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!