Turkey and Gratitude

So I’m still bloated from last night’s American Thanksgiving celebration (thank you Meagan and Mike), and even though I’m Canadian, I have to admit that I still love helping my neighbors to the south put away all that yummy turkey and pumpkin pie. What I really love about this time of the year however, is the opportunity that the weekend affords us all (even if we’re not American) to reflect, give thanks, and be grateful for all that we have in our lives. I was thinking a lot about this as I was driving home last night, and I came to an acute realization that what we have created as a school over the past few years for our students and for each other is something truly special. I want to take the opportunity this week to say a special thank you to each and every one of you for being so outstanding for our students, and for each other. I want you all to know how grateful I am to be working alongside such committed and passionate educators, and how inspired I am to come to work everyday because of the people that you are. I’m grateful for the smiles and laughter that you bring to the job…..I’m grateful for the complete focus that you give to our students and their learning……I’m grateful for how hard you work to not only help each and every one of our students be successful, but also for how hard you work to grow and improve as educators each and every day……and I’m grateful that we have cultivated a common purpose when it comes to the vision that we have for our kids and for our community.

Because international schools are such transient environments, and because I know that next year’s faculty make-up will look a lot different than this year’s with a few of us moving on to new adventures, I want to remind you not to take this year for granted. What we have right now as a collective team is pretty special in my opinion, and I want you all to take a moment today to be grateful, and thankful for the pleasure and opportunity that we all have to share our days with each other and our kids. We might never again be in a place as professionals where we’re surrounded by so many world class educators (although I’ll never stop trying to recreate this current mix), so take some time to look around and take it all in. Take this first week of December (before the mad rush of summative assessments and reports and holiday concerts and comment writing) to tell your colleagues how grateful you are for them, and how thankful you are to be sharing in their lives…..tell our students too! The year is flying by as it usually does, and before we know it this special gift of a year will be a memory……make it truly count. Enjoy this beautiful poem by one of my favorite Canadian writers, and please enjoy the final day of this fantastic American Thanksgiving weekend. Have a fantastic week everyone and remember to be great for our student and grateful for each other.

Gratitude – Lucy Maud Montgomery

I thank thee, friend, for the beautiful thought
That in words well chosen thou gavest to me,
Deep in the life of my soul it has wrought
With its own rare essence to ever imbue me,
To gleam like a star over devious ways,
To bloom like a flower on the dreariest days­
Better such gift from thee to me
Than gold of the hills or pearls of the sea.

For the luster of jewels and gold may depart,
And they have in them no life of the giver,
But this gracious gift from thy heart to my heart
Shall witness to me of thy love forever;
Yea, it shall always abide with me
As a part of my immortality;
For a beautiful thought is a thing divine,
So I thank thee, oh, friend, for this gift of thine.

Quote of the Week………
If you are really thankful, what do you do? You share.
– W. Clement Stone

TED Talk – David Steindl-Rast
Article – Gratitude Can Fuel School Transformation (thanks Melinda)
The Science of Happiness – An Experiment in Gratitude
Expanding Gratitude –
Gratitude Power –




“Only the educated are free.” 


To honor a day that should be less about consumption and more about gratitude. To the teachers who we are given, who we find and who accompany us along the way:

Thank you John Dewey for framing the conversation more than century ago.

Thank you Lucy Sprague Mitchell for guiding us towards the natural geography of learning where children explore and map and reconstruct the world.

Thank you Myles Horton for the faith in humanity and the connectedness between education, social justice and living democratically.

Thank you Paul Goodman for iconoclasm and passion. We haven’t banned cars from New York yet but nearly every neighborhood has a green market.

Thank you Herb Kohl and Maxine Greene, for wide awakeness and for being lights in the darkest of times.

Thank you John Hamlin, Barnard School for Boys, 1968 for risking your job in challenging us to use our freedom well and take the responsibility for learning.

Thank you Mark Blecher, Barnard School for Boys, for risking your job to engage us in history for the first time and the one that was swirling around us in the cities of America, 1969.

Thank you Mrs Kirkcules, for letting me come out of my 8 year old shell and stand on the desk, stove top hat and improvise the Gettysburg address as Abe Lincoln.

Thank you Leon Botstein for showing me what scholarship looks like.

Thank you mom, for the gift of kindness.

Thank you dad, for the guile of Odysseus and the gift of generosity.

Thank you to my grandparents for teaching me everything I ever needed to know about life at the aluminum card table in your kitchens.

Thank you Pablo Neruda, Garcia Lorca, Jose Marti, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, ee Cummings, for celebrating the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Thank you Luis Armstrong, Duke, Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ella and Nina and Sarah and Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder for awakening in me the joyous, blues soaked history of America.

Thank you Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Eric Anderson, Phil Ochs, The Beatles, The Band, The Stones, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nero and Bruce Springsteen for music with conscience, and music with humor, to be played in a car with the windows wide open.

Thank you life— and to all my teachers—for giving me this one chance at immortality.

Winter Break: International Teaching Style

One of the most amazing things about international teaching is the ability to travel. Most families budget specifically just for travel. When Jamie and I moved overseas, we saved about $5000 a year by not having to pay for gasoline. Additionally, house payments, health insurance, and utility costs were suddenly zero.

With more disposable income and now living overseas, it became our goal to travel as much as possible.  Our first winter break overseas, we spent 3 weeks touring Thailand (Bangkok, Chang Mai, and Koh Chang). Our Christmas dinner was some delicious Thai food on a beach restaurant that just about caught our mouth on fire.  We woke up at 3:30 am to Skype our parents as we tried to find the best wifi signal.  I’m sure many international school families have similar stories.

We go home about every other winter break, especially when our calendar allows for 3 weeks.  One particular trip, we spent 3 weeks traveling to southeast China, Laos, and Thailand. The highlight of the China portion of the trip was a 10 hours of hiking to Tiger Leaping Gorge. I spent Christmas that year in a small hostel in Dali sick as a dog from food poisoning from a “pizza” at a local restaurant.  That cheese sure did taste funny at the time, but the carolers staying at the hostel sound nice out of my bedroom window. Our 2nd week was spent in Laos after a 36 hour bus ride from China into Laos.  It was a sleeper bus, so it wasn’t too bad.  Interesting, it was freezing in China, hot in Laos, and our third week of the vacation was spent in business clothes interviewing for jobs in Bangkok, Thailand.  Certainly a trip of a lifetime.

I keep saying that phrase, but the longer I’m overseas, I realize these trips aren’t trips of a lifetime, they are your life!

This winter break, we had scheduled a trip for Germany to check out the Christmas markets and all Germany has to offer over the holidays.  Due to Jamie expecting on December 6, that trip has now been cancelled for bigger and better things with the birth our our 2nd son.

My coworkers have trips planned to just about all corners of the globe and the diversity of my students means that their holidays will be well traveled as well.  Many teachers go home to visit family over the holidays, but a good many do take time to travel somewhere interesting.  Many in the Middle East either head to beaches of southeast Asia or the snowy wonderlands of Europe for winter break.

Like any teacher, winter break is a time for family, friends, and resting from a hectic fall semester of school. Unlike most teachers, international school teachers have the opportunity to make their winter breaks into something of which even Santa Clause would be jealous.


How to get an international teaching job

1) Skip the job fairs: I won’t make any friends in the business by saying this, but it is true. They can crush your soul and make you feel like livestock, not a professional. You are not at your best and have to make hasty decisions in a very short time frame. Turkey? Russia? Japan? You have two hours to decide.

Some of the best teachers I hired were outside the fairs.

Visit the web sites of the schools you want to work at and apply directly. If they are working with an agency that sponsors a job fair, see if you can interview with them before the fairs. Offer to visit the school at your own expense if it comes down to it, depending on how far away it is. You will have their undivided attention and will be your best self.

2) Create a digital portfolio. This is critical for a 21st century educator.
Weebly is a nice site but there are millions. Have a well produced video of yourself teaching with a video of your personal reflection of your teaching style. It’s the digital age. We shouldn’t have to guess what you’re like in the classroom. We should be able to see it. Throw in a couple of interviews with students as an extra bonus.

3) Be honest with yourself. I know you really want to live in the Swiss Alps because it is just so beautiful. I fell for that one too. You need to stay focused on why you got into this business, what you do really well, and whether that is going to flourish at the school you’re trying to get into. Focus your message on that and it will show in the interview. Don’t worry, you’ll know a match when it comes.

4) Review the school’s strategic plans and governance. Many schools have the SP on their web site
and it is the most valuable piece of data for determining where a school is and where it wants to go. If you can see yourself as part of the plan then develop some talking points around them. If not, maybe it’s not the school for you. Understand who runs the school and how. Everyone from families to corporations run international schools. Make sure you are comfortable with who is calling the shots.

5) Visit the school during the ‘off season.’ As a principal, I always welcome potential teachers “travelling through” on their break. (I have even been known to give some ski passes for the day). You’d be surprised how many administrators would love to meet with you, even if there are no openings at the time. You will have their full attention, be able to check out the school without the pressures of interviewing, and likely be the first one they call when that opening comes up.

Bon Chance

We All Play a Part

So this week I’d like to talk a little bit about distributive leadership, and how if the right people are placed in the right places, and empowered to lead, then a division will pretty much run itself. I just spent a week out of the country on a school visit to South America, and while I was gone our Middle School didn’t miss a beat. To be honest, I felt a tiny bit redundant and I now wonder (only half jokingly) if they need me around at all anymore! We’ve done such a nice job over the past few years, in my opinion, of creating a leadership structure which allows educators to find their areas of passion, and to truly take on a leadership role in a position that suits their specific area of expertise. This not only gives educators a real sense of purpose beyond their regular classroom responsibilities, it also allows for people to take ownership of what we are collectively trying to accomplish for our kids……I find myself wondering how we functioned at all before we had this structure in place!

If I look around (which I did at the end of last week), I notice that every one of our teachers in the Middle School play a tremendously important leadership role (or in a few cases more than one), which directly affects the day to day educational experience of our students in a positive way . Currently we have leadership positions for teachers in the following areas…….and I think it’s a beautiful thing:

9 Heads of Department/Curriculum leaders
3 Grade Level leaders
1 Head of Service Learning
1 Head of our House System
2 Heads of each of our 5 Specific Houses
1 Head of our National Junior Honors Society
2 Heads of the Student Leadership Council
1 Head of our Student Run Television Program

We also have educators who are in charge of technology, ESOL, student support, activities/athletics, our advisory/pastoral care program, and more……it’s fair to say that we all play an equally important role in the success of our Middle School and our students, and that each of us has an area where we authentically LEAD. It took some time to get these positions up and running, and it took just as long to get the right people in the right places and truly owning their roles…..but now that our structure is tight, and we all feel empowered and valued and that we are all contributing in our own specific way, our Middle School has become a fine tuned machine. The best part about this for me as a Principal, is that it has allowed me to focus and spend my time on the parts of my job that really need my attention, like the students and student learning…..what a feeling! Anyway, as we speed toward the end of the first semester, I want to thank you all for your leadership, and for being such strong role models and mentors to our kids. Have a fantastic week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week……..
The most important thing going forward is to break the boundaries between people so we can operate as a single intelligence – Albert Einstein

Attachment #1 – Leadership is in the Conversation (Marshall Memo) Leadership is a Conversation
Attachment #2 A Wallace Foundation Report on Leadership (Marshall Memo) A Wallace Foundation Report on Effective Principals

Articles and Websites…..

Mind the Gap









(Crossposted on http://literacybytes.com/)

There is so much going on right now in schools and education in general. My strategy for coping with the onslaught is to sit down and make a plan. Larger than a to do list, more refined than a hopes and dreams paragraph, a good plan reaches for the stars while laying out “the build” or how to get from Point A to Point B. It helps me mind the gap between what is happening now and where I’m trying to head.

Often the biggest complaint I hear from teachers is that there isn’t enough time. I understand that. I feel the same. Especially if we are thinking of using our time to create, go deep, fully understand and get good at something. However, I think what we’re really feeling is that there isn’t enough time to run from thing to thing and still find the space to do the good stuff. That is what the people I work with- educators in general- want to do, the good BIG work of teaching and learning. It’s why we got into this gig in the first place!

What can we do to ease the feeling of needing to run, run, run while still getting over the gap and on to what is next and maybe more important?

As an administrator, I believe it is my job to control the floodgates and to help keep the unnecessaries or low priorities from gobbling people up. To do that, the organizational leaders need to know and be focused on those vital few top priorities. Three is enough. From there we need to work to make sure everyone gets a chance to focus on those too. As leaders, I believe our job is to hack a path through the grass with our “three top things” machete so everyone else can move through with ease. This is good work for a leadership team. It is playing defense to win the game (always less glamorous than shooting all the shots) but essentially more effective in the long run.

As teachers, I think it is imperative to find and focus on those three big things too. Whether it is dictated by organizational goals or by a personal focus, knowing what is most important and then being able to sink thought and time into it and really get good at doing it… well that might just be a luxury in some schools. The thing is, when the organization is moving quickly and doesn’t have a set sense of priorities; it is difficult for teachers to grow, learn and change while (and this is the important part) keeping up with the day-to-day needs of their students.

As people: parents, spouses, colleagues and friends- I think we need to support each other as we negotiate this world full of work and distractions. I watch my daughter juggling that balance on a daily basis. She can Skype with her best friend Hannah in Shanghai as easily as she can tweet out to her followers about Taylor Swift’s newest song, however she is also still asked to follow the school path of my generation. I don’t see these two aspects of her life as being in opposition exactly, but it does mean she is navigating two ways of work, and that isn’t efficient. When time is of the essence, efficiently moving toward your goals is important. We need to help those around us navigate all that is part of the work now. (Strengthfinders 2.0 being my newest obsession, I wonder if taking the time to develop strengths might ease the need to do it all.)

Instead of being bumped around by all that is out there, it is time to grab on and get going on the most important “three” we can see. Change will take time, of course. But the longer we wait to begin, the larger the gap seems to be growing. It’s one thing to know it’s there; it’s another to be actively working to get across.

Photo Credit: http://preducationblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/mind-the-gap.jpg

Five Keys to Running a Great School

Seventeen years after ceasing my career as an international school head, I am still unpacking the most important lessons I learned. I headed two schools, in very disparate circumstances, for 23 years and would like to share five enduring observations here.

1. First and foremost…

The most critical factor to the success of students in their learning is the quality and effectiveness of the teachers and administrators supporting them. Yet while most educators acknowledge this, agreement on the essential skills and characteristics of highly effective teachers is far from unanimous; the plethora of teacher evaluation programs and techniques attests to this confusion. But the most essential way to address this conundrum is to train administrators and teacher leaders to identify, assess, and develop the essential skills the best teachers should all have in their arsenal.

2. Second and foremost…

The above will not produce a highly talented and effective teaching staff unless administrators also have the courage to confront, honestly and directly, the shortcomings of mediocre and “just OK” teachers. This is the most difficult task, and the most telling factor in the strength and quality of school administrators. Mediocre teachers may be very nice, and very popular, staff members; when this is the case it is especially challenging.

Meanwhile, administrators are perennially concerned about staff morale and inherently committed to the best possible relations with their teaching staff. The pursuit of popularity and staff approval can greatly inhibit the effective human resource decisions of principals and school heads. This raises the essential question: is their primary commitment to maximizing the learning of their students, or to promoting the most auspicious relations with staff, and overall staff morale?” The former goal should clearly prevail, as difficult as that may be. But so often in many good schools, substantial time, resources, and training efforts are committed to bringing the skills of sub-par teachers up to an acceptable level, when replacement with superior teachers would clearly better promote the learning of their students.

While a difficult choice, doing the right thing in these circumstances can actually promote the pride and the morale of a school’s teachers. They need to understand and sign on to the maintenance of high standards, and to see a clear process of evaluation that is characterized by procedural integrity.

Effective school leaders can cultivate the belief and conviction that highly effective teachers positively affect every member of staff through a strong record of learning and student development; the recognition of parents and the community; and the morale of students who appreciate their effective teachers. It is also possible to get union representatives committed to the goal of retaining only highly effective teachers, and we did this at WBAIS in Israel.

3. Think “student activities”

A strong and comprehensive student activities program can reinforce learning by ensuring that students enjoy their favorite activities; this may include many sports, but goes far beyond them. Many international schools, being the de facto community center for expatriate families, set a standard that far exceeds what most nations’ public schools can provide.

Students need to have activities they believe are fun and responsive to their needs and interests. Some schools create programs in martial arts, quilting, cooking, painting, or any other pursuit in which at least 10 students have an interest. Most international schools are beehives of activity in the after school hours, and often into the evenings. As in every enterprise, the busiest and most engaged students are often the ones who perform best in the learning arena.

4. Professionally, you get what you develop for

Schools that strongly promote the professional development of their staff, together with career ladders that capitalize on special skills and leadership potential, are most likely to attract and to retain a dynamic and effective cadre of educators.
This is a proposition that the most prominent and effective international schools acknowledge and pursue, and the impact can be enormous. Random grants and mere budgeting for professional development will not have the desired impact.

In my experience, a key approach to developing a strong, committed, and effective cadre of teachers involves tapping their skills and interests in projects outside their classroom. Many dynamic teachers have leadership qualities and aspirations; by cultivating and supporting their interests, through administrative assignments, coaching other teachers, or developing programs they want to experiment with, a wise administrator can foster a dynamic working environment and the continued development of key staff members.

In my longest tenure as a head, at WBAIS in Israel, over half of the staff was engaged in administrative or educational projects such as Model UN, English language instruction for local residents, coordinating after-school programs, monitoring interns, chairing departments (with concrete learning objectives), coaching colleagues, public relations programs, alumni programs, etc. These services were either paid for by contract, or included as one fifth of their workload, thereby teaching one less class. This was one of the most successful endeavors our school enjoyed.

When we developed an annual school retreat and professional training program, for two or three days and in some unique location, a committee of five to seven teachers conceived, developed, and coordinated the entire program. They came to realize how challenging and complicated it is to mount an educational retreat. Most found it a highly rewarding experience, and developed some healthy respect for the challenges encountered by administrators.

5. It’s all about expectations

The most basic constant in my experience, in terms of promoting strong student performance, is setting and enforcing high standards of performance for students. Students should be challenged in their work, and all assessments should be based on clear standards and objectives. No student who is just coasting should be receiving high, or even acceptable, grades. Students and parents need to be informed of these expectations, and the reason for them. The higher they are set (within reason of course), the stronger student performance will be. It is that simple!

This can be challenging, especially for hard-working students who have managed straight As in their previous schools. I recall a heavily decorated army colonel angrily confronting our then principal at ECA Caracas (Bambi Betts) when his high-achieving daughter got two B grades on her report card. “What do you think your school is,” he roared, “some kind of educational Mecca?” Bambi Betts answered, “As a matter of fact, yes!”

I know that many other new approaches to promoting stronger schools and better student learning have since emerged. One new key is the development of comprehensive assessment strategies. Online learning also seems to me to offer a clear path to more and more effective student learning. And the identification and development of other types, and sources, of intelligence can be profound. I leave these new pursuits to the currently engaged teachers and administrators, who are in many international schools the real trendsetters for more effective learning by all.

The Paradox of International Schools


Wordle the mission statements of international schools and I am sure you will see wonderful patterns like the one above espousing the virtues of educating young people in a globalized environment of interdisciplinary responsibility, innovation and compassion.

Then visit one.

I am not going to make the point that schools are not living their missions. That is unfair since I have only visited dozens of perhaps thousands of such institutions. Please allow me to elaborate on the last word choice in that sentence.


I recently had a conversation with a panel from one of the best international schools in the world. Large in scope. Ambitious in numbers. Multi-campus, well-funded, idyllic location, superior teaching resources. They had it all. The glorious mission statement was a mosaic of whole child ideology sprinkled with the virtues of holistic learning and community. It was poetry.

Then came the questions about performance, standards, and college. And it got me to thinking. What was their mission? What were they expecting me to do when and if I got the position? I soon found out when I made the offhand remark that not everyone could get into Cornell. I was corrected by one on the panel who said, “You mean Harvard.”

So, here’s the paradox: You will not realize your mission as long as you base its fulfillment on the singular indicator of college entrance. It is an explicit outcome that ties the hands of every international school to meet the demands of its clients, to indicate levels of “success” and to demonstrate to one another that we are, in fact, able to keep up with the competition. Performance based on college acceptance is a large shadow that has not changed in nearly a hundred years but continues to be the keystone that gives us legitimacy. What about the mountain of data that continues to demonstrate that this outcome is no longer the key to success, let alone the fulfillment of our missions? Yes, it’s the best we’ve got for now. No, college dropouts don’t always become Bill Gates.

Then why do we continue to produce these lofty mission statements that satiate our 21st century ambitions to appear relevant and fresh when our actual mission hasn’t changed in decades? Dare I say that this clearly defined, though not explicit outcome, is holding us back?

Is it time to stop pretending that we are being innovative and revolutionary in our multi-cultural global citizenry when we all really have one mission statement that we are all fighting over?

Get as many kids as we can into the best colleges possible. So clean. So simple. I feel better already.

It’s a difficult paradox. I know. Not everyone is going to Cornell. I mean, that other place.

Your Mission Statement in November


So, how’s that global citizen, creative, collaborative, interdisciplinary, inclusive mission statement at the bottom of your web pages doing? Seemed like a good idea when you were writing it during that retreat in the Spring of 2011?

How about now, on November 13, 2013? Are you living it? Dreading it? Resenting it?

November is a hard month no matter what your school setting (unless you just returned from a mid-term break). Public or private international or domestic, it’s a hard month. It’s a month where a lot of people lose perspective, wonder if they can take another year working at their current school, and simply start counting the days to winter holiday. I have had two teachers in the past two weeks go on leave for personal reasons, which obviously adds even more pressure to everyone else. The students are cranky, the school nurses and counselors are at the breaking point, and the parents. Ah yes, the parents.

Stare at the above picture of the Philippines to get some of that perspective back.

We all have lofty missions at our schools. It is your responsibility to listen to the message of your missions in November.

It all looks good when the weather is nice and we are recruiting students, with lots of energy and drive. It’s a lot harder in the dark days of late Fall (depending on your climate and location of course), when it’s not so easy.

Well, I gave my best ‘pep talk’ today to my team to try to retain some of that perspective and to hang in there for each other, for our kids, and for our mission for just a few more weeks. Because if the leadership team loses perspective, then it all goes pear shaped.

So, as I sit back and write this with a bag of ice on the pinched nerve in my neck, (stress induced of course), I ask that you think of how hard it is to live in a part of the world where November is a lot, lot worse. And then maybe do something about it. Live your mission. I have a feeling it will make you forget that you are unhappy.

Workshops Without Power Points

Dear Presenter,

What I am about to suggest is without arrogance or flippancy. Do you think that for your next conference presentation that you could forgo the power points? Ok. No intention to be extreme. A few slides to illustrate but without the infrared pointer and the busy look-a-like slides. Could you just talk with us? Tell us some stories. Or perhaps, even more audaciously, ask us to get out of our seats, move about, and DO something, as human beings are wont to do. What about sparking a dialogue between us? There must be well over 100 years of collective wisdom and insight in this room. How might you tap into it, stir it up, in the same way we are trying to do with our students. Why not step out from the podium, put the mike down, turn off the projector, and challenge us—probe us—provoke us? Don’t you see that we are at risk of drowning in sound bites and recipes? Because we all want to be engaged, and already spend too much time in front of our digital altars to spend three days of that at this conference. We want workshops, think tanks, round tables, seminars. Just no more power points with mixed fonts and Disney like icons of people, bold faced arrows, and screens that fold like venetian blinds. Give us challenges. Unsettle us with problems. Wrest us out of our comfort zones. Deny us our I Pads and Air books. Dispense with the handouts and links— so that we can wrestle with experience and ideas, with real problems and opportunities. Invite us out of our silos so we can look in the eyes of those who surround us and leave the session inspired and enthused, confounded or perplexed. Anything but power point overload. Because education will never evolve if we don’t begin with ourselves and the ways and forms we choose to communicate. There is music in the human voice, and insights in our stories. And all of us know in our hearts, that this is no way to innovate.