The Universal Language of School

Hanoi Journals

I slide off my high heels, adding them to the large pile of shoes at the front of a brightly colored kindergarten building in Hanoi, Vietnam. Looking down the hallway I notice dozens of irregular snowflakes each cut with kid scissors and hung with a teacher’s care. I feel at home.

While I have never been to Vietnam before, much less this specific school, my global travels have shown me that there is a shared humanity that runs across our school hallways. Whether I am at a Catholic school in Brazil, a private school in Vietnam, or a public school in the United States, there are several things I know to be true. These things transcend language, culture, and worldview.  In fact, they may be the magic that makes schools work.

Connection matters

  • It only takes one spark of laughter to change the whole tenor of a classroom. 
  • Learning a new game can bring people together.
  • Though we show it in different ways, we all need to connect.
  • It is absolutely possible to sit with someone who speaks a different language than you and have a conversation.
  • Friends can share a joke without saying a word.
  • There is a renewed sense of possibility each morning when we greet students and colleagues. 
  • Few gifts are more treasured in a school day than receiving art from a student or a hot cup of coffee from a teacher.

Kids are Kids

  • Young children need to dance and sing.
  • Middle school students are curious about everything.
  • You can see both the lasting glimmers of childhood and the new glimmers of adulthood flash across the faces of high school students at play or work.
  • Kids carry big worries and big ideas and they don’t always know how to express those.

Universal Language

  • We straighten our gaze with determined focus when solving an interesting problem. 
  • When we see something beautiful, we want to share it.
  • We nod when we say thank you.
  • We crinkle our eyes to show delight.
  • There is a telltale kind of tired that teachers everywhere wear on their faces at the end of a school day.

I am grateful to Wellspring International Bilingual School for inviting us to spend the week with students and teachers. While I did manage to learn a few phrases in Vietnamese (thank you mostly to a group of sixth grade students), more importantly I learned that it doesn’t take spoken language to say many of the things that matter most in school including: thank you, I see you, I value you, and I’m happy you’re here.

Appreciatively yours, Dr. KFW

The School Leadership Compass

Recently our school launched a new middle school leadership program. This meant we had to reflect on (1) what leadership is and (2) what values we want to nurture in our student leaders. Because great leadership requires the same skill set at all levels in school organization, thinking through how to teach leadership taught me some important lessons about how I want to practice leadership.

Leaders manage deadlines, problem-solve, and work collaboratively with teams of people, some of whom “push their buttons.” Given these demands, how can we make sure our leadership decisions are serving our school community?

The Leadership Compass

We need a well-calibrated leadership compass to point us in the right direction. Electronic compasses are calibrated using location data. This means we have to know where we are to make sense of where we are going. The same is true in leadership. What maps and data do we use to determine where we are?  And how do we chart our progress on going to where we want to go?

What do you base your leadership decisions on? Do you use test data, budget reality, or educational legislation? While standardized scores, funding, and state and federal mandates certainly matter in schools, they shouldn’t be the drivers of our decision-making. What if there was another way to calibrate your leadership compass, one that led to stronger communities, more creative solutions and didn’t compromise on achievement? What if the secret to success in our quantitative measures comes from first valuing qualitative factors?

Before we had digital compasses, our compasses were calibrated by the earth’s magnetic field. I think of this as our steady core values.

Calibrating Your Leadership Compass

A mentor once told me “There are two ways to lead. You can lead with fear or you can lead with love. Both work in the short-term, but only love works long-term.” While I recognized the wisdom in this idea, it wasn’t until I became a principal that I truly understood what she meant.

In thinking about how to calibrate your school leadership compass, love is a good place to start. From there, we can use our core values to give us more specific direction.

The following reflective questions can help us identify those values.

  • What qualities do you want to foster in your school or classroom?
  • What are your long-term goals as a school or class?
  • What are your school or class community’s greatest strengths?
  • What are the most important messages you want to communicate?

Your answers to these questions set your priorities. You can use them to choose the path that honors those qualities you want to foster, that helps your school continue in the direction of your goals, that plays to your communities’ strengths, and that communicates the values you hold. When faced with a tough decision, the leadership compass has yet to let me down. In fact, this model has positively altered how I think about student support, teacher autonomy, student-led initiatives, and second chances.

This all sounds pretty soft

I’ve been thinking about the theoretical tension between soft and hard approaches to leadership. The connotation seems to be that soft is calibrated with a concern for feelings, hard is calibrated with a concern for results, and these two are mutually exclusive. I disagree.  Leaders can be concerned with both feelings and achievement. It comes back to what we value and how we set our priorities.

By using the leadership compass, do I sometimes lean further to the side of generosity, connection, and community? Enthusiastically! Yet because I am basing my decisions on clear values I feel confident in most of the decisions I make. And typically our results bear this out. Our students are engaged in service, learning, and creating amazing work; our teachers are engaged in instruction, learning, and creative support models. Together, we are all rethinking leadership from a values-based approach.

To finish the metaphor, we are finding our way through a complex forest of demands, enthusiastically geocaching toward stronger and more effective learning communities.


Encouragingly, Dr. KFW

Wired for Inclusion

Lessons from our early-elementary classrooms

I recently spent a morning working with and learning from first, second, and third graders at my daughter’s elementary school. As a high school and middle school principal, it’s been awhile since I’ve asked someone to sit criss cross applesauce or posed a question and watched as every hand in the room shot up. There’s nothing quite like that enthusiasm.

I also believe that young children are wired for inclusion. Throughout my career in education, I have been constantly inspired by the ways young children are quick to make friends with peers who are different from them.

This doesn’t mean they don’t see differences, it just means that these differences seldom impact who they choose to color with, kick the ball with, or build a huge tower out of multicolored blocks with. It also doesn’t impact who they choose to give a hug to or receive a hug from.

I have been thinking a lot about inclusion, elementary education, and the lessons we
can learn from neurodiverse student populations. My first teaching position was in an
early elementary classroom for students with disabilities. This position taught me
everything I know about teaching. When we launched our program, I was teaching in
what is called a “self-contained” classroom. The idea was that all of my students’
learning would “be contained” inside this classroom.

I had other ideas.

Learning should never be contained to the four walls of a classroom. I also didn’t want
our class to be isolated from the broader school community. Therefore, I sought out
every opportunity possible to make sure my students were included with their peers in
the general education first-grade program and that those first graders were reciprocallyincluded in our classroom.

Thanks to some critical colleagues who partnered with me on this endeavor, we
adopted new collaborative approaches to managing our class rosters. We said yes to
huge integrated projects like painting a mural or recording a CD together, and we took
numerous field trips to learn outside of the classroom. These experiences made us
better educators, and with hope, they made us better human beings too.

Do you want to learn more about inclusion? Spend time with a diverse group of young
children, preferably during free play or art.

Will young children ask questions about why their friends are different? Of course.
They ask questions about everything. Maybe they haven’t yet had a friend with
physical disabilities or a friend who uses assistive technology. However, their curiosity
is usually satiated with a simple, straightforward answer. This helps me talk; these help
me walk; this helps my weaker eye grow stronger. A few words saying this is who I am
and what I need is usually all it takes for children to get back to the important business
of playing, learning, and making friends.

That we could we all be so wise.

With hope, Dr. KFW