Tag Archives: innovation and education

Comfortably numb

(livethemovies.com)

At the end of The Martian, Matt Damon sits on a bench in a beautiful park, leaving us to decide whether he’s satisfied being back on Earth having survived a near death experience in space, or if he misses it.

Yes it’s been a brutal two years. Yes, we have lost contact with friends, the human connections of social activity, and the ease of travel. I used to travel 4-5 times a year minimum. Since 2020, I’ve travelled twice. Twice! I’ve forgotten even the basics like how to pack for the plane because I’m so obsessed with trying to get the RAT test on time and making sure my flight isn’t being cancelled.

What I see around me as we start sticking our (vaccinated) heads above the ground again, hoping to return to life as it was, is a gigantic missed opportunity. Our industry, like the food, hospitality, health care, and transport industries, was disrupted and accelerated at least 7-10 years. What was an odd exemption for kids in hospitals and the occasional NASA engineer from mission control beamed on a screen to an auditorium full of restless middle schoolers, has now become the norm.

Hybrid, Hyflex, all the things we imagined happening in 2050 when The Jetsons (boomer alert) lifestyle became reality, were catapulted to the present. And it’s not what we imagined, or hoped for.

We have a lot to be thankful for returning to ‘normal’ but also a lot of things that we cannot return to.

I’m concerned that our desire to return to the comforts of routine after two years of crisis management and pandemic fatigue, will rationalize mediocrity. That after so much stress on our schools and teachers, during which all we focused on was getting through the day/week, that once the fog lifts, we will continue to look inwards, our defense mechanisms on auto pilot.

I hope that I am wrong,. I hope that we don’t fall for the seduction of the way things were before. Because, in all honesty, it wasn’t all that great. 20 years into 21st century learning, the actual glaciers are melting faster than we are moving to make education relevant to the times. Getting back to workshops on MYP Cat 2 in Berlin or conferences on AERO standards in Atlanta just isn’t going to cut it.

We all need a month in the Maldives, a grand celebration of reconnection and re-nurturing. That is undeniable. We cannot simply keep Zooming and embracing the dings in the universe caused by Covid. I’m not saying that. We need to hug one another, breathe in the mask free air of a friend filled room the laughter and excitement of traveling and connecting again without social distancing fears or the guilt caused by contact.

But once we taken that breath, we have to keep moving forward, screen time or not. I have taken three takeaways that I hope to move before the retreating waves of change wash over them.

  1. In person time is more valuable than ever and has to be used more creatively and across disciplines.
  2. Limit the broadway shows: We are the only profession that does 5-6 live broadway shows a day. We have to embrace the asynchronous model so teachers can THINK and COLLABORATE rather than constantly juggle chain saws to keep learners engaged. Sorry, lower school teachers, this probably doesn’t work below grade 5.
  3. Community Engagement: We’ve had classes without walls and project based and service learning for years. But rather than a one off week, it has to be more embedded. If we can Zoom in math and English, why can’t we do an arts residency in Istria for two or three weeks while we keep up with “academics.” online? We have to push the limits on community based learning and the how and where of learning now that restrictions are lifting.
  4. Change the Subjects: I’ve been talking about this one for awhile and have to do a better job putting money where the mouth is. Our subjects are woefully outdated. Science has evolved a little bit and I guess math is math, but the rest are arcane, unimaginative, and need critical redefinition. If I see one more test on the Crusades, I might just need to start one of my own.

I know it’s hard, but once you get your Mojo back this Spring, please don’t become ‘comfortably numb.’ You’ve come too far to leave it all behind.

Vaudeville

 “In the United States vaudeville acts performed variety shows, using music, comedy, dance, acrobatics, magic, puppets, and even trained animals.” (vaudeville/Encyclopedia.com).

I loved this definition. It captured everything that our teachers do every day, multiple times a day. And it’s a key reason why we can’t evolve.

A good friend of mine and former teacher from Quincy, MA (USA), George Smith who died way before his time, used to lament the amount of energy it took him just to get through every day. This is a guy that got 4s and 5s from EAL students on the A.P. exams using graphs instead of English. That was 1997.

He gave me two quotes that I will never forget. And I forget almost everything so this is big for me.

“Sometimes you have to sub for yourself.”

“We do five vaudeville shows every day, five days a week for ten months straight. Even broadway doesn’t have a schedule like this.”

I had the best meeting of the year this past week. Three teachers and myself, sitting in a room, ordering in lunch, (we ate lunch!!) without duties to run to, bells interrupting for the next class, and incredibly no crises peeling me away. For three simple hours, we hammered out the results of a course that we took together, listened to one another’s ideas, and hammered out a product, barely meeting deadline. It felt so good to get something done without interruption, highlighted by the chance to eat.

If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, it’s that slowing down, even if forced on us, is like gold.

We have to find a way to manage kids that enables us to step off the vaudeville shows so that we can think and ideate, reflect on what our students really need, what we’re doing badly, and what we need to do next.

With our team, we are trying to push back on the relentlessness of the ruthless timetable (note to self, name for next book), and giving people the time and space to create magic and actually talk to one another, not what the next unit will ‘cover,’ but what will happen over the next several days to connect young people with experiences that will challenge them. One thing George never mentioned was that his vaudeville wasn’t just a performance, it had to engage the audience!!

It’s crazy what happens when the music/drama teacher and the language/outdoor ed instructor share ideas and plan. CRAZY. And wow is it good for kids. Yes, much easier for upper than lower school, but still.

Our work is way too complex to relegate this genius to “prep” time or the occasional PD workshop. The prep time, after all, is just enough time for the troubadour to change to his prince costume for the next vaudeville set.

In the movie Bohemian Rhapsody (and in true life) Queen went to the Ridge Farm Studio in Surrey, England to focus and finish what would become the most streamed song of the 20th century. This wouldn’t have happened if all they did was play five sets of “Killer Queen” every day, all day with only tiny breaks in between.

As we head into peak hiring season, and continue to fill our schedules and timetables with faster, better, more to fill the gaps lost by the pandemic, make up for lost time from lockdowns, and launching the DEI initiative you haven’t gotten to yet, please keep in mind that there are creative and better ways to engage an audience than five live vaudeville shows a day.

Pivot

Schools have adapted very well to the logistics of the current pandemic. Congratulations. Masks, hallway directions, temp checks, social distancing. New timetables.

Now for the hard part.

What are we going to promise about the learning? Continued excellence in the IB and AP? Reading and writing above grade level? Ivy leagues?

I, for one, do not want to be the violinist on the deck of the Titanic. I know many of us don’t either.

I’m not talking about lowering expectations. I’m talking about tuning into the importance of what learning is and how we define it.

My definition of learning is simply what happens when prior experience is disrupted by new knowledge, experience or information . That’s it.

Last weekend, my son and I went on a long bike ride in the Croatian countryside (he’s trapped with us doing virtual University and eating us out of house and home). We got a flat. I haven’t had a flat in months. We didn’t have an extra tube or a pump. We were in a village. A kindly old couple came out to help. We switched one of the tires so I could ride 35k to fetch the car. They offered him roasted chicken and potatoes while he waited. He refused since they invited him inside and weren’t wearing masks. (I would have taken my chances). But I digress. Today we went out on another ride, pump and tube in hand, got another flat, and fixed it in 15 minutes. #learning.

Last week, a teacher was almost crying in my office, pleading with questions about how she was going to maintain current expectations in a hybrid virtual environment. “Isn’t learning whatever we make it?” she said. “Why have we made it some immovable object that we have to reach no matter what is going on?” I touched my hand to my mask (even though it’s probably not sanitary). She was right. The world is being forced to pivot, not just with the obvious things like social distancing, but with deeper things that we care about, that we learn about, that make us human.

So, what should this mean? The only example I could think of was the stool (and apologies if it’s a tired metaphor). If we knock one leg out, let’s call it mathematical logic or reading comprehension or science labs, then what happens? Can we drag one of the legs over to replace it? It’s still two legs. Can we replace it? Yes, but that takes a lot of time and we don’t have that option right now. Do we lean it against the wall? Maybe, but you can’t sit on it that well. That’s right, the stool is weak and cannot meet its intended purpose. In other words, this new experience is forcing us to think about the purpose of that two legged stool.

This is us. The two legged stool.

We have obviously been disrupted and I’m thinking that the leg that got knocked out is academic excellence. The two legs left that I’m looking at are socio-emotional learning and community. Those are the things that we all talk about on our websites but rarely do much about. After all, parents never yell at us for not succeeding in those things.

It’s time to pivot. It’s time to pivot to the disruption and take learning from that, not from whether or not 10th graders can solve a statistical analysis problem. Sure, that’s a nice distraction. What is also a distraction is the incalcuable stress, heartache, loneliness, boredom, sadness, and disconnectedness that is clouding learning.

It’s time to pivot. To community. To what makes us human. To what kids care about. To what they need. To what legs on the stool are left so that they can learn. Because if we deny this and pretend that all three legs are still there, it’s going to hurt when we hit the floor.

Ken and Covid: Two disruptive forces that changed my life

When I saw Ken Robinson’s cleverly animated video about how schools kill creativity in 2007 , I knew that my teaching career would never be the same. It was the tail end of the No Child Left Behind epoch when schools had become barren deserts of accountability and pedantic threats about performance.

When Covid hit in 2020, I knew that my administrative career would be changed forever, not only because I had to re-design the logistics of learning, but because the stuff we put into place and the impact it had on culture would not be reversible for a long time.

The Vulnerable Leader

I sat with my new teacher leader team, without anytime to talk about norms, feelings, or Myers-Briggs results, and put them to work. I felt like a lieutenant in a WWI trench handing rifles to 16 year old new recruits and sending them over the top. I knew they weren’t prepared but we were in crisis. For the first time in my 18 years as an administrator, I didn’t know how anything was going to work. I’d dealt with tragic deaths, trauma, bomb threats, riots (yes riots), but beneath all of that was a solid foundation of a school that served as a baseline. Now the baseline was dissolving. I could no longer pretend that I had any answers to anything and people depended on me to know. So, I turned to them, and said things like, “I can no longer solve the problems that I don’t know exist yet. You are going to have to be comfortable with this uncertainty without panicking our team or our students.” They saw a side of me that Principals aren’t supposed to show. We aren’t supposed to shrug and say “I don’t know.”

We all act like we are supposed to be honest and open and all the conferences we go to talk about the power of collaboration and distributed leadership, etc. but it’s all superficial stuff. This vulnerability went to my core. It wasn’t just assigning some committee on literacy. It was running the bloody school. Strangely, it felt liberating. I was forced to reconsider the principle that my job was to remove obstacles so people could focus on teaching and learning. I could no longer stay true to that core belief because there were too many obstacles. Simply, too many. I imagined how hard the same experience must have been for teachers that had to make the same choices whether or not to reveal their vulnerable selves to their students. This reveal didn’t mean I had given up or was asking them to save the day. Quite the contrary. I knew the battles that had to be fought. I just needed help.

Sir Ken ignited the passion within me that schools had to do something drastic, and now that moment has arrived, accelerated by a pandemic. Virtual learning, outdoor and experiential education, redesigned timetables, creativity. All of it has become turbo charged in an environment of chaos. The one and only thing I’ve learned from the loathsome President of my native country is that there’s all kinds of opportunity in chaos. Right now it is in abundant supply. So, rather than feeling like Sir Ken and his legions are pushing cement blocks up the mountain of stagnancy and consistent IB scores, we are really and truly at the precipice of the change he wanted to see in the world.

God Bless, Sir Ken and thank you for your gifts to the world. I will miss you.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, What Big Disasters Tell Us All.

A small gathering of people, heads bowed, sit on makeshift benches in the open air of a small town in the American West, surrounded by the rubble of what used to be their church. A powerful nation, wounded by a brazen and public act of violence that crumbles two symbols of its economy, impulsively reacts with rage and violence.

There’s nothing like crisis to expose us for who we are and what we value (and don’t). It’s cathartic, like a near death experience. (Which unfortunately is what this can be).

In schools, we like to think we’re ready because we plan (fires, cobras yes that’s a thing, earthquake, gas leak, military coup, invader, etc.). I’ll never forget the time in Switzerland when the local fire department made me enter a simulated smoky room tent and follow recorded screams to the other side with a fire extinguisher in my hand as I tried to spray a burning stove. My heart was beating out of my chest, my tie nearly caught fire, and no plan in the world was going to help. It was terrifying (and awesome).

So forget about the neat lines of elementary kids quietly walking down stairs in rows to the pre-planned fire drill on a sunny day out through the cafeteria and lining up on the football pitch. This ‘stuff’ is for real.

Remember how dysfunctional your communications were before the pandemic? I bet that got sorted fast. Remember those needy and at risk students before the lockdown? Are they worse than ever? Possibly. Remember how much difficulty the science department had collaborating when they were in person? How’s that working out now through a screen?

All of those things that we either ignored but knew could be problems, hoped to get to later but never had the time and wished would fix themselves, are now screaming at us like one huge virtual siren. Similarly, so is the great stuff. I bet those popular pep rallies are better than ever on Zoom!!

Economics pundits are recording with fascination how the work universe is re-sorting itself. Visionary businesses like Amazon and Netflix are gobbling up the opportunity while the insecure or unprepared are suffering. (Maybe we didn’t need all that oil after all). Same goes for us.

If your organization over-promised and underdelivered before the crisis, you’re probably in trouble now. If you didn’t properly support or train your teachers before the crisis, you’re in trouble. If you didn’t build trust with your parent community before March, you’re really in trouble. If you didn’t build a culture of transparency and respect and yes, love, before, then the current shutdown for you might extend well beyond when things open up again.

At the risk of sounding insensitive, these current times are leadership gold. They are providing a clear path to us about not only what is really important about learning, but what we are made of as institutions and what cannot wait for the next accreditation cycle.

Of course, a lot of schools and businesses might pick up right where they left off. There may be socially distanced parties, unveiling of statues built for lower elementary and Pre-K teachers, and an increase in community building. But things might just drift back to the way they were.

Don’t let that happen. Even if things were good.

This is the greatest scorecard of all time. It’s better than accreditation, a PhD from Bath, and a Klingenstein Fellowship rolled into one. It’s the mirror, looking straight at our unshaven and unkempt faces, telling us exactly who we are and what is our potential.

Don’t waste it.

Feet, You Had Feet?

Love In The Time of Corona and Other Musings…

Zagreb, March 22, 2020

When I was younger in the U.S., there was an old Roy Rogers commercial playing with two men arguing about who had it harder growing up. They started talking about walking to school long distances, not having shoes, then socks, ending up with the punch line which is the title of this story. It’s ‘dad’ humor but I still love that line.

But c’mon, you gotta give it up for Zagreb. We had an earthquake in the middle of a pandemic. And can you believe people had to practice social distancing whilst evacuating onto the streets?

Can I get an amen?

While many of you may have experienced snow days, our school called an earthquake day which was a relief from virtual day because of pandemic week. Thankfully, although several teachers lost their apartments, no one in the entire school community was injured or killed by the 5.4 tremor. This is truly amazing for a place with old buildings that hasn’t experienced something like that in 140 years.

I asked some of my Croatian friends how people were being so stoic through it all and they said, “Well, we did live through a war only 25 years ago.” Ah right, the war. And so it goes.

There are many international teachers that have been in tough situations. Wars, floods, earthquakes, fire, coups, sudden closures, disease, and the list goes on and on. So, this is certainly not an attempt to demonstrate anything new in the experience of international teachers or to make some platitudes about how we have to pull together in tough times, with or without feet.

But what opportunity, what necessity that stands right before us (that amazing and always reliable mother of inventions), is the chance to teach us something that we cannot miss in that precious space when new knowledge meets experience, that thing most often referred to as learning.

We thought we were doing this as educators before, but most of us were not. We did some online stuff, a few Khan Academies served with a side of Pamoja. There were tech integrators, workshops, and even virtual learning platforms, but it wasn’t all in. Now, obviously it is. What an amazing ice bucket challenge.

So now we stand side by side with our students, hand in virtual hand, having to figure &%$ out, humbled by realities that we don’t have answers for, but with a blue moon chance to redesign not only the what of our work, but truly the WHY of it. (Thanks Simon Sinek for that).

Of course we have to be a stable force for our students. We cannot throw our arms up, wailing at the sky proclaiming that nothing matters anymore. Of course it does. Much of what we’ve been doing to this point matters very much. But this is our chance to move that needle not just by an incremental skip but by a leap. Are we really going to go back to school once we get through this (and we will), and be like, “Whew that was close, okay everyone, now where were we? Oh, right, chapter five, photosynthesis.”

No, we’re not. We’re going to take a real, hard look at the WHY. We have to.

Why am I standing in front of you?

Why am I asking you to learn these things when those other things are SO much more important but we never get to them?

Why don’t I listen to you more and to myself talking less? (After all, for the past several weeks or months you hardly heard me talk at all).

Why can’t we be the change we want to see in the world now instead of hoping that years from now when you get out of university you might decide to make a difference?

This relationship between learner and teacher, between prior experience and new knowledge, between expert and witness, has changed. It has by necessity. It has for the better.

So, when we do go back, when we return to what we used to think of as normal, even if it takes a long time, we have to take what these opportunities have taught us and be honest about them, not just about the virtuality of learning, but of the humanity this revealed and what we owe to our students to do something real with it.

It’s nice, after all, to have feet.

Let 2014 be the year of purpose, not position…

So much happened this year…

So I went for a ski today in my backyard (which happens to be in the Swiss Alps)

IMG_3251

and it got me to thinking, as being in a beautiful place can do.

So much happened. So much tragedy. So much triumph. I watched that video above five times and couldn’t get through it without a lump in my throat. Is that what your school year felt like? Was it inspirational? Did it have new beginnings? New frontiers? Or was it just another year with pretty good I.B. scores and relatively happy parents?

After five years in the Alps, I have decided to move on. There were plenty of new frontiers since 2009, many new beginnings, a few triumphs, and definite tragedies. It was a lifetime lived. When I went to see my boss, I told him my goal four years ago was to ‘work myself out of a job,’ to make the people around me better, to hire the best talent I could find, and then to let them go. It was not easy at all, but we finally reached that zenith.

And now after twenty years in the business, I am taking the time to reflect not just on the next position, but the purpose. This is not an easy thing. It’s akin to stepping off a moving treadmill. I’ve been on many interviews and a finalist at three. But something is missing. Everyone seems so earnest and hard working. But the questions keep coming back to the same themes.

“How do you improve I.B. scores?”
“How do you take a good school and make it great?”
“What part does God play in your leadership?” (Yes that was an actual question)
“What are your thoughts on performance pay?”

I guess these are all legitimate questions but in my mind their purpose did not inspire me (even the God question). There is so much going on in the world that is moving so fast, we need something other than the same but “better.” I recall a recent lecture I heard on innovation refer to this as ‘sustainable change.’

Believe me, this is not easy. It is so easy to stay comfortable in international ed. It’s a pretty nice gig. You choose the country, target a few schools, and enjoy a decent lifestyle with pretty good kids. Who wants to change that?

I guess I do. So, while I walk the idyllic, evergreen lined roads of the Alps, wondering how on Earth I could walk from such a comfortable lifestyle, I listen to podcasts like Education Next and Ted Talks Education as well as The Meet Education Project and they get me to thinking…A lot of us are doing our best. But it’s not enough.

I had good answers to the above questions. But it spoke to the position, not my purpose.

Good luck to those of you attending the job fairs this year. Keep that purpose in mind. I know that the beach and those mountains are beautiful. But the students and what they need to make a difference in this crazy world are far more important.

Make it count. The world needs this generation too much. Do it because you have purpose.

I’ll leave Bono and Mary J to say the rest. Have a purposeful 2014.