Tag Archives: back to school

Start the School Year : What is our ‘why’? 

Last week we spoke with students and parents new to our school, many of whom were new to Singapore.  We started with the why – our school’s Mission:
The UWC movement makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.

This may seem obvious,  but schools differ a lot in the ‘why’

For those who were understandably wondering about new classes, friends, uniform and timetables, this may have seemed a lofty, distant ideal. But with so many very good schools available in Singapore, this lofty goal remains our defining characteristic. Or more precisely – because lofty goals are easy to write – how we put this into practice remains our defining characteristic, and I hope why families have chosen us.

I am very pleased, however, that it is no longer a very special goal – at least, not if we take special to mean rare. Go back fifty years and this kind of thinking was marginal, outlier, considered naïve and well off the mainstream. Today the idea that we should not settle for less for our children is absolutely mainstream, almost banal. The notion that education should narrowly focus on academics, without recognizing that children deserve more and need a higher purpose, is clinging on here and there, but it’s on its way out. There are two reasons behind this; they may seem to be quite different, but ultimately, they are mutually supportive.

Our ‘why’, the reason we do what we do, has twin tracks but unlike a road, they both head in the same direction

Firstly, there’s the realization that academics are not enough even for the world of work. In truth they never really were, but the changing nature of work means we are increasingly focused on what skills students possess, and what they can actually do. In the past, these may have been very tightly linked to what students know – but in the disrupted, AI-influenced economy we face, knowledge alone will be far from enough.  To be ready for tomorrow, today’s students will have to be increasingly adept in human skills and qualities, and ready to use them in real-world contexts on difficult and complex human problems  It’s not just educators saying this, but governments, businesses, NGOs, the OECD and others.  So the contexts provided by our focus on the peoples, nations and cultures part of our Mission is exactly how to prepare students for an uncertain future; because these are the areas that are the pressing challenges we face and that will not be automated,

Secondly, it’s important to place schools in a much broader social context.  And that context may be startling. Because despite the horrific events going on around the world, the world is a better place to live than it has ever been, in many significant ways.  Extreme poverty has been halved since 1990, childhood deaths are dropping, literacy is rising, the status of women and minorities around the world is improving.  Now let’s not be naïve here – tragedy, atrocity and grinding poverty are still real today. But the current trajectory is astonishingly positive, and where there is injustice, we are beginning to see outrage and social activism to address it – not consistently, but increasingly so. In the past where issues may have been ignored, we’re also seeing thought leaders take a lead.  That includes CEOs, and the US –  admittedly under extreme provocation from its administration – is leading the way here. CEOs have publicly come out against racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, climate change denial, and most recently, against the extreme right. At the same time, we’re seeing many high profile billionaires – including two of the most famous in Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – pledge half their wealth to philanthropic causes.  So there is a broader social move towards widening moral circles; and schools both reflect this and importantly, prepare students to continue down this path.  That’s where the peace and a sustainable future part of our Mission comes in, and why we weave the Mission so carefully throughout our Learning Programme.

There is no tension between the pragmatic necessity to prepare students for their future, and the idealistic opportunity to make whatever small contribution we can to the historic trend.   We intend, this year and forever, to do both to the best of our capacities.

A Year of Full Buckets

One of the most personally influential books I’ve read in recent years is How Full Is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath. It is a short, simple read with a powerful and useful message. While I get it, believe it, and try to practice it, this week as we started school, it was a message I was reminded of over and over again.

First and foremost, “bucket-filling” is a about happiness. It is also about communication and general understanding of human nature. The basic idea is this: Each one of us carries around an invisible bucket of water. Throughout our interactions with other people our bucket can either lose water or be filled up. For example, when I make someone feel good, I fill her bucket. When I make someone feel badly, I dip into her bucket and she loses water. In addition, when people are feeling sad or mad, their buckets can lose water. Finally, if you are dipping into other people’s buckets and taking their water, your own bucket actually is affected and causes you to lose water yourself. In other words, a negative interaction affects both of you.

A key idea with Mr. Rath’s work is that we can never really know another person’s bucket level. Therefore, we always need to be aware of our own actions as we might be dipping into an already low bucket.

In schools, this is a key idea worth teaching students. With our young ones it is an easy way to frame our discussions about how our actions and feelings can affect others and ourselves. When you are happy and nice others feel good- and you do too. The image of an invisible bucket and each of us having a “dipper” is one kids love and can use to explain how they themselves are feeling.

Not only is it a cry for treating others well, there is also merit in considering the responsibility each of us has in protecting our own buckets. For older students, recognizing that you have some control over whether or not you allow someone to deplete your bucket is an important lesson. While you can’t control their actions, you can realize what they are doing and choose to remove your bucket from their reach. As I’ve said to my own daughter recently: “You don’t have to hang out with people who make you feel bad. Move away from them. Limit your interactions. Take control of it. You don’t have to be mean, but you can move on.”

For the adults in my days, I try to focus on the fact that I can’t see their buckets. I have no idea what else is going on in their lifes when they come into school upset or angry. While they have something to complain about which seems to involve me- there is a good chance they have had some dipping from another source. Maybe they have a sick child at home. Maybe they have worries and pressures at work. Maybe they are new to this country and are struggling with the move and relocation. Regardless, my goal must be to try and fill the bucket of a disgruntled parent, peer or friend, even if they are acting in ways that threaten my own pail.

While the book and the research behind How Full Is Your Bucket? isn’t new or even revolutionary, the start of school is a timely moment to pull out those ideas, dust them off and recommit to them. Whether with students, with colleagues, or simply- as I’m doing- with yourself, deciding to be a bucket-filler is a conscious action worth the time, energy and effort.

Sometimes the easiest things can have the most impact.

Photo Credit: https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4073/4819576802_4159ab58ae_z.jpg


Jive Talkin’

On August 16, 1975, Jive Talkin’ was the top hit on Billboard’s 100 (USA). You know when something is so good, it stands the test of time. Almost forty years later, it’s just as fresh as it was then. I cannot say the same for the managing structures of many of our schools.

So, we’re off and running on another year. In spite of the world’s horrific problems at the moment, international schools are expanding at a rate that is making them one of the fastest growing business sectors in the world. Venture capitalists, investment groups, philanthropists, and multinationals are buying up schools like hotcakes. Many of these have clear business models for governance which generate profits. Some are more innovative than others.

What are the implications of this? We talk a lot about innovation and design within teaching practice but little about how schools are being managed and who is doing it. This will have a huge impact on the direction and vision for international education. Does this phenomenon enhance the type of innovations we are talking about in our industry? Does it promote the type of creativity, risk-taking, and new thinking that drive the passions of 21st century learning or is this becoming a multi-national business venture that is conservative and controlled somewhere far away?

I have to hope that private investment in schools is innovative and good. I have to hope that this will nourish the type of changes our schools need to meet the complex demands of a world that so desperately needs innovation and leadership. I have to hope that the business model for schools supports the risk-taking and possible profit losing propositions that come with new designs and new thinking.

Otherwise, what we’re doing is just…You guessed it.

Against the Wind

This past summer, while international schools across the world were on vacation, the one thing that did not take time off were the unreal numbers of conflicts and disasters that are displacing people. According to the UNHCR, the number of refugees worldwide surpassed the fifty million mark; the highest number since World War II. Fifty million. That’s unreal.

If international schools are the best hope for our future (which I strongly believe), then what are we doing about this? How many scholarships has your school given to refugee students? How many I.B. students are dedicating their CAS to helping refugees? How many of you have connected with UNHCR? If you have, congratulations. If not, I’m willing to bet that your school is not too far away from a refugee zone. Even in Switzerland (my current residence and of course home to the UNHCR), the impact of refugees from Syria, the Ukraine and parts of Africa is present.

Fifty million. That’s crazy. I know how busy we are. I’ve been in education for twenty years. I get it. But busy for what? Have you read your mission statement lately? Are you living it or just talking about it at a few beginning of the year meetings as you prepare for accreditation.

Fifty million people. That’s the entire country of Italy without a home. Imagine that?

So while all those orientation activities are going on in the coming weeks about the new pool that was finished over the summer, the increase in enrollment, the introductions of all the new staff, etc. etc., take a moment to think of all those students living in tents, somewhere, some without parents, wondering if they’re ever going to go to a school again.

There’s so much to do to start the year. Well, there’s always a lot to do. I challenge us to do something against the wind by reaching out to make a difference for those 50 million, especially the kids who won’t be starting school this Fall.

I think vintage Bob Seger should play this one out.

Against the Wind

So simple, we made it complicated…

Can someone tell me again why adults were put in charge of education? Let’s admit it, we can beat the joy out of anything.

Both of my children didn’t sleep well last night. My daughter had monster dreams and my son was tossing and turning. Ah yes, back to school. Back to making sure that you follow the rules, turn in the assignments, remember what the adult told you to do. Try not to do anything wrong.

Sure, a healthy bit of anxiety or stress allows us to be alert, perform, etc. etc. If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger.

Ok, but why is something so simple, made so complicated by the adults? Why do we bury the promise of another school year with policies, rules, standards, logistics, and more meetings than you can shake a stick at?

I have read a LOT of mission statements. Many of them contain some form of the phrase “lifelong learners.” My impression of this is that children become filled with something so inspirational, so motivational, that they somehow innately pursue this learning for a lifetime. The problem is that we forget this quickly when we get caught up in what I call “the adult” approach to teaching and learning. It’s so serious, it stops being fun, so caught up in the tangible, that it becomes ‘lifeless’ learning.

Really? Is that what we are doing? One of the liveliest conversations during our faculty orientation was about the attendance policy and plagiarism. One teacher remarked, “grading is our currency.” I closed my eyes for a moment and imagined the joy leaving the room. Back to work.

Don’t feel any pressure, but students should be running TO your classroom, not away from it. You shouldn’t have to worry about attendance because they want to be there.

Yes, I’m idealistic. That’s why I work in education.

Please, on behalf of the kids, make the simple joy of learning for a lifetime your one and only priority.

Bon Chance

Moving the Goalposts


That’s just about how it feels sometimes, especially at the beginning of the school year. Just when you think you have it all figured out (unless you are a new teacher or administrator), someone moves the goal posts. It could be your board, your administration, your department head. Even you! Speaking of things moving, anyone besides me notice that the ‘back to school sales’ have now crept into late July!? But I digress.

In the education world this is a phenomenon (moving goal posts, not shopping dates) that will only get stronger as our schools race to meet the demands of changing markets. We are expected to get more tech savvy, more individualized in our approach, less institutionalized and more dynamic to meet the needs of, well, let’s be honest, EVERYONE.

But what about its impact on the people chasing those goal posts? How can we work, nay, succeed in such an environment? In fact, what are those indicators of success anyway? Students getting into good colleges? A pat on the back from the Principal? Good IB or SAT scores? A bonus check from the board? I am still trying to figure this out.

What I do know is that great learning communities aren’t worried about the moving goalposts. They know they will never catch them and doing so will burn their people out. What they are focused on is what they do really well, what students need to be centered, well rounded people who will make the world a better place. Everything else is just, well, moving.

Check out this link for more on this topic. And hang in there. You’ve had a great summer and you’re doing important work.