Tag Archives: international teaching

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.

Talent is a pursued interest

Like everyone in this pandemic, my social life is mostly driven by Netflix. For some reason, the Bob Ross documentary was recommended to me. Maybe the internet algorhythm discovered I am nostalgic, maybe it aligned my approximate birthdate with his life. Who knows.

What I do know is that his shows made me not only incredibly relaxed, but filled me with the belief that I could do things even if I didn’t believe in myself.

People loved him because he made them believe they could paint. And if people believed they could paint a beautiful mountain or a forest, then maybe they could do things that they didn’t have the confidence to achieve. He made the inaccessible accesssible, and maybe that’s one of the genius attributes of a good teacher.

In one of his interviews, he said that anyone could paint. He didn’t say that anyone could be a Picasso. He just said that anyone could paint. I remember one of my favorite lines from the movie Ratatouille was, “anyone can cook, that doesn’t mean that anyone should!”

Yes, a lot of his paintings look like motel/hotel art. You may have even seen what you think to be a Bob Ross painting at a flea market. In fact, in the documentary they admitted it was nearly impossible to authenticate a true Bob Ross from a fake. But the point is not that he expected himself or others to become world renowned artists. The point was that people could pursue a talent that they didn’t know they had, even if they didn’t have it. And who knows what could become of that.

If my math teacher asked me the right questions about how I think and what I would do in certain mathematical situations, even though I stopped learning math at Algebra II in grade 11, who knows what I could have done? Maybe if he told me that anyone can do math that I might have been good!I

Tom Schimmer, a world renowned expert on assessment, told my teachers recently that every learner had an emotional reaction to the opportunity to be assessed. What Bob Ross did with his audience was to focus their emotions in a way that enabled them to access a creative side of themselves that they didn’t think was possible. In other words, magic.

I work in a school. I don’t want to stand in the way of the pursuit of talent. But too often I feel that we do. I want to be a catalyst for the pursuit of interest, not an obstacle. And most importantly, like Bob, I want to get people to believe in their ability to do something even though they think it’s impossible.

It’s a sad docmentary. It speaks to the consequences of what happens to artists and people that simply love and pursue something without understanding the business side of things and the evil that happens when cunning overwhelms curiosity. I don’t have an answer for that.

But what I do know is that Bob Ross gave people something to believe in that cut across cultures, religions, educational background, and vaccination preference.

He made them believe that they could do something they didn’t think was possible. Even if they made happy mistakes along the way.

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.

Fata ‘Magana’

(Joshua Nowicki – Photography)

NOTE: This post is a follow on of my review of Sonny Magana’s book. The previous post entitled Not So Hot for Teacher?


A Fata Morgana is a mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon. Early associations of the effect were said to resemble “fairy castles built in the air.”

A Fata Magana is a mirage suggested that by making tweaks to how they teach, teachers can disrupt all of the highly interdependent status quo fixtures of “Education” itself and double student achievement. Like the Fata Morgana, it is suggestive of fairy castles built in the air.


TLDR: Polymath believes his interpretation of Hattie’s meta study of technology’s effect size on student achievement afforded him insight into creating a framework that doubles student achievement while requiring far less teacher effort. This is purportedly achieved by combining “high probability teaching strategies” and tracking student emotions about their work solving “wicked problems” using whatever technology they deem appropriate. While there is no shortage of dramatic descriptive detail, Magana leaves out how the framework integrates within Education’s core subjects.

Magana’s Entry in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Education

I learned a great deal from this experiment of doing research, writing a critical review and then seeing the author speak about the work in person.

The first jolt of the process was the instant feeling of camaraderie and collegiality walking into an education conference with a hundred and fifty other people. Seeing all the smiles ostensibly all there to “educate better” it was hard to imagine being critical of anything or anyone in that initial moment. As humane and comforting as this feeling was, I noted this is also related to why it is so hard to maintain an independent voice in a school.

Sonny’s Session for Teachers

I went to Sonny’s presentation for teachers first. There were about ten of us. I was familiar with his sessions as I’d seen and read so much online already, nonetheless I was surprised just how exactly the session went like a copy of what I’d seen online. His message discipline was remarkable.

He has obviously read Dale Carnegie and made sure to have everyone introduce themselves upfront so he could immediately begin using our names. As in his writing, he comes off as a clearly intelligent practitioner, of…? His background is somewhat hard to parse; he told us he was a “researcher”, but didn’t let on that before that he spent seven and a half years in various sales roles for Promethean, a whiteboard company, and before that an unexplained three year gap on his profile, and before that a principal of a “Cyberschool”, and so on.

A “difficult” child in his own youth, he related that his career took the path it did after taking on kids who were failing in “the system” and helping them to succeed. Once you understand his “alt-school” background, it makes his approach towards traditional teachers and schools much more understandable. You can see why he formulated a framework that fit much better outside “the system,” given his previous roles had effectively allowed him free reign to design his courses and assessments as he pleased.

After hearing about his bona fides, he moved to the story of how he came to the seeds for the book. It all started when he was around a campfire in his teen years, strumming open chords on a guitar until for the very first time he heard…BLANG!!!!! Magana queues Eddie Van Halen’s song “Eruption” to play as if he did not know it would be coming on.

Magana uses Van Halen’s frenetic guitar to demonstrate his framework and how its three stages culminate in transcendant learning, as in the type exemplified by Mr. Van Halen. It was an effective demonstration of the core pillars of his framework and Magana would (effectively) come back to music concepts and clips again and again to explain and his work.

Beyond music analogies around the genesis of his thinking, Magana is less clear….How to lead the transcendent pursuit? How does each kid learn how to learn?  Can it be generalized? All great questions and where those answers fit into a school’s curricular program is a mystery that Sonny does not speak to.

Sonny’s first session activity for teachers was to set the four tables off reading a couple pages of his book summary. Fair enough, but when he asked us to not only come back with three “things that made us think Aha!” from two pages of his writing but also at least one thing we’re going to implement in our own classes, the presumptuous/pretentious request immediately made eyeballs both dart and then roll slightly between teacher attendees.

While he waited for us to read, he noodled in the background on an acoustic guitar while his favorite classic rock jam band tunes played in the background. It was a bit much given only once briefly in about 15 minutes did he walk around among the tables, but even then he did not engage. Next, when we had finished, instead of just discussing the work as a group, he had us type our work into our digital tool of choice and send it to him on email, which seemed bizarrely overcomplicated until later you realize this was to goose the next step in his book promotion/sales process.

When we pulled back together, the responses were not what he was intending. I think with so much of his work being with public schools in the US, he was not at all used to the depth and experience that Tier 1 international school teachers who self select into a technology session possess.

In other words, things got awkward.

A 10th grade social studies teacher politely but firmly told him she was already aware of the strategies he referenced and used most them at different times with her classes; there was nothing new under the sun here. Sonny quickly moved on, and the rest of the responses were tepid at best.

Sonny then went in to describe the stages and reached the final goal of the T3 Framework, Social Entrepreneurship.

Sonny holds “Social entrepreneurship” as some kind of deep, universal human desire that all students will want to participate in at every opportunity if we would only just let them. Sonny’s framework also assumes that changing the world and making money doing it is viable in 6-8 different classes each day. Even if this was the only worthy goal for students (and it is not) I would argue there are not as many kids with the kind of endless creativity and drive Magana assumes. Not every student is Elon Musk, nor should they feel they need to be.

Magana came up to me during a break after the first session for teachers ended and asked about me. I was the most engaged in his sessions in some ways. I said I was a former teacher, involved in digital integration most recently who would really like to see a framework like his work, but that I was concerned that it had a lot of earth to move in terms of the status quo. Sonny interpreted that to mean I was talking about teachers and he did what I was wondering if he would do– he gently threw teachers as a whole under the bus.

Sonny said “You know, so many teachers, like we had today, say that they are doing the things in the framework, but they are not.” He then indicated he had to go, and later in the day he sent me an email with a copy of his Oxford Research paper as a gift to share with my colleagues. Not really a good look at a teaching conference. I felt relief that my initial judgements had born out.

Sonny’s Session for Administrators

I attended Magana’s session intended for Administrators on the final day of the conference. I was not surprised that his presentation to teachers and admin was nearly identical, but what was different was telling. Instead of Van Halen, he used the Beatles and US President Kennedy’s “Moonshot” speech along with a stirring video montage to relate his framework as Education’s “moonshot”.

Again, as in the first, he glazed over the details on the studies; let’s just all assume Hattie’s massive meta-study is a stone tablet from on high. The rest of the presentation steps were generally the same, only without any reading activity and collection of emails for his marketing machine. It was less on explaining the framework and more on selling the whole package…the association with Hattie, the book, the classroom walkthrough Google form tool, the T3 Leadership Academy. Interestingly, none of the non-theoretical practical tools were beyond early iterative stages of a basic Google sheet and form.

I asked what he felt the top three or four things administrators would need to do to implement or encourage the implementation of the T3 framework. Here’s what he said:

  1. Belief in collective efficacy.
  2. Have to talk about it. You need a common language for transcendent learning
  3. Common set of strategies to establish examples
  4. Need to evaluate it

I thanked Sonny when it was over. I then took a seat, went into the initial blog post/book review, added a question mark in the title and let the rest stand.

“Exciting” Expat

So why do it?

Why leave the country you were born in and grew up in to live your life overseas? Ask any international teacher and you may get a variety of answers. However, the one that will usually surface more than any other is “adventure”. What does that mean? Our friends at Wikipedia define it in part as “an exciting or unusual experience”. As I typed this in my last year in Saudi Arabia, I must admit thinking– my lifestyle choice is unusual…but exciting? Not so much.

Assimilation? 

What I have noticed about expats, including myself, after living in five foreign countries and visiting many others, is most expats recreate their western lives in the foreign city in which they live. There are very few expats who immerse themselves in the local customs, culture and language of the foreign country they find themselves in. Even those expats who marry locally never fully assimilate into the local community. While working and living in Thailand, I used to go to a local bar called the Tamarind and visit with other expat men, many who had married Thai wives. A few things struck me about them:

  1. Many spoke very little Thai.
  2. Many of them complained about the city/country they lived in and how it was substandard to the  country they had come from.
  3. Many times the Thai wives all sat together at one table chatting while the expat men sat at the bar carrying on about topics that were usually quite Western focused.

I guess this is not so unusual as it is very difficult to change from the culture you grew up. Additionally,  once moving abroad many expats find they are even more proud of where they come from. We see this in the West as well. Sure, it is the melting pot, but for every person in that pot, there is most likely an area of the country, or city, or neighborhood that caters to his/her particular heritage, be it language, restaurants, grocery stores or entertainment. It’s most likely a good thing. This is what keeps different cultures rich and unique and thriving in a global society. Also, many expats simply don’t want to assimilate to the local culture. As much as Americans expect immigrants to assimilate to American culture, very few of those Americans would be willing or able to assimilate to another culture even if they lived in one. Many times, even if you wanted to, there simply isn’t enough time.

To adapt to a new culture, one that you may know very little about, takes a lot of time. Even for the expat who stays at a post for decades, this process is not a hasty undertaking. But for the international teacher, whose usual tenure is two to five years, there is simply not enough time to assimilate to the culture in which he lives, even if it is a priority. This does not mean he cannot appreciate and enjoy the local culture, but to move beyond that can prove rather difficult. So many expats are content with simply appreciating the local culture and taking advantage (in a good way) of any opportunities it may present. However, most still cling to the culture from which they came.

I noticed this first during that trip to Venezuela. While there, I was struck by how similarly decorated my future in-laws’ house was to most other Texas homes I had visited (they are originally from Texas). In addition to the decor, most everything else was Western – the dinners we ate were family favorites, the language we spoke was English and the channels on the TV were showing American sitcoms. Two years later when my wife and I coincidentally got teaching jobs in Venezuela, we too replicated a life similar to the ones we’d had in the U.S. I see nothing particularly wrong with this — it is most likely natural and healthy. However, I wouldn’t define it as exciting…..unusual, yes, but exciting, no.

The Real Excitement: Travel

If you were to ask most international teachers, they would most likely tell you that the exciting part does not necessarily come from where you live and work, but rather where you travel during those extended vacations so prevalent in the teaching field. Herein lies the irony. Much like the American couple who work, take care of kids and watch a bit of TV in the evening, the expat couple is doing the same thing. And just like the American couple who long to get away on vacation in order to experience a break from the monotony of life, the expat couple does the same. Since daily life….work, kids, dinner, sleep, repeat is a bit tedious, we all look forward to something different…..an adventure if you will. But for the average American this can be difficult. Whether it is our Puritan work ethic, financial responsibilities or just the feeling that the office cannot go on without us the average American takes only thirteen days of vacation a year. Less than two weeks for the entire year.

Is the all-inclusive vacation a reflection of this limited vacation time most Americans are granted? With an entire year to daydream about an adventure, about some excitement, about leaving the tedium of daily life, a holiday of overindulgence and extravagance starts to look pretty damned good. Whether it is or not is debatable, but the fact is that during the cycle of the weekly grind, looking forward to a little escape in our life is a guilty pleasure. And the international teacher is no different. The American worker in the cubicle may daydream about giving it all up and moving to Thailand to become a teacher (which, incidentally, is not that difficult to do), but even if he did, his life may not be that different. It would be an unusual experience sure, but exciting? Not likely. The international teacher, much like the cubicle dweller, also daydreams about vacations, about a break from the monotony of life. The difference is these folks have a lot more vacation time coming to them, whether they want it or not, and most do.

The top three things international teachers talk about when together are work, kids and vacations. In many places, this is all you may have to talk about. Holidays hold a special place in the heart of the international teacher. This IS the exciting component to the adventure they all craved when going into the profession. So they take them pretty seriously. If you ask a group of international teachers where they are going on holiday (internationally its holiday, not vacation), the responses are mind blowing. You will get a list of the most exotic and interesting places you could imagine. One winter holiday, I left my then-home in the Middle East to enjoy the sunny beaches of Sri Lanka. The list of places my colleagues went to included Finland, France, Italy, Australia, South Africa, India, Zambia and Kenya, as well as others.

The Cost of the “Excitement”

The price tag of these vacations is not something most teachers talk about, but it was refreshing to hear one teacher, when asked how is holiday was, respond with a dollar figure. “How was your trip?” I asked. “$8,000,” he replied. This couple had gone “home” for the winter break. Home to the expat is wherever he grew up and/or still has family. No matter that he’s not lived there for fifteen years; it’s still referred to as home. Many teachers do go “home” for the holidays, especially the long winter break, which is usually two to three weeks long. Almost all teachers go “home” for the summer. But this is not referred to as a holiday. This is just the annual two month break that we all grow to expect. To many it’s not seen so much as a holiday, but time extended family expects to see you since you’ve been away the entire year. However, once couples start having children, many feel the pull to head back not only for the summer, but also for the winter break. This is why my colleague answered the way he did. He went from Saudi Arabia to Canada and back in the span of eighteen days. Not only is this a grueling travel itinerary, but is obviously quite expensive. The eight grand was not just for the airline tickets, but all that comes with going home, especially during Christmas – presents for the family you never get to see, a bit of shopping for yourself and any other pleasures not available in your overseas home. Is $8,000 on the high end of travel for winter holiday vacations? Not necessarily. While I traveled to Sri Lanka for nine days and spent $4,000, the family that went to Finland shelled out $10,000.

Was it worth it? Depends who you ask. Not to the guy with jet lag and eight grand missing from his bank account. Not to me, who realized, as many parents with toddlers do, that nine days in a hotel room and nightly restaurant visits with small children is more punishment than holiday. But most would say yes. They saw family, they visited a new country…they finally had an adventure. Even the colleague who bemoaned the $8,000 vacation was, a few weeks later, in the same teacher’s lounge, in the same chair, talking excitedly about his Spring Break plans which included a trip to Thailand and a room with “a huge balcony and awesome ocean view”.

Sri Lanka First Trip

For the international teacher, the idea of not traveling during a holiday is unheard of. Why would you forego the opportunity to travel? Because it is difficult?  That is irrelevant because seeing the world is what drew the international teacher to move abroad in the first place. And seeing the world isn’t always easy. To save money? Sacrilege. We are not here to save money, we are bigger than that. We are buying memories. You only live once. These are some of the responses I have gotten upon telling colleagues that I will not be going away during a break.

Saving and Investing: Exciting?

Seeking financial independence by saving and investing has about as much credence in the international teaching world as it does in the overbought, overextended suburbs of the United States. Most international teachers are no better with money than their U.S. counterparts. Most are still living the American culture of consumerism and consumption – albeit on the other side of the world.  All they have done is replaced the McMansion and SUV,  the embodiment of the skewed American Dream, with ridiculously-overpriced holidays to far-off destinations, which they believe symbolize what it means to “see the world”. Not only does this create an illusion of “living the dream,” more importantly, it robs them the opportunity to obtain financial independence and realize true freedom.

So, exciting expat? Yes, sometimes. But the cost is sometimes great and the wait long, just like it is for all working people out there.

Homecoming

Nick’s Roast Beef in North Beverly was closed for vacation during my brief annual stay in America. “Are you kidding me?” I yelled, pounding the steering wheel of my rented Honda Pilot. “Are you &^&%$ kidding me!” I yelled again over the background noise of SportsHub 98.5 arguing in thick Boston accents why the Red Sox didn’t make a move at the trade deadline. Nick’s has the juiciest, meatiest, tender-ist roast beef with the best buns and sauce in the civilized world. I make a beeline for it when I get off the plane. It was traumatic not being able to get my fill during the short time I was in America.

International educators all have their own versions of Nick’s, those places across the globe that allow them to reconnect with ‘home,’ to reboot old memories that anchor them to something to balance the weightlessness of 10 months in Bangladesh or Brussels.

They also have the things they miss that are less predictable, less stable, and rarely show up on Facebook.

I missed three funerals of relatives this past year. Three. It was heartbreaking. But it’s part of that compromise we make when we choose this life. I’ve never been a fan of international folks posting their sunsets in Bali or their elephant rides in Tanzania while everyone back home is slogging it out in traffic trying to make a living. The things we post often don’t represent the sacrifices we’ve made to be away. Maybe we’re compensating somehow to numb the pain of the things we missed and to show everyone back ‘home’ what a great time we’re having. But it’s a hard sell.

When I return ‘home,’ there are the routines that I do to connect and replenish just like everyone else. The visits to aging relatives and parents, the ice cream outings with young nieces and nephews, the craft beers with brothers. It’s all done at such a frenetic pace I cannot always summon the energy to be sincere, attentive, grateful and engaged everytime. “Oh, it was your birthday last month? You’re learning to play the drums? You have a new job? Wow! You’re going off to university already?” There are so many details that fast forward in time it’s hard to keep track.

The hardest part, though, is re-inserting myself into the realness of what it means to be home. The superficial catching up can only last so long. Then it’s time to talk about the family business that is late on its payments, the parents with Alzheimer’s, the sister in law with breast cancer, the high school friend whose young son is on life support. Those are the homecomings we never see on Facebook. It’s so hard to re-engage and get up to speed on the crises that have been a part of ‘home’ life during the time we’re away. Engage too quickly and you disrupt family dynamics that found equilibrium during your absence. Disengage and risk the wrath of relatives questioning out loud if you’re committed to anything other than hiking through rainforests.

I’m always drawn to the bedrock of my childhood to get re-centered. The pond I skated on as a kid. My grandmother’s house (pic). The rock by the ocean where I asked my wife to marry me. All of the places that (unknown to me at the time) built the foundation that led to the decision to live overseas. Going back to those places stabilizes me for the often turbulent (pun intended) times far from home.

Thank God Nick’s re-opened just before I had to return to my international life. I didn’t post any pictures of the large sandwich and onion rings I consumed in less than two minutes, but rather quietly wiped a dribble of bbq sauce from my nephew’s chin and tried to get up to speed on his fledgling lacrosse career.

It felt good to be home.

The Thin Line Between A Successful (and unsuccessful) Job Search

Hi Again;

I’m inspired every day by the teachers I work with. They are consummate professionals and bring their “A” game every day. It’s a competitive world out there and as you know, it all starts with putting your best foot forward in the job hunt process. (By the way, this film on the “job hunt” in Japan is amazing).

I hope these tips help. Best of luck. Stay positive. Things have a way of working out.

1) Inappropriate LinkedIN, CV, SKYPE, etc. photo and/or professional email. Yes, I turned 50, so this is my old man rant. (I didn’t include Facebook profile or Twitter on this list but you’re at your own peril if employers search for them). I am astounded at how many people have suggestive and inappropriate email names that they share with prospective employers. I’m equally amazed at the SKYPE and LinkedIN photos that look like they were taken at nightclubs or on hunting vacations. NOT INTERESTED. Clean up your professional acts! If you have to build a separate LinkedIN account or SKYPE for interviewing then please do it.

2) A casual and unprepared approach to the interview, whether on Skype or in person. Although this could be argued as a generational thing or a sign of the times, I have experienced many instances in which the interviewees just aren’t prepared to be interviewed. Yes, it’s a good idea to wear a tie for a SKYPE!! Saying that the reason you want to work at my school is because you love working with children is NOT an answer. Saying that you value diversity and engaging learners is NOT an answer. I want you to give a SPECIFIC reason as to why and how you are a thoughtful, deeply engaged practitioner. I want you to describe your inspired teaching with the deliberate genius of a sculptor. Capture my imagination. Please don’t tell me that you’re trained in the MYP and have integrated the criteria into your lessons. (I’m going to walk out of the room the next time I hear that).

3) Asking really thoughtful questions that go beyond the boilerplate ones like “How much is the health insurance?” and “What is the travel allowance?” The best questions speak to the culture of the school and the employer’s perspective on what it’s like to work on the team. “What have been your biggest challenges managing growth?” and “What is the organizational culture of your team?” are a couple of my favorites. These questions demonstrate that your are interested and invested in the prospective school and it’s not just another pin on your travel map.

4) Your CV is sloppy, outdated, and/or hard to read. Presentation IS important. I actually had a CV on my desk recently for Principal that spelled it PrinciPLE. I’ve seen gaps in dates, incoherent descriptions, typos, and a complete lack of clarity around the candidate’s actual qualification for said job. Your CV is YOU. It needs to tell YOUR story in a clear, inspiring, coherent way.

That’s all I got for now.

Yes, I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and it’s painful being a candidate. I hope that none of the above applies to you and that you are well versed in the standards of the industry. Thanks for all that you do to be an important part of international education.

Professional Development – Perk or Priority?

The leadership team is meeting to review professional development plans for the teaching staff. Glancing over the dozens of applications, ‘Who gets to go to the conference this year?’ quips the primary principal. Cringe….

Who ‘gets’ to go? Right there in that session, is where that leadership team sets up the ‘culture’ for PD across the school. In the international school how easily PD can become a ’fringe benefit’, a ‘reward’, an entitlement – essentially a potentially expensive PERK. And when we design a PD program with PERK as the central idea, it’s pretty clear where that will NOT lead – to the real goal of PD, -improved learning through improved teaching.

We cheapen significantly the whole teaching profession with the ‘perk’ approach rather than as the essential PRIORITY it is for improving student learning. It’s not about who ‘gets to go’ to that conference in a sunny warm place in the dead of winter, or who ‘deserves’ it because of all their service, or whose ‘turn’ it is. It’s not about onsite days where the kids stay away, school provides lunch and gives teachers the latest ‘buzz word’ PD.

Professional development activities are the vital link between student learning and our growing understanding of what makes learning possible. Serious educational professionals pay attention to the latest understanding about how learning happens and seek out those specific opportunities which will help them translate that new understanding into classroom practice. And, yes, it can be both job-embedded or externally provided. They can both work, each generating unique benefits, when the premise is right. But when it isn’t – when the underlying premise is’ perk’ rather than priority, what we design and how we design it will fall short.

At this point in the school year, many international school leaders will be looking for those ‘external’ opportunities to boost learning for teachers during the long break between school years. . Here are some suggestions to ensure those experiences are beyond ‘perk’ thinking:

BEFORE approving attendance at an eternal PD session:
For each potential attendee:

  • What specific learning goals for students are we working to improve by sending this teacher to this PD session?
  • What do supervision and evaluation data for the teacher indicate regarding skills to be addressed?
  • What is the teacher’s own analysis of skills he/she needs to improve?
    About the session being considered:
  • Is the PD session directly aligned to the desired learning results our school is attempting to achieve?
  • Are the learning objectives primarily skills that a teacher would use in the classroom?
  • Is there evidence that participants will actually practice skills during the session?
  • Is the intended content commensurate with current research?
  • Are there any built-in follow-up strategies (e.g. a ‘next steps’ planning processes embedded in the session strategies?)
    AFTER the session:
  • How will we ensure that the teacher is actually applying what has been learned?
  • What measures will we use to determine if this PD made any difference?
  • And a big DON’T: DO NOT ask the teacher to ‘share what they learned’ BEFORE they have had the opportunity put it into practice in their own classroom.
    And a reminder that we at TIE and the PTC do offer some PD options for international teachers and leaders…

…all in the quest to move from PD as PERK to PD as PRIORITY.

The Organization of Learning

IMG_4826

This picture has nothing to do with the post, but I took it when I was hiking this summer in Switzerland and my head was really, really clear and uncluttered by my “to do” list. Maybe it is related!

According to Wikipedia, “high performance teams can be defined as a group of people with specific roles and complementary talents and skills, aligned with and committed to a common purpose, who consistently show high levels of collaboration and innovation, that produce superior results.”

With all the talk about disrupting class, innovation, and re-inventing structures for learning, I am fascinated by the conversation brewing around the organization of learning. I’m not talking about what happens inside the classroom. I’m talking about everything that surrounds it. We talk about ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning yet the days in most schools are subdivided into discrete, immovable parts that cause people to dash from one thing (class) to another (meeting).

Schools are really hard places to work because we can never tell if we “got it right” and are always in disagreement about what the final product should look like. Do they have similar conversations at Apple? Maybe. But one thing that I bet they have at Apple that we don’t have in schools is time.

I’ve never been to Apple, but I’m fairly confident of this fact; 90% of their best employees are not giving direct service to clients 70% of the time. Consider that. The average day school teacher provides direct service to his or her clients 70% of the time he or she is at work. (I took a nine hour day and divided it by three hours not scheduled with classes).

That is a very precious 30% left over. Three hours per day, fifteen hours per week to be committed to a common purpose and consistently show high levels of collaboration and innovation in order to produce superior results.

Here’s the kicker: Half of that 15% (some may argue more) must go towards preparation for that direct service to clients. That leaves 15%, or 90 minutes a day to achieve the goals of high performance.

Does the organization of learning know this? Has your learning organization ever assessed its learning architecture around this 15%? What does it do with it?

Consider the student experience, whereby (at the secondary level), a student interfaces with five or six service providers a day, none of whom communicate (usually), leaving the student with an amount of expectation and work that could be considered impossible in most work environments. How many people have five or six bosses? And how much time is there for the average student to meet these demands within the organization of learning?

I don’t know what to do about this dilemma. All I know is that I think about it a lot. And all I know is that the responsibility put on the educator to perform at high levels requires more time to assess practice and the organization of learning, not less.