Graduation: when everyone is special

Good morning colleagues, parents, alumni and families watching from around the world, and most importantly, our Graduates.  My name is Damian Bacchoo and I am the High School Principal for the class of 2023.  I am honoured to have the closing words today. 

Amazingly, one of our Graduation Class of 2023 walked across the stage today as our 2023rd East Campus Graduate. That combination has never happened before and can never happen in the future. This means that at least one of you today is truly special!

The Incredibles

You won’t be surprised to hear that my best memories all year have involved students. The Grade 12 class in any school is special: the group that students look up to, that teachers think most about, and the group that our whole community is aware of as key milestones pass. In fact, you remind me of my favourite animated film, “The Incredibles,” where each character possesses unique and incredible superpowers.

Maybe you are a Fearless Leader – like Mr Incredible? We have enjoyed watching many of you grow as natural leaders throughout your time here. You have demonstrated courage, determination, and an unwavering commitment to your classmates, school, and community. You have inspired your peers, organized events, and advocated for change.

Or perhaps you are a Compassionate Caretaker – like Elastigirl?  Many of you have shown an innate ability to care for and support those around you. Your empathy, kindness, and understanding have created a nurturing environment where your fellow students have felt heard and valued. You have stretched yourselves to make meaningful connections and been a lifeline to those in need.

Or a Creative Thinker – like Violet, the invisible girl?  Some of you have a knack for thinking outside the box and finding creative solutions to problems.  You have embraced your unique perspectives and have made a lasting impact on our school community with your innovative ideas, artistic talents, and original projects.

Perhaps you are an Energetic Enthusiast – Like Dash, the speedy superhero (my personal favourite)? Many of you are full of energy and enthusiasm. You have injected life into our school community with your spirited involvement in your activities and services. We’ve seen how your passion and drive has inspired others and contributed to our vibrant school culture.

Or finally, (because I’ve run out of names) you might be one of the Problem Solvers – Just like little Jack-Jack, who possesses an array of powers that help him navigate the world, and who demonstrates exceptional problem-solving abilities. Your adaptability, resilience, and resourcefulness have allowed you to overcome challenges and succeed in various aspects of your school experience.

Overcoming difficulties

This year we have 17 graduates who joined us in K1 – could you give us a wave? But whether you joined us in K1 or G11, we are so proud of how you have developed into young people of character, who are kind and compassionate; who understand that it’s good for everyone when we all look out for others, as well as ourselves. You really are an incredible group of young people.

Parents – We’ve done our best for your wonderful children over these years; we have seen them grow into the fine adults we see here today, and we are as proud of them as you are.   We hope you see in them everything you had hoped for when you entrusted them to us.   Graduation day is tough for parents.  Even if our children are 18 years old, as most are, they’re still kids until they leave school, right?  Well, today’s that day; so we come here as parents, and we leave, after eighteen years of child-raising, unemployed.  Grads, now it’s over to you – and we are excited to see what you make of your lives.  

The High School years are intense ones for many reasons, and you’ve all had your difficult moments.  I hope it was worthwhile; that the highs felt even higher for the occasional lows.  Yes, it was hard at times.  In fact, if it was not sometimes hard, then we were not doing our work well enough.  It’s not meant to be easy.  You did not choose us for easy, and we did not give you easy. The many alumni here today, our contact with them over the years, and the numbers who constantly visit us suggest that the tough times were worthwhile.  But I also want to acknowledge those who have found it especially hard.  You are not alone.  For all the heroics, the world-saving, the special powers, the Incredibles were all also very human.  They all struggled, emotionally, personally, socially, as friends and as a family.  And so too have you.

For that, we’re especially proud of you and your achievements today.  We hope you are now even better equipped to face whatever life may throw at you.  So please know that we applaud especially you, not despite the difficulties, but precisely because of the difficulties.

Now though, as you think about what is ahead for you, Graduates, I’d like to share a few thoughts with you.

“When everyone is special, no one is”

I’ll stay a little longer with the Incredibles if I may. My favourite moment in that film actually comes from a frustrated Dash when he gets in trouble at school; on the car ride home, Dash says “Our powers make us special,” to which Helen (Elastigirl to you) says, “Everyone is special, Dash”. Dash retorts back to her, “Which is another way of saying that no one is.”

Let me try and paraphrase Dash – “When everyone is special, no one is”.

Oops, that’s a bit awkward, isn’t it?  

Of course, all of us here are special…everyone is awesome!  I mean, we have to be, don’t we?  Isn’t that why we are all here – to celebrate our specialness?  

But really, Dash is… whether we like it or not…right isn’t he?  It is not possible for everyone sitting here to actually be the smartest person, the kindest person, the most attractive, the fastest, the strongest.  That’s just not the way it works.

Graduates, it’s not your fault.  We have spent so much time telling you and encouraging you to stand out from the crowd –  to be more remarkable than others – more committed – more qualified – more credentialed – than the next person, to show how special you are, particularly to those Admissions folk out there, that’s it’s really hard to switch out of that mindset.   

…instead of worrying about being special (you are, you are), I would like you to think about doing special things.   And as you leave here today, I want you to attend to how you might just make a difference in this world.  

You all can.  It might not look the same.  But you all can.  For me, it’s all about changing the world by impacting the people around you, throughout your lifetime.

Change the world by impacting people over your lifetime

Graduates, that bastion of truth and reliability, ChatGPT, tells me that the average adult will meet about 10,000 people in their lifetimes.  10,000.  

Now, follow my maths…  If you assume you will reach 100 years old (and you should) that’s about 80 years of meeting people ahead of you.  That’s about 125 people a year.  If you made a positive difference to just one person a year then you could be quite happy to have changed the lives of over 100 people.  That is incredible!

But what if you made a positive difference for 3 people each year?  And those 3 people in turn each made a difference to another 3 people.  And each of those 3 people went on again to make a difference for three more people.  If you did this, then you might be responsible for changing the lives of over a million people before you hit 30.  Not bad, eh?

Hey, Graduates, this is just the same as when your parents keep trying to tell you to start saving money now so you benefit from compound interest!

Compounding will change your life, folks.  If you want to get rich, you’ll need to do it with your money.  If you want to change the world, you’ll need to do it with people.  (Parents out there…I can hear you…”do both…”)

The gift of noticing

So how do we change lives?  How do we make an impact?  I guess I could write a book on this (and some of you will I am sure).  Some of you in here probably have.

Your teachers are in the room here today.  They are as proud of you as your parents are.  Do you know why?  It’s because of how much they have invested in you.  Teachers do not measure their success in life through the size of their bank accounts.  We are in the business of changing lives.  We try to change the lives of our students, so that you can, in turn, change the lives of others.  I know very few here in this room will go on to become classroom teachers, that’s OK, we get it…we can’t all be special, can we?!  

But if you have been paying attention at school, (when you’ve been in), I hope you will have picked up (arguably) the greatest gift that we have for you.  

It is the power of noticing.

The author, Ali Smith says that “to be noticed is to be loved”. I think she’s right.

Why does noticing people matter?  Well, my belief is that when people feel that they are noticed…

  • It helps them to feel seen and known
  • Which makes them feel loved
  • Which makes them feel like they belong

And when people feel seen, known, and loved…well…they can do incredible things.  They can change the world.

Noticing means…paying attention to the people in front of you.  Noticing means stopping for people, holding the door, listening without judgement…asking how people are feeling…noticing means you remember a name…noticing is about noticing who is not being seen.  

So yes, teachers are here to teach us math, words, and things.  But the incredible teachers? The incredible ones are the ones who noticed you.  That’s true, isn’t it?

They smiled at you, and you smiled back. You wanted to share something, and they stopped and listened to you. You were not feeling great, and they knew already. You were excited about something, and they wanted to know. You needed a hug, and they already had their arms wide open.

So if you want to change the world, you can. Pay attention to all those people you will meet in your lifetime. 10,000. Try and actually notice them.

The point

Graduates, so here we come to the point. If you want to be truly special. An Incredible. You can. Just remember:

  1.  It’s not about you.  It’s about you changing the world.
  2.  You can change the world by impacting people over your lifetime.  
  3. You can impact lives by noticing people.

Trust in you

Finally, I know I speak for the entire College when I say it has been a pleasure, and a privilege working with you. As well as the great hopes we have for you, we have even greater trust in you.

As you leave the auditorium today, do take a moment to enjoy the film of you all walking the corridors of East campus for the very last time. Good luck and always remember you will have a home here at UWCSEA.

Distinguished guests, please put your hands together for the final time, for the class of 2023.


This speech is dedicated to my good friend Sanjay Perera, who passed away this week. He was a thorn in the side of privilege, and a champion for the nameless, and I hope that he would have enjoyed today’s message for his graduates.

Which school? You can’t have your cake and eat it!

The advice I give to friends who are struggling to choose between schools for their kids is:

you can’t have your cake AND eat it too!

There are so many good schools to choose from, but parents can still find themselves paralyzed, unable to make a choice.

A friend of mine was recently in this position. He had narrowed it down to three before being unable to decide. It wasn’t because any of them wouldn’t be good for their children. They were all (to my mind) good choices. The problem was that choosing one school meant they might miss out on the other two (#FOMO).

It turns out that choosing the right school had turned into a dance with regret.

Here’s the thing, you will not find a curriculum that’s perfect for every child AND meets the academic requirements for every possible university AND prepares young people for every possible career.  

Likewise, schools can’t operate at low cost where they only have the very best teachers AND offer best-in-class facilities.  Nor can schools have the world’s highest exam averages AND be highly inclusive.  

Nor can schools have an unapologetic holistic programme AND then have parents wish to opt out of aspects of the curriculum that they might not value.

My friend was focused on the daunting prospect of losing an AND.  

We probably all do this.  We get nervy about decisions we are asked to make, particularly when it’s our children we are thinking about and we feel the stakes are high. We start to obsess over the pros and cons, become fearful and start to seek the opinion of others.  This sometimes involves trusted experts, but more often than not, we seem content to defer to an unfiltered mob on some social media platform.

Instead of asking what is best for our child? we become preoccupied with what others might say on the parent WhatsApp group.

We want all the ANDs. But each additional AND becomes a constraint that we will then obsess over.

The truth is that picking a school means that you have to make an OR choice.  

And when you finally make that choice, you have to accept that you can’t have that damn cake and eat it too.

Life gets easier when we learn to live with that.

Suit up!

It’s the holidays in my house, so when we are not entertaining the kids there’s going to be a fair amount of Minecraft being played and watched on YouTube.  Apparently, Grian is our house favourite (and with 41 million views per month he’s got lots of other admirers contributing to his incredible annual 2M$ income!) and he’s the one to watch.

This morning, he’s showing us how to play in “survival” mode.  I honestly have no idea what is going on, but I have picked up today’s tip on how to survive – you need to get the best armour.   Without it, you will not last long before the elements, zombies, skeletons, spiders, or creepers kill you.  No armour is bad, leather is OK, iron is good, but diamond armour is straight fire.  Get it?  

I am not sure whether I get it, but it got me thinking again about student mental health and well-being in schools and what sort of armour our students may need to “survive” and “win” in the game of life.

I have written previously on the impact of academic rigour and how increasing competition for admission to prestigious universities is taking its toll on the mental health and well-being of students who define success in such terms.  And with new international schools being built on a weekly basis, the problem is undoubtedly going to get worse before it gets better as more students are competing for the same number of available places.  

But it’s not just the “losers” who suffer from playing such a competitive game.  According to Michael Sandel (The Tyranny of Merit), many of the winners also progress onwards and upward carrying wounds – he refers to these young people as “wounded winners” and shares a number of harrowing statistics concerning the rise and rise of mental health issues that appear to coincide with the increasing pressure to achieve the results that they need to go the universities and colleges that they want to go to.  Even students who achieve success in this system may still suffer from feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and isolation, as well as potentially neglecting other important aspects of their lives, such as relationships, hobbies, and personal development.

Like many, I have never been comfortable with an industrial system whose purpose is to produce “winners”.  They have won (as it were) because others have lost.  And it does not matter how hard we try to gloss over this, there is irrecoverable damage done, and the impact is always felt on an individual, community and societal level.

We may think that they’re extraordinary, from another planet, but maybe they’ve just been watching the right YouTube channels?

So if Grian can teach my kids how to navigate Minecraft, survive, and get hold of the best armour, perhaps we can do the same for our students in school?

I asked ChatGPT what that armour might look like, and here are five concrete steps schools can take:

  • Foster a positive learning environment: Encourage a culture of collaboration, respect, and inclusivity, where students feel valued for their diverse talents and abilities, not just their academic achievements.
  • Teach social-emotional skills: Integrate social-emotional learning (SEL) into the curriculum to help students develop self-awareness, empathy, resilience, and healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Provide mental health support: Ensure that school counsellors, psychologists, or other mental health professionals are available to students who may need support in managing stress, anxiety, or other mental health concerns.
  • Encourage a balanced approach to success: Teach students the importance of setting realistic goals and maintaining a healthy balance between academics, extracurricular activities, and personal well-being.
  • De-emphasize standardized testing: Reduce the focus on standardized tests and academic rankings by adopting more holistic approaches to evaluating student achievements, such as project-based assessments, student portfolios, or individualized learning plans.

By implementing these practical strategies, schools can create a more supportive and balanced environment that helps students navigate the challenges of a meritocratic system while maintaining their well-being and sense of self-worth (ChatGPT, personal communication, 2023, March 30). 

The thing is, even when we think we are doing all these things for our students, we have to remember that just because we are wearing armour, it does not mean it will offer the same protection as one crafted from diamonds!

So there you go, between a YouTuber and ChatGPT, I think we got this one all sorted!

Happy Holidays.

Rolling with tradition

This article started with an innocuous question:

“Hey kids, do you think we should still do our Easter egg-rolling competition this year?”

My spring traditions

The word ‘tradition’ always invokes mixed feelings for me.  Growing up, I could never enjoy the cliche of spring cleaning on the first day of the Easter holidays, and nor did I particularly enjoy going to church every Sunday when all I wanted to do was play sports.  On the other hand, I will still watch the Grand National (always on the first Saturday in April) placing a bet on several horses based on whether I like their names; I will put on the London Marathon on the TV and then not watch it; I send my mum a card on Mother’s Day whether she likes it or not; I will eat lots of toasted Hot Cross Buns; and I will want to watch the Eurovision Song Contest with champagne and chip shop chips.  I find the House of Lords to be a ridiculous institution full of outdated traditions and people, but at the same time, I voluntarily wore the uniform of the British Army and was happy to swear my allegiance to the crown.  Go figure.

We live our lives filled with wild contradictions, says anthropologist David Berliner.  I can certainly attest to that.

Some of the traditions I have experienced thankfully no longer exist (including a few sporting and military inductions that have disappeared for all the right reasons) or they have evolved with time and context.  I am also reminded that traditions, by nature, have been a historical enabler for perpetuating the privilege of elites, institutional racism, misogyny, and a safe haven for some of the worst DEIJ practices we still find thriving in our local and international communities.  So when someone insists that “we have to preserve our traditions” I’m always a bit sceptical and sensitive.  Do people actually mean that their traditions should be perfectly preserved at all costs?  I’m more of an “evolve or die” person myself…

Egg rolling, anyone?

Ok, let’s start with last week’s fiasco.  I asked my kids if they thought they might be too old now for our family Easter Sunday egg rolling competition.  There was a brief silence before the outpouring of outrage at this preposterous idea.  I have no idea when rolling a painted, hard-boiled egg down a wooden ramp become so important?  Sure, it was fun when the kids were toddlers and we were looking for ways to entertain them.  But when had I missed the fact that it had become so much more than that?  Looking back, I can see some of the signs – the honour board, the agreed 5 (now 10) “golden egg” rules (on the use of colours, the starting position of the egg on the ramp, on the order of egg selection etc…) and all that trash-talking ahead of the competition.  These have all evolved slowly over the years, with rules adapted to settle disputes and brazen cheating (often by me I think), without any of us really noticing or really caring.  Until.  Until I asked that question.

Indeed,  it wasn’t until the moment when I questioned its importance that I realized how much it meant to my folk. It wasn’t just about rolling eggs down a ramp, or the idiosyncratic randomness of the rules, it was about coming together as a family, carrying on a tradition, and creating memories that we would cherish for years to come. It was about the laughter, the excitement, and the friendly competition. It was about the sense of belonging and connection that it brought to our family.  

So it looks like we are stuck with the Egg Rolling.  Happily stuck I might add.  And that’s the thing about traditions. They may start off as small, insignificant things, but over time they become woven into the fabric of our lives.

The Grand Walk

This is true not only in families but also in schools. Every school has its own unique traditions, from graduation ceremonies to Spirt Days to community events. These traditions are not just about having fun, but also about building a sense of community and belonging.  All the good stuff.

This brings me to events that unfolded this week at school.  After the egg-rolling, I really should have expected it…

You see, we proposed a load of changes to the final Celebration Day for our graduating class.  This is the final day our graduates are formally in school before they commence their pre-exam study leave.  Over the last 10 years that the school has been established, this has involved a schedule of “pranks”, final assemblies, parent “pot-luck” lunches, and then the big finale – The Grand Walk – where the graduating class is clapped and cheered by the whole school as they complete a final lap of the school campus, visiting old classrooms, teachers, and haunts.  The whole school is involved and it manages to bring a tear to even the most hardened teacher’s eye.

The graduates see a little bit of themselves in each little child that is cheering them, and the little children are in awe of the graduates – they know it will be their turn one day. They have become as invested in this tradition as each of the graduates.

But.  But we changed the format during COVID because we had to.  And because it went so well we just thought that we would do the same again this year.   We kept it streamlined, we kept out a couple of things from the usual schedule, and then we shared it with the community.   However, instead of being excited, the graduating class were not happy. They saw it as a departure from tradition, with some feeling that they were being “short-changed”. 

I think this was really a reminder of the power of traditions.  We had not appreciated that somewhere along the way, this event had evolved and been elevated into a tradition: a tradition with a lot of meaning and emotion for our community.  A tradition that needs to be nurtured, and treasured, and one that now belongs to our school community.


This experience made me reflect on the importance of traditions in schools, and how they contribute to building a strong school culture. Traditions give students a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging to something larger than themselves. They create a shared history and memories that bind students, teachers, and alumni together. And they also provide a sense of continuity, connecting the present with the past and the future.  

But traditions are not set in stone, and they do evolve over time. It’s important to balance the need for change and innovation with the importance of maintaining the core values and meaning of the tradition. This requires listening to the voices of the community and being sensitive to the emotional connections that people have with the tradition.

Perhaps these traditions have become more important because they provide a sense of continuity and stability in a world that is constantly changing? Perhaps they remind us of where we came from and where we are going, connecting us to the past, the present, and the future?

So, whether it’s rolling eggs down a ramp or walking around a school campus, traditions matter. They are the way we connect, celebrate, and remember.  

Sometimes you just gotta roll with it!


A huge shout out to Ted Cowan and Uzay Ashton – amazing colleagues who work so hard (every year) to give our graduating classes such a memorable send-off. Our treasured graduating traditions are the result of many, many years of your love, hard work and commitment. Thank you.

Death and taxes (and deadlines)

Ask any high school student right now.  Deadlines seem to be about as certain as death and taxes.  

In a conversation I had with a G11 student this week, he shared how surprised he was that he was struggling with his deadline-management skills.

He was frustrated (perhaps a little angry?) that he was not more ready, even suggesting that school had not helped to prepare him to deal with continuous deadlines. Didn’t we know it was going to be like this?

I did not disagree with him and promised to sleep on it (clearly forgetting what a privilege that might appear to him at the moment)!

A conversation about deadlines

We’ve just completed our annual high school student well-being survey; there’s a section included where students can write free comments on the one thing that we could do to help improve their life at school.  Done well, these surveys are always an uncomfortable read.  Well, it looks like we’ve done it well…

Our students in Grades 9 and 10 are sharing that the constant focus on tests and exams (GCSEs), as well as a competitive culture, is having the biggest impact on their mental health and well-being.*  Likewise, our students in Grades 11 and 12 are sharing that the management of never-ending deadlines (we do the IB Diploma Programme) is the cause of the most stress for them.  

We know that deadline stress is a well-known running sore that all IB schools grapple with (so were not surprised by the student feedback); however, is there more that we can do to help students who might need help developing their time management or organisational skills; who might not know how to advocate for themselves when they need to request extensions; who are heavily committed; or who might not be sleeping or eating as well as they would wish to? (I know that’s a rhetorical question…)

A continuum of approaches 

I find that when talking about student deadlines that there is a continuum of approaches schools take toward student deadlines.

On one end of the spectrum, deadlines are fixed and non-negotiable.  And on the other end of the spectrum, they are flexible and open to negotiation.  Not surprisingly, schools, administrators, teachers, parents, or students rarely find themselves occupying the same part of that continuum.  

If and when students hand them in on time, come what may, all is well (on the surface at least).  Perhaps the student needed support ahead of the deadline, or perhaps not.  However, regardless of whatever approach the school or the teacher thinks they have in place, there will nearly always be a number of students who are unable to meet the stated deadline.  

Different conversations emerge from this reality…especially when deadline extensions are requested.  Here are 7 that have (probably) taken place over the last few weeks in many schools:

1. The “in the real world” conversation.

Please could I have more time to submit my coursework?

I told you at the start of the course that deadlines are deadlines.  They are non-negotiable.

But, other teachers have given me an extension.  

Well, I mean what I say.  This is how deadlines work in the real world.  

But I have other deadlines due at the same time and I want to be able to hand in my best work.

Look, I realise you think I am being hard on you.   But I know that what you give me will be great – you are not going to be happy until you think it is perfect, but sometimes we just have to accept that we have done the best we can in the time given and move on to the next thing.  You got this.

2. The “not this time” conversation.

Please could I have more time to submit my coursework?

Sorry, but this is the final deadline so that’s not possible.

But you let me hand in my last piece of work after the deadline.

Because that wasn’t a real deadline.  I said that because I wanted to spread out our coursework throughout the year.  Otherwise, we just end up having it all to do at the end of the year.  This way, you only have this final piece to concentrate on.

3. The “slippery slope” conversation.

Please could I have a little more time to submit my coursework?

Sorry, I am doing all the marking this weekend.

Please, I really need the weekend to finish it off and give you my best work.

If I let you hand it in later, then others will want to hand it in later too. This means I will end up marking people’s late work for several more weekends when I also have other classes to prepare for.  That’s not fair to anyone, including me.

4. The “fairness” conversation.

Please could I have more time to submit my coursework?

Sorry, but If I give you extra time it would give you an unfair advantage compared to all the others who have managed to keep to the deadline. 

5. The “it’s for your own good” conversation?

6. The “it comes down to respect” conversation!? 

7. The unspoken conversation.  

I feel so lost.  I can’t keep up.  I don’t know where to start, or what to do next.  I have so much to do.  I have so many deadlines due and I just want it all to go away.  I’m so tired. I already know I should have handled this situation differently but here we are and I need help now.

I am sure that there are countless others.  But together they highlight a number of tensions and talking points when we deal with deadlines in schools.

Are we really teaching about real life?

We like to think that we are in the business of preparing young people for “real life”. We tell them this on a daily basis (which must irritate them as much as irritated me when I was at school).  But when we tell them that deadlines are not negotiable in real life, is that really true?  I love this article here, and this recent HBR article too on the subject of real-world deadlines.

Can one size fit all?

Another reality is that no student has the same commitments and priorities as any other student in the school.  Different subject choices, different teachers, different classes, different activities, and any number of different things going on in their lives.  A colleague (really good with big numbers) once shared with me the number of different permutations of student schedules in our school and the fact that we do not have any two identical schedules.  

With that in mind, we want students to take responsibility for managing both their schedule and their own deadlines.  We would want a student who finds themselves with a schedule that has several deadlines due in the same week that they are highly committed to something else outside of the academic programme (sports, production, interviews etc), to advocate for themselves, right? Isn’t negotiating multiple commitments more reflective of real life?   

Is this how we teach?

Deadlines are as certain as death and taxes.  When students struggle with them, we have a choice:

We can apply sanctions to try and teach them this life lesson (zero marks, no feedback etc.) Or we can try and teach them any of the self-management skills that they might need.  

But before trying to decide if either choice (even assuming it is a binary one) is preferable, I would ask this question:

Where else in your school do you employ sanctions to teach essential life lessons?  

Is there room for tough love?

What about those students who are overly preoccupied with achieving perfection?  They don’t want to know about “good enough”.  Some students (so many in our context) have developed a belief that any and all additional time will get them closer to perfection, closer to a higher grade.  So here, the learning that might take place could be different to another student who is struggling with deadlines in a different way.  Perfectionism can be driven by a number of different factors but is obviously heightened when the stakes are so high, or where there is an inordinate amount of pressure to do well to meet their own or parental expectations.  Might there be a place here, a kindness even, in helping these students to accept fixed deadlines?  Maybe “good enough” is more than enough. 

Is it really a deadline?

If you’ve spent any time in The Netherlands, you will soon notice that the Dutch have a different word for almost every type of rain.  The ancient Greeks apparently had six words for “love”, all with different meanings.  And when you go for a “coffee” these days…it’s actually a latte or cappuccino for me.   It’s the same thing with the word “deadline”.  One word: but many different meanings.  It could equally refer to a “milestone”, or a “submission date”, a “first draft deadline”, a “final draft deadline”, a “school deadline”, or even an “IB deadline”.  In the same way, when we talk about deadlines we are unlikely to be using the same word to mean the same thing.  

So when schools, departments, and teachers do not differentiate or clarify their use of the word “deadline” (perhaps because they want students to believe that their own deadline is the most important one) then it should be no surprise that students can feel overwhelmed by them.  After all, when everything is a deadline, nothing is a deadline.

Is bias at play?

Each of those conversations above is an example of students advocating for themselves.  They either have the confidence to ask for more time, they/ve been told to ask if it is needed,  they feel that it is perfectly reasonable to ask, or they have been supported to ask.  However, for every student who might request a deadline extension, there will be many others who do not.  Most of the time I imagine that this is because they have no need to ask. But when you work with children from many different cultural contexts, each with teachers from many different backgrounds too, can we assume that they did not ask for more time because they just didn’t need it, or for some other reason?

Is there a need to question whether we are inadvertently privileging those students who are confident in advocating for themselves, or from cultures and contexts that perceive deadlines and schedules as flexible rather than fixed?  Have we inadvertently built in some cultural bias to the way that we support students?  Erin Meyer, in her book The Culture Map might argue that some of this is being played out in each of the conversations I shared above. So I think It’s something we would want to explore for sure.  

Where next?

I started this article with the promise to sleep on the issue of school deadlines.  But it seems to me that it’s going to take a bit more than that to solve this one…I think I’ll go back to that student and ask for a little extension of my own! 


* We are currently in the process of phasing out GCSEs here so we are hoping that this will make a difference here as we have now broadened our bespoke concept-based curriculum from K-10.

Self-licking lollipops

“It sounds like a big self-licking lollipop”


“A self-licking lollipop”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

I was talking to my brother over my Christmas break about my work and the world of international education.  

After patiently listening for some time, his paraphrasing went something like this:

“So…rich folk pay to send their children to international schools because they have a reputation for churning out high exam results and getting kids into the top universities.  The high fees pay for the best teachers, the best facilities, the best curriculum (International Baccalaureate), the best support services and the best opportunities to achieve those desired grades and university placements.  

In turn, their reputation is enhanced and they can then attract more rich folk to pay the high fees needed to secure the best teachers, facilities, support, opportunities….leading to the best results and university placements…leading to more rich folk prepared to pay high fees…

Wow! It sounds like a self-serving system designed to perpetuate the privilege of the elites.  It sounds like one big self-licking lollipop!”

It was not something I had heard before. I looked it up: 

Self-licking ice cream cone n. a process, department, institution, or other thing that offers few benefits and exists primarily to justify or perpetuate its own existence. Also in the form self-licking lollipop. (Double-Tongued Dictionary)

Hmmm…food for thought.  Do international schools just exist to perpetuate privilege?  I could see where he was coming from, and I was uncomfortable with his sentiments about my work.   However, I wasn’t immediately sure how to respond.

Many students who attend international schools do so because they are ex-pats who need to avail a continuity of education in lieu of not being able to attend schools in their home nations.  Paying for children’s education when overseas is therefore an inevitable necessity for these families.  On the other hand, there is also a growing number of national students who wish to attend local international schools and are prepared to pay significant fees to access this perceived privilege and what it might bring them.

That said, not all international schools are the same and there is significant price point variance depending on what you are looking for.  It is true that some are more sought after than others.  It is also true that some international schools are seeking to take steps to avoid being self-serving… no matter what that costs them. But what does that look like?

So what do we do if we find ourselves holding one of these self-licking lollipops?

It seems to me that there are two options:

  • Dipping it in glitter
  • Consuming it

Dipping it in glitter

What does that mean? It means leaning into the status quo of the current system.  It means doubling down on marketing the school’s glittering exam results.  It means protecting the school’s averages by leveraging special selection techniques.  It means elevating academic rigour at any cost.  It means keeping things just the way that they are. 

If you keep dipping that lollipop in glitter it will continue to look attractive and last longer.  Privilege in: privilege out.

Consuming it

Conversely, schools can accept that they are holding a self-licking lollipop and commit to a future where that lollipop will eventually disappear.  This means taking a view that it is possible to provide high-quality education that does not rely on perpetuating privilege.  For me, it can be distilled down to whether a school is seriously committed to increasing diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice (DEIJ), or not.  

On the surface, this always sounds so easy.  I have not had a conversation with anyone who does not say that they are committed to DEIJ, or make a case for less of it. But is it more important than sustaining the big self-licking lollipop?  For example, if a results-orientated school decides to become less selective and more inclusive to a diverse group of young people, it would stand to reason that their school averages would start to slide.  So how might some parents react to that when they have chosen that school for precisely that school’s reputation and results?  Is it a case that DEIJ is great, as long as it doesn’t adversely impact our own children’s chances of getting ahead?  

The purpose of an education

There is a need at times to remind ourselves what we think the purpose of education is.  Achieving one’s best self is a virtuous pursuit and that may, or may not, lead a child to attend a prestigious university and on to some form of high-income profession.  

However, I am also reminded of a colleague who has the following displayed clearly in his classroom:

Dear Teacher,

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers, children poisoned by educated physicians, infants killed by trained nurses, women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates

So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmans. Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human. 

Haim Ginot (1972)

For him, the purpose of education is to help his students be human.  

One of my privileges is to work and lead at one of the 18 United World Colleges (UWC) situated around the world.  The mission of the UWC movement is to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. 

We are not selling results (they look after themselves).  We are selling a mission and a particular set of action-orientated values and competencies that we believe will make that mission (more) possible.  This is my purpose for education.  But it is not everyone’s, and I do accept that.  

I also accept that most international schools are (whether they like it or not) self-licking lollipops.  It makes sense that organisations would want to preserve what they have in some form or another (I guess that’s being human too).  But it doesn’t sit comfortably with me at all. It probably doesn’t sit well with them either.

So if I have to be a part of a system that makes me hold a self-licking lollipop, I do not want to be dipping it in glitter. I want to make my way through it as fast as possible, finish it off, and then put it out with the rubbish.

That’s exactly what I wish I had said to my brother. Maybe next time!


Noticeship /ˈnəʊtɪs/ʃɪp/ n.informal. The quality or ability that elevates a person or leader to intentionally see something or someone.


As is my way this time of year, I sat down with my thoughts this morning to contemplate the new year ahead.  For much of my early life this involved me finding somewhere to sit by the seaside with the winter elements, the noise of waves crashing and rolling over the pebble beaches of Brighton.  I have always found it meditative.  

I don’t do the whole resolutions thing.  They’ve never really worked for me and I much prefer just taking stock of what is going on in my life, what I feel I would like to do over the year ahead and then committing to a general theme (or two).  Last year my theme was ‘reconnecting with family’.  No specifics, no metrics and no accountability.  The theme is simply a North Star that helps support any big decision-making.  That’s about it.  

Sitting alone on my bench I found myself watching a little girl taking a walk along the beach with her dad (I presumed).  Every few steps the girls stops, looks around her feet, and then reaches down to pick up a pebble.  If it is a good pebble, she reaches over and puts it in to the bucket that dad is carrying.  If it is not, she tosses it back on the ground.  There are no words exchanged, there is no urgency, they are just in their moment.  Dad, bucket in hand, is lost in his own thoughts; the girl, focused on her pebbles and reveling in her dad’s complicity.  

It’s a wonderful distraction and my own thoughts now turn to all the unpicked pebbles.  They all look the same to me.  So how does this little girl decide what pebbles are worthy of keeping? What is she looking for?  What’s her filter? I have no idea and maybe she doesn’t either.  

In schools, we know that all the pebbles are important.  We know that each pebble needs to be seen and noticed, but we also know that we can not carry all of them at the same time.  The noise, the roars and crashing of the waves, the whooshing and whistling of the wind, makes things even more challenging. Sadly, we might just end up focusing on the few pebbles that stand out, the irregular ones that distract or have the ability to catch our attention.  The others may never make the bucket, will forever remain unnoticed.

I have two themes for this year

  1.  Firstly, to work out how to see all those unseen pebbles. Noticeship.
  2.  Secondly, to take more walks with my little girl before she no longer wants to.

Happy 2023.

To be noticed is to be loved

“To be noticed is to be loved.” ― Ali Smith, There but for the

It starts with a belief system

I believe that making children feel noticed is arguably the most important thing that we can do in schools.  

Why?  Because my belief system is this:

  • When children feel that they are noticed
  • It helps them to feel seen and known,
  • which makes them feel loved,
  • which makes them feel like they belong.

Noticing is the root of belonging.  And belonging is, I think, the root of happy and healthy children.  

I came across this US school study involving over 66K students.  Only 51% of students shared that they thought their teacher would miss them if they were absent.  And only 46% of students said that they felt valued at school.  That’s truly shocking.  The impact on self-worth, motivation and depression when people feel unnoticed, unseen and unknown has been well documented for some time – and it’s only been amplified through COVID.

For teachers, noticing is the intentional act of seeing a student’s uniqueness and showing an interest in their full life.  So when teachers pay attention to young people and remember them, their hidden brilliance and quirky nuances become known.  

What does that look like in High Schools?  

Well…there’s no one way of setting this up.  For many schools, the front line is assumed to be the relationship between the students and their mentor (or tutor, homeroom teacher, advisor, or coach…).  It’s the one person that they will see every day in school; the person who will take a register and notice who is in or not in before they start school; the person responsible for sharing notices.  And in many schools (like ours), mentors will also support the wider holistic programme through the delivery of structured and unstructured activities.  They are the constant.  There is no one better-positioned person in the school to notice students.  

Except, we know (and the research is often brutal) that even with such structures in place, too many students still feel that they are not seen, not known or loved.

Why is that?  There are likely countless reasons, but I am confident that it will either end up being reduced to a lack of conviction in the belief system in place by the school and its leaders and teachers around noticing and mattering.  I have heard all sorts of reasons over the years- but good schools seem to make it a priority to get it right even if they sometimes fall short (I like to think this is where my school is).

Noticing others is a skill, a practice, and should be a priority for schools, leaders and teachers.

Overlooking others is so easy to do, and I can’t help but think that it’s a trend born out of increasing individualism and decreasing social connectedness.  I don’t know.

What I do know is that I can still recall every student from my first mentor group back in 2000.  I can still see their faces in my mind’s eye.  I could still tell you their strengths, what they need help with, their hobbies and interests, their friendships…their siblings, and a few pet names…I still check in on a few of them.  For a short time, they were my family: I hope that they felt noticed, seen, known and loved.  

This is not extraordinary.  I am not extraordinary.  Nigel, my first mentor, made it clear that this was…just my job.

As a school leader, the question I ask myself most regularly is whether my 80-odd mentors believe in the power of noticing as much as I do?  And if not, what should I be doing about it?  Do they know their students?  Do they know the parents?  Do they know the names of their siblings?  Do they know what’s interesting or bothering them just now?  For many, it’s these tiny lapses of curiosity that can add up to perpetual invisibility.

I’m certainly not immune.  I have not transferred my forensic noticing skills, which I think I had with my students back in the day, into school leadership in the way that I would want to.  I know I am not being curious enough.  I am not asking enough questions and I am certainly not checking in enough on personal details.  

Noticing others is a practice that’s too important to be left to intuition.  

One of the non-negotiables of being a junior officer in the British Army is the requirement to maintain a Platoon Notebook.  Guess what it was used for?  Yep, to capture all the information about the soldiers under that officer’s command – to specifically help make the act noticing systemic.  Senior officers periodically check these notebooks and test junior officers on how well they know their teams. The long and short of it is this – some junior officers would never become senior officers if they fell short on the art of noticing: if they paid lip service to their Platoon Notebook.  

There is a lot to be said for such systematic approaches to noticing.  When I was in uniform, it felt a bit forced and sometimes lacked authenticity when taking out the fabled Notebook in front of soldiers to confirm which football team they supported.  I preferred to use my memory, whilst others would have been lost without it.

“We missed your voice in class today”

A colleague recently shared with me one strategy he recently used to address a student who was skipping his PSE (personal and social education) classes. 

“I wanted to take it personally.  They were in school and had turned up to other lessons that day.  I was about to press send on an email to express my feelings.  I wanted to make them know that I had certainly noted their absence and that my lessons were a compulsory part of the learning programme.  But, on reflection, I changed my email”

Here is what he sent:

“We missed your voice in class today.  Hope you are OK?”

The student immediately sent a positive response back, and without other words being exchanged, they stopped skipping his lessons.

The inference in this sentence is genius:  You were missed.  What you have to say and contribute in classes is noticed.  You matter…you are loved…you belong.  

It’s a belief system. 

Helping children feel noticed is arguably the most important thing that we can do in schools.


Thanks to Kendall Zoller who led some amazing training this week on public speaking. In one of his asides, he shared that the three most important things that a school should do are make students feel loved, known and safe. It got me thinking.

Kerbstones, laminators, and staple guns

In preparation for our recent CIS and WASC (joint) preparatory evaluation visitors, I felt our school adopted a “just right” Goldilocks approach to proceedings – a lot of hard work, paced calmly and thoughtfully by a core team who distributed much of the preparatory work in a meaningful and purposeful way with a high degree of trust.

Isn’t it always like that? Experience would suggest not.

Other than war, one of the biggest wastes of time I’ve ever witnessed was watching Junior soldiers painting kerbstones in anticipation of a visiting senior officer to our barracks. And whilst I am sold on the virtues of making a good impression on visitors, and in learning the discipline of excellence, I will never be convinced that spending several days painting perfectly fine kerb stones in different colours (even if they are regimental colours) is time well spent. To be fair, I am almost certain that the visiting officer would wholeheartedly agreed with me – this is meaningless work.

In the 20 years since I first witnessed the art of kerb stone painting, I have been involved in many other acts of inane and frenetic last-minute preparation for “important” visitors. Working in schools l’m now a ninja with a staple gun and laminator, a master of the pop-up wall display, and I’m still atoning for a fair amount of deforestation caused by the filling up of hundreds of ring binders of “evidence”…which on most occasions (would you believe it) was not even looked at.

Hindsight has not been kind – I’ve also been part of leadership teams that have directed teachers to engage in tasks as equally pointless as kerb stone painting in the vain expectation that it would make all the difference. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t. Either way, I can’t see how those tasks made teachers feel in any way inspired or motivated about their work. They say that people don’t leave bad jobs…

There will always be a need to prepare well for visitors. But it must always be proportionate. Too little preparation never goes well; too much and we find ourselves straying into pointless and meaningless work.

Like Goldilocks, we need to get it just right. And without a staple gun or laminator in sight, I think we did it right this time…come what may!

Do the math!

I’m convinced that the question of “what can we take away” has been a priority for school leaders since (at least) the Industrial Age.   

It has been a central theme in all my time in education, and I imagine it transcends many other work sectors too. How do we find ourselves constantly in this situation?  Surely, if we are always looking to subtract things we should eventually reach a point where we don’t need to ask that question anymore!

We are in week 4 of our school year and at the point where we are reviewing our orientation programme for new and returning members of our community this year.  Honestly, so much thought went into it.  We looked back to what worked before COVID, reviewed feedback from previous years, and had a plan to respond to our shared desire to focus on relationship and culture building – to start the new year with a renewed sense of vigour and purpose.

But I’ve realised two things this year: school leaders are good at addition; not so good at subtraction.  

We are good at addition

So, we added more ice-breaking, more team-building…more time to renew our cultural norms.  We made room for these “extras” by leveraging some of our new COVID online tools to cover some of our important compliance needs, and then we had some challenging conversations about other sessions that we could live without.  In fact, we did a lot of wrestling in these sessions as we tried to make our decisions to balance the needs of individual teachers (wanting time in their classrooms to get ready to receive new students and deliver the best learning and teaching experience possible from day one…) with the needs of the school (time in groups to build a shared sense of community…) as we emerge from COVID.  Eventually, we made room for all the things we wanted to matter this year.  And at some point we thought, yes, we’ve got this right.  

In hindsight, I think we got a lot of things right.  But we inevitably also got a lot of things wrong.  There’s an old saying that I often have to remind myself – sometimes you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  That’s the way it works when you have to make trade-offs between one thing or another.

We are not so good at subtraction

So why are we not good at removing things?  This wonderful experiment involving Lego bricks might give us a few clues.  Participants were given a range of tasks including one to stabilize the top of a Lego structure by either adding (at a cost) or simply removing a single brick.  Despite subtracting a brick being the simplest (and most profitable strategy) the researchers discovered that under control conditions, around 60% of people decide to add rather than take away.

Indeed, there is a fair amount of behavioural research that suggests that humans have a bias toward adding rather than subtracting when considering how to improve objects, ideas or situations.  Researchers show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations. This default may be one of the reasons why we struggle to mitigate heavy workloads, over-heated calendars, red tape…and even damaging effects on the planet.

What’s the answer?

There are a couple of lessons that I think I will mull over…

Lesson 1Do the math.  For everything we took out of the programme this year, we added something else back in.  The net result is that we ended up where we started.  We were trying to be thoughtful, but we also needed to be more disciplined.

Greg McKeown recommends an approach called the reverse pilot.  This is where you test whether removing an initiative or activity will have any negative consequences.  This is a strategy that I have used a couple of times over the last few years with significant success, specifically in relation to scheduled meetings.  It requires us to adopt a subtractive mindset, so it’s no wonder I don’t use it often enough (note to self).

Lesson 2Learn to accept that sometimes you will be damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  We have to accept that when we replace tangibles (e.g time preparing classrooms, lesson planning, team meetings etc. ) with intangibles (e.g. culture and relationship-building activities etc.), it will sometimes be difficult to see the intended benefits. We have to be ready for that.


In the interests of science (and love for Lego), I attempted to reconstruct the Lego brick experiment at home this week with my kids. It turned out that the 60% result is fairly accurate: 66% of my participants added more Lego, which might also help explain why we have so much of this plastic gold lying around the house!