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Saturday, 24 March 2018

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The Giants Weigh In

Wisdom from Two Longtime International School Heads

By Deron Marvin


The Giants Weigh In
John Godwin, Headmaster at Xiamen International School (XIS) in China, and Charles "Chip" Barder, Head of School for the United Nations International School in Hanoi, Vietnam.

One afternoon, a few months ago, I was roaming among the thousands of books (literally billions of words) at Powell's City of Books, in Portland, Oregon. I happened upon Latham's Quarterly while transitioning from one floor to the next; it is where the store places their journals and periodicals. What compelled me to pick the journal up was the cover's subtitle, "States of Mind." I was fascinated to find the journal's table of contents stacked with the writings of remarkable literary and scholarly giants of the past - anywhere from Pliny the Elder (c. 77) to Nick Bostrom (c. 2010).

Each written piece was tied into and based on the theme of thinking and the mind. These days, one may often wonder, what do these scholars have to teach us in our fast-paced, convenient-laden, and seemingly only forward-thinking 21st century? Standing in the aisle with the quarterly open in my hands, I found the answer. I read a line of Cicero in a passage from the journal's preamble. Cicero said it best: to "not know what happened before one was born is always to be a child".

Next school year, I am beginning my first official international school headship. I have had training and some experience in administration but I haven't spent much time seeking sage advice from those who have been there--those giants of the past. Essentially, I wanted to reach into the vast experiences and wisdom of those who are paving the way for new leaders. I made the decision to seek out and interview a wise leader with the knowledge and experiences in international education. I found two.

Collectively, Charles Barder and John Godwin have 91 years' worth of successes, setbacks, and stories in education. Both are retiring at the end of this school year. John Godwin is currently Headmaster at Xiamen International School (XIS) in China. Godwin has been with XIS for the last ten years. Charles Barder, or "Chip," is a Head of School for the United Nations International School in Hanoi, Vietnam. I sat down to ask them about their coming retirement, past experiences, and thoughts about what's ahead in education.

Marvin: First off, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to speak with me. I'd like to know a bit about your upbringing. Where were you two born and where did you grow up?

Godwin: I was born at the tail end of the 40s…literally, December 30, 1949 to be exact, in a small infirmary in the very small but historic city of Vicksburg, MS. From what I recall, it seemed to be a place still focused on the Civil War as I used to sit on my grandfather's lap and listen to stories he would relate from his father. Since my father, grandfather, great-great grandfather and many ancestors had given military service, there was an emphasis on all things military in my growing up. Eventually my brother and I both served as well.

Barder: I was born in Chicago and grew up in a suburb across the state line in northwest Indiana. My father was a teacher - working just 20 minutes away on the Southside of Chicago. My neighborhood was primarily a working class/lower middle class community of steel workers, oil refinery workers, auto assembly plant workers and lower level managers and office workers.

Marvin: What were your experiences in primary, secondary school, and university?

Godwin: As you can imagine, being a "military brat," we never seemed to stay in one place for very long. I went to public primary and secondary schools that were either on military bases or near a base. We moved frequently (Mississippi, North Carolina, California and Hawaii) until I graduated from community college.

Barder: I went to elementary up to grade eight in a Catholic school right in my hometown in Indiana. My father was a product of boys' Catholic schools. So, naturally, I attended an all boys' Catholic high school right near where my father worked. Because he worked so close to my school, I would often hitch a ride in with my father to school. If I had sports at the end of the day I took public transportation home. I went on to an all boys' Catholic college where I majored in Economics and also pursued a teaching credential. But I was a late bloomer and my focus was on playing sports and performing in folk music variety shows more than studying. I decided to pursue a Masters Degree in Counseling before hitting the work world and this is where I believe I came into my own. I left for my first teaching job in Colorado Springs feeling much better prepared. 20 years later I completed my doctorate at Michigan State, an experience that I continue to value to this day.

Godwin: It took me some time to decide upon a career. I went to a community college to complete my liberal arts requirements and then on to a university. Initially, I was studying a pre-Med program, but changed that to Linguistics, which eventually morphed into a Humanities program. I loved the university environment and would have loved to become a perpetual student, but that wasn't realistic. As I settled on teaching, I went to a teaching university to complete my certification. That opened the door to getting my first job in education.

I taught for about 14 years and then went back to university for a master's degree. Several years later, I took on a graduate psychology program at still another university, but found that that was not my real interest. Nevertheless, what I learned from the program, reinvigorated my desire to teach and learn. It was shortly afterwards that I became interested in international education and signed on for my first overseas assignment in Saudi Arabia.

About a year into this, I found another interesting master's degree program and went through a combination of courses from The College of New Jersey and the Principal's Training Center for the next several years. This helped open the door to international and overseas administration for me. I have remained with this throughout the rest of my career.

Marvin: What about your parents? Were they in education?

Godwin: No, my father and mother, both of whom had been born in Mississippi, did not complete even an 8th grade education. There were a number of their relatives and friends who had not done so either. My father left home to live with his aunt and uncle starting in his teen years. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1938 and was part of the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific during WWII seeing action in Guadalcanal, Saipan, Tinian, Tarawa, etc. His career was the Marine Corps. He served during Korea and VietNam as well. My mother varied her time between a stay-at-home mother and working in various jobs on military bases.

Barder: Actually, yes. My father was a physical education teacher and coach, and he taught health in Chicago public schools for 40 years. He also worked in the evenings as an assistant principal. My mom was a career-minded person who was born too early. While fulfilling the role of a stay-at-home mom, she volunteered extensively and as soon as she could, began to work as a librarian at our local Catholic Elementary/Middle School.

Our family was close. We often played sports together. My parents ran a summer camp in the wealthy suburbs in Chicago. Naturally, I grew up participating and then ultimately working in that same summer camp. During my school holidays I had the opportunity to tag along with my dad to work. While he worked, I played basketball in the school's gym all day.

Marvin: How did you get into education? Did you have any righteous epiphanies that propelled you into this field?

Godwin: I did not even consider education as a career until I was well into my university years. Over the years, I had considered various occupations including military service, diplomatic corps, medicine, etc. I really had quite some difficulty deciding until I did some tutoring with children while still at university. As I had had a number of temporary jobs, I found it to be much more enjoyable than anything I had done previously. After receiving my bachelor's degree, I went on to a teaching university to complete my certification. At that time, teaching jobs were in very short supply, so I served as a substitute teacher for two years before receiving my first contract offer. It was at a Junior High School teaching English and Mathematics. That experience further cemented my desire to make teaching my career and was offered a permanent contract.

Barder: No, no real epiphany - my major was economics. By my second half of my sophomore year in college, I began to wonder what it was I was going to do. I went ahead and got my teaching credential as a backup. In my senior year I began my student teaching but was still undecided about what I wanted to do. During my last year in college, in addition to student teaching, I took a one-off course in counseling and really liked it. I decided to go straight to graduate school right after college and get a Masters Degree in Counseling. I then began my teaching career with a little more maturity and a lot more understanding of child development and how to best help students grow and learn.

Marvin: So, how many years does each of you have in education?

Barder: This is year 47 for me.

Godwin: 2018 marks my 44th year in education.

Marvin: After I selected you two for this interview, I coincidentally found out you know each other. What is the story there?

Godwin: I recall first communicating with Chip in 2003 when he was the Director of the American School of Warsaw and I had just become the Head at the American International School in Krakow. Chip was my mentor and helped me tremendously at a very crucial and difficult point for the school. I will never forget his kindness and helpfulness at a time of great need. We have kept in contact over the years.

Barder: John was in Krakow and in a tough situation - small school, financial problems, not a lot of sophistication on the board. He displayed a lot of courage to say and do the right thing when it came to what was best for the school. John acted with ethics, sincerity, and courage - I admired him greatly. The school followed his guidance following a few years of retrenchment. And John's right, we have stayed in touch ever since.

Marvin: How did you two break into administration?

Godwin: To my great good fortune, I believe, this was a rather long process for me. I have served, over the years, as a Tutor, Teaching Assistant, Teacher, Department Head, Teacher Union Representative, Summer School Principal, Temporary Assistant Principal, Lead Teacher (Half time Teacher, Half time Administrator), Assistant Principal, Principal and Director/Head of School. Each of these taught me something and took some 20 years. If there was ever such a time as "breaking-in," then I suppose it would have been my move from Lead Teacher to Assistant Principal. However, I found other "breaking-in" points when I became a Principal as well as each of my Director/Head of School positions. It has been, and continues to be, a life-long learning process.

Barder: I think my break was relatively simple. I wanted to have more impact on students, faculty, parents and schools. I love to teach and even after I became an administrator, I tried to teach at least one class or one unit each year. I also enjoyed being a counselor and feel very fortunate to have gained the communication skills in that training. But in the end, as I began to realize that many of the problems students had were partly the result of the adults in their lives, I wanted to be in a better position to affect those situations. So I became an administrator.

Marvin: Do you have a specific leadership style?

Godwin: Admittedly, I don't think about this very often. Difficulties with this include the potential for difference in perspectives in "how I view my leadership" and "how others view my leadership." Add to this the many labels for "types" (e.g., servant, transactional, emotional, transformational, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, coaching, visionary, etc.). In reality, the type of leadership one uses, I believe, comes from the deep reflections one observes of one's self and others; one's behaviors and the behaviors of others and the resulting various personal skills learned and developed over one's life. Many years ago, I recall observing and learning that education can develop "fads" as quickly as almost any other profession…perhaps more quickly. The difficulties with this are that they come and go so quickly and can lead to such a narrow focus that they can cause more harm than good, thus creating situations where "the baby is tossed out with the bathwater."

I suppose I am much more comfortable with being able to use any and all "types" or "styles" as they are needed…eclectic, if you will. In a day's time, I believe, one ought to be able to move freely to utilize any and all one's personal skills to the best of one's ability. Frequently, in leadership, one encounters the age-old conundrum wherein decision-making is "damned if you do" and "damned if you don't." The most reasonable thoughts on this that I have found are actually quite simple yet very profound. Abraham Lincoln said, "I do the very best I know how - the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what's said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."

Barder: Counseling has influenced my leadership style. I prefer to establish sincere relationships built on trust. I may be more forgiving than others, but I always try to think the best of people. I place a lot of emphasis on community building. In the end, I have gotten clearer about when it is not working - and been able to help people transition out. Integrity - acting in a way that is values based and genuine - is critical. Winning the trust of others is tied to integrity.

Marvin: As you began your role in administration, what kept you up at night?

Barder: For me the big ones are the human resource ones - they're the toughest - especially when you have to make an unpopular decision. You start by standing up at the beginning of the year in front of your faculty attempting to create a family atmosphere; you want people to get along and support one another. Then you might have to fire one of those members of the family you were trying to create. In our world, you might have to deliver the news of a non-renewal at the beginning of the year, but then you have to work together for the remainder of the school year. This is really difficult and often has kept me awake at night. Ultimately, one needs to do what's best for the kids and these kinds of decisions should not be done flippantly. I was probably too patient earlier in my career, but got better at realizing the negative impacts on students when you have a situation where it is not working. I try to treat it as "it's not working here, maybe somewhere else might be a better fit."

Godwin: Humorously, it was always, "Oh God, let me not screw this up!" On a more serious side it has been working with my own difficulties and problems while, at the same time, working with the difficulties and problems of others within the school community (students, parents, teachers, administrators and board members).

Marvin: What got easier as you matured into your roles?

Barder: I don't think the Board work got any easier, but I do think it was less stressful for me because I was able to not take it personally. I realized that a lot of the issues had nothing to do with me as a person. I learned this over time. I am not sure easier is the right term, but I felt less stressed as I grew into my role.

Godwin: Hmmmmm…I don't know that anything has really gotten "easier." I would probably state that any changes that have really come about have been in my self. I love philosophy, especially the morally questioning philosophy exhibited by Socrates, but also others, have been a foundation for learning to me. On the most basic level, I think the admonition of "Primum non nocere" - "Do no harm." and its corollary "Bene facitis" - "Do good." have also been helpful. I try to keep in mind Lincoln's quote about "doing the best I can" as well as Steve Jobs' quote, "Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again."

To the degree I have been able to follow such guidelines, I have become more comfortable in myself and more able to meet the exigencies of life.

Marvin: Did you ever feel your values conflicted with an initiative you were mandated to implement?

Godwin: Over my lifetime, I have tried to be as flexible and open as possible. I have also tried to be upfront with any who have hired me that as long as there was nothing illegal, immoral, unethical or unprofessional I was being asked (or told) to do, then I would be able to stay on board and work together. When there have been instances that have come close to this, I have stood my ground and made good on my statement.

Marvin: How did you come to terms with those conflicts?

Godwin: I have left employment when the boundaries were muddied or about to be crossed.

Barder: Fortunately, I have not found myself in that situation with any large issue.

Marvin: Were there any aspects of schools in which you were particularly punctilious?

Barder: I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about relationships. Like anything, one can be too meticulous and I suppose there are times when I overthink HR things. But with experience I have learned the hard way that sometimes you have to do the right thing even if it is not about doing things right. Another area is building projects where the details can be incredibly important if you don't get them right.

Marvin: You can get mired into these trivialities quickly.

Barder: Well, you can. Except, you need educators involved because architects will do stuff that looks good, engineers will make sure it is functional, but educators that also need to have a voice. I have respect for it, but I do not particularly enjoy this aspect. I really love curriculum. I enjoy working with teachers. I love talking with parents and hanging out with kids. With my current Board in particular, it has been real motivating for me as I've been able to focus on the learning.

Godwin: I spent about 20 years in public education in the United States. When, and if, education becomes so set by codes, rules, guidelines, policies, procedures, regulations that it stifles creativity, then, to me, it is no longer education and I am no longer an educator. I found that to be the case while in the public school systems. I discovered a difference in the international schools and truly felt myself challenged as an educator. Lately, however, I have come to be more concerned about changes that seem to be moving international schools more in this direction (from government guidelines, accreditations, authorizations and community pressures).

Marvin: Have your views changed about the education of children throughout your career?

Godwin: Of course! As well, they should. Education, in my view, is indeed a life-long learning process. My views of education have taken me much further away from standardization and into creativity and flexibility. We are not factories of learning. I think we ought to be more experimental laboratories of learning. That is true for entire school communities. To me, there is an excitement and interest and intense motivation in learning. As long as school communities are open to that, that school's community will continue to learn.

Barder: For me it has gotten simpler. Learning happens everywhere, it doesn't just happen at school and there may be a day when it doesn't happen at schools at all. Even now, for some, it doesn't happen at all at a school. We've seen homeschooled kids doing really well. I think I have gotten down to, let's just focus on the learning parts of schools. Let's not get too hung up on other things that don't align with learning. For example, at UNIS, we are a three-program IB school, but my thing is to say is, we are a school first that has adopted a wonderful IB program. We like many aspects of it but in the end we have to think of our kids and the school first. If it happens to not tick all the boxes on the IB . . . slap my wrist, but I am going to do what is right for the school. There is not a program that is perfect. When you read through the IB literature, they are very clear that you are to make that program your own.

Marvin: I suppose, adapt, not blindly adopt?

Barder: Yeah, and it's the zealots that interpret it rigidly - it drives us crazy as its not the way its meant to serve kids. Overall, going back, it has gotten simpler. We made it complicated, but now we are going back to focusing on student learning. Whatever any adult does on our campus, somehow, we have to relate it back to kids and learning. It's just that simple.

Marvin: I was captivated to hear George Soros' speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this last January. He spoke about rising nationalism around the world. International schools are essentially founded on the ideas of liberalism. In this regard, what are your thoughts about the future of international schools?

Godwin: I've always believed that learning, change and innovation occur when multiple cultures come together and are open to a free-flow of ideas and learning. International schools, to me, can offer so much to the communities they are a part of, the countries the students come from and to the world, especially in helping us to understand one another and realize we are "all in this together." I would offer, however, that we be wary of standardizing instruction and schools to the point that we lose sight of creativity and life-long learning.

Barder: Well, I think this is a political notion . . . this nationalism right now. The irony is even Trump has an intercultural marriage. Even in the United Nations, the idea of nationhood may become obsolete. Politically, right now, you are right, nationalism is increasing, but I think it is a phase. Even the sacred third culture kid notions are now being challenged because you have a woman who wrote an article who said, I'm Brazilian, I am married to a Canadian, my daughter was born in the Philippines and we live in Africa. I mean, where is the daughter from? She not just a third culture kid, she's a fourth or fifth culture kid. It's a blurring of this nationalism notion. In the longer term, we will have more scenarios like this. I just think this is just a phase - a pendulum swinging.

Marvin: Soros also lambasted technology companies and their threat to our society. In particular, he stated how adolescents are especially susceptible to the distraction from social and digital media. Do you think schools need to change their approach to technology based on this current understanding?

Barder: I do. I think it is a problem. In the desire to earn money or simply to connect people it does create problems that we have to address around everything from kids' social skills . . . especially if they are in front of a screen or on the their phone all day long and they end up not knowing how to interact with each other. I think that is a problem. It also has gotten easier for kids to bully one another through cyber bullying, which is easier than on the playground. Though, It is hard to blame the technology companies. It is kind of like blaming the heroin problem in the U.S. on the growers in Colombia. If we weren't demanding it, they wouldn't smuggle it. Yet, I think companies are companies, but I do think they bear some of the responsibility. It really starts with parents.

It's funny though, we will have parents in for technology sessions, but the parents will say, my child won't give me his password, what should I do? Because my child says the teachers told me shouldn't give this password to anybody. We are not asking parents to abdicate their role as a parent; they have every right to get on there and look at what he or she is doing. It must start with the parents. It's about harnessing this potentially wonderful, but also potentially damaging process to its best advantage.

Godwin: I think we always need to keep in mind that technology is a tool and should never replace teachers. Social and digital media should never replace very direct human social interaction, discussion and relationships. The free-flow of ideas, creative and critical-thinking are dependent upon our direct human interactions. I have no issue with utilizing social and digital media, but we must always understand that it is there to serve us and not have it control us and our thinking and learning.

Marvin: What legacy do you hope to leave in your schools or within the field of international schools?

Godwin: Very simply…I hope to leave it a little better off than when I entered it.

Barder: I am not delusional enough to think that whatever I have done is going to stay when I leave. I think all you can really hang on to is the impact that you have had and that might permeate through the world with the thousands of kids, teachers, parents I have come into contact with - I hope that those connections have generated some good stuff.

Marvin: Chip, you said you recently even met up many former students. That might be where you can experience your legacy first hand.

Barder: Well, exactly. In fact, that's a nice little story. When we got to Hanoi ten years ago, Lillian, my wife, was the incoming elementary school counselor. She introduced herself to the students and told everybody what she did she did. The day after, one third grade student came to her and said, Ms. Canada did you ever work in Africa? Did you teach at TASOK [American School of Kinshasa]? The little girl said Lillian was her dad's eighth grade teacher in 1974 in Kinshasa. The girl even came to the school with the yearbook the next day. After re-connecting, Lillian and I felt we both had a major impact on her dad through his time at TASOK. That's the kind of experience that is nice.

Marvin: What sage advice do you have for upcoming and new heads?

Godwin: Primum non nocere. Bene facitis. You will often be faced with "Damned if you do." and "Damned if you don't." So, just do the best you can based upon the best of your ability at the time. Learn. Don't worry. Be happy!

Barder: Do everything you can to be self-aware. From my experience, I feel I made a lot of mistakes because I wasn't so aware of what I was doing and could have avoided some pitfalls. I think the other thing is that if I were a younger administrator I would really have immersed myself more into technology so that I could harness it for the best use for students. I think this is the way going forward. The school and the kids will only progress only as much as the leadership understands it.

If I were at a different point in my career, I would definitely up my game when it comes to technology. We all need to stay on top of the numerous changes happening daily and in order to successfully lead. I would really up my game.

Marvin: You're both retiring after many years as international educators. As you are closing this chapter, what thoughts are surfacing?

Barder: I feel lucky to have fallen into this career, made the friends I've made, and have been able to do the things that I have been given the opportunity to do. It's provided my family with some cool opportunities. I learned so much in the process. I'm not really thinking of stopping, but just figuring out what I want to do next.

Godwin: I hope that I have given to education and the educational communities I have been a part of at least as much as I have been given. I pray that I have given more.

Marvin: Do you have books on your nightstand awaiting your retirement?

Godwin: No specific books to read upon retiring, as there are so many. Much more to the point is wanting to take courses on philosophies of the world simply for the pleasure of learning. No other reason.

Barder: Oh, I've got a whole pile of books. I am a big non-fiction reader. I also think I want to write - well those are, of course connected. I keep reading about Warren Buffet. Buffet reads six hours a day. He said six hours of reading a day helps to formulate his thinking.
Marvin: So, whatever you do, read six hours a day, right?

Barder: Well, I do not know yet what it is going to be or what I can tolerate or what I will be interested in doing. Apparently audio books count so I may do some walking and listening. Pretty much everybody who works full time has books they haven't gotten to yet.

Marvin: If you could require incoming heads to read one book, what would it be?

Godwin: There is no one book to read. My opinion would be to, as much as possible, learn philosophy, not just one but as many as possible. To me, the best leaders are philosophers. And, while one has time, study Business. Learn it well for the good of a school community. But, be an ethical businessman by combining the best of philosophy with the best of good business practices.

Barder: I would go back to Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning. It had a big impact on me in graduate school. From his experience in the concentration camp, Frankl essentially concluded, at the end of the day, they can take away my clothes, they could take away my dignity, but they couldn't take away my will to live. Frankl said he got up everyday and made the choice whether to live or die. He came up with will therapy. But the whole point is that you always have a choice and you should never forget that . . . I may be over simplifying this, but the fact is the book had a huge impact on me. It's just a short little pamphlet. I actually had my kids read it. It's just one of those books everyone should read.

Marvin: Is there something significant you are going to do in your off time?

Godwin: My tastes in what I do during my time off are quite simple. I love to walk, read, travel, go out with family and friends, cook and discuss politics and philosophy.

Barder: I'm a music guy, so playing music will certainly play a central part. I still love to play golf too - I used to be quite good. I read that one should develop something outside one's work, so I am working on increasing more of those. Reading and writing are also high on the list.

Marvin: Where will you be settling after retirement?

Godwin: My wife and I have a home in upstate NY near the Rochester, NY area. We'll keep a place near there, but, during the long, grey cold winters, we'd both like to travel and spend time in various places in Central America. Both of us speak Spanish at a moderate level and very much enjoy Hispanic culture.

Barder: I really do not know yet. I don't think I can make a good decision right now as I am buried in my current work. Our home base is in Bellingham, WA. Lillian and I will ship our items there, but will stop short of calling this a permanent move. I do not know what is going to happen - I am looking at this as a gap year. We have to consider that we have a daughter in New Zealand, a son in China, and another son in the U.S. - geez, I don't know where they got that idea! Living overseas has been our world since 1971 for Lillian and 1973 for me. Perhaps, after a break, there will be more clarity on what is next. So, I am open to everything but not ready to commit to anything major for a little while.

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03/22/2018 - Lily
Great article. It's interesting to read about how they became principals and how their ideas created an impact on the communities. Thank you!
03/10/2018 - Jim
Very enjoyable article. I thought I was the only losing sleep over some of these issues or decisions we all have to make. Glad to know it's not just me who struggles with the impact of making the right decisions for the school. Thanks, Deron!

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