Maybe “School Yard Bully” Trump Can Engage Students in Politics!!

How to explain the damaging, angry, racist, tone of Republican primary candidates?  It’s Trump dominating the news cycles.  It’s Trump praising Putin (who kills journalists), it’s Trump calling people dumb, stupid, liars.  It’s Trump calling for a ban on the travel of Muslims to the United States. It’s Trump calling for a registry of Muslims in America. It’s Trump insulting women, immigrants, Hispanics, reporters, etc.   It’s Trump spreading lies, exploiting fears, and making one outrageous statement after another.  And yet, his outrageous and fact free comments do not dent his standing in the polls amongst his fellow Republicans.

How do I possibly help explain to internationally minded students that the person leading the “opposition party” in the race for leadership of the leading democracy in the world is doing nothing but stoking anger and pedalling fear.  How do I explain that a “Sieg Heil” salute was on display by a Trump supporter in a recent Trump rally or that Trump says a protester deserved to be “roughed up” or that rally participants tell Hispanic Americans to “go back to their own country” or that Trump muses in a speech about the killing of journalists?

Trump portrays strength, and his proclamations that he’ll “be great” for the country, for women, for minorities, etc have resonated for so many people who are simply angry with the status quo in American politics.  But he is a bully, a schoolyard bully, plain and simple.  As educators we fight the battle of bullying regularly.  Schools have anti-bullying programs as part of their curriculum.  Some states have mandated such programs in schools.  Now we have the leader of the Republican party and potential presidential candidate who models bullying.  Insulting rivals, talking trash towards anyone who speaks against him, dominating conversations and interviews with an ego the size of his real estate empire.  He is simply an out of control ego maniac – and a bully.   Bullying starts with name calling and insults, often through social media.  His version of campaigning is simply insulting opponents, often using Twitter!  He’s crass and vulgar.  He’s a bully.  Given our ongoing challenges in schools around bullying behaviour, it’s distressing to watch the leading Republican candidate legitimizing the behaviour of a school yard bully while portraying it as strength.  School yard bullies are ALWAYS exposed, and never win in the end!  He won’t win and he’ll be exposed for the shallow, unfit, school yard bully that he is.

More importantly, I wonder what our students think of Donald Trump and his outrageous behaviour?  Part of me hopes that they are disgusted by the noise. Part of me hopes that they aren’t listening or paying any attention because if they are it would be incredibly confusing to see this as your initiation into the world of politics. But, if that is the case, then their indifference saddens me even more. To be disengaged by the disappointing and harmful rhetoric is one thing but to be disengaged because of apathy, or believing that the issues facing our complicated and challenging world are overwhelming and unsolvable (climate change, poverty, the middle east, one humanitarian crisis after another, etc), is simply sad.

On the other hand, I wonder if our students are thinking about politics at all.  It’s hard to know sometimes given the world of self-absorbed teenagers.  Finding moments for a relevant conversation means finding a time when they are not either wrapped up in school work (we know the world of IB students) OR simply plugged into their headphones or social media.  It’s not easy to find times for High School students to look beyond their immediate worlds and this is a challenge for us as educators.  Having said this, I well remember the enthusiasm of my middle school students in 2008 when Obama was elected president.  They were glued to the process during the weeks before the election.

I want students to read about Trump and consider his statements. I want them to be informed.  I want them to react and pay attention to the process.  I want our students in our international schools who live a steady diet of tolerance, service, internationalism, acceptance, and supportive relationships in hopeful school cultures to analyse and understand how/why this incredible turn of political culture in United States politics.

As educators, we should exploit the current political dynamics in the United States.  Our students and schools should embrace the regular commentary, understand the roots of discontent, oppose ethnically charged anger, and recognize the tremendous challenges facing the world.  Most importantly, we should take stock that there are solutions and citizens, organizations, politicians actively working to bridge solutions.  Ultimately, I want students excited by the political process.  We need students as activists, who are ready for action.  We need students engaged for the future.  And, we need students who recognize and speak out against bullying where we see it.




Another End of a Quarter

End-of-Quarter-AssessmentIt’s getting to be that time of year in schools.  The end of a quarter brings a known litany of actions, meetings, communications, responsibilities, and, above all, emotions.  Students are loaded with assessments (summative assessments or, as kids often consider them, the kind of assessments that “really count”); teachers are busy writing comments and calculating marks that truly represent student learning, while separating out behavior, work habits, and other attributes; and parents are getting prepared for conversations with their child with traditional comments that more often than not focus on how those marks could be raised.  Why is the parental urge to focus upon improving grades while performing a report card autopsy impossible to resist?  As much as parents, try to be balanced during that autopsy most report cards that students receive end up providing opportunities for deficit analysis!  In other words, in what classes will their child work harder? How will your son/daughter raise those grades? Why don’t you really “get it” that this REALLY matters?  I know this pattern well, I lived it for many years as a parent.   I also know that reality means that the stakes are higher with high school students.

Do report cards provide opportunities for reflection and possible goal setting? ABSOLUTELY!  Kids need to take on board comments and reflect upon their work and set high expectations for themselves. Parents and teachers need to support this process. However, while in the moment of those conversations avoiding judgment statements while asking provocative and thoughtful questions is an important line to draw. I remember a comment from a wise friend (a middle school counselor) while she witnessed my frustration with my then Grade 8 son’s report card, her words were “avoid expressing disappointment in him”.  This was an important moment for me.  Avoiding judgments, sticking to the facts, looking forward, focusing on the learning, maintaining perspective, and frankly knowing and remembering that the author of the journey is the student. It is journey rocks their journey!  There is so much to learn about doing good work, working hard, and maximizing your efforts but it’s their journey.  It’s their journey to succeed in, fail in, undercover passions in, experience pain in, and find joy in.

The question I often ask of students is “What kind of a student do you want to be”?  Until kids truly relate to this question and consider the implications, they will often be moving through the motions of being a student.  It’s hard being a teenager.  Teenage years are the most awkward stage in one’s life cycle. How many parents would want to be a teenager these days?  Teens are exposed to overwhelming external and internal struggles on a daily basis compounded by hormones, social issues, school commitments, parental pressures, and other school stressors – not to mention chronic sleep deprivation and constant social media exposure.   It isn’t getting any easier for teens.  In fact, it’s more and more challenging.  The pressures are 24/7 with issues constantly on their plates.  Parental and adult judgment fuels the pressure.

Posing questions, supporting the construction of a target or an actionable goal (and how one will get there), serving as a role model, suspending judgment and unconditional support and love should flow from parents; all the while remembering that it’s about the journey for adolescent kids.  How many adults (parents and teachers) were top ranked secondary students who knew exactly what they wanted to study in university and who plotted their adult course when they were 17?  How many truly understood their passions when they were 15?   The high school journey is layered with pitfalls, bumps, bruises, and opportunities.


One of those opportunities for learning, reflection, and opening communication is around the reporting and conferencing structure.    Parent conferences are on the horizon.   I believe parent, student, teacher conferences are very important.  And, it’s very important for the student to be present for the conversation.  Many years ago, I attended a profound workshop given by Dr. Michael Thompson (google him for his exploits).  What follows below is a summary of his workshop on Parent/Teacher conferences.  I urge parents and teachers to read this  note and extract any nuggets that you might find useful for your next set of conferences!


My final suggestion for high school parents who are attending a parent/teacher conference with your son or daughter.    After you have a conference, go out for a cup of coffee or a private meal with your son/daughter.  Make it a special event, enjoy the moment with your child, talk about something other than school and, I abolutely guarantee, you will not forget the experience AND, in fact I can almost guarantee you that you will share a great moment together that you will be able to recall in the years ahead.



Adapted from a Dr. Michael Thompson workshop

(Dr. Michael Thompson is the author of Raising Cain, and has consulted with many schools over the years).


The following statements are adapted from a Dr. Michael Thompson workshop, Promoting Successful Parent – Teacher Conferences. The workshop was presented to administrators and teachers at a conference in November, 2000. Dr. Thompson speaks eloquently about various sources of concerns between parents and teachers with respect to parent conferences and offers a variety of tips for creating successful conferences. Below are some of his ideas.


Sources of Parental Fear

  1. Parenting is inherently difficult and no one is an expert at it. In addition, when you sit down with your child’s teachers, you are nervously aware of your amateur status.
  2. Child-rearing mistakes are on display through your child’s behavior in ways you cannot always know.
  3. Parents feel trapped by hope, love and anxieties (their own and their child’s).
  4. In some implicit ways, the teacher may know more about their child than they do.
  5. Teachers have enormous power over children’s lives.
  6. Parents’ professional skills frequently have no bearing on approaching school or teacher.


Sources of Teacher Fear

  1. Teaching is difficult, hard to measure, and extremely personal.
  2. Kids distort teachers to parents
  3. Every teacher has been intimidated, at least once, by an “out-of control” parent.
  4. Teachers fear that parent influence may pose professional problems.


Tips regarding Parent Teacher Conferences:

Tips for Parents

  1. Be on time for conferences and respect time limits.
  2. Be honest with teachers and make your own concerns known.
  3. Show appreciation for teachers.
  4. Ask in advance who will attend, so you are not surprised.
  5. Reflect on your child before the conference and try to prepare specific questions to ask.
  6. Don’t bring your child or other children to the conference (unless asked to).
  7. Try to remember that your information probably came through a child’s perspective.
  8. Try to be open-minded. Try to listen first, reflect, and then act.
  9. Discuss the issues rather than the teachers.
  10. It is okay to feel defensive on behalf of your child, but act as an advocate, not an excuse-maker.
  11. Try not to put a teacher – or child, for that matter – in the middle of a family conflict.
  12. Ask for specific suggestions.
  13. Remember that it’s okay to be a real person. It’s helpful to let the teacher know that you struggle with parenting; everyone does. The teacher also struggles with teaching (and may be a parent as well).
  14. Remember that we’re all on the same side.


Tips for Teachers

  1. Avoid surprises (especially unpleasant surprises) by preparing parents in advance of meetings through letters and phone calls.
  2. Be prepared, have an agenda for parents, and have documented facts available.
  3. Establish a mutual agenda for the meeting, based on what you wish to cover and by asking the parents what they wish to cover
  4. Be honest, especially when you are struggling with a child, and encourage parental honesty.
  5. Use descriptive language, cite specific examples, and avoid judgmental terms.
  6. Get parents to talk about their hopes, their worries, and their expectations for this child
  7. Be a good listener.
  8. When possible, hold the conference in a comfortable, circular arrangement (no sitting behind a desk). Shake hands, make introductions, and get everyone’s name right.
  9. Recognize your own level of experience. Don’t take on more than your training and level of experience can support.
  10. Use humor. Let your criticisms be constructive.
  11. Try to remember that the child’s well-being is the purpose of the meeting.
  12. Know the child, “claim” the child, know his or her interests and personality outside your classroom.
  13. Don’t be afraid to check with parents on the progress of the conference; ask whether it is meeting their hopes and needs.
  14. End on a positive note.



Challenges, Shared Experience, & Becoming

 …..meaning can be found in every event. How meaningful depends on the manner in which people are involved and engaged. No matter how small, an event experience has the power to engage people, let them escape the ordinary, and build relationships.

A while back….some would say a long long time ago….okay, it was April 1989….I was enrolled in a course called Perspectives on the Principalship.  It was a weekly seminar for about 15 graduate students and it was held at the Principals Training Center at Harvard.  It was about leadership and the Principalship.  At least that’s what I generally remember. But, what I remember most from the course and, frankly, it’s one of my top 5 memories of my Masters program at the Ed School at Harvard was a Saturday expedition that our group made on a rainy/chilly Saturday in April.

The boat to Thompson Island in Boston Harbor left around 8:00 am.  The Outward Bound ropes course, and other team building, experiential education challenges, was to be our morning activity.  It was my first high ropes course. It was Outward Bound….it was cold, wet, and daunting!!   The highlight, however, was a specific rope challenge that you had to complete with a partner. My partner was my professor, Dr Sara Levine.  Truthfully, we didn’t really have much of a connection throughout the course up until that point.  It was absolutely necessary to cooperate with your partner to make it over the hurdle. I remember struggling together to get up and over, failing at first, then finishing the challenge. I remember the absolute relief, sense of accomplishment, and a very strong bond that was shared between the two of us following our success. As the day was processed – written about in journals, discussed in an on-site debrief and then again in our classroom, I remember the expression “power of shared experience” being used, emphasized, and truly felt by everyone involved. While intuitively I understood from past experiences that this was important, the experience on that day in April, 1989 was a truly formative one in deepening my understanding of the importance and opportunities that shared experiences, particularly around discomforting challenge, provide.  The depths of potential learnings were truly uncovered for me. It remains an important moment landmark memory.

“Shared experiences have the ability to fuse people together, sometimes people who wouldn’t have even made sense together outside of that context. Simply put, that’s powerful.”

Last week I travelled for 3 days / 2 nights on a trip with our Grade 9 students.  A goal of the trip, at the outset of the year, was “bonding” and building connections with classmates & teachers.   I was reminded at every turn of the value of such experiences.  The organized activities that each group of students participated in from zip lining to orienteering to solving various human puzzles through cooperative movements, challenged students to work together, interact productively, and manage stress and challenge.  The building of stress through challenge, pushing students out of their comfort levels in front of their peers, forcing students to take certain risks (albeit minimal).  This is the edge where opportunistic learning takes place.  It’s where comfort meets stress.  It got me thinking a bit about flow theory:

“Optimal experience, or flow, occurs when a person perceives the challenges in a certain situation and the skills brought to it as both balanced and above average.

In contrast, when challenges and skills are unbalanced, such as when challenges outpace skills, an activity could evoke anxiety. The various ratios of challenges and skills are predicted to be associated with different qualities of experience: flow with high challenges and skills, apathy with low challenges and low skills, anxiety with high challenges and low skills, and boredom or relaxation with low challenges and high skills”.

We need to provide such experiential challenges for students.  They are particularly powerful when the challenges are incorporated into a group process – either performing as a group or in front of a group.  Then the challenge becomes not only the task but the potential exposure to failure/success in front of peers. This is adds multiple layers. The trick is to provide just enough challenge so that skills can meet the challenge and excessive anxiety does not result!  It’s a great challenge in experiential education as well as the day to day classroom challenges.

Experiences outside of the classroom hold such power.  How we capitalize on that potential and help translate it to actions “back at the ranch” (aka the school or classroom) is another story.  Teenagers are skilled at separating their worlds – the field trip, the classroom, the lunch table, the dinner table, the hallway, the bus ride, FB, Instagram, WhatsApp, the sports team….etc etc.  “Code switching” between conversations and their multiple worlds is a highly developed skill for our multi-tasking population of teenagers. The layers are more complicated these days without doubt.  So, the challenge of translating the “bonding” shared experience back to the classroom is significant given the multiple layers of daily experiences kids shuffle through.

Having said that, our students are social beings and everyone, I’m convinced, craves the sharing of experiences, the connections that these build, and the memories that they create.  As well, learning from a collection of experiences over time and rolling that “snowball of experiences” into a snowman of memories truly shapes the character of a person.  And, as our students are on a constant path of “becoming”, any and all positive shared experience will continue building the persons they are becoming.



New Chapters and Challenges

At the end of my first full week in my new role, I decided to help chaperone the first student council event.  We (the high school) rented out a local ice skating rink for two hours of “Chaos on Ice” – every imaginable skill level on ice (200 students) moving in a clockwise, sort of, pattern with the Finnish hockey player and the Canadian speed skater darting in and out, zigging and zagging through the crowd.  The sporting person that I am, I decided to participate and lace up a pair of skates and slowly make my way around the ice for the first time in many years.  After a few ovals,  my confidence level grew.  In the meantime, the Finn and the Canuck continue to zag and zig so I, as the safety conscious mature adult quietly and politely ask them to slow down a bit as it would be a bummer if they took out a kid or an adult! Meanwhile, I’m feeling pretty good on the skates and challengesdemonstrating that Mr Smith, that new old man Principal, can skate alongside most of these kids.  I pick up a little more speed, feeling good, and sure enough, before I knew it a wall of people appeared …”I’m going down, oops, I can’t stop”. Indeed, Mr Smith, the new old man Principal, takes out a kid….oops.  My pride hurt, my wrist throbbing.  I retired to the sidelines.

I sat on those sidelines watching the 200 kids out on the ice having a great time, truly, they were really enjoying themselves on a Friday night with their friends at the ice skating rink!  But I was also watching the dynamics and interactions, the hand holding, the testosterone laced speed skaters, the laughter, the uncomfortable and insecure interactions and the general intensity of the exchanges that you only find in adolescence.  I was reminded how the challenge of finding your way as an adolescent is bumpy.    Navigating the ups and downs, stressors and celebrations, and layers upon layers of tricky relationships is daunting.

I was considering the “age unique” obstacles.  Grade 9 challenges aheadstudents challenged with fitting in, finding of friends, growing elements of risk taking, breaking away and establishing of independence.  It is huge.  At school they are challenged by the  establishment of new routines in  high school,  finding the place where they “belong” on a campus.  Academic challenges are stepped up with a growing set of responsibilities that need to be navigated.  It is a big jump from middle school to Grade 9.  It requires greater organizational routines, avoiding procrastination, managing time and developing true study habits.  They must manage the expanding rigor of a high school curriculum.  They are always challenged.

As I was thinking about this piece of writing, I recalled something I posted last year on my blog.  It was a response to a Grade 9 parent meeting and relates to the challenge of parenting a 9th grader. Here’s the link:

Similarly, Grade 10 students will find a bump up in responsibilities and challenges. Developmentally, they are pushing boundaries much more.  They are seeking greater independence, they continue to navigate a peer group, they are becoming a more unique individual but still crave approval.  It’s a confusing time. Bodies and minds are forever changing.  As the year progresses for Grade 10, they are expected to give significant consideration to their course selection for their final two years of high school.  While this happens towards the end of the school year, the consolidation of study habits, managing growing academic commitments, and setting personal goals relative to school are all part of expanded maturity in Grade 10.

I’ve always found the transition from Grade 10 to Grade 11 the most challenging from an academic standpoint. This makes sense developmentally as well. Many Grade 11 students begin their third year of high school with a new found sense of maturity, ready to accept responsibilities and challenges.  This is developmentally appropriate relative to brain research and neural growth.  The pre-frontal cortex (decision making) is more in control but still not fully developed.  They are feeling older (and they are!) but, let’s face it they are still just 16 years old at the start of grade 11.   IB classes raise the bar of challenge for kids in Grade 11.  When 11th graders return to school in august, they are always prepared with a stronger handshake and new found confidence in the early days.

Finally, our Grade 12 students are looking at a significant collection of responsibilities in the coming months.  Extended essays, CAS requirements, Internal Assessments, college applications, mock exams, and the progression towards exams in May 2016 imply layers upon layers of tasks.  Organizational skills are a must, time management is essential, and managing the stress is an important consideration for students, parents, and teachers. Students must truly practice independence and find their voice as a self-advocate.  In a matter of months they will be on their own and during Grade 12 the opportunity exists to safely grow their functional independence.  Simultaneously,while that independence is critical to establish and nurture, they are still vulnerable and can find themselves at risk relative to decision making.  Parental input, communication, guidance, support, and connections continue to be critical at this point in their lives.

So, the evening of ice skating, despite the embarrassing fall which, incidentally, did not result in a broken wrist as evidenced by the doctor’s visit and x-ray first thing on Saturday morning, was a fruitful evening.

I sat back, nursing my wrist with ice, and watching this collection of international school students who I have most recently met for the first time, while actually knowing a great deal about where they are at in their development and progress as young people and as students.  These kids are remarkably similar to my students of 10, 20, and 30 years ago.  In schools, kids change each year but it’s abundantly clear that the journey of adolescence remains similar year after year.   Kids change but the high school journey remains consistent over time.

Each grade level is beginning a new chapter. Frankly, as challenge up for iteducators, the more we embrace and understand this journey as we  work alongside teenagers, the stronger we become as guides, facilitators, supporters, and mentors.    Our job, as educators, is to provide a developmentally appropriate and rigorous framework of learning experiences in and out of the classroom and to truly know our students, understand their needs, and support their development.  Luckily we, as the adults, don’t have to truly experience the challenge of adolescence – we just have to watch it, empathize with it, and support it!!









54 Day 1’s

It’s odd.  I’m entering into my 35th year in education, not to mention the 19 other years as a student.  That’s 54 years in schools.  54 first days of school.  54 new beginnings.  That’s a long time.  I hope that I never lose the nervous excitement and the anxious energy that comes with the start of a new school year.  When that “buzz” is gone, I will know it’s time to step away.  “Starting over” with a new job adds additional layers of both excitement, anxiety, and nerves.  It’s also a time of opportunity.

geoff first day

54th First Day of school! Backpack packed, new shoes, fresh haircut!  It’s all good!

That was my opening line to the high school faculty this week.  First impressions count, perhaps my reference to 54 makes me seem really old….wait…I need to check my license to verify my age.   It’s true, I’m 59. I’ll turn 60 this year.  I see on facebook that high school friends are all turning 60.  Me, too, I suppose.  59 – 5 (or so years)=54 yrs – hence the round figure of 54.

In our first days with all of the new teachers/administrators who just arrived at the American International School of Johannesburg, we participated in an activity.  We were requested to line up according to the number of years we have worked in international schools.  30 years overseas….that’s me.  30 years ago we arrived at the American Embassy School in New Delhi for a two year adventure.  We lasted 3…and we’ve been overseas ever since. Needless to say, the line of 25 educators stretched from 3 days in international schools to my 30 years!  How did I all of a sudden become the oldest person in a room of teachers and administrators?

But, turning to the number 54.  54 first days of school.  35 as an educator.  Wow.  That’s significant.  I must really know a lot about this world of education. How can I not?  I’m sure tht  Years = Maturity = Wisdom = Intelligent Actions (hopefully)

I know a lot about first days of school, that’s for sure.

I remember the first day of Grade 6 in the middle school in Highland Park. It was a brand new building, we were the first class.  Mrs Raymond was my teacher. What was so memorable was the new facility, way across town, a long walk, and most importantly, we were able to change classes for language, reading, and a few other things.  It was a big deal. I remember the first day of high school, trying to figure out from the list where I was supposed to go and being afraid of the Seniors in the big high school hallways. I remember my first arrival at the University of Michigan and meeting Bill Metcalf who was to become my closest friend for many years.  I remember many moments of first days with students as a professional, each one full of excitement and nervous energy and optimism.

The rhythm of schools is brilliant – new beginnings, new opportunities, fresh enthusiasm.  I’m so lucky to be in this profession, recharging batteries each June and July, pushing my learning throughout the year, supporting, teaching, guiding, celebrating the work and growth of young people.

I do feel fortunate AND I better get to the gym to continue my fight to convince myself that 60 is the new 40!





Graduation Speeches – from cliches to sage advice…….

Each June for the past 25 years I’ve been coming to the Lake George region of New York.  Lake George is 3 ½ hours north of New York City and part of the Adirondack Mountains. It’s a gorgeous area with many small towns close by.  In June I follow an annual ritual of catching up on how the local schools have done in the state baseball and softball tournaments (Fort Ann girls softball are always a powerhouse in the Class D tournament!!).  I always look forward to the weekly free newspaper – The Chronicle for local highlights and schedules of events.  The Chronicle also covers local graduations from the 8 or so local high schools. They do a great write up on the top students and provide highlights of graduation speeches at each school. High School graduation in small towns around the country are a big deal for communities. Residents of the towns turn out for graduations even if they don’t have kids in school.  They are important events!  As are the speakers and speeches!   This class of 2015 onstagemorning, I plowed through the highlights of local graduations and extracted a few highlights from adults and kids who spoke during local ceremonies.   This was kind of a fun activity.  There are always cliché comments and sometimes it wasn’t clear whether it was a kid or an adult who was giving the advice!  Below these highlights are two other elements to this posting.  First, I couldn’t resist highlighting some commencement comments from “famous people” at various universities.  These were fun to read and extracted from a New York Times article from May 22, 2015. Second, I’ve included the faculty commencement speech at our recent Lincoln Community School graduation where Heather Duffy Stone was the speaker.  Her speech is definitely worth reading!

Here are some words of wisdom extracted from my local newspaper (from the Adirondack Journal – July 4 edition)

“don’t forget the integral role of luck in the achievement of goals” – HS Salutatorian

“follow your dreams…….change the world one little personal interaction at a time” – Superintendent

“commencement is not an end, but a beginning….life itself will complete your education, make it a great life, the choice is yours” HS Principal

“appreciate the people who made you who you are”  HS Salutatorian

“Set your sights on great things, never give up and above all be the best you can be – whatever you choose to pursue in life, make it happen.”  Superintendent

“Hunger for excellence, never take anything or anyone for granted.  You never know what life will throw at you”  HS Principal

“Never take the easy way out, have faith in yourself, be positive with everyone, and never make decisions shooting from the hip”  HS Principal

“We are lucky to have people in our lives that have helped and watch us grow in to young adults, ready to move on into the next chapter of our stories”   HS Valedictorian

“Use your talents and energy and knowledge to make the world a better place”  Superintendent

“Find your passions, and pour your soul into achieving them – success comes to those who never quit.” HS Principal

“One thing you have that nobody else has, is you – your voice, mind, vision, story – andy teye speakingso write and draw and build and create and study hard but play harder and live only as you can”   HS Valedictorian

“Pursue a path of integrity and do your best in every situation, because everything you do will make a difference to someone.”  HS Principal

The following were extracted from the NYT article on May 22, 2015

…. I have figured out how to never be around assholes at any time in my personal and professional life. That’s rich. And not being around assholes should be the goal of every graduate here today.” John Waters Artist/Film Director

The world is full of siren songs luring unwary sailors onto rocks; false promises, fool’s gold; foxes, cats and coachmen luring young people to gluttonous, over-indulging Pleasure Island where, as you’ll know if you’ve seen the movie Pinocchio, the kids make jackasses of themselves.   Do not make jackasses of yourselves.”  Salmon Rushdie

….work hard and don’t be lazy. And put away your damn iPhone once in a while – Maya Rudolph

It is into this disorienting and sometimes disappointing world that you now plummet …. unprotected from the shelter of family and school. Ken Burns

Resist that temptation to rationalize what others view is the right choice for you — instead of what you feel in your gut is the right choice — that’s your North Star. Trust it. Follow it.    Vice President Joe Biden

You will always regret taking a half swing.  You will never regret taking a full swing. If you’re going to strike out, you go down swinging — not by watching the pitch go by. There is something worse about failing that way. Cody Keenan – speechwriter for Obama


Commencement speeches must be difficult to conceive.  How many times can speakers say “pursue your dreams” or “the future lies in front of you and it’s yours to create” or other similar words of inspiration, encouragement, and open ended optimism.  Each year, at Lincoln Community School, students select a faculty member to speak to them at graduation. This year, they selected the College Counselor (Heather Duffy Stone – HDS) to speak.   I was impressed by her speech,

Heather Duffy Stone at the podium

Heather Duffy Stone at the podium

and I know others were as well.  I have posted it below and I think it’s worth reading.  I’ve thought a lot about the random moments we have as educators and adults with students and how a random experience may hold create unique significance.  I think she has done an excellent job of providing a dose of reality while delivering an important message.  Have a read… (I’ve highlighted parts of it that captured my limited attention!)

Hi. I am SO honored to be standing here. I’m a little nervous too. But the honour of being invited to speak to you today, is mostly calming. I think of these last few weeks, packed into my office with all of you—whether it was the cake or the cheeseburgers or hiding your bags or listening to you teach each other… I’m not lying when I say these last few weeks remind me why I do this job—even when the AC didn’t work, even when I couldn’t hear myself think. I have thought a lot about this speech, and the things I wish I could say to EACH of you in these few minutes here on stage– but there just isn’t the time to do it all. So I’m giving you each a card to say the one thing I wanted to say to each of YOU specifically in person, as a token of my gratitude for letting me learn from and with you these two years.

Honestly, I feel SO LUCKY to have been with you at this time in your life, when everything is in front of you and everything can happen. You might be feeling numb right now, or terrified or thrilled or ambivalent. But you are at the beginning and you are living it all for the first time and there is nothing more exhilarating than that. Some of you are about to embark on adventures, farewell trips together to islands and music festivals—these weeks will be embedded in your memory. The day after I graduated from high school my friends and I piled into a Toyota 4-Runner and drove around New England camping riverside, going to Grateful Dead shows, and selling hummus sandwiches in concert traffic jams to supplement our fast-disappearing graduation cash. That may not sound like your ideal vacation, its definitely not mine anymore! But it was ours then and the memory of those days is perfect. We were together. Those of us, like me, who choose to work in high schools do so because we want to the never lose sight of the energy and possibility you have at this moment. It is so true, whatever comes next, you are the architect.

But don’t get me wrong. I want to tell you the truth about something. It’s a truth I feel like no one ever told me. The message I want to give you is not YOU CAN DO WHATEVER YOU WANT. You can’t necessarily. And that’s OKAY. That is what no one ever told me. I worried at first about saying so- but it’s the truth. You can be an actress. But you may not win an Oscar. You can find the perfect first job. But it may not make you a millionaire. You can apply to Harvard for Business School. But you may not get in. It does not mean that you have not worked hard enough. It means the world will throw you curve balls. It means that nothing will look exactly like you imagine it will look.

Last month was my 20th high school reunion. I wasn’t at my reunion of course. I was here. But I poured over pictures and videos of the event. Who was there? Who had done what they said they were going to do? Well, Parker isn’t President, but she is Chief of Staff for U.S. Congress and Meghan isn’t a lawyer, though she went to law school. She runs a Sales department. She married her sister’s high school boyfriend- that was something she never said she’d do. Darcy isn’t an actress, she’s a nurse and she just bought a house in the town where she grew up, the one she said she’d never go back to. I’m not a writer- not like I thought I’d be. I wrote a book but it didn’t exactly rock the literary world. But I’m a lot of other things too. My life looks absolutely nothing like I thought it would. There are a lot of things I wanted and worked hard for that I don’t have. But the life I do have has been painted by celebrations and failures. It’s been real. It’s been unexpected.

Some of you know I have this tattoo on my back. And parents, I promise I waited a long time to get this tattoo. I was OLD when I got it. I knew I wanted some kind of text, and I thought long and hard about the text that I’d ink into my skin that would be there forever. Something I wouldn’t regret… the tattoo on my back says “how inevitable it is, we step into an ordinary moment and never come out again”. These moments are in front of us. And they will explode up out of nowhere. We won’t see them coming. And they will change everything. We’ve all had these moments—ask us about them—ask Mr. Smith about the canoe trip, ask Mr. A about his fight against corporate sponsorship, ask Ms. Welchman about being the family translator- these small moments that changed the course of our everything.

Your course has already changed in ways you didn’t imagine. I know it was not always easy for you this year. Some days you felt left behind. You had amazing mentors and teachers and coaches who have moved on—and I know it has been hard at times to celebrate this milestone without them—to make big decisions without them. You had pictured Mr. Craggs would be here dress-coding you even in your graduation robe and yet proudly handing you your diploma, or that Mr. Milton would be tough-loving you through exams and then even shedding a tear or two tonight despite that tough façade. But they are here with you—in the lessons they taught you, in the humour that echoes in your stories, in the memories you paint clearly, in the people you have become. You have new teachers too who have shaped you in unexpected ways who are here with you tonight in person. And you have friends and family members, here in the audience or here in their memory and influence, who have helped you become who you are. You of all people know that closeness does not have to mean geography or proximity, it means the impact someone leaves on you.

You all first began to make your impact on me in ToK classes last spring, when I was mostly new to you, when the reality of college was far from your minds, when you were busy testing my limits– would I let you leave class? Would I really make you hand something in? How strict was I about the term essay? As the reality of your futures loomed, we got to know each other better. I learned how you worked. I learned you were generous, you were scared, you didn’t want to leave your brother behind, you couldn’t wait to live under your own roof, you dreamed of building amusement parks and changing the world, of falling in love, of getting your heart broken just so you could feel. You became whole and real and alive and you surprised me at every turn. As we have moved through the past two years your dreams have been realized and they have been broken. Your dreams have come alive and they have yet to take shape. You’ll go to the University of Pennsylvania and the London School of Economics– just like you’ve always imagined. You’ll go to Kalamazoo and Furman – schools you had never heard of at this time last year. You’ll take a gap year, you’ll live through your first winter in Ontario, some of you aren’t yet sure where you’ll be but as big as your imagination, as thorough as your research, you have no idea of what is to come. And here is what I ask of you. DIVE in with your eyes closed because even if you think you have an idea, even if you have a vision, I promise it will look nothing like that. You’ve seen more of the world than most people your age but even so, you can’t imagine what the future will look like. Don’t try. Because it will blow your mind. You will be disappointed, you will get your heart broken, you will meet people you never could have imagined to life, you will do things you always said you never would, you will do things you dreamed about, and they won’t look at all how you thought they would. You will pay bills and buy groceries and build families and it will seem simple and amazing. You will win awards and publish articles and meet with Presidents and it will feel natural and exhilarating. You will wake up, and you will look down at your hands and you will say– are these MY hands? where did all the years go? Remember that day, when I graduated from high school, I had no idea what was ahead of me… You leave here with the strength you’ve given each other, the sense of home, the way you take care of each other. I love to watch that. You protect each other and you celebrate each other—you fight and you compete and you gossip too, you have your moments but at the root of it all you take care of each other. The rarity that you have in that is extraordinary. And you won’t have it everywhere. You won’t have it next year, not right away. There will be hats in airstrangers and strange cities but you will have the foundation you have given each other. You have an idea of what is out there, you have a vision of what’s to come but… don’t try to control it. Let it underwhelm you and let it blow your mind. LET IT look nothing like you ever imagined. Your possibilities, they ARE infinite.

Thanks to Heather Duffy Stone for this inspirational commencement speech!

(PS.  Heather also has a couple of books that she authored available on Amazon!!)

Closing Out & Moving On

We closed out our 5 years in Ghana last week.  I knew Ghana would be a place that I would live in my lifetime.  It took me 25 years of overseas living before I got there but my childhood introduction to Ghana in 1965 (as a 10 year old) was influential in my life. My brother, a Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO) volunteer, spent two years teaching in Ghana in the mid-1960’s.  His letters, written on the iconic blue aerograms that folded into envelopes with writing along the edges to maximize the message, recalled his experiences in the tropics of West Africa. Ghana was destiny.

The end of our time was not unlike other partings. For international educators the rhythm of each June is similar.  Our wrapping up was, as expected, bittersweet. Multiple good-byes, emotions around farewells, the steeling of oneself to manage loss, and the consideration of the impact people have on one another all provided opportunities for careful thought and introspection.  As a school Principal whose work is by definition exercising leadership, it is natural to wonder about one’s impact.  How have I contributed to the improvement of the experiences for students, teachers, parents, and colleagues? What defines my “body of work” over 5 years and how do I measure influence or impact?

We all hope to “leave a mark” or, more importantly, help an organization, or a school community, or the people you work closely with become stronger and improve.   Feeling a sense of efficacy, a sense that you can positively impact others, is essential as an educator – teachers and administrators alike.  However, it’s tricky to discern and measure one’s impact.  It’s particularly tricky when one is in the midst of the drama, politics, and emotions of the day to day.  But, it’s interesting to take time at the end of a stretch to consider, to listen, to reflect, and to seek perspective.  It is natural to give such consideration when one has come to the end of one’s time in a school community.

The thoughtful written and spoken comments from colleagues, parents, and students in recent weeks were heartwarming and positive. (I admit, however, noone really wanted to “rain on my parade” as I was leaving so the naysayers and critics probably kept pretty quiet!!)  I am hugely grateful to so many for taking the time to communicate with me as I closed out the school year and my time at LCS.

We don’t remember days, we remember moments

What I found most interesting and revealing were references to specific moments, actions, conversations that were shared in the past several years which left an impression.  Our lives are, in so many ways, a series of unrelated moments with others and the potential of those moments to build impressions which create lifelong memories should never be underestimated. Parents referred to conversations in social settings, students referred to moments of interactions on the school walkway, teachers referred to moments of written feedback after visiting a classroom, and staff referred to a singular compliment, or act of kindness, offered in passing.  Moments that made impressions, perhaps it touched an emotion as memories are often solidified through emotions.  It is clear that I, and most likely others, regularly underestimate the power of words and the impressionable power of a singular moment.  As a way of understanding the elusive “body of work”, I can grab a hold of the tangible comments expressed and recognize that the collection of individual moments represent influence and leadership.

Ghana has been a rich experience.  I so enjoyed my time at LCS. The community, the students, the faculty, the staff were truly good to work with and to be around. I continue to be impressed and in awe of the commitment to, and importance of, person to person “respect” that rests in Ghanaian culture.  Respecting one another as equals, despite class differences, is an important element of Ghanaian culture.  It is a welcoming and friendly culture that is vibrant and embracing.  As I was exiting Ghana, I experienced a moment of my own that will remain with me forever. There was emotion in the air as I approached the immigration officer for my final passport stamp (as we know, immigration officers can be a surly lot).

“When are you returning?” She asked.

“I’m not returning, I’m leaving after 5 years”. I responded.

“I am sad, you are leaving and not returning to Ghana”. She said.

The friendly exchange went on and, yes, it is that kind of exchange that I have come to truly enjoy and respect with Ghanaians!  My moments in Ghana have impacted me without doubt.  I am hopeful, and confident, that my moments with so many in the LCS community have supported learning, growing, and maturing for the adults and students that I have worked with over the years.





Navigating the Whitewater & Transitioning Smoothly

How can it be March? We just returned from the mid-year break at New Years didn’t we? Wait, it was just October and I was looking for a job? Now we are barreling towards May which is always a blur of events, evenings, transition meetings, and detailed tasks. I’m constantly being asked if I’m excited about my next role but I’m too busy trying to stay present with some degree of effectiveness that I’m not too focused on my next position.

I’m a fan of white water canoeing – at least I was when I was

Navigate with Care!

Navigate with Care!

younger and more of a risk taker. I loved the feeling of dropping into the quick moving chutes of water with standing waves creating dips and dives! It was an adrenalin rush! You have to navigate carefully and with tact. Anyway, each week of the last quarter of a school year feels a bit like being dropped into another chute of fast moving water….standing waves, rocks, dips, drops, turns, and eddies of time that provide a bit of a respite but, if too big, can suck you into some sort of vortex!….it’s all exciting stuff right until the end of the run.   This year, the chute is especially narrow, fast moving, with high water as I try to wrap up my five years as the High School Principal at Lincoln Community School. Today I mapped out my weekends left here in Ghana. There are two weekends remaining that are not already booked with commitments. It promises to be a fast paced journey for the final 10 weeks – as long as I don’t end up in one of those energy zapping eddies!!!

My chute of whitewater includes an important period of transition out of my current role, onto the flat and calm water of July, and ultimately into my next role as a High School Principal at the American International School of Johannesburg where the pace, I’m certain, will be fast moving!

The challenge of transitions in international schools are often under appreciated. Transitions are part of the fabric of international schools.



As soon as I resigned at the outset of this year and began looking for a job, I was in a transition zone of some sort. Similarly teachers who resign in October and find jobs in the weeks and months after their resignations also enter some form of transition once they resign. In fact, with recruiting essentially a year round phenomenon, “people in transition” is the norm in international schools. As soon as you make a decision to move on, you begin a transition. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t fully committed or engulfed in your current role but you do begin making shifts. Faculty and staff who are not moving on experience transition through the departure of colleagues in June and the arrival of new colleagues in August. Leading schools with people hovering around transitions is challenging.

As I enter my final quarter of my last year at Lincoln Community School, I know how one exits is important. How will I manage this last whitewater chute at LCS?

I will stay present on a daily basis. As a school leader, I want to maintain my sense of optimism, positive energy, and presence for my colleagues. This has always been important to me and it is especially important to be as the inevitable stressors of the end of a school year rush towards us.

I will avoid the “I’m glad to be leaving” trap. I’ve seen too many people over the years be drawn into a negative state of mind as they approach departure.   There is a natural desire to avoid the pain of severed relationships sometimes this comes in the form of a dismissive attitude.

I will be intentional about my RAFT. Pollock and Van Reken (2009) identify four important concepts tied to the acronym RAFT: Reconciliation; Affirmation; Farewells; and Think destination.

Reconciling relationships and ensuring that any unfinished business is brought to closure as I don’t want unresolved issues to cause future baggage. Frankly, this has happened in my past with certain memories unresolved.   Affirming the importance of various people and moments from my time here is important. I know the importance of notes, messages, and communication with people as you are leaving. It’s important. Saying farewells to people is essential. Finding the right time is critical. Being intentional and present about my relationships will help support my departure and allow me to focus on the important elements of the remaining work.

I recognize many students and families are in transition. Students (and adults) in transition can experience stress, anxiety, and depression. I need to manage my transition so that I can support the transition of others. Similarly, teachers who are transitioning must keep in mind the fragility of our students during the upcoming months. My role is to support teachers and students right up until the final day. I must be at my best, so I must navigate the tricky rapids of my own transition and my own closure. A mantra over the coming weeks for me will be “Leaving right is essential for entering right”.


Navigating the challenges of one’s whitewater over the final weeks requires alert, present, and mindful behavior. It’s a journey that all international educators experience at this time of year, whether you are transitioning out of a school or working alongside colleagues who are transitioning. Without question, it’s part of the fabric of our work in international schools.


Difficult Conversations: Planning, Managing, and Seeking Improvement

It’s the middle of February. 14 more school weeks. The end of the school year is quickly coming into focus. Events, details, meetings, activities, responsibilities, etc. will eat away at the precious time allotted to do my job as a Principal.   How are the teachers under my supervision performing? How do I know if student learning is being optimized? I have walk thru data, observation data, and my intuition honed from years of being in schools.   Fortunately, I am confident in the professional capacity of those I work with and I know that good things are happening in classrooms. I also know that we are closing in on the end of a year and it’s time to prepare myself for some tricky conversations. Providing honest feedback to teachers indicating strengths and areas for growth is a vital part of the role. For some teachers, the areas for growth are more directed and intense then for others.   These conversations can be more challenging and are more necessary.

Very few people in education enjoy conflict but managing conflict and having difficult conversations are part of a Principal’s role. When the evidence is clear and student learning is impacted, the conversation takes on urgency. Often times, however, situations are not “black and white”. The grey area is challenging. Providing feedback, evidence, and facilitating the learning of the adults I work with is my role. But, I can’t control anyone. The capacity for others to reflect, internalize, and “change” is beyond my control.

I’ve been thinking lately about the literally hundreds of teachers I have worked with over the years in my role as a Principal. For sure I have had difficult conversations and for sure there have been conversations I have held back on, and avoided.  My grounding belief, and overall experience, is that adults want to learn and adults are capable of learning. If there is good faith and a desire to work and learn to support the best interests of students, then there is great potential. I try, possibly to a fault, to bring out the positive that all are capable of bringing to students.

Ellen Drago Severson in Leading Adult Learning: Supporting Adult Development in Our Schools writes about developmental capacity and developmental diversity as it relates to adult learning.

Adults make sense of their experiences in different ways. Therefore, adults need a variety of supports and challenges to create understanding and learning.

According to Severson, “developmental capacity concerns the cognitive, affective, interpersonal, and intrapersonal capacities that enable us to manage better the demands of leadership, teaching, learning, and life.” We regularly provide professional development around instructional capacity that grows adult professional learning. However, the capacity of adults to actually learn and grow in other areas requiring more personal introspection and reflection, is a huge challenge.   It seems as if the capacity for an adult to inquire into their affective, interpersonal and intrapersonal behaviors depends upon multiple factors.   It’s complicated. Adults who struggle with collaborative relationships or communication or hierarchical school structures may actually possess very sound pedagogical strategies but they can be a challenge for those around them. But, if they are willing and capable of developing themselves, there is reason to be optimistic.

Anyway, preparing for challenging conversations is part of the landscape for this time of the year. Often times the greatest source of angst about managing difficult conversations is the anticipation of those conversations. In preparing, I try to:

  • gather clear examples and evidence
  • lay groundwork with preliminary conversations or through feedback following observations/walk thrus
  • make a plan for the conversation that includes consideration of the opening comments and articulating the salient points in writing ahead of time and for reference during the meeting
  • rehearse the most important points, ensuring the right words, in the right context, support the right message
  • act with integrity and ensure that integrity underlies the process; when you get the process wrong, you are ineffective.

Of course, when the bottom line is student learning and ensuring a positive and productive learning environment for students, then the impetus for conversation and action is always strengthened. While I know well the challenge of difficult conversations, I also know that over the years, as I have aged (matured), I have developed personal skills and assets to successfully engage and manage such conversations.

Challenging conversations require strength and resolve. Once again, as the end of another school year comes into view, it’s time to plow forward!
















Engage Your Child & Enjoy the Conversation!

A number of years ago, the relationship between successful students and family dinners was highlighted for me.  It was highlighted in a form of “research” though I cannot quote any source.  There was logic to the connection.  Family dinners promote dialogue, strengthen relationships, demonstrate interest, support inquiring minds, and provide opportunities for thoughtful and active listening.  I’ve always believed this and it frankly helped provide navigational beacons for me as I journeyed through the fog of raising adolescents!

Parents have been asked to have a dialogue with their children about the topic of a school uniform.  I cannot emphasize enough the opportunity that this presents for parents and students.  Many students have intense opinions on the matter – both for and against.  Over the last couple of weeks my message to students has been – “What’s your logic?”  “Where’s your argument?”  Simplistic, emotional, and shallow statements are not good enough.  What is your logic to oppose and what is your logic to support?  That’s my message to kids.  I hope that parents engage in a meaningful conversation with their kids on this topic. It is rich territory.

We seek to strengthen analytical thinking skills.  We want kids to consider various sides to an argument and to be capable of dialogue on a topic.  This is critical.  Parents can, and should, challenge the statements that their kids make on this matter.  They should engage in the discussion.

The Board of Trustees at LCS has opened the decision up to the parents.  Next week we will find out what the parents say in this matter.   A group of student leaders met with several members of the board of trustees who explained the operations of the board and listened to the students.  This was an important meeting and I personally appreciated this step.  It is important for students to know that the board, following it’s constitutional by-laws, is acting with positive intentions in considering the best interests of the school from a strategic perspective.  The community that votes on matters is the parent community.  The student voice has been expressed but, frankly, students do not get to vote directly on this decision.  That’s just the way it is!  That’s how the school works and it’s important for our students to know the functioning dynamics of a school organization.

I urge parents to talk with their kids and vote.  If, and when, a parent view is different than their child’s view, it’s an important lesson for all involved.  There are plenty of times when parents and their adolescent kids don’t agree.  Good logic, good listening, and respectful dialogue are the key.  It can’t be all about emotion!  There are multiple positive arguments to be made in support and opposition.  That’s the beauty of this conversation, it is ripe for building discussions.   Engage your child over a family dinner and I guarantee that the conversation will be interesting and lively!!!  My only request is that you push them to provide thoughtful logic, factual arguments, and not simplistic responses full of emotion!

(For further posts about school uniforms refer to January and February 2013 archives!)