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.
This coming summer, my son Max (Class of 2026) and I are going to attempt to canoe down the entire length of the Mississippi River (2,400 miles)! In doing this we are going to be raising money for two of the service organizations that ISY supports. One is United World Schools which our school, ISY has already partnered with to build a school in Myanmar. Each year ISY raises money to support the school and money raised from this challenge will go towards ISY’s annual financial commitment. The other organization is the Care for the Least Center which is an orphanage in Yangon. Funds raised from this challenge will go towards a new access road, a transformer to allow them to have electricity and a harvester to harvest the rice they grow for food.
Our home is in Minnesota which is where the Mississippi River starts as a small river. As it flows south it becomes America’s largest river ending in the Gulf of Mexico. To canoe the length of the river has always been a dream of mine which hopefully we’ll realize this summer. We will post updates on this challenge on my Tie Online blog from time to time but you can also follow along on Dr. Hedger’s personal blog. Donors of $1,000 or more can have their names/company logos placed on my blog. If you would like to donate to this challenge you can use the dedicated donation page.
We were feeling pretty good about things the last weekend in January. Enrollment had gradually increased through the fall. Though it was still not at pre-COVID levels, it was not as bad as we had feared. This was partially due to a successful effort back in August to get faculty back into Myanmar before that option was closed off to teachers when the government announced all schools in the country shut for physical in class learning. It was also due to a process we had put in place starting in December of what we called Transition Days, in which only two or three grades came on campus per day. The idea was a gradual transition back to face-to-face learning, and it looked like we were heading toward that happening. Finally, there was just a general sense that all was going well in the country. The number of COVID cases had drastically declined, vaccinations had begun, and there were rumors the airport would fully reopen soon. It really did seem we were on the right track to a return to some semblance of normality soon.
As a result, the morning of Monday, February 1 was a complete shock to the system. I awoke at 5:00 AM to a phone call from our Director of HSSE informing me a military coup had occurred just a few hours earlier. I remember taking my phone from my ear at the end of the call in a state of disbelief. Dealing with COVID had been an incredible challenge as it had been for schools around the world. To be honest, at times I had wondered if I could make it through the challenges coming my way leading a school through COVID. Now this? What do you do during a coup, especially in the midst of a pandemic? I sat on the edge of my bed for a moment thinking. Then I stood up, called our Director of Communications and Marketing, and asked him to put out a message that school was canceled for the day. Simultaneously, I asked him to reach out to the leadership team, asking them to meet me at 8:00 AM at school. I wasn’t at all clear yet what needed to be done, but felt these were good first steps.
There are eight members of our leadership team. We began by going around and having each person speak. The idea was to hear about their thoughts and concerns, any information or rumors they had heard about what was happening, and finally, what did each of them believe our immediate steps needed to be. During the course of this discussion some key points began to emerge. First, we believed we needed the school to remain a safe place for our community, especially all of our students. Second, we realized that for the first to happen ISY needed to remain neutral in the current political situation. While we might have feelings about the situation, the school itself needed to be seen as neutral. Finally, we also determined that we needed to be a point of stability for our community. As much as possible, we needed to pursue a course that provided stability and continuity for students with minimal disruptions. Once we had these key concepts, we determined we needed to call faculty together to give them a sense of security, as well as to provide direction moving forward. We put out word we would be meeting later that morning. Finally, several times during all of this I called our Board Chair. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of this relationship. I kept her up to speed on the discussions taking place, permitting her to support my decisions publicly. Beyond that, the fact we had developed a strong relationship over time meant that in this time of crisis I was able to count on her, consult with her, and trust in her to be a support in the tough times ahead.
The weeks that followed reflected a constantly evolving situation. The first week of February was incredibly quiet. Everyone seemed in a state of disbelief. It was almost like people were in mourning. During this period, I remember that every time I looked at my assistant she would look like she was about to break out crying. There were many people like this. Then, the weekend came and with it began massive demonstrations. Literally millions of people took to the streets to demonstrate, taking on the three-finger symbol of resistance from The Hunger Games as their own. There was almost a carnival type atmosphere during this period along with a renewed sense of hope. This came crushing down the following weekend when the internet was shut down for several days and phone communication went out briefly. During this period the response to demonstrations began to be aggressive with people being shot and killed. At this point, mobile demonstrations began with people demonstrating in one area, and then moving to another when the police arrived. The regime began shutting down the internet every evening, with mobile internet shut down indefinitely, while night raids and detentions began. The response was a descent into battle zone type scenario with barricades erected in neighborhoods to prevent raids, and the people starting to respond aggressively using Molotov cocktails, sling shots, arson, and small bombs in response to the ongoing aggression and violence from the military regime. As the situation continually evolved, we found ourselves constantly making plans, and then re-planning in response to the rapidly changing situation and the needs of our community.
I would say the biggest challenge for us as school leaders was the constant pivot we needed to do as we assessed the changing needs of our community, and then provided the support needed. Our students were at the top of our list of concerns, which was confounded by the fact that school continued to be online. Early in February, our students were looking for the school to make a statement about the events, or at the very least provide an avenue for them to discuss what was happening around them. Some of our seniors put together a petition on this. We realized we needed to support them, while also helping them understand the challenges the situation presented. We ended up inviting students to meet with us, and worked with them to identify ways we could better support them. This included changes in our communications process. It also led to the creation of discussion guidelines for teachers who felt comfortable leading discussions on the events in Myanmar. We also found the needs of our local students to be different in many ways from those of our international students. For example, many of our local students want to be a part of demonstrations and were trying to balance this with school responsibilities, while many expat students wanted to engage in some way, but were unsure how to do this. As a school, we strived to find ways to support our students while still trying to walk that fine line of neutrality.
Supporting our parents and organizational community during this time was also very challenging. Expectations were very polarized. In the same day I would receive emails from parents encouraging me to continue with Transition Days in an effort to provide continuity for students, while others felt I was placing people’s lives at risk by having anything happen on campus. Still others felt we were indirectly making a statement of support for the regime if we held classes on campus. This was compounded by different organizations and embassies putting out public security statements and / or calling us to advocate for different decisions from the school. In addition, we had parents from our local community being detained and felt a need to support those students, plus, we were increasingly needing to support refugees from organizations we work with who had been displaced. I found myself often struggling with decisions as I tried to balance out these various needs. Our board chair was fantastic in helping me weigh through decisions. At one point, in trying to make a decision, she asked how I would want to have decided when I look back on the situation in ten years. I explained what I thought, saying I believed it to be the ethical and moral way to go. She said to me, “looks like you have your decision.”
At this point, I want to discuss our faculty. I cannot speak highly enough about our faculty. All through the COVID pandemic they have continually arisen to the occasion to make sure our students have routine, have quality learning opportunities, and that are community is supported. With the sudden addition of the coup, our faculty were suddenly experiencing a sense of loss and uncertainty that bordered on depression for many. Yet, through it all they continued to focus on supporting students and learning, never wavering in their commitment to the school community. In an effort to support our faculty we made use of Adaptive Schools protocols to provide a way for teachers to discuss and explore what they were feeling. We put in place alternative communication plans to use when phones and the internet went out, and began to meet weekly to share the constantly evolving and changing plans being dictated by the reality of the situation. We also tried to provide guidance as they sought ways to further support students and their families, and to create some semblance of routine. Eventually, following guidance from several embassies, as well as an increase in violence from the regime, we decided to organize a charter and evacuate ex-pat teachers. In doing this, two members of our leadership team joined me in deciding to stay behind and support our local community.
Our local, Myanmar staff, have probably suffered the most during this situation. I’ve already mentioned the incredible sense of loss they were experiencing. They had been so proud of their young democracy and so engaged in the process, and now it disappeared in one brief moment. Many of them participated in demonstrations, some have been displaced and are now living with their families on our campus. At least one of our staff have been detained. We’ve had several meetings to address their needs. Early on, I was asked to state if I supported them. I explained that as a school we are neutral, and as an ex-pat living in Myanmar I need to be publicly neutral. However, I explained that I support each of them in their aspirations for the future. Later that day, our leadership team determined that though the school is neutral, our support for our staff would be evident in our actions. I think this was most clearly stated when three of us decided to stay back from the evacuation. After meeting with our local staff to share the evacuation plans, several came up to me afterward and were crying as they expressed their appreciation for not abandoning them. There is a belief that as the foreigners leave things will get worse for the local population. There was an incredible sense of relief that we were not all leaving at once.
At this point, it is unclear what the future holds for Myanmar. The outcome of the current situation is in no way certain. This has had an impact on the school. Moving forward we are anticipating a very large decline in enrollment for the next school year. This has led to a decision to put in place a reduction in force amongst our teaching faculty. As a result, in the two weeks leading up to the evacuation flight we met with every teacher to let them know their status for the next school year. I was incredibly impressed with how teachers responded. Though some were saddened or disappointed, all of those who were told they would not be returning indicated an understanding it was what was needed for the school and expressed their ongoing support for our school community. Similarly, we’ve also committed to keeping all of our local staff employed through the next school year, recognizing the need to provide continued support to them during this time.
As mentioned, this situation in Myanmar is no where near complete. I’m sure we will have continual challenges and opportunities for meaningful reflection. However, in reflecting on the time since February 1st, I can say there are a few leadership lessons that have crystalized in my mind. These include –
The important role of communication. This includes tone, timing, transparency, and regularity. I’m lucky we have a fantastic Director of Communications and Marketing. Together, we’ve evaluated every word and every sentence we put out to make sure we communicate the right message. I can’t say we always got it right, but we strived to communicate a consistent message of supporting our community.
The importance of the board chair / head relationship. There have been times I’ve needed to call upon our board chair several times in a day – sometimes just to have a listening ear. I can’t express more strongly how important this relationship has been.
Keep key individuals informed. Before communicating any major decisions, we informed all board members, the embassy, and other individuals and organizations in an effort to avoid surprises and to ensure support. This proved essential when decisions were controversial.
Plans are important, but be prepared to constantly change them.
Avoid personalizing the things people say. We’re in a situation that is highly emotionally charged. Unfortunately, some of those emotions are directed toward the school. I’ve really had to learn to step back and not take things personally.
Stay true to a set of core beliefs.
Recognize that leading is about making decisions and realize many people want someone else to make the difficult decisions for them.
Trust in your leadership team. I am fortunate in that I am surround by an amazing group of people. Trusting in them makes my job easier and means I’m not alone.
Finally, in closing, I need to express my appreciation for the international schools’ community. The number of people who have reached out with voices of support has been amazing.
Like many international school educators, I have found myself confined to a distant country during this period of the COVID-19 pandemic. In my case, Myanmar, where borders have closed, flights into the country have ceased to exist, and departures are limited to relief flights organized by embassies and INGOs for people not anticipating a return in the short term. As a result, I’ve watched from afar the recent protests and demonstrations that have rocked my home country, the United States, in recent days. Each morning, I wake up to notifications on my smart phone telling the story of unrest that has spread across the country, and then the globe, as we begin to grapple with the soul searching sparked by the gruesome death recorded for us all to see of a black man at the hands of a police officer on a previously unknown corner of a street in South Minneapolis.
The needless death that appeared in that video held a particular poignancy for me. Watching it, I realized I recognized the location where it took place. It was just over a block away from where I had lived for several years. It was just a few blocks north of the elementary school I had attended as a child, and little more than a mile north of where I had lived for five years when I was growing up. It hit home for me, and, like I imagine it did for many others, has caused me to look inward, to re-examine some of my own experiences and ideals, and to question my own beliefs about myself and my perspectives as a white person, a white man in this world.
People who know me are aware that several years ago my family took in a nine-year-old street boy who had been living on the streets of Yangon. Through a series of circumstances, I brought him home one day with the intention of helping him out and providing him a sort of safe harbor he could make use of as needed. Instead, he stayed, and over time we gradually made the decision to adopt him into our family. When he first joined us, we were surprised how quickly and how easily he seemed to fit right into our lives. He became a part of everything we did, and seemed to thrive on the time he spent with us. Early on, we bought him a bike. He wasn’t attending school at first, so would ride that bike to the school where we worked every morning to have lunch with me, and then return home for the afternoon to wait for our return. We would spend the afternoons and weekends engaged in play. We would swim in our pool, where he would climb on my shoulders to dive into the water and swim to the other side. Some days, we would go on long bike rides through the city, dodging the traffic, and stopping to explore the zoo, the local markets, or sites known to him from his days on the streets. At other times, we ran around the yard, hiding out on the roof top, or in the garage, shooting at each other with nerf guns. There were games of basketball and one-on-one soccer. He has a great love of fishing, and we would often go fishing in Yangon, and later in Minnesota where we go for the summer. In all fairness, I should say he went fishing. I spent most of my time unraveling incessant knots in the line, or getting his hook loose from the rocks and weeds in the water. In every way, this small boy who had at one point seemed to have an incredibly rough exterior became a member of our family, fitting in alongside our other three children. We grew to love him, and guided him as he began to navigate many of the same kinds of challenges we experienced with our other children – homework, making friends, keeping his room clean, household chores, and contributing as a member of our family.
As my son grew older, his interests began to change, as they do with kids. He began to exert a level of independence. He no longer was as interested in hanging out with dad. He would go off with friends on his bike. He discovered malls, arcades, and laser tag, venturing to these sites with friends, and began to pay closer attention to how he was perceived by others. We witnessed a change in his dress and his social interactions, and his smartphone became a permanent appendage. The most noticeable difference for me as this was happening was the gradual lack of desire to be seen with us. I think I felt it most as I seemed to go from being the center of his world, to suddenly being a bystander watching his world go by.
I believed that what my son was experiencing was the normal maturing process children go through as they get older. I understood this and excepted it, but there was a part of me that missed the way he had been when he was younger. I would often joke with him, asking if he was sure he didn’t want me to hang out with him and his friends. He would respond jokingly, and with a fun sense of humor. At one point though, I became a bit serious, reminding him of how much he used to want me around, and I asked what had changed. He grew very serious as well. Looking at me, he stated, “you don’t understand, dad, your skin is white.”
I was completely surprised by this statement. My surprise was partially because the statement was so unexpected. I had never really thought of him in terms of skin color or of ethnicity. He was simply my son and a member of our family. Clearly, it was something he was thinking of though, and was somehow playing into his need for independence and desire to do things that didn’t include us. I was surprised for another reason though. I had always considered myself fairly enlightened and open minded when it came to race. As a child, my family had specifically moved to a neighborhood where the first schools were being integrated through bussing so my sister and I could attend school there. Growing up, I had many friends of color, and believed I was sensitive to the challenges they had experienced. As an adult, I had worked for a while with children from multi-racial backgrounds, and my wife and I had specifically chosen careers that exposed us to a myriad of different races and cultures. Really, how could my son now say that I didn’t understand him because of the color of my skin?
Slowly, though, I began to realize that this was the issue. Yes, I had been exposed to others and had integrated with others, but I couldn’t understand them. I couldn’t understand because I can never experience things from their perspective. From this short statement my son had made, I began to look at things differently. I began to realize that I don’t fully understand what it is like to be him, I can’t understand, and in reality, I never will. To be honest, any contradictory thinking on my part just isn’t reality as he has a set of life experiences and perspectives that are beyond my ability to fully comprehend. However, I began to realize there are things I can do. Since that time, I have come to realize the importance of listening, and truly hearing him as he expresses his personal perspective. I have come to realize the importance of making sure he knows we appreciate his perspective, and that we value his experience. I have come to accept that when he says he doesn’t want me around, it isn’t about me, it is about him needing to be him and needing to feel comfortable being himself.
As I adhere to the current orders to stay at home during these difficult times and watch the scenes of protest unfold around the world, in the U.S., and in my old neighborhood, I can’t help but think about what is happening in relationship to what I have learned from my son. As a white man, I can’t ever fully understand the challenges people of color face every day in this world. To pretend that I can is not being honest. I can listen though, I can appreciate the sacrifices others are making and the experiences that have brought them to this point, and I can make sure I value those experiences. As an educator and as a fellow human being, I need to be committed to this. These are things we need to do if we are going to begin to see change result from the events unfolding around us. I really believe that this is the first step.
Been There Done That: leadership of a smaller school
The 2003 – 04 school year found me finishing up a four-year stint as head of a small start up school in Grand Cayman. Having gone from 90 students to 300 during that period, I found myself wanting to make the leap from the challenges that came from counting success based on each individual new admission, to the relative stability of a larger school. In doing this, I was a bit caught off guard by the assumptions made during the interview process of what was involved in running a small school. There seemed to be a perception it was some sort of holiday in comparison to running a larger school. Throw in the location of the school I was coming from, well, let’s just say it seemed some people thought I had been doing nothing more than working on my tan.
The assumptions I’m speaking of were painfully obvious from the questions I received. While I was prepared for questions about my leadership style, educational philosophy, beliefs about the role of technology in learning, and the IB, and was certainly asked some of these, the majority of questioning seemed to pursue a different vain. It didn’t matter if I was being questioned by parents, board members, faculty, or even other heads, the most often asked questions were things like, “What makes you think you are ready for a larger school?” or, “What makes you think you can handle a school that is so much bigger than the one you are at?” My personal favorite went something like this, “Do you think you’re ready for the extra workload that comes with being head of a larger school?”
Answering these questions always required taking a deep breath and maintaining a level of diplomacy. I was seeking employment after all, and responding with some sarcastic crack wouldn’t do me any favors. Still, I felt like asking how familiar their current head was with the inner workings of the actual running of the school. When was the last time their head had fixed an over flowing toilet, or painted a hallway wall? Was their head one of the designated bus drivers for school trips? When was the last time they spent a weekend with two parents to build the play structure on the playground, laid the gravel in the parking lot, or applied bandages to hurt students? These were all things I was familiar with as head of a small school, and were of course happening while keeping the books, leading the curriculum review, overseeing the ordering of supplies, setting up and hosting parent events, leading the accreditation process, reading to students, and supervising the playground during recess, not to mention a long list of other tasks usually shared amongst a group of people in larger schools. To all of these things, I could easily raise my hand in the affirmative. Yep, been there, done that! I was aching to ask if their current head could say the same.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind being head of a small school is the best training ground there is for truly understanding the operations and inner workings of a school. I remember early on in my tenure at this smaller school a heavy rainfall revealed several leaks in the roof of the building. Buckets were set out at key locations to catch the chronic dripping. The first spell of dry days saw the only member of the maintenance staff and I on the rooftop with brooms and hot tar laying a new roof. The next time it rained, we waited anxiously to discover if our hard work had paid off and learning could continue in a dry environment. Similarly, a broken water pipe one year found me working side by side with the same maintenance guy mopping the floors, and then replacing a pipe that had rusted away.
Probably one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had as a school head occurred at this same school when Grand Cayman was hit by Hurricane Ivan, a category 5 hurricane, in 2004. The island was wiped out, and all schools on the island were shut down due to the level of damage. The maintenance guy and I stayed on the island, recruited a group of workers, and supervised the renovations and repairs to the school. This permitted me to engage in almost every aspect of the school as we worked for almost three months to get the school ready to welcome students back. I felt a sense of pride when those students returned to a warm and caring school environment. There was something else I felt as well, it was like I had a sense of every part of the school, what tools we had, where everything was stored, and what was needed to keep every part of the school running. I had a sense being head of the school meant understanding how every aspect of the school worked.
In my career so far, I’ve been head of four different schools. That school in Grand Cayman was the smallest. A school of 1800 was the largest. The other two were in between. Every school has required a different skill set, and I’ve learned the importance of being able to observe, listen, and adapt to what is needed. I can honestly say though the best education I every received in learning how a school runs was through serving as a small school head. It gave me the ability to understand, and appreciate the different roles we all play in providing a quality education for the students in our care and in running a successful school program.
The honking of the horn: a tale of cultural differences
I had an interesting experience this past summer while home in Minnesota. I was parked at a Caribou Coffee – the northern Midwest’s attempt to ward off the cultural dominance of Starbucks. I happened to look in my rearview mirror and noticed another car quickly backing up on a track that would lead to a collision with my rear end in a matter of seconds. It seemed clear the other driver had no idea I was there. I quickly honked my car horn to give warning, and watched his break lights come on, avoiding a collision by mere centimeters. At that moment, the driver of the car turned in his seat, glared at me, and flipped me the bird, shaking his fist aggressively. I looked at him in shock. What was that all about? Hadn’t I just saved him from damaging my car and his, not to mention the probable increase in auto insurance rates he would have acquired had he hit me? He pulled his car forward, and reversed again on a track that avoided my car. Then, to add insult to injury, as he now moved forward to exit the parking lot, the woman in the passenger seat turned toward me and also flipped me the bird. What the heck was going on?
Driving home, I thought about what I had just experienced, and compared it to our home overseas in Myanmar. It seemed that in the experience I just had, the driver of the other car interpreted my use of the car horn as some sort of a hostile act. While I presumed I was providing a service by helping him avoid a collision, he seemed to see the horn as some sort of affront, as though I was using it to point out how wrong he was or some discrepancy in his character. In Myanmar, the use of a car horn is interpreted entirely different, if interpreted at all. By this I mean, people make use of the horn so much, it often goes unnoticed. It wasn’t too many years ago there was hardly a car on the streets on Myanmar. People could drive from one end of the city to the other without hindrance. Overnight, it seems everyone has acquired a car. The infrastructure has not been able to keep up. There are constant traffic jams and little fender benders. The sound of a car horn honking has become so common it blends into the background. I think I even fall asleep at night on occasion to the sound of car horns in the distance. The honking of car horns has become so common that I find if I am driving down the road, see a friend walking or driving, and honk to greet them, they don’t even look up. My horn isn’t even acknowledged with a simple nod of the head, let alone a greeting in response.
I began to think how different the car horn is perceived in different locations or cultures. Another place we lived – was it the Cayman Islands or the oil camp on Sumatra – you hardly ever heard a car horn. Really, the only time it was ever used for was in greeting. If you heard one, you knew it was likely someone you knew saying hello and your hand immediately went up in a wave before you even identified the driver. In contrast was the highways of Romania where people would lay on the horn as they sped into one side of the village and didn’t let up until they exited the other side, letting people on foot know to beware. This eventually led to signs at the entrance to some of these villages with an X over a horn. Clearly, the expectation was the cars needed to slow down, rather than use the horn, to maintain safety. I’m not sure how successful this endeavor was.
So, I guess we could formulate a question around these experiences asking what does the honking of the car horn tell us about behavior within different culture? Can any statement be made, or assumptions about the way different cultures are perceived? I once read an ethnographic study about Myanmar called, The Traffic in Hierarchy by Ward Keeler. In this study, Keeler observes the perceived relational hierarchy in Myanmar and how it plays out in everything from societal norms to traffic patterns and in how people drive cars and cross the street. As I reflect on this study, I think one can easily assume that in Myanmar hierarchy may also play a cultural role in when people do, or do not use the car horn. This led me to wonder what it is that plays a role in the honking of a horn in other countries, and how this simple act reflects our own perceptions of who we are and how we see ourselves within our own culture?
Recently, my friend and colleague, Cameron Janzen, led a workshop on cultural understanding. In this workshop, he discussed core cultural values, or those values that are a part of our cultural perspective we are unwilling, or unable to change. An example of this would be someone who’s religion forbids them from drinking alcohol. For that person, this might be a core value. On the other hand are flex values. These are values we are willing to change to help us be more understanding and accepting of another culture. As I applied this to the honking of the horn in different countries, I realized that in some places, the horn itself may be symbolic of deeper core values. For example, in Myanmar, it may reflect some deeper core values around hierarchy. At the same time, for me, the honking of the horn is a flex value, something I’m willing to change and adapt to from culture to culture, or country to country. I guess, the honking of the horn could be a truly symbolic reflection of our cultural differences and our willingness to understand others. At the same time, I guess it is also possible I’m just reading too much into it. Perhaps, the honking of the horn is really nothing more than an obnoxious loud noise eliciting an abrasive response no matter where we happen to be…..
We go home to Minnesota every summer. We have a cabin on a lake. Really, in Minnesota, who doesn’t have a cabin on the lake, after all, it is the land of 10,000 lakes. You can’t drive for ten minutes without running into another lake. In our case, our cabin is in Northern Minnesota on land that has been in my wife’s family for four generations, if you include our children’s generation. It was homesteaded by her grandfather about a century ago. For a long time, the area remained very pristine. I remember when we were first married, we would go to the cabin and look out over the lake. There was no one there. One whole side of the lake was government property. One side was owned by the descendants of other homesteaders who had lost interest in the place decades before. There was only one other cabin, on the far side of the lake, over two miles away, owned by the author of children’s books who made an occasional foray to this remote location. A small river flowed from the lake and was home to one other cabin where an 80-year-old bush pilot lived surviving off of canned soups, Winston cigarettes, and coffee that he only mixed with brown sugar – the secret to a long life he once told me. The entire region was similar. Many old timers fondly recalled the old days when people logged, trapped, and lived off the land. If one took time to listen, there were stories to be heard about the people who had settled in this area and were remembered by many still living at the time. You could hear an appreciation for the land, the challenges it offered, and the respect held for those who had struggled to make it their home.
When my wife and I went overseas to teach in the early ‘90’s, we would return for a visit to this cabin each summer. There was something almost magical about returning from our overseas life each year to a place that seemed to be sitting still, content in the daily challenges’ life had to offer, and at peace with both the hardships of grueling winters, and melancholy evenings of summers on a lake. Each summer, when we returned, there were reports that one person had passed away, or another, as the older generation who were the history of the region began to move on. I barely knew many of these people, but for my wife and her family, they represented a slow change in a place they once knew and felt intimately about. A place that represented a way of life that was a part of their fabric, their memories, and who they are.
One summer, we returned, and it seemed everything had changed. Gradually, some “city slicker,” as he had been described to me, had been buying up the properties on the side of the lake that had been homesteaded by various people. He now owned all of that side of the lake and had moved forward with a development project subdividing the properties into lots. These lots were not cheap, and were largely purchased by what can be described as the “upper crust,” people from large cities looking to buy into a piece of “paradise” spending occasional holiday time in the large lake homes they built. Fortunately, they tended to be a good bunch of folks, building their homes off the lake and developing covenants that respected the land, the lake, and the people of the area. There is no doubt they introduced a new demographic though, and it is from this the true purpose of this piece is derived.
We’ve slowly come to know some of the new folks on the lake. During the summer, we will occasionally see them and wave, exchange pleasantries, even get together for an occasional coffee and light meal. It was during one of these get togethers one of these folks described her experience volunteering at a community center in one of the local townships. She had been helping out with a day camp there, and made a comment about how difficult life is for these kids and how little they had. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I found her comment a bit curious. I had been coming to this area for years, even before I had met my wife. I had always kind of envied the folks here, and the lives many of the kids lived. It was true, life is hard in that area of Minnesota, especially in the winter, and the folks who live there have to be hardy. Kids living there often have to pitch in chopping wood, working in gardens, and helping out in ways we don’t see in the cities anymore. They don’t have access to a lot of the junk food found in the cities, and, in many cases, lack reliable access to the internet, mobile phone service, and even electricity. That said, those same kids run around in the woods, hunt, fish, and seem to spend more quality time with family than I usually see in families from other economic demographic groups. Yes, life is hard there, but there are benefits as well, and I think the benefits are worth the hardships for many people.
This whole experience got me thinking about my good friend, Linda, who unfortunately passed away from cancer a few months ago. At one point she and I were talking, and she described to me an experience she had traveling through rural Myanmar with a friend of hers. While traveling, they came across kids running around barefoot, kids working in rice paddies, kids looking after younger siblings, and kids walking along the sides of roads to get from one place to another. At one point, the friend commented on how sad it was to see kids living like this. Linda told me, “you know, it was strange, but I saw the situation differently. I saw kids having the freedom to run around without shoes and feel the earth beneath their feet. I saw kids who had a sense of pride contributing to their families and helping out. I saw kids who were able to really experience life. I wasn’t quite sure what was so sad about it.”
These experiences have caused me to think about how we tend to observe and interpret other cultures. It seems we often approach other cultures with a bit of a deficit mentality. We assume others must want what we have, and therefor are suffering if they don’t have it. We’ve come across that in our own family. A few years ago, we took in a nine-year-old street boy, whom we were eventually given guardianship of. At the time we took him in, he had never worn a pair of shoes in his life. He was used to sleeping under bridges and benches, in culverts, and in parks. He ran with a group of other street kids whom he could sometimes trust, and at other times feared. When we took him in, we perceived ourselves doing a great thing, and saw ourselves as really making a difference in this boy’s life. I don’t want to say we haven’t made a difference. I think he is definitely better off with us, and is certainly happy. He is having experiences he would never have had before. In fact, while I write this he is in China participating in a soccer tournament, a game he has proven quite skilled at. From time to time, we talk about his life before he came to us. I remember the first time he talked to me about his life on the streets. His English was just developing, but he was able to clearly articulate for me his perception of life there. It wasn’t the terrible life I was expecting to hear about. Instead, he talked about what it was like hanging with a group of boys who looked after each other, knowing they were there for him if anyone else wanted to hurt him. He talked about the different shops he used to go to for handouts of food, the things he did for fun, the excitement of experiencing holiday celebrations on the streets, and the relationships he had with everyone from the police to the bus drivers. In many ways, what he described to me sounded a bit Huck Finnish, and I realized I had only been viewing his past through my own perceptual lens. When I reframed my lens, I really began to understand what life had been like for him. Yes, his life had been hard, and there had been people who hurt him and took advantage of him, but his perception of those experiences was not the same as mine. Many people have commented to us over time on how well adjusted our son is considering what he has come from. We’re very proud of him, but we’re also very cognizant of the fact that he is who he is because of his experiences and because of how he has perceived them. We’re very careful not to make him ashamed of what he has come from, and we try very hard to listen and hear how he sees himself.
The discussion we had with our neighbor at the lake this past summer really set me on a path of reflection. My wife and I are in our 28th year as international educators. There is no doubt in my mind that when we first went overseas we viewed things from a deficit perspective. I think this has changed for me though. I’ve come to appreciate and respect differences, and understand the way we do things is not always best. Whether I’m in Minnesota, Myanmar, or some other country, there is so much to learn and appreciate. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to engage with so much of it.
What’s the hurry? What I’ve come to believe about change
I consider myself to be an agent of change. I’m in my forth headship in 17 years. In each of these positions, I’ve approached them with the firm belief and personal understanding my role is to advocate and initiate change. This is partially due to the life cycle existing in schools. It is my opinion schools have a life cycle. This life cycle is determined by different factors whether it is the age of the school, financial considerations, political factors outside the school, community demographics, or other factors. At different points in the cycle, a school needs different leaders with different skill sets to move the school along until it reaches the next phase. When I come into a school, I try to be very clear about my skill set and the change I will initiate. If hired, I believe it is because it is perceived what I bring to the school is a match for where the school is at in its life cycle. The other reason I see myself as an agent of change is because I believe we have a responsibility as educators to always do everything we can to provide the very best education possible for our students. I believe it was Michael Fullan who made the point a school that isn’t changing isn’t learning. I sincerely believe this. We need to be constantly setting our sites on what is best for students, and continually evolve and change to accomplish that.
So, what have I learned about change? I think the most important thing I’ve learned is change is a process, it doesn’t create immediate results. This process is difficult in schools, especially international schools, where there is constant turnover in students, faculty, board members, and others. There is a tendency to anticipate immediate results. In my current school, The International School Yangon (ISY), we began a process of change aimed at environmental sustainability. We were still in the discussion stage when many people were already expecting to see a difference. I’ll never forget during a school event during this time hearing a comment, “here we’ve been taking about doing something different about the environment, yet all I see is the same old thing.” Michael Fullan (2013) tells us we need to look at three-year trends. From the time a change is initiated, it takes three years to really see a difference. Kotter (2011) indicates it is important people notice some improvement in 12 – 24 months, but the reality is it will take at least three years before a change is fully realized. He describes the expectation of results too soon as being one of the challenges of successful change efforts. For my part, I see a cycle of change that is generally four years. My experience has been I spend the first year in a school learning about what we need to do to build on what we are doing well, and identify what we could be doing better. The second year is about building buy in, whether that is through strategic planning, a SWOT process, professional development, or the use of a consultant. Ultimately, there needs to be a base of people supporting change, and a plan created for moving forward. The third year is a key one. This is the year change really begins to take hold in a school. It becomes clearly visible, and a sense of urgency develops. This is also a time when turnover begins to occur and key people might move on, meaning there is a need to maintain the focus and bring others along. In a sense then, this year is about momentum and focus. Year four is the year we begin to realize results. The work that has gone into change begins to see its rewards. In a sense, a new system has come into place. Then, in years four and year five, we begin to fine tune, look for ways to improve, and look for new changes to initiate as a part of that constant cycle of school improvement.
Change is not easy, and it is not without conflict. Heifetz and Linsky (2011) tell us conflict is a necessary part of change. One conflict is a result of a feeling things are moving too fast, the pace of change is too quick. In fact, when it comes to change, I’ve often been asked, “What’s the hurry? Why are we moving so quickly?” I would argue change is never too fast. In international schools, it is an absolute necessity we move quickly due to the constant turnover that takes place in the school community. We need to take advantage of those who feel ownership over a change effort. While we try to build that ownership in new folks, it is never quite the same. Beyond that, if we really believe the change we are pursuing is meaningful for student learning, then it needs to be pursued at a rapid pace so all students can benefit. Kotter (2011) agrees on the importance of urgency to the change process. He sees a sense of urgency as perhaps the most important factor for effective change, citing it as the force generating a sense of momentum for change to be successful. Garvin and Roberto (2011) concur, stating that in the absence of a sense of urgency, most people will simply continue doing what they have already done. Many international schools have a history of going through a quick succession of leaders. Garvin and Roberto describe that sense of urgency to be even more important in these organizations. It is easy to resist in these situations and find reasons to condemn the new champion of change. Urgency helps to create a climate that we are moving forward. Early in my career I became head of a school that had experience nine heads in its eleven-year history. As I began to initiate change, and confronted resistance, one teacher bluntly told me, “I’ve outlived five heads before you, I’ll outlive you as well!” I publicly reminded him of this during my welcome back address four years later.
Encouraging faculty to support change can be a challenge. There are always people who strongly support a change effort, and were a part of initiating the process. They are the base, and are the ones who can move things forward. Unfortunately, they are not the loudest. The ones we hear from most are those who resist the change. They are the ones who run to different members of the community to complain the change is destroying the school, they are too overwhelmed, or they are not being listened to. Garvin and Roberto (2011) describe these behaviors as dysfunctional routines. Early in my career, I used to pay too much attention to these voices, believing I need to “win” them over. I’ve since changed my opinion. Reeves (2209) describes the types of people we find in an organization where change has been initiated. He says roughly 17% of the people are leaders, people who can be counted on to move the effort forward. He describes 81% as middle of the road, either followers or fence sitters. Then, he describes the remaining 2% as the toxic 2%. Unfortunately, these are the ones we tend to hear the most from, and so tend to give the most attention to. Alternatively, he says we need to focus our attention on the 17% who are leaders as they will guide the middle 81% forward, leaving the toxic 2% behind. Heifetz and Linsky (2011) go further. They believe it is essential to court the middle group. It is essential they see the change is serious, including the termination of those who constitute the unwilling, so they begin to see a need to get on board. Fortunately, there are ways to filter out the toxic 2%. At ISY, we engage in an annual SWOT activity. During these meetings, various members of the school community have voiced their support for the changes taking place. While some teachers have voiced resistance, others have voiced their strong support. In our most recent SWOT analysis, one teacher even described the changes taking place as nothing short of “transformational.” We hear these same sentiments in our end of year teacher interviews, and our annual community climate surveys, where it is clear the support is strong for the changes taking place across the community. I have found find ways to hear how the majority feel about a change process can eliminate the power the toxic 2% take on by being the loudest.
I want to be clear and acknowledge change is not easy. It is hard work, but it is necessary work. I believe most educators support the idea of change, knowing it means a better education for our students. Change is also stressful. According to Heifetz and Linsky (2011), stress is important for change to occur. It creates an awareness and motivation for moving forward. In fact, they indicate complaints of stress around change are a good thing. It is an indication something is happening, people are being asked to act differently, and are moving forward. I personally believe stress is important, but we need to balance the stress and put it into perspective while not falling back onto complacency. We owe it to our students to be constantly learning, to be in a hurry to provide them the best education they deserve.
There are many reasons my wife, Kirstin, and I decided to make international education a career following the initial two-year experience we had in 1992 when we took a leave of absence from our teaching positions in the US. USA Today recently ran an article (May 6, 2019) describing the many benefits of international school teaching, including low teacher / student ratios, great resources, time to prepare for lessons and collaborate with colleagues, and respect as a professional. Certainly, these played into our thoughts when we decided to completely abandon the security of those jobs back home in exchange for the life of international nomads. There was something more though; something a bit more personal. As we observed the quality of education the students we were teaching in international education were receiving, we realized we wanted these same experiences for our own children. At that point, we only had one child, still less than a year old, but our hopes for what her schooling would be like were quickly shaped by what we experienced.
Twenty-six years and four children later, I can clearly state our children have had amazing experiences. Imagine what it was like for my oldest daughter, Kaija, when she was in kindergarten in Sumatra, Indonesia. Each week, students were introduced to a new letter. They traced the letter, experimented with the sound of the letter, and explored words that were related to that letter. That may not sound all that unique until I tell you what happened during “E” week. Kaija went to school and found there was a young elephant there waiting to meet the students. Why? Because elephant starts with “E.”
The educational benefits my children received go beyond cute little experiences like “E” for elephant. The resources available usually means schools can provide some of the best instruction available. My youngest daughter, Anna, was an incredibly shy youngster. Yet, she had an amazing third grade teacher who was able to pull her out of her shell and instill her with confidence to the point where she was taking responsibility for her own learning, and publicly sharing what she had learned. I would find this amazing for any third grader. In Anna’s case, it shaped her as a confidant learner for the rest of her life. The ability to attract incredibly talented teachers like that third grade teacher made a difference.
All three of my daughters have walked away from an international education as exemplary writers. I can’t really explain why – perhaps it was because of smaller class sizes, meaning more meaningful feedback, or access to resources and curriculum that emphasized more clarity around the learning process – but, all three daughters are able to research, plan, and write at a level well beyond what I could do at their age, and perhaps beyond what I can do now. I feel very privileged that to this day they will sometimes request my feedback on something they have written, and I’m always blown away by what they have produced.
International school students also have amazing opportunities to develop lifelong friendships with students from around the world, making their perception of the world a much more manageable one than many other people would have. My middle daughter Sadie is a perfect example of this. Though she has been out of high school for a while now, she still communicates daily with friends around the world. She has also created her own Thanksgiving tradition, inviting friends she has made from different countries to join her each year in what is truly a multicultural Thanksgiving holiday.
Even beyond the academics though, there is something else, something that I found truly incredible about international education. I try to put my finger on what it is exactly, and it changes a bit for me from time to time. In the end though, I find it boils down to two things. First, I’m in awe of what can only be described as an amazing love for learning I find in students from international schools. There is a true commitment to doing their very best, a willingness to work hard, and a simple passion for being a part of their school community. I saw this in all of my children, but it is most apparent in my son. Max came to us a bit later in his life. At age nine, he had minimal exposure to education, and what he had was not the most pleasant. I remember the first day he attended our school, he was so angry at me, and did not want to go. Yet, he came home that day with a smile on his face, and told me he loves school. After three years, that feeling has not changed. He gets up every day excited about school, and can’t seem to get enough opportunity to learn. He speaks about his teachers as though they are teaching only to him. As a result, the progress he has made in a brief period of time is nothing short of incredible.
The second incredible thing, and perhaps most important, about international education is community. I’ve never seen anything like it. International schools are the center of life for so many people from so many different cultures for the period of time those people are in a location. Because the school is the center of their lives, the children are the center of their lives as well; not just one’s own children, but everyone’s children. I’ve always believed children learn best in an environment where they have unconditional support from a community. We’ve found international schools to come as close as possible to that existing.
I think it is easy for those of us who experience this international education to take it for granted after a while. It becomes the norm, and we can easily forget not everyone gets to experience what our children are experiencing. The reality is, our children are the fortunate few. I was reminded of that this past week when I joined three members of our faculty in visiting a rural village in the mountains of Shan state in Myanmar. The school there is one our school, The International School Yangon, will be sponsoring in partnership with United World Schools (UWS). This particular village has only had a school servicing 70 grade 1 – 4 students for a bit over a decade, though conditions are fairly dismal. Large gaps between the boards that make up the walls mean the mountain breeze and red dust blow throw the three-room building fairly constantly. There were minimal observable resources or furniture the day we visited. In fact, the only play items noted were the balls and jump ropes we brought with us. As for teachers, when available, they are first year teachers with minimal training assigned by the government. They tend to last for relatively short periods though due to the remoteness of the village and not speaking the local language. UWS hopes to address some of these issues by working with the village to build a new building and train local teachers. Through engaging the village, we hope they’ll achieve a sustainable long-term impact on the learning for children in this village.
While we hope to make difference through our work with UWS, it is not the same as what has become a norm or our own children. In fact, very few students in the world get to experience what we consider to be the norm. I think this is important for us to remember. At ISY, we strive to develop learners who will be a force for positive change in the world. We’ve decided to pursue this vision by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals as a lens through which we approach everything we do. In doing this, we plan to look at topics like poverty and education, the causes, impact, and possibilities for change. Our mission is to be a community of compassionate global citizens. By exploring topics like this, we believe we can make great strides in our mission and toward our vision. In the long run, hopefully more students in the world can someday experience the norm my children were able to experience through an international education. Is it a long shot? Could be, but these are the things that are worth striving for.
I felt a sense of incredible pride when The International School Yangon (ISY) opened its doors to students for the 2018-19 school year on 15 August. Last year, ISY worked closely with consultant John Littleford at redefining who we are as a school. I have to be honest and say I fully anticipated the process would result in a simple tweaking of the mission that was in place when the process began. I was pleasantly surprised when the process led us toward a rethinking of who we are as a school and what is important to us. A new mission emerged, one that I think is incredibly daring and bold and that gives thought to the kind of school we want to be and to what is important to us as a community. This year, for the first time, we started school with this new mission in place. I felt incredible pride in what we had accomplished and how we have defined ourselves.
I firmly believe the mission statement of a school is its promise. It is a statement of commitment to our families about what we do for students at our school and the kind of people we hope students will evolve into by spending time in our classrooms, interacting with our teachers, engaging with our curriculum, and exploring the opportunities we provide. The new ISY mission statement reads, The International School Yangon is a community of compassionate global citizens. It is very simple and to the point. Yet, I find the words to be rich in meaning. Several of the words stand out. For example, the word community speaks to the environment we share at ISY and how we are all a part of a common purpose and share certain beliefs. For me though, the word that stands out strongest is compassionate.
When we speak about what it means to be a compassionate school, we are talking about taking learning to a whole new level. Educational researchers Carol Ann Tomlinson and Michael Murphy state that, “compassion suggests we understand and care about what another person feels, but do not attempt to feel it ourselves. In that way, compassion…is more likely to lead to action…because it calls on us to be kind and to see the need for action rather than to simply experience the feelings of another.” This is at the heart of why I see our mission as being so bold. Our mission commits us to working with our students to go beyond simply having empathy for others, or raising funds because we feel sad for another’s situation. Instead, it commits us to strive to “understand others and to learn from them.” It is a call to make the world a better place for all.
Another bold part of our mission statement is the complete lack of terms like “lifelong learner,” or “academic excellence.” This is by design. As we explored what we want for our students, we realized we want them to be more than learners. We want the learning to be meaningful and purposeful. As we develop compassion we begin to see how our learning can make a difference and contribute to the world where we live as global citizens. In this sense, learning is the process that contributes to the outcome our mission commits us to.
I’m looking forward to the year ahead. As a school community, we will be exploring further what it means to be a compassionate school. We’ve designed a vision statement and strategic teams to support our mission as we strive to make this mission a live one. We want it to resonate for every member of our community so that it really is a guiding statement that drives everything we do.
Tomlinson, C. and Murphy, M. (2018). The empathetic school. Educational Leadership, 75(6), p.23.
The receding tide laps gently at our feet, while wet sand is left behind to caress with a coolness that contrasts sharply with the heat of the piercing sun reflecting off the Bay of Bengal. My ten year old son, Max, kneels beside a tidal pool formed next to a large rock jutting out from the earth. His hands move slowly through the water, attempting to grasp the tiny fish swimming there. He exclaims aloud with each miss, confidant a simple change in technique will bring greater success and then tries again. Eventually, his attention is diverted to a piece of Styrofoam bouncing atop the waves. He runs to it, picks it up, and quickly shapes it into a disk of sorts. He sends it gliding through the air and chases after it. I hear his laughter between crashes of the waves as he moves father down the beach.
Meanwhile, my seventeen-year-old daughter, Anna, slowly makes her way along the beach, stopping from time to time picking up shells and stones. She marvels at the designs and colors appearing on each one, comparing them in some cases to familiar scenes and objects. She discusses them with my wife, Kirstin, asking questions about what she sees more as something to think about rather than something she truly seeks a response to. At one point, she stops to watch a hermit crab in the sand. She pulls out her iPhone and takes a photograph of the patterns it leaves behind, maximizing this bit of technology to capture an image for later consideration. Kirstin keeps walking along the shoreline, occasionally picking up a piece of wood, some stones, or other items she wants to bring back with her for students to use in her Reggio inspired classroom.
Walking along, watching this, I find myself thinking about the ideals of Reggio Emilia. I was recently in a meeting where I was asked, “What is this Reggio thing?” The speaker continued, “I assume its Italian. Is it?” I had smiled. Yes, it is Italian, but in a sense, that is immaterial. Reggio Emilia is a town in Italy. Re-emerging from the ashes of World War Two, the citizens there committed themselves to the idea of community involvement in educating the child and an image of each child as having their own potential and resources that are stimulated by an environment that solicits the interests and curiosity of the child. The Reggio experience is not one that can be duplicated, rather it is a philosophy that inspires us to think differently about children, how they learn, how we interact with them, and their individual reality.
Reggio inspired learning is something that resonates with Kirstin and I. Before we had every actually heard of Reggio Emilia, our thinking had begun to align with it, and the way we raised our own children was something that would fall into Reggio inspired thinking. Early on, as parents, we realized we didn’t help our children if we did everything for them, or solved their problems for them. This was a difficult concept to accept. When our children were small there was a real desire to protect them from the big bad world. At some point, we realized this was a disservice, and we began to step back, encouraging them to solve things on their own. We would watch as they sometimes failed, or made mistakes, but then respect these attempts at their search for more successful approaches. Similarly, we encouraged them to ask questions and challenge ideas, not as a way to find fault, but as a way to seek deeper understanding and to look for ways to contribute and make a difference. We also encouraged them to interact with their environment and learn from it, whether that environment was a city street, or the woods around our cabin. There is something to explore and opportunities to learn in the world around us. When we first came across the philosophy of Reggio Emilia, it was a natural fit for us. It was a framework that gave coherence to many of the things we believed in.
My friend and colleague, Mike Simpson, speaks passionately about the Reggio Emilia inspired experience. He describes it as being about the rights of the child, and specifically the right of each child to explore and to learn. He says when you begin to think about learning in these terms, it changes the way you approach education. You no longer ask the question, “Why do we have to do this?” and begin to instead ask, “How can we best support the learning for this child?” It isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it does speak to a climate that places more value on the individual subjectivity of each student and the idea of supporting their learning rather than emphasizing conformity as the means to a successful learning experience.
In many ways, when I think about the Reggio inspired experience, I think about our youngest students when they first come to school. They seem full of awe and wonder. They constantly interact with their environment, inventing play in everything they do. As author George Couros says, “learning happens at any time, and all the time.” The Reggio inspired experience is one that capitalizes on this, pursues it, and promotes it. Students become aware of their own well-being and it becomes our role to support them in taking responsibility for it.
Continuing our way down the beach, Max has moved on from his Styrofoam disk. He collects a variety of different lengths of bamboo. He draws a line in the sand. Standing behind it, he begins throwing the bamboo, as though they are spears, watching as they glide through the air and plant themselves in the sand. I ask what he is dong, and he explains he is trying to figure out which length of bamboo flies better. He asks me to try. As my results differ from his, we begin to question the impact of weight, as well as characteristics of the thrower. We continue on like this until again, the environment provides another distraction, and Max heads off to pursue something new.