Tag Archives: Transition

Balance and Rigor, Not a Paradox

“Eighty-five percent of all performance problems are not people problems, they are process problems.” I heard this two decades ago from the most competent person I ever worked with. He spoke from experience but had borrowed this teaching from William Deming, one of the acclaimed Founding Fathers of Total Quality Management. It is fitting to consider how this relates to education.

Systems are not only curriculum based but tie into the overall structure. Schools routinely reflect on schedules. Conventional or rotating bell schedule? 4×4 or A/B schedule? Multiple Period Flex Block or Traditional 6 or 7 Period Day Schedule? These are just some of the possibilities to consider. The choice largely dictates how time is prioritized. A significant decision, as schedules have the potential to create balance. Or not. Everyone is surely pining for the former.

A schedule that allows students to chew their food and pass casually between classes. For teachers to run to the washroom. Built-in breaks are not only proven to improve productivity but also well-being. This balance that is created falls under what Deming would stamp as a “process.” So, if balance truly can be controlled in schools, what about rigor? 

Radical Simplification

Rigor ultimately is contained in the people, that other 15%. But can schools be both balanced and rigorous? As I reflect on this question, I harken back to thoughts of radical simplification and of what learning looks, sounds, and feels like for a toddler. According to Emma Elsworthy of the Independent, “Children ask a staggering 73 questions every day … half of which parents struggle to answer, according to a study.” In an answer-driven world, seemingly bent on a default to Google everything, the key to rigor is actually not turning to Google. Instead of seeking the answer at the tips of our fingers, maybe it is more about the joyful and honest discovery of the unknown. 

Rigor Anchored by Curiosity

Understanding how the roots of the word rigor are rigidity, cold, and stiffness, 20th-century novelist, David Foster Wallace, shared a revised definition of rigor. Brian Sztabnik alluded to this in an Edutopia article sharing, “Rigor is the result of work that challenges students’ thinking in new and interesting ways. It occurs when they are encouraged toward a sophisticated understanding of fundamental ideas and are driven by curiosity to discover what they don’t know.”

Again, rigor is anchored by curiosity. Understanding this, I am left asking, what are the questions my students are wondering most? Questions not necessarily with answers. Questions that are unGoogleable because, to Google, is not to be engaged in the rigorous. Yet, at seventeen and eighteen years of age, most students likely have been conditioned out of rigor. And out of child-like wonder. It however remains within them I know and I would argue, wonder has a role in being human, not just in being a child.

Our Imagination Sets Us Apart

Akin to the chicken or the egg causality dilemma, is the question, which came first curiosity or imagination? If asking questions denotes curiosity and a desire to know, this then will ignite the imagination. Or, does one’s imagination spur the desire to know? Whichever the case, causal or not, best-selling author, intellectual, historian, and professor Yuval Noah Harari maintains that our imagination is what sets us apart. “Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money, and human rights.”

Education as we have known it is a system steadfast on compliance and test scores. Where teachers traditionally have held the questions and in effect, did the rigor. Neither curiosity nor imagination was necessarily prized. If it is balance we are after, students should be coming up with the questions. Yet, how commonplace the inverse is, students often are simply responsible for the answers. Teachers ask the questions and students answer. This seems like an easy enough shift. One that we can all begin today.  

A Transition to Invitation

So, a more invitational path and approach to learning is to be paved. This likely will take time. Time for the education system as a whole; teachers, and even students to catch up. Or, dare I say, go BACK to! Where there is a realization of how learning is a natural and joyous process. Not something to feel forced to do. Nor a passive process of downloading. Rather a rigorous and active upload. Where learning equates to doing. I like to think that with such consciousness being developed, more and more students will wish to follow this age-old “new” path. At some point, there will be a critical mass of students and schools, though not likely contained within four walls, which will result in a transformation back to what learning always was.

The people and process can will it so!


Life on the Wire

“Life is on the wire, the rest is just waiting.”  

~Papa Wallenda

The next several months of recruiting season are exciting for many teachers and administrators. Having resigned, lives are once again lived on the “wire.”  As a teacher of inquiry there seems to be a valuable ordering to the questions which might propel the decisions so many are about to make.  Our “why” paramount, hopefully a clear vision of why we remain in the hallowed field of education.  Followed by “what.”  Understanding the nature that there is not one market but many.  What exactly is most desirable?  The “who” you are, what you are able to offer, but also “who” or identity of your potential future employer also is to be considered.  And last, the “how.”  Trust is what ultimately is required here.  Confidence in yourself but moreover, a deep sense of trust in the process, and in life.  

Further, we might do ourselves a favor to remember and hold fast to the fact that similar to graduating students, there are no “best” international schools.  Unlike United States universities and colleges, there are no rankings of international schools. Even if there were, the list would be flimsy and likely, saturated in bias.  For, even the thirty odd years of US News & World Report university and college rankings recently were debunked by Malcolm Gladwell in his Revisionist History podcast. Gladwell brazenly asserts the “rankings game” report to be audaciously inaccurate in measuring the quality of institutions.  

Yet, somehow there persists a myth in the international circuit of tiered schools.  Reputation is an aspect not to be dismissed, however what makes a “top tier” school is worth sussing out.  Besides reputation, “top tier” equates to a more generous package.  Such benefits as matching retirement funds, annual return trips home, shipping allowance, and health insurance.  Benefits are unarguably measurable. Yet, they do not necessarily equate to the effectiveness of a school, student learning, or most importantly fittingness. 

First Rodeo

Snow was being removed from the tarmac as my plane landed in February of 1998. My life was about to be positively changed as I attended my first international teaching job fair. These were the days before the ubiquity of the internet and a physical catalog of schools was provided after mailing in a check and registering. So much has changed in the world and yet, I sometimes grapple to put my finger on how much the international teaching “circuit” has.  In many respects it still seems like a small world, especially when a new colleague is quick to connect, “Oh, you taught at X, Y, or Z school.  You must know Dan Stiles (or take your pick of names!).”  

I entered the fair expecting nothing more than a chance to gain interviewing experience.  When I received my first offer, I hurried to the pay phone, mind you this also was before cell phones.  “Dad, I was offered a job,” I celebrated.  Even more surprising, later in the day another contract was extended.  Since this experience, I have utilized the services of two other recruitment agencies and had the pleasure to teach on five different continents.  However, only in the last few years have I fully come to appreciate the importance of the term, “fittingness.”


The concept of fittingness is a constant, so long as we are willing to put our lives on a limb. Throughout life there are choices to be made, forks less or more traveled in the road.  Stress, usually self-induced, besets a mental fixation on making the “correct” or “right” choice.  For grade eleven and twelve students it often centers on higher education.  Achieving high IB or SAT scores and being selected into an Ivy or other lofty “league” school. Assuming Harvard is the best for everyone, when in reality some big fish may have a better experience in a smaller “pond.”  The reality being one where there is no “best” school.  Thankfully there are many “bests,” and the notion that matters most. is the fit.

Abundance and a World of Choice

ISC Research,  a leading provider of English-medium K-12 international school data, trends and intelligence, reported in 2017 there are more than 9,000 international schools. To operate under the belief that there are but a few “best” schools would be a gross understatement. Seth Godin, best-selling author and entrepreneur, purports there is no scarcity.  As we close out on the Industrial Age, the opposite is true.  In effect we are living in great abundance and are experiencing a world of choice.  Instead of stressing ourselves about the “best” or “top tier” schools, what might make more sense is to create a sort of hierarchy around what matters most to you in your next place of work.  

Some Ideas of Criteria to Consider (not in any hierarchical order)

~location of the school and size of the city. An increasing consideration is quality of life, looking at a cities air quality may be one helpful criteria

~size of the school. Small, medium, and large schools all have their pros and cons

~history and tradition of the school.  Schools steeped in tradition may sometimes not be as quick to be progressive as tried and true systems of yesteryear may not demand revision. Unable or an unwillingness to be innovative or make quick shifts may lead to feeling like Krishnan Kanthavel, the captain of the Ever Given, as he diagonally blocked the Suez and prevented the  transit of nearly everything bought and sold on the planet!

~your personal mission as a professional 

~a school’s clarity in mission, vision, values and how these are tangibly being realized

Further, keeping it clear what one ideally wants in a school is vital. A component of this is fully coming to grips with what you have to offer.  Schools will want to know this.  Moreover, just as a school’s clear identity is important to you, they will want to feel confident in their ability to see an “authentic you.” Envisioning the interview this way may even help dissolve barriers which create anxiety and possibly create more of a conversational feel. Feigning questions at the end is easily discernible. Instead, determine what you really want to know about the role you are applying for, the school, or even the host nation.  

A Few Ideas of Questions You May Wonder

~What has your school learned through the pandemic?  Or, how has your school positively adapted as a result of COVID?

~How are you leveraging PD as a whole faculty?

~What measures are being taken to ensure students are learning in ways that fit with what the world is asking of graduates today?

~What are the top three strategic goals for your school?

~What does ___________ look like in the classroom?

~What would have been most helpful to know before you joined the school?

“I’m Excited”

Transition can be scary business.  Anxiety is normal when we courageously unroot ourselves and pick up our lives after any number of years.  However, it is possible to reframe the experience and actually enjoy the process. Alison Wood Brooks, a renowned psychologist found evidence across several studies of reappraising anxiety as excitement. Simple self-talk as saying “I am excited” out loud can actually work, giving credence to the aphorism, “fake it till you make it.” The doors of the world are unhinged. Your vulnerability ultimately has the power to lead to unforeseen opportunities.  Trust and enjoy life on the wire.