Category Archives: Gregory Hedger

Dr. Gregory Hedger has been the Director of the International School Yangon, in Myanmar, since 2016. A native of Minnesota, Greg has served in education for over 25 years, including 13 years in the role of School Director at Cayman International School, Qatar Academy, and most recently as Superintendent at Escuela Campo Alegre in Venezuela. Greg promotes international education through his past and/or present service on the boards of AAIE, AASSA, and his work with the International Task Force for Child Protection, his contributions to various periodicals, and his work to promote the next generation of leaders through workshops and teaching. Greg’s family includes his wife Kirstin, daughters Kaija, Sadie, and Anna, and son Max.

Meanderings on Attachment

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Meanderings on Attachment

“There are two seasons in Minnesota – winter and road construction.” I reminisce on this old phrase as I sit in traffic on 35W between Minneapolis and our home base in Duluth. This is a segment of highway that should be flying along at 70 mph, with nothing more than a possible deer running across the road to slow things down. Yet here I sit, staring at the line of green fir trees bordering the shoulder on a warm day in July, trying to exercise some level of patience. The summer is almost over for us. Soon we will be returning to the school we work at in Yangon. There is still so much we want to do before we return – people we want to see and experiences we want to have. Staring at that line of trees, I avoid thinking of what I could be doing if I weren’t sitting in traffic. That would be completely self-defeating.

One of the things we still plan to do before summer is over is take the family to see a production of Billy Elliot at the Duluth Playhouse. The whole family is together this summer, so it seems like the perfect opportunity to do things like this. With one daughter out of college, one in college, and another who is a senior, I’m not sure how many more summers we’ll all be together for things like this. This summer they are home though, I think partially because they want to get to know Max. He joined our family last fall, and we received legal guardianship of him in February. Our two older daughters had never met him other than through Skype. This summer, they were discovering what it meant to have a brother added to the family.

I had just purchased tickets to Billy Elliot while we were in Minneapolis. We were at a mall, where my wife was busy checking on sales of things that were a perfect bargain, whether we needed them or not. A bench at the entrance to the store seemed designed for waiting spouses. In fact, I wasn’t the only one sitting there. I pulled out my phone. After a quick check of email and news headlines, I browsed the website to purchase tickets to the musical. A number of evenings were sold out, so I exhaled loudly when I managed to snatch up five of six seats in one row for one of the final evening performances.

The car inches forward. Music is playing, but is more background noise than anything. My wife has her seat laying all the way back. The rhythm of her breathing tells me she is asleep. I sit up straight, suddenly more focused. How many tickets did I buy? Five? I shake my head. I did it again. With Max added to the family, we are now six. This has happened on several occasions. We go to a restaurant, and I tell the host we need five seats, and then realize we need six. I count five lifejackets for the boat, and then as we pull away from shore realize another is needed. As traffic is still standing still, I pull out my phone and check the theatre website. Great! That sixth seat in the row is still available. I quickly purchase it before the car inches forward again.

The first time I forgot to include Max in our family numbers equation I felt terrible. I thought it somehow reflected a lack of attachment to him on my part, or subliminal lack of acceptance of him into our family. I don’t think that anymore. Instead, I’m clear in my own mind it is more a reflection of my age and where I am in life. We had never expected a “Max” in our lives. When he came to live with us, we were a fully established family of five, planning for lives as empty nesters in two years. Forgetting him wasn’t about a lack of attachment; it simply reflected the mind of someone whose life had been going in one direction before being knocked into another by a nine-year-old boy we hadn’t ever expected. It was simply a matter of getting used to something different. Attachment is something else entirely.

I’m not much of an athlete. Somehow, in my formative years I never developed the hand – eye coordination essential to most sports. In a related manner, I never learned how to put my body into it when throwing a ball, hitting with a bat, or connecting with a variety of pieces of sports equipment. As a youngster though, I discovered I had been blessed with one bit of athletic ability, I could run at a reasonably fast speed. This kernel of knowledge propelled me to pursue running as the singular sport I believed I could excel at. Over the years, I ran in a number of 10Ks, and even a couple of marathons. With time, running became the singular sport for which I developed some level of passion. It became the means for me to stay in shape, to focus my attention, a solace for me to escape and think things through in my own mind. One of the first things I did when moving to a new country was to find a route to run so I could develop the routine that had become a focus of my life over the years. It was on one of my first runs in Myanmar that I came across Max.

There is heaviness in the air in Yangon in August. It builds up throughout the day making it seem like you are maneuvering through a wall of water each time you step outside. At times, it will culminate in a refreshing rainfall leaving behind a few brief hours of clarity and free movement. At other times, it simply dissipates into the night, with the wall being built anew the falling day with each passing hour. Avoiding the wall becomes the goal of each daily run. This is accomplished by running early – as early as possible. First light is around 5:00 AM.

Leaving our home one of those first mornings, I pursued a slow, steady pace along our, narrow, pock marked asphalt road. Running by a gold domed monastery where the sound of brass gongs broke the morning silence, then downhill past elegant mansions and colonial homes, I finally crossed a major intersection to arrive at a park that bordered one of the city lakes. These parks live daily changes in purpose. Mid afternoon and early evening they play host to young lovers seeking some time alone under umbrellas and behind trees, while night is party time with young people playing music and drinking. Mornings though are a time of sport. A group of women gather in the parking lot to dance aerobically to pop music, and young men with muscular physics make use of the permanent exercise equipment. For my part, I joined in the line of people walking and / or running along the paved trail that snaked its way along the lake and through the park.

I was about ten minutes into my run when I noticed the runners and walkers taking brief steps off the trail ahead of me. It was unclear to me why they were doing this. Coming closer, I saw a small mound of flesh in the middle of the pavement. At first, I wasn’t clear what I was seeing, and then realized it was two small boys with arms and legs wrapped around each other in a knot, fast asleep on the cool ground. They were both dressed in worn discolored shorts. One had torn t-shirt on, while the other wore a collared button down shirt absent the buttons.   They were both filthy, and I found myself wondering what they were doing there. Did they live close by and had sought refuge from the summer heat of their home, or was their existence somehow a more permanent situation? Why were people simply stepping around them as though they were some sort of mild irritation? I slowed to a trot as I went past the boys, following the lead of those ahead of me. What I didn’t realize as I went past was one of the boys appearing before me was a street boy who would come to live in our home in a few short months, and in less than a year would join our family as the boy we would come to call Max.

The exact story of how Max came to live with us is one I’ll save for another time. I will say it was something unplanned and unexpected. A decision made on a whim, which has changed our lives, for the better, forever. The first several weeks he was with us were amazing, almost surreal. We weren’t exactly sure what we were doing with him at that point, or even what future we might have with him. He very quickly became a part of our lives though. He would get up early with me each morning and go running with me. Preparing breakfast followed this. During the day he would come by the school we worked at and hang out drawing pictures, talking to people, and helping out. Afternoons were filled with playing soccer, riding bikes, and helping out with various tasks, while evenings were filled with table games and watching television. Though we struggled with his inability to speak English, we found ways to communicate as he quickly fit into our family routines. As a result, it was a shock when this came to a sudden end.

Throughout these first weeks, Max had never asked us to visit the park where he had been living when we first met him. Out of the blue, one afternoon he asked, through an interpreter, if we could go for a walk in the park that evening. Sure, I said, though it would need to be late evening, as the school holiday concert was that evening.

“The whole family?” He asked.

“Sure.”

“Even Joey?” Our dog.

“Yes, even Joey.”

Max floated through the rest of that day. He was constantly hugging us at every opportunity. We attended the concert that evening. The stars twinkled in the sky and a soft breeze waffled through the air as the sound of children singing permeated our schoolyard. At one point I looked around for Max. He was sitting quietly with his head leaned against my assistant. She had her arm around him. All seemed well in the world of Max.

As soon as the concert was over, Max reminded me of my promise to go to the park. We went home and gathered together the family – my wife, our youngest daughter, Joey, and my daughter’s boyfriend. We strolled down our block, crossed the road to the park, and then made our way along the lake. At one point, a dirty boy in clothes dotted with tears and stains, clearly a bit older than Max, approached us. Max spoke to him, then asked me in his few words of English if he could give this boy some money. I handed over some loose change. The boy left, and we continued on our way. We arrived back home. Max was smiling, chattering and constantly hugging us. The excursion to the park had been a success.

Max and I settled into a short television show before bed. At this point, I can’t remember what the show was, nor does it really matter. What I remember is a feeling of fulfillment. A sense that somehow this boy, who had become a part of our lives, belonged with us. Everything just seemed to fit. As the show came to a close, I told Max it was almost bedtime. This had become a time where we read simple picture books, and practiced English words he had been exposed to.

Max turned to me and spoke very aggressively. “No. No bed!”

Caught off guard, I said, “What? Say that again?’

“No! No bed! No happy here!”

Again, I questioned what he was saying. Suddenly, he began to hit at me with two fists. He became very tearful and started to say over and over he wasn’t happy. He wanted to return to the park. I didn’t understand and tried to question him. He became incoherent, hitting at me more, and more loudly saying he wanted to return to the park. He didn’t want to live with us any longer. I took Max into my arms and held him, trying to get him to calm down. Trying to understand what was happening. He struggled and resisted. Finally, I gave up trying to understand. I carried him to his room, where I laid with him, holding him, until he finally settled down and fell asleep.

Once Max was asleep, I sat down on the floor next to his bed. Exhausted from holding him, my arms resting on my knees, I tried to make sense of what had just happened. What had suddenly changed? Where had this come from? Max didn’t have to live with us. He wasn’t a prisoner. That had always been a clear message from us to him. Still, I wanted to understand what was suddenly happening, where this change had come from. I slowly fell off to sleep next to Max’s bed, not wanting to leave. Somehow, I felt this was a time he needed us, though I didn’t understand why.

We approached the morning with a bit of trepidation. Max awoke surlier than we had ever seen him. Our Toyota Land Cruiser was smaller than usual and the route to school was twice the distance with Max in the back seat. Every pothole was accentuated, as we seemed to inch along. At school, our head of security met us, and I asked him to translate as we tried to understand what was happening.

Max stated he wanted to return to the park to live. My memory at this moment is of him sitting in a large leather chair. His head hung forward, and there were tears running down his cheeks. A part of me wanted to simply hug him, though I held back not really sure what was happening. I said that was fine, if that was what he really wanted, but did he understand we cared about him? Yes, he understood. It didn’t matter. He wanted to go. This just didn’t seem real. What happened that had caused such a rapid change? We had clearly started to feel a sense of attachment to Max. Was it really possible he didn’t feel the same? I asked my assistant if she would talk to Max, and see if she could figure out where all of this was coming from.

Right from the beginning, my assistant seemed to connect with Max. When he stopped by school, he would usually stop and chat with her first. He drew pictures for her, and talked about her regularly. On this occasion, she pulled Max aside at her desk and talked with him. He squatted next to her chair, speaking animatedly. In a short period, she brought Max to my office and sat him down. She explained the issue wasn’t that Max wanted to leave. He actually wanted to stay with us. He was feeling torn though. When he saw his friend at the park the night before he had realized how much he missed his friends there. She explained for the past year and a half, these other boys had been like his family. He felt he was somehow letting them down by being with us instead of them.

I thought about this. It seemed completely reasonable Max would feel attached to these boys, and he would feel a need to be with them. Max could return to the streets if that were what he wanted. Perhaps there was a workable alternative though. I suggested that Max stay with us. He could invite one or two of his friends over whenever he was feeling a need to be with them. He would just need to let us know in advance. This was translated to Max. He asked a couple of questions. As I responded to each, a smile came to his face. He jumped out of his chair and wrapped his arms around my neck. In a way, I couldn’t believe this was what had caused the melt down of the night before. There it was though.

It seemed we had achieved a livable solution to this problem. That afternoon, Max and I went to the park. He sought out his friend, who came to our home the next day and stayed for dinner. The experience we had the night of the holiday concert turned out to be only the beginning though. It seemed to trigger some sort of inner struggle for Max. For the next several months, he would have days when he was the most fantastic boy in the world. Then, suddenly, he would erupt into verbal and physical struggles where I would again have to hold him until he went to sleep, and often spend the night by his bed. At these times, we would find ourselves wondering what we had involved ourselves with, and questioned if it was something we could continue with. At times we felt we were walking on eggshells, wondering when the next episode would occur. When I was younger, before I went into teaching, I had worked in a residential facility with emotionally disturbed children. Many of these children struggled with issues related to abandonment and a lack of attachment. They regularly acted out physically, especially if they began to feel close to someone, out of fear of the relationship. After each episode with Max, we would take him the next day to someone to translate. Invariably, there was some reasonable reason for his behavior that was often frustrated by a lack of ability to communicate with us. Still, his behavior was reminding me more and more of the children I had worked with many years ago. When I was younger, I could deal with that type of behavior. I even appreciated the challenge of it. I’m much older now though, and both my wife and I began to wonder how much we could handle. That said, we were also starting to feel torn. With each episode we felt we were beginning to understand Max more. His protective layers were slowly peeling away and we were slowing finding ourselves more emotionally tied into him. We reached a point where we began to feel we needed to either be all in with this boy, or we needed to find an alternative solution for him.

We gradually came to know Max’s mother. She lives in the north of the country, and was clear she was unable to take Max back and care for him. With this knowledge, and given how much we had come to care for him, we made a decision to seek legal guardianship of Max. We were still struggling with some of his behavior, and still had questions about his ability to completely attach to us, but we began to believe we could make it work. We had to appear in court on three separate occasions. The first time both Max and his mother had to attend. This was one of the first interactions Max had with his mom in approximately two years. He sat and talked with her, but didn’t show any real emotion. When the judge questioned his mother, she described how her husband had passed away and she had found herself alone with five sons – Max being the youngest. Blind in one eye, she had struggled to support her sons, and gradually had sent each off to work in different labor arrangements. She no longer knew where her two oldest sons were, and had lost knowledge of where Max was when he ran away from his work situation over a year and a half ago. She acknowledged she loved her son, but couldn’t care for him. He had already been dead to her until we found him, and she was happy to have him live with us. Max listened to all of this. He wrapped my wife’s arm around himself and moved closely to her, holding her hand tightly. I remember watching him as all of this was going on. I was happy to see him seeking solace from my wife, but again I wondered about his ability to attach. His detachment from his mother didn’t fit with my worldview of mother / child relationships.

A funny thing happened after we went to court. We don’t know why, but Max changed. It was like a switch went off inside of him and he realized this situation was for good. We weren’t turning back. We watched him suddenly become more content, and the behavior challenges gradually diminished. Starting school meant the creation of routines and development of relationships with other kids other than street kids. This also seemed to settle him, and we saw him become more comfortable in being a part of our family. This doesn’t mean our questions regarding his level of attachment changed. In the months that followed, we still experienced occasional issues that made us wonder about this, but the behavior challenges seemed to go away.

This summer has been fantastic! Why? English! Max is in the U.S. with us, and the exposure to constant English has caused his language skills to take off. For me, the most important aspect of this has been the ability to begin exploring different issues with him, like attachment. Max has a real affinity for fishing. He loves to go fishing for trout and through the summer we have spent hours at different fishing holes along the north shore of Minnesota. During these times we talk. The other day I asked him about his mom and how he felt when he saw her in court. He was initially reticent to talk about it, asking me why I want to talk about these things. Finally he said, “You know, I love my mom. I know she loves me. But, I don’t like her. I can’t explain it. Maybe when I’m twenty I can explain it.”

We’ve also talked about some of the issues he had during the months before we went to court. He has explained to me that he loves us, but he was also angry with us for a while. He said that if we hadn’t come along, he would have stayed with his friends on the streets. Now, they are gone and he wonders about them and worries about what has happened to them. He tells me he is no longer angry, but he still thinks about his friends.

Having the ability to communicate with Max has made a big difference. We are now able to communicate our thoughts and feelings. He is able to do the same. We still have issues with him, like any parent. We are also beginning to understand attachment from his perspective is a more difficult concept than it is for us. He’s had many different types of relationships in his life, and it seems he is trying to fit them all together and make sense of them. What is important for us right now is we love him. We know he loves us. And we are all working very hard to be successful.

I just need to remember to think of six now instead of five.

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

What kind of experience do we want for our children?

I have been absent from blogging for almost a year.  This has been due to a sudden and unexpected change in our family status.  My wife and I have three daughters.  The oldest is out of college, the second just completed her second year of college, and the third is a senior in high school this year.  We were preparing ourselves for the next phase of life, when we came across a nine-year-old street boy – Max.  Through a series of circumstances, we ended up taking him into our home.  We didn’t initially plan to have him stay, but we very quickly found ourselves attached to him, and several months later went to court to gain legal guardianship of him.  He has now become a central figure in our family, with much of our time and attention focused on him.  For quite a while, I’ve been thinking I need to do some writing about our experiences and adventures with Max, but have been grappling with exactly where to start.  To be honest, it seems like every day with him brings a new adventure of sorts, and just when I think I want to write about one, another pops up that dominates my attention.  However, recently, I read an article by Diane M. Hoffman, Raising the Awesome Child.  It had me pondering a number of important topics related to Max, as well as to the early years with our daughters.  I realized the place to start is with a topic I am passionate about…..schooling.

The circumstances of Max’s life are such that though he was nine when he came to us, he had only attended a minimal level of schooling.  As educators, my wife and I believe there is a value in an education.  Therefore, though we didn’t initially plan to have Max stay with us, we did think it would be meaningful for him to further pursue an education, so we hired several tutors to work with him to bring his level of learning up to speed and to learn English.  Within a very short period, he was spending several hours per day receiving individual instruction.  Outside of those hours, it was a different story.  Daily, he would come by my office on a bike we provided him to check on me, and usually he and I had lunch together.  After school, he would wait for my youngest daughter to come home to have snack with her.  After my wife and I finished at school, we would swim with him in the pool, ride bikes, and review his studies.  Dinners became more animated as Max struggled with English to communicate with us, and we looked forward to a family game or a video each evening.  Occasionally, there were issues to be dealt with, but that was by no means the norm. As I said earlier, he became the focus of much of our time and attention, and we in turn had become the focus of his whole world.

When we finally became legally responsible for Max, our benefits provided it was now possible for him to attend the school we worked at.  I have to say; the decision to have him start school was one we made with a certain level of reticence.  In reality, there was no doubt in our minds he needed to go to school, but we questioned how school might change him from being the boy we had come to know and love.  Hoffman describes American, or Western culture as being obsessed with cognitive development to the detriment of other qualities.  This is something I recognize in many international schools we have been involved with, and I often question this particular value.  I remember when my second daughter was young.  The spring before she was to start preschool she had a chance to visit school for a couple of hours.  I remember when she arrived she was standing at the top step of the school entryway.  She spotted me, and immediately and gleefully shouted out, “Daddy, today I get to go to school!”  I remember thinking I wanted to remember that moment forever because I was confidant that joyful desire to learn and go to school wouldn’t last for very long.  It was this same sensation contributing to my reticence around Max starting school.  Here was a boy that had a level of maturity that went beyond cognition.  Life experiences had taught him to solve problems, read others, resist defeat, and appreciate the value of little bits of enjoyment that came his way.  In starting school, I wanted to believe this would be appreciated and valued, and I found myself thinking about what kind of experience we want for our children when we watch them go off to school that very first time.

I recently watched a TED Talk given by Tim Carr, the head of JIS in Jakarta.  In it, Tim discusses the creation of joyful schools for the future, and the need for fun and balance to exist in schools.  In listening to Tim, I found myself nodding my head a lot.  He spoke about wanting to revolutionize learning when he became an educator 30 years ago.  I’m sure when he said this, he spoke to the heart of many educators.  Many teachers, myself included, enter education because we want to make a difference.  We may have had some great teachers ourselves, but we recognized there could be so much more to learning, and we wanted to be part of that.

Unfortunately, the classrooms our children go off to and grow into usually do not reflect that revolution in learning so many of us wanted to be a part of.  As educators, we often find ourselves constricted by the latest, greatest trend in education, or confined by the desire to “fit in” with the educational process occurring in the classrooms around us.  Still others find themselves teaching in a world of educational isolation, lacking the ability to collaborate and explore new ideas with others.  In these situations, we often find ourselves relying on those tried and true methodologies that came before us, or finding an instructional strategy that achieved some level of success with one, or a few students, and then applying that across the board.  The challenge that exists when this happens, says Hoffman, is though some strategies might have some success, this doesn’t recognize individual students come to school with entirely different sets of experiences and what might work with one child may not carry over to another.  This is a particularly important factor in our international schools, or the diverse classrooms we serve overall, as different cultures and families most likely have different ideas of what a good educational experience looks like.

So, what can and will make a difference for Max and other students like him?  What can change school and create that joyful school experience?  I believe there are many aspects of a school that can contribute to this general condition, from leadership making children the focus of the school, to schedules that encourage teachers to interact and explore new ideas.  Ultimately though, it has to be the teacher.  Paul Tough tells us many schools respond to behavior outside the norm by increasing control, and reducing the sense of autonomy.  However, “if teachers create an environment that fosters competence, autonomy, and connection rather than control, students are more likely to feel motivated.”  As a school administrator, I try to regularly visit classrooms, and have had the opportunity to visit hundreds of classrooms over the years.  When I visit a classroom with an environment like the ones described by Tough, you can feel it.  There is joy in those classrooms and it has a clear impact on how students seem to view themselves and the learning they are engaged in.

Getting back to Max…his first day of school was an interesting experience.  As I prepared to take him to class, he told me he didn’t want to go.  I took a picture of him, and when I look at it now, I see a boy who is clearly unhappy, even petrified about what he is about to encounter.  I didn’t blame him.  His short previous experience with school had not been too positive.  Plus, I was nervous for him.  I didn’t know how school would change him.  How would the expectations for learning, as well as the pressures he would face from other students impact the aspects of street culture and self-reliance in his personality we had come to love?  The boy I saw a few hours later was a different one though.  He was beaming from ear to ear – with joy.  I asked him why he was smiling.  He told me he loves school.  When I asked him why, he was very clear in saying, “because of my teacher.”

We are now on summer break, and it has been several months since Max started back to school.  I’m happy to report, he still loves school and can’t wait to return.  Even more important, he seems to love learning.  We bought him a bug box, and he has been thrilled to collect different bugs and learn about them.  He has been tutoring with my older daughter and looks forward to it each day, and he is constantly exploring and asking questions.  Tony Wagner says play, passion, and purpose drive innovative learning.  It is the teacher in the classroom who creates this.  When I think about what I want for Max, and other children, as they go off to school, it is that joy, that passion and that desire to learn and be there.  I will write more about Max in the future.  For now though, I’m pleased to write the teachers in his life have provided that experience I hoped for him.

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

Works Cited

Hoffman, Diane M. “Raising the Awesome Child.” The Hedgehog Review Fall (2013): 30-40.

TEDxTalks, and Tim Carr. “Creating Joyful Schools for the Future | Tim Carr | TEDxJIS.” YouTube. YouTube, 03 Apr. 2017. Web. 23 June 2017.

Tough, Paul. “How Kids Really Succeed.” The Atlantic June (2016): n. pag.

The Must Haves

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As educators, we have an awesome responsibility.  We are charged with preparing our students for the future.  No matter what they may end up doing in the future – whether they are business people, authors, political leaders, or engaged in a trade, we have the responsibility to make sure they have the skills they need to successfully engage in the world around them and to be meaningful global citizens.  This is a responsibility I often find myself thinking about as I strive to make sure we are doing everything we can to best meet our student’s needs.

I recently found myself reflecting on this topic again.  I was at a conference and the presenter raised the question, ‘What are the ‘must haves’ our students need to make sure they are prepared for the 21st century?”  This is a difficult question.  I often think about the data telling us that most of our children will end up in jobs that are unheard of today.  If that is true, how do we make sure we are preparing students for these “unknowns?”

One of my favorite educational leaders is a professor at the University of Toronto named Michael Fullan.  I think highly of him because I find his work to be very practical and realistic for promoting effective education.  In one of his recent works, he stated, “All of the work we are doing in schools is just tinkering unless we clarify the role of collaboration and inquiry.”  I found this quote to be interesting in that it caused me to begin thinking about the role of certain skills that may be needed in the future and the importance of teaching these skills as much as we teach certain content.  

If that is the case, then what are some of those skills we need to make sure we are teaching and promoting?  In my mind, it would seem there needs to be a focus on thinking.  That might seem to be apparent, but there really is skill that goes into thinking, to pushing ourselves to see beyond the obvious, to question, and to draw conclusions.  This is important stuff!  Similarly, reasoning and problem solving should be high on our list.  Whatever jobs our students have in the future, there is no doubt innovators who are able to solve problems will be leading the way.  However, I believe we need to push further and promote the ideal of moral reasoning, encouraging our students to see themselves as fitting into the larger world, taking responsibility for what goes on there, and seeking solutions.  Collaboration seems to be key.  The world of working in isolation seems to be coming to a close.  Students who are prepared for the future will be those who know how to collaborate and build on each other’s ideas.  Finally, I think it is very evident technology is key.  It seems to be an absolute that our students must be proficient in the use technology as a tool for communication and innovation.

Some of the skills that ISY encourages and embeds in learning include: Thinking, reasoning and problem solving, collaboration, and proficiency in technology. As I think about the future, and how we can best prepare our students for success, I hope our work will be more than just the tinkering described by Fullan.

As educators, we have an awesome responsibility. We are charged with preparing our students for the future. No matter what they may end up doing in the future – whether they are business people, authors, political leaders, or engaged in a trade, we have the responsibility to make sure they have the skills they need to successfully engage in the world around them and to be meaningful global citizens. This is a responsibility I often find myself thinking about as I strive to make sure we are doing everything we can to best meet our student’s needs.

I recently found myself reflecting on this topic again. I was at a conference and the presenter raised the question, ‘What are the ‘must haves’ our students need to make sure they are prepared for the 21st century?” This is a difficult question. I often think about the data telling us that most of our children will end up in jobs that are unheard of today. If that is true, how do we make sure we are preparing students for these “unknowns?”

One of my favorite educational leaders is a professor at the University of Toronto named Michael Fullan. I think highly of him because I find his work to be very practical and realistic for promoting effective education. In one of his recent works, he stated, “All of the work we are doing in schools is just tinkering unless we clarify the role of collaboration and inquiry.” I found this quote to be interesting in that it caused me to begin thinking about the role of certain skills that may be needed in the future and the importance of teaching these skills as much as we teach certain content.

If that is the case, then what are some of those skills we need to make sure we are teaching and promoting? In my mind, it would seem there needs to be a focus on thinking. That might seem to be apparent, but there really is skill that goes into thinking, to pushing ourselves to see beyond the obvious, to question, and to draw conclusions. This is important stuff! Similarly, reasoning and problem solving should be high on our list. Whatever jobs our students have in the future, there is no doubt innovators who are able to solve problems will be leading the way. However, I believe we need to push further and promote the ideal of moral reasoning, encouraging our students to see themselves as fitting into the larger world, taking responsibility for what goes on there, and seeking solutions. Collaboration seems to be key. The world of working in isolation seems to be coming to a close. Students who are prepared for the future will be those who know how to collaborate and build on each other’s ideas. Finally, I think it is very evident technology is key. It seems to be an absolute that our students must be proficient in the use technology as a tool for communication and innovation.

Some of the skills that ISY encourages and embeds in learning include: Thinking, reasoning and problem solving, collaboration, and proficiency in technology. As I think about the future, and how we can best prepare our students for success, I hope our work will be more than just the tinkering described by Fullan.

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

Passing of an Ethical Icon

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This past summer, we saw the passing of an ethical icon. In July, we learned Elie Wiesel was no longer with us. As I read the obituaries and platitudes written in his honor, I was reminded Wiesel was 16 years old when he emerged from the Holocaust as a survivor. I couldn’t help but think of my youngest daughter, who is now 16, and question how someone this age could have the capacity to survive such a horrific experience. This seemed to have been a question that compelled Wiesel as well, as he has often been described as “a witness who reminded us of the grim realities of the Holocaust in a never-ending pursuit of lessons learned. “ (2016) He was more than just a witness; he was someone who pushed us to ask questions, to seek to understand, and to analyze decisions from an ethical and moral perspective to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. In this sense, he has been describe as, “the very conscience of the world.”

Wiesel was a prolific writer. Much of his work was based on his own experiences, or derived from those experiences. He is perhaps best known for his first piece of writing, Night. Described as autobiographical, this book is narrated by a boy living the horrors of the Holocaust. The narrator questions the reality he lives, the world around him, his faith, and his own very existence. While a powerful book with a meaningful message, this is not the book amongst Wiesel’s many works that had the greatest impact on me. That honor belongs to a later book, Dawn, the second in what became known as the Night trilogy. Dawn describes a single night in one young man’s life when he is tormented by a decision he must make at dawn. I first read this book when I was a senior in high school, and I remember being blown away by the power of what the book had to say. It was the first time I began to think about questions of ethics and morality as I wondered what choice I would have made if I had been in the same position as the protagonist in the story. I think it was probably the first time I recognized there can be more that one right answer to a question, and the line between what is right and what is wrong, or two rights, can be very blurred.

This question of the choice between two right decisions is one I’ve learned to grapple with over the years. While Wiesel was first to present me with the hypothetical reality, I have found the challenge to exist in a variety of circumstances, especially since moving into international school leadership. One of the things I enjoy most about leadership is the opportunity to engage in challenging questions and problems. Years ago, I told my wife that instead of director, my job title should be professional problem solver. Working with problems, whether they are people problems or infrastructure problems, can be described as the bulk of what we do as school leaders. And, the truth is, many of these problems have more than one right answer, and often contain an element of moral and / or ethical perspective.

Several years ago, I was introduced to the work of Rushworth Kidder, who explores the thinking around making tough decisions. Kidder talks about the “ethics of right vs. right,” (2009) and the challenge that exists when you are in a position of needing to make a decision where both sides of an issue appear to be right depending on the perspective one holds. He describes these challenges in terms of paradigms where we are forced to examine challenges from the perspective of conflicts within our core values. He proposes a decision making model based on looking at problems through ethical lenses in an effort to understand some of the deeper conflicts in a particular challenge. I remember the first time I read Kidder, I felt a sense of relief. I didn’t have the answers, but I began to have way of looking at some of these difficult questions as I began to fit these challenges into the larger puzzle of my own beliefs. I often return to Kidder simply to ground me and reorient my thinking.

I believe international school leadership is confronted with a great deal of these right vs. right decisions. It is one of the things making our profession truly interesting. This past week, I read a study conducted by RSAcademics LTD (2016). This study describes some of the considerations that play a part in international school decision making. These include cultural influences, finances, change, growth, and a variety of other factors. Depending on the point of view of those involved in a particular challenge, there can often be many different right answers, and invariably someone not entirely happy with the final decision.

Right vs. right decision-making is one of those constancies that are a part of life for an international school leader. As I think over my own journey of questioning the ethics and morals around decisions, and the challenges of making decisions in our profession, I’ve come to realize everything is what we make of it. We can stress about the problems we face, or we can see them as challenges we can overcome. I’ve come to realize I am most effective at dealing with these challenges when I work from a strong sense of what I believe in, while also being willing to hear a variety of perspectives and looking at how they fit into those beliefs. Ultimately, I find it is about comfort – feeling comfortable in the belief I am doing what I believe to be best for students and in what is best for them in the long term.

As I reflect on the challenges of decision-making, and the making of ethical and moral choices, I feel a debt of gratitude to those I’ve learned from – rather it be through reading or through life experiences. In particular, I appreciate that one book that caused me to think for the first time about the abstract questions that can lead to right vs. right decisions. Thank you, Elie Wiesel.

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

References

The Art of International School Headship. RSAcademics Ltd, Web. 4 Sept. 2016.

Berger, Joseph. “Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz Survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dies at 87.” New York Times 2 July 2016.

Kidder, Rushworth M. How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living. New York: Harper, 2009.

Wiesel, Elie, and Marion Wiesel. Night. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, a Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Wiesel, Elie. Dawn. Toronto: Bantam, 1982.

 

Cultural Paternalism

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Cultural Paternalism

Maybe I was simply naïve and not as aware as I thought I was. For a brief period of time in 1989, the world seemed so hopeful. The memory of it seems so vivid to me now. I was teaching sixth grade in a small suburb of Minneapolis. It was a team teaching arrangement for social studies, math, and science, and I taught social studies. The opportunity to make learning real occurred day after day as we watched the world changing around us. One by one, the communist block of Eastern Europe had fallen in largely peaceful pursuits of change, followed by the Soviet Union. Then, attention turned to China, where Tiananmen Square was suddenly filled with students peacefully demonstrating for change within the party. The aspirations of people around the world were suddenly being realized, and, for the first time, we could watch it all, 24/7, on a fairly new television station called CNN. It seemed to be the best time in history to be alive.

It was at this time Star Trek – The Next Generation became popular on late night television. Each evening I found myself sitting before the television watching this futuristic epic as I wound down from the day. Only, there were aspects of the show that didn’t seem so futuristic – specifically, the prime directive. For those unfamiliar with the prime directive, this is the guiding principle of the Star Trek series. It is the idea of not interfering in the development of another culture or civilization. As I watched this show, and reflected on what was happening around the world, I found myself believing the prime directive correlated with everything that was happening. There was a sense major events in history were taking place. They were fantastic to observe, but there was a sense we needed to permit them to evolve on their own.

It was with some of these ideas in mind that my wife and I made our original decision to go overseas in 1992. As we attended our first recruitment fair at UNI, we prioritized what we were looking for in an overseas experience. We wanted to go somewhere that was centrally located so we could easily go other places. More important though, we wanted to go somewhere we could observe some of this history being made. We also wanted to be able to observe cultures entirely different from our own. As we gleaned the list of job possibilities in the catalogue of positions (yes, a catalogue, not a website), one school stood out matching our qualifications and what we were looking for – the American School of Bucharest. We were fortunate to be offered positions there. Given the news coming out of Romania at the time, I think the Director, Larry Crouch, just about fell off his chair when we immediately accepted on the spot.

Romania proved to be everything we had hoped it would be. Our first year there we never left the country, but instead explored it every opportunity we had. We went to the Black Sea where we enjoyed the beaches, and I went fishing with professional fishermen using nets in a handmade fishing boat. We hiked mountain trails, and skied ungroomed, freshly snowed slopes. On longer holidays, we made our way to points further away from the more populated areas. I remember one trip we made to the Romanian area of Moldova where we met an old farmer attired in clothing that seemed right out of the Middle Ages. He proudly informed us he was 81 years old, and the last time he had seen a foreigner was when the Germans came to the area during World War II. We really were witnessing a culture entirely different from anything we had ever known.

This was an unbelievable time to be overseas. We didn’t know it then, but we were experiencing what came to be the beginning years of an age of globalization. Very quickly a number of factors began to emerge – changes in political systems, new alliances, technological advances, more accessible means of transportation, and consumer expectations – creating an interdependent world. Multinational companies began to expand, and more and more people found themselves moving to other countries as they represented the expanding interests of their employers. As an international educator, the situation couldn’t have been better. Our job security just kept improving as our careers took us to new and different countries. However, as more people interloped into foreign countries and cultures, I began to question whether the prime directive could be considered as evident any longer.

I gradually bean to perceive a change in cultural expectations. Initially, it had seemed that other ex-patriots were intrigued by what they were able to learn and experience from other cultures. Slowly, it seemed the expectation began to be other cultures should become more like Western cultures. It was almost as if ex-patriots were expecting to experience their home culture in these countries they had moved to. I first experienced this in Romania. As more foreigners came, I began to hear more and more complaints about the country and the culture. I remember being shocked one time as I watched a diplomat speak rudely to a Romanian about their culture and how it should be almost like something out of a bad novel. This type of perspective began to be commonplace in many of the countries we lived in. Then, in one country, I witnessed as some people tied monetary rewards, such as loans and pay, to changes in behavior that encouraged individuals to adapt more to the culture of the ex-pat. Probably nowhere was this behavior of imposing the ex-pat culture on to a local culture more extreme then in the Middle East, where culture is closely tied to religion and I listened as some ex-patriots would complain about the culture they were guests in, while others seemed to see it as their mission to somehow change or Westernize the culture.  I really had begun to feel I was experiencing a form of cultural paternalism.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill talked about paternalism in his work, On Liberty. Paternalism, as he describes it, is the interference or control of one person, or group, by another person, or group with the supposed justification of know what is best for that person or group. While Mill does provide there may be times when paternalism is necessary to prevent harm, generally, he argues against it as a violation of liberty. In many ways, it could be stated Mill was arguing for a certain definition of the prime directive. As we spent more time overseas, and as globalization intensified, it seemed that much of what had once excited me in the world, and motivated us to go overseas, was disappearing. There seemed to be a move away from the ideals of the prime directive toward a feeling of paternalism. In particular, it seemed many who joined the ranks of those moving overseas to new countries began to engage in a form of cultural paternalism. Samuel P. Huntington defines culture as “the values, attitudes, beliefs, orientations, and underlying assumptions prevalent among people in a society” (pg. xv). So, when I speak of cultural paternalism, I’m speaking of one group, or person, imposing their culture onto another group, or person, in the belief that one culture is better and so adapting to it would improve the life / lives of the other(s).

It is true, these foreigners were not alone in responsibility for this cultural paternalism. When we first arrived in Romania, people who heard us speaking English would pull us aside and ask in hushed tones if the U.S. was really like Dallas. During the era of the Ceausescu regime Dallas was the only U.S. television show Romanians were permitted to broadcast. It seemed the regime thought it would depict the West as gluttonous and undesirable, thereby creating an appreciation for the world Ceausescu had created for his citizens (he was very paternalistic as well). However, the people asking us if it was really like Dallas didn’t seem turned off by what they had seen. Instead, they perceived a world in which it appeared people had everything under the sun. If that is what adapting to Western culture was all about, who wouldn’t want to change?

Somehow though, I think this cultural paternalism is about more than just what a person has. I think others see it as something more as well. We’ve lived in countries where cultural shifts have occurred and people have change from the cultural values they once had to something they believed would be better. In many of these cases, we’ve often heard local residents speak fondly of the old days, wishing they could return to them. Those days marked familiarity and comfort, even if they represented having less. When we lived in Qatar, the common refrain was to say, “we want to modernize, not Westernize,” in other words, change while maintaining a strong sense of one’s own culture.

Can cultural paternalism be a good thing? I guess it can, and certainly I believe most people have the best of intentions when they try to change certain cultural traditions or behaviors. As Mill said, paternalism can be a good thing when it takes place to prevent harm. I guess the bigger question is, who gets to define what harm is? At what point are we actually imposing our values onto another as though our culture is better? In other words, at what point is the prime directive no longer valid?

References

Huntington, S. P., & Harrison, L. E. (2000). Culture matters: How values shape human progress. New York: Basic Books.

Mill, J. S. (2010). On liberty. London: Penguin.

 

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

Book Review: The culture engine: a framework for driving results, inspiring your employees, and transforming your workplace

Culture EngineAnnually, the leadership team at Escuela Campo Alegre (ECA) in Caracas, Venezuela, engages in professional literature studies of approximately six books, plus articles as they come up. The team spends approximately six weeks reading the same book independently, and then comes together for a team discussion of what has been read. Generally, there is a discussion of the big ideas as well as some of the meaningful details. The conversation then turns to what can be learned and applied here at ECA. Typically, books have been identified in the spring for the following year, often with at least a few following a theme flowing from the work we have been engaged in during the year just finishing. This year, the theme we chose to pursue through a number of the books we read was the idea of culture – the role of organizational / school culture, how it develops, and how it can be changed.

The most recent book read and discussed by the leadership team at ECA was The culture engine: a framework for driving results, inspiring your employees, and transforming your workplace, by S. Chris Edmonds. According to Edmonds, this book is about designing and aligning a desired culture in an organization (pg. 13). He approaches this through the creation of an organizational constitution, in which an organization establishes guiding principals and behaviors that clarify and define a desired culture. In the opening of the book, Edmonds takes the reader through a process of developing a personal purpose. This section initially seemed more a message of self-improvement rather than culture building until its role as foundation for change became apparent. Gradually, the book moved on to a discussion of organizational culture built upon the idea that a meaningful constitution and culture can’t be created unless the leadership involved has a clear sense of their own personal purpose to build upon. Edmonds goes on to discuss a meaningful process for promoting cultural change based of organizational values and success.

Some meaningful take aways from this book include ~

  • Leadership is about creating direction and clarifying desired cultural values
  • It is not possible to change attitudes. It is possible to change behaviors. A change in culture requires a change in the behaviors that are expected and reinforced
  • Changing culture is disruptive. It can cause pain and confusion as an organization leaves behind what “has been okay around here”, and changes to what it is going to be around here (pg. 16).
  • Creating an inspirational and productive culture requires constant attention. Attention to change must be intentional, not casual
  • Meaningful cultural change requires a focus on servant leadership
  • A context for change needs to be provided, followed by constant reinforcement
  • It is important to hire and coach to desired behaviors that support the desired culture
  • Behaviors need to be aligned to the desired culture. There must be accountability for the behaviors
  • In effective cultures, goals cascade down from organizational goals, to divisional goals, to team goals, to individual goals. Goals must be focused, intentional, and accountable
  • There are four possible reactions to change, 1) fully embrace, 2) wait and see, 3) leave the organization, and 4) resist the change. Each reaction requires a different response and needs to be responded to promptly

Organizational culture is an important component of a school. A strong, student centered, learning oriented culture can result in some of the most productive experiences possible for students, parents, and faculty, while a culture that is toxic and focused on protecting the status quo can often result in learning experiences that are marginal and far less than they could be. Edmunds reinforces the idea that cultures can change, and provides a powerful understanding of a process for making this happen. He states, “everything a leader does either helps, hurts, or hinders the creation of a great team culture (pg. 14),” in creating a meaningful and impactful culture, we must be constantly diligent about what the culture should look like and align our purpose, thinking and behavior to match that desired culture.

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

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.

 

Living in the Shadows

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Last week the administrative team at ECA participated in an exciting learning opportunity. Each member of our team spent an entire day shadowing a different student. Our administrative team consists of me, our three principals, an assistant principal, the Director of Curriculum and Learning, Director of Technology, Director of Libraries, Athletics Director, and our Director of Support Services. Together, we were able to make sure at least two students were shadowed on different days in each educational division, including early childhood, elementary school, middle school, and high school. This project was the result of our participation in a worldwide movement called the Shadow a Student Challenge (http://shadowastudent.org/), which aims to understand your school from a student’s perspective by immersing yourself in the experience of being a student for the day.

Personally, I spent a full day with one of our sixth grade students. I found it to be one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had as an educator in a long time. In my position, I spend much of my time dealing with the challenges of running a school, seeking solutions to different problems, resolving conflicts, writing reports, planning for the future, and sitting in meetings or leading them. Spending time with the sixth grade helped me to reenergize as I engaged in the outcome of what everything else is all about – our students and their meaningful learning opportunities. As a part of this, I discovered a renewed sense of excitement as I witnessed how fantastic our students are, how polite they are, how much they love learning, and how excited they are about school.

The experience of being a shadow was informative in a number of other ways. First, I have to say I was amazed by how some teachers use technology to support learning. Over the years, I’ve sat in many meetings where we discuss the value of technology, and develop learning standards that incorporate technology. The experience I had through shadowing permitted me to really feel the value technology has in engaging learners and the power it holds it making learning meaningful. In addition, I discovered the value of time as a shadow. I learned how difficult it can be as a student to sit for long periods of time in a class, the importance of breaking time up on a regular basis to keep students interested and engaged, and finally, an understanding of just how much time is dedicated to learning and how much is spilled along the wayside on non-learning activities. Beyond this, I also noticed the important role relationship is between the student and the teacher. In talking to students it was clear where those relationships existed students were much more invested in the learning process.

Just as I was discovering new learnings through shadowing, my colleagues were also having similar experiences. At the close of the shadowing period, we all came together to share our experiences. Every person in the room found the experience to be an amazing learning opportunity. What we found remarkable though was not just the learning that took place, but the sense of bonding we each felt with the particular group we spent time with. One member of our team commented that she now felt she needed to follow-up with the kindergarten class she was in as she felt a personal interest in the group. This discussion of the learning we experience led to a further discussion of the things we liked about the experience, questions we had developed in our minds, wishes we had, and ideas we now had.

As a group, we identified a number of ideas to take away from this experience. First, it was clear to us just how important it is that learning move away from isolative teaching practices and toward more sharing. It is an absolute must that every student be afforded the same quality learning experience no matter which teacher they are with. This can only happen through collaborative practices like team planning and targeted peer observations. We also came to the conclusion that if we found this experience to be so valuable, then perhaps it needs to be encouraged more as something we do regularly as well as something for others to consider. We further found value in the idea of assisted reflection as a means to learn from our experiences. Finally, and most importantly, we identified the need to listen to our students more. Their thoughts, ideas, and opinions are important. We found them to be valid and realistic, and we rediscovered there is much we can learn from them.

Experiencing culture shock; or the realities of the transition cycle

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Experiencing culture shock; or the realities of the transition cycle

It was a different era when my wife and I first took the plunge and headed overseas to experience something new, different, and exotic. Those of you who are from a younger generation of international educators may not recognize the challenges some of us once lived with. At the time, there was no Internet, so we couldn’t connect with family and friends in an instant. The only phone was the one on the wall, working infrequently, and costing about $300 for a 10-minute call – meaning we only called home, briefly, once per month. Mail was just as challenging. Once a letter was sent, it would take two weeks, at a minimum, before a reply was received. We really were setting off for the unknown, knowing it was unlikely we would see home for another two years.

I will never forget our first introduction to the country that was to be our home for the next two years. Romania was in the early stages of recovery from the revolution that had broken them free of the yoke of the dictatorship of Ceausescu. Our plane bounced along a concrete runway uneven with cracks and divots. After skidding to a halt, we climbed down onto the runway, watching as our luggage was handed down from the luggage compartment, opened, and rummaged through at gunpoint by young soldiers. A bit scary? Yes. But, somehow, exciting after the orderliness we were used to at home in Minnesota. It was like we had been released into another world you only saw in suspense movies.

We picked up our luggage and moved toward the bullet pocked building that had once stood as the international terminal before finding itself a logistical focal point in the fighting of the revolution.   A crowd of people all dressed in gray spread back from a line established by the soldiers. For a brief second I experienced a pang of dread as I realized we had no way to contact our new school, and no idea how to get there from the airport. Then, suddenly, amidst the entire gray, a figure in a Hawaiian shirt and cowboy hat, a lone high-rise on the horizon, began to wave and yell our names. It was our new school director there to welcome us. We experienced a sense of relief, as well as a return to the excitement of being in this new and strange environment.

In the following weeks, that sense of excitement continued to dominate as we experienced many firsts. There was the first time we met our colleagues. The first time we waited in a line for gas. The first time we made a shopping list to buy groceries, went out for much of the day shopping, and came home with only a few items – none of which had been on the list. We couldn’t find anything on the list! However, to set our minds at ease, we had found one store where every shelf was packed with cans of peas. At least we wouldn’t starve!

As school began, we found ourselves in awe of the vast number of nationalities of the children in our classrooms. Both my wife and I spoke English, and nothing else. We were amazed to find five year olds who could switch back and forth between two, three, or more languages. The community seemed to welcome us with open arms, inviting us to dinners, social events at different embassies, and recreational events on the weekends. We felt we were a part of something important, something meaningful, and felt we fit in somewhere more than we had ever felt anywhere before. We also began to explore the city of Bucharest, and the surrounding countryside. Much of it had been untouched since the period just after the Second World War. It was a land time forgot, and we were drinking it all in. I truly believed life could not get any better.

Then, something happened, and the world seemed to crumble down around us. It is hard to pin point exactly what happened. To be honest, I don’t think there really was any one specific event. Life just seemed to change. Everything slowed down. The social events seemed to come to a stop. Work seemed to take on new challenges. There was a grayness that swept over the city as summer moved into fall. Very quickly, the excitement and wonder we had been experiencing slipped away, and we found ourselves feeling a bit alone and scared. More often than not, our lives were following a simple pattern of getting up each morning in darkness, going to school, teaching, coming home just before dark, trying to find some food, preparing the food, eating, preparing for classes, and going to bed. It was monotonous, and somehow made worse by the loneliness we were suddenly feeling in these unfamiliar surroundings. The thought of two years in this place began to feel unbearable, and made worse every time we looked around at our colleagues who seemed so content with life and the status quo. I began to question the decision we had made to come here, and regretted the loss of everything we had given up back in the States. It was at one point during this time I went into my wife’s classroom during a break students were having and broke down in tears. I just didn’t think I could continue. We needed to figure out a way to escape this mistake we had made.

My wife and I were lucky. We had each other to talk to at this point. We talked ourselves through it. We knew we couldn’t go back. Part of it was financial. I had taken a leave from my position back home, and had nothing to return to at the immediate moment. We couldn’t afford not to work. It was more than that though. We felt a sense of commitment to follow through on what we said we would do. Plus, our pride kept us from returning home to our friends and family who had believed us to be foolish for going on this grand adventure to begin with. We knew we had to stick with it. So, we pushed on. We set routines for ourselves that forced us to get out of our apartment, we reached out to people in our neighborhood so we started to feel connected to others – even if it was just someone we said hi to each afternoon or drank a glass of wine with at a garage café. It created a sense of belonging. We started to plan some things to look forward to – holiday trips, small dinners in our home, and team sporting activities. Slowly, we began to feel better, like we fit in, like we were home.

Winter came, and with it a new set of emotions. That Christmas was the first we didn’t spend with one of our parents. It felt a bit strange, even awkward, but we filled the void by spending time with friends and going on a trip exploring the Romanian countryside. Then, unexpectedly, my wife’s brother flew over to be with us for our winter break. It was a whim decision, and we couldn’t have been happier. Sharing our new life with him made everything seem better and more meaningful. We felt so full of ourselves as we introduced him to the people we had come to know. I took him to a poker game at the home of someone from the embassy. We stayed in a giant villa in the mountains, and when it snowed, we went to an old mountain resort where we skied in fresh powder for literally pennies, and had the slope to ourselves. He was amazed by the life we were experiencing. Seeing it through his eyes, we were too, and were made aware of how lucky we were to be having this fantastic experience. It was something very few other people got to experience – another culture, another world, first hand, as a part of it rather than as tourists looking in. It really was something special.

Following the departure of my brother-in-law, our routine returned. It was a bit more upbeat as the familiar provided a certain level of comfort. There were also more meaningful connections with some people as we moved beyond the stage of initial acquaintance and began to spend time with those we had some sort of shared experiences with. That isn’t to say there weren’t challenges. As winter moved into spring, we experienced another emotional lull. The monotony of routine had returned. Winter in Romania only added to the challenge as we began to feel a bit stir crazy at being stuck inside our bleak apartment night after night, especially as we experienced power failures and a loss of heat. The minimal food options began to wear as well. One night we went to a restaurant. It was the first Asian restaurant to open in the city. The menu was impressive, with several pages of options. Upon inquiry though, most things were not available. Those that were all consisted of pork, the only difference being the flavor of the sauce. It was symbolic of the challenges that seemed to be slowly wearing us down that winter.

We never hit bottom in winter like we had in the fall. As I reflect upon it, I think we made it through because of some of the routines and connections we had. Though they contributed to the monotony, they also provided a sense of familiarity. For example, I had developed a habit of stopping by a garage café each afternoon for a glass of homemade wine. Though the wine threatened to turn my stomach into an inferno, the friendship I developed with the owner became something I looked forward to day after day. He became my connection to Romanian culture, introducing me to other Romanians, and taking me on some amazing trips into the countryside. It was a friendship that would become one of my most memorable overseas experiences.

Slowly, our first year overseas came to a close. With it came exciting events in our lives. My wife became pregnant with our first child, and both of our parents joined us at different times as we spent the summer traveling through Europe in an old, beat up VW van – yes, I felt as though we were reliving my romanticized vision of the ‘60’s. With the end of summer, we returned to Bucharest for our second year. It was different this time around. We knew the ropes. We were suddenly showing the new folks around. It was comfortable and we fit in. That second year was fantastic; in fact, it evolved into what has now been a quarter of a century of overseas education.

I can now look back on our first year in Romania and recognize our experience as a common first year transition. In fact, we have moved approximately every five years or so, and we find we have a similar experience the first year in every place we go to. True, it isn’t as intense as that first year was, largely because we know what to expect, but the experience is essentially the same. When I was in Qatar, I made friends with David Burton of Burton Consultancy (http://www.burtonconsultancy.com/).  He specializes in helping organizations deal with transitions and cultural competencies. He described it to me as a common transition cycle. He sees it often. People come into an organization and are in a honeymoon phase. The world is wonderful as they experience a period of discovery and exhilaration. They then move into reality where the challenges become real, and they reminisce about everything they left behind. This is the hardest phase. If they stick with it, they move into a period of stability, with a couple more dips along the way that decreases in intensity as they develop a level of comfort. It is a challenging process, made more daunting when it is realized something similar will be experienced with every move. The trade off though is the wonderful cultural experiences and adventures we get to have along the way and the bonds we form with friends from around the globe that last a lifetime. I would not trade any of it.

At this point, I need to return to my first paragraph. There, I spoke of the challenges my wife and I were confronted with when we went overseas without the current technological tools those presently going overseas have available to them. It could be perceived I was saying those going overseas now have it easier than we had it. Nothing could be further from the truth. To begin with, separation is separation. The emotions that come with it are hard, no matter who we are, where we come from, or what we have access to. However, I sometimes wonder if those in the current era don’t have it more difficult. Yes, they can connect back home anytime they want with a flick of a switch. There is some comfort in that. At the same time, the process of separation becomes longer; more drawn out. When we left, boom, that was it! We were on our own, trying to figure it out. These days, you never quite let home go, so you don’t make the full transition as quickly as we did. To top it off, you also have those who questioned your decision to go overseas constantly there to jump on any hesitancy you voice. It can’t be easy, and I feel for those making the move now as much as I felt for those of us who made the move in an earlier era. Let’s face it, we are all pioneers, and we all face the challenges of change and transition. There is comfort in knowing we are not alone though. Others have experienced the same. And, as the saying goes, this too shall pass.

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

 

The question of re-culturing third culture kids

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The Question of Re-culturing Third Culture Kids

My wife and I first went overseas to Romania in 1992. We had been married a year, and were childless. We pictured ourselves as heading off on a grand adventure for a two-year period, after which I would return to the job in Minnesota from which I had a leave of absence, and my wife would look for something new. It really was an exciting time to be exploring Eastern Europe. Communism had recently fallen in the region, and the area had not adapted to the current era. We found ourselves mesmerized as we hiked through mountains, staying at hidden mountain retreats, dining with nuns at Moldovan monasteries, and exploring the ruins of Vlad Tepeś(better known as Dracula), and other fantastic adventures. We tried to make the best of every moment believing it would be over before we knew it.

At the end of our first year in Romania, we were surprised to discover our family was expanding due to an unexpected pregnancy. While we didn’t anticipate the birth of our first daughter the next year would change our plans, it did cause us to start to consider the ramifications this would have for us. We began to reach out to friends back in the US who had recently begun similar transitions in their lives – not an easy task in the days before the internet when letters took weeks round trip, and we could only afford one phone call home per month. As the responses began to come in, we found ourselves feeling a sense of despair.

The news from our friends back home was not encouraging. One friend described a schedule of dropping their infant daughter off at child care at 6:30 each morning, driving to work, picking her up at 5:00 PM, getting home, putting together dinner, a few chores, and then bed. The weekends were filled with shopping, laundry, and more chores, with very little quality time with their daughter. Another friend described the cost of childcare as being similar to a second mortgage, while yet another, who chose not to work, described the financial burden their family faced. All in all, we were becoming very distraught.

Slowly, my wife and I began to question our decision to return home at the end of two years. The situation we would be confronted with there seemed too stressful – not to mention the limits it would place on quality time with our daughter. We kept thinking about what we had in Romania. There, we could hire someone to look after our apartment and take care of our daughter in our home for a small fraction of our salary. This would permit us to spend our time away from work with our daughter, as we would not need to run around as our friends were, nor look after the chores that consumed our friend’s time. Our time could be just about family. After careful consideration, we decided to extend our stay a bit to take advantage of this opportunity. We didn’t realize it, but we had just taken the first step toward raising third culture kids.

So, our two-year experience overseas has evolved into 24, at last count. Along the way, we’ve had three daughters, who have had the joy of growing up in Romania, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Cayman Islands, Qatar, and Venezuela. It must be said they’ve had some outstanding opportunities. At last count, they had  visited somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 different countries combined. They’ve hiked the Andes of Latin America, engaged in service projects in Africa and Asia, skied in Europe, and attended classes with both members of royalty and scholarship students, and everyone in between. By the time they were each 15, they were competent enough to travel internationally on their own. They have truly developed the qualities common in third culture kids of empathy, adaptability, and open-mindedness (Druart, 2016).

Along the way, I have to acknowledge I’ve had some doubts. Early on, my wife and I decided to buy a home back in Minnesota to give our kids some sense of belonging. To a certain degree, this worked as the girls made neighborhood friends, some who even visited us in different locations, and they were able to build stronger connections with cousins. There did seem to be a downside to this plan though. For years, the girls romanticized their time in Minnesota. When they were there, it was summer. They ran barefoot through the neighborhood, played night games on the street, watched their friends play in soccer games, and enjoyed picnics and other rites of summer. In their minds, everything was magical. I have to admit there were a number of times my wife and I experienced twinges of guilt as we wondered if we were somehow cheating our kids of the type of childhood we had experienced and their friends back home were experiencing.

Any doubt we had came to an end when we lived in the Cayman Islands. In September 2004, the island of Grand Cayman was devastated when hit by a category five hurricane named Ivan. My wife and daughters joined the many thousands of people who evacuated the island before and after the storm. With little idea of how long it would take to rebuild, they journeyed home to Minnesota and the girls enrolled in school in the U.S. Ruth Druart (2016) recently interviewed third culture students ages 11-16 as a part of her master’s work. She describes students identifying a sense of belonging as being where their family is. This turned out to be true for us. As the girls went to school, they found the romanticism of summer was gone. School in the US seemed unfamiliar to them, and they felt they didn’t fit in. They very quickly longed for the familiarity that came from having our family unit together in one place, both at home and in school. When they returned to Grand Cayman several months later, any desire they had to live like their friends in Minnesota was gone, and with it any twinge of guilt my wife and I had felt.

The experience our daughters had during the hurricane evacuation is interesting. At the time, my wife and I sincerely believed our daughters had simply been dealt a dose of reality. Having only experienced life in Minnesota during the summer when the weather is great, friends are off school, and everything is wonderful, they were viewing life there through filtered lenses. We believed that when they found out what it was like when friends were in school, there was homework to do, and life was a bit more uncomfortable, they suddenly longed for the familiarity of home and family. It really didn’t hit us at the time that our kids were dealing with the challenges of re-culturing. That realization would come much later. For the moment, we were content to get everyone back together and feel confident in knowing the life we had chosen was okay after all.

Fast forward about a decade. We are now at a point where our kids are heading off to college. The first one went four years ago, the second this year, and the third still has a few more years at home. When our oldest daughter was preparing for college, she went through an interesting exploratory phase. At first she wanted to go to school in Europe, thinking she would feel more comfortable there. We explored a number of possible colleges there. Then, she decided she wanted to go to school in the US as she decided she wanted to feel what it was like to go to school in her own country and experience her home “culture.” She finally settled on a college in Minnesota to be close to family as well. However, the experience she had wasn’t what she anticipated.

When our daughter went to college, she began to feel she didn’t belong anywhere. When she initially arrived, she was placed with international students. She quickly realized she didn’t belong there. She felt she wasn’t an international student; she was from the US after all. She then tried to gel with other students from the US. She quickly realized she couldn’t relate to them either. Their life experiences just didn’t mesh with hers. In the end, she spent time putting together a friendship group that was a bit of a potpourri of different people, including some she meant during experiences abroad. She made it work, but it hasn’t been easy. Druart (2016) found that “it appears that having a sense of belonging to a particular country or even countries is an alien concept to TCKs (Third Culture Kids).” This was certainly true with our first daughter, and it now appears to be the case with our second daughter who seems to be having greater struggles with the whole process of re-culturing.

So, the question that must be asked is whether or not we have any regrets. I can say without hesitation we do not. I fully realize my children may never feel the same sense of pride in a country I had growing up. It is also likely they will always confront challenges with re-culturing. That said, I think they have something better. They see themselves as global citizens. They have the ability to adapt, to seek understanding, and to appreciate all cultures. Beyond that, they have a sense of belonging to family. That in itself is special, and something we all appreciate.

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

Druart, R. (2016). Where do I belong? International School, 18(2), 20-21.