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!!









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.


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


Lance King ( 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?

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.





Teaching Thinking (and Other Critical Skills)!

Teaching Thinking!  Is this an impossible task?

Clearly the work of teachers and parents is to help students become better thinkers, problem solvers, and communicators.  We want students to become more creative and critical in their thinking.  It is challenging work.  How do you support students in becoming true inquirers who are curious, interested, and capable of asking probing questions?  How do we support students as they engage with their own thinking?  How do we help students develop resilience?

True Resilience!

True Resilience!  (

Below is a “story” that I’ve held onto for years. I remember hearing this story when my own children were young boys.  I found a source of the story online as a letter to the editor to the New York Times.

The following letter to the editor appeared in the New York Times on January 18, 1988

‘Izzy, Did You Ask a Good Question Today?’

Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics who died Jan. 11 (1988), was once asked, ”Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”

His answer has served as an inspiration for me as an educator, as a credo for my son during his schooling and should be framed on the walls of all the pedagogues, power brokers and politicians who purport to run our society.

The question was posed to Dr. Rabi by his friend and mine, Arthur Sackler, himself a multitalented genius, who, sadly, also passed away recently. Dr. Rabi’s answer, as reported by Dr. Sackler, was profound: ”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn Continue reading

“It’s Confusing”: One Parent’s Honest Response

After an evening presentation to a group of Grade 11 parents last week during which we laid out the roadmap for current 11th graders as they navigate the IB, the college search, the essays, the Internal Assessments, the Mock exams, the college applications, the SAT prep, the SAT exams, the decisions, the deadlines, the co-curricular options, the need for balance, the need to take responsibility, the need to stay close as a family, and the need to breathe…..parents were asked to offer a word or phrase to capture how they (the parents) felt at that moment.

“It’s confusing”, said one parent.

These 16 year olds who will turn 17 as Grade 11 students are setting out on an incredibly intense course of activity over the coming months.  They join thousands of other young people at this impressionable age in taking charge of the list above. This week they start that process with the PSAT exam and their first quarter progress report for Grade 11.  This is a first glance at how many of them are achieving in the IB Diploma Program.  The fun begins.  Parents must find ways to support and bolster their child during these challenging times.  Kids need parental support.  Being informed of the challenges and the roadmap that lies ahead for kids is really important for parents.  The stress, anxiety, and pressure is very real and must be managed.  Parents are critical to the management of the challenges.


Apart from the intensity of school responsibilities, most Grade 11 students are begging for more freedom from their parents.  Extended curfews, more freedom to roam on Friday evenings, greater privileges are requested.  Parents must navigate these difficult and challenging parental decisions.  Its’ not easy, in fact, it’s confusing.   Most parents are often in some form of negotiation with their kids.  It is part of parenting and part of navigating the teenage years.  It’s important.

When this parent used the word confusing, however, I read into his response another source of confusion.  It’s confusing parenting 16 year olds.  It’s confusing parenting a 16 year old child Continue reading