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!