True Colours

        So just over a week ago Ecuador was hit by a massive earthquake that completely devastated many communities on the coast. Thousands and thousands of families have been deeply and tremendously impacted by this event, including members of our own school community here at Academia Cotopaxi, and it’s been a trying and emotional week for our country to say the least. All of Ecuador has spent the past week doing everything in their collective power to find ways to support the families in need, and international relief efforts have been in full swing…but there is still so much left to do before we can even think about rebuilding what has been lost.
        Despite the obvious sadness and strong feelings of helplessness that many of us are experiencing, I have found myself being incredibly inspired by the outpouring of support, and the coordinated relief efforts that have been happening all around me. It’s been amazing to see the country, as well as our school community rally around each other, and spring into action in every possible way. It got me thinking about how often times in the face of tragedy a community’s true colours are revealed, and how the best of who we are as a group bubbles up for all to see.
        Yesterday, Academia Cotopaxi held a “We Are Ecuador” Solidarity event at our school and it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my international school life. Parents, teachers, students, community organizations, the military, and other dedicated groups of people all working together to give back and to help support our country. It was a huge event and all proceeds and donations were either loaded onto trucks headed for the coast, or sent directly to relief funds which will go to support all those in need. I spent the day watching the performances, listening to the speeches, and watching our community come together like I’ve never seen before…and it was so beautiful. Adversity often brings out the best in people, and it can help bring people together in powerful ways…I’ve been watching this unfold throughout the week and like I said before, I’ve been inspired and incredibly proud to be a member of this community.
        I’d like to share one little story that truly touched my heart, and shows the level of support that has trickled down to the most beautiful of places. Last Tuesday, just three days after the earthquake struck, I was welcoming the students off of the buses like usual when a second grade girl came walking over to me. She tapped me on the arm and as I turned she reached into her pocket and pulled out a one dollar bill. She said, “Mr. Kerr, I want to give my special allowance money to help the victims on the coast. Maybe it will help buy some water for a little girl like me who has lost her Mommy and Daddy…please make sure that this money gets to her”. Well, you can imagine what I was feeling as the little girl walked away, and it snapped me back to what education is all about…empathy, compassion, kindness and teaching our students to think beyond themselves, and about creating a better word for us all…out of the mouths of babes.
        Anyway, below is a link to our solidarity relief site, which is a place for you to not only help if you feel so inspired, but to see how our community has come together in a very special way. I’m proud of our school…I’m proud of our country…and I’m proud of the international community who has offered their much needed support. In a world full of bad news and bad press, and seemingly unending tragedy and disaster (both natural and man made), it is beautiful to see the gratitude that can come out of the face of adversity. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.
Quote of the Week….

Gratitude in adversity is the most beautiful and precious crown of the soul 

-LUDOVICUS BLOSIUS

We Are Ecuador Relief Page – 

www.cotopaxi.k12.ec/weareecuador

Articles on Overcoming Adversity –
TED Talks – 
Earthquake Relief Videos –

The Tao of Chicken Rice

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Every Sunday, when I go to my favorite chicken rice place in the world (Lorong 6, Toa Payoh, Singapore) to write and reflect on my experiences as an international educator, I get really good service.

It wasn’t always like that.

The first few times I was ignored while people cut in front of me, ignored me, even took the table that I faithfully reserved with a water bottle and a packet of tissues. (A real faux pas for my fellow hawker eaters). But things gradually changed the more I came and got to know the people and their routines. We got in sync. Now, I get my coffee, shrimp dumpling soup, and chicken rice with simply eye contact. I had become, in a sense, acculturated to my environment.

This past week, I was trying to make my way back from a short getaway to an island on a packed ferry off the coast of Malaysia. A ferry showed up on time. Then it left. Then a bigger one showed up, presumably due to the large number of people trying to board. Then it left. Then we waited for almost an hour to board. As the tide continued to recede, we were boarded in order by section (A-D) even though we were all stuffed into the same cabin. It was a waste of time.

Then we got stuck on a sandbar.

I turned to a woman next to me, her overstuffed purse on her lap. “I’m from the Philippines,” she smiled. “We’re used to this sort of thing.” I watched the current ripping past us as we struggled, inch by inch to get off the sand.

Trying to keep my focus off the peril that awaited us, I watched a Rambo movie playing on an old screen at the front whose sound was blasting over the speakers. I looked around sheepishly as he mowed down scores of Asian soldiers in a remote jungle, his tanned muscles rippling with the recoiling machine gun. The boat started listing. We weren’t going anywhere. Why did we leave so late? Why did they allow so much baggage? Why are they playing violent American movies of Asian people getting blown up? (We eventually became unstuck when the captain moved everyone toward the bow).

The road to my island escape was lined with hectares of palm plantations as far as the eye could see, the scourge of my part of the world as an easy buck that fuels everything from Ritz crackers to Nutella and clouds the skies of my part of the world for months with pollution as the fields burn.

Along the road past my beach bungalow was a sea turtle sanctuary, the carcass of a gigantic rusting freighter that was being cut up for scrap, (making a section of the beach dangerous and unusable), mounds of plastic and trash, and an enormous hotel that was being constructed by migrant laborers living in muddy shacks covered with palm fronds.

This is our world.

A juxtaposition of threatened species and people trying to survive, of big conglomerates and small gestures toward sustainability. Of ignorance and beauty. Hope and hopelessness.

I stood with my hands on my hips, sweating profusely as I listened to an earnest volunteer at the turtle sanctuary tell me the greatest thing that she had learned was not about the ecology of the turtles but the importance of learning the cultures around her and the assimilation of values necessary to protect the species.

“We have a man who used to take all the eggs on the beach and bring them to the village. Instead of trying to stop him, we buy the eggs. Then we raise the turtles. That was a big victory for us.”

I wrote about this as I enjoyed my chicken rice routine, satisfied at my connection to the chicken rice culture but looking for the messages in these other experiences, and wondering what, if anything I could do about this in my role as an educator.

Would my students know what to do about the sea turtles competing with the people next door trying to survive?

What would they think about the village destroying the beach as they tried to attract tourists?

Do they know anything about the effects of palm oil?

Do they think Rambo movies are cool?

Sustainability is hard, complex work embedded with cultural phenomenon that goes back centuries. It’s the work that governments do badly and that people on a small scale do exceptionally well. Yes, thinking global and acting local.

In a microcosm, my chicken rice experience mirrored the type of education we need to give our children. To observe, to acculturate, to gain acceptance. To create change. It’s hard but essential work, not the type of thing that is easy to grade or find in a textbook.

I finished my coffee and my writing for the morning, got up and gave the ladies at the busy counter my usual smile. “See you next week,” I waved. “See you next week,” they said in unison. “See you next week.”

The Depth of Community

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This past weekend, Escuela Campo Alegre (ECA) held its annual International Fair in celebration of the various cultures and nationalities that make up our student population. This year, I found myself intrigued by the strong sense of a positive, healthy community that seemed pervasive through the preparation for the event as well as the actual event itself. In many ways, it appeared as the strongest reflection on community of any event in my four years at ECA, and I have found myself reflecting on this over the past several days, trying to identify for myself what it was that stood out about the event this year, and what it was that made it such a strong community event.

There are a number of things that stood out about the International Fair this year. For one thing, I think this is the first time in four years the fair has not been overshadowed by outside events that created a subdued feeling at the fair. Rather it was the death of a president, elections, or street demonstrations, it seems there has constantly been something that hindered what the fair was about. This was not the case this year. Yes, Venezuela is struggling, and there is much to be discouraged about outside the walls of ECA, but this year the fair provided more of an appreciated escape from these outside events rather than something these outside events controlled. There was more to the fair this year though. As I’ve reflected on it these past few days, I’ve also come to the realization the way the community worked together contributed much to the success of the event. There was a real sense of people coming together this year and sharing the responsibility and ownership of the event. There was certainly a group of people who emerged to provide organizational leadership, but the sense of purpose was shared, with a great many people – parents, students, and faculty – stepping forward to participate in making sure that shared purpose was a success, and the International Fair was a true community event rather than a school event.

This whole reflection on the successes of the International Fair this past week has caused me to digress a bit and expand my personal reflection onto the subject of community, and more specifically, the depth of community. I’ve been fortunate over the years to travel to a number of international schools – those I’ve worked at, as well as though I’ve visited on accreditation teams or in other professional capacities – and I think I can say almost without fail that every school I’ve visited has cited a strong sense of community as the bedrock their school is built upon. And, they really believe it. In almost all cases it is true. Community is what drives our schools, but the question I often find myself asking is, “what type of community?’ What type of community is it that has led to a school being the school it is?

An interesting thing happens when I visit schools as part of an accreditation team. In schools where the community is a positive, healthy community, there will be a constant message emerging of shared purpose, a focus on learning and education, and of people striving to take ownership of what is happening for students inside of the classroom and outside the classroom. In their book, The OIC Factor, Powell and Kusuma-Powell describe the developmental stages of schools. A school in the highest stage of development of self-transforming is one where “teaching and learning go beyond borders” (pg. 199).   In other words, it is a school where education and learning are almost a moral imperative with teachers striving to discover the best means to teach every student and then sharing that knowledge. I would expand that definition to communities to say that in healthy school communities I have witnessed, every member of the community is taking ownership in the shared purpose of providing meaningful and supportive experiences for all students.

Unfortunately, not all school communities are healthy ones. It is interesting, in these communities, what often happens is I’ll hear about how wonderful the community is. Then, behind closed doors in hushed tones, I’ll have individuals come and re-declare how strong the community is, but then go on to describe characteristics of what could be described as an unhealthy, or even a toxic community. In these communities, the sense of community is strong, but it tends to be built more on what Douglas B. Reeves describes as congenial relationships rather than collegial or collaborative relationships. Congenial relationships are those where everyone gets along and supports each other to enjoy coffee breaks, and birthday celebrations, and provide coverage for medical appointments. In congenial communities, people come together and find solace in their agreement on what needs to be done differently, and in accepting it isn’t happening because the “other” isn’t doing their job. In these schools and communities, there is minimal professional challenge and the emphasis is on maintaining things the way they are. In his book, The Culture Engine, S, Chris Edmonds describes these behaviors as undesirable norms, or behaviors that have developed to support the status quo and avoiding change or improvement. Unfortunately, As Michael Fullan describes it, without change, a school or community will not learn or improve.

In his landmark work, Building Community in Schools, Thomas Sergiovanni talks about the value of community in schools. He says we become connected as a community because of our commitment to a common purpose and a constant focus on doing what is right to improve. If we truly believe in the value of community, and we believe it is what makes a school strong, then we must also believe in the ideal of a healthy, positive community over one that is toxic and based on congenial relationships. In Adaptive Schools, we are taught to build our work around three guiding questions, 1) Who are we? 2) Why are we doing this? and 3) Why are we doing this, this way? These three simple questions are one tool we can use to guide our thinking and facilitate the development of positive, healthy communities.

As I mentioned earlier, this reflection on community has been a bit of a digression on my part. Sometimes, I find it interesting how my mind works. Something simple will happen, and, before I know it, that one event will transform in my head while running, reading a book, or enjoying a good meal, and take me in all kinds of directions. That is what has happened here. From the enjoyment of a fantastic school community event – the International Fair, I have found myself exploring the many facets of community. Hopefully, my digressions provide you with some thoughts to ponder.

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

References

Fullan, M. (2011). Change leader. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.

Garmston, R., Wellman, B., Dolcemascolo, M., & McKanders, C. (2013). Adaptive schools foundation seminar learning guide. Highlands Ranch, CO: Adaptive Schools Seminars.

Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired: How to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2013). The OIQ factor: Raising your school’s organizational intelligence. United Kingdom: John Catt Educational.

Reeves, D. B. (2009). Leading change in your schools: How to conquer myths, build commitment, and get results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1994). Building community in schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 

Right Before My Very Eyes

So, I was reading through my copy of The Straits Times the other day on the way to work in the best underground transit system on the planet. It’s clean, always on time, and it tells you where you are and where you’re going. It even has air-con and wifi. Yes, I said wifi. In the subway. And it never drops.

The MRT in Singapore is so good that it’s easy to look past it, kind of like it’s easy to look past the world right in front of us as we set our mind on the gates of the international schools waiting for us. After all, what could be more important?

What I learned from the paper was that the community outside my door was struggling with the same issues we often face as international school leaders. It’s just that we rarely take the time to compare.

On page six, I learned that in nearby South Korea, government and industry was perplexed by the lack of productivity and high burnout due to people working long hours but not necessarily in a healthy or productive way. They were taking measures to explore the impact of a top-down culture and ways to improve employee voice to enhance the worker climate.

On page one, the Singapore Ministry of Education was making plans to shakeup the testing environment that determined a child’s future in a high stakes tests at around age 12. Instead, they have decided to ‘increase the bandwidth’ of the acceptable range of talents and skills that each child may possess, so that more students will focus less on an outcome number and more on outcome talent (sort of).

And at a local school I have been in contact with (how many of you know where the nearest local school is?), I found out that they are struggling with the same issues around developing innovative practice and managing stress and wellness as we are at our school. And they’re right down the street.

And a week ago, I was lucky enough to host a local performance poet artist for lunch who happened to be featured on Tedx in 2013 and asked the question whether or not the people in her native country were dreamers. Aren’t we asking ourselves the same questions?

So, before you swipe your card at the security gate and whisk yourself to that all important meeting about IB courses or the next maker space or data driven decision, take a look around you and think about why you’re in international education.

You’d be amazed at what’s right before your very eyes. (It’s old school but still sweet).

And to get you feeling stronger every day through these last few weeks, play this next one loudly. The horns are amazing. Who knew that guys with cheap plastic headsets and a high school recording studio could create such a classic?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zgo3KVk8wvU

 

 

 

 

 

 

If You Smile At Me…

        So I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity these days, and it keeps bringing me back to one of my all time favourite song lyrics which goes, “If you smile at me I will understand, because that is something everybody, everywhere does in the same language”. You see, we’ve been focusing lately as a school on celebrating and embracing our diversity as a community, and really digging deep to create a culture of acceptance, tolerance and kindness within our school. We’ve been dedicating our assemblies to this topic and we’ve been giving workshops to our students which revolve all around these themes, and it’s exciting. Like all international schools we have families from all walks of life, bringing with them all kinds of needs, and we want to specifically tap into the richness and power that our collective differences (and similarities) can bring to our school culture.
        It is easy to take for granted the fact that we work in a school that it is exploding with such diversity, and the gift that this provides us as international school educators. We have such an opportunity to teach cultural awareness and empathy, to breakdown any preconceived notions or prejudice that we might have, and to give our kids the ability to see people for who they really are…released from their skin color, their individual needs as learners, their differing likes and dislikes, their religious affiliations, or their specific customs and traditions. International school education should be, and is a true celebration of diversity, and I’m not sure that there is anything more important than celebrating this as we send our kids off into the world.
        All of this work that we’re doing as a school coincides nicely with our international festival which is coming up in a couple of weeks…a day dedicated to coming together as a community to showcase and celebrate the beauty and strength that our differences bring. It’s also a day that will bring to life the fact that even with all of our differences, it is actually the similarities that we share which make us strong.
        That said, we know that a two day event won’t deeply embed these understandings in our kids, which is why it has to be something that we do on a regular basis…within our classes, our advisory programs, our curriculum writing, our leadership councils, our house system, and everywhere else. It has to be pervasive in all that we do if we want our kids to become the true empathic, tolerant, accepting, and open minded ambassadors who will change our world for the better. My challenge to you this week is to think about how you can find ways to celebrate our school’s beautiful diversity with your students on a daily basis. Let’s not take this gift for granted…let’s bring it to life in a very real way and let it shine bright. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.
Quote of the Week –
If you smile at me I will understand, because that is something everybody, everywhere does in the same language –
Crosby, Stills, and Nash song lyric (Wooden Ships)