The Backpack Theory

Apologies for the lengthy absence. It’s been busy in Leysin.

“How much does your life weigh?

Wow, what a question. I just watched the shipper pull away in a truck headed to Asia. All of the stuff we thought we worked for over six years, down to four cubic meters.

“The slower we move, the faster we die.”

The ‘backpack theory’ speech is one of the most thought provoking commentaries you’ll hear about mobile lifestyle choices. I take issue with it because my family and I moved slowly in a foreign culture for six years and considered it living, not dying. This portable, disposable view towards the global or mobile lifestyle is toxic for the culture of international schools.

Let’s unpack the backpack.

The theory asks us to put everything dear to us in a backpack from pictures to people, setting us up for the rhetorical conclusion that since relationships are the heaviest items, they must be the first to unload if you want to travel light. Clooney’s job in the movie is to fire people on behalf of large companies unwilling or unable to do so. He is a hatchet man with no fear, no attachments, and little regret in his line of his work. His job is, literally, to discard of the heaviest item in the backpack. Obviously, the tension in the film is to test the theory.

“Make no mistake, moving is living.”

I cannot argue with this comment. It’s true. This is what drives a lot of us in this strange business of international education. Strange because we thrive on the adventure of new horizons but value the relationships that we built at the place we are leaving. Whether we admit it or not, we are in the relationship business. How many articles have we read, after all, in which the greatest indicator of student learning is the relationship between teacher and student? The criticalness of relationships in the education business is where we diverge from being ‘up in the air.’ Although some of us believe that unloading these relationships is the best way to travel light, in reality we will inevitably cross paths with that person with whom we worked in Peru, Egypt or Dubai. Moving is living, but not at the expense of everything else.

“Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically; star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans.
We are not swans. We are sharks.”

I have been doing some research on the differences between the notion of expat and the global professional. The expat (as we know) moves from his or her country of origin to work in an unfamiliar country. He or she gravitates toward groups of similar nationality and language, setting up patterns of behavior, food, and housing that mirror his or her country of origin. He or she may learn to appreciate some local customs, language, etc. but generally scratches only the surface, sticking to the familiar until he can move onto the next post where it starts all over again. Arguably, this is the shark. The global professional, on the other hand, has a more complicated story. He or she is more likely to be a TCK (third culture kid or adult), may speak a couple of languages, become connected in an authentic way to his or her colleagues, local culture, and most importantly, students. He or she may choose to live outside the comforts of the expat lifestyle and rather be connected in a way that does not remove his or her ability to “keep moving” but allows him or her to immerse themselves in the culture of the present, to move slowly without dying.

The international educator must resist the loyalty-free, relationship-free, move or die attitude of the shark. International schools are at their core in the relationship business. Although some of our friends at International Schools Review may argue that international schools are multi-national conglomerates that don’t care about people, they are not (for the most part). They are in the critical business of educating tomorrow’s global professionals. To do that, you have to move a bit more slowly.

It’s a tough choice we’ve made to be global professionals.
I know the backpack is heavy.
Carry it with pride.

Be Better…

So here we are finally, with the end of the year at our fingertips, and the final week ready to begin. I think it’s an understatement to say that we’re all ready to take a break and to head off for the summer…you’ve all given so much to our students and to each other over the past ten months, and I couldn’t be more proud of what you’ve accomplished this year for our community. With the holiday in plain sight, I want to talk briefly about taking some time over the next couple of months to reflect, and to think about the ways that you can become even better…a better educator…a better colleague…a better person. In my opinion, the act of reflection is the most important part of learning and growing, and the summer break is the perfect time to do this. Whether it’s a personal or professional reflection, the power of looking back is paramount. Thinking about your actions, your beliefs, your attitudes toward others, your reaction to things that may not have gone your way, or even the way you see yourself, your worth, and your value to others and the world……….this is remarkably profound. Without reflection, the opportunity to discover or to re-discover yourself and your potential is lost. Taking the time to think about how you learn, how you teach, your relationships with students and colleagues, and how you can give every aspect of your life more meaning is a necessary step before you can become…better.


As you’re sitting on the deck of your cottage, or swimming in the lake, or playing a leisurely round of golf, or even engaging in some summer professional development, I’m asking that you think about the ways that you can emerge from your well-deserved holiday a better version of yourself. What are the areas of your life, and your teaching that need a bit of a push…are there ways that you can enhance your lesson planning and delivery…are there ways that you can build stronger relationships with your students, particularly the ones that you find the most difficult to engage…are there ways that you can become a better teacher leader…are there ways that you can push yourself out of your comfort zone and take more risks…are there ways that you can become a better teammate and colleague…and are there ways that you can become more innovative in your approach to instruction? My bet is that the answer is yes to most if not all of these questions, and the challenge that I’m giving to you is to not just think about them, but to act on them, and come back in August armed with concrete ways to make next year the best year of your professional life.


There are many educators out there that get so comfortable and complacent in their job that they end up delivering the same year over and over again, and the only thing that changes are the beautiful and eager faces in front of them…don’t be that educator. Think about specific ways that you can improve upon this year, and to never deliver the same year twice…keep the best aspects of your teaching, and stretch yourself to improve on the areas that might need some attention. Everyone has room to grow, and everyone has the opportunity to reflect, to plan, to act, and to become better. I’ve already identified a few things that I need to work on to become a better leader, and I’m excited to think critically about these over the next several weeks in order to make next year my best one to date. I want to thank you all for a truly outstanding year, and for making my first year at Academia Cotopaxi so special. We have set out together on a transformational journey, and in many ways we couldn’t have had a stronger year. I can’t tell you how excited I am to come back re-energized, and ready to continue the journey as a team…a team that learns from each other, trusts each other, and a team that is constantly looking for ways to become…better! Enjoy the resources below, and the Carl Sandburg poem, which makes me desperate to get on that plane next week. Have a fantastic final few days everyone and remember to be great for our students and better for each other.


Summer Stars – Poem by Carl Sandburg      


Bend low again, night of summer stars.

So near you are, sky of summer stars,

So near, a long-arm man can pick off stars,

Pick off what he wants in the sky bowl,

So near you are, summer stars, So near, strumming, strumming,

So lazy and hum-strumming.


 Quote of the Week….

There’s a way to do it better – find it – Thomas A. Edison


Dan Kerr – @DanKerr1 (twitter)…find me over the summer

Summer Articles and Resources –

 Wonderful TED Talks for a Summer afternoon –