All posts by Stephen Dexter, Jr.

Stephen is an international educator and administrator. A native of the United States, he lives with his wife Stephanie (a specialist in families in global transition) in Croatia along with his daughter and son. With a career that spans over twenty four years in public, private and international schools, he writes when he can and is on a quest to discover why people so quickly identify him as being American.

The Mission’s Position

If America’s President Kennedy had adopted the current school template in 1961 for declaring his mission to the moon, Neal Armstrong might never have had the opportunity to say he made a small step for man. There would have been inclusive statements about aerospace excellence in propulsion, broad declarations of lunar gravitational aptitude, and surely something about an individualized return to a home-like environment. But getting to the actual moon and back? Not so much.

His ambitious but simple statement said it all.

“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

I recently attended a conference that featured a session on school missions.
I found it informative and complex, the speakers well versed in the delivery of what a good mission should include. We all did our diligence and compared various statements, unpacking the good from the not so good. We had insight. We laughed at the hyperboles.

However, what grabbed me was the session’s introduction. The presenters showed a clip from Apple’s popular “Think Different” campaign in the 1990s that featured rebels, troublemakers, and non-conformists. Gandhi, Edison, Lennon, Robinson, Earhart to name a few. It was when they were still the upstarts, challenging the behemoths of IBM, Digital, and Microsoft.

And then we politely carried on about global citizenry and politically correct ambitions of academic excellence and earnestness. No one stepped across the lines. How could we? These things go on our web sites!

There was nothing wrong with the conversation. We had some laughs about the vagueness and language of the statements, trying to be all things to all people while being none of them. One of the sample missions caught my attention. It aspired to educate homeless children. Everyone in the room found it so refreshing. So clear. Like putting a man on the moon by 1970.

I felt like asking the presenters how they thought the characters featured in the opening video clip would have participated in our conversation. Would John Lennon have sat patiently while we debated the meaning of global citizenship? I pictured him doodling on a piece of paper, distracted with boredom, and then looking up through his round spectacles, in a Liverpool accent asking us what the students thought we did with them all day.

The great ones, the game changers always seem to do what they do not because of but in spite of the institutions around them. We all know about the famous Harvard dropouts and the other failures that changed the world. They didn’t have patience for the conformity of learning. What they had was unlimited creativity, a lack of patience and a hunger for something else. This is bad news for the school mission statement. To be fair, it was a big institution that put Armstrong up there, and the rest of Kennedy’s speech on that day was quite verbose, sometimes bureaucratic, and even uninspirational. But what stuck with everyone, and what actually got accomplished, was the part that was clear, coherent, and committed.

So, I rewrote our mission. It won’t appear on my school’s web site any time soon. But it stays on a post-it by my desk.

“Challenge each student to make the world a better place. Now.”

Urgent Matters

Leysin's horizon
Leysin’s horizon

Tragedy always brings an immediacy to life. Being from the Boston area, this feeling brought new urgency when I learned of the recent bombing at the marathon.

Do we have this urgency in school? Do we have an immediacy sparked not by tragedy but the passing time of youth and knowledge in front of us? Certainly the IB/DP or AP teacher feels this sense more than most with its assessments and timelines. But what about the rest of us? How long should it take to learn? What drives innovation and why is it so hard to do?

I am in the midst of a two year project to disrupt the way we do things with a new course called “digital literacy.” Its pilot name was Flex but I had to change it so people could infer its intent beyond something akin to a rubber band. The urgency I am invoking is within a question I asked two years ago. “Are our students any more compassionate, responsible, or innovative (our mission) than when they got here? How do we know?” Nobody could answer it. And yet we all work so hard.

So, we are starting, ever so slowly, to introduce a curriculum, etc. to answer this question and put students in the hot seat to create something that shows they have attained, somehow, this goal. What mystifies me is the process. If, say, an automobile or high tech company had no idea whether or not their product was successful, then how in the world could they get better? Would they even stay in business? Maybe this is what in part sparked the accountability/testing movement in America. But many believe (and research is starting to show) how disastrous that has been for innovation and learning.

I live and work in a small village in Switzerland. We did a town ‘cleanup’ day for Earth Day. We all focused on one thing and did it really well. We agreed on the task. We participated. We felt a sense of accomplishment. We celebrated. Isn’t that what makes the human experience work? Do we feel that way in our daily school lives? Is it urgent?

We’ll see how this ‘digital literacy’ thing goes. It might cost me my job. It might not. But if we cannot answer those fundamental questions with urgency about whether our students are ‘getting there’ then you better start turning that aircraft carrier.