Curse The Countdown: Teaching to the End

At this time of year, in any school community, teachers and students have their sights set on summer vacation.  An anticipatory energy seems to fill the school as the weather gets warmer and days get longer.  In the international school community, this time of year also signals a time of transition as highly mobile expat students might be moving onto their next school and as teachers say goodbye to one school to move to their next placement.  A lot of energy and resources are placed on year-end activities and providing closure for students and staff, alike.  I enjoy all the aspects of wrapping up an academic year.  All aspects except one:  the COUNTDOWN.

The dreaded countdown.  

How many instructional days left?  How many days till summer break?  How many student contact days?  How many days till I am on a plane headed “home?”  

No matter how it is framed or what method is used (corner of white board, calendar cross off, having students count remaining days, a countdown app on your device), I believe a “countdown” devalues the educational process.  Why?

A countdown tells the viewer (students, peers, parents, administrators) that the only thing that really matters is when school ends — not the learning that is in progress.  Why are we telling students to be so excited for their structured learning environment and daily inquiry process to come to an end?  If we are so focused on the end of the academic year then what value are we assigning to all the days of meaningful instruction that have not yet occurred?  By highlighting the last day of school as a celebration, I feel the messaging is that school is a chore, boring, something that has to be done rather than something we get to celebrate daily.  Educators should be counting every contact day with students as a learning opportunity yet to be had and creating an atmosphere of excitement about the opportunity to gather as a classroom community to inquire, unpack, and explore together.  We should model for students that learning is something to celebrate and build excitement for as learning happens every day. Counting down toward the end of an academic year does not promote the zeal and excitement around acquiring knowledge to create lifelong learners.  Instead it says “Hey, you get 180 days to learn and then — BOOM — take a break (and you “deserve” that break because school is hard, boring, and monotonous).”  Students pick up on our attitudes and messaging whether we intend them to or not.  If we are not placing a value on every academic day then why should they?  While we might not intend for a countdown to be detrimental to academic progress, I have yet to hear anyone to argue the benefit for student academic growth.

So, in a time when we are all getting ansty and thinking about things to come, what can we do instead of a countdown?  My suggestions:

1. Set daily goals of things you want to accomplish during the workday and cross those off the list instead of days.  Make them small goals of meaningful tasks to accomplish.  Give meaningful feedback on the latest assessment.  Get in a peer’s classroom for an observation.  Read a blog on assessment in inquiry.  Try a new teaching strategy.  Set a daily goal or two and make yourself follow through on accomplishing it.  Then, once you have achieved your daily goal, scratch it out and reflect on the process.

2. Take the initiative and lead a year end closure project or opportunity.  As the end of the academic year approaches, there are always too many projects that need accomplished at the school and never enough time.  Volunteer to take the lead on a goodbye assembly, grade 5 moving up project, organize a year end celebration for leaving staff, review documents that need updated prior to the next academic year, be part of the new staff orientation planning process, facilitate group sessions for students leaving the school and moving, or plan something totally new and innovative in your community.  By focusing on something extra or bigger than yourself, you will find the year end becomes too busy to count down.  You also model learning and growing yourself professionally and not shutting off because the “end is in sight.”

3. Develop engaging, innovative lessons that you have not tried before to promote student engagement and inquiry.  Excitement is contagious.  When students are engaged in meaningful, impactful, and purposeful learning, they will let you know.  You will also find that the more student excitement there is, the more excitement you will feel as a teacher.  When you are excited about something, do you really want whatever it is that is making you feel good to end?!?

4. If nothing else, remember — you are a teacher.  Your job means that you should be promoting learning and knowledge in your practice.  You chose to join a profession that, yes, has long breaks, but is tasked with developing a passion and desire for learning with every student you interact with.  Focus on the task you have at hand and represent the profession well.  Set high standards for yourself and then strive to achieve them.  At the end of every day, reflect and ask yourself, “Did my actions today promote or discourage students from becoming life-long, self-directed learners?”  I would reckon a big number on the board representing how many days left of the school year would not garner a tally in the “promote” column.

So, please, I implore you — wrap the academic year up when it needs to wrap up — after the students have left for the summer break.  Don’t start wrapping it up 54, 53, 52 … days early.  Kill the countdown and focus on the day in front of you.

Tapping into Knowledge: Edcamp as Professional Development

At the end of every event must be celebration and reflection.  Back in September I floated an idea to our divisional leadership team.  As we sat and discussed our long range professional development plan for the year, I threw out the idea of introducing EdCamp as part of our PD structure.  The team of 7 other leadership professionals had never heard of the model and were intrigued.  But, just like things do in a school setting … conversation moved along and we were on to another topic.

A few days later, one of my coworkers and fellow leadership team members (our PYP coordinator) approached me with, “So, about this EdCamp … tell me more.” My smile must have been huge as I explained, mumbled, and rushed my way through the EdCamp model and all it’s benefits as part of a balanced professional development plan.  What felt like eons later (which was only a matter of minutes) she looked at me and said, “I’m in.  How do we do this?”  So began the amazing experience that we have had over the last 7 months of planning, launching, and adapting the EdCamp Model for an International Elementary School setting.

So how did we get here, now 7 months later, where I am reflecting on the process and already celebrating success and planning tweaks for next year?  It really was quite simple:

Step 1:  Recognize and celebrate the fact that in our elementary campus alone, we have over 125 staff who are professionals filled with knowledge, resources, and passion that needs to be shared.  Instead of focusing on a few individuals within the school who might have “tenure” or “titles” as people who should “develop” us, we looked at all the voices that had yet to be heard.  We acknowledged the fact that each educator within our school carries a backpack of knowledge that they have never really had the opportunity to unpack.  We also recognized that empowering our staff to develop one another, rather than the same few talking at the front of the room, would create buy-in and trust in our professional learning environment.

Step 2: Advocate for the idea of a low-stakes, professional development model like EdCamp as a portion of our school’s professional development plan.  To our leadership team we explained the model, shared resources, websites, research, and anecdotal notes on why the EdCamp model has been effective in over 100 countries around the world.  We did not say “eliminate the antiquated model of one person standing and talking at staff” but rather we said, “let’s make teachers training teachers a part of our plan.”  This allowed staff who might have been a little more apprehensive about handing over PD time feel more at ease — we were not reinventing the PD model, we were simply looking to shift the paradigm.  We also noted, “If it is a flop, we can cut it.  BUT WE HAVE TO TRY!”

Step 3: Put our ears to the ground and listen.  We listened to staff in their everyday conversations and along the way, collected valuable information.

“Have you heard that teacher X just finished CAFE training?”

“I just read an article about music and science integration in the KG classroom.”

“Teacher Y has the coolest idea for a new literacy center.”

“Teachers Z and F just had the funniest conversation about basic Arabic phrases each teacher should know.”

As we overheard these conversations, we took notes and noted them as potential learning/sharing opportunities from a variety of staff.  Within a matter of days we had collected over 20 different ideas that would make for amazing EdCamp topics and we had barely scratched the surface.

Step 4: Recruit our teachers to participate in the EdCamp model of PD whether they bought into the model or not.  We invited staff from our created list above to a meeting to share with them “an exciting new proposal of professional development.”  At the meeting we shared our vision, a few videos on what EdCamp looks like, and the idea of teachers dialoguing with teachers to inquire into topics that are valid, timely, and meaningful to them.  As the staff kind of looked around like “so what” we then broke out of list of conversations we had heard around the halls.  We then asked them to be risk-takers and step up at our first EdCamp to sign up to facilitate a discussion.  We provided them an “out” and explained that this had nothing to do with power points or being an expert who is disseminating information.  Rather, come with a question, an inquiry, and a desire to share with other professionals.  Low stakes and high returns — that is the entire premise of EdCamp.

EdCamp Wall

Our first EdCamp sign up wall.

Step 5: Launch the model school-wide and get entire staff excited to learn/develop in a new, meaningful way.  For a week, we had a colorful board with blank construction paper in our common room.  Staff were encouraged to sign up to host a camp around a specific topic.  As staff stepped out of their comfort zones and created EdCamp topics, more and more staff stopped to ask questions and inquire into the model.  It was a natural provocation — EdCamp Style.  At the end of the first week of sign up, we had 12 different sessions that staff had volunteered to host.  As we stood at our staff meeting, explained the model, reminded everyone the onice on learning and developing fell on their shoulders, you could feel the energy in the room.  Some were excited. Some were skeptics.  No matter what, though, everyone was required to participate.  As we regathered as a collective staff at the end of our first hour session of Edcamp, people were talking.  We did a reflection share out (share with someone not in your camp a new learning/take-away/question) and then scaled the success of the first event.  The feedback was positive.  People felt empowered, engaged, and excited to be part of a professional development plan that valued the voices of those around them. My educator goosebumps ensued.

Step 6: Create a system for staff to suggest new EdCamp topics or request specific camps to be covered.  We allowed staff to have voice and make requests of how to direct their learning.  After each EdCamp PD session, we would tear down the previous EdCamp board and create a blank slate for new staff to sign up to facilitate a camp. There was lots of encouragement and many reminders that anyone was qualified to post a topic (and times we thought the board would never fill up).  However, by the start of every staff meeting where EdCamp was the model of PD, we had our required number of sessions and a large variety of learning that would be happening from-peers-for-peers in our elementary halls.

A space for staff to make recommendations for future EdCamp topics.

A space for staff to make recommendations for future EdCamp topics.

Step 7:  Require “action” and ask staff — “What are you doing to continue your learning now that your hour session is done.”  Some of this self-directed action took the form of:  Visiting other classes to see how centers are utilized/setup.  Sharing journal articles and research found after the camp was over.  Setting up Twitter accounts to connect with the global PLC.  Inviting a teacher in to facilitate a mystery Skype with her classroom so the other teacher could observe/learn.  Creating a Google Doc of music for Brain Breaks and Mindfulness.  And much, much more.  As connections were created inside the EdCamp, they continued to develop outside of the professional development “required hours.”  We saw a shift in staff feeling more comfortable collaborating with fellow staff and not looking at each other as judging competition.  What a victory that is.

An EdCamp Formative -- Do staff appreciate this model of PD?

An EdCamp Formative — Do staff appreciate this model of PD?

Step 8: Keep reflecting on the effectiveness and impact this model has on professional development.  As a team (of 2) planning EdCamp and advocating to keep it in the PD rotation, we regularly reflected, collected feedback, and adjusted the model as our staff saw appropriate.  We never settled or stopped asking “How can we improve?  Is this model of PD developing staff for the betterment of students?  Should we continue EdCamp?”  Rather we let this be an ever-changing, organic, working-process that grew out of the interests and expertise of the school community and continued to direct back to the staff that the success of this model relied on them.

And so, as the school year is winding down and staff meetings have become filled with all the year end requirements of an international school, we are saying goodbye to EdCamp until August.  It has been an exciting, eye-opening, and at times frustrating experience.  However, the final feedback and reflection has been positive and promising that the model can continue on in the upcoming academic year.  Staff feels empowered and they trust that their admin team views them as knowledgeable, valuable employees with skills and knowledge that can be imparted beyond their classroom walls.  If nothing else, I call this self-efficacy success — EdCamp Style.  Let the celebrations ensue!

Being Reflective with “Trouble Starters”

“How do I make friends?”  “How do I keep friends?”  These are two of the questions that I am most frequently asked by students across all grade levels in my daily counseling practice.  In response, I always start by turning back to the IB Learner Profile and reviewing with students what it means to be reflective.  Students explain their knowledge and understanding of this profile trait and I reiterate that being reflective means thinking about yourself and the role you play in any situation.

Then, I turn to one of my most trusted resources to help students in their reflection process and in making meaning of their friendship questions and issues.  I pull out my “Trouble Starters” list which I originally found in a book from the American Girl Company called Friends: Making them and keeping them (Criswell, 2006).  This resource names 10 actions or choices that a student (or adult) might make that would most likely cause conflict with a friend.

10 Trouble Starters in an infographic I made for use in my counseling practice.

10 Trouble Starters in an infographic I made for use in my counseling practice.


Together the student and I look through the list, one item at a time.  I make sure the student understands what each action means and that they have context for the statement.  We then spend time dialoguing around why this might cause problems with friends.  Then, I ask the student to reflect silently on if she/he might have ever intentionally or accidentally engaged in that action.  Often the student shares out his/her response and a personal example or connection.  After this I always ask, “In the future, what will look different?”  At this point, the student usually spends some time thinking and responding about different choices she/he could make to avoid a trouble starter with friends.  Sometimes we spend time planning for actual conversations or situations.  Sometimes it is more theoretical or vague.  No matter what, I always communicate that we are focusing on his/her actions NOT the friend’s actions as the only person we can ever change is our self.

I have found that this list of Trouble Starters is a powerful tool for students of all ages as they can make personal connections between their actions and the impact on the friendship.  Each trouble starter also seems to be a universal action that students comprehend regardless of home culture, community, or country making this a great resource for the international school community.  I have also had many students report back when they 1) caused conflict with friends by using a trouble starter or 2) avoided conflict by choosing a different action.  When this happens I always acknowledge the student being reflective and either celebrate or counsel accordingly.

Trouble Starters has been in my counseling tool kit for years.  What other resources do you rely on to explicitly teach friendship skills?  How do you encourage student reflection?

Criswell, P.K.  (2006).  Friends: Making them and keeping them.  Middleton, WI:  American Girls Publishing, Inc.

16 Habits of Mind and the Learner Profile

At a recent NESA council of overseas schools conference, Dr. Bena Kalick presented on the Habits of Mind and why they make a difference in schools. The 16 Habits of Mind are especially interesting to me in that they relate to how students react when a answer, solution, or information is not immediately known. As a counselor, I believe we should develop students who possess the habits of mind that causes them to actively seek out solutions and information on their own accord.  We should ask ourselves, do students demonstrate habits that indicate resilience and grit and a willingness to dig deep when needed?  If our students do not exemplify this on a regular basis, educators should question how they can teach habits of mind so as to develop students who behave resourcefully when solutions are not immediately known?

As I geeked out over the habits of mind and began planning implementation for my own school community, I suddenly stopped.  I realized that in an IB school where PYP concepts, skills, attitudes, and themes are already being addressed, some teachers are not going to be excited about introducing yet another set of terms, words, or ideas.  So, how could I impart on staff that Habits of Mind are an important skill set to recognize and explicitly teach students without being another check mark on a “to cover” list?


Align the 16 Habits of Mind (new instruction) with the IB Learner Profile (already in place).  

So, that’s what I did.


Habits of Mind are all “-ing” verbs meaning they show action.  Therefore, for example, when a child is “managing his/her impulsivity” (Habit of Mind) this is evidence that that child is progressing in being “principled” (IB Learner Profile).  Or if a child is “questioning and problem solving” or “creating, imagining, and innovating” (Habits of Mind) these are indicators that this student is on the path of being an “inquirer” (IB Learner Profile).

In my opinion, the 16 Habits of Mind are tangible, action-based skills that students can practice on their progression of developing learner profile traits.  Habits of Mind provides a concrete understanding and exemplar for students to know what actions would equate development in a specific learner profile trait.  It is not another thing for teachers to check off but something that can be promoted in class or recognized when students are exemplifying a Habit of Mind action.  By no means are the Habits of Mind the only way to reiterate or promote the learner profile.  However, they seem to naturally align and compliment one another in developing students who demonstrate resilience, grit, and the willingness to dig deep when it is required of them.

Costa, A. & Kallick, B. (2000). Habits of Mind: A developmental series. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

…But Who Takes Care of You?

One question that I regularly hear from my principal/co-workers/family members/friends is:

“You take care of so many.  Who takes care of you?”  

It is not a secret that being a counselor can be an emotionally charged experience.  A lot is shared with a counselor — happy stories, joyous experiences, celebrations, laughter.  On the flip side — anger, hurt, resentment, fear, angst, really lousy situations. It takes a lot of balance for a counselor to practice empathy while also keeping up a shield and working through emotion without making it your own.  This is a skill that is hard to perfect (and many never do).

Over the years of my professional development and practice, I have been able to identify a handful of ways to refresh, recharge, and release.  This helps me to achieve an optimal balance of demonstrating empathy while maintaining a tough skin so as to serve others.  While my five strategies might not work for all, they might provide a good jumping off point for developing your own self-care plan.

1. Find Your Release.  Everybody has something that brings them peace.  Running.  Writing.  Dancing.  Cooking.  Riding horses.  Silence.  Music.  Family.  Organizing.  Whatever it is that makes you feel the most calm and full of solace is your release.  It is the activity that you can get lost in and before long, all your thoughts seem to disappear.  When it’s been a particularly bad day, make sure you engage in that activity.  Spend time “doing” and soon you will realize that the “thinking” has subsided.

2.  Just do you.  Spend time reflecting.  Counseling should be reflective in nature both for participant and practitioner.  In my experience counselors are highly skilled at helping other people be reflective but spend limited time reflecting on themselves.  Reflect on why this one day/event/issue might have had more weight for you.  Reflect on why this conversation triggered you or impacted you in the way it did.  Reflect on what you could do differently to work through the issue without bringing it home with you.  Reflect. Reflect. Reflect.

3.  Get comfortable with “no.”  When your plate is full and you are starting to feel like you are losing your balance, say NO.  Turn down an offer for something.  Tell your team you need some support.  Tell a teacher/parent/student that his/her request will have to wait for a bit.  It’s okay to choose how you invest your time.  Learn the power of saying “no” and feel yourself re-balancing.

4.  Identify safe people.  These are the people in your life who support you, love you, want to spend time with you because they appreciate you as you — not you as counselor.  They do not need an explanation of your day or emotions.  They are happy to engage with you and remind you that there is more to your life than your professional self.  Identify those individuals and seek them out.  Talk about anything and everything but work and then thank that individual for allowing you to be your best self.

5.  When all else fails, just _______ (Fill in the blank): Drink coffee, go for a walk, cry, laugh, get angry, run, bake (and eat) cookies.  Sometimes the best way to achieve balance is to just rid yourself of the emotional charge you are carrying.  You know what makes you feel better — even if you feel a little worse, first — so do it.  Release and move through it.

A counselor cannot effectively care for others without first caring for him/herself.  If you take care of yourself and find strategies that work to keep you balanced, your practice will be productive and you will be able to maintain taking care of others.

In the Conflict: Exhibition Guidance

It is the time of year in IB Primary Years Program schools where the upper grade students are diving into the world of the PYP Exhibition.  The goal of the exhibition is to help students synthesize their understanding of the PYP through student centered group inquiry.  The reality is that with all this student centered group inquiry also comes a lot of group conflict.

In my current school community, part of the exhibition process includes proactive classroom guidance lessons around conflict and conflict resolution.  Over the past few years it has become evident that providing students with a simple framework of how to address conflict when it arises has reduced the amount of conflict that impedes student productivity and negatively impacts the exhibition process.

The American School Counselor Association Model’s Personal/Social Domain notes that through self-knowledge application students will “use a decision-making and problem-solving model” in order to “make decisions, set goals, and take necessary action to achieve goals” (ASCA, 2005).  The International Model for School Counseling Programs Global Perspective Domain also notes that student should “recognize that cultural values and beliefs may conflict” (IMSCP, 2011).  With these guiding documents in mind, I developed guidance lessons to prepare students for the impending conflict that is enmeshed in a group of 10 year olds creating and unpacking their own inquiry cycle.

The Lesson:  To start the lesson, students did a brief Think-Pair-Share around the word conflict.  What is it?  How do we define it?  Where have we observed conflict before?  We then spend time dialoguing about how conflict can be positive and healthy if we work through conflict to solve problems.  Students are typically challenged the idea that a “problem” or “fight” can be a good thing and it typically takes some concrete student-shared examples of times when conflict was resolved to fully grasp this concept.

We then spend time as a class exploring what might cause conflict.  Being in an international community, some common answers include “being from different countries, being from different religions, believing different things, liking different things.”  Students make the connection that cultural differences or something as simple as what country one is from can create natural conflict.

After conflict has been unpacked and normalized, a simple 4 step conflict resolution model is introduced.  Students are informed that if they only remember 1 thing it should be “C-T-C-T.”  The four steps include:

1) Communicate:  Use “I statements” to explain your point of view.  Remember that communication means talking and listening.  Attack the problem, not the person.

2) Think:  Brainstorm all possible ways to resolve the issue or solve the conflict.  Come up with ideas and think creatively.  Always ask yourself “what needs to happen so we can solve this issue?”

3) Compromise:  Remember that this needs to be a “win-win” situation for all parties involved.  Everyone needs to walk away feeling good about the decision being made. *Some ways that grade 5 students noted they could reach compromise include flipping a coin, picking a number between 1 and 10, taking turns making the decision, rock, paper, scissors.  Whatever you choose, make sure all group members agree on the outcome first.

4) Try and try again:  If the idea does not work or the conflict is not resolved, pick another idea and start again.  Remember that working through conflict takes work and is a skill that we have to develop and learn over time.

After we create an anchor chart with the 4 steps to conflict resolution, a case study is presented to model the steps. Students role play and share out their methods of resolving the conflict in the case study.

Finally, the conflict becomes real for the students as an activity is introduced.  Students are divided into groups of 4.  Each group is provided a marker and some paper.  Each marker has 4 equal pieces of string taped to it.  Each student can hold one string at the end of the string.  They are not allowed to touch the marker, paper, or move their hands up the string closer to the marker.  They are presented the challenge of having to draw pictures as a group holding only their string.

Time is provided to Communicate and Think (Brainstorm).  The first challenge is presented (“Draw the letter ‘A'”) and the conflict ensues.  As groups work to complete the assigned task, tensions arise.  Voices get loud.  Emotions escalate.  Typically some groups stay calm and work together.  More commonly, groups become very tense, agitated, and begin to implode unable to complete the task.

After a few moments, the task is stopped and students are asked to be reflective.  How many had conflict?  How many continued to communicate, think, compromise, and try new strategies?  How many used attacking language and gave up?  What would need to change for their group to be successful in their second attempt?

As the activity continues and the challenges get a little more difficult (draw a triangle, square and circle.  Draw your teacher), groups continue to struggle through with conflict.  Some become more aware of stopping to talk, re-strategize, and listen to one another.  Others continue to be caught in frustration and unable to be productive.

Finally, we regather as a class to debrief.  The question, “Tell me what happened?” is presented and the students begin to respond in a variety of ways.  Some celebrate their successes.  Others reflect on their failure.  Some name where their team got off track.  Others try to play the blame game and accuse one team member.  More often than not, the class makes the connection that they were deliberately put under stress and in a tough group situation to see how they reacted and if they remembered “C-T-C-T.”

When asked, “What do you think this activity has to do with exhibition?” many students understand that it will take a team to create a final project.  Most likely there will be conflict within this team.  The best thing is to stay solution-focused and work through the tension before it gets too big to manage.

The guidance is not a catch all. Through the exhibition process there is still ample conflict we guide and assist groups through.  However, being proactive in teaching conflict resolution skills and normalizing group conflict provides a healthy jumping off point for groups as they head into the rewarding, yet stress, exhibition process.

The Goal

When it comes to school counseling resources, the cup overfloweth.  There are blogs, books, webinars, chats, Pinterest pages and conferences galore related to school counseling.  If you need assistance in coming up with a group counseling session, stand alone guidance lesson, or parent chat, all you have to do is visit Google, and BOOM, you have what you need.

When it comes to resources for international school counselors, though, things are looking a little more dry.  Not only does there seem to be a lack of resources related to international school counseling but there seems to be even less for school counselors in IB schools.

Here is where I come in.  Instead of being frustrated and heading down the never ending rabbit hole of searching resources that may or may not align to an international counseling program, I decided I would take the matter into my own hands and start a blog with an international counseling and IB focus.  The goal is to connect international counselors, create a space for resources and ideas, and advocate for the counseling role in international school settings.

So, sit back, get ready and let the globally minded counseling world flow.