Slow Is Smooth and Smooth is Fast: A Case for Taking Time to Do the Deep Work of DEIJ

Slow Is Smooth and Smooth is Fast: A Case for Taking Time to Do the Deep Work of DEIJ

Kyra Kellawan
Futures Lead at The British School of Barcelona & CoFounder, Kokoro Careers


A little over a month ago now, on a breezy Friday and gloriously sunny and warm Saturday in mid-October, the expansive, leafy campus of the Ecole Internationale de Genève was stirred up by the particular and palpable buzz of heightened conversation in its purpose-built arts centre.

The excitement and energy was due to an historic event hosted by Ecolint, the first of its kind, gathering a group of some 130 teachers, leaders, activists and partners in solidarity to learn, heal and make deep commitments to addressing inequities in international education. The International School Anti-Discrimination Taskforce (ISADTF) had been born.

The shared mission of this taskforce is “for international schools to be truly diverse, inclusive, safe, equitable and welcoming for all students, staff and families by promoting practices that eliminate racism, implicit bias and discrimination of all kinds.”[1]  The organisations who jointly formed the task force, and are leading the charge are ECIS, Ecolint, The International Baccalaureate, and the Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color (AIELOC).

This mission, vast in its scope, gives many international school educators hope. Hope that it is possible to leave the age of discrimination behind and co-create more equitable structures in a sector that was inherently founded by, and built to sustain privilege. Hope that many more want to be able to see and address the particular needs of every child, staff member and auxiliary staff member. Hope that we can all stop, take a pause, and re-learn about ourselves and others, in order to remake the world in a way that feels aligned with our own humanity.

Here are some deeper reflections, 45 days on, that have allowed me to digest and interpret what we heard, learned, saw and felt, as well as its practical applications moving forward (in no particular order):


Allowing Difficulty In

Allowing for connection was the first step. Allowing whatever emotions arose to bubble up was necessary, and not neglecting to listen but also really HEAR the diverse perspectives in the room.

It’s important to feel our own reactions and inner turmoil before responding. There were without a doubt difficult conversations and things that were hard for some participants to share, others that were hard for participants to hear or confront about themselves. The main way to move forward after unearthing any uncomfortable conflicts as evidenced by conflict resolution manual The Negotiator’s Fieldbook (American Bar Association, 2016)[2] suggests that we can increase our capacity for forgiveness by allowing for the possibility that a counterpart who expresses a seemingly heartfelt apology is capable of personal growth. In other words, leading with a growth mindset for yourself and others enables you to see more than one reality, connect with perceived adversaries, and allows you to move past conflict to action.

Acknowledging that many who deeply supported the mission of the taskforce, or had been instrumental in its formation or execution, were simply unable to attend due to a lack of funding, resources or time “off” from their schools or work schedules. The cost of travel to, and accommodation and even basic subsistence in a city like Geneva did not go unnoticed. This resulted in a commitment being made to share as many materials from the two days online, including commitments and slide decks from the main sessions being made available on an ECIS microsite. Over time these resources will indeed grow. Plans must now be made to involve the global majority, in the southern hemisphere, incorporating events in other time zones and cities. Watch this space.


Dreaming by Design

Slowing right down is when things become interesting. Every single lesson in which you have a reflective moment, the clearer the material is. In a recent podcast episode, Tricia Friedman shared her approach to teaching IB Language & Literature, which was to ask for a “drop everything and read, or drop everything and doodle” moment each lesson. Her insight was that time allows students to relax, slow down and learn better.

This is a concept shared by both Tricia and Kathleen Naglee on the third episode of their “Unhinged Collaboration” podcast.[3] The episode, in which Sherri Spelic also contributes her thoughts on the exceedingly high expectations that educators place on themselves, discussed “Rest is Resistance”, a book by Tricia Hersey, who even has a hotline to promote the healing power of rest. She asserts that rest and reflective practices are a tonic for an exhausted world. A quote from the book that stuck:

“I am inspired by disruption in tenderness, I am inspired by imagination. I am inspired by grief, mourning and lament, I believe deeply in vulnerable, generative spaces for healing. I am inspired by rest, daydreaming and sleep.”[4]

“Radical Dreaming” was a concept mentioned by former AIELOC fellow Rama Ndiaye[5]  many times during the ISADTF, and again, in Nunana Nyomi’s recent two-day Middle Leaders Course on Inspiring and Sustaining DEIJ Breakthroughs.[6]

In order to effect change, we must first pause and dream to design it: rarely do our breakthroughs come in the hustle of 11 hour days filled to the brim with meetings. One of the biggest takeaways for me from Nunana’s course was the visioning of a world that we as session participants actively wanted to contribute to, in which their students were safe, held in utmost care, and seen.

The biggest common denominator we all wrote down was that we would like more time with them, time to talk, discuss and connect.

We can, and must, be part of designing that change. And speaking of design, those of us familiar with Design Thinking principles and applying them in educational settings, á la Jim Ellis, would know what the first crucial step is of designing any new system or product: to empathise with the user (in this case, our students).

Fidelity to the design process of design is akin to the impactful deep work that we find so rare as we seek to methodically plot out real change. Fidelity to the DEI process is fidelity to your community’s voice, it’s committing to your principles, it’s allegiance with your colleagues and it’s the organisational consistency you create space for.


Resolving and Managing Conflicts

On some of the busiest days of the school year, many tensions will arise. Reading this, if you are currently working in a school, think about the last 11 -12 weeks. Have you received an email that made you sigh, groan, or swear under your breath? Have you snapped at, or been snapped at by a colleague? Have you lost your patience with a student? With a roomful of students?

One of our primary principles as educators, just as the hippocratic oath for medical professionals, is to do no harm (Cynthia Roberson reminded us of that in her exemplary session on the second morning of ISADTF)[7]. Can we be sure that we are not suffering ourselves first in the culture of our schools, and then, that we are not passing on that toxicity to the young people in our care, or to our colleagues working with us in the trenches?

As Sherri Spelic has said in many different ways in multiple blogs and podcasts, rest and regeneration actively reminds us that we are worthy of tenderness, worthy of taking care of ourselves, and as caregivers, educators’ own rest and reflection is critical. We have a prevalent hustle culture/grind culture and, as a reality, many of us are trying to just keep our heads above water amidst a raging storm. Add to that challenge the fact that not all of us are strong swimmers, don’t have the capacity to take on the swim, or perhaps were never taught how to swim in the first place.


Slow Down And Reflect


“Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. This adage, attributed to the Navy Seals, reminds us that the best pathway to success is to be measured, deliberate and take time to do fewer things well. This is a mindset adopted in Cal Newport’s book  Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. [8] His first chapter is written in three parts, all of which can be applied to our example of ISADTF.

The first: Deep Work is Valuable. There is no doubt that the aims and objectives of the taskforce are immensely valuable. They have the capacity to impact hundreds of thousands of lives for the better in our international school ecosystem, as well as have lasting effects on the wider world in general as our students take their adaptive, growth mindsets into their next places of study, work and into their interpersonal relationships. The meaning attached to the work for so many of us creates a sense of urgency, as well as frustrations when things don’t seem to be moving along quickly enough. But even for the most hardened activists, we know there is a tipping point when any good innovation or “radical” dream takes hold of the collective consciousness. Making time to make space for all of those on different parts of the inclusion journey to learn with us is going to help us all swim together into a brighter future.

The second: Deep Work is Rare. We know this to be true by the number of minutes we devote to it in our daily lives. Unless time is consciously created and lines redrawn around our pressing priorities, the time to reflect in a typical school day is nonexistent. This gives inherent value to the ideas and solutions created consciously, without distraction. The power of an event such as the ISADTF was that for two days, participants could close their school email for a bit and step outside of the usual concerns of their own settings to connect more deeply with each other. Events like ISADTF are powerful tools for change, and we need more, more inclusive ones, held in more inclusive settings, and in multiple time zones with sliding attendance costs and/or fully funded places. (There is no but here. This work is never binary.)

Third: Deep Work is Meaningful. In the first days after the event, as there was a steady stream of online posts, tweets, and podcasts documenting reactions, commitments and questioning or holding to account of the organisations involved, I knew we would need to hold tight and see what came out of the shakedown. Large, established organisations tend to move at more glacial speeds than individuals do, and although of course as participants and DEI activists we want to see immediate changes, commitments and statements enacted, the real work does not begin *at* the event.

The real work begins with the reflection and time that each participant at that event has to assess their own practice, and then the will and the drive to drive those practices within their own settings. There is a decided trend for PD in DEI work to take a longer view, with most schools and leaders eschewing the “one and done” or “spray and pray” approach to professional learning. An excellent example of truly integrated visioning can be found in the approach of benchmark-setting schools showing excellence in embedding DEI practices into their everyday.

Some notable examples include: the curriculum review and training offered to staff at Mulgrave School, the staff recruitment practices at UNIS Hanoi, and the excellent, multi-faceted commitments made to self-study at Atlanta International School, who have clearly made long-term commitments to this work that go far beyond self-congratulatory statements or press releases into showing the receipts of their collective learning, team-building and toil.

I come back to the Navy Seals. The ship we are all on will run more smoothly, and is less in danger of capsizing, if we can take time to ensure that first: all our crewmates in DEI work (i.e. our entire school communities) can “swim”, are proficient in resolving differences of opinion, and have made the commitment to themselves to rest, learn and connect. Coming back to the premise of deep work, instead of conceiving DEI as yet another thing to tick off, is going to be key to its sustainability and interconnectedness despite our busy school lives.

This winter break, I remain buoyed and hopeful that in our learning communities, we will commit to stop, take a pause, and re-learn about ourselves and others, in order to include everyone on the journey.

A special thanks to ODIS (@decolonise_intl) whose courage at the ISADTF showed us all the power of speaking truth (even when to the biggest organisations) is something we can all do, with fierce grace.


Some “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” upcoming learning and training opportunities for deeper work:


Doline Ndorimana’s DEIJ Circle for International School Leaders

IDEIJ Continuum Learning PD Series (various facilitators)

The Longer Read: Becoming A Totally Inclusive School: A Guide for Teachers and School Leaders

The Short-Form, Wide-Ranging Podcast: The Unhinged Collaboration



[1] ECIS Taskforce homepage

[2] Conflict Resolution

[3] Unhinged Collaboration

[4] NPR: Why rest is an act of resistance

[5] AIELOC: We just want to be teachers

[6] DEIJ Breakthroughs

[7] Cynthia Roberson presentation @ ISADTF

[8] Book: Deep Work



Kyra Kellawan is the Co-Founder of Kokoro Careers, a holistic career support service for people of all ages to find their ideal pathways that works in collaboration with industry experts.A third culture kid, she began her career in international education in 2006. She worked in international student recruitment before switching to to the “other side of the desk’ in future pathways counselling.

Her roles at the Lycée Français in New York, United World College Costa Rica, Aloha College and the British School of Barcelona have given her a unique dual perspective on international education with a DEIJ lens. She also consults for universities, schools and ed-tech organisations, and hosts a podcast on innovation in education, The PilotEd.

Escaping our confines of fear: a call to develop courageous learning communities

Escaping our confines of fear: a call to develop courageous learning communities

Nunana Nyomi

“I’ve been worryin’ that we all live our lives in the confines of fear”, the refrain of Ben Howard’s song,
The Fear, kept insistently echoing in my ear. As the song played, I had to put it on repeat as I reflected on the fears I see on display when attempting to further diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) efforts within my profession of international education. Often these fears are expressed in the form of questions. “What if the students say something controversial?”, “What if our institution goes viral on social media?”, “What if we offend an influential parent?”, “What if we fail?”, “What if…”.

These ‘what ifs’ have become like walls, fencing us in and paralysing us in the face of our responsibility to develop equitable and inclusive communities.

Psychologists say we experience fear in order to protect ourselves from threats. Does this accurately describe the fear that my colleagues and I are experiencing? If so, then we have to take a critical look at ourselves and what we view as threats. If DEIJ efforts are meant to create environments where all can thrive as their full selves, then why do we find it so hard to act? Why do we feel threatened? Perhaps we know, deep down, that taking action requires us to hold ourselves accountable for our part in perpetuating and benefiting from inequities in our communities. Perhaps we worry that standing up for justice may cost us the relatively modest trappings we have worked so hard to obtain. This zero-sum thinking blinds us from the cost of our inaction.


The cost of our fear


The opportunity cost of maintaining our status quo is a misguided generation of students within our care. According to ISC Research, our international schools now serve a much more diverse population than the Western expatriates many were originally designed to serve. However, our curricula are still largely dominated by eurocentrist perspectives, our teachers and leaders are mostly white and western, and many of our schools still serve a narrow group of wealthy elites. Yet, many of our mission statements proudly proclaim that we are developing internationally-minded global citizens. Our empty statements and shallow focus on food, flags, and festivals, are not enough to prepare our students to engage with our dynamic world.

We have a tremendous responsibility to get past our inhibitions and act now. All we have to do is watch our daily news headlines to notice the growing trend that we live in an increasingly polarized world which is facing looming existential threats. Climate change, military conflicts, and the resulting mass migration which we are already witnessing are all potential harbingers of what is to come. Furthermore, some in our care face daily abuse and discrimination due to their race, sexuality, ability, and other forms of identity. We fail our most vulnerable students and staff when we remain too afraid to explicitly address the harm they experience. Given the urgency of our challenges, we must ensure that this generation of students can feel seen and can develop the agency necessary to bridge differences in order to address our world’s problems. How might we break out of our fearful funk to create more inclusive and equitable communities to address these challenges?

My quest for strategies to address our fear-based crisis of inaction led me to borrow from the field of psychology, where strategies abound to help individuals overcome emotions of fear. While the semantics might be different, there are many DEIJ strategies that are very similar in approach to the world of psychology. Therefore, psychology provides another potential access point for DEIJ concepts. Just as there has been greater acceptance of therapy as important for wellbeing, I believe we are in need of therapeutic approaches to transform ourselves and our communities to become places of flourishing. In my own exploration, I came across two of these strategies which can be adapted to our contexts as international educators: cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.


Borrowing from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)


CBT was developed to help individuals conquer unhelpful ways of thinking that can lead to psychological distress. One of the CBT strategies is to address the underlying beliefs that impact the emotional responses we have. Often, the cause of our fears can be found in irrational beliefs or expectations of ourselves. For example, in our largely white-western educational cultures, perfectionism has become an intoxicating drug. We are always striving to do more, be better, and push ourselves to never fail, because we have been socialised to falsely accept flawless performance as the standard. Whether it is perfectionism, eurocentrism, ableist thinking, heteronormativity, or something else that afflicts us, we have to be introspective about the beliefs that underpin our unwillingness to take action.

CBT can interrupt the negative spirals of ‘what if’ thinking that often halts DEIJ work. This therapy invites us to challenge our idiosyncratic beliefs by teaching us that we are worthy of self-acceptance when we struggle or make mistakes; that others are worthy of acceptance even when they behave differently to what we may expect; and that sometimes life has challenges but that does not mean that we are facing utter disaster. This shift away from perfectionism and other irrational beliefs makes room for the diverse perspectives that we find in our international communities. Thus, allowing us to build up the courage we need to truly give voice to the voiceless, even if it may mean opening ourselves up to criticism. From this courageous stance, free from irrational beliefs, we can make positive changes towards equity and inclusion.


Exposure Therapy Strategies


As the name suggests, exposure therapy aims to desensitise individuals from their fears by having them confront them in a safe environment. This can be done through a variety of methods from having individuals use their imagination, using virtual reality, or using live confrontation. Admittedly, exposure therapy is not without its critics. It could potentially induce more anxiety or trauma to expose an individual to their fears. However, when it comes to nurturing a diverse, equitable, and inclusive international education community, it is vital that we expose ourselves to individuals and perspectives which we may fear. How often do we cultivate friendships with those from different races, nationalities, abilities, religions, gender identities, or sexual orientations to ourselves? How much literature do we read from non-dominant perspectives? Do we ever make an effort to de-centre ourselves and listen to those who are traditionally unheard in our communities? We cannot do equity and inclusion work if we are not reaching out to form these relationships or hear their perspectives.

Now, before everyone rushes off to find that one BIPOC friend or attend that one cultural festival, I must clarify that we should not fall into the superficial and tokenising equity traps. Rather, I am suggesting that we must engage in deep and meaningful work to embed and centre a broader range of perspectives in our communities. As educators, beyond forming friendships across differences, this means learning to employ culturally relevant pedagogy strategies and consistently immersing ourselves in literature to enrich our understanding of student experiences such as Dr. Danau Tanu’s Growing Up in Transit. We need to truly expose ourselves to difference in order to overcome the fears that paralyse us.


The choice we have to make


While CBT and exposure therapies tend to be applied to individuals, I would argue that our learning organisations are in need of collective therapy. Just as with any other therapy, this will take more than a one-time workshop to address. Our institutions and their leaders must ensure that adequate time and resources are provided to move past our fearful inertia. We must commit to and invest in advancing DEIJ initiatives so that everyone feels a true sense of belonging at our institutions.

Strategies which root out our fears are essential for us to make progress in disrupting the status quo in the manner that DEIJ work requires. After all, we are collections of individuals with anxieties and fears, these fears creep into our decision-making. As we mould the next generation to tackle the urgent problems we see in our world, and as we aim to protect the most marginalised individuals in our community, we cannot afford to let our fears paralyse us into inaction. Are we prepared to work on ourselves and our institutions to break through our fears in order to build a more equitable world, or are we prepared to inherit a more polarised and inequitable world? Let’s be courageous and choose the former.

“…I will become what I deserve…” Ben Howard’s voice echoes repeatedly as the bridge of the song The Fear builds to a crescendo. When it comes to DEIJ, if we continue to live our lives in the confines of fear, we will only have ourselves to blame for what our institutions will become in the face of the challenges that face us.




Nunana Nyomi is the University Advisor and DEIJ Coordinator at Leysin American School, Switzerland. Nunana is passionate about developing communities where everyone can thrive as their full selves and helping students find career pathways which allow them to fulfill their potential. Nunana currently serves as University Advisor and DEIJ Coordinator at Leysin American School (LAS) in Switzerland.

Prior to joining LAS, Nunana was based in the Netherlands as Associate Director of Higher Education Services for the Council of International Schools (CIS) and provided programs to support student transitions from school to university education. Additionally, Nunana served on the CIS Global Citizenship Team and on a special CIS Board Committee on Inclusion through Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism (I-DEA). He also previously led international student admissions for Calvin University in the U.S. Nunana is a Third-Culture Kid who grew up in the U.S., Ghana, Kenya, Switzerland, and the U.K. He has a BA in International Relations and French (Calvin University) and a MA in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (Michigan State University).


Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Simon O’Connor
Director, Deira International School

With the benefit of hindsight, moving to lead a new school in the middle of a pandemic may not have been best timing. However, when I did, I was very conscious of the fact that many successful school leaders fail in their second position as a result of repeating the measures that they had introduced in their first schools. The school had led for the seven years prior this had enjoyed enormous success, but I was mindful I needed to adapt my leadership to the context to which I was moving.


I suspect my background in teaching is a very common one. I moved from teacher to through a series of middle and senior leadership positions until I was a deputy head. When I first became a school principal, I focused on what I knew, namely the processes and strategies which I’d seen to be effective. This included focus on teaching and learning, parental engagement strategies, quality assurance procedures as well as assessment routines and so forth. But looking back it is now clear that, whilst these were incredibly successful, to a large extent they were all individual strategies and instruments, rather than holistic approach.


During that first term, with new learning protocols in place and start offering both on site learning and distance learning, the focus became staff wellbeing. Teachers across the world were being asked to teach in a totally new way, using unfamiliar technology, yet being asked to perform at previous levels of success. As a school we recognised that if this was going to be sustainable (and there was significant doubt about this) we needed to ensure staff were properly supported in this new context. Very rapidly, this focus extended to looking at the culture of the school. As well as placing well-being strategies in place we wanted to identify how the school could be led from an holistic perspective.


Over the last 18 months this has become an increasing topic of fascination. There is significant writing on the impact of organisational culture within a school and, whilst there is inevitable disagreement about many aspects of this, that this is a powerful force for school improvement is rarely challenged.


Peter Drucker made the observation that ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Furthermore, one of the key authors on organizational culture, Edgar Schein wrote ‘the only thing of real importance that leaders need to do is to create and manage culture if you do not manage culture, it manages you.  … The unique talent of leaders is their ability to understand and work with culture; and that it is an act of leadership to destroy culture when it is valid viewed as dysfunctional’ Toby Greany and ‎Peter Earley even went as far as warning: ‘To neglect a considered and structured response to culture is perilous to the point of being foolhardy’. In a school context, with the enormous array of responsibilities within the headteacher’s job description, it would seem something of a challenging statement that their only real responsibility is to manage the culture of the school.


Furthermore, to accept this there needs to be an understanding of what is meant by the term culture. Again, previous authors provide a number of answers. ‘Culture is the values, norms, beliefs and customs that an individual holds in common with members of their group’. Or that ‘Culture is to the organisation what personality is to the individual – a hidden yet unifying theme that provides meaning, direction and mobilization.’ Certainly, one of the challenges of dealing with organisational culture is that it is difficult to precisely measure, but when one considers it in terms of both values and personality, I believe it potential power becomes clearer.


Culture is also recognized to exist in an organisation at various levels. Edward Hall referenced this as a Cultural Iceberg.



At its most obvious and visible, culture manifests in the behaviours and practices that exist across an organisation. Within a school context this can be the more obvious elements such as school events, policies, calendar of events but also lies in the less formal practices. For example, it could be in the way in which members of the SLT interact with staff. Are they visible around the school? Do they have open door policies in terms of meeting with staff students and parents? How transparent are the school policies?


Beneath this lie the less tangible elements which underpin the observable behaviours. This could include the vision and mission statements of the school. It also includes the assumptions upon which these statements have been made. For example does the school value inclusion, equity and diversity? Is the school selective or non-selective? Does the school exist as a for profit organization or not for profit? These values, and the extent to which they are prioritised will inevitably impact the behaviours which go to make the culture visible to others. In addition, if an organization’s culture is to be managed then, if it is to be embedded, then these elements must be identified and considered if to be successful.


Drucker’s suggestion is that management of organisational culture is more impactful that any strategic interventions. This has certainly been our experience over the last two years. In the second article I will outline how and why the ideas of an author on business practice has been interpreted to work within a school context.



Simon O’Connor is the Director of Deira International School with oversight over both the primary and secondary schools. Simon is also Chief of Education for the the Al Futtaim Education Foundation, working across their portfolio of schools. Simon has over 25 years of experience in education and joined DIS in August of 2020. Prior to this he was Principal of Jumeirah College, an outstanding school in Dubai, since 2013.

Simon is passionate about learning and ensuring all students are challenged in lessons for them to achieve their full potential. He strongly believes that if this is to be achieved students should be happy at school, and therefore the wellbeing of community must be a key focus for all. He is also very interested in school leadership and is currently studying for Doctorate with the University of Buckingham, researching the impact of a focus on organisational culture in international schools.

Prior to moving to the UAE, Simon taught History and Politics for over 20 years in a variety of different school contexts. In his last role in the UK, Simon worked as a school leader in a very successful grammar school in Kent. His role there was curriculum lead and was also responsible for the management of a teaching school and working across an academy chain of schools which he helped to found.

As a student Simon studied for a BA in History and Philosophy at the University of Wales, College of Cardiff where he was a choral scholar at Llandaff Cathedral. He then studied for a PGCE at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was also a choral scholar. Simon also holds a Master’s Degree in Education Leadership, and a National Professional Qualification for Headship.









Self-Organised PD, Anywhere, Anytime: Uplift!

Self-Organised PD, Anywhere, Anytime: Uplift!

Jennifer Carlson & Paul Magnuson




We are two educators at two different institutions on two continents with the same interest: Uplift. To learn how other educators define, think about, experience, and practice Uplift, we invited other educators, and created a platform to share our perceptions, perspectives, and experiences. We had no specific plan for what we would share, or how. We simply wanted to talk about and learn more about Uplift.

This self-organised experience resulted in two learnings: (1) reactions to the topic of Uplift and (2) the process.


Literature Review


Educators who engage in rich conversations about critical moments in their teaching, the human condition, perceptions of who they are as teachers, and through sharing stories, grow as professionals and can subsequently transform their teaching (Palmer, 1993). Palmer reminds us that good teachers “are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (p. 11).

In weaving that world, we looked to Uplift; which is defined as “work rooted in caring, empowerment, and advocacy” (Bracho, 2020, p. 13), positive experiences (Neils, et al, 2018), and “real-world” uplifting experiences (e.g., enjoying a hobby, receiving positive feedback, or having a pleasant social interaction)” (Starr & Hershenberg, 2017, p. 1443). We began to reflect, consider, converse, and analyze Uplift and its benefit in teaching and learning.

Bill Tihen initially introduced Uplift at Leysin American School as a principle of good teaching (see e.g. Tihen, Uplift Resources, at We fused Bill’s philosophy with a focus on learner strengths, encouraging discovery, and developing a hopeful and person-focused humankind. We began to wonder “How do other educators from around the world define and view Uplift?”


Our Process


We sought to find out by contacting a half dozen educators, from Malaysia to Minnesota, who agreed to contribute to the discussion using WhatsApp, one of the free messenger applications that work across continents to send text messages and media, like photos, videos, and audio. The participants were educators, including current and former teachers, student teachers, educational consultants, and university professors.

The WhatsApp group provided a space for self-organized, open-ended discussion and idea exchange on a single topic, Uplift. In addition to the WhatsApp discussion, the group agreed to meet on Zoom on three Saturdays, every other week, for approximately one hour. Not everyone who participated was able to be at every Zoom. Some contributed frequently to the WhatsApp discussions and Zoom meetings, others much less.

The first Zoom focused on personal definitions of Uplift and what it might look like, sound like, and feel like in teaching and learning. Then, in the two subsequent weeks, participants used WhatsApp to (1) share moments of Uplift in our teaching and work roles and (2) reflect on Uplift in learning. After two weeks, we met via Zoom to talk about our experiences, then spent two more weeks on WhatsApp before finishing with a final Zoom. Four weeks, one topic. Self-organized, free, and entirely voluntary.


What we learned


As participant observers, it became clear to us that our self-organized professional exchange was both rich on the topic of Uplift and rich in Uplift.


The topic of Uplift


Heath (2019) shares that “Moments are what we remember and what we cherish. Certainly, we might celebrate achieving a goal…but the achievement is embedded in a moment” (p. 18). Moments in time were shared daily throughout the month-long WhatsApp conversations. Participants uploaded photos, described events, shared resources, stories, and moments where they witnessed, experienced, or created Uplift.

Some sharings of Uplift were in-the-moment. For example, one member posted a photo of a creek and rock bed they experienced while on a hike and another shared a photo of their smiling students proudly holding artwork they had just completed.

Other sharings were peak moments in teaching, like in an engineering class where the students collaborated and developed curiosity, problem-solving skills, and creative thinking to construct a boat. Another connected with a student that was new to the school over strawberries. Both teachers were Uplifted, hopefully, the students experienced Uplift, too.

We discovered that simply creating the space and opportunity to converse about Uplift resulted in the sharing of many lived experiences. This process, largely free of constraints of time, space, or directive, was Uplifting in itself.




We organized the process by identifying participants, making the two platforms accessible (WhatsApp and Zoom), determining the topic, and arranging for meeting times; however, the participation and engagement within that structure were entirely self-organized.

Participants could post on WhatsApp anywhere and at any time. They could choose to attend the Zoom, invest in the time, be present, or not. The self-organized discussions resulted in an authentic and spontaneous interaction where posts and responses arose naturally through connections, experiences, and inspirations.

Participants expressed that they made connections, gained confidence, had the freedom to explore ideas, and felt Uplifted throughout the process. One participant expressed, “I now see Uplift everywhere!”


How to do it


As we discovered, exploring ideas, exchanging resources, and learning from each other need not be complicated. Self-organized professional development can be accessible, engaging, enriching, and Uplifting without being overly structured and time consuming.

We encourage a simple start. Reach out to other professionals or friends in or outside of your network, select and make available a platform for discussion, and choose a topic or allow the topic to authentically develop. And get started!

We are almost a little embarrassed about how easy the process is. Get a group together on WhatsApp and share lived experiences on a topic you have chosen. We are almost afraid that educators and schools that could benefit from such an easy method of PD will ignore it, or brush it aside, because it is not complicated enough!

Further, we can imagine criticism that it is not clear what participants get out of the experience. Yet, we know that informal water cooler chats, those conversations in the staff room, contribute to our learning, and to our professional development. So, too, can this process. We encourage removing the constraints and opening the door for self-organized professional development. There is little reason to increase the complexity, just to make it appear more important. KISS, as they say. Keep It Simple, Silly.




Two educators, one big idea (thanks Bill!), and many colleagues created an Uplifting experience of learning, appreciation, application, and growth. As one participant shared, “Education gets stuck in correctness and correction instead of exploring ideas, goals, pros, and cons building on what the students have to offer” (WhatsApp, April 26). A self-organized professional development experience, where the participants are both the teacher and the student, invites discovery, curiosity, and connection. It provides space and time for exploration, personal and professional growth, and, as we uncovered, a great deal of Uplift.


Related blog


Low Stakes, Easy Entry, Effective PD


Contact information


Jennifer Carlson, Ph.D. Hamline University,

Paul Magnuson, Ph.D. Leysin American School, Copperfield International School, and Moreland University,




Bouhnik, D., & Deshen, M. (2014). WhatsApp goes to school: Mobile instant messaging between teachers and students. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research, 13, 217-231.

Bracho, C. (2020). Reclaiming uplift caring for teacher candidates during the Covid-19 crisis. Issues in Teacher Education. 12-22.

Brookfield, S. D. 1995. Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2019). The power of moments: why certain experiences have extraordinary impact. Corgi.

Nelis S, Bastin M, Raes F, Bijttebier P. (2018). When do good things lift you up? Dampening, enhancing, and uplifts in relation to depressive and anhedonic symptoms in early adolescence. Journal of Youth Adolescents. Aug 47(8):1712-1730. doi: 10.1007/s10964-018-0880-z. Epub 2018 Jun 20. PMID: 29926335.

Palmer, P. J. (2017). The courage to teach (20th ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P. J. (1993). Good talk about good teaching – Improving teaching through conversation and community. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. 25 (6): 8–13. doi:10.1080/00091383.1993.9938466.

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age.

Starr, L. R., & Hershenberg, R. (2017). Depressive symptoms and the anticipation and experience of uplifting events in everyday life. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73(10), 1442–1461.



Jennifer Carlson researches literacy, online learning, and positivity, joy and Uplift in education. She is a professor in the School of Education and Leadership at Hamline University, Minnesota, USA.

Paul Magnuson continues to experiment in professional learning at Leysin American School and at Copperfield International School, Verbier. He is an instructor at Moreland University and a frequent blogger for The International Educator.

Insightful Stories: Call and Chaos

Insightful Stories: Call and Chaos

Jill Canillas Daley
PYP LIbrarian, American International School of Lusaka



It’s the noise that makes your blood feel like an ice-laden river. It’s waking up out of a deep sleep at 1 in the morning to turn your buzzing phone over and see you have missed 23 calls and texts from your daughter and 11 from your husband in the course of a half hour. Fear brought me instantly awake knowing I was over 7,000 miles away from the source of those calls.


I grew up and spent 48 years in my small community in the eastern United States. I married a guy I had known and gone to school with since kindergarten, travelled little, and settled down 15 minutes from where I was born. My immediate family and friends all resided in the community around me. When I received an incredible opportunity to teach overseas, I took it with my family’s blessing thinking I would be back in a year. Little did I know, Zambia would pull me away from my hometown and keep my heart. I had heard Africa does that to you.


Image: New Hampshire


The urgency, “PLEASE wake-up,” “Mom, answer your phone,” fed my terror as I desperatly tried to return, my daughter, Es’s calls. It is incredible what the mind interprets and creates from assumptions. I finally got ahold of my husband, Bart,  who said, “Your mom has fallen.” 


My 86 year old mother is one of those small, independent, stubborn, Yankee women who quietly reside in their house by themselves.  My father had passed away over a decade ago forcing my mom to become more self-sufficient. She manages well and is content with the life she had created. She stacks her own wood for the winter, and you better be prepared to face her wrath if you so much as touch a piece to help her.. She is fiercely independent and, of her own volition, gave up her driving license several years ago, but she still keeps the car.


“She’s fine, but call Es, she found her and is with her right now.” My hands trembled as I quickly hung up and dialed our daughter. My mom was ok, but our future care plans for her needed to be rapidly accelerated. 


I am the legal caretaker of my mom. This had been decided long ago and we occasionally visited the topic. It isn’t something people want to discuss but do so out of necessity. We thought the plans in place were solid and sufficient; we were wrong. I call my mom weekly on the phone and chat for an hour or more. Technology evades and frustrates her so the iPad we purchased to connect, sits unused. Our conversations involved the grandchildren, pets, weather, and how we were both doing. Within the last year or so, we began to slowly put plans in place, together, to secure her future. However, we weren’t quite ready for this. It’s amazing how quickly you realize how ill prepared you are despite your best efforts.


Mom had a system for getting around town although she only goes to the grocery or doctor appointments as necessary. She is not a social person and prefers the solitude of her home and the comfort of close family and her pets. The pandemic took its toll and friends, who had randomly dropped in before, had stopped visiting. Isolation became a very real thing for everyone. My husband, and daughter, took turns stopping by once or twice a week to chat and make sure she was ok. We checked in with her several times a week and felt our system was effective. That all changed with one phone call.


We needed to put new systems in place and make more concrete plans to allow her to still be independent and remain in her house. Being 7 hours ahead of the eastern part of the States and continuing to teach in Zambia, made this no small feat for me. I was frantic and  needed advice, support, and agencies to assist. That led to me getting up in the middle of the night to talk to friends who had connections and could share lists of reputable services to advise on the legalities and the next steps to be taken. I took copious notes, wrote lists of things that needed to be done, and tried to figure out what to do next in a timely manner. All of this, combined with my thoughts of guilt, were taking a toll on me. While I had colleagues and friends in my small expat community, I didn’t know where to turn for the support I needed.


I worried that I should go back to the States. I debated with myself over whether or not I was being a “good daughter.” I feared my expat life would be considered selfish. My parents, in my opinion, had raised me well and given me opportunities and support when I needed them. Was I turning my back on my mom to fulfill my needs while ignoring hers? I had accepted the responsibility of being her legal guardian, was I Ietting her down? I know staying in Zambia makes my inner self happy and allows me to be the best person I can be. I also knew going back indicated to everyone that my mom was no longer capable of being on her own. We needed new systems and some time to see if that allowed her to remain at home.


Being a librarian, I turned to my professional skills, I began to collect resources, I wrote emails, talked with my mom and family, and created a document of our actions. I listened to  a podcast and found forums for families that were dealing with ageing parents. I didn’t find anything specific regarding expats but there were plenty of families that lived far from their parents. We began to slowly put plans in place. We outlined the goals, conversations, and schedules we needed at this point. We investigated agencies and networks. I looked into State laws, funding, and our rights.  I found colleagues who were also dealing with ageing parents whose health was failing, and we began to meet during lunch once a week. I heard threads of similarities in their voices and stories.


I began to feel a small amount of control over the situation. In moving to Zambia, I had begun to embrace the philosophy of letting go of the things I have no control and putting energy and perspective into the things I do. My independent strong-willed mom has ideals and wishes. She wants to live her life her way and that needs to be honored.


However, we needed balance and reality and that was the next part of the journey.




The internet is a remarkable and dangerous resource. There is a tidal wave of misinformation that you sift through to obtain the desired treasures. After talking with friends and family back in the States regarding my elderly parent, I learned a lot about what I didn’t know. I needed to look into the laws of my state and look into the resources in my hometown community to see what was available as well as what she was qualified for.


I knew mom needed access to the basic care systems in life. We created a scheduled grocery/shopping plan for her. We looked into a food catering service, which we declined. We had her will written up but hadn’t set up a health directive. Her bills and payments were in the process of being turned over to me. We had been cleaning her house, but she was attached to so many things that it was difficult to remove stuff without protest. We needed a professional cleaning service to come in on a regular basis. She has a lifeline to call but didn’t use it. All of this needed to be addressed with respect and dignity for my mother’s wishes.


This was the beginning of my second post in a series; it had only been written a few months ago, but upon re-reading, it felt like a lifetime away. This piece in the series was outlined to discuss the plans I had in place to assist my mother with independent living. I was satisfied with the things I had accomplished, and yet again, my world came crashing down when mom was admitted to the hospital. Another frantic middle-of-the-night phone call came that blindsided me and made me realize, yet again, how inadequate we were to deal with the unraveling situation.


It was at this point that I began to understand that, unlike many illnesses or injuries that harm your children or partner, aging doesn’t get better or go away. It only progresses at an undetermined speed with twists and turns that change the plot at the drop of a hat. The issues that come with aging can plateau but they don’t resolve. My mother was struggling with poor eyesight, dementia, and something new called cellulitis. The plans I had so confidently made earlier, due to her fall, were now insignificant; this left me feeling defeated, similar to a lesson plan gone wrong during an educator observation.


I made the decision to fly back to my home country.


It was an impulsive decision made by the tendrils of guilt that were wrapping themselves around my conscience. My family was back in the States dealing with this while I, Mom’s caretaker, was 7,000 miles away. My guilt was further embraced with:

“My God, do emergency plane tickets cost this much? Can we afford this?”

“Sub-plans for all my classes, sure, no problem.”

“There is really only a few weeks of school left, can you just wait.” 

The conscience can be an evil thing. 


I got off the plane after a 20+ hour flight that cost almost a month’s salary, and knew there was no time for jetlag. I needed to hit the ground running and utilize what little time I had to get things in order. I was on a tight schedule with an uncompromising deadline.


The list of things to do never ceased nor slowed down. Once I accomplished one thing, another 10 popped up. A phone ring, email, notice, text ding, all were related to the situation, all needed to be dealt with now.  Being an educator was a huge advantage at this point. I had literally spent years juggling plans, being flexible, wearing numerous hats ( referee, nurse, educator, mom etc) and being able to switch tasks without blinking an eye. I was organized, determined, and very good at creating systems; I could do this.


What I didn’t account for was the fact that I was already exhausted. My family was worn, you could see it in their faces as they tried to smile and hide their feelings. Mom was different, she seemed a little more lost and with that, a piece in each of us had tried to excuse that and forge on with hope lurking around the corners. Structure and practicality were great, but ignoring the emotional toll this was imparting was a dangerous game of roulette. We needed clarity and logic.


What did we want? What did she want?


With the elderly, safety is something for you to hold onto. It is not something they hold onto.  I could keep my mother extremely safe by keeping her in the nursing home, but her quality of life would be severely diminished. She didn’t want that and neither did I. While her health was compromised, and she was suffering from dementia, she knew what was occuring. I wanted, above all, for her wishes to be granted, and she wanted to go back home. I made it my mission to make this happen.


I learned about the systems for the elderly in the USA and was disheartened and terrified for her future. Similar to young children, the elderly do not have a voice or choice. Financially it is a nightmare between nursing home fees, uncovered medication, and long term plans. I researched, talked to experts, and crunched numbers for hours. I tried to find ways to get her back home and keep her there. Our roles had reversed, and I was now her advocate where she had been mine for so long.


Sleep was impossible; my mind teemed with questions: 

“What is her financial situation? Can we afford a new clothes dryer for her?”

“Who picks up the trash?”

“Why does she have the best internet plan but is incapable of operating an iPad?”

“An electrician can’t come until when?”

“Certified nursing care? Where do I find that?”


It was an endless cycle and the 2 weeks felt like two years. Never had I experienced such an explosion of tasks and “must-dos” in such a short time. I wondered if this experience would qualify me for a position as a doctor. Is this what their lives are like?



When I flew back to Zambia to finish off the school year, I felt even further behind. How could I accomplish everything for school, my family, and my mother without losing myself in this maelstrom? I am fiercely independent and the thought of leaning on others was foreign. However, I realized I couldn’t do it alone; I leaned into my friends, who were in similar situations, for reassurance, comfort, and sanity.


Wednesday lunch times became a haven for me while I listened to stories similar to mine. I was still working hard at school and with family issues, but my voice was being heard by people who understood my predicament. The guilt was crushing. The questioning non stop.


New plans were put in place. Knowing the value and efficiency of systems and routines, I realized those components were lacking outside the educational profession. I tried to lay out all the possibilities and networked for advice, help, and assistance. I documented everything and asked for input from family members and my mother. I began to sleep a little more and the nagging voice of my conscience quieted as well. I was accomplishing small steps to assist my mom while the school year seemed to be flying by and the end of the year expectations were in front of my eyes laying on my desk waiting to be completed.


I pushed through the school year with the support of my peers. I needed to be able to focus on my family during the holiday and realize I am not the warrior I thought I was.




You can tell. It’s in the eyes. They always look sad, perhaps a bit frightened and maybe even contain a tear or two. It begins with, “Are you ok?” When you explain about your parents, you see the recognition in the eyes. It is always the same and rarely wavers. It is the compassion and understanding of someone who has already gone through this process. They know, they understand, and they empathize with you even if you are not strongly connected to them. 


Hospitals: they can either bring great joy or great sadness. Once again the call came; it is an insidious loop that never changes. Mom was back in the hospital. We had just begun looking for a new home provider as we felt the current person was not meeting her needs. However, our search began too late, and mom was removed to the hospital for another infection.


Finding a home care provider is a tedious process. Finding a home care provider while being thousands of miles away is even more complex. Time was short so we used a private group on social media platform to  advertise our needs. The responses were plenty and some were immediately dismissed due to poor grammar, I am an educator. Sifting through resumes and recommendations was, and is, so time consuming. Since my home town is quite small, I reached out to friends to inquire whether or not they knew the applicants. This narrowed the field further. However, I needed to put the applicants on hold. Mom needed rehabilitation after her hospital stay and the time frame for discharge is unclear.


It’s a juggling act of making a plan and being prepared while the winds of change swirl around every decision you make. The smallest recommendation or decision on funding from a government agency can change your plans in a second. Another pop up infection or fall can be a crippling set back. Putting applicants on hold while you try to gather information and make plans is like nothing I have ever experienced before. 


I was feeling challenged and out of my league. My family was my eyes and ears back in the States. So many challenges, observations, and opinions to weigh. I was swirling. Guilt at making the wrong decision was pounding at the door. This is my mom’s life and betraying her trust in me was always a concept niggling at the corners of my conscience. I needed to talk to people face to face. I needed to see and hear reactions that weren’t on the screen or over the phone. There is something about using technology to communicate that is brilliant and efficient but lifeless and disconnected. I needed to vent with trusted friends in person.


The supportive lunch group I had begun continued to meet. However, as educators, our meetings were disrupted by other plans or obligations. During one of the few meetings we had held this year, I completely vented, sharing my situation, thoughts, and guilt. My friend leaned in attentively, made eye contact, nodded, teared up, and thoroughly listened to every aspect of my tirade. I complained about the healthcare system, finding home care people, and the amount of tasks that I needed to achieve  including house repairs. Interwoven were the threads of grief and sorrow; feeling selfish while realizing that this is the ending of my mom’s life. She recognized this, and I could see the understanding and compassion in her eyes. She inquired if I felt better and, at that moment, I didn’t. My emotions and feelings were too raw and intense, I couldn’t reflect, I was too deep in the moment.


Later on that evening, as I was sitting eating dinner watching the sun go down, I realized what a gift that lunch-time rant had provided. I did feel some small release of guilt. It was the absolute human connection, face-to-face, with someone who understood, who was going through similar decisions and crushing guilt that helped. She didn’t offer solutions she offered compassion and understanding, that is what I needed.


My God, the realization that in my hands was the remnants of my mom’s life completely overwhelmed me. I thought back fondly to my childhood and remembered all the sacrifices my parents had made. I remembered the things given and the ones that weren’t. I understood why having a horse in the basement was an obstacle we could not overcome.A childhood dream seemingly crushed at the time.  However, I know my parents did the best they could and provided me with what I needed. My mom only wants to go home. That is her only wish and desire. The back work and repercussions of this are magnanimous, but that is what she wants and has wanted all along. I cannot pick the easy road and leave her in the nursing home. I need to at least try and honor her wishes and bring her back to place of comfort and memories. 


I reflected further and realized, that all along, this lunch group supported each other in this manner. We are the ones who are making the decisions for parents who live thousands of miles away. We get midnight calls raising the alarm and we make decisions based on what information we can gather. We can offer solutions to each other, but it is the contact, support, and connections that make this group a solid support system. I don’t think I could survive without them, and I hope it gives them with the same modicum of saneness it provides me.


The loop will remain the same; in and out of the hospital, midnight calls, but the ability to connect and talk is the basis to be able to heal. It is the connections that hold all of us up. I am so fortunate to have a caring compassionate community that allows me to feel and grow.


Voices from the inside



I am almost 50, I am French, I left my home country, family and friends behind when I was 20 to move to the other side of the world – 6000 kms away from home and I have tried, successfully at times, to be more of a respectful immigrant than an arrogant expatriate in Zambia. So I really thought that I was prepared to handle whatever life throws at me. Then my mother, 76 years old, was diagnosed with Stage 2 Alzheimer… Being so far away and having not seen her for 2 years, due to Covid restrictions, the confidence and self-assurance I thought I possessed never actually materialised. It was easier in a way to be far away and to let my father handle everything, while I could laugh at my mom’s new idiosyncrasies, such as her being convinced that my dad’s phone ringing or pinging was the sign that he had his numerous mistresses trying to get in touch with him (which also made me wonder if dementia carries its own cultural biases: what is more French than an obsession with illicit liaisons?!).


Amongst the panic and overwhelming feelings, my friend and colleague Jill decided to organise a regular Wednesday lunch meeting for 3 kindred souls sharing the challenges of being the daughters of dementia-suffering parents. These free-to-share, free-to-listen and free-to-be-vulnerable meetings were extremely useful. The “Oh, my mom is not there” moments, the “Oh, I can so relate” moments, the “Oh, I did not think of that” moments, as well as the “I am not alone” moments were precious weekly experiences which helped me feel better equipped for what is to come, re-energised, less guilty to be far away from the problem and be more philosophical about the cycles of life. In South Africa, they use the term “Ubuntu”, which is a powerful term meaning “I am because we are”. It evokes compassion and humanity. I am extremely grateful to have found Ubuntu in our Wednesday gatherings.



I am 38 years old, a single child, born and raised in Canada. At the age of 25, I met my husband and after much debate and discussion, we decided to settle in his home of Lusaka, Zambia. I always anticipated that one day, this decision to move so far away from my family would be difficult to manage. So much so, that I never wanted to think about it. This distance of 13,000 kilometers or 26 hours of travel meant that visits home were carefully calculated. As our family grew and our two boys were born, we felt the financial strain, but also the increasing need to spend time with my aging parents; to build quality memories and enjoy the time while we could. As with many, the onset of Covid paused all family visits for us for two years. During this time, my father, at the age of 77, experienced a fall down a flight of stairs in the night. As parents do, my mother waited a few days before informing me of this incident and assured me not to worry. To travel at this point would be too risky. Covid had just hit another wave. I was alone and felt so helplessly far away. What should I do? How could I support my parents? Should I travel and leave my two children and husband indefinitely? What if I became sick and couldn’t return? Or worse, what if I passed Covid on to my parents? I decided to stay in Zambia and support remotely until the time seemed better. The decision weighed on me heavily.


My friend Jill reached out to invite me to join a Wednesday lunch meeting. Three of us would meet once a week to share stories, listen, sympathize, empathize, share frustrations, share ideas, or look for the bright side to lighten the mood.


When my father’s diagnosis changed from delirium caused by his fall, to a state of permanent dementia, I needed to share the anguish with others who would understand. The support that I urged my mother to seek in her community, I found within my own school community. There is no simple solution, but sharing what I’m going through with other educators – who have since become dear friends – has allowed me to make peace with my decisions. When I become overwhelmed by guilt about neglecting my responsibility to my parents, my Wednesday lunch friends remind me of the reasons why I have chosen to live in Zambia. They offer balance and shed light in the dark corners, which to me, is the best form of mental health support. We don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that having a supportive community is the way to make it through.


Jill with her mom and daughter.


Jill Canillas Daley is currently the PYP LIbrarian at the American International School of Lusaka. She has spent over 30 years in education in the United States and, six years ago, moved overseas to Zambia. She considers herself a life-long learner and is often in a MOOC or reading professional material. She adores her husband of 23 years, adult children, and mother who resides in the States.  Her passions include animal rescue, reading, wildlife photography, and wild adventures in the bush with family and friends. She is an avid Twitter fan and loves to connect with others, her handle is @jcd118.


Rethinking Recess: 7 Steps to Foster Engagement and Inclusion

Rethinking Recess: 7 Steps to Foster Engagement and Inclusion

Jody Matey
Teacher | Leader | Innovator

Recess is an area which can unintentionally be neglected by schools as teachers and administrators understandably prioritize setting up their indoor environments at the start of the year. While both research and feedback from educators tell us that it is an incredibly valuable learning space for children, recess is also potentially tricky for students who have social, sensory, or physical challenges. As we settle into a new term, many of the effects of the pandemic linger. I invite you to consider the following 7 ideas to reflect if your school has designed a positive and inclusive recess experience, or how you can shift your practices to better do so.


Do you have established co-constructed agreements with teachers and families, and are they clear and transparent? If not, then set aside time as a staff to unpack what recess explicitly looks like at your school. As recess is a natural space where children have repeated opportunities to build greater awareness of their own bodies and test their physical limits, what are the shared understandings of the adults who support and supervise the playground?

Can recess time be reduced as a punishment or used to make up class work? According to one survey conducted by Wakefield Research of elementary school teachers in the US, 86 percent have at one time decreased or taken away recess time as punishment for behavior. Recent surveys conducted with student teachers and new teachers in extreme poverty schools (2011- 2014) found that taking away recess was widely used for punishment.

Are children free to experience the benefits of roughhousing or risky play? How are both defined in the context of your school? Are students confidently able to differentiate between a risk and a hazard?

Can the children play outside in all weather? Weather is often communicated using “good” or “bad,” terms; however, it is important to use neutral and descriptive language when describing the elements. Saying “It is rainy outside today; wear your rain jacket” is a factual statement versus a subjective comment such as, “It is terrible outside.” Many children love to play in the rain and snow! Wearing suitable outerwear not only provides protection from inclement weather, but also allows for additional opportunities to practice adaptive skills and experience rich sensory play.




At a previous school where I worked, each class would visit the playground on the first day and subsequently hear a lengthy list of adult-generated rules. The children would be passively and politely sitting as their eyes excitedly darted around the space taking in all the options. They could barely contain themselves before being dismissed to explore. Teachers often include the children’s voices when creating classroom agreements, but how regularly are they included when planning recess? Why not ask the children for their thoughts? How do they want to feel and act when playing during recess? Post the children’s agreements outside so they are visible to anyone playing on or visiting the playground.

If repeated infractions occur, then reconnect as a class or grade level to discuss it together. Rather than a “don’t do this or that” authoritarian approach, consider sharing your observations with the children and seek their solutions. “I noticed that several children were climbing on the big swing at once. How can we solve this to keep it safe for everyone?” Yes, this takes time, but by empowering your students with frequent opportunities to solve their problems, the recess agreements will hold more authenticity and meaning to them.




Do you have a first aid kit outside? Plasters for scrapes or cuts, to repair a child’s physical injuries? Then what are your steps to repair hurt feelings and support their social-emotional growth? You may see many children rushing to recess to engage in vigorous play, but if a child is struggling, they may first need or benefit from SEL strategies or visuals to better access the space. You may notice a child who regularly moves around the periphery of the playground and is unsure how to engage with the equipment or their peers. Or another who repeatedly engages in conflicts with their peers. Recess can be a stressful and overwhelming space for many children, and some may demonstrate “sensory overload.”

Healthy sensory integration refers to the appropriate processing, integration, and organization of sensory information from the body and the environment. If children need guidance recognizing or regulating their emotions, then perhaps accessible and clear visual recess interventions can help to ease their discomfort. You may want to collaborate with your school counselor to implement interventions that echo your school agreements. These can include diverse and inclusive books, social stories, or sensory fidgets in a designated ‘calm corner’ area. Your physical education teacher can also provide guidance to navigate competition and teamwork and may include games for recess as part of class instruction. Consistency between the indoor and outdoor spaces can help alleviate miscommunication between children, staff, and families.




As a well-intentioned PE teacher, I have been guilty of viewing recess equipment as a space that only includes a variety of balls, jump ropes, and hula hoops. After several years of running outdoor programming with loose parts, I began to think about how they can be purposely integrated into a playground setting. Loose parts are open-ended materials that can be moved, adapted, redesigned, or constructed without a set of rules or instructions. Studies conducted with children up to the age of 12 have indicated that the ability to manipulate one’s own environment encourages not only creativity but the development of problem-solving abilities and improved social interactions between children.

Loose parts can provide fresh opportunities for agency, problem solving, and gross motor development. Although traditionally associated with those younger, in my experience older children can thrive when given the time and space to do so. You may consider dedicating one day a week or one recess to integrating loose parts and observing the results. A simple provocation of adding one loose part to a designated area can stimulate a new type of play. Ask the children what kinds of materials they would like or ask them to draw or paint pictures of their ideas and designs. Fortunately, loose parts can also be inexpensive and you might find success in reaching out to local businesses and/or families for gently used items. Lastly, if loose parts are not an option for your playground, then invite the children to use existing equipment in non-traditional, imaginative, and safe ways.



Why not take inspiration from the Montessori Method of toy rotation and change up the outdoor play options available to children on a regular basis? The frequency of rotation may vary for your population, but a good rule of thumb is to be observant of behavioral patterns in a particular area. Is there too much growing conflict on the football pitch? Perhaps temporarily switch out the soccer balls for a parachute, soft mats, or tennis balls. This move can stimulate creativity and excitement. Think of your storage options: How can you avoid cluttered, disorganized or broken equipment? Are there low shelves or labeled weatherproof bins in child-accessible areas? If using loose parts, these can look messy to a casual observer. Determine what your school’s agreements for either leaving out or cleaning up materials from one recess to the next.



You may often notice positive changes in students’ behavior upon their return to the classroom after recess. When children are given ample space to climb, jump, swing, spin, or run, this can have a substantial impact on their focus, attention, and self-regulation. The Journal of Pediatrics published a ground-breaking study of 11,000 third graders, comparing those who had little or no daily recess with those who had more than 15 minutes of recess per day. The findings show that children who have more recess time behave better in the classroom and are likely to learn more. (Barros, 2009) Often children repeatedly gravitate to a particular type of sensory play during recess.

Swinging, for example, provides vestibular input, which is defined as the sensation of any change in position, direction, or movement of the head. Commonly used by occupational therapists, it provides calming, organizing, and regulating signals to the nervous system. Often just 15 minutes of vestibular input can have a 1–2-hour positive effect on the body and brain. Proprioception or “heavy work” is also a tool to support the nervous system. These activities involve the muscles pushing, pulling, or lifting of weighted materials. A child seeking proprioceptive input might be prone to do so in ways that are not always safe, such as crashing into peers or jumping from inappropriate heights. However, what may be interpreted as poor behavior by adults may simply be a child seeking sensory feedback. Does your outdoor space provide a range of sensory opportunities for children that are both stimulating and calming? Are there areas where children can be barefoot or enjoy tactile input like sand or water? Are there quiet spaces where children can retreat from visual and auditory stimuli?



Beyond recess, do your students regularly have access to unstructured play time? The average length of recess worldwide is 25 minutes, but the reality is that it can often take more time than this for children to connect with their peers and settle into their play. Studies done by the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center show that since the 1970s, children in the United States have lost about 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent decrease in play and a 50 percent decrease in unstructured outdoor activities. During the pandemic, children around the world spent 20% less time taking part in physical activity, according to a recent JAMA pediatrics study. Are there opportunities for unstructured play for your class during the school day? When I started adding occasional unstructured play into my physical education classes, I noticed the children gravitate to what they needed to self-regulate. It equally highlighted their areas of strength and growth, and gave me further evidence of their interpersonal skills. Some classes would demonstrate more creativity and stamina, while others would struggle with collaboration and communication. This allowed me to adjust and differentiate my lesson content to address their specific social-emotional, cognitive, and physical needs.

Developmental psychologist and author of ‘Free to Learn,’ Dr. Peter Gray writes extensively about how child-led, self-directed play can be a powerful antidote to the anxiety and depression that many children experienced during the pandemic. Unfortunately, opportunities for play are often affected by school size, location, region, minority enrollment, and eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch. On average, children attending private schools have 30 minutes more recess a week than children attending public school. Countries such as Finland, Turkey, Japan, and the Republic of Korea reportedly provide 10-to-15-minute breaks every hour and have between 6 and 8 breaks in a school day. Other countries, such as Sweden, England and Wales, Switzerland, Australia, and the Netherlands, offer longer but less frequent periods. Unfortunately, as of publication date, there is little comparative international data on recess.

In closing, consider the intentionality of how you design recess at your school. Does it provide an appropriate amount of stimulation and challenges for children? Can it meet their social-emotional, physical, and cognitive needs? Are they actively engaged, safe, responsible, and kind? As schools move to implement programming that is responsive to the pandemic’s losses, consider what changes can be made to foster a more authentic and rewarding recess experience for all children.



Jody Matey is an experienced international physical educator and passionate advocate for inclusive, meaningful movement for children. Social-emotional literacy and sensory integration are at the heart of her work. She earned her Master’s Degree in Adapted Physical Education from the University of Virginia and is a Primary PE teacher at the Frankfurt International School in Germany.

“To me, movement is a critical component of developing the whole child. I have been fortunate to spend the last 25 years creating positive and joyful learning experiences for children. Working alongside families and other educators has provided me the opportunity to foster my passion and purpose.

My teaching is both creative & child-centered while nurturing agency, inquiry and reflection. I strive to cultivate an environment that is respectful of differences in skill, gender, race and culture while being responsive to the changing needs of children. Both personally and professionally, I am someone who continues to reflect, adapt, change and grow. If you would like to know more about how to best support your child’s physical literacy, please reach out!”



Ayres, A. J., & Robbins, J. (2005). Sensory integration and the child: Understanding hidden sensory challenges. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.

Baines, E.,Blatchford, P & Golding, K., (2020). Recess, Breaktimes, and Supervision. In S. Hupp & J. Jewel (Series Eds) & P.K. Smith (Volume Ed). The Encyclopedia of Child and Adolescent Development Part 1 (Child): (Volume 6 – Community). New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Clay, Rebecca A. The Serious Business of Play. American Psychological Association.  May 11, 2020.

Changes in Child and Adolescent Physical Activity During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatric. 2022 Jul 11: e222313. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.2313. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 35816330; PMCID: PMC9274449

A Collaboration between Nature Play South Australia and the Department for Education (2018). The Power of Loose Parts Play.

Gray, P. (January 2011). The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Play.

Jarrett, Olga S. (2019). A Research-Based Case for Recess: Position Paper

2018 Survey on Recess. Voice of Play. Harrisburg, PA. 2018.

Sando, O.J., Kleppe, R. & Sandseter, E.B.H.  (2021). Risky Play and Children’s Well-Being, Involvement and Physical Activity. Child Ind Res 14, 1435–1451


LIMIT – A Model for Understanding Healthy Teacher-Student Relationships

LIMIT – A Model for Understanding Healthy Teacher-Student Relationships

Dallin Bywater
School Counselor


Academic research underlines the importance of positive teacher-student relationships for creating an effective education environment (Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Baker, 2006).  While this truth is well known, the intricacies of how to develop and maintain a safe and positive relationship with students is less understood.  In fact, teacher behaviors that are intended to engender a supportive relationship may actually be risky and unhealthy in practice.


Experts have identified four risk factors for unhealthy teacher-student relationships (Wolowitz, 2006):


1. A relationship power imbalance

2. Poor boundary setting

3. Role confusion

4. Isolation


All four of these risk factors are common in international schools.  By understanding and providing training to educators to mitigate these risk factors, both teachers’ and students’ wellbeing will benefit.


The first risk, a power imbalance, is inherent in a teacher-student relationship.  All teacher-student relationships include a difference in power because the teacher is an adult in a position of power, and the students are children or adolescents.


The second risk, poor boundary setting, can easily occur due to the transitional nature of international living.  Professional boundaries are limits in a relationship that protect the space between the professionals power and the student’s vulnerability (NCSBN, 2018).  There are various personal factors that can increase the likelihood of poor boundary setting.  For example, when teachers or students move to a new school, naturally personal boundaries are loosened in order to get to know people, and make new friends.  Additionally, teachers and students often do not have extended family nearby, creating an emotional void that can lead them to look for emotional support from other relationships.


Third, role confusion, occurs when individuals are in an environment where personal and professional life frequently overlaps.  For an educator in a small international community, the lines between parent, educator, coach, family friend, and/or other identities can be blurred.  A teacher’s social circle and work circle have considerable overlap.  Blurred identities are a hallmark of role confusion.


Lastly, isolation is a risk factor because there are opportunities for one on one interaction in residence halls, classrooms, health or counseling centers, and other locations on campus.


Two further complications to teacher-student interactions include the complex cultural influences on social behavior at international schools, and the various training backgrounds of educators in the school.  Each culture has unspoken rules about appropriate social behavior.  An international community may contain a spectrum of high and low contact cultures, and high and low context cultures which impact social behavior (Bywater, 2021).  While this diversity is overall an unquestionable strength, it is also important to recognize that amalgamated cultural expectations about acceptable student-teacher interactions can be nebulous, and the training worldwide about teacher-student boundaries varies immensely.  Some teacher training programs include strong expectations and education about healthy boundaries, while in other programs it is nonexistent.  Culturally, the norm for interactions between teachers and students in some countries might be considered nurturing and positive, while teachers of a different cultural background may consider the interactions highly unethical.  A visible example would be physical boundaries – some cultures encourage touch between students and teachers, while others may forbid it due to concerns of allegations, and/or respect for student body autonomy.


Learning about and applying boundary-setting skills can reduce the risk factors described above.  Having awareness of the power imbalance between students and teachers, knowing how to set firm boundaries, and avoiding overlapping personal identities are all part of developing healthy relationships.  It is important that each school community clearly communicates to staff, students, and the community what is acceptable in regards to staff-student interactions, and what relationship-building behavior is appropriate.  Clarity in guidelines and policy supports the wellbeing of both staff and students, and prevents unnecessary confusion and potentially damaging allegations.


The LIMIT Model


The following model, aptly named LIMIT, has been developed to guide the discussion and training of education staff about healthy teacher-student relationships.


While the model described below may appear to be directed at teachers, the information applies to all school staff and can be used accordingly.  The recommendations provided are generally applicable, however, what is appropriate for your school community may be different depending on the culture of the school and country laws and norms where you reside.




M – CoMmunication

I Identities/Roles

TTime and Touch




Location refers to the places that an educator’s interactions with students occur.  Interactions with students should be viewable by others.  A few other recommendations include:

  • Do not allow students or their parents parents to be in your home.
  • Do not go into a student’s home.
  • Avoid weekend social locations (e.g. clubs and bars) where students might be present.
  • Avoid locations where you may be alone with a student.




Internet refers to communication done over devices – social media, texting, and other mobile phone services to name a few.  Some professionals estimate that around 90 percent of inappropriate teacher-student relationships start through texting or social media (Millweard, 2017).

  • Interactions with students online should be done on school platforms
  • Online interactions should reflect the same language and behavior that you would use in person
  • Students should not be added by teachers as Facebook friends, or on any other social media platform.
  • Set professional limits on when, how, and on what platform you will communicate with parents and students.
  • Photos of students should not be posted on your social media accounts
  • School guidelines should limit student photo taking and video recording for specific learning purposes, and delineate proper storage and destruction of these files.




Communication includes the content and connotations of words used with students.

  • Avoid making any comments about a student’s body.
  • Be aware of what personal information you disclose. For example, students do not need to know where you live or what is happening in your romantic relationships.  Any personal disclosures should be purposeful and meet the needs of students.
  • Students should be asked to call you by a culturally appropriate, respectful title. In many cultures, addressing you solely by your first name, nickname, or name that your friends call you can imply that your relationship is something more than teacher-student.
  • Maintain confidentiality of all student and staff records (including health, disciplinary, academic, etc.).




Teachers must maintain their identity as a teacher and avoid mixing this identity with other personal identities at school.  A common way to conceptualize identities is wearing hats.  Each role identity is a hat.  Professional, balanced decisions and healthy relationships are best accomplished when a person avoids wearing multiple hats at the same time.  Misunderstandings occur when multiple hats are worn together.  This principle can be particularly challenging for teachers who have children in the school, because it is difficult to separate the roles of parent and teacher.

  • Always remember that you are the teacher, not a student’s parent or friend. Having a positive, supportive relationship is not the same as being friends.
  • Be aware of your overlapping role identities, and how they affect your professional relationships.
  • Wear one “hat” at a time whenever possible.
  • When interacting with students and other staff, ask yourself what role you are acting in. As a teacher?  A parent?  A friend?  Is it clear to the individual which role you are in?
  • If you feel a role conflict, excuse yourself from decision-making capacities related to the situation. For example, if you are the principal and your child has entered disciplinary procedures, you should excuse yourself from the proceedings.


Time and Touch


Time refers to the amount of time a teacher spends with a student.  Recommendations include:

  • Set limits on when students and parents should communicate with you (e.g. before 5pm).
  • Only meet with a student during work hours for academic-related purposes.
  • Avoid allowing a student to dominate your break and lunch hours.


Touch refers to any physical contact between a teacher and student.

  • Any touching should be viewable by others.
  • Consider the cultural expectations of touch, including how it could be perceived and received.
  • Context is important – a goodbye hug at the end of the school year is different from an unsolicited hug.
  • Examples of appropriate touch may be a handshake, high-five, or hand on the high back or shoulder. This can be culture-dependent.
  • Whenever possible, ask permission before touching (ex. “Can I put your hands on the proper place of the tennis racquet?”)


Practically every day teachers encounter situations where it is important to set boundaries with students.  In many cultures, adolescence is the time of testing and pushing boundaries, and it is the adult’s responsibility to set an appropriate boundary, and keep it.


The LIMIT model provides a simple way to begin school dialogue about professional relationships, and helps staff conceptualize appropriate behaviors.  Many recommendations appear to be common sense, but administrators cannot assume that teachers are clear about appropriate teacher-student behaviors.  The high turnover in international schools, diversity of cultural expectations, and variability in teacher training programs make boundary training an essential element of any international school professional development plan.


What Positive Teacher-Student Relationships Look Like


In addition to mitigating the risks of unhealthy teacher-student relationships, other strategies can contribute to creating healthy relationships.  Researchers generally agree that the following are qualities of healthy teacher-student relationships:

  • supportive, but not overly dependent
  • high and realistic expectations (Downey, 2008)
  • honest and trusting
  • strives to be conflict-free
  • teacher uses learner-centered practices
  • teacher encourages positive relationships among students
  • mutual respect, caring, and warmth (Birch & Ladd, 1997)


Some other ideas for developing positive teacher-student relationships can be found here:


Considerations for Administrators


When teachers have opportunities to understand and be empowered to set appropriate boundaries, it is an opportunity for self care, further benefitting the school environment.  Teachers need to know from administrators that they are expected to set healthy boundaries, and that their leadership team will support them in this process.  Imagine the relief that some teachers may feel if an administrator tells them they are not expected to read or answer emails past 5:00pm.


In addition to providing adequate training and support, administrators are responsible to monitor and give feedback to staff regarding boundaries.  Feedback is necessary when boundaries are loose.  Unhealthy and inappropriate relationships rarely occur suddenly – rather, boundaries are slowly relaxed over time until there is potential for the occurrence of completely inappropriate behavior.  The following can be warning signs of poor educator boundaries:


  • secret conduct
  • oversharing personal information with students
  • behavior showing favoritism (Feeney, Freeman, & Moravcik, 2020)
  • minimal separation between work and personal life
  • acting in a peer, friend, or parental role to students
  • dependency meeting a teacher’s need
  • repeated boundary crossing, even if it appears insignificant or harmless


International school administrators, counselors, and other support staff can use the LIMIT model to provide common language for learning about, discussing, and establishing healthy boundaries in teacher-student relationships.  This dialogue can extend past country lines and diverse education models.


At one international school, an hour of professional development time each year was dedicated to healthy boundary training.  The resulting discussions clarified the school’s expectations, shed light on cultural differences, and raised important questions that teachers had regarding their interactions with students.  The training also opened the door for yearlong dialogue with teachers and staff about boundaries.  All four risk factors of unhealthy relationships were brought to staff awareness with a short amount of formal dedicated time, and the guiding principles of healthy teacher-student relationships were reaffirmed in future informal conversations.


Prevention is paramount.  Organizations where boundaries are fully adhered to are likely the safest environments for children (Eastman & Rigg, 2017).  Targeted professional development and correcting initial loose boundaries may minimize the probability of teacher misconduct with students, where the resulting harm and tragedy has no bounds.




Baker, J. A. (2006). Contributions of teacher–child relationships to positive school adjustment during elementary school. Journal of School Psychology, 44, 211−229.


Birch, S. H., & Ladd, G. W. (1997). The teacher–child relationship and children’s early school adjustment. Journal of School Psychology, 35, 61−79.


Bywater, D. (2021).  Touch in International Primary Schools:  A Practical Approach with a Cultural Lens.  ECIS Insightful.


Downey, J.A. (2008). Recommendations for fostering educational resilience in the classroom. Preventing School Failure, 53, 56-63.


Eastman, A., & Rigg, K. (2017).  Safeguarding Children: dealing with low-level concerns about adults.  May 2017,


Feeney, S., Freeman, N., & Moravcik, E. (2020).  Boundaries in Early Childhood Education.  Young Children, 75, No. 5.


Hamre, B., & Pianta, R. (2001). Early teacher–child relationships and the trajectory of children’s school outcomes through eighth grade. Child Development, 72, 625–638.


Millweard, Christy. “Fed up: Leaders Battling ‘Alarming Rate’ of Inappropriate Teacher-Student Relationships.”, 28 Apr. 2017,

Wolowitz, David, Bluestein J., & Broe K. (2006).  Boundary Training in Schools, United Educators Roundtable Reference Materials, December 2006.




Dallin Bywater is an international school counselor on hiatus.  He has presented for parent and teacher workshops, and has published articles on a range of topics related to student mental health.

The future of education is student-centered and personalised

Graham Glass, CEO

Education has undergone many changes in the past few years. The most significant is the shift from a teacher-oriented approach where educators are the main providers of learning materials to an environment where students take full ownership of their learning.


The role of technology will become increasingly important in the years to come. Both of these innovations can provide a student-centered approach and make learning personalised. Therefore, schools need to rethink their teaching methods to accommodate each student’s needs, interests, personal challenges, life experiences, and cultural identities to maximise learning outcomes and prepare them for future careers.


When designing learning materials, teachers need to listen closely to their students and follow the student-centered learning principles. Using technology, educators can present real-world problems, track competency progress, enable students to take ownership of their learning, and make learning available anytime and anywhere.


Student ownership of learning 


Student autonomy is essential no matter where learning takes place. It helps students find a balance between individual study and frontal instruction, collaboration and reflection, and formal evaluation and self-assessment. Additionally, autonomous learning boosts student confidence, logical thinking, problem-solving skills, and sense of independence.


Using a learning platform, teachers can support student ownership in the classroom and beyond.


For example, competency-based learning enables teachers to associate competencies with class content. For example, to progress to another class, students need to prove mastery of the Meteorology competencies and know the most important stages of a weather forecast.


Personalised learning paths are based on each student’s progress, are flexible as they can be adapted constantly, and require autonomy as each student has an individual path.


As learning platforms are getting smarter, they provide personalised learning recommendations.


Students find it easy to collaborate with one another in digital spaces through groups, chats, or discussion forums. Whenever they get stuck on an assignment or need some additional help, they can just message their classmates or teachers and get an answer immediately.


Greater flexibility and accessibility


Educational technology (edtech) personalises the learning journey while supporting your students’ individual needs by catering to various abilities and interests.


Technological advancements and many systems with built-in accessibility features such as text-to-speech, high contrast themes, or underlined links settings make learning more comfortable and inclusive for everyone.


Students can use their devices to access their learning materials and join live or recorded sessions by their teachers, or even attend watch parties. The greatest advantage is that students don’t have to be in the same location while engaging in these learning activities. For example, they can join a watch party from their homes, cafes, or parks. Since these are informal, students tend to engage more and express their opinions openly. Learning becomes flexible, making students engage more in their learning and get better results.


When considering student learning needs, it’s important to adopt learning solutions that come with the integrated offline mode. Students can continue learning seamlessly regardless of their internet connectivity. Students and teachers from rural areas can continue their education even when not connected to the internet.


Focus on relevant issues, not seat time 


One of the biggest concerns related to the educational system is that students are preparing for jobs that don’t exist yet. While multiple industries have changed over the years, the educational sector remains the same. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that all students become digitally literate by implementing edtech in classrooms. It’s also just as important to allow students to demonstrate an understanding of a subject using a variety of assignments that prove their 21st-century skills.


Students tend to be more motivated and engaged in classes that they find relevant. With the help of a learning platform, teachers can design classes based on their students’ interests and allow them to go through those materials at their own pace.


What’s more, teachers have more opportunities to create engaging content, use project-based learning, and even explore VR/AR to make lessons more relevant. For instance, project-based learning allows students to get out into the real world and explore issues related to their community. They get to understand the different aspects related to work areas such as business or local government and even find career pathways that they could explore in the future.


Instead of focusing on how many hours students spend each day preparing for a subject, teachers get an overview of the progress made in a lesson, group assignments, or forum postings.


Enable skill development 


Edtech enables students to improve their skills and prepare for future jobs. Modern learning platforms act like proactive assistants by providing personalized recommendations. For example, each student gets recommendations of classes and materials to check out or collaboration groups to join to improve their skills. In this way, they get a completely customised learning experience that’s more engaging and appealing.


Competency-based learning tracks student progress and provides a detailed view of how they understand certain concepts. This way, teachers can identify problem areas immediately and ensure that no student falls behind in their learning. These recommendations are based on previous performance.


For example, if a student gets an A on a quiz, they can also get a bonus recommendation from their teacher to watch a video or read an interesting article to enhance their skills. At the same time, if more students score below a certain level, the teacher can tweak the class content or provide additional materials which help better understand the concept.


Key takeaways


There is no denying that the future of education puts students at the center and provides personalised learning journeys. However, it’s difficult to orchestrate a student-centered approach following a hierarchical, top-down structure.


Edtech simplifies the transition and provides continuous assistance for teachers and students. Students should be given more opportunities to take ownership of their learning. It’s also important to personalise the learning experience according to each student’s individual needs and interests. Moreover, focusing on competencies means that students and teachers see progress in real-time and can adjust their strategies accordingly.


Additionally, with the help of personalized recommendations, students are more engaged in their learning, improve their skills, and achieve better results.



About the author



Graham Glass is the CEO of CYPHER LEARNING, an e-learning company that provides an intelligent learning platform empowering schools, businesses, and entrepreneurs worldwide to reimagine online education and deliver the best learning experiences. For more insightful articles on Edtech, visit the NEO Blog.




Cheong, V. A. P. B. M. S. (2021, March 7). Autonomous Learning as a Sustainable Approach to Learning – The Techducator.


Kaput, K. (2018). Evidence for Student-Centered Learning. Saint Paul, MN: Education Evolving.


University of Birmingham. (2022, February 15). Lecture Watch Parties: Creating Community and Maximising Learning Opportunity- MicroCPD.


Stauffer, B. (2022, January 10). What are 21st century skills? AES Education.

The qualification debate: How do providers support schools with teacher training that counts?

Joanne Coles, Director for International Programmes, Tes Institute

Since I started in role with Tes Institute in 2019, I have had many conversations about what qualifications teachers need to be able to work in the international school market and, potentially, to migrate – or return – to teach in the UK. Most of the individuals I encounter are working in the international school system, or are in state education in their country but hoping to move into the international sector. This is such a difficult question to answer because it is so dependent on the individual circumstances of each person, their career aspirations, where they want to work and what the schools in those areas might be looking for. There also seems to be variation within areas.


There is no one easy solution to offer up to aspirant international teachers. I suppose, then, an early question to the reader is should there be?


My context is that I trained as a secondary English teacher in England, then taught in state education for 16 years before moving into ITT (Initial Teacher Training). I now work for a UK-based accredited provider of teacher training, Tes Institute, part of Tes Global. We also run courses suitable for teachers to train or upskill overseas, including an Assessment Only route to QTS (Qualified Teacher Status in England and Wales) and an iPGCE. In my role, I meet a lot of people in education from around the globe and often discuss what qualifications and training teachers need to enter the market and develop their careers.


There seems to be a tendency amongst British International Schools to want teachers who already hold QTS; on the surface, this makes sense in that school leaders are looking for staff who have trained against the UK Teachers’ Standards and should be able to deliver effective teaching to their pupils.It is also perceived to be a desirable factor when choosing a school for fee-paying parents. In many instances, school leaders appear to go with what they know: many have migrated from both the state and private sectors in the UK and have experienced the training route first-hand, therefore acknowledge its reliability in growing good teachers.


However, there is an increasing teacher shortage in the UK. Recruitment for teacher training is down again for the next academic year (Tes, 2021). This once again reflects the stagnation of the profession domestically. The reality is that there will be fewer expat, QTS-holding teachers. In fact, QTS can be attained in British Curriculum and IB schools overseas, so it is entirely possible to support someone to pursue this outside the UK and they do not have to be British to hold it.


Elsewhere, the iPGCE (International Postgraduate Certificate in Education), is favoured as a teaching qualification. This is largely an academic route into teaching and, depending on the provider, the actual in-school development can be negligible. Some institutions, like Tes, will devise a supported and mentored training programme inherent to their iPGCE as they know that many people use this as a training route and, therefore, need that actual practical training. There is much variability in the offers out there and what an iPGCE actually brings in terms of teaching quality and capability.


An increasingly popular and practical option is to grow your own teachers, by drawing on support staff who have demonstrated particular aptitude for the classroom. This really is an equitable approach to teacher education, given that it creates a pathway of opportunity for people who need to be in employment. This, however, relies on schools being able to support teacher training and development. Essentially, trainee teachers need to teach and teach often, so classes have to be given over to this, which can be a risk for the school if there is parental scrutiny. We’ve seen this on the iPGCE: some learners have been limited to team teaching for the entire duration of the course or only permitted to work with large groups as the school is reluctant to give them whole class responsibility. Conversely, the Department for Education in the UK advises that trainee teachers have enough regular teaching to meet the Teachers’ Standards, which means in practice that many providers ask trainees to deliver up to a 50% timetable of teaching over their training period, which usually comprises of around 24 weeks of school placements (DfE, 2022).


We all have to start somewhere. In state education in the UK, working towards both my PGCE and QTS, I was given a timetable of classes across a range of ages and abilities. If we want teachers with qualifications, we have to give them a chance to train. It really comes down to support: if a new teacher is supervised by a mentor, or another host teacher, it should ensure that quality teaching takes place. There needs to be some reassurance that it is safe to allow trainees to take classes because they are still under the watchful supervision of the class teacher, in a controlled and supportive environment. This supervision is also valuable in that the trainee teacher should feel invested in and nurtured. The role of the mentor continues to evolve as the landscape of teacher education shifts to meet the changing needs of the profession. That said, the mentoring is firmly centred within the ‘complex ecology (not just continuum) of professional development’ (Lofthouse, 2018), an essential aspect of fostering professional growth.


Actively training teachers on the job, rather than seeking out qualified staff, could be such a useful solution to schools who are struggling to recruit and/or retain. Creating training opportunities for support staff who have shown their aptitude for teaching can build incredibly resilient and loyal staff. This happens in the UK; in my last role, I was in a challenging state school that found recruitment a challenge, yet we had incredibly talented support staff who were willing to teach and more than capable of doing so. Thankfully, there are plenty of training routes that can be undertaken around work and we could provide the opportunity to teacher train to any who wanted it. I even know principals who started as support staff and trained in school, now leading in the very schools they began as teaching assistants.


Schools that are supporting teacher training – and most are – are to be applauded. By actively seeking to engage in the process, to grow better teachers and to add to the workforce, they are safeguarding the future of the profession. It really is of fundamental importance that we celebrate the work of schools that facilitate training and the staff within these institutions who give time and funding to support this. By enabling teachers to contribute to the development of others, to coach and mentor, it is also developing them for future leadership. There is even a call for revision of the value of mentorship and how we can transform professional practice in education by making better use of this (Lofthouse, 2018).


The need for teachers is growing, UNESCO predict that we need 69 million more teachers to meet education goals for 2030 (UNESCO, 2016). There are people who want to teach and who are willing to relocate to do it. What can schools offer to support the development of teachers? How can schools help to fund accredited qualifications – in whatever form these take? How can schools enthuse parents to embrace teacher training and the possibilities that it creates? Finally, what do schools need from training providers in order to support them to offer training programmes that really do have impact?


The reflections and questions in this article are based on my experience; I really hope to spark questions in return and debate. You may have a very different perception of the situation or have another approach to recruitment for your school. In recent discussion at the ECIS conference in St Albans, I was heartened to hear many leaders favouring personality and willingness to learn over actual qualifications when recruiting to teaching roles: they expressed a desire to foster a culture of training in-school rather than expecting applicants to be fully qualified before starting.


I want to know more about the scenarios school leaders face because that clarity means that we can create better provision to enable teachers to train in a way that works for everyone. I think there has to be a conversation here, urgently, so we can make sure teachers and schools get what they need. I would welcome connection and reply; training providers and schools need this dialogue so that we can work together to build a strong, impactful teaching workforce who feel well-qualified and capable in their roles and who inspire and enthuse those pupils in their classes.



Department for Education (2022) Initial teacher training (ITT): criteria and supporting advice. Available at:

Department for Education (2021) Teachers’ Standards: Guidance for school leaders, school staff and governing bodies. Available at:

Lofthouse, RM (2018) Re-imagining mentoring as a dynamic hub in the transformation of initial teacher education: The role of mentors and teacher educators. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 7 (3). pp. 248-260.

Tes (2021) Teacher training applications drop to pre-Covid levels. Available at:
UNESCO (2016) Global Education Monitoring Report. Available at:




Joanne Coles is the Director for International Programmes at Tes Institute. She runs the successful iPGCE programme which is available globally and available at a discounted price for ECIS members. Jo worked as a secondary English teacher until she joined Tes in 2017. She is a Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching.

Creating a STEAM programme in your international school

Amanda Rose Serrano
Lincoln Community School

How can we as elementary teachers and generalists meet the challenges in our 21st century to help provide students with the skills they need in an ever-changing world?

This is the central question that I have explored for the last few years at Lincoln Community School (LCS) in Ghana as an elementary generalist on a mission.



My Story at Lincoln


Exploring interconnectedness with students and in the elementary school classroom is ideal because I cherish working with a relatively small group of students who I get to know well, while teaching all subjects. So, when I came to Ghana in 2020, the first school year that started in the pandemic, I knew I needed to be flexible – as does international teaching in general. Fortunately, Lincoln is an innovative school with a brand-new elementary school building that is designed with grade level pods where we could create whole new programmes.

“I have a background in the arts & design but I wanted a position as a classroom teacher because at heart, I am a generalist.”

The rooms and spaces at Lincoln are well-equipped for the programmes I was set to create. When you enter a LCS grade-level pod, you step into a huge room called The Hub with flexible seating, furniture, bookshelves on casters, and a projector that casts onto an entire wall. Even greater, both sides of the Hub are lined with windows that provide an unobscured view into four classroom spaces.



In these four spaces, there is a classroom teacher in each – including myself. Two of us are also specialists, I am an art specialist and the other is student support. All fourth grade students and teachers exist in one large group. Roles and duties are subdivided, but done so with a function in mind. This highly flexible grouping allows for new and exciting possibilities.

Given the flexible grouping of students, we as the fourth grade teachers ended up specializing in certain subjects. For me, I was very attracted to the innovation and laboratory approach to teaching and learning. It was exciting to drive my teaching with the design-thinking process, but it was also exhausting in the midst of a pandemic. My first school year was an interactive process where I found myself teaching mainly Math, Art and STEM.

Although I like those subjects, the generalist in me was missing the connections and holistic learning that come with teaching all the subjects. I felt limited and that I was not truly able to teach to my full strengths. Fortunately, the school was preparing to combine the Art and STEM programmes in elementary to become STEAM. Naturally, I was immediately drawn to this idea.


Design and STEAM serve our students in unexpected ways


STEAM prepares students how to approach problems thoughtfully and creatively. It encourages process, failure, resilience, and tenacity. “Fail fast, fail often” is a mantra of the maker movement. STEAM and Design helps students learn critical thinking and problem-solving in a way that nothing else can. It’s hands-on, it’s tangible, it appeals to our kids’ love of technology. Design thinking gives students that flexibility of mind to analyze a problem and come up with creative solutions, consulting with others and testing ideas, finding the best option, refining and implementing it.

While they learn it in Design, STEAM, and in makerspaces at school through building with Lego, perhaps creating an app or video game, woodworking, doing set design for a school production, or puppet-making, the fact is that Design Thinking is perhaps the best preparation we can give our students for the future; how to think creatively, navigate ideas, to try, fail & try again – as these are the skills that will carry our students forward.


Building a STEAM Programmes


STEAM is a new subject at LCS. We have two STEAM Labs, which are a kind of bridge or connecting point between the grade two and three Hubs and another between grade four and five. Our STEAM curriculum was something we chose to build from the ground up. Here, I was entrusted with the freedom to create our curriculum while focusing on making concept-based and ATL (approaches to learning) skill connections, rather than thematic units. This was great because it helped me find deeper learning opportunities, driven by process over product.


My guiding objectives in building the STEAM programmes then became two-fold:


1) Create balanced horizontal programmes for each grade level and a spiraling vertical curriculum from PreK through grade five.

2) Use design methods such as design thinking as a focus, rather than a lot of flashy kits and gadgets.

Planning and creating the curriculum began by defining what we wanted our STEAM programme to offer and how we would build our students’ skills to help them find a bridge to MYP Design. What areas of specialization do we want to offer when STEAM can encompass so much? Knowing that students (and parents) are excited about technology and robotics, I wanted to be sure to include coding and machines and mechanisms. Our students are often encouraged to make things out of recycled materials even in their classrooms so I wanted to include 3D thinking and cardboard. These were areas I especially wanted to spiral up through every grade level.

To get started, I made a spreadsheet with a tab for each grade level. At the beginning of the school year I referenced the school’s Programme of Inquiry (POI) and used that to populate my Working Copy of LCS STEAM Programme sheet. The columns include dates, STEAM unit title, Key Concepts, Related Concepts, the classroom’s Central Idea, and the STEAM Central Idea.

“I made it my goal to create more universal, concept-based central ideas that would be possible for specialists as well as classroom teachers to use to generate their own lines of inquiry, in order to meet content or subject area requirements.”

Next, I had a column to identify which STEAM elements I would be focused on and integrating in the unit (I aim for two per unit in order to keep it manageable and focused for students to make connections). There is another column for STEAM content/skill such as coding, algorithmic thinking, robotics, machines, makerspace, circuits, stop motion, etc. another column for kits or resources I knew we had available at school such as Makey Makey, Snap Circuits, Squishy Circuits, LEGO, WeDo 2.0, Scratch, etc. Finally, my last column was for resources such as books or websites that I might find helpful in developing that particular unit.

Brainstorming at the beginning of the year, I filled out as much as I could using the POI, highlighting the Key Concepts and Related Concepts that would be best for STEAM and tried to identify which unit might be the best for coding, makerspace, etc. for each grade level to ensure that I could start developing a spiraled curriculum. I made notations in the Resources, Kits, and STEAM elements column for anything that came to mind.

Then, I started unit planning using slide decks, which I then linked to the unit title in my spreadsheet. Of course, it has taken consistent work and development over the course of the whole school year to get all the units planned and some of the ideas I had written in my sheet have changed once it came time to design and plan those units in more detail.



Each unit has at least two items from STEAM identified. For example, our second grade unit about Balance included the E[ngineering] and the A[rt] from STEAM for special focus. We did many explorations giving hands on guided inquiry to learn about the center of mass as well as kinetic sculpture. All of this led up to the students designing and creating Alexander Calder inspired kinetic sculptures.

They learned how to manipulate wire, used hand tools such as pliers and wire cutters, and paper mache techniques in order to transform cardboard and other materials into shapes which they affixed and balanced on their mobile. It was so satisfying to see students let their imaginations take flight and sketch their ideas in their sketchbooks and then learn how to select and use the proper tool to make their project. They became independent, helped each other, and took great pride in their kinetic sculptures, which were displayed in-progress in the STEAM Lab and once completed moved to the elementary school lobby for the whole community to enjoy.



For the second objective, using design methods as a driving factor rather than kits, I felt this was important so that students develop both creative and critical thinking skills. When using kits, I prefer to use them as provocations or a kind of library for students to find out how things work. Students can use kits to further their learning if it helps them ask questions that help them transfer what they learned in order to actually make something themselves. I try to be careful to make the projects in our units open-ended so that when students leave the STEAM Lab they are outfitted with freedom, confidence, and understanding about how things work so they can think of their own ways to be creative and have the skills and knowledge necessary to make things.



Key features of the learning process of my units include; making prototypes, sketching ideas and plans. We use brainstorming, presenting in-progress work, talking about problems and questions with each other and sharing ideas and skills. This can take time, especially when we only have classes for 45 minutes, twice a week. At first, students wanted to do quick projects, something different every time they came to STEAM.

It has been a process to help them readjust their expectations and find the possibilities and satisfaction that comes from this kind of exploration, getting nervous or uncomfortable because their idea seems too hard, and then working through that with their classmates and teachers’ support to stretch and learn what they need in order to achieve what they have set out to do.


Conclusion – My Impressions


My STEAM units have a structure to how they are created, spiraled and communicated to colleagues. They are also underpinned by some fundamental concepts designed to push student thinking, encourage creativity with time dedicated to the design process. During the implementation of these units, we have seen evidence of students changing and growing not only in their understanding, but in the process in which they work and think about problems that they aim to solve.

I have been very fortunate to have such a supportive and well equipped school to build a STEAM programme for. My knowledge of Design Thinking, my efforts in planning and organization have helped me create a solid foundation for the programme. Through my situation and effort, I have managed to create a meaningful and rewarding STEAM programme for LCS.





Amanda is an International educator at Lincoln Community School. With over 10 years of classroom experience, she works on designing learning experiences that inspire students, opening portals and pathways for interdisciplinary connections and transference.  She also guides teacher candidates as an instructor and mentor in Moreland University’s Teacher Certification Programme.  Connect with her on Twitter @ASerranoEDU.


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