Slacker or Hacker?

I’ve always thought of myself as a non-conformist, even though I have a strong inkling that others view me very much as a conformist. Perhaps this is why I feel so at home in Switzerland – I’m a non-conformist committed to following the rules. I’m willing to put up with a fair number of constraints if the train comes on time, the mountain roads are meticulously maintained, and things just plain work.

Outside Embers in Summer 1988, before moving to
Regensburg, Germany, to start slacking … or hacking?

So I’ve read with interest over the years the stories of those who have succeeded because they bucked the trend. I like reading about people who quit school to build famous businesses, who were fiercely independent and are now successful because of it. Of course, I enjoy reading about them after coming home from my comfortable middle class job with a dental plan and a pension.

I realized one day that I didn’t have to just admire the folks I knew that were hacking their own education. (Besart, you know I’m thinking about you here, the Meister of moving from one opportunity to another by working your network.) I don’t need to admire from afar and lament that I don’t have the same spirit. I actually have hacked some of my education, back in the day. I just hadn’t thought of it like that.

After a short stint as a short order cook following graduation (Remember the Embers?), I moved to Germany, enrolled in the university in order to get a work permit, and did enough odd jobs to support two hobbies: writing poetry and traveling. The experience created a second rate but well traveled poet who fell in love with a third hobby, languages.

I sort of thought I was just being a slacker for those four years between undergraduate and graduate school, but I think I can reasonably reframe that time as hacking my own education. I was, after all, a student at the university (who didn’t attend the classes in my declared major, but I did join the theater troupe, learn some Swedish, read for hours in the library, and write for many more in the computer lab). I learned German through those activities and odd jobs, and with my collection of Donald Duck comic books from every country I visited, I learned to marvel at how languages work.

The hacker mentality that I learned during those years has stayed with me. It has been second nature to me for a long time to supplement any on the job training with additional opportunities, whether related to the job or not. I almost always jump at the chance to join a professional development opportunity, even when the connection to my responsibilities is a bit tenuous. I’ve regularly taken extra computer classes, went with the yearbook crew on a weekend retreat, attended conference sessions on a whim, signed up for MOOCS ranging from chicken care (University of Edinburgh) to studying complexity (Santa Fe Institute). A professor of mine once said “You read the strangest things,” which I took as a compliment. I think I’ve also been rather adept at constantly redefining my role in my current position so that work stays both relevant and interesting.

Those hacker years, even though I was worried at the time that they were slacker years, contributed greatly to my personal drive for lifelong learning. I’m not only curious, something I may have been lucky to have been born with and to grow up with in my family, I’m also willing to find a way to learn more, in my free time or combined with my job, and to make connections between seemingly unrelated pursuits.

Now I find myself quite committed to helping students learn to self-regulate, to make their education their own, to learn when it is worthwhile to follow a pursuit that others may not be so readily supporting. In short, I’m all about helping students learn to hack their education more and follow the prescribed route less. But in a measured, polite, Swiss way.

A Focus on Identity

“We felt heard, we felt understood, we felt visible.”
—Sara K. Ahmed, Being The Change

As educators, it’s easy to get tied up in what we’re teaching: which standards, content, units, skills. How we teach (our craft) and why we teach (our purpose) also attract plenty of our attention. With the reality of covid-19 distance learning, even where and when we teach is weighing heavily on our minds.

But it’s who we teach that must always remain at the center.

That’s not to say we don’t care about our students—we all do, immensely—but are we caring for them in all the ways they truly need? How well do we truly know and understand them? How well are we supporting them as they work to know and understand themselves?

In other words, how much do we intentionally focus on identity with our students, in our teaching, and in our schools? How much does our understanding and expertise around Identity factor into how our schools operate?

Identity is the ongoing exploration, formation, and expression of 1) who we are, and 2) our place in this world. Despite fantastic work from identity leaders and academics, it’s a concept that gets surprisingly little airtime in our classrooms, curricula, professional conversations, or recruitment interviews. In fact, the word “identity” only appears in the Common Core standards four times… in the math standards.

Consequently, the most common way for people to learn about their identity is when it is used against them, i.e. through trauma. Being bullied, teased, excluded, ignored, rejected, dismissed, abused, systematically disempowered, or micro-aggressed due to one’s race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, culture, religion, or class—that’s how we tend to learn our identities, especially the second (and often more painful) part: our place in this world.

Like other BIPOC individuals, I have needed to grapple with my racial and cultural identities for my whole life, starting from the day kindergarten classmates laughed at my onigiri lunch. I have needed to explain my mix of races and cultures to thousands of people in four different languages, listening as they ask “What are you?” and “Where are you really from?” but always hearing “Explain how you’re not one of us.”

Like other BIPOC individuals, I feel like I’ve earned a Ph.D. in Race and Culture, decades in the making, and I use that extensive knowledge and experience to support my students as they explore and construct their complex racial and cultural identities.

But what about my gender identity? As a cisgender man, society has not taught me (through trauma or guidance) to confront and thoroughly understand that part of my identity, while transgender individuals have that hard-fought Ph.D. In other words, our membership in a dominant identity group systematically exempts us from having to learn deeply about that aspect of who we are and truly understand our place in the world (at the top).

Unless I take the time to profoundly reflect—that is, to reflect on my own gender identity and how it was formed, my own cisgender biases and blind spots, the myriad privileges that society has bestowed on me for being cisgender, the pervasiveness of cisnormative language, practices, and structures across the world along with my complicity in reinforcing them, and the centuries of gender-conformative human history—then I will struggle to empower students (transgender and cisgender) to uncover the complexities of gender identity and seek equity and justice. And I do struggle. And I will reflect, learn, and do better.

Are you a member of a dominant identity group? (Hint: we all are, in some way) I encourage you to substitute race, sex, disability, culture, sexual orientation, class, religion, etc. for “gender identity” in the previous paragraph and see how it sounds.

This constant exercise of Identity Self-Reflection and Growth can help us all become finer teachers—“Identity Experts,” if you will—for our students as they go through their own identity journeys. Recognizing, understanding, and confronting our privilege, biases, blind spots, and complicity—wherever they exist—allows us and our students to truly see systemic inequity and injustice, wherever they exist.

Modeling identity exploration for our students by sharing our own ongoing identity journeys and challenges will illustrate to them that their identities matter and can evolve throughout life. Creating a safe, brave, patient, and accepting environment that prioritizes identity and empowers students to actively and autonomously investigate, construct, and share their own will help them deeply learn who they are… before trauma arrives to teach that lesson.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash.

Aboutitis to Applytitis

The word aboutitis was quoted by Professor David Perkins (1998), one of the founders of Harvard’s Project Zero. Let me explain, aboutitis is a disease that plagues education where the learner knows a lot ‘about’ the subject and knows about everything. Another way of describing aboutitis is that the learner has a lot of knowledge but no understanding of the knowledge. In the present context, aboutitis can be considered a plague as everyone is out there to know more about everything, out there to collect more degrees, certificates and diplomas, just to prove that they know a lot ‘about’ a lot! Hence, the world is suffering from aboutitis.

In the pursuit of aboutitis, the world has made a very profitable business about education; developed an opinion about everything; written books about everything; researched about everything. After exhibiting the initial symptoms of aboutitis, the world has quickly tested positive for aboutitis. The best example is social media; it is a place where people exhibit that they suffer from aboutitis; everyone has an extreme opinion about every topic and they make it into a vulgar display of knowledge NOT understanding.

In a world suffering from aboutitis, everyone knows everything about everything; is it a good thing? It is actually a very dangerous thing, in fact, an ailment as aboutitis compels people to limit themselves to knowledge and never reach the stage of understanding. People are so engrossed in flaunting their knowledge that they do not bother to test its power by applying it or understanding it.

Understanding is more than just knowledge. Understanding is the ability to critically think about knowledge and being able to apply it in different contexts. Understanding is the ability to apply knowledge to solve problems, to analyse data, to interpret meaning, to evaluate information and to think about knowledge. Hence I would like to quote understanding as Applytitis as it is an ability to apply knowledge in various contexts.

The 21st-century skills demand us to have the symptoms of applytitis; to gain the depth of knowledge, not the breadth; to apply it to create solutions; to design sustainability in systems and to make critical use of knowledge. Applytitis is about taking knowledge to the level of understanding; understanding different perspectives, understanding the past to predict the future, understanding coexistence, understanding compassion and understanding rights and responsibilities.

The transition from aboutitis to applytitis has been the aim of education in many systems and countries but unfortunately, this objective is getting lost in bureaucracy, politics and profit mongering. It has come down upon us educators to keep the essence of education alive, to ensure we are teaching applytitis and not aboutitis. Teaching learners to apply their knowledge needs to be built with a conscious, deliberate and urgent resolve to go beyond exam preparation and incite the inquisitiveness in the learner. By teaching the opportunity to discover applytitis, educators can unleash a generation of learners who will be able to harness the power of knowledge.

Applytitis is to understand knowledge in a way that it can be used to achieve critical thinking. Let us, as educators pledge to take education to the next level where each learner can rise above mediocrity and attain maturity with both knowledge and understanding. The journey from aboutitis to applytitis is the onus of the 21st-century educators. How do we do that? Let’s start by planning for applytitis

You Can’t Put a Mask On Love

So last week I wrote about how educators from all around the world are rising up, staring down and accepting the many challenges that this new school year is presenting…in it’s many different forms. From the ever changing government restrictions and school protocols, to the updated and implemented plans for distance learning and online education, it is not only tricky, but incredibly difficult, complex, and absolutely exhausting. This week I want to unpack the WHY behind this incredible and inspiring effort that teachers are exhibiting each and every day, and celebrate the beauty that lies behind the countless hours of hard work and dedication.

If you think critically about all of the webinars attended, articles read, Zoom conversations that have been had, and all of the new professional learning that has been attained over the past  six months, you’ll come to understand that it is all rooted in one thing…a deep love of teaching, which comes with it an unquenchable desire to inspire and engage young people. Educators around the world aren’t doing all of this extra work, and putting themselves in the position of feeling like they are at times drowning because school districts, and Boards, and administrators are telling them to. No, they are doing it because they love to teach, and they want to do it well. 

Much of the anxiety and trepidation and nervousness that teachers are experiencing these days has to do with the feeling of not being able to be the teachers that they ultimately want to be for their kids…being the teachers that they have always been, and it’s scary. We’re all scrambling to find ways to do school well in this new reality, and it’s the dedication and commitment to not letting our young people down that is driving us all forward…and that’s beautiful and inspiring to me.  

The day before we opened up for the year, and welcomed the kids back on campus just over a week ago, we sat together as a faculty and we wrote down our WHY…we took five minutes and we thought about the reason why we teach…and we reconnected with the joy and the love and the purpose that we have as educators. It grounded us and gave us something to hold on to, if and when things get really difficult again. The things that we wrote down on those cards are what keep us all swimming in these rough waters, and putting in all those extra hours trying to find new ways to engage, inspire and connect with our kids. You can put restrictions and protocols in place, and you can lockdown campuses and send teachers into distance learning when necessary, but you can’t put barriers on how much we care about what we do…you can’t lock down the passion that we have for teaching our students, and regardless of the difficult circumstances that educators all over the world are living through these days, you absolutely can’t put a mask on our love. 

We are super, super fortunate here at ASP, compared to the countless number of educators all over the planet, because we are currently back face to face with our kids. We understand that it might change at any moment, so we are not taking any of it for granted. We are grateful and we are inspired and we are being the best versions of ourselves for our students…a little 2nd grader said to me last Friday, as I was holding the door open for everyone in the morning, “Mr. Kerr, I can see your smile through your mask!”, and hearing that I all of a sudden got very emotional. It’s weird and it’s hard and it’s different these days but the love that we have for our vocation will shine through…a mask can’t hold back joy, and it can’t hide a genuine smile…I’ll say it again, and I’ll keep saying it…you can’t put a mask on love.  Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. 

Quote of the Day…

I am not a teacher, but an awakener – Robert Frost

Inspiring Videos – 

Simple Hybrid

Anniversary Song

What They Really Think

Related Articles – 

Teaching…A Passion

Teacher Ready

The Heart of Teaching

Teaching is Hard

Why We Love to Teach

Ken and Covid: Two disruptive forces that changed my life

When I saw Ken Robinson’s cleverly animated video about how schools kill creativity in 2007 , I knew that my teaching career would never be the same. It was the tail end of the No Child Left Behind epoch when schools had become barren deserts of accountability and pedantic threats about performance.

When Covid hit in 2020, I knew that my administrative career would be changed forever, not only because I had to re-design the logistics of learning, but because the stuff we put into place and the impact it had on culture would not be reversible for a long time.

The Vulnerable Leader

I sat with my new teacher leader team, without anytime to talk about norms, feelings, or Myers-Briggs results, and put them to work. I felt like a lieutenant in a WWI trench handing rifles to 16 year old new recruits and sending them over the top. I knew they weren’t prepared but we were in crisis. For the first time in my 18 years as an administrator, I didn’t know how anything was going to work. I’d dealt with tragic deaths, trauma, bomb threats, riots (yes riots), but beneath all of that was a solid foundation of a school that served as a baseline. Now the baseline was dissolving. I could no longer pretend that I had any answers to anything and people depended on me to know. So, I turned to them, and said things like, “I can no longer solve the problems that I don’t know exist yet. You are going to have to be comfortable with this uncertainty without panicking our team or our students.” They saw a side of me that Principals aren’t supposed to show. We aren’t supposed to shrug and say “I don’t know.”

We all act like we are supposed to be honest and open and all the conferences we go to talk about the power of collaboration and distributed leadership, etc. but it’s all superficial stuff. This vulnerability went to my core. It wasn’t just assigning some committee on literacy. It was running the bloody school. Strangely, it felt liberating. I was forced to reconsider the principle that my job was to remove obstacles so people could focus on teaching and learning. I could no longer stay true to that core belief because there were too many obstacles. Simply, too many. I imagined how hard the same experience must have been for teachers that had to make the same choices whether or not to reveal their vulnerable selves to their students. This reveal didn’t mean I had given up or was asking them to save the day. Quite the contrary. I knew the battles that had to be fought. I just needed help.

Sir Ken ignited the passion within me that schools had to do something drastic, and now that moment has arrived, accelerated by a pandemic. Virtual learning, outdoor and experiential education, redesigned timetables, creativity. All of it has become turbo charged in an environment of chaos. The one and only thing I’ve learned from the loathsome President of my native country is that there’s all kinds of opportunity in chaos. Right now it is in abundant supply. So, rather than feeling like Sir Ken and his legions are pushing cement blocks up the mountain of stagnancy and consistent IB scores, we are really and truly at the precipice of the change he wanted to see in the world.

God Bless, Sir Ken and thank you for your gifts to the world. I will miss you.

Tapping into Feedback

“Is this summative or formative?”  A question as contriving as common.  Often latent in the query is the presupposition that summatives are the end all, be all.  Possibly implicit in the question is a credo, “Well, if it is just formative it is practice, so it really does not count.”  

Count?  

Everything “counting,” the teacher is quickly retorts, “It’s feedback.” 

Feedback.  Something teachers provide in abundance but may not necessarily receive enough of. Yet, how ubiquitous is feedback!  So much so, we may not even realize how we swim, quite possibly even drown, in feedback loops.  Technology “flattening” our experience. In many ways it removes the variance of chance, but ultimately its purpose based on improvement.  From the things we purchase, the movies we watch, places we travel, and the food we eat.  It is all being reviewed!

But, what about teaching and learning?  How embedded is the practice of giving and receiving feedback? Infrequent enough for many to consider teaching to be the second most private act. Sure, autonomy is invaluable for a teaching to honing his or her craft and yet, education is something we do together.  Superseding the design of transparent learning spaces and windowed classrooms, is the need for a greater shift in consciousness.  One where schools and educators not only are okay with a more complete picture, but begin to innovate in ways which might invite and also thrive from the feedback parents and students are able to provide.  A semestorial SurveyMonkey approach clearly leaves room for aspiration. 

How We Might Go About Eliciting Feedback

It might help to look at the wellspring of this World of Feedback. It is 1986 and Roger Ebert leads in with, “When the movie is on the ground, is when it runs into trouble.  The love story is not only unnecessary but unconvincing…The whole relationship seems to have been written in as an afterthought and the other relationships are awfully predictable…Somehow we’ve been here before.  I give the movie thumbs down, despite the great action sequences.”  

Can you name the movie?  

Despite mixed reviews it went on to win Academy Awards for Best Original Song, “Take My Breath Away.”  Give away, right?  Top Gun.  Prior to Siskel and Ebert, there was little “giving of thumbs up or down.”  In a quirky way, they revolutionized movie reviewing.

Fast forward a little more than two decades and Facebook begins a trend where everyone (with a Facebook account of course), is suddenly able to be give and receive feedback.  The birth of “we are all critics.”  With the tap on “thumbs up,” a person could indicate approval or “like” a another’s photos.  They may even leave a comment.   A confirmation of sorts, more than a review because silence is not necessarily a thumbs down.  

Or take the story of Trip Advisor and how in the first years of the millennium they stumble upon the power of reviews.  Enough so that their entire business model shifted.  Initially developed in an effort to focus on the “official” words from guidebooks and newspapers, an uproarious response became of s simple and  inviting button saying, “Visitors add your own review.”  There was no denying how the “people had spoken.” Or, at least they desired to!   Almost overnight, the tiny firm run out of an office above a pizza shop, became the world’s most visited travel website.  In 2019, Trip Advisor reported to the United States Securities and Exchange Commision,  “The website has versions in 48 markets and 28 languages worldwide. It features approximately 859 million reviews and opinions on approximately 8.6 million establishments.”   

Water, Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

If Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner were not so ancient and living today, he might reflect, “Review, review everywhere, and whom do I trust?” Items get reviewed on Amazon.  Videos on YouTube and movies on Rotten Tomatoes.  Books by the New York Times and Good Reads.  Restaurants on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and within Google Maps. Then, there is a whole host of other platforms specific to individual countries.  The point being, every which way we turn, we are giving and listening to the stars and reviews.  A viscous flow of feedback.  

“Buyer beware. This is a knock off. I have several (fill in the blank) and these are not like the others.   After taking a closer look I could tell these were not real.” When it comes to shopping online, 74% of people trust social networks to guide them to purchase decisions.  The “Buyer beware” review may be enough to sway a person to look at a different product.  The reviewer’s feedback effective, independent of who they may be.  This is something to consider as the 21st century ideology where “everything is reviewed, all the time,” spurred an entirely new niche.  The industry of social media influencers.  

In a BBC article titled, “Social-media influencers: Incomes soar amid growing popularity,” technology reporter Jane Wakefield wrote, “The money made by social-media influencers has risen meteorically in the last few years, according to a new report.” The marketing firm Izea predicting that greater spending on influencers in 2020, will lead to a $10bn industry.

Bringing It Back to Schools

So, what does all this influencing really mean to the field of education?  So far, very little?  A missed opportunity of sorts.  However, we are perfectly positioned in a time of transition.  We need not look forward but only to today. The pandemic in many facets, a catalyst for education systems to be more nimble and quick, as they jump over and under the COVID stick. An appeal to progressiveness.

Whether we redesign or just improve our schools, it behooves us to consider the nature of the times in which we live. Where opinions are omnipresent and yet little have we tapped into our communities to receive a fuller picture of our effectiveness.  The key, integrated systems or platforms that allow for consistent, authentic, and timely feedback. Moreover, the crowning jewel being a team mentality.  Schools, homes, and the greater community as one.  The solicitation of feedback driven by genuine motivation conveyed to be as effective as possible.  Thoughtful and constructive feedback allowing for improvement.  

Just as social media permitted us all to review, so too it might allow us in the field of education, all to improve.  

Author’s Note: For a truly amusing experience, check out author John Greene’s podcast titled, The Anthropocene Reviewed.”  A listener might think that Greene would choose to review only ideas and objects of 5-star quality. However, he consistently surprises, as he concludes with an honest critique after fully teaching about everything from air conditioning and sycamore trees to most recently, mortification and civilization.  

Fun in the Times of Hybrid Learning

The dictionary meaning of hybrid is “the offspring of two animals or plants of different breeds, varieties, species, or genera, especially as produced through human manipulation for specific genetic characteristics”, and if you search for the meaning of ‘Hybrid Learning’ you will encounter various definitions that sugarcoat the awkward marriage of online and onsite teaching and learning! Why have I used the word awkward? Well, it is from the personal experiences of being a teacher in the hybrid classrooms teaching online and onsite, simultaneously.

Some schools that have been fortunate to reopen post the Covid19 pandemic have also been fortunate to have delivered a hybrid teaching and learning model. In this model, the teacher is responsible for the growth and nurturing of a classroom that is online and onsite at the same time. The initial trial and error stage is a lot of fun, it’s also keeping us teachers on our toes. Let’s put on the humour hat to take a stroll through the hybrid teaching and learning environment.

Talking to a machine

It is one thing to find a student sleeping in the classroom during lessons and it is completely another experience to find yourself talking to a machine not knowing if the student on the other side of the machine is awake or sleeping. Student can mute audio and stop the video and the teacher will never know if they are taking to the student or just the machine. Note that students could be recording the lesson instead of actually being present. The saving grace, when you talk to the machine, it listens and does not interrupt at all.

Group work

A teacher decides the classroom groups to ensure a certain kind of balance, either academic or behavioural. In hybrid classrooms, it is the time zone or the internet connectivity that decides the group work dynamics. Students in the same time zone prefer to work together and the ones who are on poor Wi-Fi networks just decide to work in incognito mode. While in the classroom group work there is a lot of chitter-chatter, the group work online is silent but on the chat mode, chat-ter without chitter.

Personal space

Imagine having to share your workspace with all your students, all students writing at the same time on the same space, your space, on your laptop. Your desktop, tabs, documents, icons are visible to them via screen share and apple TV projection (both required to run simultaneously to accommodate online and onsite students). There are also students who suddenly pop up on the screen while they are eating or tucked inside a blanket, as they are engaged in remote learning. And the person making the most appearances on the screen is you, the teacher. I do put extra make-up nowadays, but it isn’t helping in getting rid of the awkward feeling of being watched round the clock.

Exam crunch

Imagine supervising students during exams and supervising a laptop on a desk that has a student on the other side of the globe taking a test in the middle of the night, due to the time difference. While students are crunching numbers to get answers to their questions, I am crunching my fists to keep my calm in ensuring academic integrity halfway across the globe. It also takes more than one device to complete online exams; students use the phone to broadcast themselves taking exams and use the laptop to complete the exam. I am sure this doubles the exam fun for students.

Grading assignments

Grades depend on students work, but with hybrid teaching and learning, most of the student grades depend on the internet connectivity, the student clicking on submit, and technical compatibility of the devices. Grades no longer are a measure of academic ability or cognitive skills; it is a measure of the quality of technology available to teachers and students. Better the technology, higher the grades.

Class size

My grade 12 students enter; there are thirteen students on roll in my subject but only seven of them come in. I am wondering where is the rest. I check the school database management system to find out that all students are present, so I start searching, sending messages, and frantically hunting the rest five students; when suddenly my apple TV starts speaking to me and all five students appear on the screen. They were not missing, they were hidden in the virtual world. So, what looks like a small class with only seven in the classroom is actually bigger with five outside the classroom, country and even continent, joining remotely to be part of hybrid learning.

The hybrid teaching and learning is a new paradigm; it is forcing teachers worldwide to frantically design pedagogy for meeting diverse needs of learners; it is becoming a business opportunity for many organisations/individuals/ self-declared remote learning experts who are offering a plethora of online professional development opportunities; it is compelling parents to rethink about their investment into expensive education; it is driving a change in education policies and standards; it is the biggest change we all anticipated but did not prepare for. Even though it is all fun now it is only a matter of time that this hybrid model will become a prodigy in education.

Self-Compassion: Putting on your own mask first

The International School Yangon is a community of compassionate global citizens: We aim to develop lifelong learners who will be a force for positive change in the world.

In the face of a global pandemic, our teachers have personified our Mission and Vision through their commitment to our students and a willingness to professionally and personally rise to uncomfortable, unfamiliar or previously unknown challenges. As our teachers continue to meet these professional and personal challenges, I, along with several other teachers and administrators, have been participating in an online Mindful Schools: Mindfulness Fundamentals course. Two readings from this course continue to resonate with me as I wonder how teachers can continue to sustain themselves in these uncertain times. Both of these readings explore the concept of self-compassion.

Kristin Neff (2009) has defined self-compassion as having three main components. These three components as described by Neff are useful in applying the discussion of a 2015 study of the impact of self-compassion on the psychological health of Australian psychologists (Finlay-Jones AL, Rees CS, Kane RT, 2015) to the teaching profession. I believe that the discussion in this 2015 study is particularly relevant to teachers if one considers teaching to be a caring profession (which it is!).

1. Self-Kindness versus Self-Judgment

Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself rather than being harshly critical or judgmental (Neff, p.212).’

Psychologists who are self-compassionate are more likely to think about their struggles, mistakes or failures more objectively. They are less likely to judge themselves harshly or catastrophize events. They are more able to see difficult experiences as a normal part of their professional (and personal) life and are able to adaptively respond (Finlay-Jones AL, Rees CS, Kane RT).

Teaching is every bit as complex as psychology. Preparing students for an uncertain and unknown future (in a very uncertain present) requires teachers to at times take leaps of faith in their practices without any real confidence that their skills and knowledge will see them and their students land safely. This sounds terrifying but it is a reality that all teachers face each day. However, a lack of confidence in one’s skills or knowledge is not fatal if one can substitute self-criticism with self-compassion. Teachers should always reflect on their practice but they must do so with an understanding that missteps are inevitable. If teachers are trying to do the right thing, it doesn’t matter if they are not doing it right all of the time.

2. A Sense of Common Humanity versus Isolation

Common humanity involves recognizing that all humans are imperfect, fail, and make mistakes. It connects one’s own flawed condition to shared human condition so that greater perspective is taken towards personal shortcomings and difficulties (Neff, p.212).’

Finlay-Jones, Rees, and Kane propose that the ‘sense of common humanity engendered by the self-compassionate mindset (p.11)’ may work to reduce the reactivity of psychologists in dealing with difficult clients or situations. A sense of connectedness to other psychologists reduces a psychologist’s feeling of isolation in their role and also supports their understanding that mistakes are an inevitable part of practicing psychology.

Our school has identified the need for teachers to feel collectively capable and connected in meeting the needs of our students. This study of psychologists would suggest that teachers who understand that their shortcomings actually connect them to their colleagues are better placed to accept these shortcomings and ask for help in improving their practice to meet the needs of our students. I wonder if this sense of common humanity might be a more reliable indicator of positive student outcomes than a traditional focus on ‘best practice.’

3. Mindfulness versus Overidentification

Mindfulness…involves being aware of one’s present moment experience in a clear and balanced manner so that one neither ignores nor ruminates on disliked aspects of oneself or one’s life (Neff, p.212).’

Finlay-Jones, Rees, and Kane believe that ‘psychologists who are more self-compassionate are less likely to base their personal or professional self-worth on positive therapeutic outcomes or favourable reactions from clients (p.11).’ Therefore, they are less likely to view professional challenges or difficulties in their work as inherent in that work as opposed to being an indicator of personal failure or incompetence.

Teaching, like psychology, is very difficult. Teachers need to be mindful of this as they reflect on their practice. All teachers have aspects of their practice that they know need to be worked on and it is their responsibility to work on them once they have been identified. But teachers must be careful to keep in mind that good practice does not always lead to good results. Athletes understand that a loss might not mean that you have played badly and teachers would do well to remember this analogy as they strive to meet the needs of their students.

Our teachers are good, compassionate people and the way they all stepped up to the challenge of online learning to meet the needs of their students is testament to this. This challenge underlined to me the fact that teaching is a complex task carried out in an uncertain present to prepare students for an uncertain future. I am not sure that the task itself can be simplified to the point where compassionate teachers can be shielded from occupational syndromes such as imposter syndrome, compassion fatigue, or burn out. If self-compassion is an antidote to these ills it would surely warrant a place in any teacher training or professional development program.

To use an oft-used analogy that seems more poignant than it would have two or three months ago, one might view teachers practicing self-compassion as them putting on their own masks first so that they can then help others. The ISY community is very proud of their teachers and is committed to helping them find ways to sustain themselves in meeting the needs of our students. And not just in times of crisis.

Finlay-Jones, Amy L., et al. “Self-Compassion, Emotion Regulation and Stress among Australian Psychologists: Testing an Emotion Regulation Model of Self-Compassion Using Structural Equation Modeling.” Plos One, vol. 10, no. 7, 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0133481.

Neff, Kristin D. “The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself.” Human Development, vol. 52, no. 4, 2009, pp. 211–214., doi:10.1159/000215071.

Make it Stick: Learning to teach and teaching to learn

In his book, The Barcelona Way, Professor Damian Hughes promotes The Mad Men Method (named after the show of the same name) as a way to improve our working lives. The basic premise is to stop and think about what we are doing (or not doing) now that our grandchildren will find ridiculous fifty years from now.

This is what Hughes stopped and thought about:

I think our grandchildren will look back and say, back in 2018, when leaders wanted their people to learn how to change, they didn’t bother teaching them the most important part: how the learning machine actually works. What the heck were those people thinking?

Right now, leaders in our society focus their attention on teaching the material, getting through the curriculum. This is the equivalent of trying to train athletes without informing them that muscles exist. It’s like teaching nutrition without mentioning vegetables or vitamins. We feverishly cram our classrooms with whiz-bang technology, but fail to teach the kids how their own internal circuitry is built to operate.

It’s all completely understandable, of course. Our parenting and teaching practices evolved in an industrial age, when we presumed potential was innate. Brains were fixed. It’s another assumption we should have moved past – as we have with smoking being healthy and three-martini lunches being normal – but haven’t. In fact, you could argue that teaching a child how their brain works is not just an educational strategy – it’s closer to a human right.

Through the work of Carol Dweck and others, I believe we have moved past the assumption that potential is innate. The many teachers that I admire certainly have. However, if our vision is to develop lifelong learners, it is our students that need to understand how their brains work and the science behind successful learning. Isn’t it ridiculous that our students could spend well over a decade in formal learning without being let in on the ‘secrets’ of how they learn best!?

This year the teaching faculty at The International School of Yangon (ISY) will be reading Make it Stick. It is not a particularly new book and the science and ideas in it are not particularly new either. But old ideas are not necessarily bad ideas. And new ideas are not necessarily good ideas. Schools must keep abreast of new ideas but they must put their energy and resources into those that are proven to work for the students that they teach. This is what ISY intends to do in relation to the science of successful learning.

Reading Make it Stick will make us better teachers. It will provide us with a common understanding and conversation builder around the science of successful learning. But it won’t be until we share this understanding with our students that we will be teaching them how to learn.

Challenge Accepted

So we’ve been back to school with students on campus for three days now, with strict restrictions and protocols in place, and I’m feeling very, very grateful. It’s been a lot of work and a lot of planning to get ready for the opening of the school year, and even though the ground may shift from underneath us again at some point this year, having that kid energy back again this past week has fed my soul. 

We are incredibly fortunate to be in this position I know, as so many of our friends and colleagues from around the world are having a very different experience. Starting the year either on distance learning again, or in some form of hybrid situation, and for many educators, even waiting for visas so they can arrive at their schools…it must be so hard, and not at all the way anyone wants to begin the year.

The inspiring thing for me however, is that regardless of the obstacles in place, and despite all of the restrictions and protocols and road blocks in the way, great teachers step up and accept the challenge. Great teachers find a way…always. They do it because they love teaching, and they love kids…and the truth of the matter is that it doesn’t matter what you throw in front of a great teacher, or what obstacles you put in place, because in the end, you can’t put a mask on love. 

For my first post of the year I want to say thank you to our teachers, not only at ASP but all around the world, who are doing their very best to engage kids, and to develop those initial essential relationships, and to light that fire of imagination and creativity and wonder in their students’ eyes in the midst of very strange and tricky situations…thank you! I know that we are all in for an interesting year, a year like we’ve never seen before, but I’d like to think that I speak for all of the amazing educators here at ASP and all over the planet when I say…challenge accepted. Enjoy this beautiful poem below, which speaks to the excitement of a new school year, and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. Have a wonderful week everyone!

We’re On Our Way to School

By trolley, by train, by foot, by sleigh,

by cab, by car, we’re on our way

 — by boat, by bridge, by bike, by bus,

 on wheels, on wings, each one of us,

 has dreams in our pockets and stories to share

 as we open up doors to school everywhere

 … and a rain might mist, a wind might blow;

 the sun might shine on our morning hello,

 and a storm might brew in the sky, let it try,

 but the magic of wonder won’t pass us by,

 we’re on our way to school.

 — Rebecca Kai Dotlich

Quote of the Week…

Life is about accepting the challenges along the way, choosing to keep moving forward, and savouring the journey – Roy T. Bennett

Related Articles – 

Pushing Through Adversity

An Opportunity to Choose Growth

Adversity is the Fuel of Greatness

Overcoming Obstacles

Bouncing Back

Inspiring Videos – 

Painting Tributes

The Neighbour’s Driveway

Surprise Thank You’s

A Saved Seagull

TED Talk – Emotional First Aid

TED Talk – 3 Secrets of Resilient People

57th Anniversary of King’s March on Washington