All posts by Gregory Hedger

Dr. Gregory Hedger has been the Director of the International School Yangon, in Myanmar, since 2016. A native of Minnesota, Greg has served in education for over 25 years, including 13 years in the role of School Director at Cayman International School, Qatar Academy, and most recently as Superintendent at Escuela Campo Alegre in Venezuela. Greg promotes international education through his past and/or present service on the boards of AAIE, AASSA, and his work with the International Task Force for Child Protection, his contributions to various periodicals, and his work to promote the next generation of leaders through workshops and teaching. Greg’s family includes his wife Kirstin, daughters Kaija, Sadie, and Anna, and son Max.

Living in the Shadows

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Last week the administrative team at ECA participated in an exciting learning opportunity. Each member of our team spent an entire day shadowing a different student. Our administrative team consists of me, our three principals, an assistant principal, the Director of Curriculum and Learning, Director of Technology, Director of Libraries, Athletics Director, and our Director of Support Services. Together, we were able to make sure at least two students were shadowed on different days in each educational division, including early childhood, elementary school, middle school, and high school. This project was the result of our participation in a worldwide movement called the Shadow a Student Challenge (http://shadowastudent.org/), which aims to understand your school from a student’s perspective by immersing yourself in the experience of being a student for the day.

Personally, I spent a full day with one of our sixth grade students. I found it to be one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had as an educator in a long time. In my position, I spend much of my time dealing with the challenges of running a school, seeking solutions to different problems, resolving conflicts, writing reports, planning for the future, and sitting in meetings or leading them. Spending time with the sixth grade helped me to reenergize as I engaged in the outcome of what everything else is all about – our students and their meaningful learning opportunities. As a part of this, I discovered a renewed sense of excitement as I witnessed how fantastic our students are, how polite they are, how much they love learning, and how excited they are about school.

The experience of being a shadow was informative in a number of other ways. First, I have to say I was amazed by how some teachers use technology to support learning. Over the years, I’ve sat in many meetings where we discuss the value of technology, and develop learning standards that incorporate technology. The experience I had through shadowing permitted me to really feel the value technology has in engaging learners and the power it holds it making learning meaningful. In addition, I discovered the value of time as a shadow. I learned how difficult it can be as a student to sit for long periods of time in a class, the importance of breaking time up on a regular basis to keep students interested and engaged, and finally, an understanding of just how much time is dedicated to learning and how much is spilled along the wayside on non-learning activities. Beyond this, I also noticed the important role relationship is between the student and the teacher. In talking to students it was clear where those relationships existed students were much more invested in the learning process.

Just as I was discovering new learnings through shadowing, my colleagues were also having similar experiences. At the close of the shadowing period, we all came together to share our experiences. Every person in the room found the experience to be an amazing learning opportunity. What we found remarkable though was not just the learning that took place, but the sense of bonding we each felt with the particular group we spent time with. One member of our team commented that she now felt she needed to follow-up with the kindergarten class she was in as she felt a personal interest in the group. This discussion of the learning we experience led to a further discussion of the things we liked about the experience, questions we had developed in our minds, wishes we had, and ideas we now had.

As a group, we identified a number of ideas to take away from this experience. First, it was clear to us just how important it is that learning move away from isolative teaching practices and toward more sharing. It is an absolute must that every student be afforded the same quality learning experience no matter which teacher they are with. This can only happen through collaborative practices like team planning and targeted peer observations. We also came to the conclusion that if we found this experience to be so valuable, then perhaps it needs to be encouraged more as something we do regularly as well as something for others to consider. We further found value in the idea of assisted reflection as a means to learn from our experiences. Finally, and most importantly, we identified the need to listen to our students more. Their thoughts, ideas, and opinions are important. We found them to be valid and realistic, and we rediscovered there is much we can learn from them.

Experiencing culture shock; or the realities of the transition cycle

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Experiencing culture shock; or the realities of the transition cycle

It was a different era when my wife and I first took the plunge and headed overseas to experience something new, different, and exotic. Those of you who are from a younger generation of international educators may not recognize the challenges some of us once lived with. At the time, there was no Internet, so we couldn’t connect with family and friends in an instant. The only phone was the one on the wall, working infrequently, and costing about $300 for a 10-minute call – meaning we only called home, briefly, once per month. Mail was just as challenging. Once a letter was sent, it would take two weeks, at a minimum, before a reply was received. We really were setting off for the unknown, knowing it was unlikely we would see home for another two years.

I will never forget our first introduction to the country that was to be our home for the next two years. Romania was in the early stages of recovery from the revolution that had broken them free of the yoke of the dictatorship of Ceausescu. Our plane bounced along a concrete runway uneven with cracks and divots. After skidding to a halt, we climbed down onto the runway, watching as our luggage was handed down from the luggage compartment, opened, and rummaged through at gunpoint by young soldiers. A bit scary? Yes. But, somehow, exciting after the orderliness we were used to at home in Minnesota. It was like we had been released into another world you only saw in suspense movies.

We picked up our luggage and moved toward the bullet pocked building that had once stood as the international terminal before finding itself a logistical focal point in the fighting of the revolution.   A crowd of people all dressed in gray spread back from a line established by the soldiers. For a brief second I experienced a pang of dread as I realized we had no way to contact our new school, and no idea how to get there from the airport. Then, suddenly, amidst the entire gray, a figure in a Hawaiian shirt and cowboy hat, a lone high-rise on the horizon, began to wave and yell our names. It was our new school director there to welcome us. We experienced a sense of relief, as well as a return to the excitement of being in this new and strange environment.

In the following weeks, that sense of excitement continued to dominate as we experienced many firsts. There was the first time we met our colleagues. The first time we waited in a line for gas. The first time we made a shopping list to buy groceries, went out for much of the day shopping, and came home with only a few items – none of which had been on the list. We couldn’t find anything on the list! However, to set our minds at ease, we had found one store where every shelf was packed with cans of peas. At least we wouldn’t starve!

As school began, we found ourselves in awe of the vast number of nationalities of the children in our classrooms. Both my wife and I spoke English, and nothing else. We were amazed to find five year olds who could switch back and forth between two, three, or more languages. The community seemed to welcome us with open arms, inviting us to dinners, social events at different embassies, and recreational events on the weekends. We felt we were a part of something important, something meaningful, and felt we fit in somewhere more than we had ever felt anywhere before. We also began to explore the city of Bucharest, and the surrounding countryside. Much of it had been untouched since the period just after the Second World War. It was a land time forgot, and we were drinking it all in. I truly believed life could not get any better.

Then, something happened, and the world seemed to crumble down around us. It is hard to pin point exactly what happened. To be honest, I don’t think there really was any one specific event. Life just seemed to change. Everything slowed down. The social events seemed to come to a stop. Work seemed to take on new challenges. There was a grayness that swept over the city as summer moved into fall. Very quickly, the excitement and wonder we had been experiencing slipped away, and we found ourselves feeling a bit alone and scared. More often than not, our lives were following a simple pattern of getting up each morning in darkness, going to school, teaching, coming home just before dark, trying to find some food, preparing the food, eating, preparing for classes, and going to bed. It was monotonous, and somehow made worse by the loneliness we were suddenly feeling in these unfamiliar surroundings. The thought of two years in this place began to feel unbearable, and made worse every time we looked around at our colleagues who seemed so content with life and the status quo. I began to question the decision we had made to come here, and regretted the loss of everything we had given up back in the States. It was at one point during this time I went into my wife’s classroom during a break students were having and broke down in tears. I just didn’t think I could continue. We needed to figure out a way to escape this mistake we had made.

My wife and I were lucky. We had each other to talk to at this point. We talked ourselves through it. We knew we couldn’t go back. Part of it was financial. I had taken a leave from my position back home, and had nothing to return to at the immediate moment. We couldn’t afford not to work. It was more than that though. We felt a sense of commitment to follow through on what we said we would do. Plus, our pride kept us from returning home to our friends and family who had believed us to be foolish for going on this grand adventure to begin with. We knew we had to stick with it. So, we pushed on. We set routines for ourselves that forced us to get out of our apartment, we reached out to people in our neighborhood so we started to feel connected to others – even if it was just someone we said hi to each afternoon or drank a glass of wine with at a garage café. It created a sense of belonging. We started to plan some things to look forward to – holiday trips, small dinners in our home, and team sporting activities. Slowly, we began to feel better, like we fit in, like we were home.

Winter came, and with it a new set of emotions. That Christmas was the first we didn’t spend with one of our parents. It felt a bit strange, even awkward, but we filled the void by spending time with friends and going on a trip exploring the Romanian countryside. Then, unexpectedly, my wife’s brother flew over to be with us for our winter break. It was a whim decision, and we couldn’t have been happier. Sharing our new life with him made everything seem better and more meaningful. We felt so full of ourselves as we introduced him to the people we had come to know. I took him to a poker game at the home of someone from the embassy. We stayed in a giant villa in the mountains, and when it snowed, we went to an old mountain resort where we skied in fresh powder for literally pennies, and had the slope to ourselves. He was amazed by the life we were experiencing. Seeing it through his eyes, we were too, and were made aware of how lucky we were to be having this fantastic experience. It was something very few other people got to experience – another culture, another world, first hand, as a part of it rather than as tourists looking in. It really was something special.

Following the departure of my brother-in-law, our routine returned. It was a bit more upbeat as the familiar provided a certain level of comfort. There were also more meaningful connections with some people as we moved beyond the stage of initial acquaintance and began to spend time with those we had some sort of shared experiences with. That isn’t to say there weren’t challenges. As winter moved into spring, we experienced another emotional lull. The monotony of routine had returned. Winter in Romania only added to the challenge as we began to feel a bit stir crazy at being stuck inside our bleak apartment night after night, especially as we experienced power failures and a loss of heat. The minimal food options began to wear as well. One night we went to a restaurant. It was the first Asian restaurant to open in the city. The menu was impressive, with several pages of options. Upon inquiry though, most things were not available. Those that were all consisted of pork, the only difference being the flavor of the sauce. It was symbolic of the challenges that seemed to be slowly wearing us down that winter.

We never hit bottom in winter like we had in the fall. As I reflect upon it, I think we made it through because of some of the routines and connections we had. Though they contributed to the monotony, they also provided a sense of familiarity. For example, I had developed a habit of stopping by a garage café each afternoon for a glass of homemade wine. Though the wine threatened to turn my stomach into an inferno, the friendship I developed with the owner became something I looked forward to day after day. He became my connection to Romanian culture, introducing me to other Romanians, and taking me on some amazing trips into the countryside. It was a friendship that would become one of my most memorable overseas experiences.

Slowly, our first year overseas came to a close. With it came exciting events in our lives. My wife became pregnant with our first child, and both of our parents joined us at different times as we spent the summer traveling through Europe in an old, beat up VW van – yes, I felt as though we were reliving my romanticized vision of the ‘60’s. With the end of summer, we returned to Bucharest for our second year. It was different this time around. We knew the ropes. We were suddenly showing the new folks around. It was comfortable and we fit in. That second year was fantastic; in fact, it evolved into what has now been a quarter of a century of overseas education.

I can now look back on our first year in Romania and recognize our experience as a common first year transition. In fact, we have moved approximately every five years or so, and we find we have a similar experience the first year in every place we go to. True, it isn’t as intense as that first year was, largely because we know what to expect, but the experience is essentially the same. When I was in Qatar, I made friends with David Burton of Burton Consultancy (http://www.burtonconsultancy.com/).  He specializes in helping organizations deal with transitions and cultural competencies. He described it to me as a common transition cycle. He sees it often. People come into an organization and are in a honeymoon phase. The world is wonderful as they experience a period of discovery and exhilaration. They then move into reality where the challenges become real, and they reminisce about everything they left behind. This is the hardest phase. If they stick with it, they move into a period of stability, with a couple more dips along the way that decreases in intensity as they develop a level of comfort. It is a challenging process, made more daunting when it is realized something similar will be experienced with every move. The trade off though is the wonderful cultural experiences and adventures we get to have along the way and the bonds we form with friends from around the globe that last a lifetime. I would not trade any of it.

At this point, I need to return to my first paragraph. There, I spoke of the challenges my wife and I were confronted with when we went overseas without the current technological tools those presently going overseas have available to them. It could be perceived I was saying those going overseas now have it easier than we had it. Nothing could be further from the truth. To begin with, separation is separation. The emotions that come with it are hard, no matter who we are, where we come from, or what we have access to. However, I sometimes wonder if those in the current era don’t have it more difficult. Yes, they can connect back home anytime they want with a flick of a switch. There is some comfort in that. At the same time, the process of separation becomes longer; more drawn out. When we left, boom, that was it! We were on our own, trying to figure it out. These days, you never quite let home go, so you don’t make the full transition as quickly as we did. To top it off, you also have those who questioned your decision to go overseas constantly there to jump on any hesitancy you voice. It can’t be easy, and I feel for those making the move now as much as I felt for those of us who made the move in an earlier era. Let’s face it, we are all pioneers, and we all face the challenges of change and transition. There is comfort in knowing we are not alone though. Others have experienced the same. And, as the saying goes, this too shall pass.

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

 

The question of re-culturing third culture kids

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The Question of Re-culturing Third Culture Kids

My wife and I first went overseas to Romania in 1992. We had been married a year, and were childless. We pictured ourselves as heading off on a grand adventure for a two-year period, after which I would return to the job in Minnesota from which I had a leave of absence, and my wife would look for something new. It really was an exciting time to be exploring Eastern Europe. Communism had recently fallen in the region, and the area had not adapted to the current era. We found ourselves mesmerized as we hiked through mountains, staying at hidden mountain retreats, dining with nuns at Moldovan monasteries, and exploring the ruins of Vlad Tepeś(better known as Dracula), and other fantastic adventures. We tried to make the best of every moment believing it would be over before we knew it.

At the end of our first year in Romania, we were surprised to discover our family was expanding due to an unexpected pregnancy. While we didn’t anticipate the birth of our first daughter the next year would change our plans, it did cause us to start to consider the ramifications this would have for us. We began to reach out to friends back in the US who had recently begun similar transitions in their lives – not an easy task in the days before the internet when letters took weeks round trip, and we could only afford one phone call home per month. As the responses began to come in, we found ourselves feeling a sense of despair.

The news from our friends back home was not encouraging. One friend described a schedule of dropping their infant daughter off at child care at 6:30 each morning, driving to work, picking her up at 5:00 PM, getting home, putting together dinner, a few chores, and then bed. The weekends were filled with shopping, laundry, and more chores, with very little quality time with their daughter. Another friend described the cost of childcare as being similar to a second mortgage, while yet another, who chose not to work, described the financial burden their family faced. All in all, we were becoming very distraught.

Slowly, my wife and I began to question our decision to return home at the end of two years. The situation we would be confronted with there seemed too stressful – not to mention the limits it would place on quality time with our daughter. We kept thinking about what we had in Romania. There, we could hire someone to look after our apartment and take care of our daughter in our home for a small fraction of our salary. This would permit us to spend our time away from work with our daughter, as we would not need to run around as our friends were, nor look after the chores that consumed our friend’s time. Our time could be just about family. After careful consideration, we decided to extend our stay a bit to take advantage of this opportunity. We didn’t realize it, but we had just taken the first step toward raising third culture kids.

So, our two-year experience overseas has evolved into 24, at last count. Along the way, we’ve had three daughters, who have had the joy of growing up in Romania, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Cayman Islands, Qatar, and Venezuela. It must be said they’ve had some outstanding opportunities. At last count, they had  visited somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 different countries combined. They’ve hiked the Andes of Latin America, engaged in service projects in Africa and Asia, skied in Europe, and attended classes with both members of royalty and scholarship students, and everyone in between. By the time they were each 15, they were competent enough to travel internationally on their own. They have truly developed the qualities common in third culture kids of empathy, adaptability, and open-mindedness (Druart, 2016).

Along the way, I have to acknowledge I’ve had some doubts. Early on, my wife and I decided to buy a home back in Minnesota to give our kids some sense of belonging. To a certain degree, this worked as the girls made neighborhood friends, some who even visited us in different locations, and they were able to build stronger connections with cousins. There did seem to be a downside to this plan though. For years, the girls romanticized their time in Minnesota. When they were there, it was summer. They ran barefoot through the neighborhood, played night games on the street, watched their friends play in soccer games, and enjoyed picnics and other rites of summer. In their minds, everything was magical. I have to admit there were a number of times my wife and I experienced twinges of guilt as we wondered if we were somehow cheating our kids of the type of childhood we had experienced and their friends back home were experiencing.

Any doubt we had came to an end when we lived in the Cayman Islands. In September 2004, the island of Grand Cayman was devastated when hit by a category five hurricane named Ivan. My wife and daughters joined the many thousands of people who evacuated the island before and after the storm. With little idea of how long it would take to rebuild, they journeyed home to Minnesota and the girls enrolled in school in the U.S. Ruth Druart (2016) recently interviewed third culture students ages 11-16 as a part of her master’s work. She describes students identifying a sense of belonging as being where their family is. This turned out to be true for us. As the girls went to school, they found the romanticism of summer was gone. School in the US seemed unfamiliar to them, and they felt they didn’t fit in. They very quickly longed for the familiarity that came from having our family unit together in one place, both at home and in school. When they returned to Grand Cayman several months later, any desire they had to live like their friends in Minnesota was gone, and with it any twinge of guilt my wife and I had felt.

The experience our daughters had during the hurricane evacuation is interesting. At the time, my wife and I sincerely believed our daughters had simply been dealt a dose of reality. Having only experienced life in Minnesota during the summer when the weather is great, friends are off school, and everything is wonderful, they were viewing life there through filtered lenses. We believed that when they found out what it was like when friends were in school, there was homework to do, and life was a bit more uncomfortable, they suddenly longed for the familiarity of home and family. It really didn’t hit us at the time that our kids were dealing with the challenges of re-culturing. That realization would come much later. For the moment, we were content to get everyone back together and feel confident in knowing the life we had chosen was okay after all.

Fast forward about a decade. We are now at a point where our kids are heading off to college. The first one went four years ago, the second this year, and the third still has a few more years at home. When our oldest daughter was preparing for college, she went through an interesting exploratory phase. At first she wanted to go to school in Europe, thinking she would feel more comfortable there. We explored a number of possible colleges there. Then, she decided she wanted to go to school in the US as she decided she wanted to feel what it was like to go to school in her own country and experience her home “culture.” She finally settled on a college in Minnesota to be close to family as well. However, the experience she had wasn’t what she anticipated.

When our daughter went to college, she began to feel she didn’t belong anywhere. When she initially arrived, she was placed with international students. She quickly realized she didn’t belong there. She felt she wasn’t an international student; she was from the US after all. She then tried to gel with other students from the US. She quickly realized she couldn’t relate to them either. Their life experiences just didn’t mesh with hers. In the end, she spent time putting together a friendship group that was a bit of a potpourri of different people, including some she meant during experiences abroad. She made it work, but it hasn’t been easy. Druart (2016) found that “it appears that having a sense of belonging to a particular country or even countries is an alien concept to TCKs (Third Culture Kids).” This was certainly true with our first daughter, and it now appears to be the case with our second daughter who seems to be having greater struggles with the whole process of re-culturing.

So, the question that must be asked is whether or not we have any regrets. I can say without hesitation we do not. I fully realize my children may never feel the same sense of pride in a country I had growing up. It is also likely they will always confront challenges with re-culturing. That said, I think they have something better. They see themselves as global citizens. They have the ability to adapt, to seek understanding, and to appreciate all cultures. Beyond that, they have a sense of belonging to family. That in itself is special, and something we all appreciate.

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

Druart, R. (2016). Where do I belong? International School, 18(2), 20-21.

 

Collaboration for High Quality Instruction

Authors: Gregory A. Hedger and Michael Simpson

Ensuring high quality instruction is a challenge in any school. In international schools, the challenge is even greater. This is the result of the transient nature of faculty working in overseas schools. In a recent study of headship transitions in international schools and U.S. independent schools, it was stated the average international school head stayed in the job an average 3.7 years, compared to 12 years for U.S. independent schools heads (Kane & Barbaro, 2015). It can be assumed differences in longevity of teaching faculty between the U.S. and international schools would be similar, or greater. This type of transience creates a whole host of problems in ensuring instructional quality. Many teachers travel from school to school carrying with them what is referred to as a suitcase curriculum, a collection of lessons, projects, and activities they have found to be previously successful at other locations and may, or may not, relate to the stated standards in their new school. Similarly, upon arriving at a new school, these teachers feel a lack of ownership over curriculum they’ve had no previous interaction with. Traditionally, teachers have a tendency to withdraw into their own classroom worlds. This type of transience contributes to a greater tendency for this to happen. If left alone, this situation means the quality of instruction a student receives is completely dependent on the individual teacher and there is no guarantee that a student in one fourth grade class will get the same quality of learning experience as the student in the classroom next door.

Escuela Campo Alegre (ECA) is an example of one of these international schools. It was established in 1937 to serve students whose parents work for multinational corporations or diplomatic missions located in Caracas, Venezuela. The student population comes from all over the world, currently comprising 30 nationalities, in nursery through grade 12. Instruction is based on a U.S. model, and is taught in English, with the majority of students who graduate from ECA going on to colleges and universities in the U.S., and occasionally Europe. The average student stays at ECA for three years before moving on to another location. Just as the students come and go, so do the faculty. The average stay of a teacher is four years. ECA is no different than other international schools, with the same challenges. What sets ECA apart is the manner in which it has chosen to approach these challenges to ensure every student receives the quality of instruction they are entitled to, no matter who the teacher is or how new they are to ECA.

ECA has chosen to make collaboration the centerpiece for managing the relatively high faculty turnover rates in international schools and ensuring high quality instruction is maintained in every classroom. This decision followed an introduction to collaborative work at Adaptive Schools workshops led by Dr. Robert Garmston. According to Dr. Garmston, the goal of Adaptive Schools is “to develop our collective identity and capacity as collaborators and inquirers” (Garmston, Wellman, Dolcemascolo, & McKanders, 2013).

The key to success with collaboration was to develop the language and understanding in a way that it was accessible to everyone, and would continue to be accessible as faculty came and left the school. In their book, The OIQ factor: raising your school’s organizational intelligence, William Powell and Ochan Kusuma-Powell state that “collaboration norms and skills need to be taught explicitly and practiced self-consciously.” (2013) The first step included shared professional development. Dr. Garmston was invited to work with the ECA faculty two years in a row, for four days each year, and half the faculty each year. This ensured a common basis from which to begin the collaborative work. From these two presentations a handful of faculty were identified who found themselves excited about what they were hearing. These faculty were sent for further training in the Adaptive Schools model. The idea behind this was to begin to have a core group of people who would not only drive the collaborative work during the school year, but also provide initial training to all new faculty during the annual orientation. Each summer, additional people were identified, so there would continue to be a core of collaborative leaders even as previous leaders moved on to other schools around the globe. From this core group, one person was tapped in the role of the school’s Collaborative Practices Facilitator, in an effort to institutionalize the practice of collaboration and have one person responsible for driving the practice. The entire core group became the Collaboration Committee, responsible for helping teachers work collaboratively by modeling collaborative practices and brainstorming new ideas. Finally, through the Collaborative Practices Facilitator, an online Innovation Through Collaboration Schoology group was established permitting teachers to begin to share ideas, ask questions, and have collaborative discussions from any place, any time. Finally, at the conclusion of the second Adaptive Schools workshop, participants decided upon the four most important ideas or principles they would like to introduce or develop within their professional teams. The four principles were overwhelmingly decided to be a collaborative culture, cognitive conflict, the seven norms of collaboration and purposeful interactions. These four ideas or principles were then incorporated into the following vision statement:

We will foster a collaborative culture that engages in cognitive conflict by focusing on the seven norms of collaboration and developing purposeful interactions.

Through this vision statement, a common language around collaboration was introduced that could be understood and used by everyone. From there, the structures were developed to use collaboration as a means to ensure quality instruction.

A common language through shared professional development was only the first step. As Powell and Kusuma-Powell state, “Collaboration takes place when members of a learning community work together as equals towards a common goal.” (2013) It became important to provide teachers with opportunities for collaborative and purposeful interactions. Many schools fall into the practice of planning schedules so collaborative meeting time is built in, but then leave it to faculty to make this happen. While this reflects a certain level of trust in faculty, it ignores the fact that most people are unclear what collaboration looks like, and assume it simply means getting together in a group. “Group work, as often practiced, does little to enhance collaborative skills.” (Quinn, 2013) To overcome this hurdle, ECA adopted the three focusing questions of Adaptive Schools. These questions ask,

“Who are we?

Why are we doing this?

Why are we doing this, this way? (Garmston et al. 2013)

These three questions were designed into an Innovation Through Collaboration matrix that became available to all faculty. To provide purposeful interactions, these questions became the starting point for all collaborative planning, committee meetings, parent meetings, and task force sessions. An example of the use of these questions is apparent in a homework task force. This group began by looking at defining the demographics and expectations of the community in answering the question, “who are we?” It then went on to explore the reasons homework is given at ECA – from the perspective of faculty, parents, and students, in looking at why are we doing this? Finally, the next stage will be to look at the various ways and types of homework given in an effort to make a match with who we are and the reasons we give homework. These three questions become a powerful force for creating purposeful collaborative interactions and a means of ensuring faculty conversations promoted instructional quality.

A natural next step in the development of collaborative work is the development of collaborative meetings, especially if collaborative time has already been built into the schedule. These meetings become a means for faculty to share ideas and practices, explore assessment tools, and begin learning from each other. It is really through these meetings collaboration begins to become personal. Michael Fullan says “the goal of collaboration is that teachers become collectively engaged in work that is meaningful to them.” (Fullan, 2011) To facilitate this process at ECA, collaborative agendas were developed using Google Docs. This meant teachers could contribute to agenda building any time an idea or thought occurred to them. These items were then identified as information items, items contributed to promote understanding, or items that required discussion and / or decision making (I,U,D). This identification process on the agenda permitted meetings to be organized around the actions and be more meaningful, yet also more expedient. Teachers are constantly busy, and any meeting seen as wasting time is not appreciated. This type of meeting agenda ensures the topics most important to teachers are focused on and time is not wasted. In addition, ECA adopted the Seven Norms of Collaboration (Garmston et al. 2013) for all meetings – between faculty, with parents, with students, and with administration. These seven norms clearly spell out certain behaviors that contribute to effective meetings such as presuming positive intentions, paying attention to self and others, and posing questions. When practiced and used in meetings, these norms become a powerful tool for ensuring all ideas are encouraged and given credence.

Teaching teams developing core curriculum essential agreements are an example of collaborative meetings. These agreements are developed by a team and provide the basis for discussion and the collaborative development of instructional strategies. Consistency of instruction is achieved through ‘non-negotiables’ that the team has agreed upon at the beginning of the year and cannot be amended without the consensus of the team. These ‘non-negotiables’ usually stem from the observance of school wide practices, the use of Understanding by Design planning and differentiated reading and math groups are two good examples of ‘non-negotiables’ that all teachers must adhere to. The intention of these agreements is not to create a ‘cookie cutter’ curriculum in the way a particular reading or math program would. The intention is to encourage teachers to use their expertise and proven instructional strategies with the confidence of knowing they are doing what is expected of them. New teachers can jump straight into doing what they have been chosen to do without necessarily having to relearn a new math program. Existing teachers benefit from the ideas of the new teachers and vice versa. In an age of standards-based curriculum, the collaborative development of effective instructional strategies is best served through adaptable curriculum agreements, Rigid programs force teachers to teach a certain way regardless of whether a teacher has a better way of meeting particular student needs.

Effective instructional strategies are the natural evolution from the work teachers have been doing together. Just as there is a common language for interactions and meetings, there becomes common strategies in the classroom. The collaborative development of the strategies inevitably influences the way they are introduced to the students. Collaboration is a skill that is now being explicitly taught to students as instructional strategies are being implemented. As teachers become more collaborative in their professional teams, students are being given more opportunities to collaborate in the classroom. This permits students to also develop collaborative practices as a skill set they carry with them from class to class, and from grade to grade. It becomes a way of thinking school wide, and the automatic fall back position for learning. It should also be mentioned collaborative practices prepare students for the world they are growing into. Everywhere one turns, collaboration is mentioned as a must need skill. “Enhance collaboration may be exactly what we need to solve the world’s problems” (Quinn, 2013). When collaboration becomes the tool used to help students develop greater understanding of the curriculum, we are not just teaching content, but preparing them for the world.

One of the great joys of international education is the ability to get up and move every few years and explore a new part of the world. During the career of any given teacher, they might work in Romania for a period of time, followed by such countries as Indonesia, the Cayman Island, Qatar, Venezuela, or a host of any other countries. It really is a fascinating lifestyle. The downside of this continual movement is a lack of consistency in in instruction and curriculum delivery. Collaboration is one model of practice to ensure high quality teaching is maintained in these schools. Through collaborative and purposeful interactions, collaborative meetings, and collaborative classroom instruction, it is possible to make sure a common language and practices occurs throughout the school, no matter which classroom a child is in.

 Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

References

Fullan, M. (2011). Change leader. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.

Garmston, R., Wellman, B., Dolcemascolo, M., & McKanders, C. (2013). Adaptive schools foundation seminar learning guide. Highlands Ranch, CO: Adaptive Schools Seminars.

Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired: How to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Kane, P. R., & Barbaro, J. (2015). Headship transitions in international schools and US independent schools. In Focus, (1), 2-5. Retrieved November 13, 2015, from http://issuu.com/ecischools/docs/infocus_ecis

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2013). The OIQ factor: Raising your school’s organizational intelligence. United Kingdom: John Catt Educational.

Quinn, T. (2013). G-R-O-U-P W-O-R-K doesn’t spell collaboration. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(4), 46-48. Retrieved October 18, 2015.

Meeting in the best interest of students

I began my career teaching sixth grade in a suburban US public school. As part of a team of three, I was the only male and the newest teacher to enter the team in at least a decade. This lack of seniority, plus my previous work in a residential facility for children with emotional difficulties, seemed to somehow put me in the position of receiving some of the more challenging students in the grade my first couple of years. One case in particular stands out in my mind as a classic example of developing a partnership with a parent to benefit student learning.

Before school even started I had begun to hear about a boy whom I’ll call Jay. This student had a reputation for being fairly active. However, the bigger issue with Jay was his mother. Every teacher who had him previously warned me to be aware as she, “always assumes the worst about the school, always takes her son’s side in things, and always is in attack mode.” Sure enough, they were right! Not more than two weeks passed before I received a phone call from Jay’s irate mother demanding to meet with me to tell me how I should be teaching her son. Wanting to get this over as quickly as possible, I nervously set an appointment for the following morning.

The next morning, after introductions, I asked Jay’s mother to share with me her concerns. She immediately began in a very aggressive tone, suggesting there was no way I could possibly be able to provide for her son’s learning needs. She described past experiences with the school, quoted excerpts from psychological testing her son had received, and went on to tell me her son’s rights and what she would do if his rights were not met. As she spoke, I began to realize what I was hearing was a woman clearly interested in what was best for her son, but frustrated because she felt powerless to provide it. As soon as there was a brief break in what she was saying, I interjected, saying, “I understand you want what’s best for your son. I want you to know I want what is best for him, too. I’m committed to working with you to make sure this happens, and invite you to work with me.” I’ll never forget the change in the mood in the room at that moment. Very quickly, we went from being adversaries, to being partners in Jay’s education, and went on to have a very successful working relationship through that school year.

I’ve hung on to that early experience working with parents. There have been times I’ve felt a knot in my stomach as I’ve walked into potentially abrasive meetings with parents. More times than not though, I’ve found that when I assume parents are there in the best interests of their children, and I state my commitment to that same outcome, the meetings tend to be more effective and productive. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to gain exposure to a number of different ideas and theories. One model that has particular impressed me is the Adaptive Schools model I was introduced to by Robert Garmston. He speaks of the Norms of Collaboration. One of those norms is to assume positive presuppositions, with the idea being meetings will be more effective if we walk into the room with the belief we all have the best of intentions in mind. This clearly describes my experience, and what I believe is an effective means for dealing with difficult situations.

Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog