What do we see and hear in a school when people are the focus rather than subjects? Why is now a critical time for a people focus? Leaders need to see teachers as people and all educators need to see students as people. Steve explores these concepts with Stephen Dexter, an upper school principal at an American international school in Croatia.
Contact Stephen: email@example.com
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:29 Focus on people rather than subjects. I recently posted a blog titled, My Frustration With Catch-up Language” and my opening paragraph read like this: My first has grown as more and more conversations with educators have centered around people sharing their concerns about teachers and students’ wellbeing. They share concerns about teachers being stressed that contemplate leaving the profession. They describe students, inappropriate behaviors and lack of engagement. And then in this same conversation, they describe the need for students to “catch up” or to deal with learning loss. When my blog posted on LinkedIn I got a message comment from Stephen Dexter. Stephen’s the upper school principal at the American International school of Zagreb in Croatia. And he caught my attention. Stephen wrote this: “The old school is a treadmill metaphor. Thanks for this post. It depends on where the urgency derives from. Low income areas where internet is bad and virtual learning weak, the losses are real. Higher income areas where the losses are based on missing a few weeks of photosynthesis, not so much so. The focus on people and not on subjects is so critical now.” It’s that last phrase that really caught my attention – focus on people, not subjects. I dropped a note to Stephen inviting him to join us in a conversation on a podcast and I’m delighted that he agreed so welcome, Stephen.
Stephen: 02:17 Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here and it’s great to catch up with you again.
Steve: 02:21 So Stephen, would you give folks a little bit of introduction to yourself, maybe a little bit of background in your current role now?
Stephen: 02:28 Sure. Thank you. Well as you said in the introduction, I’m the the upper school principal at the American international school of Zagreb. I’ve been here for four years. I’m here with my wife, Stephanie and my daughter, who’s actually in the high school so she holds me accountable. And I have a son in university and prior to coming here in 2018, I worked in Singapore for three years as upper school principal there as well at Stanford American international and then I was I started my international journey 2009 at a boarding school in the Swiss Alps. Prior to that, I worked for about 13 years in the American public schools in the Boston area as a teacher and assistant principal.
Steve: 03:20 Great, great. Just to kind of set the stage, I’m wondering, since you were there in 2018, what the COVID pandemic impact has been on your school and staff and students.
Stephen: 03:36 Yeah, that’s a great question. And when you sent out the invite, I’ve been doing some reflecting because today or yesterday was our two year anniversary of our lockdown. And it’s hard to believe what’s happened to the time. And our students have been given the choice to take their masks off or to keep them on. And it’s been very emotional because we are seeing people in the hallways whose faces we haven’t seen in months. And I spoke to one student who kept her mask on and I said, “I’m curious as to why you decided to keep your mask on.” And she said, “I like to be able to stare into people’s souls.”
Steve: 04:18 It’s interesting – my my wife landed in her new school with the pandemic. So this week they’re in the same spot, they just dropped the mask requirement. So she’s seeing students that she’s actually never seen their faces and trying to see whether she recognizes them without the mask
Stephen: 04:38 It’s been really remarkable. Like almost every other school, and we’re a small school, so we’re able to manage it probably a lot easier than maybe some very large schools that had a lot of moving parts, but for us, we reacted like just about everybody else. We had lots of very long meetings about logistics and putting lines in hallways and rearranging the cafeterias and the classrooms and all the health kits and the thermometers and it was a lot of logistics and operational decisions. And we basically went into lockdown for several months, like everyone else, but we were fortunate to have to only spend a few months in full lockdown and then we went into a hybrid model for the entire year last year, which was two days on two days off, switching up the middle school and high school and we managed to do okay. And then this year we did full in person with measures in place, and we just managed around the people that had to be quarantined and and so on. So we adapted it, we revised like just about everybody else did.
Steve: 05:40 So talk a little bit out the statement that you made of school as a treadmill and where that metaphor comes from and how you see it
Stephen: 05:52 The first thing I think about the treadmill, because I had to spend quite a bit of time on one, trying to keep myself in
shape during the quarantine is that, you never catch up. You never catch up when you’re on the treadmill. You, you can press that button faster or slower.
Stephen: 06:10 You know, I think it’s that famous intro – I think it’s the Jetsons.
Steve: 06:16 When she’s walking the dog.
Stephen: 06:23 You know, that’s how I feel. And I really, one of the first presentations I gave to the students is when in the dark days of shutting down is that this is an opportunity for us as a school. It’s not something to feel terrible about. And so if we’re gonna try to catch up on a treadmill that we’re never gonna catch up on, then I share your frustration because we’re not gonna catch up. We have to look forward and we have to make adjustments for people that really need help and missed out on a lot of things. But the treadmill is just something that – there are things and learning loss and gaps and things that you’re just simply gonna have to move forward and not backwards, or you’re never gonna catch up. And as you send an introduction, it’s just gonna create a lot more stress and anxiety on everybody.
Steve: 07:09 I ended up working with one school that was school district in the states that was closed for eightteen months. So their students went a year and a half without being able to be actually within the buildings. And then the first time that they got to open up was for a six week summer school session. And so I had a chance to to work a little bit with the staff before they opened. And that’s when that really caught up with me that I needed teachers to be looking long-term. So if you’re gonna see kids for six weeks this summer, what would you do with kids for six weeks this summer that is likely to have an impact on their life 10 years from now? And my guess is, it’s not got a whole lot to do with the math lessons that they missed or, you know, the content that they didn’t get. And I’m not saying at all that that’s not important. It’s got it’s place here, but it’s gotta be weiged and measured in the bigger picture and my fear is people are go going back to some short-term measure.
Stephen: 08:22 Yeah. Well, if you’ve got six weeks that we have to reorient them with the joy of learning and creativity and the things that give them confidence as learners, I’ve seen such a huge loss of confidence in things like working together with other people or providing a performance. People are so used to working in isolation that they’re losing their grip on how to work together. You know, just a couple of days ago, I tried to organize a celebratory assembly, a big accomplishment that we had in the school and people literally didn’t know how to get together and celebrate. They didn’t know how to cheer, they didn’t know how to line up, they didn’t know how many people should be in the room. And we’ve lost the plot on so many things. Just the simple habits of mind, of being confident in your own creative process and having an open mind to new ideas and being imaginative. I think those are the basic principles that I see that have really have really diminished a lot more than how many units of math or history that you missed out on.
Steve: 09:30 Do you think those same things impacted staff at some level?
Stephen: 09:35 Very much so.
Steve: 09:37 Efficacy and agency?
Stephen: 09:38 Yeah, I think a lot more than, than we realize. We have collaboration periods built into the school day and we’ve had a lot of opportunities for people to work together, but that’s been lost for a long period of time. People have gone into their own shells, and they’re just literally trying to design what a virtual lesson looks like, how to work with the kids now that we’re doing this thing called high flex, where you have students in front of you and students at home, and they’re just trying to get through the day. They’re just trying to deliver a product, let alone be able to think for a minute on what they’re trying to achieve. So I definitely see that. I’ve seen there’s been a lot of trauma in people’s personal lives as well, and it’s impacted their professional lives and that’s really been something that’s impacted us as a school.
Steve: 10:29 So I love the phrase that you use about focus on people not on subjects. And I’m wondering if you could expand a little bit if you walked around your school or somebody else’s school and that was in play, that people were more focused on people than on subjects, what is it that I might see or hear in in that kind of an environment?
Stephen: 10:56 So a couple of the things that came out of this experience over the past year and a half is a realization that we were working in isolation and that people were not developing or designing a greater experience of learning that went beyond what they were just trying to do in 45 minutes or an hour in their classroom. So, one example that came out of this and that you would see that we’ve been working on during the pandemic for example, was that our outdoor education classes could take a virtual day when all the kids were at home and take students out of their house and go do something for an entire day because everybody was at home, they’re just taking the outdoor ed kids and they’re doing something exciting. And what was amazing is that we didn’t have to fill out a thousand field trip forms.
Stephen: 11:50 It was the easiest thing we ever organized. We just said, well, all these kids are sitting at home, so let’s take them
outdoors. And it’s things like that, tha we focused on those people and not how we’re gonna make the virtual learning environment better. And it was probably one of the best things that we did last year.
Steve: 12:14 Let me try to check on something as I listen to that. As a staff, everybody agreed that that was important. I think you were starting to describe when the things that didn’t happen, there wasn’t complaints of what kids were missing when they were part of the trip, which I know definitely in an upper school – I mean, I’ve heard it, “do you believe she took them to that museum and they missed my physics class?”
Stephen: 12:45 That’s right. That’s right.
Steve: 12:47 But there was a focus on everybody realized the kids needed that virtual trip.
Stephen: 12:51 Absolutely.
Steve: 12:52 And therefore we came together to make it happen.
Stephen: 12:57 Yeah, absolutely. That’s right. Another thing that you will see that we’re actually actively working on is that the intensity of the diploma program, we have the IB diploma program and what it really did is it really gave us very clear evidence to the students that needed a different learning journey and different learning path. Because if you’re not completely invested in IB diploma, physics, or IB diploma program business management or chemistry, you’re not gonna be able to do it in a virtual environment. And so what this has done is this provided us in our opportunity to really design and look at a different, in a very robust and meaningful learning experience for students for whom that academic framework is just not something that is gonna give them a path for success that they want to do. And that really became evident during the pandemic. And so that’s something we’re also also working on.
Steve: 13:56 So focus on people. It’s sounding like it means we have to have doors open for other options.
Stephen: 14:05 Yeah. One of the things that we had to do overnight during the pandemic is we had to redesign our entire timetable because it wasn’t suitable for a pandemic. It was very complex, fast moving, and it just simply wasn’t gonna work in a virtual universe. So we completely changed it into something very simple. And then it made us think about, well, what does this do to our programs and the kind of offerings that we have for students that, that were not invested in what our timetable was giving them. And so that led to another thing. And now we’re having conversations around how we redesign time, but how we redesign experience.
Steve: 14:41 It sounds like you learned you can do it.
Stephen: 14:44 Yes.
Steve: 14:46 That’s what the crisis in some ways created.
Stephen: 14:50 That’s right. That’s right.
Steve: 14:52 We learned that we can make that happen.
Stephen: 14:55 Yep.
Steve: 14:56 It’s very interesting. I have a granddaughter who’s finishing middle school and headed into high school in the fall and where, where she where she lives, they have two different high schools in the district that run different programs so the kids get to to select, but then they they also have the option of picking a program in another neighboring school district if her district doesn’t have the program and the schools will trade off. And interestingly enough, she came to the conclusion in conversations with her Mom and Dad that she was gonna build her own program rather than get stuck in one, She saw I’m gonna make this decision now going into high school, and then I’m locked into it. And I can take from here and take from there. And I got excited by it that – I can see her having much greater buy-in the more that she decides that she’s built and made choices in her program rather than having to make one selection that locked her in.
Stephen: 16:06 That’s so interesting. And also, the opportunities that this opens up is also thinking about the purpose of a, a teacher and what they do with their expertise during the day. And I interview a lot of people and I talk to them about the things in their CV that look interesting and their experiences and then I stop talking about it when I hire them as a history teacher. All I talk about is their common assessment.
Steve: 16:37 That’s a great example. You almost forget who they are as people.
Stephen: 16:44 You forget about the people. And then when I say something like, you know what, we need an outdoor garden and then I’ll have five people say that they ran this project in their school, they’re an environmentalists, they used to be a professor in ecology and I didn’t even know these things. And I have to remind myself that they’re not subject machines. And when I’m training people, all I think about is you need to be trained in the new chemistry curriculum. You need to be trained in differentiation of something. And I just keep forgetting the talents and the imagination and the creativity and the different experiences these people offer. And that has really been exacerbated by this time that we’ve been in isolation.
Steve: 17:29 Powerful. Powerful. Well Stephen, I’m wondering if you’ve got some thoughts on ideas for school leaders to look at how they how they build that focus on people. I’m thinking teachers and students, and I think I’m also seeing parents kind of linking in my mind too.
Stephen: 17:50 Yeah. Parents are a big piece. I mean, it’s very difficult to say that when we talk about educating our parents, it makes everybody’s shoulder sag, because it feels like another giant enterprise, but it doesn’t have to be so much professional development for parents as it is celebrating and building opportunities for community. It’s very simple. I mean, that’s one thing – I like to think about this time period as like – and I’m gonna sound really old right now, but we picked up the needle off the record player, and now we’re just putting it back down. And I don’t want to think about it like that, because that means we’re just going to the way things were before. But one of the things we do need to go back to the way things were before is pulling the community in and celebrating with them and showing them the great stuff that that we’re doing.
Stephen: 18:40 And that sounds like a very like a very simple thing. The thing that we’re also looking at is how we use time. You know, one of the things for administrators and school leaders, it’s very simple to flip back to the way things were and just pretend that the last two years didn’t happen. But there’s such a great opportunity to redesign how we use time and what we do when people get together. For example, if I have five classes running at the same time, and they’re all different subjects, do they all need to be teaching separately or is there something that we can do to pull them together and do something unique and different? And those are the opportunities that we’re looking at instead of just time tabling like we always did and make sure the music didn’t have a conflict with PE and then we’re back to the same blocks that we had before. And so, I would say really thinking about the use of time and what people are together when, and then as I mentioned earlier, the types of PD that can be offered around wellness and around supporting people and not just the mechanics of teaching.
Steve: 19:46 Just a a response on the time one, I worked with quite a few high school when they were all experimenting with different schedules. So I was always being asked the question, what’s the best schedule. And my answer always came down to, if the learning opportunity is driving the schedule, you’ve got the best schedule. If the schedule’s driving the learning opportunities, you got the wrong schedule. So to focus on people, I think you nailed it. Time has to be one of the elements and time has to become the flexible element, not the fixed element, if your focus is on people.
Stephen: 20:33 I’d be curious to see what’s gonna happen to the wellness initiatives, because that became a real focus and a real interest and I feel that it was somewhat ill defined. It was all things to all people. And now that we’re getting back to the busy work of schooling and everybody coming back together, and it’s gonna get really busy again in an person environment, I’m really hoping that the foundation of a wellness program, whatever it means in whatever school is preserved and not just something that is a nuce to have instead of a need to have.
Steve: 21:08 I think you just laid out an assignment for yourself. .
Steve: 21:11 And I’ll tell you what hits me first is, you’re gonna have to get your staff to define what wellness is for them just the way they need to get the kids to define what wellness is. I mean in too many cases, we tried to come up with a wellness program that was designed – again, it’s gonna come back to your statement. We designed the program without the people. And then we brought the program to the people versus really digging into the people and the people have gotta figure out what wellness is for them. And then as leaders, we have to find ways to make it happen.
Stephen: 21:49 Thank you for putting my assignment into context.
Steve: 21:54 t’s a tough one. And just as tough for you, the administrator looking at that with staff as it is for the staff, because it’s one thing to say, focus on the people, focus the students, but we’re gonna have all those subject things hanging over us. So there’s no there’s no easy decision, but how do you make that decision with the students becomes critical.
Stephen: 22:23 Yeah.
Steve: 22:24 Well, Stephen, I appreciate the the time you gave us here. I’m wondering, are you okay if we get an email from you that listeners
could touch base with you if they’d like?
Stephen: 22:38 Yeah, sure. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steve: 22:50 Alright. We’ll be sure to stick that in the lead-in to the podcast.
Stephen: 22:53 Sure.
Steve: 22:54 Thank thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.
Stephen: 22:56 Yeah, it was a pleasure. Thanks.
Steve [Outro]: 22:59 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.