Tag Archives: Culture


“People are status-seeking monkeys,” purports Eugen Wei, former product leader at Amazon, Hulu, and Oculus. This status-seeking links with an understanding that identity is a fundamental aspect of our very human nature. An evolution of identity all around that begets a moment of preponderance for those in the world of education.

How well do schools know themselves?” 

Sensibly, we expect to find shoes sold in a shoe store, not bananas. Many models, brands, and sizes of shoes and yet all still in the shape of a shoe. However, schools often seem to brand themselves as flea markets. Everything to all people. The ethics of this approach might be questionable, and one might also be left to wonder if programs become diluted as a result of being out of focus. Further, some wondering might be whether there is any intersection between a school’s strengths, attributes, values, mission, and vision? And their website, what might it suggest and is it truly aligned?

As a school are we athletics focused?  Sustainability driven? Place-based? International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB) Programme or Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum focused?  Interdisciplinary project-based?  

We Can Have It All

As of late, I’ve given a bit of thought to “yes/and,” as opposed to “either/or.” Though there is something certainly to be said for a school having a clear identity, they need not pigeonhole themselves into one single initiative or monocular focus. Especially if interests are not competing. Sustainability can funnel down and through everything in a school. Athletics too can be tied to sustainability and individual health. While interdisciplinary projects can be place-based. Advanced Placement or the International Baccalaureate can be an opt-in for students. None of this is a stretch. In fact, it attests to flexibility and opportunity. A multiple pathway approach.

The Omnipotence of Culture

Identity includes culture and this culture is a bit like breathing. It just happens. For better or worse. I like to think, for the better. However, because of this, it behooves us to intentionally design cultures. So learning is optimal. And so, as schools we are ethical, ultimately doing that which we claim. Conscious and deliberate creation as opposed to letting culture just happen. Schools mustn’t play the reactive “game” of Whac-A-Mole, where the “gophers” (dealing with parent and teacher concerns, managing budgets and resources, hiring personnel as a result of high attrition, etc.) take precedence over engaging in work that improves teaching and student learning. The development of culture requires vision and the wisdom to leverage knowledge and experience. A consideration but also a plan for where a school wants to be in 5, 10 years, or even the turn of the 22nd century!

I would argue schools are wise to intentionally design learning for multiple pathways. Equally, I caution that we do not kid ourselves. With several foci, not everything is likely to be done well by all students. This realistic notion is one of balance but also acceptance of perfection in process. Contrary to this, however, is the importance of a school’s due diligence to create cultures of excellence. Defining what excellence looks and sounds like should be at the foundation. Following this, students must have explicit opportunities to see this “bar,” and then be encouraged to push the bar, setting new and higher standards of excellence.  

Not Sacrificing Excellence for Authenticity

Though there may be many pathways, the destination of a high school student is graduation and preparation for the world beyond. A Senior level thesis or capstone course can serve as a sort of rite of passage, an important stage in a young person’s life. An invitation to engage in a year-long process, to create something meaningful. To demonstrate competency, reflect throughout a process, and then showcase what is known but also what is able to be done.  

This is powerful.

Authenticity could appear at odds with excellence. Failure is an authentic and simply sometimes can be a difficult reality. However, a student should not fail in putting the “crowning jewel” upon their high school career. To ensure this does not happen, sincere consideration must be given to competencies. Competencies are defined as the knowledge, behaviors, attitudes, and skills which lead to a student being able to do something successfully. Schools will serve learners well when these competencies are clearly articulated horizontally and vertically throughout the curriculum. Such conversations are the kindling of culture and are hopefully guided by two questions: 

~What competencies get assessed?

~How and when might these competencies be demonstrated best?

Inherent in these conversations is one single driver, PURPOSE. School is to prepare students for a future we do know not yet. 

So when “school’s out,” teachers let more than “status-seeking monkeys” out!



Stories reflect our history and show us who we are. Stories help us to understand others and share our own cultures. Here are voices from other places, stories worth sharing from around the world in picturebooks, in poetry and in nonfiction.

THAO: A Picture Book

Thao by Thao Lam is an autobiographical story by an illustrator. Her name was common in Vietnam but once she and her family came to live in Canada, she did not like having a name that no one could pronounce or spell properly. Why could her name not be Jennifer? But only Thao could eat yummy Vietnamese food…. The book is exquisitely illustrated in paper collage. A wonderful story to share with children who also have hard to pronounce names! ISBN 978-1-77147-4320-0, Owl Books

Burying the Moon

Burying The Moon by Andrée Poulin, with beautiful art by Sonali Zohra is the touching story of a 12 year old girl in India. The women in Latika’s village can only do their daily ‘business’ at night in a nearby field. Once girls reach puberty they can no longer go to school because the school nor the village have toilets. Latika is angry that boys don’t have these problems. Education doesn’t even seem important to them. Latika gathers her courage to speak out and make a change for all women in her village. A heartbreaking story, written in free verse, that sheds light on a huge problem around the world. I had no idea that half the world’s population has  no access to flush toilets. If, after reading this book, you want to make a difference, check out this website: https://water.org/donate/ ISBN 978-1-77306-604-2, Groundwood Books 

Ho'onani: Hula Warrior

Ho’Onani, Hula Warrior is a unique picture book about Hawaiian culture. Traditionally, boys can lead a Hula group. But why not a girl who loves to sing and dance? Ho’onani does not think of herself as ‘just a girl’ or ‘just a boy’. She is Ho’onani – strong, sure and steady. Through hard work and courage she achieves her dream and make her family and village proud of their heritage. ISBN 978-0-7352-6449-6, Tundra

Natsumi! by Susan Lendroth and Priscilla Burris is the story of Natsumi, who may be a Japanese girl but is not dainty nor quiet like other girls in her village. Everything Natsumi does, she does in a big way. Her family tells her that she is too fast, too loud. Discouraged, Natsumi’s grandfather knows what his granddaughter will be good at. On the day of the annual traditional Festival, dainty dancers perform, tea is served carefully and finally Natsumi can show her true self by being a powerful, traditional taiko drummer! ISBN 978-0-399-17090-4, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

I Have the Right to Culture

Part of a picture books series based on the UN Convention on the rights of the child, I Have The Right to Culture, by Alain Serres and Aurélia Fronty, the book celebrates all things art. From dance to film, from poetry to paintings, the book shows how cultures preserve and protect their heritage and how each person has the right to learn about the art from their country because ‘A child who never knew about.. sculptures or paintings… would as as sad as a thousand birds who never learned how to fly.’ Highly recommended especially for schools with diverse populations. ISBN 978-1-77306-490-1, Groundwood Books.

A sad but beautiful, and important, story is I Lost My Talk by Rita Joe, art by Pauline Young. It is the story of a child in residential school, forced to adopt a new language and new customs. As the child grows older and darkness folds away, colour returns to the pages as she slowly discovers the power of her own culture and extends a hand of friendship to others to help them understand. A beautifully executed picture book that works on many levels, for many ages. ISBN 978-1-77108-810-7, Nimbus Publishing

You Might Be Special!

So what if you have a common name and no special skills? Well… You Might Be Special by Kerri Kokias, illustrated by Marcus Cutler, puts you to the test. If you feel different from others you can take a quiz to make sure you are not a unicorn, or a dragon. And if you are none of these… then you are special because you are you! A fun book to share out loud with young readers who are special. ISBN 978-1-5253-0333-3, Kids Can Press

Margriet Ruurs is a Canadian author of over 40 books for children. She conducts author presentations at international schools and shares her travel stories here: www.globetrottingbooklovers.com

“That Would Never Work Here”: Overcoming Context Paralysis on Behalf of Gender & Sexual Minorities Worldwide



The title of this blog is the same as the that of a book chapter I wrote, published last month in the Annual Review of Comparative & International Education 2018. In it, I coin the term context paralysis, a reluctance to engage with issues when the cultural context may make doing so difficult. I challenge educational researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners to consider how they can leverage their understanding of local context to safely and respectfully improve rights and protections for LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) students where they live. I invite you to read a lightly edited excerpt from my chapter:

The dominant perspective, worldwide, is that heterosexual, cisgender people fulfil the natural, normal, and correct version of gender and sexuality. In my studies on the topic, I have encountered no culture that treats GSM (gender and sexual minority) people equally to their heterosexual, cisgender peers. Those who claim equality usually point to the “elevation” of GSM people through “positive” stereotypes, fetishization, or hypersexualization. Proclaiming gay men to be inherently fashionable is a “positive” stereotype, for example. these instances still highlight an atypical, non-normative status, which is not the same as equal. To exist outside of the heterosexual, cisgender norm is to be “othered.”

School policy, practice, and climate can dramatically impact the educational experience of GSM students. GSM children who attend schools that are inclusive, supportive, and protective of GSM people are more likely to see positive results in terms of their attendance[1][2], grade point average[3], and emotional wellbeing[4]. While not all studies explicitly factor in the cultural context where the school is located when analyzing results, some that do show that protective school climates, regardless of locale, are significant influencers of GSM student wellbeing[5][6]. That is to say that it appears to be the actual school policies and practices, not the local social norms influencing them, that makes the impact on students. I cringe at the cliché, but schools do make a difference.

Furthermore, schools are in a unique position, with access to large numbers (usually majority proportions) of children during their developmental years. Schools, therefore, are exceptionally poised to shape the perspectives and futures of entire generations of young people. This power can be used to reinforce a dominant and discriminatory perspective but may also be leveraged to support more egalitarian practices. To unequivocally state to a class of students that gender and sexual minorities are valid and worthy people, deserving of equality, is not only an extension of support to the GSM child listening in the room, but may also change the social context that this child grows up in by influencing the biases of their peers.

To address systemic discrimination and marginalization, it helps to look at the actual systems involved. I would wager that no other government system, world-wide, has quite the same impact factor on the biases and perspectives of future generations as the educational system. For this reason, schools are a fitting point of intervention to address this prominent inequality of systemic discrimination against GSM people.

Excerpt taken from:

Meadows, E. S. (2019). “That would never work here”: Overcoming ‘context paralysis’ on behalf of gender & sexual minority students worldwide In Wiseman, A. W. (Ed.) Annual Review of Comparative and International Education 2018 (International Perspectives on Education and Society, Vol. 37), 287-305. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Publishing.

How have you overcome context paralysis to support LGBTQ+ students where you work?  

[1] Jones, T., & Hillier, L. (2013). Comparing trans-spectrum and same-sex-attracted youth in Australia: Increased risks, increased activisms. Journal of LGBT Youth, 10(4), 287–307.

[2] Ferreyra, M. E. (2010). Gender identity and extreme poverty. In Dubel, I. & Hielkema, A. (Eds.), Urgency required: Gay and lesbian rights are human rights (pp. 207–212). The Hague, The Netherlands: Hivos.

[3] Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C., & Danischewski, D. J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York, NY: GLSEN.

[4] Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C., & Danischewski, D. J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York, NY: GLSEN.

[5] Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Birkett, M., van Wagenen, A., & Meyer, I. H. (2014). Protective School climates and reduced risk for suicide ideation in sexual minority youths. American Journal of Public Health, 104(2), 279–286.

[6] Heck, N., Flentje, A., & Cochran, B. (2011). Offsetting risks: High school gay-straight alliances and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. School Psychology Quarterly, 26(2), 161–174.

Culture & Global Citizenship

An important focus area associated with this year’s review of ISZL’s mission, vision, values, and learning principles is that of our school and community’s culture and how it relates to global citizenship. With our staff and students representing 34 and 60 different nationalities respectively, in addition to the school’s offering of 25 language courses, ISZL is clearly an international community that embraces diversity, culture, and language. To what degree, then, does the concept of global citizenship define ISZL?

If we consider this question from a more macro perspective with respect to ISZL’s greater context, we quickly note that, although the Canton of Zug does not include a large metropolis centre, it has a remarkable degree of diversity in its population. According to 2016 census statistics, non-Swiss residents comprised approximately 26% of the population while the city of Zug records an even higher level at 31.7%. Switzerland currently hosts residents from about 140 different countries.

A recent conversation with local educational leaders highlighted this diversity. As part of our outreach to further connect with the Swiss community, we invited the leadership team from Kantonsschule school to visit ISZL with the hope of initiating a partnership. At one point, we were asked about the number of nationalities represented by our student population, and we proudly stated the number to be about sixty. We are somewhat surprised when the visiting school representative responded by stating that they have about the same number of international students. This commonality has, in part, established that we seem to have more in common with local schools than may have been understood initially.

While the Swiss government has implemented policies to attract international residents, there also seems to be an approach to global citizenship that may be instructive to ISZL’s culture and values, particularly given our focus on further integration with the local community. By way of example, the Swiss Federal Immigration department publishes a document called, “Welcome to Switzerland”, which provides information for new residents arriving from abroad. One of the most interesting aspects of the publication are the quotes from foreigners living in Switzerland and their focus on integration and diversity. For example, Sabir Aliu from Kosovo stresses the importance of communication:

“Our neighbourhood means more to me than just having a roof over our heads. This certainly has something to do with the fact that the people who live here gradually realised that living happily together requires effort from all of us. It doesn’t matter whether one is Swiss or a foreigner, old or young. One has to start talking to one another. This is the only way to change things together.

Anna Gruber from Macedonia challenges us to think about integration at a deeper level:

What bothers me slightly is that the word integration is often reduced to learning the language or to whether one wears a headscarf or not. But integration means a lot more: It needs people who have the will to become involved with a new country and a foreign culture. And on the other hand, it needs a society which allows this. Mutual understanding and tolerance just cannot be stipulated by laws.

The publication also quotes Swiss citizen Bruno Moll who provides us with transition advice:

Responding to prejudices and opening doors, not closing them – this is my aim. Not only as a Swiss person, but from one person to another, I would give the following advice to new residents arriving from abroad: They should approach our country inquisitively and not shut themselves away with people in the same situation. Of course, I would advise them to learn our language and explore our mentality. I would prefer them to see what we have in common, instead of the differences. They should ask questions and try to discuss with their fellow citizens. They should definitely climb our mountains and join the strollers on Sundays. They should go shopping at the weekly markets and read, watch and listen to our media. To put it simply: They should try to become a part of things. Of course, I also wish this for ourselves, the natives.

Some of the common themes that emerge from these quotes are the concerted and purposeful efforts for understanding through listening and talking, engagement with our local community, and respect and openness to different ways to comprehend the world around us. As a community that focuses on the development of students, these values and dispositions translate well to a school environment. This thought can be taken a step further to argue that ISZL’s context and its location in the Canton of Zug will inevitably have a strong influence on ISZL’s culture.

When reflecting on the question of “Who are we?”, it seems prudent to consider the influence local culture has on our school, which can range from a traditional farmer’s lifestyle to the more than 30% of foreigners living in the canton, among other factors. The influence of external factors on ISZL’s culture also furthers our work associated with the International Baccalaureate’s mission, “to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.”  This focus on culture and global citizenship may also be referred to as cross-cultural cognition, which can be defined as the ability to think, feel, and act across cultures. To that end, it would be natural to conclude that the concept of global citizenship plays a critically important role in contributing to defining ISZL and answering the question, “Who are we?”.

Twitter: @dequanne

Blog: www.barrydequanne.com


Human Rights Trump Cultural Tradition

Follow Me on Twitter @msmeadowstweets

Inclusive education is, “not limited to the inclusion of those children or young people with disabilities. Inclusion is inclusion of all regardless of race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation, language, socio-economic status, and any other aspect of an individual’s identity that might be perceived as different[1]. As educators, how do we tackle this goal in countries or regions with a history of excluding certain groups? For example, is it our obligation to improve inclusive education for gender and sexual minority students in countries where homosexuality is considered a crime[2]?

When it comes to rights and justice in education, I am tempted to take a purist approach: insist on full equity, anything short of this is unacceptable. In reality, the concept of equity is subjective, complex, and extremely difficult to measure[3], so this mentality is practically inoperable. Additionally, as a visitor in countries abroad, I am compelled to position myself as the learner (rather than the teacher), to value diversity[4] (rather than assume my perspective is superior), and to respect local traditions (even if I do not practice them).

Still, those who do not have access to the privileges of a dominant group need and deserve allies and advocates. To ignore disparity is to be complicit in discrimination. In countries and regions where inclusive policy and practice is discouraged[5], whether by social norm or legal position, this is particularly salient. What is our role, as international educators, when local cultural traditions marginalize certain students? Are we overstepping our reach to demand equitable education when we are guests on foreign ground? On these questions, we can take guidance from international human rights agreements, such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that, “Everyone has the right to education”.

While the large multi-national cohorts that initiate human rights agreements have been critiqued for slanting toward Western ideology, these benchmarks are still preferable to leaning on one individual country’s interpretation of who deserves to attend a school that is relevant, safe, and inclusive. Human rights are more important than culture and tradition. So, discriminatory practices such as keeping young girls home to do the housework while their brothers go to school[6], are not acceptable. Marginalizing gender and sexual minority students from the full educational experience[7] for any reason, including cultural or religious objection, is also intolerable.

To implement policies stating as much is easier said than done. These types of shifts must be carried out sensitively, carefully, and sometimes slower than we like. Heavy-handed, hasty, top-down mandates (even with benevolent intentions) may prove counter-productive, causing backlash and a staking of camps. International education policy-makers, then, must be people with a deep understanding of the culture where they are working, a strong background in relevant policy, and a commitment to the well-being of all children, particularly those who have been historically disadvantaged.

How do you exercise cultural humility as a guest abroad, while also working toward inclusive education for all of your students?

[1] Polat, F. (2011). Inclusion in education: A step towards social justice. International Journal of Educational Development, 31, p. 50-58.

[2] For the record, my answer to this question is a firm: yes.

[3] Wiseman, A. W. (2008). A Culture of (in)equality?: A cross-national study of gender parity and gender segregation in national school systems. Research in Comparative and International Education, 3(2), 179-201.

[4] Déquanne, B. (2017, February 9). Stronger Together [blog post]. The International Educator Online.

[5] Fully aware, here, that my own country of citizenship (the United States) has a well-documented history of denying equitable access to education; this is not a ‘foreign problem’.

[6] Lewis, M. & Lockheed, M. (2007). Inexcusable absence: Why 60 million girls still aren’t in school and what to do about it. Washington, DC: Center for Global Development.

[7] Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C., & Danieschewski, D. J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.


Photo JM
Nyon, Vaud, Switzerland.

As the first days of 2018 arrive, any reflections on last year seem to contain an uncomfortable rawness because of the events continuously populating our devices – the immediacy, brutality and complexity of a world fueled by- FakeNews?”, each one of us trying to construct a context in the “Filter Bubble” choreographed by algorithms from which we build a sense of the world we live in.

As International School educators, we straddle between the walled garden of “school” and the outside “world”. The reality is that we are surrounded by constant change and ambiguity. But there is a gap between the accelerated rate of change and our capacity to adapt to it. For some, the gap is wide. For others, the gap stays the same, and for a few, the gap is narrowing. How we interpret and engage with the gap and our own capacity to keep up influences many of our feelings and emotions. These in turn fuel the perceptions, opinions and behaviors with which we express ourselves.

International Schools have to juggle the fine line between ensuring students and parents are pleased and ensuring that they feel safe, challenged and cared for. In the unique world of International Schools, a percentage of parents come from a comfortable socio- economic environment. Often times, their education is a contributing factor to their current positions. This education provided the opportunities for their successes and their economic prosperity. Living with this becomes a strong marker in what International School parents believe their children should get from an education and an International School. This pedagogic reference point in many cases 25+ years old. The world was a very very different place then. However we try as schools to innovate, change and adapt, we do this with a level of caution and reservation. At the end of the day, the invisible mandate between parents and international schools, is “provide my child with stability, continuity, what I remember from my school days and more certainty then I have in my life today“.

As educators, we fall into a similar narrative. We have a desire for of stability, continuity, and more certainty than in the outside world we interact with. We do innovate and change in our schools, but the presence of the invisible mandate between our parents and schools influences the level by which we break the status quo.

Photo JM
St. Cergue Switzerland

Today the level of stability, continuity, and certainty that we were once used to has eroded. Uncertainty, ambiguity and volatility are an unavoidable part of the day. The complexity of this change permeates into everyone’s lives, and often not by choice.

2018, is an opportunity to embrace the world’s uncertainty, ambiguity and volatility, not as something eroding our past and challenging our present, but as an opportunity to re-frame the possibilities in front of us as a unique and rich learning journey. We have a responsibility to take this on in our roles as mentors, facilitators and educators. We bring a wisdom, resilience and care that has served us well and can continue to serve us today. Many of our students will one day be International School parents or educators who look back at their education as a point of reference for their own success. The measures will be different. We live in a world where uncertainty, ambiguity and volatility are part of our lives. We should not depend on reference points from our past to give us stability, continuity and certainty. The gap for many will still get bigger and more uncomfortable. But hopefully, in 2018, we can work to bridge that gap as well.

John Mikton @beyonddigital.org

Three Questions

“All grown-ups were once children… but only a few of them remember it” ~The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I was recently listening to a series of interviews with Joseph Campbell and his reflections on the essential themes that have emerged from sixty years of his life’s work.  He emphasized the interconnectedness of our lives and the human experience, the fundamental role of storytelling in our culture, and the importance of courageously embarking on our individual journeys to fully realize our lives, as highlighted in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell also shared a curious thought when he suggested that adults should read more children’s books to further our own learning and understanding. In fact, this seems to be sound advice, particularly as I recall a memorable and meaningful graduation speech that used a children’s book as its framework to convey a meaningful message.

A friend and colleague, Corey Watlington, was selected by the senior class to deliver the faculty commencement speech. While I am sorry that I do not recall all of the details of the speech, the messages conveyed through the use of a children’s book resonated with all of us. The book’s title is, The Three Questions, by Jon J. Muth, and, following Joseph Campbell’s advice and using Corey Watlington’s idea, the following is a brief summary and reflection associated with the book.

The book’s main character is a boy named Nikolai who is seeking answers to three questions: When is the best time to do things? Who is most important? What is the right thing to do? A cast of colourful characters, which include a monkey, heron, turtle, dog, and panda, all play important roles as Nikolai is forced to overcome several challenges due to a terrible storm. Through adversity, his own kindness, and the support and guidance of his friends, Nikolai finds answers to his three questions: “…there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important person is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.”

This is indeed good advice and a reminder, not only for adults but also for our students and those responsible for our educational programs, of the importance of being present and kind. With so many distractions, technologies, and the seemingly ever-accelerating pace of life, this can be a challenge. Still, we owe it to ourselves and those around us to make this a priority. For this reason and many others, I am grateful for the opportunity to work and live in Brazil as the Brazilians have much to teach us about living in the present, enjoying the moment, and appreciating the people in our lives. As a Canadian with a disposition that can, at times, bend slightly towards a future orientated focus, the answers to Nikolai’s questions are always a welcome reminder.

International schools generally embrace a strong emphasis on a holistic educational approach, which includes the well-being and health of our students and communities. To that end, Nikolai’s learning extends to our educational programs and school cultures such that there are high value and support placed on being present, actively valuing our relationships, and ensuring a focus on kindness. Perhaps these approaches are some of the factors associated with Joseph Campbell’s reference to the interconnectedness of our lives and the human experience.

Blog: www.barrydequanne.com

Twitter: @dequanne

Featured image: cc licensed (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr photo Alan 
Morgan: The end of a wonderful day. 



“Light precedes every transition. Whether at the end of a tunnel, through a crack in the door or the flash of an idea, it is always there, heralding a new beginning.” — Teresa Tsalaky

I have been thinking a lot about transitions lately. We recently hosted the incoming Head of School for a one-week transition visit. I am also preparing to transition to Switzerland and the exciting changes associated with working at a new school and living in a new country. Like other international schools, we are preparing to say goodbye to beloved teachers, students, and families as they transition to other parts of the world, while also looking ahead and confirming the details for new teacher and family orientations. It can sometimes feel that life in an international school setting is one of constant transition where change in the norm and not the exception. While this seemingly perpetual state of transition is inherently filled with challenges, the opportunities for growth and new experiences are significant when we are able to effectively manage our transitions.

When a thoughtful colleague, David Chojnacki, heard that I would be transitioning to another school, he recommended I read William Bridges’ book, Transitions. I am grateful for this reference as Bridges’ book is a must read because, in some form or another, we are all going through a transition! The book’s main message is that all of life’s transitions embody a similar pattern and, by recognizing and accepting these patterns, the tough times associated with a transition will not only make sense but will be more bearable. To that end, it is important to differentiate between “change”, which is what happens to us, and “transition”, which is how we manage our feelings while we wade through these changes throughout our life journey.

Transition is an internal, emotional, and psychological process. In contrast, change is external, situational, and does not require those affected to transition. Transitions are longer processes that require those affected to gradually accept the new situations that result from the changes. Bridges’ frames all transitions in terms of a three-phase process involving an Ending, a Neutral Zone, and a New Beginning.

An Ending recognizes that a transition begins with letting go of the pre-change reality. In international schools, a significant number of teachers, students, and parents begin the process of letting go each semester as they prepare to move on to new endeavors. Depending on each individual, Endings are usually characterized by emotions such as denial, shock, anger, frustration, and stress. Emphatic listening and open communication for all involved are important strategies for getting through and supporting those who are experiencing an Ending. Recognizing that an Ending is about letting go is an important step towards what the author calls the Neutral Zone.

The Neutral Zone represents the bridge between the old and new in which we can still be attached to the past but also looking ahead to the future. The Neutral Zone is a place of uncertainty where people wonder about how they will adapt to the change they are currently experiencing. It is during this time that we can experience feelings of self-doubt, fear, anxiety, and skepticism. In contrast, the Neutral Zone can be a time of real growth and represent an incredibly rich time in our lives, as is beautifully illustrated through Danaan Parry’s trapeze metaphor.

The New Beginning phase is one where new understandings, values, attitudes, and identities are established. It is during this time that we emotionally and psychologically commit to the new reality that has been created through the change process. This commitment is usually accompanied by feelings of acceptance, importance, hope, and enthusiasm. This is also a good time to recognize and celebrate the third phase of the transition process.

William Bridges’ writings remind us to recognize that life’s transitions follow a similar pattern and to embrace our endings, neutral zones, and new beginnings. As we look ahead and begin to prepare for the end of another semester, I would like to wish everyone and all of our schools the very best as we embrace the positive changes and transitions that are such an integral part of international communities.

Blog: www.barrydequanne.com

Twitter: @dequanne

Featured image: cc licensed (CC BY 2.0) flickr photo Hernán Piñera: 
Niebla / Fog 

Our Human Tapestry

By Barry Dequanne | Follow me on Twitter @dequanne

The most moving and important testimonials about learning and school culture also come from parents, whose voices are critical to our collective partnership in support of student development. To complement last week’s post, Our Obligation, which focused on inclusion from a student’s perspective, this post shares a poignant parent reflection on the same theme.

Alex Ellis is currently serving as the British Ambassador to Brazil. Following his son Thomás’ recent graduation from the American School of Brasilia, Ambassador Ellis published the following reflections, which focus on the culture of learning and inclusion in schools.

Tomás Finished School Last Saturday

There are parents all over the northern hemisphere who in these weeks have watched or will watch their child go through this ritual, in many different forms, in the case of our son through a flick of a tassel. Each family has its own memories and stories, both similar to those of others and peculiar to themselves.

Our story includes a moment, at an earlier time, spent in a still, grey room, with sensible Flemish doctors telling us in sensible, Flemish English that our son is on the autistic spectrum. There’s no number to confirm this, no blood test. It’s the product of observation and judgment, and that knot of anxiety which has sat inside our stomachs from when Tomas’ first kindergarten teacher wondered if he might be a bit different, the apparent difficulty in hearing (tested, unproven), his slightly awkward walk, his focus on a few toys but not his classmates.

Before he was diagnosed Tomás passed through a series of small schools, mainly with the help of kind teachers, next to whom he was often standing. The diagnosis came after, at very short notice, we had moved from warm, fun Madrid back to Brussels. He plunged into a large school which quickly declared him “ineducable”. It doesn’t sound much nicer when you hear it in French. Which I did, twice, for bureaucratic reasons which were legally impeccable, financially advantageous and inhuman.

I wondered, when Tomas was diagnosed, what would happen next. “Tomorrow” is the best answer. He hadn’t changed and we hadn’t changed. We fell, and then got up. Tomas carried on, much happier at a school that took him, rather than rejected him, for who he is. The labels — Asperger’s, on the autistic spectrum, he’s quite bright but different etc — helped in the first interaction with schools. They were ready to adjust before he walked in.

Tomas got from there to here, 11 years later, because of some things he was born with; confidence, a sense of humour and a good heart. Lots of other children have those characteristics, autistic or not. Tomas had a lot of help as well. Help in the form of classroom support, and crucially from teachers who “got” him. Who saw him as different, not special, as a person, albeit in teenage form, rather than a syndrome.

This, we learnt, starts at the top. Schools are no different from any other organisation in the importance of the leader in determining and living its values. We had luck, and a bit of choice, in the two schools where Tomas spent the best part of a decade. Both heads thought that a school would gain more than lose from a boy like Tomas in it, that this was part of the world of difference in which pupils should learn. Almost without exception the pupils shared this attitude. On a rare occasion when a classmate tried to bully him, his confidence and humour dealt pretty comfortably with it.

The head teacher at the ambitious, academic school where Tomas stayed longest told me, after chatting with him, that he would take him into the school, but there would be some who wouldn’t be so keen to have him there. So it proved. Some teachers welcomed him, some wanted him out of their class. This wasn’t determined by Tomas’ abilities, but by the teacher’s confidence. Over time some teachers excluded him from classes in which he was relatively strong, whilst others kept with him in subjects (maths) in which threats, tears and bribes could not move him — I know, having tried, and failed, with all three. As exams loomed bigger, some teachers, and in rare cases some other parents, wanted Tomas out of the class for fear that he might undermine the grades of other pupils. In such situations the real values of a school become apparent.

Tomas is not easy to teach. Like a lot of kids on the autistic spectrum, he’s pretty autodidactic (and I should thank The Simpsons, Futurama and Cartoon Network for their significant contribution to his education). And he tells it as he sees it, which can be uncomfortable. The new music teacher in one school, fresh from university, might have hoped for a different opening to his career than Tomas asking to see his qualifications.

But the good teachers, and there were a lot of them, got past this or better still embraced this as part of what Tomas brought to the classroom, to the school — and also knew that the second is a lot ore than just the first. Last week, after Tomás stepped up to get an arts prize, to his father’s bursting pride and his own mild indifference, a teacher referred to the support for him from “the school community”. She was quite right. It did, for our son, take just that community to help get him through his education.

So this one goes out, yes, to the son I love. But it also goes out to every member of those school communities, teachers, administrators, security guards, classroom helpers, who saw in Tomas not a potential spoiler of grade averages or a “special” pupil to be kept in a “special” place but rather saw him for what he was — another flavour in the very wide variety that is the human race.

Link to Original Post: Tomás Finished School Last Saturday

Versão português:

Nossa Tapeçaria Humana

Os depoimentos mais emocionantes e importantes sobre a aprendizagem e cultura escolar também vêm dos pais, cujas vozes são fundamentais para a nossa parceria em prol do desenvolvimento do aluno. Complementando a postagem da semana passada, A Nossa Obrigação, cujo foco foi a inclusão de acordo com a perspectiva de cada aluno, a publicação abaixo compartilha a reflexão comovente de um pai sobre o mesmo tema. Alex Ellis está servindo atualmente como Embaixador Britânico no Brasil. Logo após a formatura do seu filho Thomas, na Escola Americana de Brasília, o Embaixador Ellis publicou a seguinte reflexão, que incide sobre a cultura de aprendizagem e inclusão nas escolas.

Tomás terminou a escola no último Sábado

Nessas últimas semanas, pais em todo o hemisfério norte foram ou vão assistir seus filhos passarem por esse ritual, de formatura, nas mais diversas formas; como no caso do nosso filho Tomás que passou a corda do capelo do lado direito para o lado esquerdo. Cada família tem suas próprias memórias e histórias, algumas semelhantes entre si — e outras completamente particulares.

Nossa história inclui um momento vivido alguns anos atrás, em uma sala ainda cinzenta, com sensíveis médicos da região belga dos Flandres nos dizendo, também de forma sensível, que nosso filho possuía um diagnóstico de espectro autista. Não há nenhum número para confirmar isso; nenhum exame de sangue. Essa conclusão é o produto único de observação e julgamento. É resultado daquele nó de ansiedade que tomou conta de nós, eu e minha esposa, quando a primeira professora de Tomás, no jardim de infância, nos chamou na escola e nos perguntou se ele era um pouco diferente; desde sua aparente dificuldade de audição (testada e não comprovada); ao caminhar um pouco desajeitado e o foco em alguns brinquedos, mas não seus colegas.

Antes de ser diagnosticado, Tomás passou por uma série de pequenas escolas, sempre com a ajuda de professores amáveis, dos quais ele quase sempre permanecia por perto. A comprovação veio logo depois que nos mudamos da quente e divertida Madrid de volta à Bruxelas, na Bélgica. Ali, Tomás foi matriculado em uma escola maior, que rapidamente o declarou como “ineducável”. Uma frase que não soa muito mais agradável quando você a escuta em francês.

Eu me perguntava, assim que ele foi diagnosticado, o que aconteceria em seguida. E o “amanhã” é a melhor resposta. Meu filho, assim como nós, não tinha mudado. Nós caímos, mas então nos levantamos. Tomás seguiu em frente, muito mais feliz em uma escola que o acolheu ao invés de rejeitá-lo por ser quem ele é. Os rótulos — Asperger, com espectro autista, “muito brilhante, mas diferente”… — ajudaram em sua primeira interação com as novas escolas. Elas estavam prontas a se adaptarem antes da nossa chegada.

Nesses últimos 11 anos, como fruto de várias características de sua natureza, Tomás adquiriu confiança, um excelente senso de humor e um bom coração.

Várias outras crianças também são assim — autistas ou não. Tomas também recebeu muita ajuda. Ajuda em forma de suporte com as atividades em sala de aula e, crucialmente, de professores que o conquistaram. Professores que o enxergaram como diferente, e não especial; como uma pessoa, ainda que adolescente, ao invés de uma síndrome.

Nós aprendemos algo desde o começo: escolas não são diferentes de qualquer outra organização no que se refere à importância de um líder que determine e estimule determinados valores. Tivemos sorte, e um pouco de escolha, com as duas escolas onde Tomás passou a maior da última década.Ambas as partes acreditaram que a escola iria ganhar mais do que perder recebendo um garoto como ele, parte de um mundo de diferenças que todos os demais alunos deveriam aprender. Quase sem exceção, todos os demais alunos compartilharam essa atitude. E na rara ocasião em que um colega tentou intimidá-lo, a confiança e o bom humor de Tomás lidaram confortavelmente com a situação.

O diretor da escola em que Tomás ficou a maior parte de sua trajetória me disse, depois de conversar com ele, que iria matriculá-lo, mas confessou que haveria algumas pessoas ali pouco ansiosas com a sua chegada. E assim foi. Alguns professores o acolheram, alguns o queriam fora de sala. Isso não foi determinado pela capacidade de Tomás, mas pela confiança de cada um dos professores. Ao longo do tempo, alguns professores o excluíram de aulas nas quais ele era relativamente habilidoso, enquanto outros continuaram com ele em disciplinas (matemática, por exemplo) em que as ameaças, as lágrimas e os subornos não conseguiam movê-lo. A medida que os exames foram aumentando, alguns professores e, em raros casos, alguns pais, queriam Tomás fora da classe — era o medo de que ele minasse os resultados dos demais estudantes. Nesses momentos, os reais valores de uma escola se fizeram presentes.

Tomas não é fácil de ensinar. Como um monte de crianças com espectro autista, ele é muito autodidata (e eu deveria agradecer Os Simpsons, Futurama e Cartoon Network por sua contribuição significativa para a sua educação). E ele diz as coisas exatamente com as vê, o que às vezes pode ser desconfortável. O novo professor de música, recém saído da universidade, talvez esperasse um início diferente para sua carreira: com certeza ele não esperava que Tomás pedisse para ver suas qualificações. Mas os bons professores, e havia um monte deles, apenas superaram essas dificuldades ou, melhor ainda, as abraçaram como parte do que Tomás trouxe para a sala de aula e a escola. Eles entenderam que os ganhos eram maiores que todos os desafios.

Na última semana, depois de Tomás ganhar um prêmio de artes, para o orgulho do pai e para sua própria indiferença, uma professora mencionou o suporte oferecido a Tomás por toda a “comunidade escolar”. Ela estava certa. Eles fizeram muito pelo nosso filho e se engajaram no desafio de ajudá-lo no caminho pela educação.

Então, sim, este texto vai para o filho que eu amo. Mas também vai para cada membro daquelas comunidades escolares, professores, administradores, seguranças e auxiliares que viram no Tomás não somente um potencial de notas medianas ou um aluno “especial” para ser mantido em um lugar “especial”, mas sim pelo que ele era — um outro sabor na variedade muito ampla que é a raça humana.

Link para publicação original: Tomás Finished School Last Saturday

Featured image: cc licensed (CC BY 2.0) flickr photo by James Cridland:
Crowd https://www.flickr.com/photos/leecullivan/240389468/

Culture and Learning

Imagine being part of a large family whose members are from fifty different countries and with each member’s unique experiences, norms, and value systems contributing to form a rich cultural tapestry. While there is no doubt that this family will likely face some significant challenges and conflicts due to their inherent differences, a diverse family of this nature also represents a special opportunity to learn from other cultures and expand our understanding of ourselves, our communities, and the world around us. How fortunate we are then to be part of an extended family like the American School of Brasilia where this hypothetical family structure is a reality.Our globe

In the landmark book, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, culture is defined as the, “collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. 6). A less academic definition may be to view culture as consisting of the, “unwritten rules of the social game” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. 6). In what is arguably one of the most comprehensive studies of culture ever conducted, the authors go on to highlight the statistical analysis of responses to questions in the GLOBE project about values, which revealed how countries used different solutions to address similar problems. Specifically, the data revealed differences in the areas of social inequality and authority (power distance), the relationship between the individual and the group (individualism vs. collectivism), the social implications of having been born as a boy or a girl (femininity and masculinity), and how people deal with uncertainty (uncertainty avoidance) (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010).
The statistical data from the study resulted in a set of indices for each country linking the focus areas mentioned above. This data has since been proven to be statistically valid and, perhaps more importantly, to be very helpful in understanding differences among cultures. By way of example, we can examine Uncertainty Avoidance in more detail. The authors of Cultures and Organization define Uncertainty Avoidance as, “the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations and try to avoid such situations. This feeling is, among other things, expressed through nervous stress and in a need for predictability: a need for written and unwritten rules” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. 191). The indices associated with Uncertainty Avoidance range from a rating of 112 for Greece, where uncertainty is more of an accepted part of life, to a rating of 8 for Singapore, where uncertainty is a cause of stress and subjective feelings of anxiety. The rating for Brazil is 76 while the USA received a rating of 46, representing a fairly significant difference in how the two countries view uncertainty. Translating this into education, the study implies that teachers in countries with a high uncertainty rating are more likely to feel comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” in response to student questions, as compared to a low uncertainty rating country where teachers are expected to have all of the answers.

The data for individualism and collectivism was particularly interesting. Again, the authors define Individualism as pertaining to, “societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family. Collectivism as its opposite pertains to societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. 92).

On the scale of indices associated with individualism ranging from a high of 91 to a low of 6, Brazil has a rating of 38, while the USA has the highest rating of all participating countries at 91. Translating this data back to schools, the authors state that students in a collectivist tend to learn to think more in terms of “we”, as compared to students in an individualist society who tend to learn to think more in terms of “I”. This may be a little contentious but is, nevertheless, an important focus for debate and reflection.

So, what should parents and educators take away from this research? If culture is learned from our social environment and is not inherited, then what is the impact on the cultural development of students who are raised in an American-international school environment? Values, which are directly linked to culture, are among the first things children implicitly learn. If it is true that most children have their value systems firmly in place by the age of ten, as is the belief of development psychologists, then how does living in a multicultural environment influence the values of children (recognizing that values are usually primarily established in the home)? While these are, undoubtedly, difficult questions to answer, though there does seem to be agreement that living in an international, multicultural setting offers students substantial and important developmental benefits.

As we reflect on the American School of Brasilia’s Character Counts week and this Saturday’s culminating Sábado Legal eventi, it is important to consider EAB’s core values. Specifically, it is essential to remind ourselves of how we – students, faculty, staff, and parents – are all responsible for doing our best to live up to the ideals associated with EAB’s core values of caring, citizenship, fairness, respect, responsibility, and trustworthiness. It is also important to remember how cultural norms, such as individualism and uncertainty avoidance, represent important factors, which are connected to these values, and that it is normal to experience some level of culture shock when encountering other cultures. The authors of Cultures and Organizations state that, “studying culture without experiencing culture shock is like practicing swimming without water” (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, p. XIV).

There are indeed challenging but important issues for schools and communities. While clear answers may not be readily available, Dr. Michael Thompson once shared some helpful advice. During a professional development session, Dr. Thompson was asked to define a “moral school”. He responded by quoting another author (whose name I cannot recall) who stated something to the effect of, “a moral school is a school that is always talking about what it means to be a moral school.” It is an accepted fact that we do not have all of the answers all of the time but what we do have is the opportunity to always engage in deep and meaningful conversations about key issues that will hopefully make a difference in the lives of our students, our families, and our communities.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind : Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Featured image: cc licensed (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) flickr photo by Fredrik Alpstedt https://www.flickr.com/photos/alpstedt/13339786034


Profile: I am currently working as the Head of School at the American School of Brasilia and publish a weekly blog at www.barrydequanne.com (Twitter: @dequanne)