Category Archives: Stephen Dexter

“I appreciate you in advance”

LAS students show appreciation
LAS students show appreciation

Listening to NPR podcasts is one of the ways I keep my toes in my past American life. In fact, “This American Life” is one of my favorites. I recently listened to a February story about Harper High School in Chicago’s South Side and its culture of violence. 29 students current or former were shot this past year and 8 died. One person in the story said if this happened in most parts of America even after one death there would have been panic followed by mourning followed by hopes it never happened again. At Harper, it has become a way of life.

What caught my attention was the Principal. Principal Leonetta Sanders. I have worked in violent and drug plagued schools. Not to the extent of Principal Sanders, but the traumatic experience as a dean of students came back to me all the same. During one point in the story, a social worker breaks down crying, not because she wasn’t accustomed to the job, but because as she said “You never know where it’s going to come from at any time and you cannot stop it.” That’s exactly how I felt.

What a far cry from the experience most of us have in international schools.

Principal Sanders is a hero to me. In the audio, she often complimented students or even disciplined them with the phrase, “I appreciate you in advance.” Reflecting on this comment, she went on to say one of the hardest things about her work is that you never know if what you did made a difference, made the students do better, made them make good decisions and make something of themselves. You just do the best you can and hope for the best.

Maybe that’s part of the problem. We never get to see that, do we?

Our students are highly transient. Maybe on occasion a famous alumni will come back to give a speech, thanking the school and possibly leaving a grant. Of course recent college grads filter through to see their favorite teachers. But past that, do we really know? Are we able to, like Steve Jobs, hold up that I-Phone and say, “This thing really works and it’s good and it’s going to change your life.” Not exactly. And yet we have to bring that passion, that hope, every day.

Well, I am going out on a limb. Principal Sanders, you ARE making the world better. You ARE making a difference. And I appreciate YOU in advance.

The Mission’s Position

If America’s President Kennedy had adopted the current school template in 1961 for declaring his mission to the moon, Neal Armstrong might never have had the opportunity to say he made a small step for man. There would have been inclusive statements about aerospace excellence in propulsion, broad declarations of lunar gravitational aptitude, and surely something about an individualized return to a home-like environment. But getting to the actual moon and back? Not so much.

His ambitious but simple statement said it all.

“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

I recently attended a conference that featured a session on school missions.
I found it informative and complex, the speakers well versed in the delivery of what a good mission should include. We all did our diligence and compared various statements, unpacking the good from the not so good. We had insight. We laughed at the hyperboles.

However, what grabbed me was the session’s introduction. The presenters showed a clip from Apple’s popular “Think Different” campaign in the 1990s that featured rebels, troublemakers, and non-conformists. Gandhi, Edison, Lennon, Robinson, Earhart to name a few. It was when they were still the upstarts, challenging the behemoths of IBM, Digital, and Microsoft.

And then we politely carried on about global citizenry and politically correct ambitions of academic excellence and earnestness. No one stepped across the lines. How could we? These things go on our web sites!

There was nothing wrong with the conversation. We had some laughs about the vagueness and language of the statements, trying to be all things to all people while being none of them. One of the sample missions caught my attention. It aspired to educate homeless children. Everyone in the room found it so refreshing. So clear. Like putting a man on the moon by 1970.

I felt like asking the presenters how they thought the characters featured in the opening video clip would have participated in our conversation. Would John Lennon have sat patiently while we debated the meaning of global citizenship? I pictured him doodling on a piece of paper, distracted with boredom, and then looking up through his round spectacles, in a Liverpool accent asking us what the students thought we did with them all day.

The great ones, the game changers always seem to do what they do not because of but in spite of the institutions around them. We all know about the famous Harvard dropouts and the other failures that changed the world. They didn’t have patience for the conformity of learning. What they had was unlimited creativity, a lack of patience and a hunger for something else. This is bad news for the school mission statement. To be fair, it was a big institution that put Armstrong up there, and the rest of Kennedy’s speech on that day was quite verbose, sometimes bureaucratic, and even uninspirational. But what stuck with everyone, and what actually got accomplished, was the part that was clear, coherent, and committed.

So, I rewrote our mission. It won’t appear on my school’s web site any time soon. But it stays on a post-it by my desk.

“Challenge each student to make the world a better place. Now.”

Urgent Matters

Leysin's horizon
Leysin’s horizon

Tragedy always brings an immediacy to life. Being from the Boston area, this feeling brought new urgency when I learned of the recent bombing at the marathon.

Do we have this urgency in school? Do we have an immediacy sparked not by tragedy but the passing time of youth and knowledge in front of us? Certainly the IB/DP or AP teacher feels this sense more than most with its assessments and timelines. But what about the rest of us? How long should it take to learn? What drives innovation and why is it so hard to do?

I am in the midst of a two year project to disrupt the way we do things with a new course called “digital literacy.” Its pilot name was Flex but I had to change it so people could infer its intent beyond something akin to a rubber band. The urgency I am invoking is within a question I asked two years ago. “Are our students any more compassionate, responsible, or innovative (our mission) than when they got here? How do we know?” Nobody could answer it. And yet we all work so hard.

So, we are starting, ever so slowly, to introduce a curriculum, etc. to answer this question and put students in the hot seat to create something that shows they have attained, somehow, this goal. What mystifies me is the process. If, say, an automobile or high tech company had no idea whether or not their product was successful, then how in the world could they get better? Would they even stay in business? Maybe this is what in part sparked the accountability/testing movement in America. But many believe (and research is starting to show) how disastrous that has been for innovation and learning.

I live and work in a small village in Switzerland. We did a town ‘cleanup’ day for Earth Day. We all focused on one thing and did it really well. We agreed on the task. We participated. We felt a sense of accomplishment. We celebrated. Isn’t that what makes the human experience work? Do we feel that way in our daily school lives? Is it urgent?

We’ll see how this ‘digital literacy’ thing goes. It might cost me my job. It might not. But if we cannot answer those fundamental questions with urgency about whether our students are ‘getting there’ then you better start turning that aircraft carrier.