The Last American Holiday


When Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, he did so at the height of the American Civil War by inviting fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving. It was a relatively simple proclamation designed to heal the wounds of a nation at war with itself.

Like many of my international colleagues, there are a million versions of how this event has been commemorated, from roasting ostrich to alligator (in a pinch) and everything in between, to hilarious translations of its meaning, the football watching, and the illogic connection to the shopping season. But in spite of the many impromptu interpretations (Thanksgiving fish, really?) the one thing that has always endured is that no commercialism, no travel, or culture can take away the simple act of sharing gratitude.

We got lucky this year.

Without turkeys, television, or turnip, my family and I went on a bike ride in a place really far from the coast of where our relatives live, and we found a way to capture the tradition of giving thanks that grounded us, as it does everyone who is ‘sojourning in foreign lands’ according to Mr. Lincoln.

And so we gave thanks,

To the Buddhist monk who paddled up to us in his canoe at sunrise, accepting our offerings as he said a prayer for peace.

To the man peeling a mountain of coconuts for pennies a day, to feed his family.

To the couple outside a temple who asked us where we were from and laughed with us as we took pictures of one another, each foreigners in a foreign place.

To our guide, who blessed us with his own stories of tradition, family and giving thanks.

To the driver who shared his watermelon.

To the schoolchildren (pictured above) who showed my own children what it means to want a better life, even without computers, swimming pools or climbing walls.

To the man who shared bread with us so that we could feed fish for good luck.

My culture’s taking a beating right now across the board, but this annual Thursday I’m hanging my hat on. So on that day in a far away place, the Thanksgiving fish was fresh, the hands we held were loved, and the gratitude of simple acts reminded us why we are in this international business of trying to make the world a little better.

God bless.

A Gratitude List…

So this past week I spent a lot of time thinking about how much I love being an educator, and about how grateful I am to have found a life’s work that fills me with such passion and purpose and joy. I love getting up and going to school everyday, and if I’m being honest, I don’t quite understand how some people in the world would rather do something else with their lives other than spending their days with kids! Anyway, I decided to put together a non-exhaustive list of the things that I am most grateful for in education, and it is these very things that keep me sprinting to school every morning, and make the happiest educator on the planet. So, here we go…in no particular order, I am truly, truly grateful for…
The Noise – Have you ever taken a few minutes in the day to stop and listen to the white noise of a school? If you haven’t then do it on Monday morning…it might just be the most beautiful sound you’ll ever hear. It’s a constant hum of laughing and learning and failure and success, and teaching and determination and love. One of the best parts of my day is to walk down a hallway and to listen from outside the door to the sounds of kids engaged…or to stand off in the corner of the playground during recess time and listen to the shouts and squeals of happiness, as kids play and make new friends and learn how to fit in…it is definitely music to my ears, and without a doubt, the soundtrack to a beautiful day. 
A Child’s Beauty – Children are the best teachers that any of us could possibly have, and the most beautiful creatures that exist in our world. It is impossible for someone to spend a day with a child and not come away inspired and changed for the better. If you really listen to what children say, and if you take the time to watch them interact with the world, your heart will fill with joy and your smile will stretch across your face. The way they notice the little things in life that we often take for granted, the way that they are constantly curious, the utter joy that spills from their bodies when they learn something new and find a little success, and their imagination, creativity, and willingness to fail and to try, try, try again…wow…there is nothing in our world like the beauty of a child. 
Committed Educators – Teaching is the most noble, honourable and important profession that we have in society, and quality teachers are as close to true and living superheroes that we have in our world. Committed educators are change agents…they are sculptors…they are artists…they are mentors…they are role models, and they are oftentimes under appreciated. No professional works harder than a committed educator in my opinion, with the sole focus and responsibility of moulding their students into leaders for our world, and into empathetic, compassionate, critical thinking, and creative members of our communities. Quality teachers are truly amazing and deserve to be lauded for their tremendous efforts and contributions to the future of our planet. 
The Opportunity – The opportunity that we have as educators is incredible, and the responsibility is immense. The opportunity to re-imagine education and to break free from traditional schooling is in our collective hands, and there is no more exciting time to be an educator than right now. We have the ability to transform how we teach our kids, and how we design and redesign learning spaces, and how we write and deliver curriculum, and how we prepare our students for a rapidly changing world…awesome! We have the opportunity to be courageous and innovative and transformational…let’s seize it!
The Struggle – Watching kids learn, and grow, and fail, and develop is a beautiful struggle, and one that I will never get tired of being a part of. Growing up is hard, and trying to find your way in this world is difficult at the best of times. I love this struggle, and I love each child’s journey into becoming who they will eventually become for our world. They all burn so bright, and their joy and pain is so open and honest and so on display. The struggle is incredible to watch, and it brings you back to that time in your life that shaped who you are. It’ll make you laugh and cry and get frustrated, and it will make you proud…but most importantly it will make you feel, and become a part of something truly special, which is each child’s journey into finding themselves, and their purpose…this struggle is at the core of what is beautiful about education. 
The Constant Learning – Each and every day I learn (and re-learn) something new. Being in classrooms and interacting with students and teachers is a constant learning process that makes me a better person. I learn from my mistakes, I learn from the mistakes of others, and I learn about people and how to best support and challenge them. I learn about current educational trends and research, I learn about what’s being successful in other quality schools, I learn from my outstanding leadership team, and like I said before, I learn from the best teachers that we have…our kids. They teach me everyday about the importance of being my best self for others, and to be humble and honest and a good listener. It’s staggering how much you can learn in the run of a school day if you just open yourself up to it.
The Unexpected – An educator’s day never goes as planned and I love it. The thing about school is that you never know from one second to the next what will come your way, and this uncertainty makes me love my job. There’s always an unexpected mini crisis or a student celebration or an issue with a parent or a teacher or a kid, and it keeps us on our toes in the best possible way. From one hour to the next you can be floored by a student accomplishment, you can be bewildered by a decision that a student or adult has made, you can have a belly laugh from something that a kid says to you, and you can be thrown into a situation that will break your heart…and it’s all good. An individual school day is just like a student…ever-changing, unpredictable, surprising, and always beautiful!
The Joy – If you’re like me then coming to school everyday brings you tremendous joy…how could it not? We get to hang out with kids all day long, we get to spend time with our colleagues who are also our friends, we get to learn and feel and become better human beings because of our daily interactions with our students and each other, and we get to shape the future of our little (and not so little) kids. What other profession can offer such a joyful and purposeful existence? Just when you start to feel stressed or frustrated or overworked, you turn the corner and run into a beautiful little kid, with a huge smile on their face, and so much joy in their heart, and they run up to you and they give you a big hug and you just melt as their energy reminds you why you love school so much. I’m so grateful for what children bring to my life!
Well, I could go on and on I’m sure but I’ll leave it at that. I hope that some of these resonated with you, and helped you find your own gratefulness that you can bring to work with you in the upcoming weeks. I am grateful to be working with such a outstanding faculty and I’m grateful for our community. Three weeks left until the holiday break so keep your energy up and keep your heart open to why you love school so much. Your gratefulness will inspire others and make our community a better place. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be grateful for our kids and grateful for each other. 
Quote of the week….
Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Beautiful Videos – Watch them!
Gratitude Websites and Articles –

Finding the Right Fit…

        So here we are again, well into another season of recruiting and trying to find those perfect fits for ourselves and for our schools. Recruiting is tough in many ways, and with it comes a wide range of emotions, so many unknowns, so much excitement, and for many of us, a lot of anxiety. It’s a difficult time of the year as you learn that friends and colleagues have decided to chase new adventures, and as leaders you try and find those quality educators who will add value to your school…it’s tough. Other than being sad that a few great teachers/friends will be leaving our community, I actually like the process in many ways, and I enjoy the opportunity that we have to attract those inspiring individuals who will help lead us into the future.
        I like pouring through CV’s and cover letters and professional websites, and it never ceases to amaze me how many seemingly outstanding educators there are out there looking to find a new home. I like meeting new people and having great educational conversations and I love that excited feeling that you get when you find a great match and you get ready to offer or accept a new contract. That said, it’s a lot of work and it can be exhausting, and it can take a toll on you both physically and emotionally. You see, the hard part isn’t finding a new job or a new teacher necessarily, it’s the time and effort and good fortune that it takes to find the right fit…that perfect match, and honestly, finding the right fit makes all the difference in the world!
        I think the most important thing that we can all do when looking for a new teacher or for a new job is to be honest, and to know in your heart what it is that you’re looking for. You have to know yourself and your school, you have to ask the right questions, you have to have the courage to tell the truth and to paint an authentic picture of where you are in your career and where you are as an institution. I used to think that my job was to go out and find the best educators on the planet and to somehow find a way to get them to come to our community, and if I did that then everything would work out just fine. Well, that approach doesn’t always work because just being an amazing, master teacher doesn’t ensure success in a new environment. It’s about so much more than that…it’s about the community and culture that you have (or are trying to create), it’s about life outside of the school, it’s about where people are in their careers and where they are looking to find purpose, and it’s about personality. Finding the right fit is everything in my opinion, and it takes a lot of time…a little luck…and sometimes a lot of courage to hold out until that right fit comes along. 
        I want to encourage everyone this recruiting season to stay true to who they are, and to be prepared to say yes (or no) to only the schools and educators that seem like great fits…know yourself, ask the right questions, do your homework, trust your gut, and be honest. Just because you’ve heard good things about a school, or just because you have a solid recommendation from someone that you trust, doesn’t mean that it will work out in the end. We all want to find that perfect match that will inspire teachers to stay beyond that initial 2 or 3 year contract, and the way for that to happen is to do the work now, and to be informed, and to be authentic. Good luck with the process everyone and try to enjoy it…I want to wish all candidates and all schools success throughout this recruiting season, and I’m sending everyone my best energy and wishes for that perfect fit. You’ll know it when you find it I believe, and when you do, it’s only then that teachers and schools and communities can truly begin to lead and transform and inspire!! Have a wonderful week and remember to be great for our students and good to each other. 
Quote of the Week…
This above all…To thine own self be true – William Shakespeare

The Timeless John Dewey…

So we’re currently going through the exciting process of creating a master facilities plan at our school, and the opportunity that we have to transform our environment into something truly inspirational has us all dreaming. This exercise, coupled with a thought provoking TED talk by Grant Lichtman that I watched the other day, has led me to think deeply about what it is that we really want for our students with regards to their education…

I spent the week doing a lot of research into progressive education, innovative school design, experiential learning, and the idea of personalizing the learning for all students, and much of it kept me coming back to the thoughts and writings of John Dewey. It’s interesting to me that so much of what’s happening with the current paradigm shift in education around the world aligns with Dewey’s philosophical stance, and it just shows how truly ahead of his time he was.

Dewey wrote much about the power and importance of experiential learning (learning by doing, outdoor education, hands-on experiences), and how the teacher should be more of a facilitator or guide in a child’s learning experiences rather than the “sage on the stage”, which sadly became the traditional approach. If we look at innovative schools around the world, and the incredible work that many leading schools and their research and development teams are currently doing to help transform what “school” looks like these days, we can see a shift in not only how we write and deliver curriculum, but how we design the learning spaces and environments to best fit the individual needs of all learners.

Things like creativity spaces or maker spaces, flexible learning spaces that are not grade level or subject specific, project based and service inspired initiatives that drive the curriculum, collaborative opportunities, a focus on design and visible thinking, a shift away from averages or grades to feedback and alternative assessments, and so much more…all of this I think would make John Dewey very proud, and probably get him to mumble, “What took you all so long?”

I have to say that I’m inspired by what’s happening at so many schools around the world, and it looks like the tide has turned and the paradigm shift is beginning to take hold. While many schools (maybe the majority still) continue to be firmly entrenched in the traditional school model of silo classrooms, grade level bands, traditional grades and assessments, teacher lectures, subject specific and content focused curriculum, and environments that scream 1985, there are so, so many that have moved on and made a profound statement that it’s not only possible but really, an educational imperative.

I’m very excited to be an educator in this day and age, and I’m even more excited to be in a position to dream about how we can transform our own community into something innovative and inspirational. I’m passionate about re-inventing school as you can probably tell, and I’m proud to see so many educational leaders working hard to create change for their communities. I know it’s messy work, and I know it takes time, but like Grant Lichtman says in his talk, it’s more uncomfortable than hard. It’s also easy to talk and talk and talk about this as a community, but a very different thing to actually bring the vision to life…we’ve been talking about this shift for a long time as a global community and I’m empowered to see the schools around the world who have found the courage to act. Have a fantastic week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the week….

Getting to Yes- Inclusion

As International schools morph and change, the goal is our schools become better versions of what we’ve been before. Whether it is to provide a more cohesive and articulated curriculum, more rigorous vetting of our personnel for safety, or more purposefully designed and earth-friendly facilities, we are always changing and improving.

One area which is garnering a lot of attention right now is inclusivity. The idea that our schools can accept students with special needs isn’t new, but striving to do so, and even expanding the notion of what we can support, is a change.

Championing this idea is the Next Frontier Inclusion project led by Bill and Ochan Powell. This past week, I was with them at Hong Kong Academy to see an inclusive school in action: the journey, the celebrations, and the next steps for all of us trying to make this a reality. It was an interesting visit.

While, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, I wasn’t sure how I would feel around students with special needs. Having grown up in and always worked in international schools, I have limited exposure to students who are considered SEN (Special Education Needs) children. Of course, being on site at HKA and seeing those students playing, learning, and making friends eased my fear and opened my heart. While most of our schools will never be a true microcosm of society, we can and should modify our definition of diversity. 

The big questions shared and chewed on with the group included:

  • How do you do this? Staffing, marketing, facilities, etc.
  • How do we go from where we are today, to where we want to be without compromising our already rigorous programs?
  • What if our school communities (existing families) don’t want to do this?

Of course, for many of our schools, it will take time, planning and persistence to shift the culture and become more purposefully inclusive. Each school will face challenges based on its locale and clientele. However as often happens in our connected community of international school educators, once a few of us leap out, it will be easier (and become more important) for others to do the same. That is our strength as a global community.

Here is a first step I can share about the journey we are on at my school. It is a small shift that has produced big changes. It is a shift in language and mindset. It is replicable by any school wanting to become more inclusive. 

We have recently changed our admissions stance from ‘no’ to ‘yes and…’ In the past, we would receive a file of a student with needs and work as an admissions team to explain all the reasons why we couldn’t admit the child. This process was designed to help the family understand why we were saying ‘No’.

Now, the admissions team (principal, resource teachers, counselor, admissions rep, possibly a classroom teacher) is tasked with presenting a scenario to our director based on ‘yes’. There is no longer a ‘no’ option at this meeting.

Instead, ‘yes, and…’  comes with the plan/proposal of what we would require to fully support the child in our school. There is no boundary to what we can propose: shadow teachers, more testing, modified curriculum, partial day, on-site therapy, etc. The proposals are not predicated on what we already do, but instead generated by what would be possible if there were no limits. The admission team’s job is to paint a picture which gets us to yes. From there, the director makes the final decision about whether or not we can get there.

This shift in mindset and emphasis has produced a few interesting results. First, we are much more likely to think out of the box when we are starting with a positive, can-do frame of mind. Secondly, the two or three cases we have reviewed in this vein have turned out to be doable, surprising us all, as in the past, we probably would have simply said ‘no’. And finally, the level of communication and ownership for the inclusion plan is spread out among those people who proposed an idea worth hearing. 

Getting to yes is a motto we are beginning to live. While there are sure to be pitfalls, we are happy to be taking an active and conscious step toward inclusion.

What is your school doing to change the conversation?

Image credit: ‘Diversity Clip Art’, Creative Commons right to share