Leading Through a Pandemic: Are Schools Asking Too Much of Middle Leaders?

The COVID crisis has brought new and unexpected demands for already overburdened middle leaders in schools around the world. Middle leaders are the linchpins holding our schools together but a significant number are struggling to cope with unprecedented challenges of the current situation, leaving them feeling trapped between the expectations of their principals and the demands of their team. Many feel exhausted and disillusioned, while some may be close to burnout as their own physical and emotional needs go unmet.

In my article from 2018, Why are Middle Leaders in Schools so Stressed?, I highlighted the increasing demands experienced by middle leaders over recent years and the accompanying stress that this has brought. The role of the middle leader has transitioned from that of Coordinator, managing administrative tasks, or Head of Department, charged with writing the curriculum, assigning classes, and overseeing the budget, to the more complex role of leading teams and managing change. Since the onset of the pandemic this has become compounded by the even greater demands placed on middle leaders. 

Over the last 8 months, senior leaders have been tasked with daily, complex problem solving, in a highly volatile environment. They are managing the expectations of boards and parents as well as addressing the needs of students and staff through often rapid decision making. While some schools have robust systems in place to include middle leader input, the process does not always allow for a high level of collaboration with those in the middle, despite the fact that it is middle leaders who are on the front-line, managing unforeseen implementation challenges. In other schools, middle leaders may represent merely a convenient buffer between SLT and the teaching staff, translating plans into practice and fielding staff criticism. It is not unusual for middle leaders to be asked to implement ideas that they do not support, which they know will not work and which may be contrary to their values. This can be highly stressful for middle leaders, caught between wanting to support their principal, while at the same time doing what is best for colleagues and students and remaining consistent with their own values. The stress is compounded further for some as a push to implement unpopular ideas leads to alienation from their colleagues and social isolation. 

Physical exhaustion among middle leaders is another real concern. Most carry a 70-80% teaching timetable, while in some schools, very little release time is provided for the role. Especially during online learning periods, where it is hard to separate work and home, it is tempting for many to work relentlessly in order to fulfil the role expectations. Many middle leaders teach online classes during the day and then work well into the night, communicating with senior leaders, addressing the needs of their team, responding to parent concerns and catching up with lesson planning and student feedback. Some are consistently working 16 hour days in order to keep on top of everything. I know that while many have thrived in the face of recent challenges, despite the long hours, others feel they are failing in all elements of their role – failing students, failing their team and failing to impress their leaders.

I want to address the role that middle leaders play in supporting the emotional needs of others and the impact this may be having on their own wellbeing. The global pandemic brings anxiety for everyone at some level. For a small minority, however, who may have a history of mental health issues, it is very frightening and in schools we are witnessing the impact the crisis is having on those individuals. While senior leaders play a huge part in supporting the emotional needs of their community, the current situation is taking many away from front-line work, leaving middle leaders to shoulder the burden, especially in large schools, where principals do not have time to understand and address the wellbeing needs of each individual on staff. Instead, it is middle leaders who are providing emotional support to colleagues, whose issues may be complex and severe. This is particularly the case in international schools where most teachers do not have a traditional support network of local family and friends to rely upon and may not know how to seek professional help or cannot afford to pay for it. Most middle leaders feel a huge sense of responsibility towards colleagues in their team and want to do their best to support their needs but few feel equipped to do so effectively.

Finally, I want to raise the issue of parents and the additional burden currently placed on middle leaders fielding parent complaints. In some schools the responsibility for addressing parent concerns falls to senior leaders but in others, issues are referred to grade leaders or HoDs first. The sheer volume of the referrals that schools are seeing at present can be overwhelming for middle leaders already juggling multiple roles. Parent concerns often stem from unrealistic expectations of what school should look like at this time or are precipitated by a parent’s own anxieties about living through a pandemic and can, therefore, be hard to address. It is particularly demanding for middle leaders to address concerns that are borne out of decisions they have not been party to and do not agree with but are expected to take responsibility for. This is made worse when parent communications are angry or offensive, leaving middle leaders wounded and disillusioned.

It is easy to see how, in addition to feeling exhausted, some middle leaders are currently feeling disillusioned, cynical, critical or experiencing a lack of satisfaction from their achievements at work – all indicators of occupational burnout.  While most are highly dedicated to the role and many are ambitious to make their mark, the high levels of stress, combined with poor financial remuneration are leading some to question their ongoing commitment. Senior leaders are fighting their own battles at present and it is understandable that they may wish to push problems down the line to middle leaders, couching this in terms of distributed leadership and empowering others. Teachers struggling to cope with the constant changes thrown at them, cannot be blamed for focusing their disquiet on team leaders or looking to them for personal support. Parents need to have their concerns addressed and should be able to receive timely, constructive communications from middle leaders, where they are tasked with this role. However, school communities need to reflect on whether they are simply asking too much of their middle leaders, whose most important role, after all, is to look after the students in their care. 

Taipei American School’s Policy for Transgender Students

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@emilymeadowsorg

A couple of years ago, I published a post encouraging international schools to adopt a school-wide policy for transgender students. Taipei American School has done just that, leading the way in supporting gender diverse students. I interviewed Adam Nelson, a member of the committee that implemented the policy. Adam Nelson is the Interim Deputy Head of School at Taipei American School in Taiwan and holds a J.D. from the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Emily: How was the process to develop and implement a policy for transgender students initiated at Taipei American School? 

Adam: The process started when the Head of School put together a committee to come up with such a policy, both in response to the Obama Administration’s policy guidance that Title IX protects trans* students and to help better protect the trans* students we had on campus.

Emily: How was faculty involved? Did they receive training on their role in enforcing the policy? 

Adam: We currently have only a small number of openly trans* students, and their counselors have worked directly with those students’ teachers both to make sure they understood their obligations under the policy and to offer support with meeting their students’ needs. 

One of our school psychologists recently presented an overview of the policy to the entire Upper School faculty, and I’m sure there have been other smaller or division-specific efforts, but our first attempt at formal faculty-wide training will come in the fall.

Emily: How was the policy presented to the greater TAS community? Did you put it out in a newsletter, for example, or just add it to the website when it was ready? 

Adam: It has mostly been the latter. The policy was first adopted around the time of our most recent WASC accreditation visit, and was mentioned at least briefly in our self-study report, but otherwise it was really just published in the student handbooks, which parents are required to read each year, and in our administrator, faculty, and staff manuals. 

Emily: What challenges arose during the process, and how would you recommend handling them if another school encounters the same? 

Adam: The process has really been relatively painless so far. Even the drafting was fairly straightforward, since we merely adapted the model policy that had been published by GLSEN! 

The biggest challenges so far have really mostly been technical. Like all schools, we have a lot of systems that report gender information, and it’s not always clear why. Fortunately, our student information system (SIS) supports having separate gender and gender assigned at birth fields, which made things easier for those systems that play well with our SIS. Otherwise, we’ve tried to limit references to student gender as much as possible. We now feel like we’ve done a pretty good job giving those employees with a bona fide need to know access to a student’s gender assigned at birth, but otherwise making it so that any other user doesn’t see gender at all unless they need to, and then only giving those individuals access to information based on each student’s self-identification. 

Emily: Has the policy been successful in supporting students since its implementation? 

Adam: I think it has been successful. Again, I’m only aware of a very small number of openly trans* students, but I know those students have been appreciative of the school’s support and validation of their identities. 

Emily: Thank you, Adam, for taking the time to share your experience with implementing a transgender inclusive policy. Taipei American School is leading the way!

Please contact me to discuss crafting and implementing a transgender and gender non-binary inclusion policy to fit your school. I specialize in international school policy development and faculty training for gender and sexual orientation diversity.

www.EmilyMeadows.org

Meeting Learners Wherever They May Be

“Aim for the middle of the square,” I encourage an 8-year old boy on my basketball team.

The power of geometry on full display. Meanwhile, another player kicks the ball against the gymnasium wall, seemingly confusing basketball for soccer.  Two others chase each other in a game of tag. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot another dancing the Macarena.  The Macarena?  Is Tik Tok responsible for the one-hit wonder Spanish song of 1993 being brought back? Reaching for my whistle, I notice another player launching shots from beyond the three-point line.  In wonder I look on, taking a few seconds to just take in the full scene.  

Weren’t the directions and demonstration clear?  To take shots from 3 feet away, stepping from side to side and aiming at the middle of the box. A timeless backboard drill.  

Before I am able to blow the whistle, it happens.

“Coach, can you tie my shoe?” one 4-foot tall player earnestly requests.  His large blue eyes match his dyed fringe.  The shrill tone of his voice resembling my 5-year old nephew’s.  

I look down at his knotted lace and caught up in the chaos, regretfully do not seize the opportunity to teach this “life skill.”  On the ride home, the moment continued to be replayed. Impossible to get out of my head, it stewed the next 48 hours.  

For a veteran teacher, this was a serious self-check.  An invaluable lesson to meet the learner, wherever they might be. A cornerstone of any education certification program, I would have guessed I perfected this lesson.  However, in the midst of “herding cats,” did I forget?  Mere negligence? Simply distracted?  Whatever the reason, I was embarrassed for myself.  A “wrong” to made right!  

Grateful to learn from the error, I was reminded how we may have a particular aim for a class or practice, yet of even greater importance than our plan, is that we remain flexible and respond to the learners right before our eyes. Differentiation sometimes a reflex, while at other times requires utmost intention.  

The next practice I approached the boy with the knotted laces and on bended knee showed him how to tie his shoe. Singing in a hushed tone, “Over, under, around and through, meet Mr. Bunny Rabbit, pull and through.”  Smiling, he gave it a try, his motor skills a clear challenge. The third attempt a success!

During my childhood a poster hung in our home’s laundry room.  It shared advice from best-selling author, Robert Fulgum and was titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Fulgum conveyed the simplicity and power of such adages as, share everything, and to play fair. 

Years later, a third grade teacher, I turned to look over my shoulder each time a student called, “Mister…”  I looked for my father, a bit bewildered because from one day to the next I had become a “Mister” myself.  Though the exuberance, joy, and energy of 8 and 9-year olds was a pleasure, middle school became my wheelhouse.  More than twenty years would pass before I would be in the company of third-graders again. 

This time, wearing the hat of coach. A chance to improve my well-conditioned skills in patience but also explicitness, assuming nothing.   

Not even that all the children can yet tie their own shoes.

Leading Through the pandemic: Is school leader loneliness increasing under covid?

My article The Loneliness of the International School Leader from 2018, is by far my most read and commented upon post, striking a chord with school leaders around the world. Since the publication of Is an Epidemic of COVID Burnout Awaiting our School Leaders?, I have been contacted by many wanting to share their own current experiences of isolation and desperation or express concern for leaders they know who are operating with very little support. In Is a Sense of Over-responsibility Harming School Leaders? I refer to the need for leaders to relinquish control and trust those around them to carry some of the burden, but the truth is that for some leaders this is not an option. Despite challenges on an unprecedented scale, many school leaders are leading alone, facing overwhelming stress and isolation with no light at the end of the tunnel. 

Who Experiences Loneliness?

Leadership isolation is a commonly recurring theme in the literature on school leader wellbeing. Loneliness results from inadequate external support, the absence of a trustworthy peer group to confide in and insufficient time to connect with others. For international school leaders, this experience may be compounded by the lack of personal and professional support systems that leaders are able to rely upon in their home countries. 

My own research shows that those most at risk are leaders new to their role, especially those who have moved to a new school/city/country and particularly those who have moved without family. Also at high risk are leaders of smaller schools who are operating without a senior leadership peer group and those in locations that lack a wider leadership network. Finally, leaders who lack hobbies or interests outside of work are more vulnerable to loneliness than those who have a focus for their social connections. Of course, membership of a large senior leadership team does not guarantee protection from loneliness. Toxic relationships in the workplace may leave leaders more isolated than if they were working alone and can bring with them a whole range of other stresses and strains. Even in situations where senior colleagues are on good terms, it takes a strong and trusting team to create an environment where leaders can be vulnerable about their fears, share their anxieties and seek support from each other. 

Isolation During COVID

Isolation can crush school leaders during the best of times. The weight of responsibility for the effectiveness of a school and wellbeing of a whole community can be heavy to bear alone. Since the COVID crisis began, however, the burden is even harder to shoulder for many, as they make daily, fast-paced decisions that may have serious consequences for staff and student safety, or business operations, while working a 16-plus hour day. Working from home scenarios are also placing many more leaders in situations of potential isolation as they operate at a distance from colleagues and miss out on the regular social interactions that daily school life brings. In the last few weeks, many leaders have reached out to tell me their stories of isolation and struggle. I suspect this is merely the tip of the iceberg. 

How Do School Leaders Overcome Loneliness?

So what can be done to support those individuals who struggle alone and what can they do for themselves? It is important to understand that we are hardwired to feel less sociable and more likely to shut down when we are under extreme stress as we move to a fight or flight response. It is not easy to overcome our natural instincts to maintain a sharp focus on the cause of a perceived threat and exclude our other needs. Taking steps towards addressing isolation may, therefore, prove challenging. In Overcoming Loneliness as an International School Leader I identify the starting point as recognising we are lonely, understanding its potential consequences and acknowledging the need to address it. Research shows the devastating impact of loneliness on long-term physical and mental health. In the short term it also makes leaders less effective in their roles, by impacting sleep and their ability to think clearly, problem solve and communicate well. 

Once we have acknowledged the need for change, there are a number of practical steps that can be taken to reduce loneliness. 

1. Make the Most of Existing Social Connections

How often do we make the time to reach out to family and friends at home? Just 15 minutes spent on a Zoom call touching base with those who know us best and love us most can have a startling impact on our wellbeing, kickstarting our happy hormones. It is easy to feel that we do not currently have time for maintaining these connections and give them a low priority or fall foul of our stress response by preferring to remain closed off to social interaction. However, we should view contact with our nearest and dearest as essential to our mental and physical health in the same way as we might view exercise and a balanced diet.

If you have a close relationship with a school leader, then check in with them on a regular basis and persevere even when they tell you they are too busy. During the lockdown in the UK, my brother took to video-calling me each week to catch up and seek and offer reassurance. Those short calls were precious moments of sanity and support, which I came to value enormously and believe made a real difference to both of us. 

2. Create Allies Among Those You Lead 

If you lack senior leadership colleagues or relations with them are not good, then seek succour from elsewhere in the school. Being honest about your vulnerabilities with those you lead can help you to build stronger relationships with staff and will create a more collaborative environment where everyone feels empowered and supported. A problem shared is a problem halved and there is no need to carry the burden alone.

If you have concerns about a school leader, reach out to them and offer support or suggest ways in which their burden may be shared. Despite having a strong network of leadership colleagues both inside and outside school, I know what a difference it made to me when staff (and parents) reached out to ask me how I am and offer support. 

3. Make Hobbies and Interests a Priority

Hobbies and interests may seem a low priority at the moment, but it is actually more important than ever that you allow yourself to have interests outside of work, especially if these allow you to connect with others. When stress places us in a fight or flight response, we feel less creative or open to new experiences, so we need to view these as essential to our wellbeing and be deliberate in ensuring that we pursue interests outside of school, if only for an hour a week. During the first period of working from home in Hong Kong, earlier this year, I made a jacket, which I worked on late each evening when the emails and WhatsApps abated. In order to seek support in this endeavour, I joined a number of sewing groups on Facebook and took great pleasure each evening, not only sewing but reaching out to more experienced sewers to ask for advice. I found myself eagerly anticipating this time arriving each day and became aware of the joy it was bringing and the good it was doing. 

4. Build Support Networks with Other School Leaders

Reaching out to colleagues outside of your own school is a key way to receive support and gain perspective. In my research, networking with senior colleagues in other schools, meeting socially to swap stories, empathise and offer advice was a real lifeline for many participants. In both Germany and Hong Kong, we had strong principals’ networks, which were not only a valuable source of information but helped keep me sane during tough times. It is reassuring to reach out to others who share a similar experience and realise that you are not alone in your struggle. Reaching out to former colleagues through Zoom is also a great way to stay connected to others.

If you can offer support to others then let them know. I try to make sure that I am available to former colleagues around the world and feel privileged when they reach out to me for support. 

5. Professional Coaching

In my opinion, all senior leaders should be provided with a professional coach. While this practice is becoming more widespread, it is still rare. Professional coaches can provide a buffer against hard times for any leader, no matter how experienced, and can provide a valuable safety net to those who are most isolated. Whilst expensive, the benefits far outweigh the costs and the provision of regular executive coaching should become part of every school leader’s contract.  I have coached many educators and leaders and have seen the benefits first hand. I have also sought the support of a counsellor on work-related matters on two occasions, once at the very start of my leadership career and once last year when I was diagnosed with burnout. It is hard to express the value of finding space to discuss your struggles with a professional and gaining new perspective. 

If you do not have a professional coach then ask if one can be provided or the costs reimbursed. If you are a Head of School or Principal, make contact with an executive coaching agency and negotiate a package for yourself and your senior colleagues. 

4. Rest and Recover

Lack of rest and time to recover from the daily onslaught of demands and challenges renders us more likely to be lonely and isolated. Studies show that lack of sleep causes social withdrawal, making people feel more lonely and less social around other people. Researchers also found that well-rested people observing sleep-deprived individuals rated them as less socially desirable. Rest, relaxation and sleep may seem low priority if you are desperately struggling to keep a head above water in the current crisis but you cannot expect to combat feelings of isolation, or be effective in your role if you are not well-rested. Leaders need relaxation, sleep and recovery time. This means taking time out during the working day to recover, taking a break on during evenings and weekends and taking proper holidays where you can completely reboot. 

If you notice that your senior colleagues are becoming exhausted and are reluctant to take breaks, gently encourage them to take better care of themselves. I once witnessed one of my middle leaders arriving home from school at 8pm. When I asked her about this, it became apparent that it was a regular occurrence and upon closer examination, I became aware that she was not taking care of herself and was close to burnout. It was hard to persuade her to work less and focus on her own needs as she was too close to the situation to realise its potential seriousness. With the help of another colleague we were able to support her and bring her back to a better balance. 

Loneliness is one of greatest public health challenges of our time, with damage to long-term health as significant as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. For many school leaders, isolation is real and may be impacting their ability to lead effectively as well as having long-term health consequences. Even for those not leading alone, stress can precipitate loneliness as stress hormones shutdown our natural social mechanisms. The isolation that school leaders experience should never be minimised or accepted as just being part of the job, especially during the current crisis, where the challenges of leading alone, or feeling alone, may more easily overwhelm people as so much is expected of them. It is possible to overcome loneliness but it requires a determined effort. Social connection should be viewed as a basic human need, vital to our short and long term health. There is no easy route out of loneliness but even small steps taken to interact with others and feel connected can make a huge difference.

Pivot

Schools have adapted very well to the logistics of the current pandemic. Congratulations. Masks, hallway directions, temp checks, social distancing. New timetables.

Now for the hard part.

What are we going to promise about the learning? Continued excellence in the IB and AP? Reading and writing above grade level? Ivy leagues?

I, for one, do not want to be the violinist on the deck of the Titanic. I know many of us don’t either.

I’m not talking about lowering expectations. I’m talking about tuning into the importance of what learning is and how we define it.

My definition of learning is simply what happens when prior experience is disrupted by new knowledge, experience or information . That’s it.

Last weekend, my son and I went on a long bike ride in the Croatian countryside (he’s trapped with us doing virtual University and eating us out of house and home). We got a flat. I haven’t had a flat in months. We didn’t have an extra tube or a pump. We were in a village. A kindly old couple came out to help. We switched one of the tires so I could ride 35k to fetch the car. They offered him roasted chicken and potatoes while he waited. He refused since they invited him inside and weren’t wearing masks. (I would have taken my chances). But I digress. Today we went out on another ride, pump and tube in hand, got another flat, and fixed it in 15 minutes. #learning.

Last week, a teacher was almost crying in my office, pleading with questions about how she was going to maintain current expectations in a hybrid virtual environment. “Isn’t learning whatever we make it?” she said. “Why have we made it some immovable object that we have to reach no matter what is going on?” I touched my hand to my mask (even though it’s probably not sanitary). She was right. The world is being forced to pivot, not just with the obvious things like social distancing, but with deeper things that we care about, that we learn about, that make us human.

So, what should this mean? The only example I could think of was the stool (and apologies if it’s a tired metaphor). If we knock one leg out, let’s call it mathematical logic or reading comprehension or science labs, then what happens? Can we drag one of the legs over to replace it? It’s still two legs. Can we replace it? Yes, but that takes a lot of time and we don’t have that option right now. Do we lean it against the wall? Maybe, but you can’t sit on it that well. That’s right, the stool is weak and cannot meet its intended purpose. In other words, this new experience is forcing us to think about the purpose of that two legged stool.

This is us. The two legged stool.

We have obviously been disrupted and I’m thinking that the leg that got knocked out is academic excellence. The two legs left that I’m looking at are socio-emotional learning and community. Those are the things that we all talk about on our websites but rarely do much about. After all, parents never yell at us for not succeeding in those things.

It’s time to pivot. It’s time to pivot to the disruption and take learning from that, not from whether or not 10th graders can solve a statistical analysis problem. Sure, that’s a nice distraction. What is also a distraction is the incalcuable stress, heartache, loneliness, boredom, sadness, and disconnectedness that is clouding learning.

It’s time to pivot. To community. To what makes us human. To what kids care about. To what they need. To what legs on the stool are left so that they can learn. Because if we deny this and pretend that all three legs are still there, it’s going to hurt when we hit the floor.

Setting the Tone

So last Thursday we had our virtual Open House event in the Lower School, and with that last puzzle piece we successfully opened up the new school year. It’s surreal to think that we’ve been in school for almost a month, and in many ways it’s been a whirlwind of uncertainty, patience and flexibility. Mixed in with that however, has been a heavy dose of inspiration and purpose, as there seems to be an added sense of urgency this year with all that is going on in the world. 

Honestly, I think setting the tone for a strong start was more important than ever this year, using that heavy dose of urgent purpose to set goals that are transformational not just for the kids and community, but for our world as well…and we’ve done just that. 2020 is throwing all that it can at us these days, and with the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg over the weekend, one of our world’s most incredible and inspiring humans, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. There has never been a more important time to go beyond the regular and ordinary, and to use the events in our world to drive us all to action. 

The world is changing right in front of our eyes on a daily basis, and deep within that change is hope, and promise, and beauty. We need to use these difficult times to engage our students and community in the things that really matter. Things like diversity, equity, and inclusion…things like environmental stewardship and positive change-making, and of course, things like community, relationship building, and student ownership. 

Of course, setting these goals as a school and community is an important first step, but now comes the real work…the follow through, where we commit to this work each and every day. We’ve had a wonderful start, and just like Mark Twain says in the quote below, “the secret to getting ahead is getting started”. With the successful first month behind us it is time to keep this sense of urgency and purpose alive in our day to day interactions with our kids. Like I’ve been saying, we are super fortunate to be back face to face with our students, and we can’t for one day take that for granted.

You never know what 2020 will throw at us in the coming months so we need to do everything that we can while we can. I’ll leave you with some beautiful words from the Notorious RBG, as a reminder of what is really important in the world these days…”If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself. Something to repair tears in your community. Something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is – Living not for oneself, but for one’s community”. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. 

Quote of the Week…

The secret to getting ahead is getting started.

-Mark Twain

Inspiring Videos – 

Electrician Repairs a Life

Fish Chair Tattoo

The Notorious RBG

Related Articles – 

The Power of Relationships in Schools

Why It Matters

Start the School Year Strong

Building Relationships

It’s Time to Reconnect

On the Basis of Sex: A Tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The death of Ruth Bader comes as a shock to me, of course, because the world lost yet another powerful, inspiring, courageous and independent women. But it also comes as a shock because of the shenanigans about her death. Don’t read this wrong! What I mean is, I am grateful and thankful that Ruth Bader lived 87 years; I am thankful that she spoke on behalf of millions of women and gave us all the courage and direction to speak up against injustice. But I am absolutely not happy or thankful that the world only thought of remembering her on the day she died, to be honest, it took us 87 years to make her the headlines globally; or discuss her on every social media page, to share her incredible achievements on television channels and print media. I am not trying to take away from the accolades that she earned or the honour that she deserved and received, I am only trying to articulate that we should have celebrated her every day; reminding, inspiring and liberating women from the boundaries created by society On the Basis of Sex and here the word sex means gender, if you misunderstood, it is time for you to reflect on how much cognitive dissonance we have due to the way we are educated. Another truth that bothers me the most is why do we only celebrate women after they have passed. Be it Mother Teresa, Ruth Bader, Lady Diana, Maya Angelou, and the list can go on…


Recently when the movie On the Basis of Sex was released, I was discussing it with my grade 12 students, they revealed that they had not ever heard of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, never seen her picture on social media nor seen any youtube videos about her. I was shocked and stunned. Where are we going wrong as educators? Even when we are free to design our own curriculum, we do not include independent, inspiring powerful stories of women who made it easier for us to live a better life. We celebrate sportsmen, film stars, politicians, fashion icons who probably have not made as much impact as a woman who graduated from Cornell, got into Harvard Law School, transferred to Columbia Law School and taught at Rutgers Law School. The impact of Ruth Bader’s work is undeniable and yet we ignore it. For a woman, it takes so many academic credentials to be heard. Or it is only required as it is a woman who is trying to be heard. I wish we had the opportunity to listen to her more; talked about her achievements more and maybe voted for her to be President. But we did not, we only truly remembered her at the very end of 87 years. This is what bothers me the most.

So what did we learn On the Basis of Sex? Here are a few quotes from various interviews of Ruth Bader that are very inspiring.

“My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.”

This quote is so beautiful, especially for women who struggle to be their own person; who have negative body image; who have low self-esteem; who are discriminated on the basis of colour; who are discriminated on the basis of gender. It is time to drop the baggage of trying to live up to the terms and conditions dictated by a patriarchal society. I interpret it in a very simple way, just be independent of all false expectations, only then can women truly discover themselves and their superpowers.

“So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune.”

This quote is so inspiring as it teaches us to look for opportunities in challenges and to change our perspective on hurdles. Women have the superpower of turning the tide, even though we revere a few men who changed the course of the tide, we forget about the millions of women who do this every day at work and at home. Many woman risk dangers like sexual abuse, gender discrimination, domestic violence and yet find a way out of it to survive, turning every impediment into working solutions. This needs to be celebrated, even acknowledging this never give up attitude will be a great start

“Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”

This quote touches me the most. For a privileged few, like me, who can discuss gender discrimination on an open platform, we need to congratulate the men in our lives for sharing the responsibility of raising the next generation. But for the rest, the basic human right of gender equality has to be taught. As I always keep reinforcing, education is a game-changer, educators are the catalyst for a positive change, educate both our boys and girls about gender equality in order to share the responsibility of the planet.

“Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”

This final quote says it all, after facing personal and professional challenges, Ruth Bader continued to campaign for women rights without being rude or disrespectful. Taking inspiration from this attitude we must teach students to react appropriately and respectfully to different perspectives especially when it is different from their own.

In summary, Ruth Bader’s life should be used as an example; in the age of instant gratification we need to teach students to persevere, never give up and respect each individual for who they are, not for whom we want them to be. That would be a true tribute to Ruth’s sacrifice, courage and excellent work through the past 87 years and many more years to come as her legacy.

Let her spirit of fighting against discrimination never Rest In Peace!

Leading Through the Pandemic: Is an Epidemic of COVID Burnout Awaiting our School Leaders?

A year ago, at the start of the 2019-20 school year, I took the decision to retire from work at the end of the year, at the age of 56. I feel no shame in admitting that 15 years as a senior leader in international schools has taken its toll on me. In May 2019, I suffered some health problems that were exacerbated by stress and I was also diagnosed with an occupational burnout, a condition now recognised by the World health Organisation as an industrial disease. I missed the end of the school year 2018-19 due to ill health but felt confident that after 9 weeks away from school, I would return ready and robust. I was wrong. A month into the new school year, I had a headache that would not go away and ongoing chest pain, despite taking medication to address this. I suffered a panic attack in my office and thought I was having a heart attack. It was very frightening both for me and my colleagues. It was at this point that I knew I had to retire from my role and take time to focus on my health and happiness. 

Of course in September 2019, none of us knew what was round the corner. In Hong Kong, schools were grappling with the complex problem solving that came with the pro-democracy protests taking place across the city. Senior leadership teams were having to decide whether and when to open or close on an almost daily basis as situations flared up unpredictably. For many weeks, we were tasked with keeping our staff and students safe and addressing their fears and anxieties. At the time, we had no idea that this was a dress rehearsal for the challenges of leading a school through a global pandemic. 

COVID 19 hit Hong Kong before most of the rest of the world. It came from nowhere, during the Chinese New year Holiday and we had no time to prepare before the government declared that we would not be returning to school after the break. Every school leader has their own story of how the last 9 months have unfolded and impacted on their community. The situation remains ongoing, with no idea of when things may return to normal. Leaders in many parts of the world are contending with another extended period of online learning, while colleagues elsewhere are trying to find ways to bring staff and students into school safely, to allow for face to face learning. None of this is easy and school leaders face enormous challenges on an unprecedented scale. 

I am contacted on almost a daily basis by former colleagues and friends around the world who want to share their struggles of leading schools through this difficult time. Many seek advice on how to deal with the complex situations they find themselves in, others just need to vent or talk things through. Many have not had a proper summer break and a chance to fully rest and recuperate from the challenges of the spring and early summer. There has been no slow start to this year, with a chance to gradually ease into things. Instead, complex problem solving began on Day 1 or for some even before the official end of the summer break. There has been no chance to capitalise on the sense of well being and increased energy levels normally experienced in August. By September, tanks are already running low for many.

One thing my former colleagues and friends agree on is that I chose the right time to retire. COVID 19 has made an already tough job even more challenging. The expectations placed upon school leaders have always been unrealistic but leaders attempt to navigate them with absolute dedication and commitment to their roles. Some thrive, most survive, some battered and bruised by the experience, others fall by the wayside defeated, like myself.  Leading during a highly unpredictable, global health and economic crisis, however, requires next level skills and superhuman levels of resilience if it is not to take a personal toll on the physical and mental health of our leaders, most of whom are quite prepared to sacrifice themselves for the good of their students and staff.

If school leaders put the welfare of their community first then who is taking care of them? Who has the responsibility for ensuring that heads of school, principals, vice principals and other senior leaders do not burn out? Strictly speaking, boards of governors are responsible for the wellbeing of their heads and heads are responsible for the wellbeing of their team. I have spent the last 8 years researching, presenting and consulting in the field of school leader wellbeing and during this time I have learned that the majority of boards do not take their role in this regard seriously, while heads of school, many of whom are well intentioned, do not have time or energy to focus upon the emotional and physical needs of their team. 

So where does this leave our senior leaders? In an ideal world, heads of school will ensure opportunities are found to address the wellbeing issues of their team, establish new routines and provide time and resources such as leadership coaching, counselling or resilience training to help address growing needs. If this does not happen, then the best we can hope for is that senior leaders will themselves feel emboldened to raise the issue of their wellbeing and request that their needs are supported. Another option is for leadership teams to come together to identify the challenges they face and provide space for each other to discuss the toll it may be taking on them and provide support. This approach requires leaders to be honest about their vulnerabilities, however, something that does not come easily to many. Fear of humiliation prevents many from owning up to their frailties but failing to acknowledge and provide for the wellbeing needs of senior leaders from the start of the year will result in many leaders pouring from an empty cup as the crisis further develops. 

It is time for schools to accept that their leaders are their most precious resource during a crisis and a leader’s wellbeing should be managed carefully like any other major resource. If schools can provide access to external support resources or establish support networks within and between schools, they will weather the storm better than those who batten down the hatches and face the challenges alone. 

Being vulnerable and seeking and receiving support will enable leaders to emerge on the other side of this crisis stronger and more resilient than donning a red cape and charging into battle alone. 

Time for Action: Reaching Unity in Diversity

I am sitting in a room surrounded by fellow teachers and administrators, mindful of our physical distance. A grin on my face, not because we just successfully concluded our fifth week of classes. Rather, I am tickled by the irony.

Distanced, we discuss “togetherness.”

More specifically, intercultural competencies was to be the focus of our dialogue. I felt privileged to have the time and space to converse openly because so critical is the work that needs to be done. As part of an international school, one that clearly is not American-centric, we must first consider our context. With students and faculty cultures representing more than sixty nations, there is credence in remaining cognizant of the influences of the host country culture. Possibly the country power structures may even be more hierarchically structured than egalitarian. Furthermore, it would be remiss to not acknowledge the large degree of diversity representative in the range of people’s experiences and quite possibly, readiness to reflect on privilege, equality, and oppression.

Over the summer I wrote an article titled, “An Authentic Response to Take Action.” In it I ask, “Might 2020 be the nascence of more leadership from the heart. Passion hangs heavy in the air, as people imagine a tomorrow they long to live in. Changes bent on solutions, not blame, as millions get down on bended knee in silent protest.” The protests have not abated, if anything they have grown more intense. All this amidst an uncontrolled pandemic and under apocalyptic skies of the Wetern United States. In this same post I introduced Safaa Abdelmagid and her open letter to SEARCH Associates published on June 8. In it she concludes, “Do better, Search Associates, much much better. Start by being honest…Own your privilege and use it to serve those who truly deserve it.” For context, this was but three days after the tragic death of George Floyd.

Then, August 26 The Search Associates Team and CEO Jessica Magagna, responded with their own letter. Addressed, “Dear Search Associates Community,” Magagna cites “tangible actions and evidence of change.” A move beyond awareness and to greater responsibility. Clear points outlined by a 3-section plan, where actions are determined immediate, by the end of December 2020, and by the end of March 2021.

The school where I am employed endeavors to determine measurable action points as well. Thankfully, we too were challenged, most notably by alumni, as they shared their experiences and offered suggestions. The conversations with this invaluable group will continue.

There is much work to be done. The issues do not begin, nor end with race. The move is to reflect, take ownership, and become far more inclusive. So our school, the people but also the systems, are more fully equitable to all cultures; be they defined racially, linguistically, by gender, sexual-preference, or ability. Schools must take a stand. Furthermore, akin to SEARCH associates, a degree of poise but also power must be established. A power which links us as human beings. Our minds simply will not think the way out of this. Our hearts are to play a key role as we feel our way into a reality so many have felt, for so long.

The good news is, the iGen or Generation Z, consistently proves itself to be more accepting of differences than previous generations. It is us educators but moreover the institutions and broader cultures that need to “catch up.” A sensible starting point is to begin by having these long overdue conversations, determining our priorities.

Mahatma Gandhi advised us well when he said. “Action expresses priorities. Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization” The time for action is yesterday.

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.