read, write and appreciate mathematics. I taught kids the meaning of empathy. Taught kids to be proud. Taught kids to be respectful. Taught kids the importance of literature. I taught kids to celebrate when completing a writing piece. I taught kids to reflect on their learning.

I helped gather evidence and write my school’s accreditation report. I was a member of the strategic planning measurement team. I coached parents on the changes to the school’s math and literacy curriculum. I coached kids to write children’s books. I coached kids to love poetry. I gave two speeches at our school’s chapel services. I taught kids to solve their problems.

I mentored our incoming team leader. I received continuing professional development in literacy and educational technology. I dabbled in podcasting. I updated and designed curriculum in realistic fiction, poetry and fantasy genres. I created online tutorials for math homework. I started an online educational blog which now has over six hundred followers. I received excellent ratings from my school’s leadership during our formal evaluation process.

I received many notes of thanks from colleagues, parents and students.

My students wrote:

I like how Mr. Mernin gives us examples for how to do the problems.”

“He always shows us the way and explains it in a fun and interesting way so that’s why I like him so much.”

I like how he helps everyone, he helped me by explaining to me how to make inferences.”

“I like it because he make’s it sound easy for us and really fun.”

“Mr. Mernin always adds humor into the lessons and he makes learning fun. “

“Mr.Mernin is funny and is not boring.”

Mr.Mernin is strict sometimes too so we don’t go overboard with having fun. He gives strict grades. He is always pushing our thinking to the next level.”

What I like is that Mr.Mernin always lets us share. I also like that Mr.Mernin makes teaching fun and that he reads aloud.”

“ I like that Mr.Mernin is never TOO strict and is usually fun and humorous. I usually find it hard to work properly if a teacher is constantly berating me for my incompetence.”

“I like Mr. Mernin’s teaching because when we start a new unit, he will always tell us about it or give us a problem about what we’re learning.”

“I like how Mr. Mernin is always precise, especially in math. Whenever my lines are not straight, or I do not specify in my writing, He always reminds me to do my best to be precise.”

“I like how Mr. Mernin always tries to help us and if we could figure out what to do he lets us figure out what to do until we get it.”

 

And finally, one parent actually wrote:

“We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for spending more time with our son so that he may understand society, the meaning of life and the importance of Math. You are the best teacher at this school, Hong Kong, and maybe the world.”

  

Have a great summer, teachers. Rest up for another amazing year in 2013-2014.

 

Resisting our way to irrelevance?

Just about every day now I read a blog or a get an email or are a posting on face book or twitter that reminds us that ‘ schools are preparing kids for the 20th century living’’; or ‘did you know that your grandmother would be very much at home in the classrooms of today?’  etc.

Virtually EVERYONE agrees that much of what we practice as ‘schooling’ today is, at the very least, outdated and,   at its extreme, could have dire long term consequences for society.  Both those who hire new graduates, as well professors of first year university students consistently complain about poor communication skills (speaking AND writing) , poor work ethic (sense of entitlement) , and little to no critical and creative  thinking. And innovation…well, seems that only lives in mission statements.

Despite our lofty rhetoric and those mission statements, we are still doing pretty much what we have always done and – surprise- we are still getting what we have gotten for the past many decades.  And I could not agree more…in fact I have been a co-conspirator in the spreading of those messages…for most of my 30+ years in education.

So why are we STILL hearing it, now 13 years into the century?   Just about every other industry or collective human endeavor has responded fairly rigorously to the changing landscape of human activity and civilization -and many industries have actually CREATED the 21st century skills.  So what’s up with education?  The ONE industry that, in theory, all the others depend on?

Why are we in school apparently so resistant? Why do we continue to engage in practices that we actually know don’t’ work and teach a curriculum that we –and all of society – know is outdated and ill-equipping our kids?

A few of my ‘whys’:

1.      The parent trap.  Everyone is an expert in education because they had one once… unlike technology, or medicine, or telecommunications, parents have been to school.  They have been primary ‘users’ of the place called school and the thinking goes… ‘I turned out pretty much ok, didn’t I’ (they think) – so just keep doing what you did when I was in school.’   Familiarity as a design principle for schooling actually breeds complacency.

2.      Chicken- hearted.   Accountability is only for the ‘real’ world.  Despite all the rhetoric, even in private, international schools, we do not hold ourselves accountable for the actual bottom line of our work…learning.  It is stunning that the schooling industry STILL manages to sell the notion that teachers should in no way be evaluated on how their students learn, or whether they learn.  How can any reputable, worthy effort NOT be measured by the one thing it is designed to produce?  The data on the effect of teachers on learning are strong and clear.  We seem afraid, very afraid, to hold our own feet to the fire… and we get away with it.

3.      No proof. And no way to get it.  This one is a killer.  We don’t want to make a guinea pig out of any kid – it’s SO much better to continue using methodologies that we KNOW don’t work!  Far be it from any school to ‘experiment’.  We need proof…lots of proof…that something works before we consider it.  So who starts? Where are the R and D departments in schools?  And by the way, we could list right here ten things we already know about learning that we do not see routinely in schools…because of the ‘selective ’proof approach so many of us take.

4.      Universities…the albatross? Probably a good 80% of what we do in K12 schools is rationalized with…’but that’s’ what universities expect and far be it from us to, again, jeopardize any kid’s chances’. Course-based rather than competency-based curriculum; 180 days of seat time; grading schemes, essay writing, exams…what’s a school to do? That’s what they want so we must comply. Could it be that just maybe it’s not all their fault? That our education industry has failed to fully engage in the right, ongoing conversation between k12 and higher education.

And finally…

5.      Wimpy leaders. Yes, it true.  While we have many well-intentioned, organized, learning-centered school leaders, far too many – I go out on a limb and say most- won’t/don’t get out of the proverbial box.  In our international schools, we are typically INDEPENDENT of restrictive bureaucracy and run our schools in organizational environments where we able to turn on dime – but we don’t…at least not often enough.  Could it be leadership capitulates all too often to the parent trap or chicken-heartedness, plays the ‘proof’ card or hides behind the university albatross?

Worth wondering as we approach ever closer to the cliff of irrelevance.

Typewriter

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Nothing about “computer” says creativity. Although the things that apps can do are startling and digital media is now considered an art form, that word screams binary code. 1970. mainframe. Your father’s brown ford LTD.

But consider the word “typewriter.” It’s so old fashioned it’s cool. And it has the word ‘writer’ in it which warms my soul. I remember when I first flipped over to ‘keyboarding’ from ‘typing’ in the, let’s say, last century. At first it was okay. Easier on the fingers, yes. Of course the best function was ‘delete’ instead of reaching for the bottle of white out or replacing the correcto-ribbon. And then there was memory and storing everything on those cool floppy disks. They were actually kind of stiff, not sure why ‘floppy’ was used. In any case, I never turned back.

Then last week I saw a program on the news that said typewriters are making somewhat of a comeback. Similar to the turntable comeback I guess. Too much distraction with technology, too much digital noise standing in the way of a singular act of putting one needle on one vinyl and simply listening. The story talked about the beauty of the old machines, their engineering, their comfort, their utilitarianism. But what really struck me was their simplicity.

You typed. You wrote. Type writer.

When I write on my computer, I inevitably need to fact check something on Wikipedia, which inevitably leads to my going to a link for more information which makes me think of something else which leads to my Gmail which of course reminds me I needed to post that thing which brings me back to checking baseball scores and…you get the idea.

Type. Write. Schools are actually starting to bring these focus machines back. You sit. You think. You type. I found it actually less intimidating than having the cursor blink at me or a blue screen. Now of course, the biggest hurdle is that it is very uncool at Starbucks. I haven’t tried that yet but you never know, if I did it might get an agent to come over and ask to publish my story. It’s about a man who returns from the Peace Corps and loses his way. But that’s another story.

I love it when technology comes full circle and reminds us of how it got started and why we started using it in the first place. There will probably be an app soon that will only allow you to ‘type’ and will make the accompanying sound with each stroke of the key.

In the meantime, there’s a lot to be said for such elegant simplicity.

Type. Write.

Have a fulfilling end of the year and embrace your craft. You are making the world a better place.

Giving Back

So with less than two weeks to go, and the Middle School graduation ceremony fast approaching, I decided last week to ask our beautiful 8th Graders about their year. I wanted to know what events, experiences, or resounding takeaways resonated most deeply in their hearts and minds as they reflected back on their “senior” journey. I managed to get responses from a decent sample size of about 100 kids, and the overall collective sentiment took me a little by surprise………..and made me smile from ear to ear. To be honest, I kind of expected the majority of them to comment on their sporting accomplishments, or the Middle School dances, or the bi-monthly House competitions, or the Middle School assemblies, or their favorite teachers and classes but what bubbled up, and clearly separated itself from the rest of the answers (much to my incredible joy) was the memory of our three major school service and fundraising projects……….our fundraiser in the fall to raise money for the Shanghai cancer survivor school, the Braille Without Borders book drive which raised funds for the blind, and the China Trip service project where they spent time at a local Chinese orphanage helping those inspiring kids with Cerebral Palsy. Overall as a Middle School this year, we raised over 10,000 dollars for causes close to our hearts, we changed countless lives, and we gave well over 2000 hours of our time back to the community……..I’d call that a successful year!

Three years ago when we first sat down and discussed the vision for our fledgling Middle School, we clearly wanted service, or “give back” opportunities to be an integral part of who we are, and last year when we decided to make each student’s service component part of their advisory grade, it was a purposeful attempt to bring service to the forefront of what we expect from our students. We understood back then however (and still do) that it’s one thing to require kids to give back, and an altogether different thing to have them own it intrinsically. Well, if we look at this recent anecdotal evidence from our 8th grade class, it looks like we’re getting somewhere, and truly starting to make “giving back” part of the fabric and fairly tale of our school. It feels really good to be a part of the outstanding, caring, and socially responsible Middle School that we’ve now become, and it is educational initiatives like the ones that we had this year that truly get to the heart of what’s important in the lives of our students……..and in education in general in my humble opinion. Hearing last week from our students that making a difference in the lives of others is what mattered most to them over the past ten months has made my year…………and apparently it’s made theirs as well.

I’d like to congratulate and thank you all for stepping up and initiating these opportunities for our students, and for taking part in the organization, delivery, and follow through of each event. I’m looking forward to using this year as a launching pad for future service endeavors, and with the momentum that we currently have on our side I think the sky’s the limit with what we can accomplish for our local and surrounding community in years to come. These are the experiences that our kids will remember deep into their future, and it’s the type of learning that shapes who they are as young adults…….I’m proud of them all for their efforts, and for their commitment to giving back to a cause that’s larger then themselves. Service is without a doubt becoming something that we’re known for around the city, and it’s beautiful to see our young people embracing it so emphatically. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week………
The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it – William James

Article #1- 7 Good Reasons to Give Back
http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/wellness_articles.asp?id=1122
Article #2 – The Importance of Meaningful Service Learning
http://handsonblog.org/2011/09/26/the-importance-of-meaningful-service-learning/

Kid Focused/Friendly Give Back Organizations
www.generationon.org
www.kidswhogive.com
www.dosomething.org
www.allforgood.org

TED Talk – The Way We Think About Charity (Dan Pallotta)
http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pallotta_the_way_we_think_about_charity_is_dead_wrong.html

TED Talk – The Why and How of Effective Altruism (Peter Singer)
http://www.ted.com/talks/peter_singer_the_why_and_how_of_effective_altruism.html