All posts by Stephen Dexter, Jr.

Stephen is an international educator and administrator. A native of the United States, he lives with his wife Stephanie (a specialist in families in global transition) in Croatia along with his daughter and son. With a career that spans over twenty four years in public, private and international schools, he writes when he can and is on a quest to discover why people so quickly identify him as being American.

Podium

The number one reason I’m thrilled that the Olympics are being held now is that it’s the perfect distraction from writing about whether or not we should mandate masks in August. (And of course provides an easy opportunity to chat about winning and losing).

I’m a sucker for the highlights of the ecstatic athletes like the Filipino weightlifter, winning the first gold medal in her country’s history. Her emotional outburst on this individual achievement was such a pleasure to watch (as opposed to the expectation that comes with many nations that anything less than the highest elevation at the podium is a failure).

I love sports because they bring a ruthless simplicity to life. You win or you lose. There are boundaries and nets, the rules are clear and there aren’t excuses. I will sidestep the irony of how this juxtaposes with the Olympic spirit, but my point is that this simplicity is very different from my day job. It would be relatively easy if all we had to do was achieve, to get a number that indicated we did a great job. But I’m not convinced that’s why I get up in the morning.

Which brings me to the release of IB scores in July, the podium moment for many international schools. Like many of my colleagues, I take a reprieve from the summer break to analyze the fateful IB scores, connect with families on their options, and reflect on how we can improve to expand opportunities for our students. As a practice, my school doesn’t post its achievement on social media. Of course I am happy for the collective achievement of international students, but for some reason it doesn’t sit well with me. For every 45, there’s a 22, for every university acceptance, there are dozens of fails. Yes, I get the celebratory aspect, especially in a pandemic, but aren’t international schools supposed to achieve at the highest levels?

I’m a sucker for a great story. I expect the achievers to achieve, just like the American, Chinese and ROC athletes. I don’t get excited about the medal count.

But give me the Italian high jumper tying arguably the greatest high jumper in history and I can’t stop thinking about it all day.

In our business, we talk a lot about growth as being our indicator of success. We want to move the needle on everyone, but the power of education to get someone where they didn’t expect to be (on the podium) is extraordinary. The girl from Syria, sent on scholarship by her family out of a refugee camp. The boy from Mali, displaced by conflict and accessing an international curriculum for the first time in his life. The Senior whose parents divorced and left him in a country far from home. Those are the moments, the indicators of our success, so much more than a number that, frankly, we are supposed to earn. We are, as privileged institutions, expected to be on the podium.

So, until the summer transitions to yet another pandemic opening, I will continue to watch my badminton, pole vault, gymnastics, and diving, looking for the opportunity to make a difference to that learner that might not expect to be on that podium, and to scream in adulation and excitement when they do.

Lupus in fabula

They courageously took their masks off, one by one, breathing in the fresh, clean air of an early Spring day. It had been months in the making, this sojourn of artists to a neighboring museum, an appropriate stage for the products of a two year journey.  

The relief was palpable. They sipped bubbly water, taking in the people crossing the street at the nearby cafe, trying to live out ordinary lives in an extraordinary time. But nothing was ordinary, as this age of uncertainty and stress draped over the annual ritual of hope and commencement like a resilient strain.   

The painstakingly planned exhibition reflected more than ever a similarly painful journey of people whose stories had become as significant as the ceramics, sketches, photography, and textiles. Their humanity transcended criteria in a time of crushing challenges.

Lupus in Fabula, an Italian expression, literally meaning ‘the wolf in the fairy tale which is, as we know, the heart of nearly every children’s fable. The expression came from author Bruce Feiler who quoted it in a book I’m reading called “Life is in the Transitions.”

It seemed like an apt metaphor for the circumstances under which these people produced their art.

Several years ago, I invited an expert on data from the National University of Singapore to visit and help me realign my definition of success in school and how I measured it. I was failing miserably in the usual indicators of “success” under which every Principal’s head was lain, pouring my energies into the success of others rather than my own survival in a survival of the fittest culture. My neck was on the line and I needed a win, however small. 

She sat down in my office as I closed the door, gently sipping from the tea I had served her, and smiled, waiting for my response to her question. “Well, what is it? You must be doing something well?”

I felt a small lump in my throat. No one had asked me that question in three years at the school.

I told her about the dramatic gains we had achieved with students that came to us with learning and emotional support needs, the improvement in English for the newcomers, the sense of belonging students felt thanks to our advisory program, the discoveries students had made about talents they didn’t know they had in spite of their parents pre-determined wishes for them. 

You know, the things we never measured. 

She laughed and yelled, “THEN START MEASURING THEM!” 

Seven years later, I contacted her to check in and shared the artist story, how they painfully, emotionally, started opening up, exchanging not tales of relief and accomplishment per the norm, but of being judged, rejected, and unhappy. They actually wanted to stay, to remain in the cocoon. It was incredulous, not the usual ‘can’t wait to leave this popsicle stand in the rearview’ I’d come to expect. 

The one whose parents were disappointed that he wasn’t taking the path that had been chosen for him but had accepted him for his newfound happiness. 

 The one whose family lived faraway and couldn’t share in the journey.

The newcomer who had to fulfill dreams at any cost.

The one afraid to leave the house due to a dreaded virus. 

The one who overachieved to prove it could be done.

They told their stories and talked about their fears. Their real, deep seated fears that, when looking back, were evident in their art as a connection to the person, not some loosely defined object designed to please an examiner. They spoke not of achievement but in symbolic terms of the wolves that had attacked their fairy tales.

“So what are you going to do with that?” the professor asked. “Can you measure this?” 

“I have no idea,” I said. The self assessment of the students, focusing on their humanity, not their achievement, caught me by surprise. I thought they would have reverted back to the old I hope this uni accepts me, and I hope I can go to so and so to live in London and I really hate chemistry but I need at least a four to get in.

But they didn’t. They just talked in a very accepting way, a very courageous, honest way about what had gotten them to this point, for better or worse with circumstances they couldn’t control.

She paused on the phone.

“It’s the great accelerator,” she said. “I don’t know if you can measure this one.”

“How do you mean?”

“It’s taken away that moment, that glimmer in the eye when they think anything is possible because in this moment of history they have been forced to realize that maybe it is not. That’s usually an epiphany that hits you in your thirtees.”

We both laughed. Yes, the normal metrics for success had gone out the window. Even the IB has lost the plot on how to measure success, I smiled.

I thought about all the things I poured my life energy into (coaching stressed out department heads, negotiating learning challenges with families, unravelling conflict, attending open ended meetings that unveiled enormous problems with few answers). All of the illusions of control cast into the spotlight by a situation that no one could control.

“So how do you bottle that?” she asked. “How do you take that moment with those people together, sharing that journey in spite of the obstacles and making something of it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “All I can think of is telling them to stay in touch with each other and to have a chance to share their story.”

“Gratitude,” she said. “Measure that and you’ve found your metric.”

Credibility vs Visibility

Lady Gaga has 83.2 million followers on Twitter. The Dalai Lama has approximately 20 million. Cap’n Crunch, the iconic sugary cereal mascot of my youth, has 790. The Weather Channel, 3.8m.

Our ‘truths’ seem to be measured in likes, views, followers and retweets. Visibility, casting itself as the gatekeeper of what we want to believe.

Much has been written about the polarization of people thanks to algorhythms that suggest more of what we want to see and hear. This keeps us in a comfortable, likable, predictable (and dangerous) bubble. Your customized news, entertainment, sports and cultural sources are all here to serve…you.

Kara Swisher the host of the podcast “Pivot,” recently said that ‘feelings are not facts.’ In other words, you cannot just decide not to believe something because you don’t like it or it’s not convenient. You have to do some work.

We used to rely on the teacher, the priest, the judge, the parent, the text as those sources of credibility because they were close to us, visible in the community, tangible and accountable to those around them, and invested in the truth.

Now, that person or information source doesn’t have to be visible to the naked eye or touchable. Credibility is now in the form of upward thumb signs, followers, and shares, a true democratization of what people want rather than what they need to believe. I even read once that most celebrities and influencers don’t even manage their own social media accounts! Can you believe that?

Twitter is starting a crowdsourcing service called ‘birdwatching,’ where, similar to Wikipedia, people can become certified fact checkers and contribute to a credibility rating for postings that trend. On one hand, it’s nice to feel that people are empowered to contribute to truth. On the other, it opens up a world of possibility to those that want to shape others to their versions of what is true.

I belong to a social media group that posts a lot of messages about bikes and bike repair. Lots of people weigh in on a lot of ideas about things from derailleurs to seats to tires. It’s tempting to go with the most liked advice on the best seat to cross Siberia but no one is saying, ‘seats are dumb and don’t exist.’ We all have that basic agreement.

When I was teaching in the 1990s, I used “Lies My History Teacher Told Me,” (by James Loewen) and “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn to offer research based alternative views on factual events. These texts gave voice to the unheard, portraits of actual events that were not invented, but omitted. They made things already credible visible, not credible because they were visible. My students had the opportunity not to decide what to believe (because it was all true), but rather base their opinions on the facts in front of them, contrary as some of them may have seemed. It was also a quieter time, when the information age was only a trickle, allowing students to consider a couple of truths and deciding where to land before they moved onto the next question. Now, it seems as though the firehose is fully opened.

It’s not easy to resist something that has 2M likes or retweets. The visibility, the comfort in knowing others agree, is so human it’s hard to resist. We think something is cute, inspiring, sad, dangerous and we cannot help but to believe it because it makes us feel a certain way.

Feelings are not facts and credibility is not always visible. It takes hard work and a willingness to look past what is easy or agreeable to make up our minds about basic truths that we need to accept in order to keep learning on course and communities together.

Snow Day

In 2018 I stood next to a man at a bus stop in Singapore. He was wearing a tee shirt that read, “There’s no day like a snow day.” I laughed so hard I had to take a picture (to which he obliged). I asked him if he had any idea what it meant, and of course didn’t. My explanations didn’t help much. It’s a location thing.

In 2009, in my first year on the job as the Principal of a Swiss boarding school nestled on the side of a ski mountain, I relished the first opportunity I had to invoke my executive privilege of calling a ‘snow day,’ which was a spontaneous act of sheer joy proclaimed twice a winter after a particularly heavy evening of powder and an opportunity for the entire school to skip classes and hit the slopes.

In stormy New England in the 1980s as a student and later as a teacher in the 1990s, my eyes would be glued to the television as the names of school districts scrolled in alphabetical order like the returns from a close Mayoral race. Mine was the only one with the letter “Q” so you had to pay close attention right when the “P’s” started:

Plymouth. Pocasset. Popponesset. Provincetown.

And there it would appear, like the golden ticket. Quincy. I’d leap from my chair (even as an adult), screaming at the top of my lungs the tribal, primal scream that had been passed down through the generations.

Snooooow Daaaaayyyyy! SNOOOWWWWW DAYYYYYYYY! I’d jump and down, waking everyone in the house, throwing whatever I could grab up in the air, fist pumping like Kirk Gibson after his famous home run, wild eyed with crazed euphoria.

It was a feeling like none other followed by a sumptuous day of unstructured fun, calling friends for sledding, and forgetting about everything I was supposed to be thinking about for just. one. day.

In 2020, December 3 to be exact, my daughter and I stood at the window of our house in Zagreb, Croatia watching the first flakes of the first snow since who knew when since we stopped keeping track of time in the pandemic and had resorted to the ancient rituals of watching seasons pass and sunrise changes. I put my arm around her and said,

“Hey, on a day like this, we’d probably be calling a snow day.” Like the man at the bus stop in Singapore, she looked bewildered as I explained. When I told her that it was one of the few times of the school year when a feeling of pure euphoria and joy overwhelmed us, she looked up and said, “I could use some of that now.”

And then I paused and had an evil thought. The pandemic had brought with it the end of snow days. I did the quick calculus. Computers. Virtual Learning. Zoom. It was over. OVER! There were no longer any reasons, excuses, or euphoric celebrations. They were a thing of the past. It wasn’t SNOWWW DAYYYY!!! It was, “Due to the inclement weather, we’ll be transitioning to a virtual day. Homeroom starts in 15 minutes. Please make sure you click on the link.”

I couldn’t accept that. I can’t accept that. This was as bad as saying we didn’t need books anymore. I had to do something about snow days, even if they were technically a thing of the past. I had to find a way to capture that spontaneous euphoria, that crazy joy when the routine was stopped, the unplanned was now possible, and we could all just run around and sip hot chocolate or ice tea, and roll around in the snow or surf and sip whatever beverage or comfort food was appropriate to the geography.

I had to find a way to pass onto this pandemic saddened generation that there really is and was NO day like a SNOW day.

I have to find a way.

TOp Ten Teacher Interview Questions for 2020

  1. Describe your dream house and where it would be, etc.
  2. What will be the reason you quit this job if you ever do?
  3. What do you need from our school in order for you to be a success?
  4. What would you be doing if you were not a teacher?
  5. Paint a picture for me of a student-centered environment without using the word student or centered.
  6. What do the best virtual teachers do to ensure their students are learning?
  7. If you could redesign one thing about schools, what would it be?
  8. What question haven’t I asked that you would like to answer?
  9. How do you think culture impacts learning and what have you done about that in your career?
  10. What famous person would you like to have a coffee with and what would be your first question?

Gigworker

Croatians are apparently the tallest people in the world next to the Dutch, or something like that. So, when an Uber driver picked me up with his feet wrapped around the steering wheel of a VW Up! like it was a toy, I wasn’t shocked. What caught my attention was that he was also a pro basketball player. “Gotta stay diversified,” he laughed. “I broke my ankle last season and the insurance runs out fast. I know I’m never going to the NBA and only the top leagues in Europe pay and only then if you start. I’m in a crappy league and I just lost my starting job when I came back from the ankle. So, here I am in the offseason. I also work in my cousin’s café on Split in the summers.”

“Really?” I said. “That’s a lot of jobs.”

“It’s the Croatian way.” he said. “We all have a lot of, what do you say, gigs? ” I laughed. “Yeah, that’s what we call them, I guess.” I only had one gig. His comment started to make me feel insecure.

When I first heard the expression on the podcast “Pivot” (with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway), I mistakenly thought it referred to something hip like “gigabytes” or people working as digital nomads.

After a quick Google, it presented as less inspiring than that. I know that the idea of having gigs has been around a long time. Bartenders and waiters, seasonal workers, consultants, etc. But the idea of a Gig Economy as a bigger thing is gaining momentum as companies become less institutional in terms of places that people go for a job and more organic in terms of their reach and how and where they operate.

We’ve all heard the stories of the largest hotel company not owning any hotels and the taxi company without taxis. It’s astonishing, for example, that the same place you can buy suitcases and a Peloton (Amazon) is also a company that has the largest government cloud storage contract on the planet. So, everyone is diversifying. We can thank technology, the uncertainty of pandemic, competition.

What it makes me think about is the unspoken rules that we teach at school that hard work gets you immediate feedback that then leads to a clear path for success that then leads you to a future of predictability and promise. Does that contradict the Gig Economy? Who knew that hard work wouldn’t be rewarded or that I’d have to work four jobs?

It’s a bit dangerous, it seems, to have Gen Xers like myself trying to educate the Gen Ys and Zs. When I first got into teaching, my colleagues were products of the 1950s and 60s and literally had no idea how to operate a computer. I grew up in the information age. Talk about irrelevance. But now the problem of connection isn’t one based on computing, but community and what that looks like.

It feels like it’s our responsibility to provide some constants in a Gig Economy, but that doesn’t mean retreating to the basics that this pandemic lures us into doing. We can be forward thinking but grounded in the ability to methodically prepare, to resist instant gratification, and to be a good partner. What scares me about the Gig worker mentality is in spite of the freedom and creativity it portends to, also leaves people fending for themselves, which seems dangerous. I believe that schools are one of the last institutions that are the calm in the storm. In spite of their intransigence, they are the constants, the communities that we depend on, and most importantly, a non-judgemental harbinger of hope in humanity.

I don’t want to educate IB students that end up disillusioned, driving Ubers with their diploma hanging on the rearview. I also don’t want to make everything uncertain so that the foundation dissolves beneath their feet. But if we are going to continue to tilt towards a gig economy, then we have to resist the compromise of self reliance and realize that we run a lot further together than we can accomplish sprinting by ourselves.

Pivot

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

Now for the hard part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is us. The two legged stool.

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

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

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

Ken and Covid: Two disruptive forces that changed my life

When I saw Ken Robinson’s cleverly animated video about how schools kill creativity in 2007 , I knew that my teaching career would never be the same. It was the tail end of the No Child Left Behind epoch when schools had become barren deserts of accountability and pedantic threats about performance.

When Covid hit in 2020, I knew that my administrative career would be changed forever, not only because I had to re-design the logistics of learning, but because the stuff we put into place and the impact it had on culture would not be reversible for a long time.

The Vulnerable Leader

I sat with my new teacher leader team, without anytime to talk about norms, feelings, or Myers-Briggs results, and put them to work. I felt like a lieutenant in a WWI trench handing rifles to 16 year old new recruits and sending them over the top. I knew they weren’t prepared but we were in crisis. For the first time in my 18 years as an administrator, I didn’t know how anything was going to work. I’d dealt with tragic deaths, trauma, bomb threats, riots (yes riots), but beneath all of that was a solid foundation of a school that served as a baseline. Now the baseline was dissolving. I could no longer pretend that I had any answers to anything and people depended on me to know. So, I turned to them, and said things like, “I can no longer solve the problems that I don’t know exist yet. You are going to have to be comfortable with this uncertainty without panicking our team or our students.” They saw a side of me that Principals aren’t supposed to show. We aren’t supposed to shrug and say “I don’t know.”

We all act like we are supposed to be honest and open and all the conferences we go to talk about the power of collaboration and distributed leadership, etc. but it’s all superficial stuff. This vulnerability went to my core. It wasn’t just assigning some committee on literacy. It was running the bloody school. Strangely, it felt liberating. I was forced to reconsider the principle that my job was to remove obstacles so people could focus on teaching and learning. I could no longer stay true to that core belief because there were too many obstacles. Simply, too many. I imagined how hard the same experience must have been for teachers that had to make the same choices whether or not to reveal their vulnerable selves to their students. This reveal didn’t mean I had given up or was asking them to save the day. Quite the contrary. I knew the battles that had to be fought. I just needed help.

Sir Ken ignited the passion within me that schools had to do something drastic, and now that moment has arrived, accelerated by a pandemic. Virtual learning, outdoor and experiential education, redesigned timetables, creativity. All of it has become turbo charged in an environment of chaos. The one and only thing I’ve learned from the loathsome President of my native country is that there’s all kinds of opportunity in chaos. Right now it is in abundant supply. So, rather than feeling like Sir Ken and his legions are pushing cement blocks up the mountain of stagnancy and consistent IB scores, we are really and truly at the precipice of the change he wanted to see in the world.

God Bless, Sir Ken and thank you for your gifts to the world. I will miss you.

Re-Design, Don’t Reopen

Are we going to be the same but different post-Covid?

I read a post recently that said re-opening is going to be like playing three dimensional chess in a hurricane on one leg.

Ok, maybe in New York public schools.

Besides that, it’s really not that dramatic.

Use common sense. Social distance. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. It’s not rocket science.

We didn’t have IB exams this year. Did the world stop spinning? Maybe for schools that overpredicted, yes. Otherwise, did we learn that maybe summative exams don’t determine the course of our lives?

This is a real opportunity for school leaders to make a difference and to stop making excuses 21 years, yes 21 years into 21st century learning. What is truly amazing about this pandemic is that it has literally created classrooms without walls. Now let’s step into the void and create something special.

If you are opening full virtual, then you have a huge opportunity (sorry primary) to get students out into the field to do things they’ve never done before, to have an impact on their communites and environment, to interact with nature and their surroundings rather than the four walls of a classroom and to do something. (With masks, social distancing and handwashing of course).

If you’re opening hybrid then you can do similar things now that the learning spectrum has expanded, bringing back their experiences, redesigning timetables to accomodate this work, and developing interdisciplinary teams across subjects to

Tom Kelley, CEO of IDEO said, “Creative confidence is the ability to come up with great ideas and the courage to try them out.” Pundits have called Covid-19 ‘the great accelerator.’ In other words, innovations that would have taken 10 years in normal times, such as in healthcare, online shopping, food service, travel, and yes, education, are happening now.

Re-opening cannot simply mean putting all of our energy into temperature checks and cafeteria grids. It has to mean so much more. The line ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ has been bouncing around and it’s incumbent upon leaders to understand what this means for schools beyond returning to status quo.

Yes, it’s unsettling to introduce new things when everyone just wants to revert back to September 2019. Yes, it’s tempting just to make everyone feel stable again by lining children up in 2 meter separate rows. But, what does this disruption tell us about the fundamental role of schools? Why do we gather in a space to learn? Do we really care anymore about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand for crying out loud?

I have too often enabled the comfortable boundaries of investigating uncertainty through the academic lens. All of that important stuff, whether it be socioeconomic injustice, environmental collapse, racial divide all through the relative ease of a formative assessment.

But now we cannot even go to school because of something that has called everything into question.

What an opportunity.

It is our responsibility to realign the WHY of what we do (thanks Simon Sinek) and connect it to the HOW. It’s no longer good enough to proclaim exceptional IB scores on LinkedIn or brag about university admittance. If we value things like learners having the “mental agility to solve problems we’ve never seen before,” or to “see the big picture, zero in on minute details, and move things around to make a difference,” (Vivien Luu, HR Vision, 2016) then we have to do a much better job of connecting the world to our schooling than a CAS project that hardly scratches the surface.

We continue to train kids to do school. Now that this has blown up, it has exposed a lot of shortcomings (well beyond access to WiFi). We act like we are teaching resiliency and adaptability, but this crisis has really shone a spotlight on the fact that we can do a LOT better (this goes for teachers and admin too). We act like we are building capacity for problem solvers and creative thinkers, but we panic when a student falls short on a conditional offer in HL Math. I don’t get it.

Don’t waste this crisis when you go back. Take care of the hand sanitizing and the temperature checks and the socio-emotional learning, but most of all, resist the temptation to restore order. This is your crisis to move forward on the type of learners we are going to need to save the planet.

Don’t waste it.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, What Big Disasters Tell Us All.

A small gathering of people, heads bowed, sit on makeshift benches in the open air of a small town in the American West, surrounded by the rubble of what used to be their church. A powerful nation, wounded by a brazen and public act of violence that crumbles two symbols of its economy, impulsively reacts with rage and violence.

There’s nothing like crisis to expose us for who we are and what we value (and don’t). It’s cathartic, like a near death experience. (Which unfortunately is what this can be).

In schools, we like to think we’re ready because we plan (fires, cobras yes that’s a thing, earthquake, gas leak, military coup, invader, etc.). I’ll never forget the time in Switzerland when the local fire department made me enter a simulated smoky room tent and follow recorded screams to the other side with a fire extinguisher in my hand as I tried to spray a burning stove. My heart was beating out of my chest, my tie nearly caught fire, and no plan in the world was going to help. It was terrifying (and awesome).

So forget about the neat lines of elementary kids quietly walking down stairs in rows to the pre-planned fire drill on a sunny day out through the cafeteria and lining up on the football pitch. This ‘stuff’ is for real.

Remember how dysfunctional your communications were before the pandemic? I bet that got sorted fast. Remember those needy and at risk students before the lockdown? Are they worse than ever? Possibly. Remember how much difficulty the science department had collaborating when they were in person? How’s that working out now through a screen?

All of those things that we either ignored but knew could be problems, hoped to get to later but never had the time and wished would fix themselves, are now screaming at us like one huge virtual siren. Similarly, so is the great stuff. I bet those popular pep rallies are better than ever on Zoom!!

Economics pundits are recording with fascination how the work universe is re-sorting itself. Visionary businesses like Amazon and Netflix are gobbling up the opportunity while the insecure or unprepared are suffering. (Maybe we didn’t need all that oil after all). Same goes for us.

If your organization over-promised and underdelivered before the crisis, you’re probably in trouble now. If you didn’t properly support or train your teachers before the crisis, you’re in trouble. If you didn’t build trust with your parent community before March, you’re really in trouble. If you didn’t build a culture of transparency and respect and yes, love, before, then the current shutdown for you might extend well beyond when things open up again.

At the risk of sounding insensitive, these current times are leadership gold. They are providing a clear path to us about not only what is really important about learning, but what we are made of as institutions and what cannot wait for the next accreditation cycle.

Of course, a lot of schools and businesses might pick up right where they left off. There may be socially distanced parties, unveiling of statues built for lower elementary and Pre-K teachers, and an increase in community building. But things might just drift back to the way they were.

Don’t let that happen. Even if things were good.

This is the greatest scorecard of all time. It’s better than accreditation, a PhD from Bath, and a Klingenstein Fellowship rolled into one. It’s the mirror, looking straight at our unshaven and unkempt faces, telling us exactly who we are and what is our potential.

Don’t waste it.