Category Archives: Stephen Dexter

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, What Big Disasters Tell Us All.

A small gathering of people, heads bowed, sit on makeshift benches in the open air of a small town in the American West, surrounded by the rubble of what used to be their church. A powerful nation, wounded by a brazen and public act of violence that crumbles two symbols of its economy, impulsively reacts with rage and violence.

There’s nothing like crisis to expose us for who we are and what we value (and don’t). It’s cathartic, like a near death experience. (Which unfortunately is what this can be).

In schools, we like to think we’re ready because we plan (fires, cobras yes that’s a thing, earthquake, gas leak, military coup, invader, etc.). I’ll never forget the time in Switzerland when the local fire department made me enter a simulated smoky room tent and follow recorded screams to the other side with a fire extinguisher in my hand as I tried to spray a burning stove. My heart was beating out of my chest, my tie nearly caught fire, and no plan in the world was going to help. It was terrifying (and awesome).

So forget about the neat lines of elementary kids quietly walking down stairs in rows to the pre-planned fire drill on a sunny day out through the cafeteria and lining up on the football pitch. This ‘stuff’ is for real.

Remember how dysfunctional your communications were before the pandemic? I bet that got sorted fast. Remember those needy and at risk students before the lockdown? Are they worse than ever? Possibly. Remember how much difficulty the science department had collaborating when they were in person? How’s that working out now through a screen?

All of those things that we either ignored but knew could be problems, hoped to get to later but never had the time and wished would fix themselves, are now screaming at us like one huge virtual siren. Similarly, so is the great stuff. I bet those popular pep rallies are better than ever on Zoom!!

Economics pundits are recording with fascination how the work universe is re-sorting itself. Visionary businesses like Amazon and Netflix are gobbling up the opportunity while the insecure or unprepared are suffering. (Maybe we didn’t need all that oil after all). Same goes for us.

If your organization over-promised and underdelivered before the crisis, you’re probably in trouble now. If you didn’t properly support or train your teachers before the crisis, you’re in trouble. If you didn’t build trust with your parent community before March, you’re really in trouble. If you didn’t build a culture of transparency and respect and yes, love, before, then the current shutdown for you might extend well beyond when things open up again.

At the risk of sounding insensitive, these current times are leadership gold. They are providing a clear path to us about not only what is really important about learning, but what we are made of as institutions and what cannot wait for the next accreditation cycle.

Of course, a lot of schools and businesses might pick up right where they left off. There may be socially distanced parties, unveiling of statues built for lower elementary and Pre-K teachers, and an increase in community building. But things might just drift back to the way they were.

Don’t let that happen. Even if things were good.

This is the greatest scorecard of all time. It’s better than accreditation, a PhD from Bath, and a Klingenstein Fellowship rolled into one. It’s the mirror, looking straight at our unshaven and unkempt faces, telling us exactly who we are and what is our potential.

Don’t waste it.

Riding the Wave: A Disruption Epiphany

There comes a point in surfing where you either commit to where that force of nature is going to bring you or you duck under and hope for another day.

It feels like we’ve been ducking under for a long time, let’s say since 1999 clicked to 2000. Has that been long enough waiting for the perfect wave?

Covid-19 has brought the fogginess attributed with stress and the crystal clarity that comes with crisis. As educators, this is our surfboard moment, that disruptive peak where we, finally, have to decide if we’re going to hang ten and do something about the promises of 21st century learning (before we start talking about the 22nd). Here’s my list, subject to change and certainly debate.

Homework to Quarantine

I hated it as a student, hate it as a parent, and find it laughable when my child is literally home all day. What are we going to call it when school re-opens, school work? A hard stop to schooling at the end of the school day, (except for pleasure reading and doing something outside) seems like a nice post-pandemic practice. (IB/DP students are exempted from this rant).

Carnegie Units and Choice

We talk a lot about choice, but we don’t really mean it. Now that students are more or less off schedule, can mute teachers, and decide when and what they want to study, it feels like we can’t go back to math on Tuesdays at 9am. This is seriously going to shake up the control freak schedulers and force us to rethink how we relegate time and for what and who makes those choices.

Death Knell of the SAT

Well, well, well, looks like universities CAN decide college admissions without the antiquated SAT score? This is going to be interesting. Yes, I know that grades are inflated and GPAs laughable. I don’t have the perfect “one size fits all” metric but I do know that relying on the SAT as an indicator of future success is like saying that car ownership is an indicator that you could win a Formula One race.

Social Distance the Subjects

Has the world finally learned the lessons of The Great War? The Roman Empire? Dividing fractions? The interactions between matter and energy? (Okay, maybe that last one is important). My point is that now that we’re home, everything has blended into one gooey mess and what we are learning about seems trivial at best.

We no longer walk down the hall to math, then music or design, physically moving ourselves from one thing to another. As virtual students, we have big blocks of time to make sense of a bunch of stuff in one place. We aren’t doing students any favors by throwing work at them that is completely disconnected between subjects. It’s time to admit that secondary schools aren’t very good at being “university lite” and to once again re-think what it means to be a thinker and a learner. Literacy, regardless of the content is important. Conceptual analysis and critical thinking skills, regardless of whether a kid can divide fractions, is important. Introducing learning skills relevant to the existential crisis raging outside our computer screens is important.

Teachers are Gold

No online course or webinar will ever, ever, ever replace the invaluable magic of a human being facilitating a titration experiment or mesmerizing an audience with a dramatic scene. When this pandemic is over (and it will end), I’m imagining our teachers being paraded through the streets like the Apollo astronauts in convertibles through Times Square in 1968.

Technology Has Its Limits

I cannot wait to see how many schools are going to shelve the laptops once this is over and send their IT directors on well deserved vacations. I sort of predict that there is going to be a techno whiplash from parents, teachers and students once this is over. Libraries are going to spring up like daisies again and I-Pads will be used as cafeteria trays.

People over Product

Schools are generally good at this already, but I have a feeling socio-emotional wellness is going to a new level after this crisis. Talk about coping skills and resiliency!

If there has ever been a time in recent human history where we need to think outside of the proverbial box and reset our priorities, it is now. Let’s please ride the wave together in this vacuum of uncertainty and see where it takes us.

Feet, You Had Feet?

Love In The Time of Corona and Other Musings…

Zagreb, March 22, 2020

When I was younger in the U.S., there was an old Roy Rogers commercial playing with two men arguing about who had it harder growing up. They started talking about walking to school long distances, not having shoes, then socks, ending up with the punch line which is the title of this story. It’s ‘dad’ humor but I still love that line.

But c’mon, you gotta give it up for Zagreb. We had an earthquake in the middle of a pandemic. And can you believe people had to practice social distancing whilst evacuating onto the streets?

Can I get an amen?

While many of you may have experienced snow days, our school called an earthquake day which was a relief from virtual day because of pandemic week. Thankfully, although several teachers lost their apartments, no one in the entire school community was injured or killed by the 5.4 tremor. This is truly amazing for a place with old buildings that hasn’t experienced something like that in 140 years.

I asked some of my Croatian friends how people were being so stoic through it all and they said, “Well, we did live through a war only 25 years ago.” Ah right, the war. And so it goes.

There are many international teachers that have been in tough situations. Wars, floods, earthquakes, fire, coups, sudden closures, disease, and the list goes on and on. So, this is certainly not an attempt to demonstrate anything new in the experience of international teachers or to make some platitudes about how we have to pull together in tough times, with or without feet.

But what opportunity, what necessity that stands right before us (that amazing and always reliable mother of inventions), is the chance to teach us something that we cannot miss in that precious space when new knowledge meets experience, that thing most often referred to as learning.

We thought we were doing this as educators before, but most of us were not. We did some online stuff, a few Khan Academies served with a side of Pamoja. There were tech integrators, workshops, and even virtual learning platforms, but it wasn’t all in. Now, obviously it is. What an amazing ice bucket challenge.

So now we stand side by side with our students, hand in virtual hand, having to figure &%$ out, humbled by realities that we don’t have answers for, but with a blue moon chance to redesign not only the what of our work, but truly the WHY of it. (Thanks Simon Sinek for that).

Of course we have to be a stable force for our students. We cannot throw our arms up, wailing at the sky proclaiming that nothing matters anymore. Of course it does. Much of what we’ve been doing to this point matters very much. But this is our chance to move that needle not just by an incremental skip but by a leap. Are we really going to go back to school once we get through this (and we will), and be like, “Whew that was close, okay everyone, now where were we? Oh, right, chapter five, photosynthesis.”

No, we’re not. We’re going to take a real, hard look at the WHY. We have to.

Why am I standing in front of you?

Why am I asking you to learn these things when those other things are SO much more important but we never get to them?

Why don’t I listen to you more and to myself talking less? (After all, for the past several weeks or months you hardly heard me talk at all).

Why can’t we be the change we want to see in the world now instead of hoping that years from now when you get out of university you might decide to make a difference?

This relationship between learner and teacher, between prior experience and new knowledge, between expert and witness, has changed. It has by necessity. It has for the better.

So, when we do go back, when we return to what we used to think of as normal, even if it takes a long time, we have to take what these opportunities have taught us and be honest about them, not just about the virtuality of learning, but of the humanity this revealed and what we owe to our students to do something real with it.

It’s nice, after all, to have feet.

Will Covid-19 Kill Homework?

After our first full virtual learning day, I looked to my daughter finishing her dinner and said, smiling, “So, do you have any homework?”

We both broke out laughing hysterically (as one can do in these dystopian times) and then fell quiet.

“No, actually, I don’t,” she said with confidence. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Will Covid-19 kill homework?

When learning becomes seamless, it really shines a spotlight on our arcane routines. What is it about virtual learning that seems to disintegrate homework? Is it the lack of physical movement from one place to another, school to home? Is it just something that is supposed to happen after dinner?

I cannot envision us going back to ‘work at home’ and ‘work at school’ once this horrible crisis is over. If homework is to survive, it can no longer just be an extension of the stuff we did all day at school, or busy work as a thin guise to convince parents that we have ‘rigor.’ Now that those lines have disappeared, we are going to have to really introspect why learning in a ‘social setting’ is important and why being home is important in a different way. (It’s the same reason we have to re-think meetings, but that’s another blog).

The data coming out of this crisis is going to be absolutely stunning. From human behavior under stress, to the rise of the introvert and independent learner, to the relationship of caretakers and children, communications platforms, online assessments, asynchronous and synchronous learning, creativity in traditional subjects, balance, and all the things we have talked about as the future of education but were just too busy to do…until a pandemic forced us to do it. I am really curious to see if homework in its current form is going to survive, and if it should.

I had the last laugh with my daughter, however. “Well, since you don’t have homework,” I said with confidence. “You can take the dog out AND do the dishes AND clean up your smelly soccer jersey on the floor AND…

Homework? You just might have met your match.

Routine: The Boring Lifeblood of International Schools

“Who wants meatloaf? Does anyone want meatloaf? Katia, do you want meatloaf?”

“No, I want salad,” she says, looking disinterested.

“Last chance for meatloaf,” the veteran social studies teacher of 27 years repeats. She sighs, typing in the last two names. “Okay,” she says, “the meatloaf is really good. The rest of you are going to regret this.”

And so our day begins.

I’ve been trying to kill the lunch count since I started over a year ago. For a school with a 21st century mission, we shouldn’t have time for chicken sandwiches and lunch counts. My entry plan included a daily bulletin packed with more important information than you could shake a stick. There had to be more efficient ways to determine if the children wanted eggplant parmesan or rice so we could get on with saving the planet.

But of course, any leader worth his or her salt should know what not to overlook. Or dismiss.

Of all the systems changes and trends and grinding turnover, the lunch count, as inane and arcane as it seemed, had been in place since the school started in 1960. It had become, literally, an immovable feast. It was more than meatloaf. It was a time to connect, to slow down, to savor a few seconds of the day to think about the basic human need for nourishment. It was wellness before such a word became chic. It set the tone for the day.

Reading the report from the last accreditation was like dusting of an Egyptian papyrus. None of the names, initiatives, or projects were familiar. Everything had changed. And this was only five years ago.

Flipping through the report, all I could think about was all of the hard work that had gone for naught. All of the curriculum teams, the MAP benchmarks, the advisory programs, the new systems that were already defunct. Everything had drifted away like an ancient civilization.

It made me think about how much the constant reinvention and starting over held schools back. New Heads bringing new strategic plans and visions. New teachers coming and going with their suitcase curriculum. New boards bringing new priorities. And new IT personnel. Don’t get me started on what that does to school culture.

Disruption seems like so much fun. It’s creative. It’s trendy. It’s liberating. But it’s routine that anchors us so that these things can happen. You don’t just start chipping away at the foundation. That’s literally destabilizing to the entire structure.

This is not an argument for status quo. There are a lot of horrible practices out there that continue just because “we’ve always done it that way.” This is not an anti change argument. It’s a call for recognizing the simple but important routines that must be preserved so that the organization can move forward rather than constantly starting from scratch.

So, if something works and isn’t breaking the culture, then why don’t we have the discipline to honor it and put our attention somewhere else? I’ve been in this business for 24 years and I still spend far too many minutes of my life on attendance policies. “Ritualize the mundane, make room for the brilliant,” is one of my favorite quotes.

So, yes, the lunch count drives me mad. It makes me think I’m in a one room school house in Saskatchewan in the 1800s.

But it’s going to stay because it is an important constant, a cultural cornerstone of a small school that, in spite of its growth spurts, needs to keep it roots strong so it can reach for the sky.

I’ll have the meatloaf, thank you. And of course, mashed potatoes.

Tis the Season, A 2019 Job Seeking Primer

Sorry I haven’t written in awhile. Been super busy transitioning to a new amazing team of educators in a very special country.

No matter how much I write about the unique experience of seeking a job in international schools, I always learn something new that has helped me and hopefully will help you as you venture into this perilous (and exciting) phase of your learning journey.

So, here’s my job seeking primer for 2018. Good luck. And remember, you WILL get a job.

1) The fairs are done before they start. I think you know this by now, but most jobs are filled by January and the top schools are done by Oct./Nov. You should have built a relationship with a school prior to the fair. By the time the fair rolls around, meeting people is usually a formality.

2) Design a clean, clutter free CV that tells a story, not just a list of mundane tasks like everyone else. More text with 10 font is not a better story. There’s no reason you can’t organize your experience by headings such as “Innovation,” “Experiential ed,” or “Personalized Learning,” that matches the mission of the school instead of something that looks like a common app. It takes more work, but if you really want to work at a certain school, they will be impressed to see the alignment of your experiences with what the school values.

3) Check the school web sites that you’re interested in, not just the search agencies. Desirable places like the UWC network and some of the other top schools don’t bother to advertise.

4) Non profit vs. For profit: There’s an expression that the difference between profit and non is that one is resource rich and community poor and the other is the opposite. That’s a pretty good analogy as for profits can be ruthless when it comes to the bottom line, but that doesn’t mean that non-profits are perfect. Make sure you understand the culture of the organization you are joining before you jump in. Speaking to current employees (not just managers) usually is a good indicator.

5) Job jumping=low rating. Yes, there are a lot of teachers that are in it for the travel. From a recruiters’ perspective, a string of 2 and 3 year gigs (or less) is not a good sign no matter your excuse. You should build up a solid foundation of several 4-5 year gigs or longer to establish yourself as a desirable candidate.

6) Social media matters: We all know this by now, but keep an eye on your digital footprint and make sure that it’s compatible for working in schools. Child safeguarding is job #1 of professional school environments and they check.

7) Always give your direct supervisors as references, even if it’s hard. Good schools are going to call the Director or Head even if you didn’t list them as a reference. It’s a red flag when your only references are colleagues, past directors, or department heads. Have the hard conversations if you have to, but list the direct managers.

8) No surprises: Be up front with anything that might be an issue. If you have a child with disabilities, a partner to whom you’re not married, or anything that could be an obstacle for securing a work permit or a job, be up front even if it may cost you the offer. There’s nothing worse for an employer than finding out deal breaker issues after you’re at the contract stage.

9) Visit schools during your holidays just to say “hello” and introduce yourself, even if there’s not a job. As a Principal, I love it when traveling teachers want to visit and see what we’re all about and have a chat over coffee about their experience. Some of my best ‘interviews’ have been with folks on their holiday. They’re real.

10) Be willing to take a pass. Don’t be desperate. Watch for the signs of a bad deal. If a manager gives you five hours to think about an offer or if they don’t let you speak to current employees or are vague about the health insurance, etc. then wait. If you’re good, you WILL get a job. Trust me, it somehow works out, especially if you love what you do and want to make the world a better place. God only knows we need you.

Good luck. I’ve been on both sides of the table and it’s humbling. Keep your friends close, be yourself, don’t be afraid to turn down something if it doesn’t feel right, and don’t ever, ever give up.

Homecoming

Nick’s Roast Beef in North Beverly was closed for vacation during my brief annual stay in America. “Are you kidding me?” I yelled, pounding the steering wheel of my rented Honda Pilot. “Are you &^&%$ kidding me!” I yelled again over the background noise of SportsHub 98.5 arguing in thick Boston accents why the Red Sox didn’t make a move at the trade deadline. Nick’s has the juiciest, meatiest, tender-ist roast beef with the best buns and sauce in the civilized world. I make a beeline for it when I get off the plane. It was traumatic not being able to get my fill during the short time I was in America.

International educators all have their own versions of Nick’s, those places across the globe that allow them to reconnect with ‘home,’ to reboot old memories that anchor them to something to balance the weightlessness of 10 months in Bangladesh or Brussels.

They also have the things they miss that are less predictable, less stable, and rarely show up on Facebook.

I missed three funerals of relatives this past year. Three. It was heartbreaking. But it’s part of that compromise we make when we choose this life. I’ve never been a fan of international folks posting their sunsets in Bali or their elephant rides in Tanzania while everyone back home is slogging it out in traffic trying to make a living. The things we post often don’t represent the sacrifices we’ve made to be away. Maybe we’re compensating somehow to numb the pain of the things we missed and to show everyone back ‘home’ what a great time we’re having. But it’s a hard sell.

When I return ‘home,’ there are the routines that I do to connect and replenish just like everyone else. The visits to aging relatives and parents, the ice cream outings with young nieces and nephews, the craft beers with brothers. It’s all done at such a frenetic pace I cannot always summon the energy to be sincere, attentive, grateful and engaged everytime. “Oh, it was your birthday last month? You’re learning to play the drums? You have a new job? Wow! You’re going off to university already?” There are so many details that fast forward in time it’s hard to keep track.

The hardest part, though, is re-inserting myself into the realness of what it means to be home. The superficial catching up can only last so long. Then it’s time to talk about the family business that is late on its payments, the parents with Alzheimer’s, the sister in law with breast cancer, the high school friend whose young son is on life support. Those are the homecomings we never see on Facebook. It’s so hard to re-engage and get up to speed on the crises that have been a part of ‘home’ life during the time we’re away. Engage too quickly and you disrupt family dynamics that found equilibrium during your absence. Disengage and risk the wrath of relatives questioning out loud if you’re committed to anything other than hiking through rainforests.

I’m always drawn to the bedrock of my childhood to get re-centered. The pond I skated on as a kid. My grandmother’s house (pic). The rock by the ocean where I asked my wife to marry me. All of the places that (unknown to me at the time) built the foundation that led to the decision to live overseas. Going back to those places stabilizes me for the often turbulent (pun intended) times far from home.

Thank God Nick’s re-opened just before I had to return to my international life. I didn’t post any pictures of the large sandwich and onion rings I consumed in less than two minutes, but rather quietly wiped a dribble of bbq sauce from my nephew’s chin and tried to get up to speed on his fledgling lacrosse career.

It felt good to be home.

Parts Unknown

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NkoOfMWNuA&t=690s

My family thinks I’m odd. When we went to Hanoi, Vietnam in 2016, I was obsessed with going to the hole in the wall restuarant that Anthony Bourdain and President Obama ate at together. Their visit was still fresh so there were huge pictures on the wall of them and a buzz around the place. I found the table that my two favorite people in the world sat at and ordered the same meal. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.

Everyone who has chosen the international life has a story about what inspired them to live overseas. For me, it was a combination of never feeling like I fit into my American suburban surroundings, an emotion that quickly dissipated once I joined the Peace Corps and spent three years in rural West Africa. I had, at last, found my people. Peace Corps Volunteers became my tribe, my compatriots, my soul mates. And I never turned back.

Anthony Bourdain personified that feeling and put into words and pictures the emotions I often experienced living in the world and in coming into contact with different cultures.

When people ask me what I’d be doing if not working in a school, I say every time without hesitation, “I’d be Anthony Bourdain, travelling the world, walking into random kitchens, talking to people, learning their stories, and absorbing life in its quirky, unfiltered, celebratory sequence of messiness, raw living and hard work.”

I am deeply saddened by his passing because he was my muse, my “keep it real,” my connection to what it really means to live this life of travel, culture and people. His shows were a poetic composition of life, his message one of humanity, love and good times, free of pretension, racism, and commercialism.

He was a constant reminder of why I do what I do. (Even on the darkest days).

My family often make fun of me because when we go on vacations I make an effort to (as they like to say) “wander into the village to talk to the local people.” They laugh, but this has put me in people’s kitchens from Ireland to Istanbul and given me a picture on life that not only puts my work in perspective but allows me to feel that connection to humanity and purpose that Tony Bourdain so eloquently described every week.

He once said upon accepting a Peabody Award that he asks three simple questions on the show: “What makes you happy?” “What do you like to eat?” What do you like to cook?” And the rest took care of itself. It was an approach to understanding people and culture that was so simple that it has served as a constant reminder as to why I do what I do in international education.

But we’ve made it so complicated.

Many of us in international education work in places that have large gates, security, and little to no connection to the surrounding community. From our sports competitions to our arts and academics to the food, we live and work in little bubbles that don’t resemble anything other than their own sanitized entity.

We claim that we are preparing people to be global citizens through things like the IB and a variety of languages and international days and so on, but in large we have become so risk averse, so predictable, and so standardized that we are becoming the complete antithesis of what we aspired people to be when we chose the international life. “International mindedness” has become an air-conditioned simulation through laptops, I-Pads and high stakes grueling exams. Does the kid who achieved a 45 on the IB or a perfect 5 on and AP exam know how to ride the local bus or order a plate of chili crab in Hokkien?

“When we repatraite,” they say, “We don’t want any gaps. It has to be a seamless transition from one place to the next, from Manila to Miami, from Boston to Budapest.”

Well it’s not a smooth transition. And it shouldn’t be.

In a recent interview with Bourdain, he was asked how he managed the offering of local food that was unappetizing or not necessarily fresh. “Food,” he said, (I am paraphrasing), “Is a window to someone’s community, to their culture. Food is the beginning of a conversation of someone telling you who they are. And what’s the worst thing? You deal with it. Maybe a few rounds of antibiotics.”

He reminded me that while there were inherent risks in life and getting to know other people, that they were often risks worth taking. He inspired me to shake things up when they needed to be, to make connections to the local maintenance workers, the cooks, the cleaners and to get a real understanding of the international life. One of my cherished memories of my time in Singapore took place last Sunday night, for example, when I was invited to the Hindu wedding of one of our IT guys whom I had taken the time to get to know. The looks on the faces of the other workers when I arrived at the wedding was something I’ll never forget. That’s what Tony inspired in me and that’s why I work in international schools.

So whether I’m wearing a suit behind the high gates or wandering into villages to talk to the local people, I am inspired by what Tony Bourdain taught me in my commitment to international education and the lessons young people need to learn to embrace the world, other people’s food, and to answer the question, “What makes you happy?”

Farewell Tony, I’m really, really going to miss you.

The Tao of Escalators: A Culture Story

Two things fascinate me about the institution of schooling: 1) How the environment around the school impacts the culture of the school and 2) The structure of the school management and how it makes decisions.

I went out for an alumni dinner from my alma mater last week and had some fascinating conversations with people that had very different careers from my own. One, a fresh graduate, was a management consultant for Ernst & Young. He told some stories about the cultures of certain businesses and how it was his job to realign them to be more purposeful. “The oil industry is all compliance driven,” he said, “So it’s tough to build in any creativity or things out of the norm. It was my job to untangle their complex and clogged systems of compliance to allow more flexibility in a rapidly changing market to allow for adaptations before things went into the tank.” Schools hire strategic consultants to come up with all sorts of things like new technology programs, NGSS, literacy initiatives, accreditations, and so on. A few take symbolic gestures at governance structures but they are mostly compliance driven and address things like whether or not the procedures for updating the policy manual have been reviewed. Very few allow someone to come in and look under the hood to see what’s really driving the work flow. (or not).

A second man, a Singaporean who had attended my university for banking and commerce, told an equally fascinating story when I complained about how awful school mission statements were. “Did you know,” he said, “that the MRT in Singapore supposedly had the fastest escalators in the world? It was part of their mission to grow the fastest and most efficient economy on the planet.”

“Really?” I said. “Faster than now because they’re really fast.”
“Oh, way faster. This is nothing.”

“So, what happened?” I asked. “How come they no longer have the fastest ones?”
“Too many older people were getting hurt. They would hesitate at the top and be afraid to get on like a carnival ride. And a lot of times when they stepped on they’d fall or something would happen. It was like an out of control conveyer belt.”

“Wow, that’s fast.”

“Yeah, they only go about half speed now.”

It made me reflect on what a critical thing such as cultural attitudes towards work can impact something so operational as escalator speed. When we work in a hyper competitive environment, we don’t pay attention to the big picture, whether we are ‘compliance driven’ as the management consultant described, or even the people trying to step onto a whizzing escalator. We pay attention to the output, the outcomes, and the pressures that force the escalator to move faster or the oil company to be more compliant.

The young graduate told me that he simply crunched a lot of data and pointed things out for them to decide. He’d highlight the time for supply chains to reach their destinations, for invoices to be approved, for policy decisions to be made, all of the meat and potatoes of managing large companies. It was fascinating to think about the similarities to schools. And the escalator speed? Fascinating parallels. I know a lot of people (including myself) that have gotten tossed from that high speed staircase.

There are actually some really bold attempts to break down the compliance driven, top down, creativity, risk averse, and fear driven hierarchies that many educators work in now. One is The Mastery Transcript Consortium, (mastery.org) which is looking to redefine the way we think about and record high school academic work, and the other is the ACE Accreditation from NEASC, a bold initiative that is going to reshape the entire structure of oil company compliance that drives many schools.

So, whether you’re working in a bureaucratic and inefficient environment such as one where the post office closes during lunch (a very maddening experience) or one that is so efficient it is tossing retired folks off the conveyer belt like potatoes, you have to acknowledge and accept that the culture that surrounds you will have a direct impact on the place you work and the expectations placed on you, regardless of how high your gates are or how bold you believe your mission to be.

Think culture. Think mission. Think environment. And most of all, think relationships, they are the root of everything we do.

Carpool Karaoke

You ever watch Carpool Karaoke with James Corden? If you haven’t you’re missing a real treat. If you’ve ever driven a car, you have certainly sung along with your favorite tunes on the radio. It’s fun, it’s liberating, and you don’t care what you sound like.

Imagine if class was like that?

Now, I’m not saying that most of you teachers are not fun and liberating, but I’ve been in a lot of classes in my lifetime and a lot of them not liberating. I think that’s why I went into the business, to resist that feeling that I had when I was in school.

When I watch Carpool, I see really famous people not afraid to be themselves, actually showing how nervous they are, and just being real people. It’s therapy in an amazing way. On one episode, Ed Sheeran told James that he was extremely nervous to be on the show Ed Sheeran!. It was shocking to hear that such a famous person could be nervous. He said it was because he needed his guitar as “armor” as James put it. What does that say about how he grew up and was able to face the things he did to become who he is today? Did school help or hurt that process? Did it liberate him? Hmmm.

I’ve watched episodes with Elton John, BeyoncĂ©, Sam Smith, Adele, Miley Cyrus and every time I smile because I see how much joy they are having in the simple act of singing along with the radio in a car. The simple act of un-judged expression. The freedom to express without judgement. Isn’t that where creativity begins?

We have elevators in my school. Only the Seniors can ride in them as a privilege. They are in the middle of “mock exams” right now for the IB which is another expression for preparing for war. The kids are stressed out, overtired, and on the edge of collapse. I’ve tried to resist that stress put on them but it’s a machine that goes well beyond me.

So, I do my own Carpool Karaoke. When I’m riding in the elevator with a group of them, I start “Elevator Karaoke.” Sometimes I bring printed lyrics so that they can get the words. It’s liberating, a little awkward, and really, really fun.

Then the door opens and we all go back to work.