Thursday, 28 September 2017

Honest Recruiting

The most important resource of any school is its teachers! With this in mind, the job of recruiting is an extremely important one. A solid recruiting system can transform school culture, implement quality teaching, create community and make everybody's' life much easier! In the past three years I have grown significantly in this area. My associate, John Ritter and his wife Susan, at Search Associates have invested hours in me, teaching me the principles of recruiting. I would like to acknowledge from the start that much of my current learning has come from them, while also acknowledging, I have a lot yet to learn.

I recently took part in the Search Associates Dubai Fair. This was only my fourth fair to take part in as a recruiter. Speaking to some far more experienced recruiters than myself, I learned that it takes about ten candidates before you get the right fit for one teaching position. I found this to be very true. Recruiting, done thoroughly, is extremely labour intensive but extremely rewarding! 
With Bill Turner from Search Associates

Many international schools recruit through agencies such as Search Associates, International School Services and to a lesser degree The Council of International Schools. One of the great advantages to a reputable agency is that they require references to be submitted by candidates before their profile becomes active. These can help you screen out candidates at the early stages. Their websites also have filters so you can enter specific criteria such as experience or geographic location. There are of course flaws with these systems too, so asking questions and making connections with the associates and other recruiters is key.

So here are some of the eureka moments I have had when it comes to recruiting:

- Building Trust

Perhaps the most successful tool to hiring and retaining strong teachers is to be honest from the get-go. At fairs you will have an opportunity to do a presentation on your school and its context. This is most likely the first time you will meet teachers who are interested in your school. It is a time to sell your city and school. You should find that one thing that sets your school apart from the rest and communicate it clearly. You should also communicate the difficulties living in your context. I remember in Viet Nam the constant noise and honking of horns was difficult to get used to. Be honest from the start!
Speaking to a candidate at a fair
(permission for photo was granted)

- Reference checking

This is something that usually happens after the interview and before an offer is made. I have found it to be the most important part of the process. Checking a reference should be like an interview. It takes time and should always be done by a telephone call. Nowadays school leaders are very careful what they write, so if you want the truth, a call is the way to go. A great tip I learned is the awkward silence. When you are asking questions say something like, ''Is there anything else you would like to add?'' If the referee says no, say, ''ok?'' and leave a silence. It is incredible what can often come next. I cannot stress the importance of making connections through social networking. In IB schools, very often the PYP coordinator is not a reference on the C.V. or Search, however, this person is the one who plans with, teaches with and trains the teacher. More than once a Tweet to a fellow PYPC has saved our school years of pain!

It is vital to match the potential teacher to the culture of the school.

- Screening candidates

I am not one to be wooed by a great C.V., or PYP, or PhD for that matter. I am looking for somebody who has stayed for a significant amount of time at a school and who has perhaps been promoted in one of their previous positions. I believe pedagogy to be half of the equation and a positive attitude to be the other half. But how do you find the right candidate? It all starts with screening through hundreds of C.V.s. One of the questions in the confidential reference Search Associates asks is to rate a candidate between one to ten on how they impact school moral or climate. If this figure is consistently below seven, I will look no further. After this I will look for teaching experience, program knowledge, length of stay at schools and read the personal bio. Again looking for the right fit to school culture is key.

- Interviews

The decision to make an offer should not made by one person. This I believe is dangerous, as if I had my way our entire staff might love hurling, Guinness, singing and potatoes. Our Head of School will always conduct a second interview so the decision goes through at least the two of us and often the HR manager too. The interview is a time to determine the candidates knowledge of teaching and learning, not their character. Anybody can be nice for thirty minutes, character is checked through the references. Use the interview time to ask about teaching, classroom setup, personal pedagogy, communication with parents, assessment beliefs and other teaching related areas.

- Offers

Another key point I learned from John Ritter at Search Associates is to give candidates a reasonable amount of time to consider an offer. I have found one week to be reasonable. At Search fairs there is a minimum time of 24 hours to give candidates. I would advise you give them longer and not rush them to make a decision they will regret. It is much better to recruit a teacher who has made a well informed decision than twisting their arm into signing an offer they will regret.

So there you have it, my current understanding of the recruiting process. There is an old saying "hire slow and fire fast", I thoroughly agree with the first part of this.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Air Quality Control

It is December here in China and we are nice and warm in our apartments, but there is a price to pay... It seems during the winter period that a lot of coal is burned to produce energy for our heating. This practice greatly reduces the quality of our air. The Air Quality Index (AQI) is reading 198 today indoors and people around me cough, yet only I am wearing a mask. Becoming a principal and being responsible for 200+ pairs of lungs has turned me into a bit of an AQI nut. The point of this blog post is to share my research over a one year period on air quality and to share the best methods I have found so far to keep our children safe.

AQI is a measure of pollutants in the air. Different countries have different levels at which they consider the air to be dangerous. In this blog post, I will be referring to the AQI in China but, more importantly, I hope to give you an understanding of particles 2.5 aerodynamic diameter per square meter. This term refers to tiny pieces of pollution per square meter in the air you breath. They are dangerous because they can enter the lungs and have been linked to numerous serious diseases mentioned here. Please see the table below for the amount of particle matter size 2.5 ug/m3 that is considered safe and dangerous in China. My advice to you however, is to learn to read the PM 2.5ug/m3 instead of the AQI and base your decisions on this. 
AQI China but note the left column (Source: Grandmaster Kevin via Wikipedia)

After explaining the problem, I would now like to share ways in which we can combat this problem and protect our children. I will start with the home as this is where our children spend most of their time, then move to the classroom, and finally to the entire campus. I will then discuss masks for when you are outdoors or in another polluted environment. One of the devices available now to monitor particles is the Lazer Egg. I find this device to be reliable and have tested it in various environments.
The Lazer Egg can be linked to the Air Matters app to monitor your home.
Here are the two key findings from my research:

1. Indoor air quality is only slightly lower than outdoor air quality on any given day.

2. Good indoor air quality can be maintained with a suitable air purifier and an understanding of the importance of to keeping doors and windows closed.
AQI inside my living room first thing in the morning without air purifiers running.

Our homes are usually one floor apartments. This area can be easily controlled. The key is to have an air purifier running in every room where you want to maintain the air quality. The room should be sealed as much as possible. That means doors and windows need to be closed. You do not need to worry about stagnant air in the apartment. I say this because, as soon as you turn the air purifiers off, the air quality decreases quickly, meaning outside air is coming in constantly. This would not be the case in a properly sealed environment, but I have only seen one of these thus far in my time in China. I discuss this environment below in the campus section.

AQI 220 in bedroom with purifier off.
I have tested a number of air purifiers and recommend the Xiaomi Mi Air Purifier 2. The basic model for 699 RMB works very well for a normal sized room. I have compared this to a Philips air purifier that costs 4500 RMB and the results are every bit as good. It can be controlled from your phone and estimates the air quality. It is not entirely accurate, however, but gives you a good idea. For a double room, a dining and TV room together for example, two purifiers would be required. They should be running 24 hours a day and, most importantly, be in the bedroom where our children sleep for up to ten hours.

AQI down to 17 after 20 mins (Room 12m2)

I have also learned that there are other toxins in the air besides the PM 2.5. A great way to combat these is by having plenty of green leafy plants throughout your home. They purify other toxins out of the air. 


The home is easy to manage, but the classroom is more difficult for a number of reasons. 1. It is usually a bigger room. 2. There are more sets of lungs to care for. 3. Most students and teachers have not been educated on how to control this environment. For a large classroom, a more powerful air purifier is required such as the Honeywell air purifier below. Otherwise at least two of the smaller purifiers are necessary. Again, however, I repeat, if the teacher and students leave the door open to the hallway or open windows, the air quality drops dramatically, very quickly. If the teacher and students diligently keep the door and windows closed and the air purifier on high, the air quality can be kept at a healthy level throughout the day. This particular part of the research was carried out on the highest pollution day of the year so the Honeywell was really put to the test. The classroom was also very large, 80m2. On a day when the AQI is at about 200 the Honeywell will get the classroom down to 40 or lower. They are excellent machines but very expensive. The school in question has rented them from Honeywell. They come to maintain the filters.

The Lazer Egg AQI maxes out at 500, this is another reason to read the PM2.5(ug/m3)
Inside AQI on the worst day of the year so far.
80m2 classroom after Honeywell running for 30 minutes
PM2.5(ug/m3) and AQI after Honeywell running for over an hour

Without quality construction, it is impossible to keep the public areas of a school campus safe (halls, cafeteria etc.). Properly sealed doors and windows are a must, as is a ventilation system that pushes bad air out and pushes good air in. If you are in a workplace without this kind of construction and technology, then just work on keeping your classrooms and offices safe. This can be done by following the instructions above, but requires a lot of reminding (doors closed, purifiers on). There is a school in Beijing that has invested heavily in air quality. It is called The Western Academy of Beijing. Information about their air quality system may be found here. It pressurises the entire building by blowing clean filtered air through large cylindrical sacks throughout the halls. The windows and doors are sealed to high standards and, when a door is opened to enter the building, the pressurised clean air shoots out, preventing the bad air from coming in. They are vigilant about keeping doors closed.

Clean air is pumped into the campus (windows completely sealed)

The inside of the building is pressurised with clean air
Lazer Egg inside the primary school campus at WAB
A dome filled with purified air for children to play inside.

When you have to go out in polluted air, the only way to protect yourself and your family is by purchasing quality masks. Remember that, in a taxi, on a bus, or in any regular building the air quality is as bad inside as it is outside, so keep your mask on if you want to keep the 2.5s out of your lungs! There are lots of masks coming out now that have good filtration of the 2.5 particles, but I have learned that the seal around the face is the key component. 3M masks are the standard in China for adults. They advertise keeping 90-99% of the PM 2.5 out depending on the model. The model that advertises keeping out 99% of the 2.5 is the one you should purchase, but I have not been able to find it yet and have settled for the 3M9001V. 

The other fabric masks such as Cambridge or Vogmask masks have good filtration but a terrible seal. For this reason, I recommend the 3M brand above, for adults. If you have facial hair or do not diligently ensure you form a good seal, you might as well put on one of those medical masks which are completely useless. Follow the directions carefully on the 3M box on how to create and test a good seal. This is very important, especially how to mould the nose band properly. 3M do not manufacture masks for children so for my girls I purchase the Cambridge or Vogmasks as they have child sizes, but the seal is terrible so I do not know if they are effective at all.

I wish I had known all of this information 2 1/2 years ago when I first came to China, but, as always, I am still learning. I hope it is useful for you in keeping your family and students safe.

References & Thanks

Thanks to: Grandmaster Kevin, Kirsten Lalor, Dr. Landon Darelik, David Brooker, The Principal's Training Center Network & The Western Academy of Beijing.

Further reading:

Friday, 30 December 2016

How to Make a Cup of Coffee

This blog has been devoted to learning, however, this is just too important not to share. It could be considered a science lesson perhaps. Key concepts such as change, perspective or function could drive the inquiry. ATL clusters such as self-management and social skills could be taught, but the real motivation is to pass on something very special. Most of the following was taught to me by Grandmaster Kevin, of Xi'an community fame.

The Beans

Firstly, the beans. You need to find beans that have been recently roasted. Beans roasted within the past three days are ideal. Stay away from what the big names call dark roast. This means burnt beans. You are looking for the likes of the beans below, brown in colour with that yellow line down the split. Big chains will be using beans that could have been roasted a month ago, or longer! Now that you have your beans, you need to take out your tools: a coffee grinder, electronic scales, paper filters, funnel and jug. A small investment in the best cup of coffee ever!
Beans courtesy of TN Coffee Roasting Factory Xi'an

The Ratio

A ratio of 16:1 of water to beans is ideal. When you take into consideration the water that gets trapped in the beans, this should be increased to 18:1. On your scales, measure out your beans. 35 grammes of beans makes two mugs of coffee. If you use 35g of beans, then you need to measure out and boil 630 grammes of water (35x18). The water temperature should be 93 degrees. Experts such as Grandmaster Kevin use a thermometer to measure the water, but if you leave your electric kettle to cool down for a minute after boiling, this will suffice. 
Measuring the beans to water ratio

The Pour

It is important to rinse your filter paper before putting in the coffee. This washes out the paper taste. If you doubt this makes a difference, try it and then take a sip of the water! After you put in your beans, you may do, "the first pour". Cover the coffee evenly with a very thin layer of water and then stop. This allows the carbon dioxide to leave the beans. The resulting shape of the beans is known as, "the first bloom" as it will look...beautiful. After the water has drained, continue to pour the remaining water over the beans, slowly and evenly, pausing to allow it to drain through. Stop when the measurement of water runs out. 
The early bloom from the first pour over
Now, pour the coffee from the jug intermittently between the two cups. This ensures an even distribution of the coffee. Finally, enjoy and, believe me, it is worth it!
The drip

Saturday, 26 November 2016

PYP Authorisation

This past year has been a great learning experience for me. One of the highlights of the year came on Saturday the 10th of June when our principal sent out a message saying that we had become an authorised IB PYP school. This was something that our primary team had been working towards for years and something I became very much invested in when I became PYP coordinator. In this blog post I would like to share some of the learning in this journey, in order to hopefully help other schools work towards their verification visit.

The Standards

As you prepare for authorisation it is important to be very clear about which standards the visiting team members will be measuring your school on. There are about 111 standards and practices in the PYP. Each of these standards must be addressed in your self-study report but not in a school's initial authorisation. There are about 30 standards to be met for authorisation. It is of the utmost importance that the pedagogical leadership team and at least the PYP coordinator (PYPC) clearly understands what these 30 or so standards are. This information may be clearly found in the document, "Guide to school authorization: Primary Years Programme (2010)". Knowing exactly what these standards are make the process much clearer and much more easily attainable.

The PYP Guide to school authorisation shows standards that must be in place.
The Consultant

A PYP candidate school is provided a consultant from the IB. The experience of this person is a big factor in the success of the authorisation process. Fortunately for us an extremely knowledgeable, caring and experienced lady by the name of Di Fisk became our consultant. She was one of the main reasons behind the success of our program. Other important factors are: the commitment of teachers to the program, support of the pedagogical leadership team and the organisational and communication skills for the PYPC. The consultant communicates with the school via an online portal called Basecamp and through Skype. I would strongly advise the PYPC to communicate with the consultant as much as possible. This is your most valuable source of guidance.

The Consultancy Visit

As part of your consultancy process there is a visit. This serves as a chance for the consultant to see first hand what stage the school is at and to provide the school with a detailed report. It is also a chance for the school to have a practice visit in order to prepare for the real one. Your consultant would also be a visiting team member (though of course not for your school) so this is a good chance to plan as this were the real thing. Some useful tips are to personally pick up the consultant at the airport, provide a car and driver for him/her to and from a nice hotel, as near to the school as possible. A nice meal at the end of the visit and parting gift is always a nice touch. This would not be appropriate for the official visit but it is important for a young school to spend as much time as possible with the consultant as they should be a font of PYP knowledge for you. Remember this person has a good relationship with the IB and it is a small community! At the end of the visit the consultant will provide the school with a "traffic light report". This will show you the standards you are meeting, are not meeting and the ones that are in progress. The standards you are not meeting must be addressed immediately, and well before the verification visit.

The traffic light report shows standards that were not in place.

School Leadership

It is of the utmost importance that the school leadership is on board. Some standards that will show this are standards B1, B2 and C1. One immediate way to know if the leadership is on board is whether Standard C1.2 is a priority. Collaboration meetings should be timetabled throughout the week. An agenda for these meetings should be kept and be saved for the visit team. It is obvious from the class timetables as to whether the school leadership prioritises collaboration or not. In 2014 I wrote my thesis on PLCs and found that meetings after school are not nearly as effective as meetings timetabled during the day.
Sample agenda for the visit.
The Verification Visit

The visit is a two day event, when two IB educators come out to see if you are meeting the standards. There are a lot of documents that need to be uploaded to a site called IB DOCS prior to the visit. Ensure these documents are filled in accurately and thoroughly. Have a room prepared with hard copies of any requested documents prepared. I would also advise appropriate snacks and drinks to be prepared in the room. Ensure that the interviews with key stake holders such as the Head of School, parents, students and teachers have been carefully planned. Expectations should be clearly explained. A very important part of preparing for the visit is to have regular information sessions for parents like the ones I blogged about here.

Best of luck on your journey. It is a great learning experience!


IBO, 2010, Guide to school authorization: Primary Years Programme, Cardiff.

Lalor & Abawi (2014) Professional learning communities enhancing teacher experiences in international schools, International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning, 9:1, 76-86, DOI: 10.1080/18334105.2014.11082021 

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Parents Learning the PYP

One of this things I love about the PYP is the emphasis on community learning. Personally I am continually developing in my understanding of the program and am fortunate enough to be in a place now where I can pass on what I know to others. The teachers in my school are learning all the time and sometimes when I see the lessons they do I am blown away. In the past two weeks I have seen lessons varying from students dissecting organs to a music provocation where classes visited an organ being installed in a concert hall. It should go without saying that the students are learning, but this blog post is to share the success of the learning journey our parents have been on.

I remember when I took my first PYP coordinator job a couple of years back. We were in the process of authorization and our incredible consultant Di Fisk advised us to create a newsletter and to schedule regular parent information sessions. We got to work and I did what I knew to do, created lovely presentations and presented to parents about the history of the program and used the resources available from the Digital Toolkit. These were a wonderful resource!

Later after I had been to my second workshop the penny finally dropped that the work shop leaders were modelling how to teach in the classroom. And, I can tell you I have studied under some of the best of them. A shout out to Kathy & Kathy! It was during their PYPC workshop that they explicitly told us we could use their strategies in our classes and staff meetings. I immediately started to change my staff meetings to be more collaborative but it was not until later that it carried over to my parent information sessions. 

Over the past couple of years I have led parent coffee mornings on the five essential elements, concept based curriculum, ATLs and assessment to name a few. My own learning and development can be clearly seen in the way these meetings played out, from that first presentation in the auditorium to the most recent workshop on the five essential elements. During this session I started with the provocation, "What do you want your child to learn?" I had the parents share this in groups and provided large sheets of paper and pens for them to draw with. I told them that afterwards they would need to present in any language or in any form. I did not get any singers yet!
Their combined responses, some of which are below blew my mind. From those early days when parents were asking me for more homework and if there was a textbook they could photocopy:) to this, the development is incredible. Themes like: "learning how to learn", "appreciation of art" & "care for the environment", really showed me that we are starting to get it. Not that they are starting to get it, that we are starting to get it. I am so proud of my students:)

So here is a suggested way to plan a parents coffee morning. Send out the invitation to all parents and ask for RSVPs. Also ask them that if they have any questions about the programme to include them. I have had turnouts of 2/3 parents so DO NOT LET THAT DETER YOU! The numbers will grow over the years you invest in your community. Have the tables set in groups as a class would be and have large sheets of paper and markers on each table. I start the meeting at 9:00 am but tell parent they are welcome for coffee anytime after 8:30. During this time you can chat and it is very interesting what comes up. Any principal will know how valuable this is;)
For the first few minutes I sound like a salesman for the PYP and I joke about that, as I introduce the 5 essential elements or whatever the theme is. After that I have a provocation. During this meeting I asked parents the question, "What do you want your child to learn?" Then give as much time as is necessary for parents in groups to share their thoughts and write them down. If you are in a school with a large number of parents who do not speak the language of instruction then have a translator at their table to help out. This last time, this part of the workshop was incredible and is what I mention above. Next I ask each group to present and reinforce their awesome points, like "We want our children to learn how to learn." I kid around too by going over to someone if they are talking and say sorry but which of our ATLs do you need to practice? The communication skill of listening. After this I do my teaching but always coming back to their ideas and connecting them to the theme of the workshop.

I cannot stress the fact that where we are at now did not happen over night. It has been two years. If I can be of any help getting your community going with the PYP don't hesitate to ask and.....keep learning!

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

IBPYP Category 2 Workshop – Teaching & Learning

This past week I participated in an in-school workshop called, Teaching and Learning. My school chose this workshop because we were told it is a good one to do after the Category 1 workshop, Making the PYP Happen. We invited an extremely knowledgeable workshop leader by then name of Sally Wen. The workshop was delivered bilingually, which was highly beneficial in our context.

Sally modelled for us what a PYP classroom looks like. She shared a number of strategies for delivering dynamic lessons. Here I would like to share some of them with you:
Shapes for Grouping
1. The constant themes of the workshop were ‘grouping and regrouping’ & ‘learners socially constructing meaning’. As each participant came in the door on the first day they were asked to take one of the 25 coloured shapes on the first table. We were asked to get in groups according to our colour. (This also served as a covert way to take attendance.)
KWL Chart
2. A wonderwall was posted. This contained three columns: 'Know', 'Want to know' and 'I have learned'. Sally was able to see what we wanted to know after this activity and changed her plans accordingly. This was a good example of constructivism.

3. In order to bring the group back together we learned that holding up your hand was very effective. You then wait for everybody in the group to raise their hands. This reaches learners who are kinesthetic, audio and visual. You should not make eye contact when doing this.

4. We were asked to line up in different ways. An example of this was to line up silently according to your birth date. It is then easy to number off learners for the newt group activity. Other variations could be: height, years teaching or length of your hair.
Concentric Circles
5. We learned concentric circles. This is a good group activity that allows you to get a group to focus on four aspects. In out case the first circle was your name, then a learner profile attribute that best describes you, then what would make this workshop worthwhile and finally something about you that not many people know.

6. Another grouping strategy we learned was called, ‘Gourmet partners’. This is similar to clock partners but food is used instead of numbers. We would be asked to pair off with our ‘pizza partner’ for a pair activity. Sally always had us say thank you to our partners.

7. A differentiation strategy we learned was to change the colour and font or our slides. Key words are underlined. All of these strategies make it easier for non-mother tongue students to easily find the main message.
8. Sally also modelled questioning for us. This is a very important part of the PYP. Sally used an image of turtles in a fridge then asked us for our thoughts. She would skillfully ask questions to deepen and question our assumptions. Questions like: “Why do you think that?”, “Can you share what you are thinking right now?” and “Can you tell me some more?”. Paraphrase and then move on.
Tool Kit

There were a number of other topics covered during this training but in this post I am just sharing some of the inquiry strategies. The complet list is aboveI learned a lot!