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!)

What’s on Your “To Be” List for 2015?

A new calendar year  is around the corner.  Are new year’s resolutions on your radar screen?

I’ve never really been good at New Year’s resolutions.  They don’t fit with my life as an educator.  I live on the semester system with summer break in June/July and a vacation in December!  I live semester to semester to break….I’ve lived on the semester system all my life essentially – at least since Kindergarten and that was in 1961!  Wow 53 years of the semester system……The point is my resolutions are usually August resolutions – not New Years  resolutions.

Anyway, the point is, my thinking about resolutions has evolved…as I have, thankfully, over time.

Resolutions should NOT be about things you are going “to do”.  They should be about who you want “to be”

How do you want to be this year?    vs.    What do you want to do?

laveldanaylor.wordpress.com “We are human beings, not human doings” – Deepak Chopra

“We are human beings, not human doings” – Deepak Chopra


Lance King (www.taolearn.com) talks at length about  helping students to think of themselves as human “beings” and not as human “doings”.  I have appreciated his words around this topic.  We become so caught up in the “doing” that we forget about our “being”.  When I think about the IB Learner Profile, it’s all about traits for “being”.  Of course, there are actions we must “do” in order “to be” a certain way.

For me, this type of thinking always resonates. It’s important to re-visit one’s “to be” statements and the beginning of a calendar year is a time ripe for re-visiting one’s mission (unless, of course, you are like me and you are so accustomed to life on the semester system that your list takes shape generally in August!)

When I consider my “to be” list the following comes to mind:  I continue to strive to be a good father, husband, friend and family member.  I continue to work hard to be a good listener, enquirer, learner, and an individual who operates with integrity, honesty, and compassion. I hope to be influential to those around me in my work in order to support adult learning, student learning, and overall school improvement.

What is on your “to be” list this for 2015?

The Recruiter Dance aka “Dancing to Find a Star”

I spent the weekend writing emails.  Not to family and friends but total strangers.  Well, not total strangers, at least I had their resumes in front of me. I was trying to entice them.  It’s that time of year. The dance begins and recruiting is in full throttle.  Searching the data bases from SEARCH, TIE online, COIS, etc , writing emails to folks to see if they are interested in dancing to the beats of West Africa.  It’s time consuming and challenging.   But the time has come for me to put on my dancing shoes and Happy Feet (see penguins dancing, 2006) and plunge full throttle into the Big Dance!

From an administrator’s perspective it’s one of  the most important task of the year.  Finding the right teachers for your students

The Recruitment Dance Party!

The Recruitment Dance Party!

is critical.  Figuring out who will be opening school in August and introducing themselves (or intro & dancing with)  your students on that first day is a daunting responsibility.   The challenge for a moderately sized school in West Africa, is that not everyone really wants to dance to the beat of West Africa.  You’ve got to be ready and willing to deal with the challenges and excitement of the developing world!

I remember going to my first recruiting fair with ISS in New York City in 1985.  We walked into the room and behind a row of desks were the recruiters – THE HEADS in SUITS, also known as “Guys with da Ties”.  I remember the adrenalin of moving around and setting up interviews.  Fantasizing, with my wife, about each exotic locale and possibility.  I remember the long lines for European schools – everyone, it seemed, wanted to go to Madrid (was it the flamenco dancing?)   I remember the anticipation, the intensity, the scramble for signing up.  It was a thrill and it was exhausting.  Our 3 days of interviews and multiple job offers led us to taking jobs in India.  We danced out of the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan, down 42nd St and back to our Port Authority bus to suburban New Jersey beaming and ready to immerse ourselves in South Asia.  That’s the romantic side of our first job fair.

That was before email, web sites, skype, even before fax machines.  But somehow we managed to communicate in the upcoming months.  Western Union, telexes, and snail mail all worked.  It took weeks before a contract arrived at our  idyllic little farm house in northern Vermont.

I’ve been to multiple job fairs in 30 years.  I’ve been a candidate. I’ve been a recruiter.  It’s an emotional drain on both sides of the dance floor.  You can leave the dance broken hearted, disappointed, OR aligned with your “star candidate”, your “dream come true” who is ready for “the time of their life” (ala Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray – 1987)

Obviously the face of recruiting has evolved.  Even in the past 5 years, let alone 30.  More agencies involved in the profitable recruiting business, more dance floors  aka “recruiting fairs”, more international candidates, more international schools, an extended recruiting season that lasts at least 10 months, more skype interviews, more pressure to fill positions with qualified candidates.  Nimble feet are required to navigate the party!  If you ain’t got the dancing steps, it can be really challenging!   Travolta would have been a master recruiter….or candidate…..

In a couple of weeks time I will attend a recruiting fair in London to interview candidates.  I’ll seek to imagine myself with the smoothness of a Fred Astaire as I prep for the big dance.   I’ll scour the candidate data base ahead of time, seeking a match – I’m sure Ginger Rogers is out there.  I’ll head down to the sign ups at the outset of the fair wearing my best suit and dancing shoes. I Dancing--4134141364might even slick back my hair, hoping for a bit of that Kevin Bacon (Footloose) charm.   I’ll identify who I want to dance with, court them with an email note, entice them to consider our school while knowing they are being courted by others, and hopefully waltz (or disco) our way through a full on interview (ala Travolta).  I’ll pitch the school, query their interests and understand their experience all the while hoping for a match.  First impressions in that initial face to face encounter matter.  Maybe, just maybe, a diamond in the rough (ala Billy Elliot) will jump out and scream – “I’m the one” – take me to Accra!

Recruiting is a challenging dance!  One to approach with humor, perspective, professionalism, and a sense of open ended wonder!

Ferguson, Race Relations, and My Grade 12 Ghanaian Students

Watching the news from Ferguson, Missouri from across the Atlantic, tucked away in my home in Accra, Ghana I feel saddened and removed.  Saddened by the ongoing need to combat racism in America and removed because I live across the ocean in West Africa.  But, as an educator and someone responsible for graduating 18 year olds and sending many of them off to college in North America, I feel a deep sense of urgency when it comes to the topic of race and my students.

I have no idea how a young Ghanaian student in my school interprets events in Ferguson.  We haven’t talked about it….yet.   I have no idea how one of my young black African male students will react if, and undoubtedly when, he is racially profiled and pulled over for a routine traffic stop in his future college town.  It will be a complete shock, I’m certain.  In recent days I have read articles written by African American parents who clearly teach their children, specifically boys, how to handle situations like a random traffic stop.  As a parent of two young men in their 20’s, I have never needed to have this conversation.  If I was black, I would have had the conversation on multiple occasions.   How scary is that?   Today I feel I have an obligation to help my students develop awareness of the challenges of race relations and racial issues in America.  Having said that, I feel inadequately qualified on the topic beyond facilitating conversations which is certainly achievable.    However, Michelle Alexander  author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”  wrote an interesting piece for the New York Times around this discussion.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/26/opinion/ferguson-telling-my-son-michelle-alexander.html?_r=1&referrer

I’ve reviewed a series of web sites noting articles of relevance and  looking for statistics on issues of race, racial profiling, and the lives of young black men in America.  Below these links is a collection of statements drawn from these various sites.  There is much to explore within these sites.







“In the United States, racial and ethnic disparities exist across an array of domains. That such disparities exist should surprise no one. Nor should the fact that such disparities diminish the life chances of those affected. A vast body of literature documents such disparities and shows that they have developed and persisted over time in the context of historical and structural racism in ways that may influence policies, practices and programs.”
  • 54% of African Americans graduate from high school, compared to more than three quarters of white and Asian students.
  • Nationally, African American male students in grades K-12 were nearly 2½ times as likely to be suspended from school in 2000 as white students.
  • In 2007, nearly 6.2 million young people were high school dropouts. Every student who does not complete high school costs our society an estimated $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes, and productivity.
  • On average, African American twelfth-grade students read at the same level as white eighth-grade students.
  • The twelfth-grade reading scores of African American males were significantly lower than those for men and women across every other racial and ethnic group.
  • Only 14% of African American eighth graders score at or above the proficient level. These results reveal that millions of young people cannot understand or evaluate text, provide relevant details, or support inferences about the written documents they read.
  • Nationally, African American men are 5½ times more likely than white men to go to prison in their lifetime. Based on current rates of first incarceration, almost 7 percent of African American men in the United States will enter state or federal prison by age 20, compared with less than 1 percent of white men
  • Nationally, African American male adults and adolescents have a nearly seven times higher risk of contracting HIV or AIDS than their white peers do. In California, HIV-related mortality is the eighth-leading cause of death for African American men, and they have a mortality rate from HIV infection nearly four times higher than that of white men.
  • A young black man is nearly five times more likely to be killed by a gun than a young white man and 13 times more than an Asian American man. These numbers, dramatic as they are, actually understate the problem. If a black person is killed by a gun, it is judged a homicide 82 percent of the time. For the broad population, most gun deaths are ruled accidental or the result of suicide; only 34 percent of gun deaths are attributed to murder.

What are you doing in your school to prepare graduating Seniors for the realities of race relations in the US?  I believe addressing this topic, these facts, in an intentional and open manner is the right thing to do.  I would hope that my students would be prepared to digest this information, raise questions, explore perceptions, and develop a level of understanding, awareness, and sensitivity to the topic.  There is so much to learn and explore around this topic.

Whether you are an educator or parent in an international school responsible for sending students from Africa, the Middle East, or Asia to a foreign country for university, it is important to explore the issues of race relations, discrimination, and stereotypes.  Finally, this topic cannot be left to schools alone to discuss.  Parents must be actively engaged with these topics.  As well, racism is not limited to North America.  All parents and students headed to life outside of the international  high school bubble, regardless of which continent one is headed to, must find ways of engaging with these topics.  I know we will seek to at LCS.  How will your school prepare your graduating students to understand and explore this topic?



As Teachers, Our Words Matter

As educators, what we say and how we say it may create a memorable moment that will last a lifetime.  That’s serious business.  The memory will, very possibly, help shape the self-image of that student.  That’s serious business.  Do not under estimate the power of words and the impact one can have in an instant of time.

The power to influence and to create a lifelong memory in a child or parent is a serious responsibility, privilege and, most importantly, an opportunity.

Adults, of all ages, have memories of moments with teachers and interactions that left impressions – both positive and

Words Matter

Words Matter

negative.  One of the intriguing joys of reconnecting with old high school friends on Facebook is the swapping of  memories from childhood and teenage years.  Occasionally there is a story of a teacher that resonates with a wide range of people and it’s amazing how far and wide the influence of that teacher extended.

How memories are coded into our brains is a topic best left to cognitive psychologists and brain researchers.  There is logic to the association of memories with emotions.  An act of kindness, the sensation of belonging, the anger of a betrayal, the embarrassment from belittling, the hurt from a reprimand, the joy from a job well done, and so on, are all potential moments where the chemistry aligns and a forever memory is coded.  Emotional moments result in potential memories.  And these are triggered by words. Words Have Power!

But, it is so easy to make a mistake.

My 22 year old son is an outstanding young man.  He had many great years as a student and, by all accounts, did very well throughout school.  But, he struggled in kindergarten.  17 years ago, in kindergarten, I well remember walking around the corner outside his classroom one day and his art teacher said to me “You know, Jared is a naughty boy”.  The comment, on the walkway of school, was not necessarily a surprise.  Inappropriately timed and delivered, but not a surprise.  I’m not sure of my response but it left an impression that will last a lifetime.  Continue reading

Parents, 9th Grade, & Teen Angst

Parenting is hard.  Whether your kid is 6 weeks, 6 months, 6 years, or honestly just choose any year between 12 and 17, parenting is hard. The good thing about doing hard work is that you are destined to make mistakes along the way therefore you always will find opportunities to improve!

I think I became a better educator as I experienced parenting an adolescent for myself.  I think educators who have experienced parenting challenges are generally less judgmental and more forgiving of parents.  I think there is much for teachers to learn from considering the challenges of parenting and, likewise, there is much for parents to learn from the insights that teachers are able to share.  Teachers hold incredibly important and valuable observations that are important for parents to digest.  The partnership between teacher and parent is critical to nurture.

We recently held a parent meeting for Grade 9 parents on a Wednesday evening in a private home not far from school. It was part social and part  “parenting workshop”. It was an opportunity to share information and generate dialogue about the challenges of parenting.

Myself and one of our counselors presented “The 5 B’s of Adolescence”.  I’ve used this presentation overimages-2 the years.  The presentation is one that several counselor colleagues of my past put together.  I am not the author!  But, I absolutely enjoy presenting it to parents as it opens up great territory to explore around the complexities of adolescence.  Trying to understand those complexities and the resulting behaviors – rationale and irrational – is the challenge for parents and teachers.  It makes our work interesting to say the least.

The The 5 B’s of Adolescence are:

Bodies – Their bodies are changing overnight!

Belonging – There are huge needs for belonging to groups, social structures are important and challenging.  Friendship groups shift.  Many decisions are made based upon their strong needs for belonging.

Becoming – They are becoming more independent thinkers, they are becoming a young adult. They are playing around with who they are becoming.  They often try out new personas, new styles of dress, etc.

Brains – The brain activity is enormous.  In general, the frontal lobe is not well developed and therefore impulsive behaviors are not as well regulated.  This is a challenge.

Breaking Away – They are seeking independence!

However brilliant the High School Principal and the counselor may have been in presenting, the most important part of the evening were the student messages to their parents.  Earlier in the day, our counselor spent time with Grade 9 kids and asked the students to write responses to the following prompts:

  1. Parents, here is what I would like you to know about 9th grade so far:
  2. To be a better parent to me as a 9th grader, you need to do more ____ and less _____
  3. The number one thing you don’t seem to get about me these days is:
  4. My biggest worry about school is:
  5. My biggest stressor at home is:
  6. I really appreciate it when you:

The responses from students were absolutely astounding. They were honest, direct, insightful, and meaningful.  We read a series of these responses to the parents. It was brilliant.  Here is a sampling of what Grade 9 students said to their parents:

You can do more “Help me, talk to me about school, let me be” and less “checking up on me”

You can do more “trust me and understand I want more freedom” and less “stop trying to force me into doing things and trying to find out everything about school”

You can do less “talking, because you seem to not listen but to always compare me”

You can do less “comparing me to my friends and other people”

You can do more “trust me, understand me” and less “assuming you know me, comparing us to when you were a kid, and blaming me for things I don’t do”

The number one thing you don’t seem to get about me these days is

“you never seem to get me”

“Even though I seem fine about my homework, I still need you to push me”

“That you have to let me be more independent”

“that I focus alot more while listening to music and that when I use my tablet alot I sometimes do homework”

“I am my own person, stop comparing me to others”

“I’m stressed and worried”

“I’m a man now”

“I’m 15, not 12”

“I need more freedom”

“that I am growing and I am different from my siblings and you should understand that”

“I try hard at school”

“I am very independent and do a lot of things by myself, I’m a big boy now”

“That school is not the most important thing in my life”

I really appreciate it when you:

“When you leave me alone and when you give me reasonable advice”

“Hug me and tell me it’s going to be alright”

“Shout a little less at me and allow me to play video games a little longer and help me with my homework”

“Just be there with a smile, and food too”

“Say it’s okay when I get a bad grade”

“Believe in me and the decisions I’m making”

“Encourage and support me”

“Leave me alone”

“Believe in me and know that I can do great things”

“Help me with my work sometimes and when you pay attention to me”

“ask me about my day”

“try to help me and understand that I am trying my best”

So many of the comments the kids made can be considered through the lens of the 5 B’s.  Grade 9 students often seem like lost souls.  They live “teenage angst”.   Grade 9 kids are in the clutches of adolescence and their responses reflect their angst.  They are experiencing significant levels of stress over social issues, academic challenges, family dynamics, and within their own private inner world of “self talk”.  They are busy “becoming” while wanting to “break away”.  Their brains are on fire and their emotions are locked into a desire to “belong”.  Their bodies are changing all the time.  14 and 15 year olds are at a unique and challenging point in their lives.

Adults in the lives of 14 and 15 year olds must acknowledge and accept these challenges.  It’s a hard time.

Engaging them in meaningful and relevant work is essential.  They can be very insightful about their own learning and what is important to them at this point in their lives.  They are drawn to films, stories, and characters who mirror their teenage angst.  There is much young adult fiction that captures this.

I do believe early teens are ready to learn but we must be so careful and thoughtful about material and approaches.  9th graders are at a vulnerable time.   They can be lured in or they can withdraw.  I remember my son’s HS English teacher warning the parents during an August open house that we should be prepared for the disappearance of our son, as we knew him, in Grade 9 but he’ll return 12 months later.  A sobering statement, but there was truth to it. The good news for me was that caring adults were alongside him every day at his school and, without a doubt, this is the absolute key.

It’s a challenge for us all.





Day 3 The Envelope Please

A good  night of sleep, the memory of “The Moment” well behind, I arrive on the sunny campus ready for the final round!

The climate in South Africa is nothing short of spectacular.  The outdoor culture is impressive.  A potential colleague generously handed me a 200 page book first thing in the morning with a list of all the running events in South Africa for 2014.  You can run a race every weekend it seems.  The friendly warmth of South Africans mirrors the contagious Ghanaian smile and hearty laugh.  It could be a good place to live and, no doubt, the school would be a great place to work.  The American International School of Johannesburg is impressive.  I wander the campus a bit awaiting my first interview – the day is quiet, parent conferences are happening in another area so I’m left in the campus gardens – just me and the birds!

Two team interviews and several conversations with various folks seem to go fine.  By mid-day the interviews are over.  I was well rested and in reasonable shape and while I am certain not everyone found every answer satisfactory, I’ll take my chances.  If you are a baseball fan you know that superstars are only successful 3 out of 10 times that they are up to bat.  That’s a pretty low percentage.  What would happen if I had only been successful with 3 out of every 10 questions?  I’d be toast.  So, the day ended without any desperate last minute heroics.  No need for any desperation 3-point shots or long downfield “hail mary” touchdown tosses or bases loaded heroics in the bottom of the 9th inning.   No Sudden Death drama….

Having said that, as the admin team has their final meeting before I am to meet with the Head of School, I’m left wondering.  I have a sense of the personalities on that team and  I imagine the conversation in my head….

“He had a strong first quarter on Monday but fumbled badly during that stretch on Tuesday”.

“Let’s take a look at the slow motion replay, notice how he delicately avoided with that response.”

“Yes, but he got stuck badly by the aggressive offense of that interview team earlier today?”

“How did he respond after that brief setback?”  “Is he really up for the challenge from us?”

When you visit an organization for a few days you spend time synthesizing anecdotal data and pondering.  Peeling back the onion of any organization is always fascinating.  Personalities stand out, systems and territory are revealed and over a 48 hour period, questions lead to questions lead to opinions expressed and insights formed.  Schools are all about people and relationships.  People have much to say about their worlds of work and I am absolutely intrigued by organizational dynamics.  It’s especially interesting when you are being interviewed by those who might be future colleagues!

As Rhona and I await our closure meeting with the Head of School, I am truly at peace with any decision.   I’ve expressed



interest in two international school positions.  If neither of these work out, we are planning on returning to the US and I will find a position in an independent school. I’m not a natural self-promoter, not my style, and I’m okay with that.  However the decision goes down, I am not defined by this experience.  I feel proud of my body of work as an educator over the years and I know that I am able to create the conditions to influence learning in a positive and genuine way.  So, as the decision looms, I’m completely comfortable with the options.

Enter the office, sit across from the head of school, debrief a bit, the contract is on the table and the deal is done….the job is MINE! Rhona and I are delighted, the decision is made, we are headed to Johannesburg next year!  

While there is no end of game scoreboard broadcasting the results, I do know that the feeling is  positive and the match between my resources as a school leader and the needs of the high school at AISJ is aligned.  I think this is the case and, if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t want the job.  It’s about alignment. It’s important to remember this.

Upon reflection, what else is worth remembering?

  1. Being “at peace” with decisions that impact your life’s work is truly important. I was completely prepared for rejection.  Remembering just how much I have to be grateful for is important.
  2. Refuse to be defined as a professional by the success or failure of a singular job search.  There are opportunities and matches out there.
  3. Pursuit of jobs is an intense roller coaster experience.  Levelling the roller to create more coaster is something to consider.  Finding moments of calm seas is essential.
  4. Embrace ambiguity. After most interviews and conversations there are often discomforting memories that leave you wondering.
  5. Remember to trust your instincts and intuitive insightful moments. They tell you much.
  6. Writing is a reflective activity for me and allows me to process experiences.  Writing about this job search was hugely beneficial to my thinking, and fun!!

How will you approach your next job search?

Day 2 The Parent Interview & “The Moment”

My thoughts drifted for a moment……I think I am answering a parent question about the diversity of a community and how to help build community in a diverse population, or was it a diverse community that results in diversity or a population that is diverse and community that makes a population and what was I going to do????  Hmmm…this is very confusing isn’t it?  At least, that was the internal dialogue when sleep deprivation, dehydration, tension, and possibly aliens swooped down upon the room, clouded my thinking and momentarily shut off some inner switch.

“Excuse me”.   I find myself saying.  “I think I need some water”.  Feeling the color draining from my face, I get up and take a few steps, grab a water bottle, catch my breath, rally my thoughts, sit back down, and attempt to recover a response.  I ramble for 10 more seconds and then realize I better cut my losses on the diversity question.   I press “Ctrl-Alt-Reset” to reboot my brain and take another swig of the best water I’ve had in weeks!

The momentary abduction and time travel abates, the color returned but the incredible embarrassment remained.  I manage to recover, last another 40 minutes and, I believe, save the interview.  Parents remain behind, ask reasonable questions, stake a claim or two about topics they would like to address and the parent interview is over.  Phew!  I have 2 hours until my next interview.

I think it’s important to consider the job search as a type of sport.  So, if today’s collection of interviews was a 4 quarter

The Scoreboard!

The Scoreboard!

sporting event clearly I was down early by double digits after my fumbled “moment” but I think I rallied to at least tie the score after the first quarter……Lots of potential sports analogies.  I can hear the announcer recapping the first quarter.

“He was down early, but the comeback gained traction with his description of his most recent parent evening presentation.”

I pride myself on parent relationships and the ability to connect and communicate with parents.  Should the job hunt be successful I’m not particularly concerned as I know how to support that partnership.  But, the moment was a singular embarrassment.    But, I also knew, right away, it would make a great story!  It could have been worse, that’s for sure.

I wander the campus, a spectacular campus at 5000 feet in elevation (maybe it was the altitude)!  I wander around classrooms speaking to students and teachers at random.  I’m a nosy stranger trying to understand the pulse of the high school campus.

The game continues with a Student Council interview during lunch.  This is fun.  A former JIS Pattimura student who Making_Comebackrecognizes Rhona, and a 12th grader who used to attend LCS years ago who is good friends with some of my current students are among the handful of student leaders.  We talk policies about student athlete absences, discuss whether the school needs a track, the merits of 85 minute blocks vs 60 minute blocks in a schedule and in general what the students feel is needed at the school.  It’s lunch time, a bit rushed, but they were interested in sharing opinions.  Talking to thoughtful kids who want to engage with you always leaves me hopeful.   It goes well, it’s mid-day, I glance at the scoreboard and things are promising.

I enter my 4th quarter interview with the search committee knowing that a strong closing performance is important.  Sleep deprivation is countered by yet another double expresso – and some tasty coffee at that.  A potential colleague reveals his true love – his office coffee machine!  Life is good.

A healthy exchange with the selection committee, no alien abductions, no “senior” moments, no drama, results in a promising overnight scoreboard.  Day 2 closes with Rhona and I out to dinner with Tony and Nancy Mock.  Unbelievably this is the first time we’ve met this fun couple but our paths, mutual connections, and histories are well connected from our collective years in Asia.  Wonderful to make new friends over dinner.

So, what did I learn?

  • Multi day interviews with various constiuents are challenging.  But, they provide opportunities.  A singular moment, unless it’s a real doozy, does not seal one’s fate.  If you treat the experience like a sporting event, you have to figure out how to keep the offense moving, defend your territory with integrity, rally when needed, and go for the big play when you have the opportunity!
  • Finding stories and anecdotes that meaningfully reflect your practice is helpful.  These can be told from the heart!  I remember the author John Marsden talking about writing to Grade 8 students.  His most important advice was to write about what you know.  Telling relevant anecdotes, related to your work (and the question at hand) is a powerful tool.
  • If you don’t have a good answer, sometimes it’s really okay to admit that you need time to either better understand the scenario or that it’s difficult to speculate.  In other words, grasping for a poorly considered but a seemingly defined answer may do more harm than good.
  • Being true to yourself and finding the comfort zone in conversations is essential.

Day 3 looms ……. and so do a couple of interviews and decision time…..


Job Hunt Day 1 – The Faculty Interview

OK, truth be told, Rhona and I are visiting a school and I actually finished the first day of a 3 day interview visit.  Not only

And the judges say? COPYRIGHT EXPRESS & STAR......01/05/2010

And the judges say?

that, it’s early morning hours after a fitful sleep tossing and turning between the first day “autopsy” and the second day “preparation”.

Flights almost anywhere from Ghana result in overnight flights and early morning arrivals so the coupling of economy class overnight seating and a 3:00 pm full faculty interview after arrival must be considered a challenge to relish.  Frankly, it was downright civil compared to what my administrative counterparts in a school in Japan posed to me several years ago.  On that occasion I flew overnight from Jakarta to Tokyo on a Friday evening, navigated the challenging path from Narita airport to the suburbs of Tokyo on a cold December Saturday morning, placed in a meeting room that felt like a cold storage facility, and was subjected almost immediately to a 2 hour administrative team interview.  But I digress….

Yesterday was most definitely a civil beginning!  Four seats to myself for on an under subscribed flight was a lucky break – it would have been more fun to be bumped up to business class but I’ll take those extra seats and the horizontal position any day!  Arrival at the hotel – check, leisurely breakfast -check, shower & shave – important/check, and pick out the optimal shirt/tie combo that would be sure to impress the 3:00 crowd!  All set….

Arrival at school, a double expresso, a campus tour, dialogue with the Head of School, review of the 3 day gauntlet, and several bottles of water later and it’s time.  The stage is set for that first hurdle – a full faculty interview!

Anyone who has worked across a K-12 school knows that a high school faculty meeting crowd is different then an elementary faculty meeting crowd.  It’s simply the way it is!  In fact, HS faculty get a bad rap on this front.  I’ll give this faculty credit, they played along nicely with my activity to open up my interview. I asked them to identify the traits and qualities they were looking for in their next Principal and then enter them into an online application @ polleverywhere.com .  Their entries created a cool word cloud of their responses and we were able to examine this together.  My plan was to examine their responses and then present my even cooler powerpoint which would dramatically connect my self-identified traits/qualities with what they had identified and, voila…..the perfect match would reveal itself….and we all would live happily ever after.   Being a risk taker is hugely important, and I was taking a bit of a risk.  As a risk taker, you have to be prepared to “fail well” or “fail up” so that you can do even better the next time.  Though, in my one off situation there is no “up” to fail towards with this audience.  It’s a one off situation!  While the cool word cloud and my even cooler presentation were not exact matches, it didn’t really matter.  Several ideas and some overlap surfaced, a strategy for using a piece of technology was modeled for teachers, and my risk taking behavior was put on display.  (By the way, I had never used this online program before which some might say is a stupid thing to do in front of  a faculty who you are trying to convince of your rational, thoughtful, non-impulsive and well prepared educator style).  Having said that, schools are generally “risk averse” BUT we want to help kids learn to be risk-takers…Hmm….does anyone sense irony?  But I digress…

Here’s the point.  I can’t really give an autopsy about the interview because I can’t remember what happened.  The hour long interview flew by.  Questions, of which there were many, were flung from all corners of the vast room.  I ducked, I darted, I bobbed, I weaved, I handled some questions flawlessly and my love of sentence fragments probably got the best of me for others….and then, it was 4:00 pm.  I was, like……is this it?  Are we really over?  I’m just getting warmed up, I’ve got more to say….I didn’t tell you about the time I…… Come on you guys, give me some more….give me your best shot, I’m ready for it….

When you are standing in front of 50 folks and you are so focused on answering questions and moving from one topic to another, it really is hard to recall exactly what you said throughout the time so actually dissecting it is tricky.  What I do know is I felt genuine, honest, and I do believe I communicated that I know a reasonable amount of stuff about what is good to do in schools for student and adult learning!

But now…..in the 4:00 am autopsy, here are 5 things I wish I had said to the faculty yesterday AND I wish I said them with the gusto that they deserve:

  1. Don’t “vote” for me if you aren’t fully committed to building a high school culture in which every kid feels cared about, mentored, and connected to an adult.  This means all teachers must be fully engaged in creating this culture.  This is so fundamental that if you don’t want to own this culture, then we probably aren’t suited to work together.
  2. Don’t “vote” for me if you don’t want to spend time examining and reflecting on your instructional practices and curriculum while aiming to be a better teacher. If you think you are already a master teacher and there is no more for you to learn about your craft, then you are kidding yourself and we probably aren’t suited to work together.
  3. Don’t “vote” for me if you think the current general structures of high schools including the reliance on Carnegie units (credits), the over emphasis on SATs, the over emphasis on traditional grading practices, and the traditional silos of high school departments are best for student learning and preparation for the challenges kids will face in their futures.  Taking a close look at innovative practices going on in schools around the world would be an exciting endeavor.   If you are locked into the industrial model of schooling and you don’t want to examine and consider possibilities, then we will have challenges working together.
  4. Don’t “vote” for me if you don’t think all kids should have a high bar set for them and that all kids are capable of reaching a high bar.  If you don’t believe that kids are capable of aiming high, we will definitely have trouble working together and you need to really think about your work.
  5. Don’t “vote” for me if you don’t think parents and students should have a voice.  Defining parameters and systems for that feedback and that communication is essential.  Parents rely upon our work with their kids.  We have a responsibility to them.  Feedback from students about their learning is critical, their voice is important.   It’s about building community, and communities involve all constituents!  If you don’t believe this, then let’s talk!!

I could probably dig further for some other messages and round out a top 10 list BUT I have to prepare for Day 2….the birds are chirping outside our hotel room and morning is here.   It promises to be a long day of interviews and meetings.  I wonder what the journey will be like as the day rolls on?