Category Archives: Kassi Cowles

Kassi Cowles is an IB English and TOK teacher currently based in Shanghai. She has worked in international education for the last 8 years in Canada, Togo and China. Her writing explores issues of educational reform and how to create authentic and creative learning communities.

Surviving Recruiting Season

I’m a little obsessed right now with finding a job for next August. (Is there such a thing as being a little obsessed?) Perhaps it’s because this is the first year I’ve been a member of SEARCH Associates and have had so much access to information about schools around the world. There are so many interesting places to live and work!

But what started out as a breezy, optimistic perusal of jobs in October has narrowed into a surgical examination and cross examination of positions, packages, mission statements, and hiring policies of schools the world over.

During this process I’ve commiserated with several of my fellow job-seeking colleagues and the same questions keep coming up: Are you hearing anything from schools? Does it seem more competitive this year? If XYZ school is not hiring me, or her or him, who are they hiring?

As international teaching gains popularity and as more international schools open around the world, the recruiting process is getting increasingly intense for both administrators and teachers. Schools are flooded with hundreds of applications for a single posting and must find ways of vetting the most qualified candidates. And while teachers may not be applying for hundreds of positions, they too are busy navigating each school’s application process as well as preparing to attend job fairs, and this is incredibly time consuming as well.

To help us all understand the vast, developing system that is international recruiting, I asked Michael Williams, Vice President of SEARCH Associates, a few question that many of us are asking; specifically, why do schools seem to be communicating less with potential candidates this year?

According to Williams, it’s important for teachers to keep in mind that each Head of School has his or her own style and system for recruiting. Some respond with automated emails, some with a personal response from their HR department, and some only reply to shortlisted candidates. In short, there is no one system that each school follows, so not hearing back is not out of the ordinary. Many schools don’t even post their openings until right before job fairs in January.

And yes, international teaching is getting more competitive. As Williams suggests, “international teaching is getting more competitive, simply because so many have been put out of work on domestic fronts, and many are flooding toward international schools as another option.  This has brought more candidates into the pool for schools to consider.  Luckily, at the same time, international schools are growing in number.  But, because of a robust candidate pool, schools can afford to be picky, and have proven that they will be.”

So, as teachers, what can we do to improve our chances of getting hired?

Be flexible about where in the world you’re willing to teach, but be firm in what kinds of schools are aligned with your own values. How do you feel about working in large, for profit schools? Are you enthusiastic to help develop a school that has just opened its doors? How do you fare in challenging situations and climates? (Be honest about this one.) What schools, administrators, student communities, and cultures are most inspiring to you? I suggest figuring out the answers to these questions (with some flexibility, of course) and then narrowing down your search to schools that are aligned with your assessment of how you can best thrive as a teacher.

And if you’re still left wondering why you’re not getting hired at your preferred schools, be bold! Reach out and ask an administrator at a school you’d love to work at what their ideal candidate looks like. Some schools already have an ideal candidate profile on their website which makes it even easier to tailor your goals. It could be that there are ways you can develop yourself in the next few years with credentials, extra-curricular commitments, or subject training, to strengthen your candidacy so that next time you’re searching for a job, you’ll be a more desirable candidate.

Yes, international teaching has never been more competitive and recruiting season more stressful; but from my perspective, this makes it even more important to understand and articulate your values as a teacher and what you’re seeking in a school environment so you can pursue positions in which you know you can flourish.

Good luck!



Happiness 101 with Erin Threlfall

In my last post I asked the question, should we be teaching kids how to be happy? Thank you to those of you who wrote in to share your thoughtful comments and resources. To examine the subject further, this month I interviewed my friend and former colleague, Erin Threlfall, who is the founder of Happiness 101, a social and emotional curriculum that seeks to teach kids the habits they need to develop into happy adults. Here’s what she says about how and why we can teach the habits of happiness.

Tell us about Happiness 101. How did it start and how does it work?

Happiness 101 is a social/emotional learning curriculum that teaches children the habits for well being. Based on research from the world’s leading gurus on happiness, as well as scientific research on health and vitality and the benefits of meditation, Happiness 101 is a curation of practices (many of which are ancient) that are easy for children to embrace, enabling them to have a solid foundation for well being as they move into adulthood.

Often in life, we don’t seek out habits for well being (happiness) until we are experiencing a crisis, a loss of some kind, divorce, sickness, discontentment with life choices, etc. Rather than waiting until we are “broken adults,” I believe that we can empower children, at an early age, with the tools that they need to be happy, resilient, healthy adults who are poised to make a positive difference in the world. This isn’t to say that they won’t experience sadness, but with the knowledge of Happiness Habits, they will be more resilient and better able to deal with those moments of crisis. My students like to think of the program as their “happiness tool box,” filed with strategies to help them lead the most meaningful, happiest life possible.

Happiness 101 started out as an action research project I carried out with my grade 3 class at Bali International School. My students and I asked the question: What happens when we teach children the habits for happiness?  At the time, I focused on 5 basic habits: Exercise (we used Yoga), Meditation, Expressing Gratitude, Reflecting on Happy Memories, and Practicing Random Acts of Kindness. Over the years, my students have helped me to expand the habits, (they’ve even renamed some!) and have shaped the lessons so that they are most effective. We saw that Happiness 101 was a perfect tie-in with the IB Learner’s Profile, and the habits actually helped us to deeply embody the attitudes. Happiness 101 now has six key pillars: Build Into Relationships, Express Gratitude, Reflect on Happy MemoriesPractice MindfulnessSpread Kindness, and Take Care of Our Bodies.

Happiness 101 came with me when I moved to the United Nations International School in New York. My students here have fully embraced the program, and I have had fabulous feedback from both the students and their parents. Other teachers in lower grades have picked up the habits as well and are seeing positive results with their learners.

I consider myself the curator and chief promoter in this project, which has taken shape with the help of Jackie Rendina, a teacher at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong; Carl Massy, a life coach and Happiness strategist who founded the World’s Biggest Gym; The David Lynch Foundation, the leading organization promoting Transcendental Meditation, and about 200 students who have made significant contributions to the Happiness 101.  (Just to name a few of the inspiration sources!)

 What age group is Happiness 101 for? How can high school teachers effectively use your strategies with skeptical teenagers?

 The program is great for children of all ages, as the habits can be modified to be developmentally appropriate. Because I am a grade 3 teacher, this is the age group with whom I have done the most work, but I also have teachers in grades K-6 who are putting elements of the program into practice.

High school teachers won’t have to prod the children- the high school students have been incredibly receptive when I give workshops to this age group. Ideally, we would target students before they get to the challenging middle school and high school years, and then just continue to build upon and reinforce the habits.

Why do kids need to learn the habits of happiness?

Research conducted in the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, South Korea, and through UNICEF reveals that debilitating depression amongst children is rapidly increasing. Drug abuse, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and suicide amongst youth are increasing at alarmingly high rates, and are happening earlier and earlier. This seems shocking for most of us, as we believe children are inherently happy, but data is telling us otherwise.

I begin Happiness 101 with a class survey to assess the student’s well being, and their perception of their own happiness.  On average, a third of the students who take the survey reveal that they are not happy. They site high pressure to succeed, stressful schedules, bullying at school, and difficulties in their home lives as the main causes for their unhappiness.

With this knowledge in front of us, I would say that it is incredibly important that we intervene early to help change these statistics. I have seen that children who practice the habits show increased self confidence, greater connection to community, and higher success rates in school as a result- it’s a win-win!

Many critics say our obsession with happiness is a concern of privileged developed countries; what do you say? 

I’ve wondered a lot about this as well, but through my work within developing countries, I know that we all want to be happy. Many of the habits within Happiness 101 are already embedded in the cultural practices of countries in South America, Africa and Asia, which is why I believe that many of these children could teach those of us in “first world countries” a thing or two about happiness! I know I learned the most about this topic when I was living and working on a refugee camp in Ghana. So maybe it is true- maybe happiness is a first world concern because we have gotten so lost along the way.

Either way, the UN acknowledged the importance of happiness and well being as “universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world.” In July 2011, the UN General Assembly invited countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use this to guide public policy. The UN has also declared March 20 as “International Day of Happiness.”

I can’t help but wonder what would happen if schools measured the happiness of their community and used the results to guide school policies. I can say that my classroom environment has shifted dramatically since taking on the practices. If we teach children about happiness at a young age, I dare to believe that they could go on to create happier societies as adults.

What I love most about Happiness 101 is that the program does not promote coddling children or praise where praise is not due. Instead we look at ways to empower children to deal with life’s upsets, establish resilience, and take responsibility for their own happiness while recognizing the part they play in creating a happier community.

Where can we learn more about Happiness 101

To learn more, people can like the Facebook page: Happiness 101, Teaching our Children the Habits for Happiness. There, I post strategies and updates.  I am in the process now of creating a website, student workbook and teacher guide, and am also available for workshops.  My TEDx talk also tells more about the program.

Thanks, Erin!

Teachers, I’d love to hear from you. Are you using similar strategies in your classroom?

Should we be teaching students how to be happy?

This post is the first in a series exploring happiness and mindfulness in the classroom.

One of the most powerful educators I’ve ever experienced was my Critical Theory professor in university. He was a gifted thinker and orator, and he didn’t give a damn about making us happy. On the first day of class, he told a group of 40 fresh-faced students that only one of us would earn an A by the end of the year. One A! The following class went from 40 students down to 30.

After his brutal and heavily weighted mid-term essay on Plato and Aristotle in October, (for which most of us received D’s,) the class size shrunk even further. The professor wasn’t concerned at all. In fact, he seemed pleased: his class had been vetted down to a small group of curious D-range students who stayed despite the risk of failure. Now we could get down to work.

Teaching for happiness wasn’t part of his objective—just the opposite. He crafted his lectures and assignments to make us all quite uncomfortable, to provoke intellectual and emotional reactions, and to force us to think and write at the edge of our capacity. His class was so intellectually challenging and his grading so discerning that we had to forfeit our attachment to getting high grades and allow our passion for the content to motivate us. After a full year of the hardest writing and thinking I’ve ever done, my capacity for discomfort greatly expanded, and so did my ability. What a gift.

But that was university in a very different time. As a high school teacher in the private system, teaching for happiness is often an implicit expectation from students and the phrase, “I’m not happy with my grade,” is one I hear regularly. I would love this phrase to be the beginning of a reflective conversation about how the student could improve, but most often, “I’m not happy with my grade,” really means, “when can you change it?”

Perhaps what needs to change is the expectation on the part of the student that happiness is a relevant emotion to education at all. Then again, I often take comfort in my favourite fuzzy teaching quotation when I’m feeling discouraged about whether or not what I’m teaching is really sticking. It goes something like this: Students may not remember the content of your class, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. Inspired, challenged, frustrated, humbled…happy? Hm.

So what role do happiness and being happy play in education? As a science and an art, happiness has been examined for thousands of years, but happiness as a more conscious practice and buzzword has gained popularity in the west with the success of books like The Happiness Project, among many others, scholarly, philosophical and New Agey. So it’s not surprising that the concept of happiness is appearing more and more in the realm of education and curriculum.

But happiness is a very complex experience to teach and learn, and the question of whether or not it’s even possible to teach happiness is controversial, don’t you think? Back in 2008 The Guardian ran part of a debate between two educators, Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, and Frank Furedi, sociology professor at the University of Kent. The question put to them was simple: can we teach people to be happy?

Seldon says yes–we can and we should, as educators, teach children how to be happy, and he suggests three main reasons: “First, if schools do not [teach happiness], children may never learn elsewhere. Second, depression, self-harming and anxiety among students are reaching epidemic proportions. So are drinking and drug-taking. Teaching schoolchildren how to live autonomous lives increases the chances of avoiding depression, mental illness and dependency when they are older. And third, since the development of the positive psychology movement under Martin Seligman and developments in neuroscience, we now know how to teach wellbeing, and have empirical evidence of its effectiveness.”

Furedi disagrees, calling programs focused on improving wellbeing “silly,” suggesting they encourage children to be inward focused rather than engaged with the outside world. He says, “everyday experience suggests that not everything that has to be learned can be taught. How to feel well is not a suitable subject for teaching. Why? Because genuine happiness is experienced through the interaction of the individual with the challenges thrown up by life. One reason why well-meaning educators cannot teach their pupils to be happy is because feelings are contingent on encounters and relationships.”

Click here to read the full discussion; both educators make compelling arguments.

For me, I think the question of teaching happiness is too subjective and complex to answer definitively. My Critical Theory professor did not teach to make me happy, and yet the transformation I experienced in his class 12 years ago is still in my cells. It still has power for me. When I saw my final grade was an A, I did feel a kind of thrill, but it was weightless and fleeting in comparison to all the heavy work we did that year, the value of which I feel every time I get a new class of students and tell them, as I was told, to release their expectations for high grades and seek instead to increase their capacity for thinking and writing, and ultimately, disappointment. Because this is what builds resiliency, and nothing makes me happier than that.

I’m curious to know what you think: where does happiness fit in to what you teach? Should we be teaching students how to be happy? If so, where do we start?



Why the International Life Takes Courage

It’s mid-June and we’re down to the last week and half of school. Exams have started, teachers are getting ready to leave for the summer, and many are getting ready to move on entirely. We’re at that point in the cycle of the international teacher where we start to reflect on what the last few years have meant and what kinds of changes we’ll make when we start over again.

Next time, I’ll be more organized from the start; I’ll ask more questions; I’ll have more plants in my room and keep them alive; I’ll be more confident and worry less; I’ll go to more parties; be more social–next time.

It’s the cyclical life that makes international teaching so promising, so unique, and so experientially rich. It’s also what makes it so confrontational. Here’s what I mean: the international teacher has nine lives (maybe more) and each time we start a new life we’re invited to live a better life, to be better. For many of us, this means changing our habits, aspects of our practice, and perhaps aspects of our personalities. Otherwise, what’s the point–if we’re not willing to listen and learn and grow and change? The international life then, takes a lot of courage.

It takes courage to choose a path full of challenges, to be an outsider, to open up; it takes courage to be uncomfortable, to see our privileged upbringing from another’s eyes. It takes courage to attach ourselves to a community, even though we’ll leave it one day, and to detach ourselves from stuff, because we can’t take it with us. And it takes courage to work with the same types of people that trigger the qualities we like least in ourselves, and courage still to recognize that we are those people for others. It takes courage to choose a life that, despite its gifts, confronts us with what we want most, need most, fear most; and in the end, it takes courage to say goodbye–just goodbye–not see you soon, or be in touch, or I’ll come visit, because that’s probably not true.  It took courage to leave our homes in the first place, and it will take the most courage, if the time ever comes, to go back.

So the international life is not easy, not entirely. It may afford us with a kind of luxury and adventure that we could never have back home, but we pay out, emotionally, at the end of each cycle when we begin negotiating with everything we own. We pay out in those last few weeks of panic, frustration, bitterness, laughter, sadness, gratitude. We pay out when we say goodbye.

And then the cycle begins again and we start a new life, shrinking our belongings down to a seed that we can put in our pockets and plant somewhere new.





Bringing the Boom: What Hollywood Teaches us about Staying Inspired in the Classroom

If you’ve ever watched a movie in the genre of the Inspirational Teacher, you’ll recognize the formula: there’s a teacher who’s up against an evil administration; or unfeeling, conservative parents; or callous budget cuts (usually in the arts,) with a group of hard-to-please but not altogether unreachable students, on whose behalf the teacher fights to create opportunities to thrive, to be inspired, and to believe in the greater good.

They’re so precious and so predictable, and yet they get me every time.

Despite the obvious myths about teaching reinforced in these films (the teachers never have more than one prep, they are often completely isolated from their colleagues, and their administrators are archetypes of out-of-touch, heartless old people,) these movies, without fail, make me emotional about the power of inspiration.

Why? Well, the music and special effects certainly help, and there’s usually a line or two that cuts right through my cynicism. (Like: music goes where words cannot.) But I think it’s because these films are not practical. They’re not about “best practice” or leading-edge research. The teachers aren’t celebrated because they are highly organized or proficient in various technological systems. These things don’t matter. Instead, they’re cherished because they’re masters of inspiration–the most ancient, intangible magic that occurs between teacher and students. And although we are trained to challenge the cliché, Hollywood keeps making these films and we keep watching them because inspiration is as essential and as familiar to our collective experience, as love.

The most recent Inspirational Teacher movie I watched is called Here Comes the Boom. It’s a comedy about a degenerate biology teacher, Scott Voss, (Kevin James) whose glory days as an educator—back when he stood on desks to get kids energized– ended ten years ago.  He now spends his teaching days reclined, reading the newspaper, and reminding students that nothing they learn in his class will matter in the real world anyway. But when his colleague’s job and music programme are threatened to be cut, Scott commits to raising the $48,000 himself by learning mixed martial arts and competing in the UFC.

I know, the jokes write themselves. This film is the slapstick offspring of Rocky meets Dead Poet’s Society.

And we all know how it’s going to end. The teacher will develop throughout the film as the endearing underdog; he’ll fail many times and take a series of nasty beatings. And then, in the third round, just in time, and with the swell of orchestral music behind him, he’ll find the strength and perseverance he didn’t think he had and he’ll win against Ken “The Executioner” Dietrich–UFC super fighter and scariest man I’ve ever seen–and the crowd will go wild, and he’ll kiss the girl, and the students’ faith in humanity will be restored.

But unlike other films in this genre, where the teacher’s commitment to his students is steadfast from the beginning, Here Comes the Boom represents a perhaps more realistic kind of teacher: the one whose inspiration has already dried up and burned out, and who coasts through his teaching day with minimal effort and no desire to innovate. In order to get his inspiration back he needs to fight for it—in this case, literally—and after so many years of being uninspired, his apathy has developed into a powerful and treacherous adversary.

At least, that’s how I’m choosing to see it. It’s not so much a film about a teacher inspiring his students, as it is a story about an uninspired teacher fighting for his own practice.

I suppose this is why I liked it. The film portrays a reality of the teaching profession that I don’t think we talk enough about. What happens when the inspiration dries up, when the energy burns out, and when the things that are beating us down–like weak compensation packages, difficult students, a heavy workload, a busy home life–hit us so hard that we cannot, or will not, get back up? Where do we find the will to fight for our practice?

This film suggests that to renew his passion and to bring back the boom, Scott needs to do three things: he needs find his own teachers, he needs step back into his beginner’s mind, and he needs find a purpose that is beyond himself. To me, this is an effective prescription for the uninspired teacher to follow.

I think we forget, as busy teachers, how essential it is to stay curious and humble students. We say we are committed to constantly learning, but how many of us are actively engaged in mentorships with people who are more experienced than we are? How often do we seek opportunities to remember what it’s like to start at the beginning, because this is where humility is most easily cultivated and where inspiration often comes from. And while these films create a standard of teaching that is hard to reach, I think it’s important that we strive to meet it, at least sometimes. Because, this is the work; this is the practice.

While it may not endure as one of the classics of the Inspirational Teacher genre, Here Comes the Boom said the right thing to me at the right time: an inspiring teacher is an inspired person, and maintaining inspiration is a commitment, and at some points in our career, it’s a fight. And it isn’t something that can be easily faked. As we all know, inspiration is not new technology; it’s a vibration that occurs when we connect with something that reflects who we want to be or what we want to create. It’s both the singing and the song.

Don’t fake it till you make it–try honesty

Over the last few years I’ve been pulled aside by a few respected colleagues who’ve told me to be less self deprecating and more confident in my abilities. I’ve taken their advice, but for the longest time I had a compulsive need to confess any mistakes I made—as if telling people that I lost my cool, or some quizzes, would absolve me of my carelessness. I wore my mistakes openly in search of comfort and commiseration.

But most of the time my confessions were met with non-committal shrugs, polite smiles and few “there, theres,” all of which made me feel more isolated and less competent. It took me several years and a few different schools to realize, I’m not the only one who makes mistakes or has weaknesses, I’m just one of the few teachers in my experience, who feels comfortable admitting them.  Many tend to stay quiet, adhering to a fake it till you make it mentality, rather than share their own blunders or concerns.

I’ve since learned to restrain myself and interestingly enough, I feel like I make fewer mistakes.

But I wonder why we have this fake it till you make it mentality where teachers and administrators feel that admitting what they don’t know, or that they’ve made a mistake, will make them vulnerable. I wonder how productive it is, ultimately, in creating a collaborative (and honest) community.

I know faking confidence is an essential and effective strategy that can get us through situations that make us nervous–like that first day with a new class of 20 discerning faces. Amy Cuddy gives a great TED talk on faking confidence through body language and how it increases testosterone levels in the body, which can lead to improved performance.

But what I’m taking about is the faking, fronting and posturing that is done in private conversations between colleagues, or between teachers and administrators at faculty meetings, a posturing that is born from competitiveness and a fear of looking weak.

To be fair, I think the international school system fosters these qualities in teachers. One of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of international teaching is what I call the rate of acceleration. The learning curve is fast and steep and the rate at which a classroom teacher can get promoted is exceptionally quicker than the systems back home where a teacher may be expected to move slowly and carefully up the ranks. In the international system, I’ve seen classroom teachers promoted to principal positions and higher within their first or second contract year.  This is a great opportunity for educators with natural leadership abilities (and there are many); but it’s also the perfect stage for those who fake them.

The issue is system wide. New international schools are being built all the time, the turnover rate for teachers and administrators is high, and the expectation to do something beyond your demanding teaching job–to leave your legacy, to innovate and initiate–is intense. We’re encouraged to be stars in our profession, to have exciting and active web presences, and to demonstrate a commitment to issues affecting our local, national and international communities. For 2-3 years, anyway, before we pick up and do it all again somewhere new.  The emphasis, it seems, is on working as hard as we can to get noticed so we can build our CVs for our next position.

It’s understandable, then, why we are sometimes competitive and resistant to showing weakness. For example, if teachers or administrators are promoted before they’re ready, without appropriate guidance or mentorship, they may feel forced into faking their comfort level, experience and confidence in their new positions.

But like most weaknesses in the school system, the students are the ones who are most affected by a fake it till you make it mentality; if we can’t have productive, non-judgmental conversations about our weaknesses and concerns with the teachers and administrators with whom we work most closely, then the quality of our growth and development may be compromised, despite our great new jobs and promotions.

The antidote to the fake it mentality is to find acceptance in what makes us uncomfortable about our practice and to recognize that discomfort often leads to growth.  Finding the courage to talk openly to each other will connect us as educators, and will likely reveal that what we see as mistakes are actually just the day-to-day stuff of the teaching profession.

As teachers, we encourage students to fail forward because we know that failures will make them stronger, more resilient, and more compassionate people. As teachers, I hope we can also fail forward by nixing the fake it till you make it mentality and instead, try a bit of honesty.