Lessons from Starting a New School

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By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

Since the summer of 2017 I have been working with some very committed administrators, staff, and of course teachers to start a new school in Jeju, South Korea.

Going through this process has been challenging, frustrating, disappointing, and at times confusing. The professional development is illimitable, and in a year I probably will not recognize myself (or most of my peers). We will be better in every aspect of our practice.

Without reference to anything other than this experience, and my life experience, I would like to list a few lessons that apply to school administrators, teachers, and even students. These lesson would apply to any new situation where the landscape, demographics, rules of engagement, and/or expectations are different to a person’s current status quo.

There’s No Oxygen on Mars

That is not exactly true. According to Space.Com the Martian atmosphere is about .13% oxygen. However, if you were planning a trip there and everything you needed to survive depended on the existence of oxygen then you will probably have a bad time.

As with anything, taking previous expectations, plans, schedules, curriculum, etc. to a brand new experience should be done with extreme caution. What anyone needs to thrive in a new challenge is what they learned from the previous experience, not the items they accumulated.

What a person knows in one environment could be completely useless in a new environment.  In fact, unless people are collaborating and tapping into one another’s ideas, success will consistently linger over the horizon.

Even The Rock Tapped Out

Dwayne Johnson, The Rock (aka The People’s Champion), may have seemed undefeatable in the ring, but he did tapp out on occasion. Any adult would critically explain that WWE ring action is scripted. I would agree, and then remind them that a superstar like The Rock had to agree to, and even help write, that script. Why? He wanted to succeed. He wanted to entertain. He wanted to be “human” to his younger fans. Whatever the reason, he knew when to go from doing one things (dominating everyone), to losing a few.

Knowing when things are not working, that comes fairly quickly. Developing the courage to tell a new team that your plans are failing, that comes much slower. It seems everyone’s initial reaction is to keep doing the same thing over and over. The sooner that cycle is broken, the better.

Good leaders adjust in chaos. Good team members read those adjustments and make their own. Having a preconceived plan that fails badly in a new environment is normal, and not, in itself, a failure. In any new situation perspective changes what is, and is not, success.

There’s No Need to Remind Everyone About the Apple Tree

Imagine taking a group of people to an orchard to pick apples from an old apple tree. Upon arrival the tree is gone. Cut down. The tree is no more. There are peaches, pears, and a few random cherries, but there are no apples. What do you do? You eat the other fruit.

When people move to another country or situation they initially try and replace their previous environment. Once informed that a thing or resource is not available, or impossibly expensive to obtain, the next step should be to look for a replacement.

If a replacement cannot be found, then a new solution has to be found. Asking over and over for the apple tree is not going to bring it back, but it will waste the time of the people who can help with the other fruit.

Do Not Search for Ice in Antarctica 

I have never been to Antarctica. I do have family and friends who have been. I have seen their photos. It seems fairly certain that finding ice in Antarctica is about as easy as finding a horse or cow in Kentucky.

In Antarctica I need to worry about food. I need to worry about staying warm. I do not need to worry about everything I can make from ice.

When people arrive at a new school, or any policy driven institution, they bring previous policies. Many of these policies address problems that do not exist in the new location.

Without noticing the things that do not apply, it is easy to slip into the habit of solving problems that do not exist.

This is another good reason to review everything with a group of people while spinning around in the chaotic process of starting something new. Implementing policy in a vacuum is risky business.

Celebrate the Small Wins

Starting a new journey with a group of mostly strangers is exhausting. Everyday, for many days, will be challenging. Waiting to celebrate until everything is perfect or finished would mean never celebrating when celebration is needed the most.

Plan times to take breaks (non-optional breaks) just as intensely as you would plan everything else. Give everyone those way-points to work towards. Allow people to look at the clock and realize that today they cannot work late, because at 6:00 PM there is a place they just gotta be.

About Tony DePrato

Tony DePrato has a Master’s Degree in Educational Technology from Pepperdine University and has been working as a Director of Educational Technology since 2009. He has worked in the United Arab Emirates and China where he has consulted with schools in both regions on various technology topics. In 2013, Tony DePrato released The BYOD Playbook a free guide for schools looking to discuss or plan a Bring Your Own Device program. Tony is originally from the US, and worked in multimedia, website development, and freelance video production. Tony is married to Kendra Perkins, who is a librarian.
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