COMMUNITIES OF BELONGING

Teaching internationally sometimes is like being inside a cocoon.  School days typically in English. The comforts, routines, and rhythms in our new “homes” are similar; often little difference whether in Cairo, Shanghai, or Rio de Janeiro. Of course architecturally they may differ, yet our lives therein, not so changed.  In most cases, it would be a long shot to claim it is a hardship to teach in accredited international schools.  So comfortable, we may even have to go out of the way to feel vulnerable. Still, the fact remains that always outside the doors of home or school is “the different.”  Or more apt, the reflection that we are the “outsider.”   This possibly is the motivation behind our being abroad.

And we are lucky for this chance.

The fact being, we made the choice. We also have the option of how far we might “dive into” the host culture.  Fathoms deep, we may break the surface, challenging ourselves to begin learning the language.  Yet, regardless we will remain “the outsider.”  A feeling sometimes that could even be distressing.

Yet, we are lucky for this chance (refrain).

For the Times, They Are a Changing

How many people truly have the choice to navigate into and out of a dominant culture? Few I would argue.  Instead, so many are without this privilege. They simply nod their head, stand in line, and follow antiquated systems of organization and inequity.  Forced to play by what some may call, “the rules of the game.”

Singer Bob Dylan probably said it best,

And the present now will soon be the past

The order is rapidly fading

The first one now will later be last

For the times, they are a changing

The times are definitely changing.  So too are the “rules.”

International School Leadership Holds a Mirror Up to Themselves

Many of us were not aware, how during the spring of 2019, the Diversity Collaborative, a voluntary group of international educators, initiated a research study by partnering with ISC Research and George Mason University. “The goal was to survey the field of accredited international schools to establish a baseline of information in the international school sector about school leadership and diversity.”  2,676 accredited international schools received the survey and an informative three-and-a-half minute video summarized the results.

Mind you this is pre-pandemic and more than a year before the murder of George Floyd.  Even earlier, in 2017 The Diversity Collaborative was established, in effort to commit to creating and sustaining a more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and just international school community through our focus on leadership.

In an often myopic world bent on entropy, it is refreshing to have such good news.

Others Help Pave the Way

Within governmental agencies there is even a push for more diversity and inclusivity.  This is evident, regardless of the stir caused by the CIA’s recent recruitment campaign titled, “Humans of CIA.”  According to an article titled, “Unpacking the CIA’s cringey recruiting strategy,” the push for diversity is not new. “In 1994, then-CIA director R. James Woolsey said in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that “the ability to understand a complex, diverse world—a world which is far from being all white male—is central to our mission.”

According to McKinsey & Co, companies spend $8 billion a year on diversity training.  Yet, this is just a start.  Camille Chang Gilmore, Boston Scientific’s global chief diversity officer says it best. “Diversity is a given, inclusion is a choice, equity is a goal. Belonging is our ultimate end point.”

Belonging.

And isn’t this paradox seemingly woven into the fabric of 21st century life?  Always connected but more disconnected than ever; an increasingly socially isolated world.  The belonging Gilmore speaks of is almost tribal, a systemic need. It remains even more paramount when power structures are left unchecked; fraternal in their decisions of who allowed in the “room where it happens.” Or, who ultimately belongs.

But, as we have heard, “The times are a changing.”

In the school where I teach, a recent DEIJ statement was crafted to be used on the school’s website, admissions application, handbooks, etc.  One part specifically attests to the importance of belongingness.

“Our community is actively engaged in reflection and action planning to ensure that our school is creating and maintaining an inclusive culture where everyone feels they belong and where our students leave with the attitudes, values, and tools they need to enrich the world.”

The Survey

The data from the 2019 survey helped form a baseline for The Diversity Collaborative’s work.  This year another survey was launched (closing on May 30th) and is more detailed, requiring respondents to dig deeper into the roles of their leadership teams.  The initial question is a declaration of the region of the school. Following this, nationality and race/ethnicity are defined so there is shared understanding and clarity.  The survey then asks for the respondent to declare the gender, nationality based on passport, and ethnicity of the head of school. Then, questions are asked regarding the number, gender, and nationalities of members on the leadership team, as well as whether or not the leadership team has educators from the country where the school is located. The same questions are asked but this time about the school’s board members. Last, the 22-question survey repeats the questions but as they pertain to schools’ teachers.

Now What?

International schools are definitely interested in keeping pace and walking alongside the global communities they serve. Data gathering is but one small step.  Reflection, policies, professional development, partnerships, advocacy and action are all in process.  Ralph Waldo Emerson attested to the gravitas of action. “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” The Diversity Collaborative shared in a recent presentation a very clear statement of action in this regard.

“We recognize that the changes described will take time and resources,  but that just adds to the urgency for all of us engaged with international schools to act without delay to start to dismantle the systems that have prevented some outstanding educators from becoming international  school leaders and to build a more equitable and inclusive international  school sector so that educators of all backgrounds thrive.”

Helpful Links for More Information
ISS Diversity Collaborative
2019 Infographic of the results
For any survey questions, please reach out to data@cois.org

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AN UNWILLINGNESS TO HAND OVER CURIOSITY TO GOOGLE

Borrowed from Amber Kipp on Unsplash

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.

Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

~Albert Einstein

 

At the beginning stages of a project on innovation, I conference with students. My conversation with Anthony was staccato, more detached than cut short.

“Great, you want to see how gaming consoles have changed throughout time. As you begin to research, what are some questions you have?  Or, if you find out anything about gaming consoles, what do you wonder most?”

The response a dead end.

“Nothing.”

A child void of wonder could be linked to a listless boat in harbor.  Not only captainless but tethered.  However, eternal optimism screams out, “The boat is still afloat!”

Unfortunately, the conversation with Anthony was not exclusive, others had played out over the years.  Dejected tones imbued in learned compliance.  Students comfortable with conforming to carousels of simple obedience and going through the motions traditionally called, school.

In quiet reflection I question the myriad factors which might contribute to what appears to be an inverted approach to learning.  Specific to Anthony I wonder, “How often  in middle school has Anthony been given free reign to wonder?”  The normative approach possibly is one where teachers have over a hundred students and countless standards to “cover.” Systems of disempowerment where students are subjected to learning, as opposed to being agents of their own learning.

Further contemplation led me to take a deeper dive into what research says about the nature of wonder and curiosity.  There is little if any scrutiny of the value of curiosity in learning.  Yet, there is artistry behind designing approaches that truly listen to learners and provide the right conditions for revelling in wonder.  To do so would not be noble but simply, humane.  Intentionally fueling, as opposed to extinguishing this lifeblood. Curiosity, a hallmark of our human experience.

Tomorrow is Already Today

The role of curiosity is essential as we step into a possible fickle future. In an article titled, “Why Curiosity Might Be the Most Important Skill for Recruiters,” John Vlastelica shares:

“My team and I at Recruiting Toolbox have worked with thousands of corporate recruiters and hiring managers inside many of the best known companies on earth. And as you uncover what makes a great recruiter great, you start to hear common themes across industries and geographies. Curiosity is not always explicitly called out, but it’s there — it’s like an underlying competency, that leads to the more visible competencies that talent leaders and business leaders tell us they want to see more of in their recruiters.”

But it does not stop with curiosity.  So too is the need for context and razor sharp problem solving sets.  Kurt Reusser’s 1986 study, is in effect sadder than it is humorous. How Old is the Shepherd  posits, “There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock. How old is the shepherd?” Though absurd, researchers reported that  three quarters of schoolchildren were willing to offer a numerical answer to the shepherd problem.  Conditioned to calculate and not question, there is little wonder how passive learners were not confused by the word problem. They just needed to come up with a number.

Good news! This study was more than 40 years ago. Or is this really “good” news.  School curriculums have done anything but prune existing curriculums.  The time and space to develop intuition, explore, and question most likely has become even more confined. The pace of the world continues to quicken and students are expected to know and be able to do more, but seemingly in even less time. Racing as if there is soe sort of finish line. Further, consider the wieldy role of AI and algorithms.  Aimed at optimizing everything, algorithms increasingly are taking hold.  Their grip tightening as can be seen in the case of the “all knowing,” Google. “People Also Ask,” (PAA), previously known as “Related Searches,” appears after any word is typed into Google.  Only, no longer is this search all about knowledge and limited to generation of millions of results in less than a second.  Google also proffers a list of questions (PAA).  A list of what we might want to know.  The pivotal role of wonder shortcutted.  Users neither “have to” nor “get to” think of the questions.  Though under my brow for several years, only now am I conscious of the implications this feature may have on the future. The approach so seemingly sleight of hand. I am left with one dominant feeling.

Gobsmacked.

If you look up “gobsmacked” on Google, the first enquiry in “People Also Ask” reads, “Is gobsmacked a bad word?” Impulsively, I click on the question and find “…it’s used for something that leaves you speechless, or otherwise stops you dead in your tracks.”

Exactly. I am speechless, stopped dead in my tracks.

This is because “Googling” is no longer solely about knowledge and answers.  It is also about questions. Conditioned to still question I do not intend to hand over this privilege to Google. But how many busy learners will?  Or, already do!

Will Google revisit their mission and even rebrand themselves? This seems to be a matter of  subterfuge, as Google exceeds their  interest in, “organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful.”

This all reminds me of shopping for a greeting card.  Of greater importance than the inflated price tag, the happy birthday or get-well-card, comes with a message already written for the consumer who toils with the words to honestly express their feelings.  Yet, according to an Atlantic article written nearly a decade ago, “Consumers are expected to spend $860 million on about 150 million Valentine’s Day cards this year.”  In essence paying a card company to express YOUR feelings!

What We Can Do?

Warren Berger, self proclaimed questionologist and best selling author of A More Beautiful Question, references how today’s work environments are entrepreneurial and in need of educational systems which value questioning. Personally I plan to begin by truly nurturing curiosity and intentionally affording time to question in the classroom.  I myself modeling inquisitiveness and improving the habit of verbalizing my questions.  I also aim to take inventory of the types of questions students are asking.  Thankfully, “Is this going to be on the test,” appears to have all but vanished. I plan to hold close to the following five steps by Berger to help my students become better questioners:

1. Make It Safe
2. Make It “Cool”
3. Make It Fun
4. Make It Rewarding
5. Make It Stick

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As Education Evolves, We Must Continue to Integrate Parents 

Schooling and learning have changed. From passivity to authenticity. Transferability the clear goal.  An analogy that might help better understand this evolution is the user experience of shopping and how it has morphed, almost into an unrecognizable state. The advent of shopping catalogs can be traced back further back in history than one might assume, however we are but a couple generations removed from the “Golden-era of mail order.”  You may even have memories, fond or otherwise so, of the 1980’s when we saw the likes of Lands End, J. Crew, and Sears.  The retail catalog business  estimated at $164 billion in 1989.  Catalogs now are but a faded memory, yet they were the  building blocks for the budding behemoth, Amazon. Nowadays there is talk about the use of augmented reality to assist with virtual shopping.  Amazon being one such company utilizing patented mirror technology.  The evolution of shopping is an illustration of an undeniably different world than the one adults experienced as children. This is not unlike our schools and classroom.   Yet, unless you never left school, many adults today may not have realized this transformation.

 

One Question Remains

Before the turn of the millennium I started teaching in an urban school in a large city in the United States. Three quarters of the 8 and 9-year olds in my class would not share the end of the school year, as name tags would tirelessly be replaced with the incessant cycling in and out.  Transience was often a result of families being evicted from government subsidized housing.  Most headed by a single parent, always mothers.  The young women’s experience with education, negative more often than not. To get them to come for a parent night or conference was a stretch.  Families merely surviving.

Fast forward to another reality, teaching in Asia at a respected international school.  Standards, compliance, and well resourced; many students have help at home: maids, tutors, coaches, and extended family.  Two parent households the norm; both often highly educated.  Conference attendance is nearly 100 per cent.  Still, one question is worthy of asking. 

How well do parents really understand what school is today?

In both situations above, intentionality is essential. How are we welcoming parents in, helping educate them on how the world has changed, and how this translates to being a student today?  Unless we do so, the divide likely will remain.  A disconnect where seemingly a more scientific rather than artistic means of measuring wins out.  The quantifiable, hard and fast grades prioritized over the qualitative process of learning.  Commanding teachers as opposed to empowered students.  

 

Just Where Are We Now?

During the pandemic Zoom was used in more than 90,000 schools in 20 countries.   In effect, this meant that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of classrooms were opened to parents.  Sitting on the periphery, or in the case of younger students possibly directly in front of the screen with their child. Parents had an opportunity to be fully integrated, immersed in the learning even if virtual school was different.  Smeared or possibly even “broken,” it was a “window” nonetheless.  Zoom certainly required teachers to be vulnerable.  

Ted Dintersmith, author and film producer, of “What School Could Be” optimistically reveres the pandemic as a remarkable opportunity.  “Will we rush to go back to ‘normal,’ piling on the worksheets and fact-based exams? Or will we learn from what worked this past year and use these insights as a springboard for reimagining school??”  A component of this “reimagining” hopefully will be the critical role of parents.

Dr. Diana Hiatt-Michael, a professor of education at Pepperdine University for more than three decades, examined the historical role of parents in education.  Published by Academic Development Institute, Parent Involvement in American Public Schools: A Historical Perspective 1642—2000,” attests to how the pendulum has swung back and forth. “From strong parent involvement in the home and community based schools of the agrarian seventeenth century to the bureaucratic factory model schools of the industrial revolution,” writes Dr. Hiatt-Michael.  What the impending Information and Experience Age propagates is still left to tell.  However, what is not in question, is the profound impact parental involvement has in a child’s education.  

However, hiring out or programming the lives of children is not call. Rather, the quiet strength in truly listening to children. As well, especially in the pre-teen and teenage years, maintaining trusting child-parent relationships where artful two-way conversation is a part of family’s home cultures.  This communication about friends, things a child may be excited or even nervous about, as well as what is being learned in school.  Parents and children alike never have expressed titillation from the generic deadend conversation that begins with, “How was school?”  

 

What We Can Do (3-2-1 A Common Technique in a Teacher’s Toolkit)

Parents play an integral role in assisting their child’s learning but how might we better facilitate this? Furthermore, how might we as students, parents, teachers, and schools have a more shared vision of what education can be?  Let us finish with some hopefully easily applicable ideas for paving a luminous path.

3 Things Teachers and Schools Can Do:

3 Invite families into the classroom to observe.  And not just once or twice a year.

2 Share regular “newsletters,” updates, or e-mails to help keep parents informed and involve .

1 Share recommended resources that can assist with building greater understanding of the world of children and education today.  As well, parenting wisdom.  For example, Madeline Levine’s Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World.”

 

2 Things Parents Can Do:

2  Set down your phones and create time daily to speak with your children.

1  Parents teaching parents:  volunteer to provide or attend a workshop.  Topics such as as self-management and finding balance with technology are often especially valuable.  

 

1 Thing Students Can Do:  

1 Do not wait for events like student-led conferences to share your learning and lives with adults. 

 

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LEADING AS OPPOSED TO MANAGING

Nearly four centuries ago samurai turned poet Matsuo Manefusa, or Bashō, gave us the gift of Haiku (The inspiration for the Haiku I created above). Similar to Haiku’s time-tested refined distillation of 17 syllables, Twitter constrained users to but 140 characters.  More practical than artistic, Twitter was initially designed as an SMS-based platform and 140 characters was the limit mobile carriers imposed. In both instances, paramount is getting in and out with intentionality.

If only all facets of life were streamlined. Imagine faculty meetings or even better, dentist visits!

Probably much like you, I have a host of people I follow across social media platforms and frequent newsletters. However, none whom I follow parallels the unmistakable brevity and potency as Seth Godin.

If you do not already follow Godin, I suggest you check him out. Godin is an inspiration of what it means to be both purposeful and clear.  For more than thirty years, he has shared inspiration through his writing.  An author of 19 best sellers, his daily blog is in its eleventh year and imparts clever but also applicable messages that pollinate ideas across a spectrum of workplaces. For example, his top two all-time most popular posts are titled, “Don’t Shave That Yak!” and “Quality and Effort.”

One constant of Godin’s style is his ability to succinctly convey his message, masterfully positioning us in the slipstream. Voice so present in his writing. Clear and in pure breviloquence, Godin’s posts are possibly two steps from Haiku and but one away from Twitter.  He imparts wisdom that is enduring but also especially transferable to the craft of education. For example in a recent post he commented on the power of more self-directed and project-based learning, “We can create a pattern of teaching people to be curious because curiosity is an engine for learning… it is less predictable but far more powerful than the current alternative: Creating a desire to get it over with, combined with the ability to believe whatever the person in power tells us to believe.”

Who could disagree with this? The difference between compliance and empowerment.

Just envisioning paths paved by curiosity but moreover what is possible, is the first logical step.  More difficult is the necessary next move. For adults; teachers, parents, and administrators to make a conscious effort to simply get out of students’ way.  Please do not take this as a recommendation for an anarchic melee. Instead, the motivation is more an invitation.  To allow students to genuinely take a front seat to their learning.  If not in the driver’s seat, at least to sit shotgun. Far too much chauffeuring of backseat passive non-learners has grown to be the default modus operandi.  A generation often labeled as bored, disengaged, and unfortunately ill-prepared graduates.

This is not the first time I made the bold suggestion to step out of the way so students can get on with learning. So salient it crops up daily in my reflections, after and sometimes even amidst a lesson. Seemingly I keep having to learn this, as I forget, unlearn and relearn. Why?  My best non-guess is that it is a matter of control and of critical importance is to courageously let go. This I confess with equal parts honesty and vulnerability. Further, I am beginning to think it best to begin each lesson or unit plan with an overt intention to lead and not manage. Similar to coaching.  Or, what Godin references to what we don’t see in a music conductor’s success, “They have less power than it appears, and use their position to lead, not manage.” Ultimately musicians, athletes and all learners will find themself on a stage, field, or court.  Let them manage.  Let them play!

CULTURE MAPS, NOT GAPS

Atop my wish list for 2021 is a post pandemic world.  As it pertains to the field of education, I also hanker for increasing adroitness and understanding.  Dexterity if you will, amongst people and cultures.  Understanding ourselves and our identities as individuals and collective societies is preliminary.  Then, it is fitting, as international educators we reflect how our school cultures blend, balance, or possibly even juxtapose with the host culture.  

Erin Meyer, author of “Culture Map” recently published another book alongside Netflix co-founder and CEO, Reed Hastings.  “No Rules Rules~Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention,” attests to the importance of freedom and responsibility.  Late in the book, cultural “maps” or charts are utilized to depict how countries compare one with another, along behavioral scales.  For example, communication tending to be high versus low context.  Or, leading being more egalitarian or hierarchical.  The results are revelatory. For example, when using the country mapping tool comparing the Netflix culture map with the the Singapore regional hub map, the results are nearly parallel.  The largest difference is in how time is scheduled.  Netflix has a bit more flexible rather than linear approach to time.  However, when Netflix and Japanese cultures are mapped, there is a near inversal relationship.  The most striking example is how in Japanese culture there is an avoidance of confrontation, whereas at Netflix it is considered disloyal to not express disagreement if your opinion differs. Netflix even socializes the idea of “farming for dissent.”  

Borrowed from: “No Rules Rules”

How fascinating but also worthwhile it might be if schools apply a similar approach?  To look at an institution’s values and compare it to the culture of the host culture.  In the school where I teach, what would various stakeholders say about the similarities but also possible glaring differences of our school values? In confidence the value of respect would likely be mapped the same.  But what about balance? Or, courage?  Would we similarly envision or even define these values?  

Enter innovation stage left.

Or quite possibly stage left, right, and center! With the continued shake-up felt around the world and increasing globalization, the role of innovation continues to be the loudest voice in the room. Whether wrench in the wheel or the necessary spark to the fire, innovation is more than mere buzz word.

However, how much ultimately has resulted from 21st century education and the declaratory driving force to be more innovative?  

How much remains just words?  

And is innovation embedded in our school cultures? If you live in Germany, Singapore, or Korea, innovation likely already has taken root in your host country and possibly is spilling into your schools.

Yong Zhao, Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas, cites a failure of education in its ability to catch up to technology. Moreover, professor Zhao attests to governments going at educational reform in an erroneous way.  The answers do not necessarily reside in curriculum, greater testing, school accountability, or even more educated teachers.  Rather, success hinges on creating environments where students own their learning.  

Within a school’s mission and vision, is there a tapping into the most powerful resource?  Students’ imagination, creativity, and joy.  Moreover, do teachers, families, school cultures and host cultures trust students?  By empowering students we ultimately will engage them in magic that education can be.  

Flexibility and adaptability are often preached, and yet so, we hold fast to certainty.  Prolific is the desire to just tweak. A freshening up of the baby’s bath water, as to not let any water escape.  Yet, at Netflix a very different approach is taken; the water blithely thrown out.  Netflix’s heart beats from a place of trust, empowerment, risk and responsibility.   Are these same variables commonplace in our schools? Amongst our teachers but also learners?  And are they implicit in our school’s values?

 

Let’s have 2021 be the year of paradigm shift. 

 

Naturally, a first step would be to informally audit, or least reflect on who are as an institution.  So too is the importance of grappling explicitly with reality and the culture of the host nation. In international settings, this close examination is especially critical. Where are the matches?  Contradictions?  Furthermore, what is reconcilable? Respecting of cultures is paramount, but so too is the necessity to strategically plan for pathways of growth.

The goal to clearly see our culture maps while diminishing the culture gaps.

GETTING OUT OF STUDENTS’ WAY

Education often is steeped in compliance as a result of control.  How nourishing the experience can be, when instead of control, context is the driver.  In October two students asked if I might be willing to sponsor a club called, “Green Oceans.”

The name was intriguing, as were the stickers already affixed to the computers of various sixth graders.  Instead of an ocean, the design featured a mountain. Come to find out that the mountains wished to convey a broader message of interconnectedness. The green referred to sustainability.  Needless to say, I gladly accepted the request to act as sponsor.

A week later, twenty-two motivated students filled the room.

The club was born.

Unbeknownst to me, the savvy pre-teens already were immersed in a digital platform called Discord.  They were quick to include and even assign me a “teacher’s chair.” Green Oceans already determined that the club’s two “founders” should help guide the decisions.  Further, two other students were quick to self-nominate to act as Green Ocean’s financial managers.

“Financial managers for what?” I question.  We didn’t have any money!

Though I initially did not know several of the students, it is quite possible that unconsciously I was able to trust in the goodness to come.  This especially so, having students named  Birdie, Whale and Proud in the room.  In Thailand it is customary to have a nickname or “chue len.”  Literally translating to “play name,” in 80% of the cases the chue len is but one syllable. It certainly helps with pronunciation, as official Thai names can be especially long.

At the heart of Green Oceans was an earnest desire to help spread awareness to take care of the oceans.  Furthermore, the club wanted to take action. Students were quick to decide that they should sell something.  One student already was recognized to have a talent for tye-dye, whereas another enjoyed making friendship bracelets.  The novelty of both would be customization.

Over the next month students were part of either the marketing or production team.  Marketing was responsible for creating posters to be hung around campus, as well as digital posters to be shared in both the middle and high school daily news bulletins.  Further, individuals on the marketing team learned how to develop Google Forms for collecting orders and spreadsheets were utilized for organizing payment and also for communicating with the designers.

Just as quickly as the club was born, orders began to stream in.  The production team was all hands on deck, while marketing worked closely with “clients” (student speak) to collect payment and communicate the time and place orders could be picked up.

All told, an equivalent of over $1000USD was sold. True service, not an assignment. The endeavor entirely student driven.  “My favorite thing about Green Ocean Club was we had a chance to lead the club.” A similar version of this comment was repeatedly made in a reflective survey.

In initial club meetings, Green Oceans decided to piggyback on the relationship the school already had with an organization called, Phang Nga Coastal Fisheries, also known as “Turtle Heaven.”  Founded in 1985, Phang Nga Coastal Fisheries is located in Southwestern Thailand, along Thai Muang Beach. The Andaman Sea is home to four species of turtle and Green Ocean club’s monetary donation will specifically help support an effort to protect important nesting areas for both Hawksbill and Green sea turtles.

Becoming a “sponsor” provided for a “guide on the side” approach.  As teachers we seemingly are quick to lead, maybe even control.  Getting out of students’ way may just be the panacea.  One which leads to greater empowerment but also success!

HAVE YOU EATEN?

                  Photo by Des Récits on Unsplash

Does the perfunctory “How are you doing?” really cut it anymore?

Traditionally, the Chinese inquired, “chī le ma?” Or, “chī fàn le ma?”  Literally translated as, “have you eaten?” One origin story points to the significance of the salutation being attached to people’s emotions through food.  Closer to home, here in Thailand, people in passing traditionally greet one another by asking, “bi nigh krup” or “bi nigh ka.”  Used in place of “hello,” it translates, “Where are you going?” The polite response, as ambiguous as automatic, “down the street.”

How are you doing?

Four words.

At the doorway of my classroom and in the hallways, I might unwittingly string these four words together over a hundred times each day!

400 cheap words, the currency of little value. So, let me try this again.

How are you doing? I mean, how are you REALLY doing? The question, asked in English, goes back more than four centuries.  The actual verbiage being, “how art thou?” Syntactically, various versions of the common inquiry morphed throughout the ages.  The meaningfulness of the genuine salutation seemingly adulterated. Which brings us to today. The response an unauthentic knee jerk, “good.” For any who may contest, when was the last time you responded or heard another respond, “Terrible”?  Instead, the predictable exchange can be chalked up as one of life’s “near miss” exchanges.   Akin to handing off a bill and getting change at a toll both.  Mere pleasantries, if even.

With Social Emotional Learning (SEL) more than ever before on educators’ minds, it behooves us to successfully leverage ways we might more successfully and meaningfully connect with students, families, and colleagues.  SEL dubbed the non-cognitive skills which provide for an holistic and well-rounded education, might feel for some to be yet one more thing.  Yet, amidst a worldwide pandemic and inexorable uncertainty, truly getting to know individuals is vital.  Arguably even more so, in an increasingly virtual world.  A friend recently commented how a professor in an on-line course made the indelible assertion, “SEL is not one thing more on the plate. SEL IS THE PLATE.”  Touché.

So, if connecting with our students is important, becoming more deliberate in our salutations seems to be a sensible initial step. Thinking about what we ask, but also not settling for the generic, “good.”  Instead with compassion, might we look others in the eye, seeking to better understand how each is really doing.  Slowing down and taking a self-inventory to see if we are listening earnestly may also pay dividends.

Five years ago, “thinking routines” rightly were all the rage.  Maybe now, the time is ripe for “feeling routines.”  Challenging ourselves to not only learn more vocabulary but to truly get in touch with how we, they, and everyone is doing.  As we begin to hold ourselves more accountable for assessing the countless shifting tides of emotions, maybe then we can more fully honor and support students. But like all good teaching, first we must model. Additionally, creating space, building trust, developing vocabulary, and truly taking time to genuinely show we care, all are at the core.

The result?

Students who are likely to feel more connection, validation, and belonging.  In doing so, we stand a chance to truly bring out the humanity in this noble profession.

7:25 a.m is Not Too Early to Remember 

~Understanding Our Own Emotions is Imperative to Building Relationships

It is 7:25 a.m and Mr. Davidson stands at the “threshold,” carefully accounting for how he feels as he encounters each student. Greeting each child by name as they enter class first took root as a habit, after reading Doug Lemovi’s #1 New York Times Best Selling book, “Teach Like a Champion.” That was 2010 and he has since greeted over a thousand students.  However, the pandemic compelled Mr. Davidson to rethink the inherent power behind developing relationships.  And until recently he never really took stock for what he honestly might have been feeling for a student. 

“Good morning Daniela, how did your soccer game go?”

Breathe of fresh air. 

 

“Hello Jeremy.”

Neutral.

 

“Hey Jacob, gooood morning!”

Joy.

 

“Hi Isabella.” 

Irritation.

 

This new attentiveness commenced after a recent reading of, “Permission to Feel.” Author Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University, illustrates how emotions are information.  A first step is to note one’s emotions.  Brackett proposes we conduct an “experiment,” using ourselves as guinea pigs.  He encourages the reader to consider the multitude of interactions they might have in a given day.  What is the instant “top-of-the-head” answer to the question, “How do I feel when I encounter each and every person?” From the cashier at the convenience store and attendant at the tollbooth, to our closest colleagues.  Even more specifically, what about the very students we teach?  Our response to how we might first feel, ultimately has the gravitas to result in our will to approach or possibly, avoid a student.

Brackett shares how in seminars it is not uncustomary for teachers to break down crying once they recognize how differently they treat each child.  The inequity is a simple factor of a teacher’s faulty perception of how a student might “make” them feel.

A simpleton would foolishly chalk this up as being human.  Yet, this would be a futile pardoning of sorts.  One that in the end, absolves a teacher of the privileges and responsibilities of the “superpowers” inherent in being a teacher.  Furthermore, to be controlled by an emotion and not approach a student would be devilishly unprofessional.

Teachers enter the profession with an earnest desire for all students to become successful.  A teacher’s wealth built from the relationships developed with students and families.  Albert Camus touched on this prosperity, “When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

A teacher’s doorway; summer.

There is grave importance in coming to the realization of the near visceral reactions within us. The reactions likely having little even to do with the child.  And children they are, even at 17 years of age!  Malleable lives in the making.  Our influence far greater than might be imagined. Every child, regardless of last class, yesterday, what was said, done, or possibly not done is of little, if any, significance.  What is, is to remember why we are teachers.  The child walking through the door is an invitation, a pending relationship. 

She is hope. 

He is potential.  

They are promise.  A better tomorrow.

 

It would be remiss to discount how teachers might be feeling.  Often stressed, overworked, and possibly frustrated.  But what about the children?  Many share the same feelings but are also bored and locked within four walls. The exit, the same as the entrance.  Eight purposeless hours, autonomy supplanted by control. Yet, some may wonder why schools feel more like prison than innovative places, when in many urban school districts in the United States rigid security measures include metal detectors, police on campus and students under continuous surveillance. 

Meanwhile, millions of learners are fixed to a computer screen for endless hours each day of virtual learning.  The need for relationships and connection even more paramount.

This begs the question, “Do students celebrate coming into the classroom, as much as leaving?”  For this truly to be realized, there is the necessity to replay the greetings and ensuing emotions at the threshold.

“Good morning Daniela, how did your soccer game go?”

Breathe of fresh air. 

 

“Hello Jeremy.”

Neutral.

 

Neutral?  This is inexcusable.

Neutral is neither going backwards nor forwards.  Neutral is going nowhere and Jeremy needs to be going somewhere.

More than ever before, students need teachers.  Negative and neutral responses towards a student simply is irresponsible.  Assuming Jeremy does propose every challenge under the sun, so what?  

There is all the more reason then to reach out to him. The vitality and value of this, far outweighs any emotion within Mr. Davidson. And he knows it. Emotional intelligence attests to the ability to regulate one’s emotions.  Might he (and we!) be poised enough to do this. Powerful and in control.  As opposed to being asleep at the wheel and possibly reacting to how we might feel.

It requires a remembering of why we became teachers.  7:25 a.m is not too early to remember!

Meeting Learners Wherever They May Be

“Making Bunny Ears” by woodleywonderworks (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

 

“Aim for the middle of the square,” I encourage an 8-year old boy on my basketball team.

 

The power of geometry on full display. Meanwhile, another player kicks the ball against the gymnasium wall, seemingly confusing basketball for soccer.  Two others chase each other in a game of tag. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot another dancing the Macarena.  The Macarena?  Is Tik Tok responsible for the one-hit wonder Spanish song of 1993 being brought back? Reaching for my whistle, I notice another player launching shots from beyond the three-point line.  In wonder I look on, taking a few seconds to just take in the full scene.

  

Weren’t the directions and demonstration clear?  To take shots from 3 feet away, stepping from side to side and aiming at the middle of the box. A timeless backboard drill.  

 

Before I am able to blow the whistle, it happens.

 

“Coach, can you tie my shoe?” one 4-foot tall player earnestly requests.  His large blue eyes match his dyed fringe.  The shrill tone of his voice resembling my 5-year old nephew’s.  

 

I look down at his knotted lace and caught up in the chaos, regretfully do not seize the opportunity to teach this “life skill.”  On the ride home, the moment continued to be replayed. Impossible to get out of my head, it stewed the next 48 hours.  

 

For a veteran teacher, this was a serious self-check.  An invaluable lesson to meet the learner, wherever they might be. A cornerstone of any education certification program, I would have guessed I perfected this lesson.  However, in the midst of “herding cats,” did I forget?  Mere negligence? Simply distracted?  Whatever the reason, I was embarrassed for myself.  A “wrong” to made right!  

 

Grateful to learn from the error, I was reminded how we may have a particular aim for a class or practice, yet of even greater importance than our plan, is that we remain flexible and respond to the learners right before our eyes. Differentiation sometimes a reflex, while at other times requires utmost intention.  

 

The next practice I approached the boy with the knotted laces and on bended knee showed him how to tie his shoe. Singing in a hushed tone, “Over, under, around and through, meet Mr. Bunny Rabbit, pull and through.”  Smiling, he gave it a try, his motor skills a clear challenge. The third attempt a success!

 

During my childhood a poster hung in our home’s laundry room.  It shared advice from best-selling author, Robert Fulgum and was titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Fulgum conveyed the simplicity and power of such adages as, share everything, and to play fair. 

 

Years later, a third grade teacher, I turned to look over my shoulder each time a student called, “Mister…”  I looked for my father, a bit bewildered because from one day to the next I had become a “Mister” myself.  Though the exuberance, joy, and energy of 8 and 9-year olds was a pleasure, middle school became my wheelhouse.  More than twenty years would pass before I would be in the company of third-graders again. 

 

This time, wearing the hat of coach. A chance to improve my well-conditioned skills in patience but also explicitness, assuming nothing.   

 

Not even that all the children can yet tie their own shoes.

Time for Action: Reaching Unity in Diversity

   Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash 

I am sitting in a room surrounded by fellow teachers and administrators, mindful of our physical distance.  A grin on my face, not because we just successfully concluded our fifth week of classes.  Rather, I am tickled by the irony.  Distanced as we discuss “togetherness.”  More specifically, intercultural competencies was to be the  focus of our dialogue.  I felt privileged to have the time and space to converse openly because so critical is the work that needs to be done.  As part of an international school, one that clearly is not American-centric, we must first consider our context. With students and faculty cultures representing more than sixty nations, there is credence in remaining cognizant of the influences of the host country culture. Possibly the country power structures may even be more hierarchically structured than egalitarian. Furthermore, it would be remiss to not acknowledge the large degree of diversity representative in the range of people’s experiences and quite possibly, readiness to reflect on privilege, equality, and oppression. 

Over the summer I wrote an article titled, An Authentic Response to Take Action.”  In it I ask, “Might 2020 be the nascence of more leadership from the heart.  Passion hangs heavy in the air, as people imagine a tomorrow they long to live in.  Changes bent on solutions, not blame, as  millions get down on bended knee in silent protest.” The protests have not abated, if anything they have grown more intense.  All this amidst an uncontrolled pandemic and under apocalyptic skies of the Wetern United States. In this same post I introduced Safaa Abdelmagid and her open letter to SEARCH Associates published on June 8.  In it she concludes, “Do better, Search Associates, much much better. Start by being honest…Own your privilege and use it to serve those who truly deserve it.”  For context, this was but three days after the tragic death of George Floyd.

Then, August 26 The Search Associates Team and CEO Jessica Magagna, responded with their own letter.  Addressed, “Dear Search Associates Community,” Magagna cites “tangible actions and evidence of change.”  A move beyond awareness and to greater responsibility.  Clear points outlined by a 3-section plan, where actions are determined immediate, by the end of December 2020, and by the end of March 2021.  

The school where I am employed endeavors to determine measurable action points as well. Thankfully, we too were challenged, most notably by alumni, as they shared their experiences and offered suggestions. The conversations with this invaluable group will continue.  

There is much work to be done.  The issues do not begin, nor end with race.  The move is to reflect, take ownership, and become far more inclusive.  So our school, the people but also the systems, are more fully equitable to all cultures; be they defined racially, linguistically, by gender, sexual-preference, or ability.  Schools must take a stand.  Furthermore, akin to SEARCH associates, a degree of poise but also power must be established. A power which links us as human beings.  Our minds simply will not think the way out of this.  Our hearts are to play a key role as we feel our way into a reality so many have felt, for so long.  

The good news is, the iGen or Generation Z, consistently proves itself to be more accepting of differences than previous generations.  It is us educators but moreover the institutions and broader cultures that need to “catch up.”  A sensible starting point is to begin by having these long overdue conversations, determining our priorities. Mahatma Gandhi advised us well when he said.  “Action expresses priorities.  Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.”  The time for action is yesterday.