All posts by Jen Munnerlyn

Jen Munnerlyn is the Elementary Principal at the American School of Warsaw. Her international experience began back in 1980 when her parents first started teaching overseas. Jen blogs about her own experiences as a Third Culture Kid, the adventures of being the mother of a TCK, and about elementary education in an international school setting. Her picture book The Adventure Begins, about the first day at an international school, is a favorite among adults and students abroad.

Getting to Yes- Inclusion

As International schools morph and change, the goal is our schools become better versions of what we’ve been before. Whether it is to provide a more cohesive and articulated curriculum, more rigorous vetting of our personnel for safety, or more purposefully designed and earth-friendly facilities, we are always changing and improving.

One area which is garnering a lot of attention right now is inclusivity. The idea that our schools can accept students with special needs isn’t new, but striving to do so, and even expanding the notion of what we can support, is a change.

Championing this idea is the Next Frontier Inclusion project led by Bill and Ochan Powell. This past week, I was with them at Hong Kong Academy to see an inclusive school in action: the journey, the celebrations, and the next steps for all of us trying to make this a reality. It was an interesting visit.

While, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, I wasn’t sure how I would feel around students with special needs. Having grown up in and always worked in international schools, I have limited exposure to students who are considered SEN (Special Education Needs) children. Of course, being on site at HKA and seeing those students playing, learning, and making friends eased my fear and opened my heart. While most of our schools will never be a true microcosm of society, we can and should modify our definition of diversity. 

The big questions shared and chewed on with the group included:

  • How do you do this? Staffing, marketing, facilities, etc.
  • How do we go from where we are today, to where we want to be without compromising our already rigorous programs?
  • What if our school communities (existing families) don’t want to do this?

Of course, for many of our schools, it will take time, planning and persistence to shift the culture and become more purposefully inclusive. Each school will face challenges based on its locale and clientele. However as often happens in our connected community of international school educators, once a few of us leap out, it will be easier (and become more important) for others to do the same. That is our strength as a global community.

Here is a first step I can share about the journey we are on at my school. It is a small shift that has produced big changes. It is a shift in language and mindset. It is replicable by any school wanting to become more inclusive. 

We have recently changed our admissions stance from ‘no’ to ‘yes and…’ In the past, we would receive a file of a student with needs and work as an admissions team to explain all the reasons why we couldn’t admit the child. This process was designed to help the family understand why we were saying ‘No’.

Now, the admissions team (principal, resource teachers, counselor, admissions rep, possibly a classroom teacher) is tasked with presenting a scenario to our director based on ‘yes’. There is no longer a ‘no’ option at this meeting.

Instead, ‘yes, and…’  comes with the plan/proposal of what we would require to fully support the child in our school. There is no boundary to what we can propose: shadow teachers, more testing, modified curriculum, partial day, on-site therapy, etc. The proposals are not predicated on what we already do, but instead generated by what would be possible if there were no limits. The admission team’s job is to paint a picture which gets us to yes. From there, the director makes the final decision about whether or not we can get there.

This shift in mindset and emphasis has produced a few interesting results. First, we are much more likely to think out of the box when we are starting with a positive, can-do frame of mind. Secondly, the two or three cases we have reviewed in this vein have turned out to be doable, surprising us all, as in the past, we probably would have simply said ‘no’. And finally, the level of communication and ownership for the inclusion plan is spread out among those people who proposed an idea worth hearing. 

Getting to yes is a motto we are beginning to live. While there are sure to be pitfalls, we are happy to be taking an active and conscious step toward inclusion.

What is your school doing to change the conversation?

Image credit: ‘Diversity Clip Art’ www.clipartsheep.com, Creative Commons right to share

What Counts?

This year, I have been lucky enough to work with a talented group of educators who have helped me process, plan, deliberate, challenge, and fail. That last one is of course what I’m holding right now as I push myself up off the floor.

Failing is what we say we want to be open to, and yet when you are in it, you can’t help but think “I don’t want to do this again. Thanks, but no.” It is how you hold, describe and live inside “the fail” that allows you to learn from it. So here goes…

Learning how to be a leader has allowed me to continually modify what I think leadership should look like. There are times when the image I see in my mind is that of a ship’s captain, at the bow, telescope out, checking the horizon for storms, pirates, or land.

While that leader is brave and secure, in control and courageous, he or she is also the only one with the looking glass, the only one with vision and sight.

That type of leadership is not only lonely, it is probably highly ineffective. Why? Because as the sole person responsible for deciding the path, that leader then must tell people what to do and how to do it rather than utilize the collaborative energy and strength of the team “mates” around her. There is no ownership for the others on board, and there is no shared sense of purpose with or for the leader.

Luckily, I’ve had a recent and very different experience. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a team of people who are smart yet open, passionate yet cautious and always ready to lean-in to work collaboratively on a task.

As a group, we have wrestled with big questions around who we are as a school and how we can best serve the children in our care. Our backgrounds are different; two of us are directly from the US, while the others have taught internationally for years. We have different views on what should be, but a collective idea that schools are here to serve the needs of the children within them.

So how did we fail exactly?

The team failed in execution, not in the process. The work we embarked on required a system for discussion, analysis, and thoughtful planning. On that journey, minds were made up; then minds were changed. The individuals in the group were willing to stretch because the group itself was working toward a common collaborative purpose: “How can we serve the children in our care?” Together we made some difficult recommendations. Recommendations we felt best for those children.

However, those recommendations were not heeded and a very different path was taken. Which left the team questioning our purpose, our goals, and even, our own beliefs. (Collaboratively and individually.)

The toughest part of my leadership journey has been these severe right turns. When what we had been working on is suddenly and inexplicitly changed. Often, without developing the understanding of those that have been working through or living the experience every day.

However, knowing that this failure is a result of the outcome and not in the collaborative process itself is what encourages me to continue. To move forward, this team needs to go back to and reaffirm the good, human work they presented. The stage is set up for this team to try again.

As I leave this school and job for a new one next year, it is the experience with this particular team that I will take with me and grow from. I’ve learned that while you can go all-in, the outcome still might flop. However, it isn’t the failure that counts. What counts, is showing up and trying to do what’s right, while working to really understand the people next to you.

Everyday. Again and again.

Celebrating Our Schools

   Recently my alma mater, my high school overseas, celebrated a milestone. 50 years as a school. The party was a good one by all accounts. There were people from everywhere; from long, long ago, together with current and more recent members of the community. It was a reunion and a celebration. While I wasn’t able to attend (I was visiting my new posting) a few things have popped out at me. Items I want to remember as a member of a current school hoping to make history:

Schools have changed, teaching and learning have changed, but it is still the enthusiasm and commitment of the people in the building that matters.

“We want to be a school that grows, a school that transforms and changes. We want our school to excel and prepare.”

We tend to talk about schools like they are alive. The personification of the place is natural but misses the point. It isn’t the school doing the heavy lifting; it is the people inside the buildings.

Business (of which education is a part) is beginning to value the effect the people have on the place. It isn’t new information. However when schools can pick from a plethora of initiatives aimed at an outcome, it is important to remember that there are people doing the work, in the moment. Those people, how they feel, what they think, why they do what they do matter long after the end of one unit, or year.

If a school were alive, it would be a grandparent to some children. Teachers’ kids. Our double connection to a school is important to us as human beings and can and should be celebrated.

My husband also attended ISKL, graduating with me in 1990. However, his parents worked for an oil company. Outside of school, his connections were often with families from his dad’s work. They have had reunions and celebrations of their own. For him, the school was a place where he went to have fun, be with friends and learn.

For me, the daughter of teachers, the school wasn’t a place, it was a second home. My sister and I, like other teacher kids, lived there. We were the first to arrive each morning and the last to leave many evenings. Over the summer, we worked at the school, helping our parents prepare their rooms or ready materials. As a group,  teachers’ kids are highly connected to the staff of the school. Not only were our teachers our teachers, they were also our friends, and in many ways, our family.

It didn’t surprise me to see that a great number of the people who made the trip back to the school for the reunion were teachers’ kids. Recognizing the longevity of that group is important to a schools’ history.

Looking back and celebrating where you have come from, and helping every member of the existing team feel connected to that history, makes transient people feel connected.

So why wait 50 years! Most schools have celebrations like this for big milestones, but with our turnover- every year should be put into a larger context.

People (again- mostly teacher kids) posted pictures from when they were there- in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and beyond. The pictures reminded me how much it took for our parents (the teachers) to live away and abroad. Knowing how it was, gives us a sense of responsibilty to keep it moving forward.

Having an international school reach the 50-year mark is a celebration for all of us committed to teaching and learning overseas. It celebrates the work we do, the children and families we serve and the cross-cultural connections we have provided.

Here is to the next 50 years!

Stand Up

This morning I woke up with a song stuck in my head. You might know this classic from Kenny Rogers’s The Gambler: “You have to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em; know when to walk away, and know when to run…” The song is one I’ve thought about at times in my career when I’ve felt that the only smart play was to leave.

I think part of my planned exit strategy has to do with my life-long career in our international schools as a student and as an educator. Always living somewhere for a time and never forever meant leaving was part of the deal. Add to that the fact that most of the time I’ve leapt out and moved to a new place sight unseen, the luxury of leaving is something that allowed me to mentally go in the first place. While I wouldn’t walk at the first sign of trouble, what I am saying is that leaving a school, a country, a situation is often the only option available to those of us in schools overseas.

With that admitted mindset, you can imagine my shock when I learned last week, that my dear friend, who is a top-notch administrator at an international school in Asia, was fired for standing up rather than walking away.

While I’m proud of my friend and know her actions will make an impact on the school and situation, I am left wondering how we can make standing up, doing the right thing, and holding people accountable less traumatic. How do our schools protect, encourage and support those who speak out when in most cases we don’t have legal rights on our side? What happens when you are faced with professional malpractice, but you can’t talk about it, stand up to it, or fix it, without being fired?

To be honest, I have no experience with unions, lawyers or the like. Based on what I’ve heard from my colleagues in the United States, who are bogged down in different ways, these systems aren’t our answer either. However, when we are working in independent international schools and there are ethical issues at stake, where can a professional go for real help? How can our schools ensure that the people doing the work are able to do what is right, while protecting them when they come forward?

I consider our work with children to be one of the most important jobs out there. I think we all do. We know that the learning, socialization, and development which happens on our watch directly leads to “the future” for each student. We build people in our schools through our relationships and how we care for them and through our curriculum and what we teach them. How we behave as professionals and as communities is a model for what we believe and what we want our children to emulate.

When students come to me to talk about something happening on the playground, which isn’t “right” I’m proud of them for getting support rather than taking it into their own hands. I’ve spent time building a culture where students know they are supported and can come into the office for my assistance. I am the necessary oversight. I am tasked with ensuring students are safe to speak up and safe to learn.

Doing what is right is to me the basic tenant of being an administrator. To know that my dear friend probably knew that standing up would result in her firing is difficult to digest. What will happen in a month if the school she tried to be a model for is still in disarray? I’m left wondering, who will stand up then? In fact, who is standing up for my friend now?

I’ve said before on this blog that I’m a lifer. I’ve grown up in our schools and I hope to end my career here. What allows me to remain is my connectedness to this community. I believe we are serving students and families in ways that ultimately lead to global connections and a better world as so many of our children return to home countries and bring all that we’ve taught them. I’m proud to be an international educator.

That said I’m also ready for our institutions to improve. From better and more connected systems for vetting our professionals (remember this post?) to structures that protect or even encourage whistle-blowers in our schools, we have some work to do.

It’s time to get started.

It’s time we all stand-up.

Building a Culture of Resiliency

Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind. –Bruce Lee

Today is International Day at my school. It is a massive undertaking, involving over 1200 people. There are parents, students, and visitors enjoying a wide variety of food, entertainment, and information. The whole world is at our school today, and it is awesome.

Awesome and chaotic.

As happens when you run a day like this:

  • “Normal” is disrupted.
  • The schedule doesn’t run as planned.
  • Technology doesn’t work, or people aren’t where they are supposed to be.
  • Food runs out.
  • The weather isn’t cooperating.

That said, I feel sorry for the people among us today who are allowing the controlled chaos to overshadow the awesome.

Why? Because our International Day event is just like every other day, only on a larger scale: Things go well, and things go wrong. It’s life.

To be able to enjoy it, you have to be flexible. And resilient.

A few years ago, my husband heard Michael Thompson of Raising Cain speak about boy learners. He took away from that presentation a mantra, which has become our personal and professional goal as a family: Flexible resilience.

From other researchers and authors, we have also learned the importance of finding your “flow”, of having a “growth mindset”, getting “grit”, and to develop “perseverance”. There doesn’t seem to be much debate that what ultimately counts is how you handle (and how your mind views) the way the world works.

Leaping out from the individual and into the collective, though, you can quickly see why developing a culture of flexible resiliency is especially important for schools. Schools are often about order, routine, and predictability. We run tight ships, schedule almost everything and have clear starts and stops, beginnings and ends. When things don’t go as planned, it is in many of our teacher-natures to find it upsetting.

For our international schools, flexible resiliency is even more important. Besides the fact that many of us are living in unique (and sometimes challenging) places, we also have a diverse population which can cause confusion and miscommunication- even in the best of times.

It isn’t enough for us to ask our students or our parents to have growth mindsets or to go with the flow. Teachers and administrators have to adopt the same stance. It is flexible resiliency, which allows us to not just survive the changes that occur in our schools (building projects, enrollment/admission changes, teacher and administrative turnover) but to thrive, as a result.

As with most things, school leaders should not only expect flexible resiliency, but they must also build it. To help me do just that, here are some questions I’ve been considering and ideas I hope to implement.

  1. How can we recognize and celebrate flexibility in adults both within and outside of the building?
  2. I need to model a growth mindset when I am unsuccessful.
  3. How can I  provide opportunities for others to celebrate their “oops-es”.
  4. How might we imbed resiliency “training” into our social/emotional program for students.

Mentor ME

How can you help your leader get better at his/her job?

Have you ever been asked that question? If you have been, and if you made suggestions, were they used? Did the leader in question actually improve his/her craft? Did you help support or coach that person on the journey?

While recent research points to the importance teacher mentoring has on improving instructional practice, what I feel is less often considered is the need for developing high-quality administrators. How many of our leaders have a mentor, a coach, or another active way to be supported in their growth?

Four years ago, as an instructional coach, it was my job to respond to and help teachers improve their practice. Sometimes my efforts were mandated. However, many, many more times my work with teachers was desired. They wanted to get better, appreciated the support, and were willing to learn.

The funny thing about that time in my life was that there was never a coach for me. I wasn’t getting feedback on my craft. I didn’t receive much training. I wanted it, but there was not a model in my school. I fell into that void where counselors, librarians and sometimes other leaders fall where feedback is often less frequent and hardly ever followed up with coaching.

What I got, I had to go get. So, Mr. Kindle, Mrs. Twitter, and various blogs became my central teachers.

Currently, as an administrator, I still have to find the time to sharpen my own saw. While on-the-job training is part of being an administrator, it shouldn’t be confused with real training. For myself and others, I know, beginning your admin career is more often a “trial by fire” (on a daily basis). Not a learning cycle where you decide what you want to work on, practice it, and get feedback.

Part of the problem is time. Administrators struggle to fit it all in, just like the rest of the folks in our organizations. Believe me, if I had to choose between my own PD and providing it to others through observations, facilitation work or even leading sessions, I feel duty-bound to support rather than receive.

Another is about perception. Although we often say we are schools where everyone is learning, it is another thing entirely for the leaders of a school to be accepted as, not having the skills or answers- but learning them. Many aren’t comfortable saying they don’t know how to do something, because saying it might cause others to wonder about their ability to lead.

The last issue is our lack of a network. I’m one of those people whose career is internationally grounded. I grew up (literally and professionally) over here- in our schools. I have never benefited from a “district office” or a cohort of comrades who I’ve been able to move with, together, through a school system since our early teaching years. The network I do have isn’t necessarily HERE.  My feedback angels are not easy to collect together because they are in different countries and at different schools. I can’t utilize them as a sounding board for a problem I’m facing or to ask them to watch and comment on how I’m running a meeting or communicating with staff or parents.

So, here is what I’m looking for- from you. From us.

Can we use technology to expand our feedback network across schools? Can we make time at regional conferences for case studies of current principal and administrative practice. Can we come together within our buildings, to find ways to gather feedback for our administrators, and then follow it up with active coaching?

Can we find the courage to ask for and receive quality feedback (not simply an anonymous survey at the end of year) and make the time to support every learner- even our leaders-  get better?

Photo Credit: http://beyouonlybetter.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/mentor-corkboard.jpg

Moving On

1780098_10203659579434229_1635069963_o As happens around this time of year, my family has been taking stock, looking around, and reflecting on where we are, where we are heading and what’s next. It is the typical response we all have when the year turns. What is different for us this year, is that most of our discussions revolve around leaving and moving.

Closing down and opening up.

My husband and I have moved many times, several internationally. That said, I don’t feel like an expert or even good at it. It’s a little like getting on a long flight. You know, it’s coming. You know, landing at the destination is ultimately going to be worth it. But the next 24+ hours is going to be l-o-n-g.

Moving is hard work.

But that’s what we do, right? As international educators, we chase the job, transition into new and different situations, and bring our own kids on the ride.

When my daughter was two, we moved to China. My worries about her focused just about solely on potty training. (As would the mom of any toddler!) When we got there though, the biggest challenge was around leaving her with a non-English speaker while we began our jobs. It was a leap of faith on our part, and I’m sure on the part of our Chinese ayi when we walked out the door that first morning of work.

Next, when my girl was seven, we moved to the Middle East. My focus then was mainly around how she would transition into a new academic situation. She had just become a reader and loved school. While it didn’t exactly go as we’d hoped, (she didn’t gel with her teacher and took a very long time to make friends that year) she continued along developmentally appropriate lines. That first year turned into a second, a third and now a seventh.

This time, I find myself with a teenager, moving to Eastern Europe. I find I’m doing less worrying and more listening with this transition. (It is so different moving with someone who has an opinion on the process and can share it.) As you might expect, my daughter’s fears center on not fitting in and not finding friends. Typical of kids her age and yet a real and significant concern for her, and for us.

When I think about all that she is saying, what I hear is she wants to feel “moved in”, “like we live there”, and as if “we are home.” My girl talks about permanence.  Which is a concept I have always struggled with as a third-culture kid myself.

Although she is happy right now, she’s ready to pack up and go. She’s ready for the next adventure and with it, the next life. I hear her. I feel the same way. However, having done this a few times, and trying to get better at it, I’m hoping this final move will help her see what I sometimes still struggle with understanding. That is that life, happiness, and even permanence isn’t a place, but a state of mind.

Writing this reminds me of a poem I’ve used in past presentations about Third Culture Kids:

where we are by Gerald Locklin

i envy those
who live in two places:
new york, say, and london;
wales and spain;
l.a. and paris;
hawaii and switzerland.

there is always the anticipation
of the change, the chance that what is wrong
is the result of where you are. i have
always loved both the freshness of
arriving and the relief of leaving. with
two homes every move would be a homecoming.
i am not even considering the weather, hot
or cold, dry or wet: i am talking about hope.

I hope those of you, like us, who are leaning forward, thinking about your next place, can enjoy where you are even as you plan for what is to come.

Open the Door

   A few weeks ago, this article, “A veteran teacher turned coach shadows students for two days—a sobering lesson learned” made the rounds on my Twitter feed. It shares what an Instructional Coach learned by shadowing two high school students for two days. The information was disheartening. The students sat for extended periods of time, were asked to listen instead of participating, and were redirected to the point of potentially feeling like their presence in school was a “nuisance.”

In thinking about it though, I wondered what would happen if the same Instructional Coach shadowed a teacher at that school for two days or a week. To get the full picture of course, would require arriving early and staying after school for meetings or events. It wouldn’t be a high-quality experience unless she shadowed the educator into the evening and maybe even through to the weekend workday.

I’m not defending the lackluster learning environment she encountered. Instead, I’m wondering though if this is the place to stop the search? Maybe we need to look more deeply into why teachers might be teaching the way they are.

When observing in a classroom, I search for an entry point to the teacher’s instructional practice which would allow me to focus on what she/he needs to do next, to improve. It is hard to do with all that is happening in a classroom setting, especially in a rich and engaging elementary classroom where there is so much going on. Watching to see what is going well and can be built upon, isn’t easy.

What I do know though, is I’ve never encountered a teacher who gets out of bed in the morning and says, “My goal is to be boring, ineffective, or lackluster today.” If it is happening there is a reason.

As a teaching principal, I believe my job is always to be on the lookout for ways to improve teacher practice. If I was to shadow a teacher all day for many days, I believe I would see and need to consider the following as affecting the both the teaching and learning:

Teachers might be hyper-focused in the wrong ways because of a lack of focus in the school. Often initiatives seem focused, when launched. However, depending on where each teacher is in relation to the effort, there are hidden, invisible steps for each person to get there. Add multiple initiatives, as many schools do, and suddenly it isn’t always clear what the goal is or where things will head. At that moment, we all hold on fiercely to what we can.

Teachers might not have the training necessary to teach effectively, especially if we are adopting new practices. We know that learning and understanding are significant tasks. We know it takes years for our students to develop real understanding. It is the same for our teachers; however too often we expect understanding and change after a weekend workshop or a book study. Teachers who need more time to learn, often can’t get it.

Teachers might be overwhelmed with all the other non-teaching things they have to attend to and manage. Teachers are not only teaching a course or class; they are also sponsors for clubs, coaches, and chaperones. While it might not seem like a direct link, it does speak to what we all do when we are busy, stay with what is simple and straightforward to manage.

Teachers might be struggling with the real pressure of working with parents. While this partnership is vital, it can be difficult. Today’s parents are highly involved and can cause significant stress for the teacher. Navigating those relationships is important. However, many parents feel comfortable when “doing school” can be easily labeled and quantified. For the teacher then, it can be easier to simply teach like we’ve always done it.

I would be hard pressed to find a teacher who would let me shadow them for two days or a week. It would be a highly revelatory and open experience.  It would take courage on the part of the teacher to do what they do and then trust me to learn from the experience as a way to help shape future decisions. However, as I write this, I believe it is something we should strive for: opening the door to being seen and to seeing.

Real change and real progress require real transparency. Until our schools (not just our teachers) can be places where honest inquiry into our work can be the norm, we will continue to hear stories like this and we will continue to be amazed things haven’t changed.

 

Tough (but necessary) Stuff

The thought of packing and leaving for a regional conference is always a bit daunting for me. It is time taken away from my daily J-O-B duties. It is time on a plane, traveling a considerable distance and dealing with the jet lag that comes with it. It is time away from my family and important life-events like Halloween. I always end up having a moment when I think- Can’t I just get this from the internet in the comfort of my house? However, as has been proven again and again, no, I really can’t get the same learning or have the same experience.

So, on my return home from the EARCOS Leadership Conference in Kota Kinabalu Malaysia this weekend, I would like to share a snapshot of my learning.

Jennifer Abrams- Having Hard Conversations

I attended the following sessions with Jennifer: Having Hard Conversations, Aspiring Leaders, and Being Generationally Savvy. All were eye-opening and applicable.

First of all, Jennifer’s stories about hard conversations, and the right and wrong way to handle them was especially relevant because Jennifer was a teacher, just like me. She brought that teacher-thing to her talk. She reminded me of my best education friends- funny, accurate, ready to call it as she sees it. In short, I followed her from session to session because she made me believe I could learn to do a better job. Her message, though challenging (hard conversations are hard!) is attainable for me as a learner.

Her make-and-take workshop gift? A framework to work through, which can help keep the hard conversation focused. The framework provides a path for pre-thinking and planning before diving in and having the conversation. Not only does that focus improve your ability to be clear, it also helps with sorting out the emotions that always follow these kinds of events.

Hard conversations are always hard. Jennifer can’t show us how to make that go away. However, she challenged us to have them because they are professionally necessary and simply the right thing to do. (And in education sometimes- we don’t-because it doesn’t fit in with the nurturing, hand-holding, everyone-deserves-a-chance belief we have about learning.) With Jennifer’s words ringing in my ears “you aren’t less nice just because you ask someone to do their job” I find I’m ready to become better at something so very difficult. So, I’ve bought her book and plan to sign up for her Ecourse. From there, I aim to practice. That’s the final thing I learned, this is a skill you build up, over time, and get better at.

What a relief. I’m ready to do the heavy lifting.

Jane and Jim Hulbert: Crisis 101: You Have a Crisis Are You Prepared?

Other sessions I attended from The Jane Group include: “Is That Thing On?” “What Keeps You Up at Night?” “The Role of the Board in a Crisis.”

Sitting in my second of these sessions, a Director from a school leaned over to me and said, “If you are here is it because you are interested in being a school director?” “No. No.” I said. I’m interested in being prepared and not being the reason my school’s message gets messed up. I’m here because I’m interested in not making a bad situation worse. Can you imagine being that person? Well, I can.

Originally I hadn’t planned to attend Jane’s workshops. However, as happens at these things, I was in the lobby, waiting for another colleague when I sat next to Jane and started chit chatting. Next thing you know, we are an hour into conversations about our lives, our kids, and our jobs. When Jane’s husband and co-presenter Jim joined us, I knew I needed to follow them around over the weekend too.

Key takeaways? First of all, if ever approached by the media, I have rights. While it isn’t that I didn’t think I did, I had never fully thought through how I would handle being approached. Jane had us practice being in a media ambush. She taught us how to politely navigate the question bombs. How to tell the truth without saying anything potentially damaging, and offered some questions we can ask back to actually find out more about what is going on given the chance we are blindsided and don’t have a clue. While I learned a lot, I know I’m still far from being comfortable with being chased to my car and peppered with questions I don’t know how to answer.

From there, Jane and Jim talked at length about how our schools can plan for and deal with a crisis like the recent international school sexual abuse scandals. To me, the most interesting thing about those sessions was how the climate in the room changed, and my colleagues and I became increasingly uncomfortable with the whole conversation. Knowing that is the reaction, it is even more important to me as a leader and as a member of any school community to make sure we have clear guidelines for protecting our community. These must include hiring and vetting policies and procedures and staff education around how to spot issues of abuse.

The idea I will end on (because it is the most powerful and simple shift they recommended) is to ask this question when interviewing all potential candidates: Have you ever been accused by a school or an individual of inappropriately touching a child? This question lets everyone know we are on the lookout for possible predators. It might just give enough notice to someone hoping to hide in our schools- that we don’t offer that option.

Untethered

“You are so brave.”      “I can’t believe you are doing this.”      “I would never be able to do this.”

The above quotes are from my friends who are not International Educators. They are not from people who are in jobs where announcing you are resigning 6 months before you actually leave, is standard practice. (And even earlier if you are an administrator.)

But I am. And I just did. (My husband did too.)

What they all want to know is “How do I feel?”

I feel like I’m floating, untethered. I am rising away from what anchored me for the past six years. It is a great, adventurous and alive feeling. That said, it is an absolutely petrifying feeling too.

But this isn’t my first rodeo. I have performed this leap before, and it has always worked out. In fact, I used to do it as a kid when my parents would resign one job, head into the job fairs and find another. My memory? It was so Vegas, baby! They were big rollers and winners, living out there on the edge. The best part? They routinely ended up on an adventure they had never considered before.

Looking back now, I’m amazed by my parents’ mindset. The whole thing was an adventure. From recruitment to getting the job, it was all about envisioning yourself doing something different in a place you’d never heard of before. My father used to say, “We wanted to pick somewhere with an interesting name!” They believed if things didn’t work out… Ha! Of course, they would!

So, fast-forward 20+ years and here I am. Duel income, one kid, college tuition on the horizon, both of us in what might be the best and most productive years of our careers, and I’m feeling… untethered.

The recruiter in me understands why we need to have contract deadlines and even why those deadlines are getting earlier and earlier.

For one thing, it’s basic competition. Because most of our schools look for candidates who have international teaching experience, our schools end up all trying to get the same, best possible people, from the same, very small pool of applicants. This pushes us to make a move earlier and earlier. (However, Last year at the NESA Leadership Conference James Strong spoke about recruitment as a means to strengthen and improve schools. Besides the fact that we are all fishing in the same pond, Mr. Strong also pointed out that the very short timeline created by the signing deadlines worldwide might compromise our real ability to find the right fit.)

Also, and let’s be honest here, we all, recruiters and candidates alike, want to avoid the fairs. Nothing is more stressful than knowing you have to find or fill a job with the competition right there next to you. So the recruiter in me understands why we want to discover, vet, and hire people before Bangkok, Boston, or Iowa. However, doing so means we need to know what we have to hire for, so we can actually offer those jobs ahead of the fairs.

Not only do we need to know who is going, we also need to consider who already within our schools might want to move into a position, thus creating another vacancy. This all takes time. And time is what none of us has come Fall. No one wants to be or act in desperation. Recruiters are rushed to find and fill spots. Candidates (who are often teaching couples with children) are in a very difficult position because they are essentially making decisions knowing in the back of their minds- we must get a job. For some, leaving a school for the right reasons might lead them to accept a job at another school for the wrong reason- time. But who can afford to be jobless or what school can afford a vacancy for long?

Now let me switch up my headgear and pop on my candidate hat.

I do believe we are unique as an international education profession. I do not know of another profession, especially teaching in our home countries, where resigning requires you to let everyone know you are leaving many months in advance of actually going. Besides the stress it causes the people quitting jobs before they have new ones, there is the interesting conundrum of letting parents and students know your news early too. (Not to mention how our own children feel announcing to friends in October- I won’t be here next year!)

Yet, it is standard practice for those of us in this business to not only know we are leaving, but to let everyone else know too. Which forces us to discuss our plans (or lack of plans) for months. Parents, students, and other teachers all weigh in, wishing you well and often lamenting your departure. But to have that conversation with so many interested parties for months, first about why you are leaving; then around where you are going and how that might be… It really does create the longest goodbye.

For candidates, there is so much to weigh, consider and plan out and yet once you send the “This is my final year” letter you lose so much control over what will happen.

Recruiting is a unique and challenging time for all of us. Though I do wonder if it doesn’t lead to a little bit of natural selection of our ranks. Being able to live untethered might actually separate those of us cut out for this work from those that aren’t. Which is important. It is who we are.

Which is why- the week following my “big news” I’m trying to feel about it as my father once did. The man was always able to look on the bright side. Instead of worry, when he too decided not to return to a job and school for the following year, he would live in that space of pure optimism. It will all work out as it should, even if what happens is the last thing in the world you thought would happen.

I can hear him now, “Leap off the cliff with a wide, bright smile on your face because you are living a life where you really do get to go for it.”

Good luck to those of you leaping this year.

Photo credit: Nat Ireland via Flickr CC