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.

The Tao of Escalators: A Culture Story

Two things fascinate me about the institution of schooling: 1) How the environment around the school impacts the culture of the school and 2) The structure of the school management and how it makes decisions.

I went out for an alumni dinner from my alma mater last week and had some fascinating conversations with people that had very different careers from my own. One, a fresh graduate, was a management consultant for Ernst & Young. He told some stories about the cultures of certain businesses and how it was his job to realign them to be more purposeful. “The oil industry is all compliance driven,” he said, “So it’s tough to build in any creativity or things out of the norm. It was my job to untangle their complex and clogged systems of compliance to allow more flexibility in a rapidly changing market to allow for adaptations before things went into the tank.” Schools hire strategic consultants to come up with all sorts of things like new technology programs, NGSS, literacy initiatives, accreditations, and so on. A few take symbolic gestures at governance structures but they are mostly compliance driven and address things like whether or not the procedures for updating the policy manual have been reviewed. Very few allow someone to come in and look under the hood to see what’s really driving the work flow. (or not).

A second man, a Singaporean who had attended my university for banking and commerce, told an equally fascinating story when I complained about how awful school mission statements were. “Did you know,” he said, “that the MRT in Singapore supposedly had the fastest escalators in the world? It was part of their mission to grow the fastest and most efficient economy on the planet.”

“Really?” I said. “Faster than now because they’re really fast.”
“Oh, way faster. This is nothing.”

“So, what happened?” I asked. “How come they no longer have the fastest ones?”
“Too many older people were getting hurt. They would hesitate at the top and be afraid to get on like a carnival ride. And a lot of times when they stepped on they’d fall or something would happen. It was like an out of control conveyer belt.”

“Wow, that’s fast.”

“Yeah, they only go about half speed now.”

It made me reflect on what a critical thing such as cultural attitudes towards work can impact something so operational as escalator speed. When we work in a hyper competitive environment, we don’t pay attention to the big picture, whether we are ‘compliance driven’ as the management consultant described, or even the people trying to step onto a whizzing escalator. We pay attention to the output, the outcomes, and the pressures that force the escalator to move faster or the oil company to be more compliant.

The young graduate told me that he simply crunched a lot of data and pointed things out for them to decide. He’d highlight the time for supply chains to reach their destinations, for invoices to be approved, for policy decisions to be made, all of the meat and potatoes of managing large companies. It was fascinating to think about the similarities to schools. And the escalator speed? Fascinating parallels. I know a lot of people (including myself) that have gotten tossed from that high speed staircase.

There are actually some really bold attempts to break down the compliance driven, top down, creativity, risk averse, and fear driven hierarchies that many educators work in now. One is The Mastery Transcript Consortium, ( which is looking to redefine the way we think about and record high school academic work, and the other is the ACE Accreditation from NEASC, a bold initiative that is going to reshape the entire structure of oil company compliance that drives many schools.

So, whether you’re working in a bureaucratic and inefficient environment such as one where the post office closes during lunch (a very maddening experience) or one that is so efficient it is tossing retired folks off the conveyer belt like potatoes, you have to acknowledge and accept that the culture that surrounds you will have a direct impact on the place you work and the expectations placed on you, regardless of how high your gates are or how bold you believe your mission to be.

Think culture. Think mission. Think environment. And most of all, think relationships, they are the root of everything we do.

Carpool Karaoke

You ever watch Carpool Karaoke with James Corden? If you haven’t you’re missing a real treat. If you’ve ever driven a car, you have certainly sung along with your favorite tunes on the radio. It’s fun, it’s liberating, and you don’t care what you sound like.

Imagine if class was like that?

Now, I’m not saying that most of you teachers are not fun and liberating, but I’ve been in a lot of classes in my lifetime and a lot of them not liberating. I think that’s why I went into the business, to resist that feeling that I had when I was in school.

When I watch Carpool, I see really famous people not afraid to be themselves, actually showing how nervous they are, and just being real people. It’s therapy in an amazing way. On one episode, Ed Sheeran told James that he was extremely nervous to be on the show Ed Sheeran!. It was shocking to hear that such a famous person could be nervous. He said it was because he needed his guitar as “armor” as James put it. What does that say about how he grew up and was able to face the things he did to become who he is today? Did school help or hurt that process? Did it liberate him? Hmmm.

I’ve watched episodes with Elton John, Beyoncé, Sam Smith, Adele, Miley Cyrus and every time I smile because I see how much joy they are having in the simple act of singing along with the radio in a car. The simple act of un-judged expression. The freedom to express without judgement. Isn’t that where creativity begins?

We have elevators in my school. Only the Seniors can ride in them as a privilege. They are in the middle of “mock exams” right now for the IB which is another expression for preparing for war. The kids are stressed out, overtired, and on the edge of collapse. I’ve tried to resist that stress put on them but it’s a machine that goes well beyond me.

So, I do my own Carpool Karaoke. When I’m riding in the elevator with a group of them, I start “Elevator Karaoke.” Sometimes I bring printed lyrics so that they can get the words. It’s liberating, a little awkward, and really, really fun.

Then the door opens and we all go back to work.

I’m Not In Love…Your Job Search Survival Guide

This is a difficult and glorious time of year. And I’m not talking about going home and dealing with the family you haven’t seen since summer or gift shopping in Dhaka. I’m talking about those of you looking for work in the next phase of your international adventure.

It’s hard. It’s really hard. Especially as the number of the schools in the world grows exponentially and the education landscape is more complex than ever and schools are grabbing people up like Halloween candy.

Take a breath. A deep breath.

First of all, enjoy the holiday. I know many of you are making a quick holiday exit to one of the January fairs, but take some time away from that email and focus on the most important reasons you are living the life you lead besides job searching. The hunt goes on well into March and even April. (And that doesn’t include hiring in North America or other parts of the world).

So, here’s my survival guide for you staff and teachers and even administrators looking for that next post. I’ve had lots of experience on both sides of the proverbial table and have learned truly what it feels like.

So, here goes…

1) Be clear about who you are and what makes you special as a teacher. In other words, stand for something. This seems a bit odd for #1, but I read a LOT of CVs that seem to say the same thing over and over. Accentuate something that you’re really good at and passionate about and drive it home.

2) Stop job jumping. I know there’s not a lot you can do about that now, but I (and many Heads) skip right past the 2,2,3,2,2, years at posts. Believe me, I know what it’s like to be at a place that you feel is a big mismatch, but you only get one, two max on that one. Otherwise, you really need to come up with a better plan to stick around at a school or have a very clear reason why you are moving on. It’s okay if it didn’t work out but you need to differentiate yourself from the teacher tourists. And if you are a teacher tourist, you are at the end of the line!

3) Personalize your experience by telling a STORY. Don’t just talk in generalities about your skills. And be honest in that story, about your mistakes, your setbacks, your ability to overcome, your generosity of spirit, the who you are and how you handled it. Recruiters love that.

4) Do NOT interview or apply to a place that you cannot envision yourself at for FOUR YEARS minimum. That’s right. Four years. It’s not fair to you, it’s not fair to the kids that deserve the BEST teachers in the world. If in your heart you cannot imagine yourself at the school for a minimum of four years, then find a way to get out of the process. It’s better for everyone.

5) ALWAYS include your Head of School or Principal as a reference. I know it’s hard sometimes, but we recruiters get really suspicious when your only line managers are department heads and coordinators. That sends off a red flag and we call the Head anyway. Yes, we know that there are some mean directors and principals out there, but the reality is that you need to get on good enough terms to put them down on your list.

6) At LEAST read the mission statement of the school and tailor your candidacy towards what you believe the school stands for. I know that a lot of the statements are the same, but you need to familiarize yourself as best possible with how the school presents itself and how you put yourself towards it as a match.

7) Don’t fall in love. Whatever you do, don’t fall in love with a school. If you REALLY want a job, act as though you don’t, or at least that you have other options. Keep calm, present yourself in a light that is balanced and enthusiastic, but not desperate. In other words, SKIP the recruiter/candidate mixer. I’ve seen too many people embarrass themselves at these awkward events and you need to keep yourself together.

That’s all. Best of luck. Stay focused. Remember that if you are good, you’ll definitely get a job. And ALWAYS remember that everything you do is about making the world a better place for future generations, not so you can go mountain biking or skiing.

Best of luck, and here’s one of my favorites to keep you balanced in the search…

Please Don’t…

In one of my finer moments as an educational leader, I stood in front of an assembly of 400 students and stuck a microphone in front of a 10th grader, asking him to tell us what the mission statement meant to him (cue the mic squeaking). His eyes widened as his friends leaned back away from him as though something terrible was about to happen (which it was).

“Please don’t” he mumbled into the mic. The entire assembly cracked up. I think I recall offering to pay for the boy’s therapy later. Or at least a few rounds of medication. It was pretty bad. But as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

It has been fun to witness the sea change taking place in education, particularly around innovation and designs around learning rather than testing. But one thing is starting to really scare me.

I saw my first “creativity rubric.” Now, ever since I saw Sir Ken’s famous talk about schools killing creativity back in 2007, I have been somewhat obsessed with learning environments that are relevant to what students need to know and be able to do in the next generation. I’ve seen the concept of ‘design’ turned into a curriculum, coding and STEAM, robotics, maker spaces and some pretty good attempts at personalized learning. It’s all good-intentioned stuff and seems to tinker (pun intended) around the edges of the type of skills students need.

Then I went to a workshop on innovation and saw a creativity ‘rubric’ and thought. Oh….My….God. There are so many things that schools take responsibility for in the lives of people, everything from socio-emotional development to music to math to ways of thinking, etc. etc. and for the most part they do a pretty good job. But teaching creativity is the one domain that is going to possibly destroy the very thing it is trying to….create.

I can see it now; Creative Academy. Creative Tutoring. Creative Communities. Creative Commons. Creative Classes. Creativity Labs. Creative Conferences. Creative Rubrics.

I consider myself to be fairly creative. None of it I learned in school. I learned it from hiking in the mountains, praying in Buddhist temples, snorkeling in crystal lakes, lying under majestic palm trees, reading magical pieces of literature, and talking to cab drivers, lots and lots of cab drivers. My life has been open to opportunities that have made me feel very lucky to have had such opportunities to nurture my creativity. I am filled with “what ifs” and “why nots” (which often get me in trouble). I really don’t know if we can teach this.

A creativity rubric is going to formulize the process of being creative. It may even end up with a grade. Can you imagine getting a grade in creativity? (I have no idea how art teachers manage).

What I do know about creativity is that it is deeply rooted in being curious. It is rooted in that ability to transcend your present experience, put yourself into something new, and have all of your senses absorb everything that it can. One of the most creative days I ever had in my life was after climbing the ancient rickety steps of a crumbling castle in Ireland that was traced back to my ancestors. I wrote a story non-stop for six hours after that day and I’ll never forget it.

You cannot teach that.

If you can teach a child to be curious about the world around him or her, then so be it. If you can teach a young person how to strike up a conversation in another language with a man fixing shoes on a side street in Bangkok then so be it. If you can develop in young people the mindset to write a poem in the pew of an ancient church in Lisbon on a rainy day, then all the more power to you.

But whatever you do, please, please don’t turn creativity into a rubric.

Linear Progression

Team moving through the ice fall on the way to camp 2

This story is dedicated to Dan Kerr, a master blogger, friend, and educator.

I was at a baby shower recently in the East Coast section of Singapore for an Indian friend of mine. It was a pleasant evening, and the event took place in an old colonial house built by a British mercantile family in the 1800s. Sitting back to enjoy a paper plate of tandoori chicken and basmati rice, I began to reflect on how my life got me to this point, when a sharply dressed fellow in a white untucked shirt and expensive looking jeans started to chat. “You are the only white person in the room,” he said, interrupting my reflection. “Yes, I know,” I said. “But it’s okay, I’m used to it.” He laughed.

After a few minutes, he began telling me his story. (I think it was after I told him I was a Principal). In social situations, I usually make up some career so that people don’t feel the need to describe their personal opinions, experiences with school, or in this case, pain. Being a helicopter pilot, large animal vet, underwater welder, and sparkling water tester has served me well on other occasions. But not today, when I foolishly decided to tell him what I did.

So, while I stared at my half eaten tandoori, trying to politely listen, he proceeded to embark on a detailed account of his demise. “It all started when I made it to the top of the class,” he said. “That ruined me.”

“Oh?” I asked, genuinely curious. “Yes, it was all too easy. I made the best scores in one of the best schools in India, got a scholarship, made it to New York to work for Price Waterhouse.”

“Yeah?” I said, waiting for the tragic ending. He didn’t disappoint.

“I couldn’t take the failure. It was a really high pressure job and they threw a lot of stuff at me that I was expected to do and I just completely botched it. I started drinking too much, things got worse, and I tried to kill myself at one point.”

I looked over at a group of the Indian women, giggling together as they played one of those shower games with paper cutouts, and tried to maintain my focus on the conversation that was so out of context. He looked at me with pleading eyes. I think I said something like “I don’t know what to say, man.” After he finished his story about how he lost his job but was trying to get his life back in order and had stopped drinking, I asked him what he thought of the whole thing looking back.

“I don’t know man. Maybe it was that I got into this pattern at school that if I just worked hard I’d get the grades and everything seemed to work out. It all just kept moving forward.”

“Linear progression,” I said, smiling with familiarity at the phenomenon. “What?”

“Linear progression. It’s a school affliction. We talk about things like embracing failure and overcoming obstacles, but the margin of error is so small and the setbacks so short lived (especially when angry parents complain), that it’s hardly a pin prick on your arm. You don’t even notice it.”

“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “That was it. I never had a challenge I couldn’t overcome with a little extra work. Then this job really kicked my ass and I thought I was worthless.”

“You’re not worthless,” I told him. “You just went to school. I was going to tell you I was a helicopter pilot but I’m glad we talked. It will be okay,” I said. “I’m glad you stopped drinking and I hope you realize that you have something important to contribute to the world.”

He smiled. “Yeah. Linear progression.”

I put my hand on his knee, took a bite out of the chicken, and got up to rejoin the festivities.

Take What the Mountain Gives You

Nireki Mountain Adventures

Satish Man Pati makes me feel like a thimble of a man. Not because he’s full of great quotes like the title of this essay. Not because he climbed Mt. Everest like I decide to canoe across a lake. Not because he just looks like more of a man than I do. It’s because I watched him sitting with a tin cup filled with hot tea, smiling at 4000 meters as a fading sunset settled behind him on the Annapurna Range (Nepal) and he took the time to ask how I was doing. He watched with calm competence as his team methodically set up camp, assembled cooking stations, and prepared all that was needed to support myself and twenty six people during a trek in his native country. He was the captain of the ship, his love of the mountains surrounding him with good karma, a gentle smile creasing grizzled, unshaven cheeks even as countless details likely ran through his head. This guy who was responsible for so many people at the top of a mountain sipped his tea and asked how I was doing.

I am constantly trying to learn from people that I think are great leaders. And what I loved about Satish was that I knew he had a million things going on, but had that humble majesty of being able to focus on the happiness and safety of the people around him. He was really tuned in to everything, but never seemed to show it. He knew I was nervous about the safety of the students that had never been in the mountains but he took the time to check in to see if I was okay. He was on an emotional intelligence scale that was off the charts.

I took him aside as he sipped his tea, looking contentedly out onto the distant horizon. “Satish,” I asked. “What makes you such a great leader?” He laughed and of course said he was not such a great leader. I disagreed and told him that his team worshipped the ground he walked on. “I’m willing to do any job,” he said. “And I have. They see what I’ve done to get here and I treat them fairly. And I know each of them as people and they treat me the same. We are like family,” he added. “It’s more than a job.” Then what I observed from him that was absolute genius was that he knew his team so well he knew exactly what to expect from them and to put them in a position to be successful. He knew the guys that were the best left to be behind the scenes and the ones that could deal with my students. He knew the ones that could take on the leadership roles and the ones that needed to be told what to do. Not only did he have everyone on the bus, he had them in the right seats. They knew his expectations too. One of the members of the team left a new tin coffee pot that he had purchased at one of the tea houses at the top of the mountain that we had left the day before. It was a five hour climb back. Rather than tell him that it was okay and that they’d buy a new one, he made the guide go back and fetch it. And he did. Satish laughed at my amazement. “The details matter in the mountains,” he laughed. “He’ll remember that.”

When I asked about his relationship to the mountains, he looked past me into the distance and gave me an explanation of the ranges behind us and their connections to the local people. When he was finished, he looked right at me and said, “You have to take what the mountain gives you. You cannot fight that. If it rains, snows, fog, sunshine, whatever. You have to understand it and take it. You cannot fight that.” It sounded so simple, but I thought of how it went against just about everything you heard from adventurers. They fought, resisted what came at them and battled to overcome the obstacles in their way. Satish was not defeatist. Of course, his acceptance was similar to what you hear from great sea captains and those that listen to what their circumstances are telling them.

When you start this new school year, especially if you are going to a new school, take what the mountains give you. When there is chaos all around and you’re responsible for 30 people at a metaphorical 4000 meters, sip some tea from a tin cup, smile with grizzled cheeks, look out onto a setting sun, and realize that by the grace you show towards others and the gratitude you have for what you do in the majestic surroundings of wherever you are, that you got this.

Best of luck this year. The kids need you more than ever.

The Thin Line Between A Successful (and unsuccessful) Job Search

Hi Again;

I’m inspired every day by the teachers I work with. They are consummate professionals and bring their “A” game every day. It’s a competitive world out there and as you know, it all starts with putting your best foot forward in the job hunt process. (By the way, this film on the “job hunt” in Japan is amazing).

I hope these tips help. Best of luck. Stay positive. Things have a way of working out.

1) Inappropriate LinkedIN, CV, SKYPE, etc. photo and/or professional email. Yes, I turned 50, so this is my old man rant. (I didn’t include Facebook profile or Twitter on this list but you’re at your own peril if employers search for them). I am astounded at how many people have suggestive and inappropriate email names that they share with prospective employers. I’m equally amazed at the SKYPE and LinkedIN photos that look like they were taken at nightclubs or on hunting vacations. NOT INTERESTED. Clean up your professional acts! If you have to build a separate LinkedIN account or SKYPE for interviewing then please do it.

2) A casual and unprepared approach to the interview, whether on Skype or in person. Although this could be argued as a generational thing or a sign of the times, I have experienced many instances in which the interviewees just aren’t prepared to be interviewed. Yes, it’s a good idea to wear a tie for a SKYPE!! Saying that the reason you want to work at my school is because you love working with children is NOT an answer. Saying that you value diversity and engaging learners is NOT an answer. I want you to give a SPECIFIC reason as to why and how you are a thoughtful, deeply engaged practitioner. I want you to describe your inspired teaching with the deliberate genius of a sculptor. Capture my imagination. Please don’t tell me that you’re trained in the MYP and have integrated the criteria into your lessons. (I’m going to walk out of the room the next time I hear that).

3) Asking really thoughtful questions that go beyond the boilerplate ones like “How much is the health insurance?” and “What is the travel allowance?” The best questions speak to the culture of the school and the employer’s perspective on what it’s like to work on the team. “What have been your biggest challenges managing growth?” and “What is the organizational culture of your team?” are a couple of my favorites. These questions demonstrate that your are interested and invested in the prospective school and it’s not just another pin on your travel map.

4) Your CV is sloppy, outdated, and/or hard to read. Presentation IS important. I actually had a CV on my desk recently for Principal that spelled it PrinciPLE. I’ve seen gaps in dates, incoherent descriptions, typos, and a complete lack of clarity around the candidate’s actual qualification for said job. Your CV is YOU. It needs to tell YOUR story in a clear, inspiring, coherent way.

That’s all I got for now.

Yes, I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and it’s painful being a candidate. I hope that none of the above applies to you and that you are well versed in the standards of the industry. Thanks for all that you do to be an important part of international education.

Death of a Genius

When I was recruiting for the fifth most expensive boarding school on the planet several years ago, I leaned over to my boss at one of those zany ballroom signup sessions and told him that the prototype hire for us was a public school educated teacher working in a large city.

He nearly choked on his Swiss chocolate.

I still stand by that statement as I write this eulogy for my mentor and friend, George Smith, who died this past week at the age of 69.

I first met George when I started my first teaching job at Quincy High School (MA/USA) in the Fall of 1995. Quincy (pronounced Qwinzee), is the Queens of Boston, the City of Presidents, and the start of my journey into teaching. It’s a seaside town with a proud tradition of shipbuilding and hardscrabble folks who left Boston for a piece of the American dream and a hopeful view of the ocean. It’s the birthplace of two Presidents (John Adams and John Quincy Adams) who are buried directly across the street from where I worked for seven years.

I remember my first days on the job, nervously washing down the black slate board with a dirty rag after I dusted off the long carved wooden chalk tray at its base. I’m not making that up.

“HEY!” a voice yelled at my door, causing me to startle. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THAT RAG!” I turned to see a short man in thick glasses and a frumpy plaid shirt holding a large yellow sponge in one hand and a dusting brush in the other. It was George. “Welcome to the team, kid,” he said more softly. “Try these out, they might work better. And there’s a bucket in the closet over there in the corner if you need some water.”

It was the start of a relationship that would last fourteen years until I left for a life overseas and we lost touch.

It wasn’t easy teaching in Quincy. Minimum class size was about 26, resources were limited, and the audience was tough. George would often give me advice between classes when he’d notice the shell shocked look on my face.

“Hey kid,” he’d say. “You gotta learn to sub for yourself every now and then. Put them to work and sit at your desk. Pull yourself together.” (It was the first and most lasting piece of advice I ever got from a veteran. I pass it onto my teachers even today).

I asked if I could observe him, which was like asking Daniel Day Lewis if you could drop by the set to pick up a few things. He was in a league onto himself, the type of teacher that no one could emulate, replicate or simulate. He had packed classes of students, as diverse a group as any international school from places like Vietnam, China and working class Quincy. The front of his class had four flat wooden tables lined up, stacked with papers like a mad professor at work. The tone of his voice would go from yelling at the top of his lungs to a whisper. He’d run up and down the aisles between the desks, raising his arms up in the air over some historic irony that he pointed out.

In the middle of a sentence about Abe Lincoln or Nikita Khruschev, he’d think of something and go running to the stack of papers. He’d motion hysterically for a reluctant Chinese girl to come up to the front and he’d hand her stacks like a mad scientist on the brink of a discovery. “PASS THIS OUT!” he’d yell. “IT’S GOING TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE!” Everyone was so mesmerized by his animation, it didn’t matter if their English wasn’t good enough to understand what he was talking about.

I wanted to clap at the end of class.

He told me that teaching was the most exhausting job in the world because you had to give five live performances every day. “FIVE A DAY!” he’d scream, waving his finger in the air. “I’ve done more than Yal Brynner!!” (a famous Broadway actor known for over 4000 performances in the King and I).

In the summers, George would organize road trips for us to New York City to do research. He’d pick me up in his Buick Roadmaster station wagon and had a pile of coupons and maps on the front seat. The whole trip was organized to the minute. Diners, cheap hotels in New Jersey, he had it all figured out. We went to obscure places like the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach near Brooklyn, the site of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and Teddy Roosevelt’s homestead in Oyster Bay. (George actually resembled the former President). I felt so energized after the trips that I felt I could teach for the rest of my life.

George wanted to teach AP Economics in the early 1990s, several years after the movie Stand and Deliver. No one thought he had a chance, but he took a class of non-native English speaking Vietnamese, Cambodian and Chinese students and got them all to pass the A.P. Economics exam. ALL OF THEM. He did it by getting the students to use universal symbols of graphing complex economic principles rather than learn the complex English attached to them. His students did so well, that the school was audited by the College Board, just like Jaime Escalante in the movie.

George raised a family of five on a teacher’s salary. In the summers, he’d work full time for the National Park Service in Boston, giving walking tours of the historic district that were just as exhilarating and exhausting as his classes. I joined his tours on several occasions and watched as groups of people from around the world would give him loud ovations at the end, every time. He captivated audiences by painting pictures in the imagination with anecdotes and historic references that made everything accessible, real, and amazingly funny.

Even though I could never emulate his genius, George Smith baptized me in the sacred art of teaching. He filled me with the passion to connect with kids and the simple premise that nothing was more important than making people feel they could do anything if someone believed in them.

I miss you my friend. God bless.

The Tao of Chicken Rice

IMG_6980 (1)

Every Sunday, when I go to my favorite chicken rice place in the world (Lorong 6, Toa Payoh, Singapore) to write and reflect on my experiences as an international educator, I get really good service.

It wasn’t always like that.

The first few times I was ignored while people cut in front of me, ignored me, even took the table that I faithfully reserved with a water bottle and a packet of tissues. (A real faux pas for my fellow hawker eaters). But things gradually changed the more I came and got to know the people and their routines. We got in sync. Now, I get my coffee, shrimp dumpling soup, and chicken rice with simply eye contact. I had become, in a sense, acculturated to my environment.

This past week, I was trying to make my way back from a short getaway to an island on a packed ferry off the coast of Malaysia. A ferry showed up on time. Then it left. Then a bigger one showed up, presumably due to the large number of people trying to board. Then it left. Then we waited for almost an hour to board. As the tide continued to recede, we were boarded in order by section (A-D) even though we were all stuffed into the same cabin. It was a waste of time.

Then we got stuck on a sandbar.

I turned to a woman next to me, her overstuffed purse on her lap. “I’m from the Philippines,” she smiled. “We’re used to this sort of thing.” I watched the current ripping past us as we struggled, inch by inch to get off the sand.

Trying to keep my focus off the peril that awaited us, I watched a Rambo movie playing on an old screen at the front whose sound was blasting over the speakers. I looked around sheepishly as he mowed down scores of Asian soldiers in a remote jungle, his tanned muscles rippling with the recoiling machine gun. The boat started listing. We weren’t going anywhere. Why did we leave so late? Why did they allow so much baggage? Why are they playing violent American movies of Asian people getting blown up? (We eventually became unstuck when the captain moved everyone toward the bow).

The road to my island escape was lined with hectares of palm plantations as far as the eye could see, the scourge of my part of the world as an easy buck that fuels everything from Ritz crackers to Nutella and clouds the skies of my part of the world for months with pollution as the fields burn.

Along the road past my beach bungalow was a sea turtle sanctuary, the carcass of a gigantic rusting freighter that was being cut up for scrap, (making a section of the beach dangerous and unusable), mounds of plastic and trash, and an enormous hotel that was being constructed by migrant laborers living in muddy shacks covered with palm fronds.

This is our world.

A juxtaposition of threatened species and people trying to survive, of big conglomerates and small gestures toward sustainability. Of ignorance and beauty. Hope and hopelessness.

I stood with my hands on my hips, sweating profusely as I listened to an earnest volunteer at the turtle sanctuary tell me the greatest thing that she had learned was not about the ecology of the turtles but the importance of learning the cultures around her and the assimilation of values necessary to protect the species.

“We have a man who used to take all the eggs on the beach and bring them to the village. Instead of trying to stop him, we buy the eggs. Then we raise the turtles. That was a big victory for us.”

I wrote about this as I enjoyed my chicken rice routine, satisfied at my connection to the chicken rice culture but looking for the messages in these other experiences, and wondering what, if anything I could do about this in my role as an educator.

Would my students know what to do about the sea turtles competing with the people next door trying to survive?

What would they think about the village destroying the beach as they tried to attract tourists?

Do they know anything about the effects of palm oil?

Do they think Rambo movies are cool?

Sustainability is hard, complex work embedded with cultural phenomenon that goes back centuries. It’s the work that governments do badly and that people on a small scale do exceptionally well. Yes, thinking global and acting local.

In a microcosm, my chicken rice experience mirrored the type of education we need to give our children. To observe, to acculturate, to gain acceptance. To create change. It’s hard but essential work, not the type of thing that is easy to grade or find in a textbook.

I finished my coffee and my writing for the morning, got up and gave the ladies at the busy counter my usual smile. “See you next week,” I waved. “See you next week,” they said in unison. “See you next week.”

Right Before My Very Eyes

So, I was reading through my copy of The Straits Times the other day on the way to work in the best underground transit system on the planet. It’s clean, always on time, and it tells you where you are and where you’re going. It even has air-con and wifi. Yes, I said wifi. In the subway. And it never drops.

The MRT in Singapore is so good that it’s easy to look past it, kind of like it’s easy to look past the world right in front of us as we set our mind on the gates of the international schools waiting for us. After all, what could be more important?

What I learned from the paper was that the community outside my door was struggling with the same issues we often face as international school leaders. It’s just that we rarely take the time to compare.

On page six, I learned that in nearby South Korea, government and industry was perplexed by the lack of productivity and high burnout due to people working long hours but not necessarily in a healthy or productive way. They were taking measures to explore the impact of a top-down culture and ways to improve employee voice to enhance the worker climate.

On page one, the Singapore Ministry of Education was making plans to shakeup the testing environment that determined a child’s future in a high stakes tests at around age 12. Instead, they have decided to ‘increase the bandwidth’ of the acceptable range of talents and skills that each child may possess, so that more students will focus less on an outcome number and more on outcome talent (sort of).

And at a local school I have been in contact with (how many of you know where the nearest local school is?), I found out that they are struggling with the same issues around developing innovative practice and managing stress and wellness as we are at our school. And they’re right down the street.

And a week ago, I was lucky enough to host a local performance poet artist for lunch who happened to be featured on Tedx in 2013 and asked the question whether or not the people in her native country were dreamers. Aren’t we asking ourselves the same questions?

So, before you swipe your card at the security gate and whisk yourself to that all important meeting about IB courses or the next maker space or data driven decision, take a look around you and think about why you’re in international education.

You’d be amazed at what’s right before your very eyes. (It’s old school but still sweet).

And to get you feeling stronger every day through these last few weeks, play this next one loudly. The horns are amazing. Who knew that guys with cheap plastic headsets and a high school recording studio could create such a classic?