Recently, at the end of a comprehensive WASC reaccreditation and self-study process, our school was commended by WASC for engaging in long term relationships with outside providers that can support and sustain the work in development, implementation, and continual revision of desired initiatives. This commendation referred to our work with experts who believe in our compassionate Mission and Vision, and related strategic themes and objectives. 

Dr. Linda Henke is one of these experts. Linda is passionate about developing inclusive schools and has particular interests and expertise in early childhood education that aligns with our purpose of developing compassionate global citizens, lifelong learners, and agents for positive change. Linda began working with our Early Elementary team in November last year. This was pre-COVID and Linda was able to visit our campus. 

At this time we were right in the middle of our whole school WASC self-study process and Linda met with our Early Elementary team in a room that was being used to record and display that process. The walls of the room were plastered with sticky notes on posters to record what we felt we needed to do to achieve three overarching goals that we had set ourselves:

  1. All students will be able to apply their knowledge and skills to adapt and contribute to an uncertain or unknown future.
  2. All students will develop the self-efficacy and agency necessary to drive their own learning, control their own lives and positively influence the lives of others.
  3. The ISY teaching faculty will feel connected and collectively capable in meeting the needs of ISY students.

Linda saw our thinking on the wall and invited me to present it at the first Convening of the Transformational Leadership Initiative (TLI) in St. Louis, Missouri. TLI is a partnership between Washington University in St. Louis and the Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership which Linda founded and directs. 

The convening was an opportunity for educators to share their school’s compelling purpose and how this was guiding their work in developing a culture of deeper learning. I was invited because our purpose was clear to Linda in her work with our Early Elementary team and in what she read on our walls. Our purpose comes directly from our Mission and Vision and the three goals we had set for ourselves were an expression of this purpose.

Linda introduced me to TLI’s Human-Centered School Transformation Model to develop a culture of deeper learning. The model was new to me but it’s call for high level collaboration, shared leadership, creativity and courage, empathy and compassion, and a growth mindset echoed what we had also identified as important to achieving our purpose.

I shared our thinking using TLI’s model and after two days of conversations with a very diverse group of educators all working towards their compelling purpose, I left St. Louis with a deeper understanding of our purpose and what we now needed to do and why we needed to do it. 

When I left for St. Louis, no-one was really talking about COVID. When I returned to Yangon at the end of January, almost everyone was talking about it. On March 18, we closed our campus and moved all teaching and learning online. We prepared the best we could prior to moving online and worked incredibly hard to replicate learning experiences that we had planned to deliver to students on campus. 

COVID was not on anyone’s radar when we decided upon the first of our three goals but we had already decided that we needed to prepare our students for the unforeseen. We had imagined an interdisciplinary teaching and learning framework to do that and we had the beginnings of an action plan to develop and implement it over a 2-3 year period. 

It soon became very clear to exhausted teachers, understandably frustrated parents and increasingly disengaged students that replicating what we had been doing prior to the pandemic will not get us through it. With no end in sight to the crisis as we neared the end of the school year, we made the choice to transform teaching and learning at ISY over a 2-3 month period. 

In the last few weeks of the school year, we experimented with interdisciplinary units to get a feel for what we were about to spend our summer developing. These also gave our students and families a taste of what was coming their way in the new year. 

Immediately after we finished the year, we started planning for this one. Teachers spent all summer planning interdisciplinary, multi-grade level units. We had no time to scaffold this process for those who were not familiar with what we were asking them to do. We put teachers in teams, provided a planning structure, a (very tight) timeline and asked them to come up with units that could be delivered to students in classrooms, synchronously online, and asynchronously online. Not only did we need to develop new units, we needed to develop three different learning platforms to cater for students who were spread out around the world in different time zones. All of this was compounded by the fact that almost half of our teachers were also in different time zones and those of us still in Myanmar could not get in the same room. 

From the outset, we were very upfront with our teachers as to what we were asking them to do – cram 2-3 years worth of work into 2-3 months. How we were able to present to our community a new interdisciplinary teaching and learning framework on three different platforms weeks before the school year started is hard to explain. We proved that it was not impossible but it sure felt like it to all of us at some point along the way. 

It helped that we had the beginnings of a plan to transform teaching and learning at our school. It was a plan with a purpose as articulated in our three goals but it was not until COVID happened that our purpose became compelling. We had to act immediately – not just to get through this crisis but so our students will be able to adapt and contribute to an uncertain or unknown post-COVID world.

We also had to act immediately to earn the trust of our families. We did that by acknowledging their need for us to develop something different and working hard to meet that need. We were then very deliberate in over communicating to them that while our new units and platforms will get us through COVID, they are part of a framework that was imagined prior to COVID to get their children through anything that the future throws at them. 

As communities all around the world continue to struggle and suffer through COVID, we do not take for granted that we are in a position to prepare our students for a post-COVID world. COVID made our purpose compelling, forced us to act, and our actions earned the trust of our community. We know that we are not doing everything right yet. But schools are not transformed by people trying to do everything right. Schools are transformed by people trying to do the right thing and COVID has allowed us to define what that is for our community. 

The longer we are online, the more our community wants us to get better at what we are doing now. They no longer want us to go back to ‘normal’ and they expect us to keep adapting to make sure their children are prepared to learn and thrive in an uncertain future. That was our purpose prior to COVID. As we navigate through and beyond COVID, our purpose now compels us to act and our community to trust us. 

It is wrong to say that COVID will make us a better school. It is our commitment to our purpose that will make us a better school and our transformative response to COVID just proves that point. It takes a lot of creativity and courage to transform a school and these attributes are developed through partnerships with other schools. Our partnership with Linda and TLI is relatively new but we could not have connected at a better time. In times of uncertainty, it is important to fully commit to your purpose and try your best to do what is right. That was the message I left the St. Louis convening with that is what our school continues to do.