Jump in and do! Making accreditation as real as possible

Steps we can handle, iterations, aspirations … a staircase in the Katholische Pfarrkirche Herz Jesu, Goldau, Switzerland.

Schools are accredited from time to time sort of like finances of businesses are verified in an audit: An outside agency takes a look at things, identifies lots of good practices and notes some things that could use attention, and then lets the organization get on with it. Oversimplified, but that’s the general idea.

Being accredited can then be a selling point for the school. An outside agency, after all, has put its stamp of approval on the school. The logo from the agency is likely to be found later somewhere on the web page, news of the accreditation will be in a letter to parents. Since there are multiple accrediting agencies, however, I’m guessing there is also a bit of pressure for accrediting agencies to make sure the process has a clear value-add for the school. And because we’re talking about education, I’m wagering that accreditation agencies are informed by a good dose of altruism, too, that they are doing their best to support schools to deliver the safest and best possible learning experience to their students. I am by no means a scholar of accreditation, this is just my impression.

The particular accreditation visit I participated in recently, using the ACE protocol of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) is very focused on supporting school improvement, and unlike an accreditation protocol I was familiar with ten years ago, ACE takes a clear stance about the type of educational experience it supports. This is refreshing and daring. The process is supported by highly experienced and competent educators at NEASC and many hundreds of volunteers who are willing to travel and spend time at schools as visiting team members. 

ACE is about student self-direction, exploration, agency, and learning to learn. It is about cultivating skills like collaboration, leadership, (followership!), useful skepticism, and motivation. This is the stuff of school that transfers very well to many areas of being human, to being successful. I am fully behind the goals of ACE. Their goals are for me – and for many – the future of education, no matter how uncertain the path to get there.

So I’m letting myself think aloud a bit about how best to accomplish the goals that ACE sets out to support. Perhaps despite the naivete on my part, both new and experienced accreditors, as well as anyone interested in pushing forward with school reform, can find here a few interesting ideas to explore.

The process

Schools working with ACE first satisfy what NEASC calls the foundation standards: things like basic organizational structures, safety, finance, and ethical practices. After these are demonstrated and verified by educators representing NEASC, the school is given the green light to work specifically on how it plans to further its capacity to create and maintain a healthy learning environment. There are ten learning principles that guide schools as they review their current practices in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional learning as well as the school climate, the physical environment, and the leadership supporting all of these areas. The actual review and establishment of plans to address self-identified weaknesses (or further bolster perceived strengths) might take place over a year or longer, at the end of which another set of educators representing NEASC arrives at the school to provide the external perspective on the school’s progress and plans.

The recommended process involves everyone at the school. A few individuals generally coordinate this effort by creating multiple committees which then meet to plan and to pull together evidence for a report, which is sent to NEASC to share with the educators who will spend time at the school. The visitors supplement what they have learned in the written report through observations and meetings, after which they make a recommendation to NEASC to accredit the school or not (or accredit the school given that the school addresses those issues that the visitors deem important to address). The final accreditation decision lies with the NEASC board itself.

An alternative

Once the foundation standards are met, the rest of the process is about attaining the central cultural shift that ACE proposes, which is moving the school from its current state to a position with greater student autonomy, student choice, student agency … all those factors which together form our notion of 21st century learning (see e.g. Partnership for 21st Century Learning and the four Cs). As I heard one highly experienced school visitor put it, schools are being asked to make a shift toward the mindset that content is not the end goal, but rather serves as the vehicle with which students practice skills. This is a significant shift, since it is content ability that is overwhelmingly accepted as the purpose of school. If there is any doubt, consider what is routinely measured and reported to parents and universities. 

Because what is being asked for is a cultural shift toward more progressive teaching, it seems like a school would be well served by immediately getting to work with examples of progressive teaching. Instead of focusing on the planning, in committees, to create a report that explains how the school will move toward progressive teaching, why not start by supporting more progressive teaching? Have a small and nimble plan with lots of actual progressive teaching playing out across the school. Learn from that progressive teaching in order to create further examples. Learning through action, not talk; learning by emphasizing execution, not planning.

I imagine a process like this:

A school has satisfied the foundation standards. There are no significant worries about how the school operates. The work now is to support progressive teaching and learning, above all a  strengthening of student agency. 

STEP 1. Use a participatory approach (or approaches) to identify examples of curriculum, instruction, and assessment that teachers feel is heading in the direction of greater student agency. The identification process itself is a good manner in which to define the current state of thinking and practice in the school. The emphasis on collectively identifying assets is uplifting and respectful to the professionals who work in the school.

STEP 2. Use a participatory approach (or approaches) to create an aspirational list of possible work in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, prioritized by faculty according to relevance and doability. Value all ideas, but allow for a prioritization of the ideas by which seem most likely to be productive, are small enough in scope to get started and see growth soon, and which have support from many individuals.

STEP 3. Create two principal avenues for advancing the prioritized work, with a strong emphasis on trying things out and having time for faculty members to share with each other, debrief results, and simply talk about the work.

  1. Work on initiatives with the support of small working groups, formed when faculty volunteer for the prioritized items from Step 2, that support experimentation in each individual’s daily working context at the school. For example, if one of the prioritized items was non-traditional assessment, which attracted five teachers into a single working group, set the five of them loose to experiment with student presentations, fairs, peer feedback, portfolios, podcasts … whatever works for teachers in their contexts, given their strengths and comfort levels. There are two roles for the administrator. First, demonstrate that teachers can experiment safely, that experimentation is valued. Second, provide teachers various opportunities to share with each other about what they are doing. See Justin Reich (this EdSurge podcast, for example) for a clear discussion of why this is so important.
  1. Support your most committed and gungho teachers in their work on an individual passion project the teacher is wholly committed to (and likely already doing, though you might not know it unless it came out in your whole faculty discussion of existing assets). Like with the small groups, demonstrate to those teachers that their experimentation is valued and safe and give them venues to share their ideas with others. Hear how they would like to be supported in their work and how they would most like to share their work with others. Then help make that happen.

That’s it, at least to get started. In many cases the role of an administrator is going to be akin to the parent at the neighborhood playground who helps out at the swingset by giving an occasional push. Provide a boost from time to time by showing interest in what teachers are doing. Build networks by connecting teachers with others who are working in similar areas, inside and outside the school. Invest in a book or share a podcast or online training that is relevant. It does not take much. It isn’t stressful. And the work is based in work already happening, in the teacher’s context.

From time to time one would want to go back to Step 1 to take stock of where the school is, revisiting Step 2 to re-prioritize now that the school has advanced and changed. Then head back into a new cycle of Step 3. The second time around will be easier, as will the third time and beyond. There will be a growing culture of focusing on assets, trying things out, and talking about change and improvement.

The added value of an approach like this

What I am proposing is that the work in a school emphasize 

  • doing first, before talking; and
  • experimenting first, before planning, in iterations small enough that the difference between experimenting and planning are quite blurred.

To recap: After making sure the basics are covered (meeting the foundation standards in the NEASC’s ACE process), I would be really interested to see what would happen if schools were to immediately jump into teacher action that seems likely to nudge school culture toward the ACE goal of greater student agency. We’d have to make sure that there is time to talk about how these initiatives are going, informally and often, between teachers. We would keep the process moving through the shared interest in the learning as opposed to committee meeting times and reporting requirements. We would be demonstrating, I guess you might say, that our school is a learning organization by being one. 

We would learn what the next right steps are after the work is underway, not beforehand. After all, before we start a new initiative, we know the least about how it is going to play out. That probably isn’t the best time to invest too heavily in a big plan. Once we have started, however, when we have some experience under our belts and know more about what we are doing, planning will be informed by recent experience and therefore more helpful.

To round out the external accreditation process, a visiting team from NEASC could still spend time at the school, either virtually or in person. Their emphasis would be similar to existing practice, namely, seeing that the school is committed to student agency and making progress in that direction. Teachers could present their work, teachers could invite visitors to their classes to see what they have been working on. The visitors would be seeing the school as a learning organization in action. This is a big part of the continual improvement process ACE is meant to support.

I’m thinking that perhaps the current ACE process allows for this action research oriented approach already. Are any of you already handling your work with the ACE principles this way?

GLOBAL BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

Books about the environment, stories about animals.. Sometimes they are fiction, sometimes they can be nonfiction. And sometimes… you’re just not sure. Here are some fascinating and some funny picturebooks about nature that will be fun to share in the classroom.

Who Am I?, written by Gervase Phinn and illustrated by Tony Ross, is a hilarious read aloud about an unusual, newly hatched creature. He meets the tallest, the strongest, the smartest and many other animals living in the wilds, but would like to find out who he is. A great, surprise ending makes this a picture book to use with different age levels.

ISBN 978-0-7613-8996-5, Andersen Press

Usborne’s Fingerwiggly Monkeys and Fingerwiggly Elephants, written by Felicity Brooks and illustrated by Ela Smietanka and Elsa Martins respectively, are wonderful, playful reads for preschoolers. Written in rhyme, the stories show elephants spraying water and splashing in mud with their families, and monkeys playing and swinging in jungle trees. The fun part is sticking your fingers through the holes in the boardbook pages to form elephant trunks and monkey arms.

ISBN 978-1-4749-9556-6 (Monkeys)

ISBN 978-1-4749-8679-3, Usborne

Ary’s Trees by Deborah Kerbel, with art by Sophia Choi is a picturebook that works on many levels.

If earth were a small island, how long could we live the way we do before we depleted its resources? Using an island as a paradigm for the earth, Ary’s story is about trees as one of the most important natural resources earth offers us. Ary and her friends try to protect the trees as adults cut more and more to build houses, boats, furniture with no regard to the future. The children realize the wider importance of trees offering shade from the blazing sun, offer a home to birds and insects and clean the air. And when the adults leave in search of a new island that has not yet been depleted, the children stay to coax back trees and flowers that will offer them all they need. This is a story that can lead to discussions about the environment and global warming with students of all ages.

ISBN 978-1554554096, Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Under The Arctic Ice by Line Renskebråten is a fascinating look under the arctic ice. It may seem that everything in the north is frozen solid in winter, but inside and underneath the ice, the arctic is teeming with life. The tiniest algae and phytoplankton support life of larger creatures, including the Greenland shark. Did you know that shrimp change their sex os they grow older? How do fish keep from freezing solidly? Or have you ever heard of snot fish? Or of pancake ice? As the arctic teems with life, so this book teems with facts and beautiful illustrations that explain how all of life is interconnected and how this harsh environment is fragile and of utmost importance to all of our planet.

ISBN 978-1554555741, Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Margriet Ruurs is a booklover who writes for children. She lives in Canada but visits International Schools around the world. www.margrietruurs.com

The power of alumni

Every school and university is someone’s alma mater and alumni networks are more or less well managed, ranging from highly curated and tentacular Ivy League-styled operations run by a development army with polished and frequent communications, to semi-formal and ad-hoc arrangements by individuals organising parties and get togethers.

Educational institutions tends to view alumni as symbols of the institutions’ achievements and as potential fundraisers for the building of the institution’s posterity and legacy. Indeed, alumni contribute in major and concrete ways to schools and universities, allowing projects to thrive, programmes to survive and the infrastructure to be sustained.

Recently we hosted1500 Ecolint alumni from across the world. They gathered in our Greek theatre to hear the brilliant oratory of Canadian ambassador Bob Rae, LGBTQI ally Pritha Rami and Cambridge Zero’s Beth Simpson as well as the music of the award-winning singer and songwriter Lori Lieberman, who performed with our students and staff.

It was a wonderful, emotional, privileged moment to exchange with great minds and souls. What struck me was not only the passion that our alumni have for this remarkable institution, the world’s first international school, the veneration and ongoing respect they have for their teachers living and passed, but the widespread intellectual and moral engagement they have with world issues, the commitment they have in their lives to making the world a better place.

Through some rigorous exchanges, collective reflections and discussions, the reunion felt very pedagogical: we were learning from each other just as students would do in a well-run classroom. And this is where it struck me that the real power of alumni is that they are a living extension of the educational process; they are lifelong learners who are practising the values of what they learned out in the real world. In fact, alumni are not only ambassadors of the school, they are a continuation of the educational process through the example they set, the way they live their lives, the education they give to their own children.

I could feel in the words and actions of more than one the influence of their teachers, it was almost as if this was the great project that teachers would have been so proud of, only the project was no longer in the classroom, no longer hemmed in by assessment protocols, this was the school of life, the greatest lesson of all, the whole purpose of an education!

The power of alumni (from the Latin “to nourish”) is that they are the heartbeat of the school outside the classroom. The echoing of the heartbeat resonates with what happens in the school, and the life of the school drives the rhythm of the heartbeat outside.

For alumni are not only students but also custodians: when they return to school they hope to see the values that were there when they graduated; to make sure that the leadership is honouring the ethos of the institution, whcih is a good thing. Alumni help keep the moral purpose of the school in tact.  

To all my fellow educators and leaders: reach out to your alumni, engage with them, learn from them, let’s federate with all those who have been in our institutions to rally around the values of peace, inclusion and sustainability that characterise not only international education but UNESCO and the UN’s vision for the future and the clarion call of all humanist institutions.

When we start to think of the mission of our school beyond its walls into the whole community, those within the institution and those who continue its work outside: retired staff, alumni, ex-parents, it creates a tremendous effect of strength and unity; a beautiful song of life that folds everything into its melody.

Taking Pride in Change

Picture taken by author in HonKong

Be the Change…

The world of international education is diverse, bringing together colleagues from various cultural, ethnic, and professional backgrounds. This diversity while enriching can also present unique challenges, especially when it comes to implementing change. As a women leader of color I have always been reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This philosophy helps me realize the power of leading by example, a concept that needs to be modeled rather than forced. This strategy has helped me as a woman of color and leader in international education.

Being a Change-Maker

The actions we take as leaders define our journeys and impact the people around us. In my years teaching internationally, I have faced numerous obstacles, from cultural biases to systemic inefficiencies. However, I have managed to survive as my commitment was towards students. I took inspiration from Gandhism to model the change I envisioned. For example, when I was the IB CAS coordinator during the COVID years, I put together an innovative CAS program for students that would enable them to meet the program requirements with the COVID restrictions. The idea was to introduce a CAS week in school where students led activities that were creative, sporty, and would also benefit the community. I planned the whole week by collaborating with the senior students. Each week had a UN SDG focus, it was led by students involving the entire secondary school. Here is an example of a poster created by a student:

My challenge was coordinating a CAS program that needed community engagement and human interaction, both restricted during COVID-19. My approach was not about challenging the status quo for the sake of it, but about embodying the values and practices I believed would create a positive impact – Be the Change…. I focused on building a culture of taking action, fostering opportunities, and enhancing student voice and choice. I faced resistance at multiple levels due to disrupting the status quo. But my instinct is to be solutions-oriented, hence despite numerous roadblocks and criticism, I launched the CAS week.

A colleague once commented, “Go rock the boat” as they noticed that to be my instinct when things were not going as planned. My ability to “rock the boat” was driven by knowledge, strategic vision, and a genuine intention to improve the system.

The Power of Knowledge and Intention

I believe the key aspect of leadership is the ability to make changes without necessarily confronting the existing structures. Instead, I believe in modeling new ideas and practices and demonstrating their effectiveness and benefits. This approach has earned me the respect and trust of my colleagues. They appreciated my knowledge, experience, and ability to inspire and enact change through example.

A colleague said, “Shwetangna has this incredible ability to see what works well and build on it. She doesn’t just tear things down; she makes them better. Her approach is transformative because it respects the existing framework while pushing it towards excellence.”

Knowledge and intention were the cornerstones of my strategy. I invested time in understanding the educational system, the needs of the students, and the cultural dynamics at play. This understanding enabled me to propose well-informed changes that resonated with the broader school community.

As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” This principle has always been rooted in my ability to serve the students and the community.

Building on What Works

An essential part of this philosophy was the belief that there is no need to reinvent the wheel if it is working well. Instead, I focused on enhancing existing practices and making them even better. This approach preserves the strength of the current system and fosters a culture of continuous improvement. A student wrote a appreciation note for me. “She is changing the school”. This has been the best compliment till date for me as this meant students were noticing a positive change that they appreciated.

Change is not about discarding the old, but about integrating the new in a way that respects and enhances what has come before. It is acknowledging that work done previously and valuing other people’s perspectives. This mindset helped to convince my supervisors, colleagues, and other stakeholders who saw me as a leader committed to improvement rather than disruption.

My journey in the international educational landscape serves as a powerful testament to the impact of embodying change. By living Gandhi’s mantra of being the change I wanted to see, I navigated the complexities of a diverse workplace, broke through systemic barriers, and inspired those around me to strive for justice first not excellence.

GLOBAL BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

Nonfiction, but also some fictional, books are a great resource for those of us who are curious and want to learn more. Why do some cultures have certain traditions? How can you find a job you love? What makes people tick? And even… what if dinosaurs really existed? These books can provide answers to many questions…

Henna Is…, written by Marzieh Abbas and illustrated by Anu Chouhan, is a wonderful picture book that both delights and informs. Henna Is… is the story of how henna is actually grown, picked and ground into powder. It tells how, by adding ingredients, it is made into a paste that is used to paint designs on skin. But, through poetic text, it is also a multi layered story of how the tradition has been carried through the ages, how it has been passed on through countries and cultures and how it helps to celebrate many different occasions. Henna Is… is so much more than a joyful story about henna. Use it in the classroom to explain why some people paint temporary tattoos on their hands and use it to inspire art. ISBN 978-1-250-86266-2, Feiwel and Friends, New York.

Hooray for DNA!: How a Bear and a Bug Are a Lot Like Us

Hooray for DNA, How a Bear and a Bug Are a Lot Like Us, written by Pauline Thompson and illustrated by Greg Pizzoli is a picture book that shows how DNA makes us us. It looks at animals and other things that are alive, and how DNA turns us from a ‘thing’ into a person. But mostly it stretches how humans are alive and how – regardless of skin colour or eye colour, DNA makes us all related. The back pages have more in depth information  on the building blocks of DNA. A fun, rhyming read that encourages budding scientists to learn more. ISBN 978-0-593-42704-0, Alfred A. Knopf

The Extinct Files, My Science Project by Wallace Edwards.This is a brilliant picture book for dinosaur lovers of all ages. “Wally” Edwards is a kid in grade school who discovers that extinction of dinosaurs is just a giant coverup. He has photos and many observations to prove that dinosaurs are not extinct but have evolved to be smart and have adapted to urban civilization. The fantastic illustrations and book pages look like a child’s homework project, complete with perforations and string. The ‘photos’ are ‘taped’ to the pages to make it look like homework. However, just before handing in his project, it has been found by the dinosaurs, who undertake a security breach investigation and issue a warning to all dinosaurs to be careful. All Wally has left to show his teacher is a remaining corner of his report that was eaten by dinosaurs. A great, fun book to inspire students’ imagination! ISBN 978-1-55337-971-3, Kids Can Press

Meet Clara Hughes, by Elizabeth MacLeod, illustrated by Mike Deas is the inspiring biography of an Olympic skater who battled mental health problems. This enlightening picturebook is part of Scholastic’s biograpies series. Not only does this book focus on Clara Hughes, an impressive athlete who won Olympic gold medals in speed skating and competed in cycling. She also struggled with mental health issues and depression. Clara created awareness of these conditions in hopes of helping others. She embarked on a Big Bike ride across Canada to raise awareness and was Canada’s flag bearer at the Vancouver Olympics. She is the only person ever to win multiple medals at both Summer and Winter Olympics.  A good read with the Olympics coming up! ISBN 978-1443197724, Scholastic Canada

See It, Dream It, Do It was written by Colleen Nelson and Kathie MacIsaac, illustrated by Scot Ritchie. The book helps to create awareness for kids about how to get the job of your dreams. What does it take to become a paleontologist? Or a basketball coach? How can you actually become a stand-up comedian or a microbiologist? The book shows kids real life situations, spin off jobs, and the kind of education or experience needed for a wide variety of jobs. It highlights a young woman who worked for the foreign service and became an Ambassador. Other young women became a pilot, a captain and cybersecurity analyst. What does it take to be a Lego designer or a male midwife? This fascinating book is aimed at young people but an equally informative read for people of all ages. ISBN 978-1-77278-288-2, Pajama Press

Margriet Ruurs is a writer in Canada who loves her job and is curious about just about anything. Book for for author talks in your school here:

www.margrietruurs.com

GLOBAL BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

Wildlife in the city… From trees turning colour, to growing gardens and zoos, there is much of nature to be found in cities. These books celebrate the magic of growing your own vegetables, watching nature in an urban environment and, as a bonus, the magic of reading!

Bunny Loves Beans by Jane Whittingham is a picture book for the very young that works on many different levels. Not only do the text and the lovely photos introduce a wide variety of animals, it also focuses on healthy, natural foods as well as colours. A fun book to read aloud and share many times over. Follow it up with healthy snacks mentioned in the book: blackberries, carrots, bananas and more. ISBN 978-1-77278-301-8, Pajama Press

City Beet by Tziporah Cohen, illustrated by Udayana Lugo, is a fun, repetitive picture book to read aloud. Using the same rhythm as books like The House That Jack Built and the fun of The Gigantic Turnip, this is sure to become a favourite. Victoria lives in the city. While out for a walk with Mrs. Kosta, they spot a poster for an upcoming city block potluck. “Raw beet salad!” exclaims Victoria and, together, they buy seeds at the corner store. Together they dig, they water and fertilize. And the beet grows. It grows and grows, right until the day of the potluck. But when they want to harvest it, the beet won’t budge, no matter how hard they pull.  Soon help arrives. First a taxi driver, then policemen, a street sweeper. More and more people arrive. They all tell Victoria that she doesn’t need to help so she prepares her recipe. But even with an endless row of people pulling, that beet won’t budge. Until, finally, Victoria comes to the rescue.  And her raw beet salad is ready just in time for the block party. This fun, colourful story comes complete with the recipe. ISBN 9781534112711, Sleeping Bear Press

The Yellow Leaves Are Coming by James Gladstone, with art by François Thisdale, is a reaffirmation of the turning of seasons. Two children watch the last yellow leaf flutter to the ground. Then they know that the snow will come, followed by slush. After the hot days of summer, the school year starts again and leaves turn colour. They find solace in the cycle of seasons and knowing that yellow leaves are here once again.  ISBN 978-0889956834, Red Deer Press

Wild About Books by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Marc Brown is not a new book. But what a wonderful title to use if you are discussing libraries, and especially mobile libraries. Miss Molly McGrew drives her bookmobile into the zoo by mistake. Through great rhythm and rhyme, this is a wild romp of animals discovering the joy of reading. Both the text and the art are full of subtle nuances that make this picture book fun for readers of all ages. From ‘raccoons who read in bunches to llamas who eat while eating their llunches’, ‘hyenas howling over joke books to porcupines writing with their very own quills’ this book is a fabulous read aloud for Poetry Week or parent nights at school.  ISBN 978-0-375-82538-5, Alfred A. Knopf/Penguin Random House

Wildful by Kengo Kurimoto is a 212 page graphic novel. At first, when Poppy walks her dog Pepper along the city streets, she notices nothing of the world around her because her eyes are glued to her cell phone. But then Pepper chase an animal. He jumps through an opening in a fence and disappears into a dark clump of trees. Cautiously Poppy follows. She calls and searches but Pepper does not come back. Around her, Poppy hears unusual sounds. The woods frighten her. But then she meets Rob who explores the forest. He points out birds and tracks. Slowly, she starts to notice all that goes on the wild woods. Leaving first her phone, and then her headset, she becomes more aware and intrigued by nature. Eventually she even convinces her mom to come along and they spend time reconnecting. With nature but also with themselves. A great book, for readers of all ages, that can lead to endless classroom activities. ISBN 978-1-77306-862-6, Groundwood Books

Margriet Ruurs is now taking bookings for author presentations in 2025. “Best author visit in 30 years!” – quote from Kelowna BC teacher.

www.margrietruurs.com

Mentor is a Gift Word

So late last week I was given the gift of reconnecting with one of the most important mentors that I have had in my life, and as much as it was just a brief encounter, it left me smiling from ear to ear. It reminded me of a great conversation that I had as a guest on a podcast awhile back, where we talked in one section about how the word Mentor is actually a gift word, and a magical, reciprocal relationship that should to be sought out, cultivated and ultimately, celebrated. The podcast was Leading With Curiosity, hosted by my good friend and inspiring executive coach, Nate Leslie, and the episode explored the importance of relationship building in our approach to leadership. The notion of mentorship eventually came up during the conversation and we both agreed, without hesitation, that we wouldn’t be in the positions that we are in today without the amazing mentors that we have had throughout our lives and careers…absolute gifts indeed.

With last week’s reconnection fresh in my mind, I want to talk about the important role that mentors can play in our lives, and how magical these relationships can be both personally and professionally. I think it’s fair to say that anyone who has found success in life can attribute at least a part of that success to the role that a mentor has played along their journey. Good mentors are pure magic, and if you’ve had one in the past, or if you have one right now, it’s important that you seek them out and thank them for the positive influence that they’ve had on your life. I am acutely aware of how fortunate I have been in my life to have had more than just a few amazing mentors, both personally and professionally, who have helped me become the person and leader that I am today…my wife for example, and my parents and siblings, a couple of coaches, and over the past 25 years or so a small group of international school leaders who have inspired me beyond measure. 

These are the people who believed in me, who saw something in me that I hadn’t yet recognized, and who continuously pushed me to always get better. They shared their knowledge with me, they modeled courageous behavior, they constantly pushed me out of my comfort zone, they held me accountable to my goals and aspirations, and most importantly, they gave me the honest feedback that I needed to hear in order to grow. The thing about a quality mentor is that they find ways to tell you exactly what you need to hear in a way that inspires you into action. A great mentor not only shares the truth about your strengths and your areas of growth, they also listen really well and offer advice in a positive and productive way. A great mentor can also be hard to find so when you find one make sure to hang on and take advantage of the gift that will surely keep on giving.

Early in my life and career great mentors just kind of fell into my lap without me realizing it at the moment, and for that I am beyond grateful. Over time however, I learned to seek out inspiring mentors and I’ve even taken jobs, like this one, because of the opportunity to work with leaders who I knew could help me become a better version of myself. Everyone needs a coach or mentor in their life regardless of how successful they’ve become, so if you don’t have that person in your life right now, start actively looking. In most cases, great mentors find ways to make the relationship reciprocal, and are open and eager to learn and get better themselves. Some of the best learning that I’ve ever had as a professional came out of a relationship when I was considered the mentor, but really, we were both learning deeply from each other. That’s the beauty of these kinds of relationships, they often go both ways.

Just so you know, the person that I reconnected with late last week was someone who I met years and years ago when I was just stepping into leadership. I was young and green and eager to learn and this person was so generous with their time and feedback. They went out of their way to share tips and tricks and kind words and encouragement, which at the time meant more to me than gold. They made me feel like I was worthy of leading and pointed out some traits that they saw in me that would ultimately make me successful, and they made a point of sharing those with me. In many ways I have been feeding off of those early conversations and interactions for the past fifteen years, particularly when I need a little boost. Thinking back to that initial and serendipitous meeting in 2010, that person instantly became a special mentor for me in my life, and we’ve been keeping in touch ever since, learning and connecting regularly both in person and from afar. 

With all that said, and with the gift of mentorship now front of mind, I’m asking you to take some time this week to think about the mentors that you’ve had in your life, and to reach out to them, now…thank them, tell them how much they’ve meant to you, and then go and be that person for others. We can all be great mentors to someone if we open ourselves up to it, and we can all be agents of positive change for a friend or for a colleague. If you’re really lucky, you will find one where deep learning and trust goes both ways, and you learn from each other and grow together over time…that’s the real gift. Have a wonderful week everyone, and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week…

A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself – 

-Oprah Winfrey

Related Articles – 

Great Mentoring Books

How To Be a Great Mentor

The Power of Mentorship

What Does a Mentor Do? 

Inspiring Videos – 

College Dreams

Giving Away a Dollar

Never Giving Up

Funny Photos

10 Things That Made Us Smile

TED Talks –

The 10 Best TED Talks on Mentorship

Artificial Intelligence and Spatial Intelligence

Aspiring Leaders

A mighty fine language learner

Eric working with clay with Rwandan students. He claimed his bowl was one big mistake. His interactions with the students was anything but.

A year ago I did not know the name of the language in Rwanda, nor in fact whether there were multiple languages spoken there, nor anything about language policy, schools, teacher training, geography. Not much at all.

Then I got a call from Eric Poris. We’ve worked together on a few projects, mostly related to summer camps for language learning. Eric is creative and uplifting and he was excited. “I think we might have a thing to do that you are really going to like.”

And sure enough the emails and what-ifs morphed into airplane tickets to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, where I met Eric, Suzanne, Laura, and Gretchen. We were to spend five days visiting schools and people to get ready for a program we’ll run this coming summer for two weeks, in the city of Nyamata. A language immersion program for primary teachers to build confidence in English, and a curriculum to practice hands-on science instruction led by our colleagues from the California Science Center. 

Rwanda was amazing, a new experience for me. Lush valleys and a thousand hills, as they say. Thousands of motor bike taxis, too, and shop fronts along the streets, beautiful flowers and green grass lining the streets of the capital. New experiences like banana beer, sixty kilometer speed limits almost everywhere, and no public smoking anywhere. And of course the national language, Kinyarwanda. 

I learned a little and I plan to learn more. But as a language aficionado and teacher of language teachers, what blew me away during our time together was Eric’s phenomenal pace of learning. To give you an idea, on the last of our five days in the country we stepped through the final set of office doors for a meeting and, as we had grown accustomed to, Eric greeted and chatted in Kinyarwanda, each day the conversation just a little longer. One of our smiling hosts said, quoting as best I remember: “Oh! How many years have you been in Rwanda?”

What an inspiration. So what does Eric do that is so effective? What can all of us learn from Eric? 

Stop to chat. That might be rule number one. Of course on the first day, chat meant a few stock phrases. Muraho! Easy enough. Invariably you get a Muraho back. I’m pretty sure at this point they think this is the extent of what the foreigner knows. But since Eric had asked our cultural advisor for some beginning phrases on a Zoom call the week before, he added a how are you, Amikuru? and then he’d answer Ni meza when whomever he was talking to answered back. (Because, of course, they had said, even if it wasn’t totally understandable yet, something like “And how are you?”) This is where even some motivated learners might quit, perhaps raising their hands and saying “that’s all I know,” or “I’m just a beginner” – something which signals it is time for English now. 

Not Eric. He wades right into new territory, repeats whatever is new, asks what things mean, checks his pronunciation, smiles and shakes hands the whole while. When we did walk away from these encounters, under the semi-surprised gaze of our newly acquired native speaking friends, Eric jotted down the words he could remember.

“I like to write things down,” he confided. Maybe that’s rule number two – rehearse what you have learned, do whatever it takes to help your memory. Eric had a little orange notebook with him all the time. Either he wrote or he asked someone he was talking with to write for him. “Can you write that down for me?” I heard him say, often, during many of his short, friendly conversations.

And these short friendly conversations were frequent. Spaced repetition, language teachers might call it. Eric made these opportunities for himself by talking to anyone in the hotel we passed by – housekeepers, guards, drivers. There are plenty of folks around a hotel and they are ready to talk with guests. Especially guests who are ready to talk with them. 

But not just in the hotel. In fact, Eric talked with so many of the people he met – in the market, in restaurants, during school visits – that we as a group often had to stop walking because Eric was so far behind us, chatting. “Where’s Eric?” we’d say as we all turned around. There he was, shaking hands and repeating hellos, how are yous, thank yous, new vocabulary… all the while asking what this or that word meant, how do you pronounce this, would you mind writing that down for me?

One morning, I stepped out of the hotel with Eric to head to an appointment. As we walked along the street we heard a shout: “Eric!” A couple of joggers came over, smiling, talking, shaking hands. Yep, Eric had gone for a jog that morning and ran into – and with – these two guys. “Oh, and a whole lot more,” Eric told me, after they finished chatting. “There were probably a dozen of us running together by the time I looped back to the hotel.” 

His friendliness and commitment influenced the rest of us, me in particular as his sidekick, the other European staying in the same hotel, the other guy working on the language program. Eric spoke with everyone so much that everyone assumed I knew as much, too. When my shy self would have rather just stuck with Muraho, or ducked the language exchange altogether, I found I couldn’t. Amakuru ki? the concierge would say. Mwirime, said the guard at the end of the driveway. He always added a phrase and waited expectantly. Eric had turned everyone into our teachers. 

We went out to eat the first night we were there. Eric immediately engaged in a conversation with our waiter, Brian, now a WhatsApp friend on Eric’s long list of Rwandan friends and acquaintances. Brian came to our table often. Eric learned a little more each time. We took pictures with Brian and the two of them exchanged contact information after the photo, promising to stay in touch. “Nishimiye kubamenya, murabeho, inshuti.”

And in fact, Eric has stayed in touch. When he needed the music and lyrics to a Rwandan song for our summer program, it was Brian who sent some links. Urakoze cyane, Justin. 

On Saturday morning we had some free time. Without planning it, Eric and I both walked to the market, separately, and we both bought a country map and some materials about Kinyarwanda. Kindred spirits, perhaps. Nice serendipity. I practiced thank you, murakoze, over and over as I walked along and used it as often as I could. Felt pretty good about it. Threw in hellos and how are yous as well, everything I could remember. Later, when we found out we both had been at the market, we had a good laugh, and Eric said he had studied some numbers in the room beforehand, so he bargained in Kinyarwanda. He probably had looked up a phrase or two in addition, like “how much does that cost? Ankahe?” Things anyone could do … and things that expanded how long Eric could keep the conversation going in this new language, which increased his likelihood of hearing new words, so he could ask for new pronunciations and put his pen into someone else’s hand to write down something new. That’s another rule, whatever number we are on by now. Add a phrase or two to your vocabulary that you can immediately use, and then use it. 

Eric is adamant that language learning should be fun, and there is no doubt that he finds it so. He smiles from ear to ear while leaning in to hear a new word, he laughs big when he is trying to pronounce something, he claps new friends on the back, makes connections. 

The motto of his company, @Easyworld is “We love mistakes.” On the third or fourth day he greeted me in the hotel lobby with that infectious earnestness of his. Dukunda amakosa! We tried it out at the front desk and with the folks arranging taxis. What does this mean? Would you say this? A few people were unsure why we would love mistakes. 

Eric is unwaveringly apologetic about that. This is another key rule. Our last day we met with officials from the Rwanda Education Board. The stodgy part of me decided to wear a coat, to dress up. Eric dressed up, too, in a white t-shirt from his company, with the slogan in black font: We love mistakes. It was the perfect thing to wear, especially when he greeted everyone in Kinyarwanda, with a big smile, and the joy of learning twinkling in his eyes.

Cultural celebrations

In a competence-based educational programme, one of the most fundamentally important constructs to develop is intercultural competence. This means being able to appreciate other cultures, having enough background knowledge about other people’s cultures to know who’s in the room and having the interest, respect and humility to want to learn more about different cultures and, in doing so, to honour the people around you and the generational stories they bring with them.

In Edgar Schein’s much quoted culture model, the visible tip of the iceberg is made up of artefacts whereas the more profound values and assumptions that make up cultural archetypes lie beneath the surface. The argument is that surface-level manifestations of culture (the famous five fs: fashion, flags, food, famous people and festivals) are fairly superficial and that celebrating these or knowing about them is not really taking you to the core of a culture.

I would agree but only to a certain extent. I used to be of the opinion that cultural fairs, international evenings and the like were stereotype-anchoring fanfares with nothing particularly profound about them. However, I’ve changed my views through time and believe that if cultures are celebrated intentionally and in the right way, the process is actually very profound. In any case, seeking deeper connections than visible ones should not should not prevent us from appreciating the visible. The visible is the outer shell of the invisible, something deeper, anyway, and cultural artefacts are primarily symbolic, they tell a story.

Learning the literature, philosophy and history of another culture is undoubtedly more profound gateway into its inner recesses: Wole Soyinka opens the mind to Yoruba culture, a full ToK unit on First People’s cultures allows one – as it did for my class and me – better understanding of what you are researching, for us it was the Wayfinders of Polynesia; studying Confucius gives one a profound insight into the political context of the Zhou dynasty in China.

But, does this mean that we should not celebrate cultural festivities at all? 

At Ecolint this year, across the seven schools and three campuses, our students, parents and staff celebrated Diwali, Dia de Los Muertos,  Hanukkah, Eid, Nowruz, the Lunar New Year and Christmas. We also celebrated Neurodiversity week and will be celebrating Africa Day later this month. Parents came on campus to set up cultural stands, students stood up in assemblies and taught each other about the historical and religious significance of festivities from their countries, students learnt about essential symbols from other cultures. And all of this happened in a context of joy, serenity, sharing and peace. It was particularly moving to see the community learning about each other in a time where international conflict is building walls between people. The way of peace is surely built on crossroads and bridges.

I was at a conference explaining these cultural festivities to a group and someone said “yes, yes that’s the easy bit”. Well, it’s not actually that easy, the organisation is colossal and it can only be done with large scale community participation, one risks being criticised for celebrating one culture and not another and by onlookers who will say, yes this is all very superficial. But how superficial is it to see children from different cultures and sometimes from countries at war with one another dyeing each other’s hands with Henna, learning classical dance steps together, learning each other’s calligraphy and mythology?

It’s actually more profound than we think. Cultural festivals are not just superficial parades of clichés, they are living testimonies to thousands of years of history, they are living pieces of collective identity, and they bring us together in something that becomes universal. 

My message to fellow educators is not to be afraid to celebrate culture, not to think it’s not enough and therefore should not be done, that intercultural competence development has to be some uniquely intellectual and morose affair. Celebrating culture is a wonderful way of bringing the community together and building up intercultural competences, for we learn best when we learn together, when we are involved and – why not – while enjoying it at the same time.  

These three steps can be considered to ensure a meaningful cultural celebration:

  1. Don’t cheapen the experience by treating it like a mere party, link cultural celebrations to a higher cause: peace and inclusion for example, or global citizenship. This gives the event a deeper meaning and mission-aligned purpose.
  2. Make sure it’s inclusive and involves students, parents and staff and most especially those from the culture or part of the world being celebrated: put them in the driver’s seat to organise it (“nothing about us without us”). 
  3. The emphasis should be on learning (rather than eating!).

What is particularly powerful in these events is the personal reflection they engender. When you experience another culture’s expression and in such a way that it touches you, when that piece of music enters your soul, that dance connects with something atavistic inside you, when a poem from a far away place awakens something lurking in your unconscious state, even when something makes you stand back and feel different, it ultimately brings you back to yourself through the mirror of another human experience: in that reflection you encounter your own culture. This is intercultural learning and when it is kinaesthetic and lived, it’s visceral and emotional. This kaleidoscopic turning inwards through outward-facing signs, this learning of the self through the other enriches our sense of what it means to be human, reminding us of the collective mosaic that makes up our collective story and how beautiful the many faces of humanity are.

Peeling Back the Layers of Teacher Appreciation

Are educators really appreciated? Tomorrow, May 10, marks the end of Teacher Appreciation Week. In the early years, appreciation can be quite pervasive, little ones sharing handwritten notes with big hearts and occasionally there is the parent who shares a thank you note. Oftentimes for just a day, or sometimes for a week, schools recognize Teacher Appreciation to celebrate and honor teachers for their dedication and hard work. A nice gesture and yet as a career educator, I cannot help but ponder the true value society pays to teachers.

Until 2013 no one was measuring teacher status.  Enter the Varkey Foundation and its mission to improve standards of education and also raise the status and capacity of teachers throughout the world.  The measurement tool they developed is called the Global Teacher Status Index (GTSI). The GTSI is a score between 0 and 100 and the number summarizes information from teacher surveys using Principal Component Analysis. China scored the highest with a perfect score of 100.  Really China?  Whereas Brazil and Israel were at the other end of the spectrum at just 1 and 6.5 respectively. The United States fell somewhere in the middle with a score of 39. Since the Varkey Foundation’s origins, GTSI is now being used with 35 countries. Interestingly enough, key findings in the United States report include:

  • The U.S. public believes teachers are not paid a fair wage and should earn at least $7500 more annually
  • 50% of respondents also believe teachers should earn based on student performance
  • 78% believe teachers are influential, the fourth highest of all countries surveyed
  • When US respondents were asked to rank 14 professions including doctors, nurses, librarians, and social workers in order of respect (with 14 being the highest and 1 the lowest), headteachers were ranked the 6th lowest of all the countries surveyed

So, there is evidence of how the status of teachers in the United States can improve. 

Recognition Runs the Gamut

Having taught every grade from three to twelve, in public and private, rural and urban settings, as well as in three States and four countries outside of the United States, it is a bit surprising how teacher appreciation is similarly experienced. Even across the decades. Appreciation or recognition is a sort of hit or miss. Imperative is that we as educators have it within ourselves. Appreciation.  For ourselves and the not only noble but extremely impactful profession. I say “hit or miss” because the experience is largely dependent on administration and parent committees.  Even at the same school, a teacher could have a completely different feel from one year to the next. In one school I taught, teacher appreciation simply meant the delivery of a typed form letter in our mailbox from our principal. Completely impersonal. At another school, with a legion of teachers, we all received a plastic baggie of homemade, albeit stale, cookies. I’ve received Starbucks gift cards for $10.  A delicious array of food for a luncheon one year. A the same school, the very next year, a masseuse was at school all day and we could sign up for 20-minute chair massages. In another school, a last-minute attempt was made to put on a lunch, barely a step up from the cafeteria. One year I remember how teachers were able to select two gifts from a wide array of offerings. I chose the $20 gift card to my favorite local coffee shop and a bottle of whiskey. Yep, there was an assortment of hard liquors. Teacher appreciation and recognition run the gamut. Far from standardization and absolutely a reflection of a school’s culture. Possibly a small act or even a big effort, however as a teacher I would venture to guess that  I am not alone in stating that it does mean something to us.

Whatever is done, if anything, what is important is that teachers truly feel appreciated. That was definitely not the case at the school where the mediocre lunch was served. To top it off, the first people in the lunch line were not even teachers!

Insights from a Hybrid Educator

In person I facilitate one section of grade 12 capstone. During the pandemic and ever since, I have enjoyed teaching two courses for an online school as well. In a certain sense, this hybrid role allows me to sit on the periphery of traditional mainstream education. Almost like a meteorologist, I see the storms coming, often how they make landfall, and yet I never get “wet.” Keen always to learn, when I hear about opportunities in education or they cross my screen, I want to know more. One such example that recently appeared as a recommendation on my LinkedIn feed, led me to to reflect more on this topic of teacher status and appreciation. Curiously I looked at the job description and how this “leading ed-tech company” was helping districts and schools address staffing shortages and also expanding school’s course offerings. They were looking for a part-time teacher who would be on a 1099 contract. This means there are no benefits and in effect a large percentage would end up being paid in taxes. The role was to teach grade 9-12 students AP courses via Zoom. A prospective applicant could appreciate how they explicitly outline the expected time commitments. “In a typical week for one section, online teachers can anticipate their core work as teaching (four hours) and planning/grading (about two hours). Online teachers also engage in coaching, professional development, and recurring team meetings (typically one hour on average per week, though varies week-to-week) for a total weekly commitment of six to seven hours.”  The pay? $40 an hour. That means approximately $300 a week. Or, post taxes more like $200.  I don’t know about you and where you live but $200 does not cover a whole lot. Is this a reflection of the low status of educators? Possibly a mere glimpse of the true value not being “paid” to teachers.

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Sharing stories, expertise, and experiences from international educators around the world. In the spirit of amplifying diverse voices. TIE's blog space is not subject to editorial oversight. TIE bloggers have a long history in various aspects of international education and share their thoughts and insights based on personal experiences.