Why is change so hard?

Someone once told me that the only person who likes change is a wet baby! Yes, this might be true but I would also add to this that the person who is initiating the change also probably quite likes it, they happily join the line up of wet babies wawhy-is-change-so-hard-1-728iting for the change to occur and relishing the ongoing effects of whatever it is that they are moving forward, mainly because it is they who are in control. It is those who are affected by the change or have no power over the change who more than likely do not like it one bit.

After  25+ years of experience working in schools I feel qualified to say that “changing anything in a school is hard”. For some reason schools are institutions that love predictability, order and consistency. Maybe it is because we work with children who are far from any of these three adjectives. Maybe also it is because a school is not just bricks and mortar but people–teachers, staff members, students, leaders, board members and parents. With such a large group of stakeholders it is very challenging to find agreement about change, meaning that there is always going to be some who do not agree and are not happy. I do wonder sometimes though if the surgeons of the world have to discuss their proposed new surgical method at length with their patient, the patient’s parents, the board of the hospital and all of the staff members. I guess they do!

In our international private school setting I believe that change is even harder than it was within a state school in my home country. I am not sure whether this is because there is a constantly revolving door of international teachers, students and parents or maybe it’s because there is such a diverse range of previous experiences of schools and education systems.

We discuss the need for innovation often but very rarely actually do it, allowing much that could be good to sit in the ‘too hard” basket. This is such a dichotomy as innovation is what we are looking for in our global-minded students.

However lessons learned along the way! To effect positive change in any institution we need to enlist the hearts and minds of all of the stakeholders, not just some. While this work is challenging it is hopefully worth it in the end.

Our Elementary School-Mission and Vision in action.

ACST Core Values and Learner Qualities Blue Door (1)Our Elementary School–”Mission and Vision in action”

Here at ACST, our mission and vision are more than mere statements on our website and letterhead. Our aim is to constantly bring these aspirational statements to life in our classrooms, corridors and play areas. Our mission “Opening doors, hearts and minds” can be explained in three parts. Firstly it is our intention to provide your child/ren with all of the opportunities that an American-based education can provide–literally to open doors by way of the learning experiences we provide. This is particularly true in the Elementary School where our aim is for every student to experience a whole range of learning experiences, in academics, art, physical education, music and world languages. Secondly we want to “open our students’ hearts”; we want them to grow and develop into great people who are compassionate, kind and respectful. Lastly we see it as our mission to ‘open their minds”. We want each student to be a thinker and a learner, capable of problem solving and in-depth understandings. Similarly the school’s vision which states that “The American Cooperative School of Tunis will inspire a passion for learning, while endowing students with the expertise and confidence necessary to pursue dreams in and for a global society,” is the cornerstone of all that we aim to achieve. It is vitally important that our actual daily practice aligns with these statements.

In the Elementary School, we believe that one way that we can achieve both the mission and vision of ACST is to ensure that each student is learning at just the right level for them. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotksy in the early nineteenth century developed a concept called the zone of proximal development, often now referred to as ZPD. His idea was that the best learning occurs for anyone when they are operating in a zone that is just a little ahead of where they are operating independently. An example of this would be a child who can read books at a certain level needs to be instructed at a level slightly ahead of this. They are being challenged but not stretched so far that it is impossible for them to function. With help and support from a coach or teacher, they will constantly be ‘in the learning pit’. What this means is that within a class of children who are around the same age as each other, there are many different levels of achievement. Twenty children can all be in Grade 2 but they can be operating at 5 different levels. It is the teacher’s role to work out how the teaching program can be organized so that each child is being “stretched” at just the right level for them.


This year, we are organizing our learners into groups or classes that are named by their room number and also communities of these classes. Three classes make up a community and each of the communities are to be named after a ‘migrating bird of Tunisia”. Our PK classes are to be called the flamingoes, our Kinder/Grade 1 class the tawny owls, the Grade 2 and 3s the cranes and lastly the Grade 4 and 5s the hummingbirds. All of a student’s learning will happen within the community that they are in, however they could very well be learning in three different classes across three different curriculums within one school day. For example they may be with their own teacher for reading and a different teacher for math. Our overall aim is to ensure that each child is grouped with others of the same level so that they are working within their ‘zone of proximal development”. We want all of our students to be stretched and/or supported according to their individual needs.


At ACST, your child’s growth both academically and as a potential global citizen of the world is our ‘core business”. We do not want school to be ‘too easy’ or “too hard”–it needs to be “just right” for each individual.


The Beginning of the School Year–What’s on top?


I love the beginning of the school year! Despite the craziness of meeting students and parents, settling everyone into class and ensuring that teachers have everything that they need, there is a wonderful sense of contagious“freshness” that pervades everything we do.  I like to remind myself how lucky we are to work in an environment where you start afresh every twelve months. Students move up a grade, teachers have new faces to greet on the first day back, new goals are set and there is a sense of positivity with everyone  looking forward to the year ahead.

At our place, the talk this year is a lot about “alignment and congruence” –setting goals together, working collaboratively, keeping things consistent, moving forward as a learning community. As a leadership team, one of our aims is for all of the stakeholders to be “rowing the boat in the same direction” and we are working hard to develop actions that will enable this to happen. Over the years, two sets of research have impacted my beliefs and consequently my actions, around this issue. The first  is the work of Prof John Hattie from my own home country of New Zealand. His meta-analysis of research http://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/

about what aspects make a difference to student learning, has become well known around the world. However one of the outcomes of his work is his conclusion that there are greater differences in effectiveness for student learning within a school than there are between schools. Although it seems amazingly simple, it is very hard to ensure that every single student in a school is receiving what they need to meet their needs. Learning and growth can be occurring in one class but not in all.

The second article that I took particular notice of recently was written by a veteran teacher who decided to shadow a student for a whole day, observing what they did and how they were taught. The veteran teacher’s “takeaways” were very thought-provoking but my wondering from such an exercise was how aligned were the expectations on that student as they moved from class to class and lesson to lesson, or were they expected to learn differently according to the adult in front of them. https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/10/10/a-veteran-teacher-turned-coach-shadows-2-students-for-2-days-a-sobering-lesson-learned/

Leading a school where learning is the focus, where students are the center of all that we do and where everyone is heading in the one direction seems to me to be the most effective way to go. Let’s get going!


I am a great admirer of the work of Andy Hargreaves, a re-known British educator who has had a huge impact on education across the world but most particularly in Ontario, Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand. He currently serves as the Chair in Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. So when I read his most recent blog post this past week, my interest was piqued. The event that he recalls is, of course, of great interest to me, as I remember it well.

Andy recounted to his readers how on 22 February 2011, at 12.51pm, a monumental earthquake shook the city of Christchurch in New Zealand to its foundations. One hundred and eighty-five people lost their lives. Others lost family members, friends, limbs and homes. Around 10,000 dwellings became uninhabitable. The city’s historic stone cathedral cracked apart and its tower collapsed in pieces. Three-quarters of the central business district was destroyed or damaged beyond repair. After the dust had settled, the rebuilding had to begin. Some of this would inevitably be long term, and the giant cranes that now sweep across the city are symbols of the ongoing reconstruction. Other answers had to be more immediate. Where would the city’s residents and future visitors shop, dine and do their banking when retail space had been all but eliminated? The response was a quickly constructed precinct called Re:START, where scores of old shipping containers have been refurbished, brightly repainted and stacked on top of one another to make a chic shopping district. Where would the cathedral’s displaced congregation worship? The solution, devised by prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, is the magnificent transitional Cardboard Cathedral, erected on the edge of the most damaged part of the city. It has not all been easy, of course but the reconstruction of Christchurch is a compelling case of how and why creativity, critical thinking, collaborative actions and problem solving matter. In today’s world these are the ways we devise ingenious solutions to overwhelming social problems.

In reading Andy’s post, I was immediately reminded of the importance of educating our youth in such a way that they can be the collaborative, problem solvers, capable of creative and critical thinking, as these are the attributes that the world needs especially when responding to crises such as the one in Christchurch five years ago. This is why our ACST learner qualities are so important! This is vastly different from the style of education I received as a student myself. All those years ago, knowing and remembering were valued. You were deemed to be a good student if you could follow instructions and remember all that your teachers told you. This is so different to what we value and celebrate here at ACST. We want our students to “question, connect, innovate, take risks, persevere, collaborate, reflect and wonder”. These qualities were chosen in 2013 and over the past three schools years we have worked hard to ensure that they actually do mean something to every ACST student.

Three years ago, we conducted a mini-research project here at ACST. We asked 60 randomly chosen students from across all of the grades what they believe good learners do to become good learners. The results were very interesting: firstly, most of the students regardless of age struggled to talk about learning as they lacked the vocabulary to do so; secondly many of our students confused good earning with being a well-behaved student. While we want our students to be well behaved, we don’t want them to think that for example “walking in a straight line’ or “doing their homework” is what it takes to be a good learner. The interviews were all videoed and then shared with the faculty of the time. The actions taken following this action-research were the establishment of the ACST Learner Qualities and the eventual implementation of them into all aspects of our school programs.

This year, in 2016, it was time to re-do our mini-research again. This time 50 randomly chosen students were interviewed by a group of teachers, using the same questions as those asked in 2013. A sample of the interviews was shared with the faculty who then had time to reflect upon “what does this tell us about what we have been doing?” and “what does it tell us about the future?” The good news is that most of our sampled students actually used the ACST learner quality words to talk about what good learners do. Asking questions, taking risks, persevering and having grit were by far the most popular responses. Some even talked about the ability to collaborate and reflect upon what you know and where you are going next, as important parts of their learning processes. The ACST students of today are a lot more metacognitive than those that we interviewed in 2013 and this makes us really happy. They seem to understand that learning is a thinking process and that if you are not thinking, you are not really learning.

However, one of the interesting aspects of our action-research this time around was that only one student talked about learning as something that can happen outside of the school day. This implies that our students still see learning as very much a ‘school-orientated” activity. While this is fine, one of our aims would be for all of our students to view learning as something you do on the soccer field, in the playground, while travelling on a plane and while talking with their family. Learning as a life-long habit is what we are after. Parents can support this in the questions and conversations you have with your child/ren. Feel free to use our ACST language, for example: – great job persevering on that task, or what questions are you thinking about? In fact, there is a lot of research available today that says that when a parent reinforces the concept that all students can grow their own learning ability (i.e. their growth mindset) the child will flourish, rather than when just the grade or the achievement is rewarded.

I am so pleased to be working in a school where learning rather than merely passing through the system is valued and focused on. Here at ACST we will continue to make this our focus because “opening doors, minds and hearts” is all about the development of an adult that might one day go on to solve the problems of the world. As Andy Hargreaves states “Crises and social problems require many people to be creative, not just one or two. At this point in history, we need creativity, care and compassion on a scale that we have never witnessed before.” Let’s work together to ensure that ACST develops these types of people.

Reference: Blooming Teachers by Andy Hargreaves

View story at Medium.com

Reaching out to parents

Working in an international school setting is truly a wonderful experience. Every day I deal with examples of cultural diversity that both enhance and challenge my own lens on the world. There are the  obvious differences such as food, music and language which are interesting and stimulating and then there are the aspects that are a lot more complex such as parenting styles, behavioural expectations and educational values. Over and over I remind myself that “one fit really does not fit all”.

imagesIt’s currently report writing season at our place. Reports go home in written form in less than two weeks time. Our aim is to communicate to parents about their child’s level of achievement, their next learning steps and their attitude towards learning—all relevant and important aspects in the heads of educators. However in a setting where there are 60 different nationalities, there are many different views about the value of such reports, what they mean and what actions parents take when they receive them. This has been a challenge to my view of the world, which says that every parent knows about achievement levels and such like. Communication is so important, but communication in such a way that the receivers feel at ease and can connect with the information given. Does it really work to merely send home a traditional written report to someone who does not understand the language of the report nor the meaning behind it. What then is the answer? Always interested in alternatives. Reporting must be more than just “telling”.

Presenting one’s ideas to others

This past week I attended a regional conference where I presented a summary of our school’s professional work over the past three years. As it’s been awhile since I’ve done this type of thing, it was interesting to reflect on the process of preparing for and then presenting.

While it is always nerve-wracking speaking in public especially to groups of teachers who in my experience can be a somewhat cynical audience, the effort involved was well worth it.

To begin with , in preparing for this I forced myself into reflective mode with lots of questions such as “What have we achieved? How does this align? How can I explain this simply? This type of thinking then of course, spiraled into “what do we need to do next? How can we sustain this? As a school administrator it can be difficult to get this type of ‘reflective’ time during the business of our day to day work, so being forced to do so was priceless. To stand on the balcony and look over the courtyard below was a treat!

Secondly in putting together the actual presentation, I was aware of how connected our ideas need to be, how aligned they should be with the school’s overarching vision. Having to explain what we do as educators and why is a good check on this. I am reminded of the analogy of the stove with  many pots on the boil and the school principal trying desperately to keep the lids on all of the pots. Our schools cannot function like this—one boiling pot at a time, connected to all of the other delicious recipes being created.

Lastly when actually there in the room presenting our ideas, I experienced that great learning sensation when everything “flowed” and I was in the groove. This is what we want for our students—the kick of giving it a go and it working for you!

So the next time someone asks you to present your ideas to others—do it! It’s worth the risk.

Learning in the Elementary School

Learning in the Elementary School (The 5 Keys to Success)

At the tender age of 3 or 4 years, children enter an elementary school classroom and usually stay there for the next 6-7 years. Starting formal schooling is a big step for each child and their family and therefore it is so important that parents understand what goes on behind the closed doors of our classrooms. The following is an easy to understand explanation of what it is that elementary educators value and how parents can enable their child to have a great start in learning.

Key no 1: Happiness

Happy children make great learners. Young children need to feel secure, safe and cared for in order to focus their attention on learning. Their relationship with the teacher and teacher’s assistant is therefore absolutely vital. Here at ACST, our teachers work hard to provide positive feedback to each child in a warm and caring manner. Our children are nurtured in a safe, secure environment, that they know they belong to.

Tip for parents—tell your child often that they are loved and cared for. “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success”- Cain.

Key no 2: Positive attitude

Learning in the Elementary School is not done in rows of desks sitting, listening to a teacher talk. Learning happens when the learner is actively participating in the activity, talking and thinking about what is happening and what is being learned. Often this involves working as a member of a group. We strongly encourage our ACST children to “take a risk” or “have a go” at all of the learning opportunities that are presented to them.

Tip for parents—praise your child when they try something new, even if they don’t get it right the first time. Praise them for “giving it a go”.

Key no 3: Love of learning

While it is true that much of the day in an elementary classroom is spent learning how to read, write and be numerate, the most important aspect of these sessions is learning how to learn. Whether this is in Art, Math, Music or Science, we want our students to get the learning buzz! We want them to know what to do in order to be a learner and to enjoy the feeling of success as a learner.

Tip for parents—talk about your own learning with your child. Tell them what you learned at work, on the sports field or in the kitchen—we are all learners in our own way.

Key no 4: Knowing how to be a friend

The world is a social place and schools today reflect this world. To be successful, our children need to know how to be a friend, how to share, how to work together and how to resolve problems with each other. Developing empathy for others and compassion is a lifelong skill. Here at ACST this is something that we work on most intentionally with all of our children. Ms Seagren work as the Elementary Counselor,  is an integral part of our program

Tip for parents—provide opportunities for your child to play with other children both in formal situations like a sports team and in relaxed settings such as play-dates.

Key no 5: Have an involved parent

Educational research tells us that when parents are involved in their child’s learning, the likelihood of success for that child is increased. However involvement does not mean controlling the child’s progress. Parents who are the guide on the side, who work alongside the teacher and who keep up to date with what their child is learning are doing a great job.

Tip for parents—read the teacher’s communications, attend meetings, be informed.

Learning at the Elementary School level is fun, exciting and a real delight to observe and be part of.