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Advice to My Younger Self: A Letter to Keryn

By Keryn Dowling
Advice to My Younger Self: A Letter to Keryn

The International School of Luxembourg’s Learning Loft hosted a variety of professional development workshops and conferences, which attracted many international teachers, curriculum designers, and school leaders who participated in learning experiences to positively impact student learning. One workshop entitled "Advice to my Younger Self" asked school leaders to write an intimate and personal letter sharing the advice they would give to their younger selves. Inspired by this event, leaders in the educational community have offered to write letters for others to read and learn from their experiences.

Dear Keryn,

Keep learning, keep being open to opportunities, and keep supporting others. Although this feels a little artificial to write - I still have so much more to learn and grow from within leadership - there are a few things I wish I could tell my younger self.

Number one is, try to remove the emotion from the situation, especially if you feel it is getting in the way, or feeling too large to be connected with the issue at hand. While I am still learning this, however, there are aspects I certainly would have benefited from as a younger leader. These include time honored strategies that my mom once told me, as well as those other mentors have encouraged along the way. Such as, draft the email, but don’t send it; go for a walk or engage in something totally different and then come back to address the situation. Ask for space in a conversation and then come back when time has allowed emotion to diffuse. Feel confident in ending or pausing a conversation if it is not feeling productive or constructive. Understand that your body language and facial expressions can say a lot more than you can with words and engage in self-awareness to keep all of this in check when you need to.

I would encourage all young leaders to learn (and apply) skills learned from professional development such as adaptive schools or cognitive coaching early on in your career. These strategies are invaluable. Learn and re-visit them frequently. There is always space to expand your professional development to help develop and continually develop your leadership, communication and delegation style. On that note, be comfortable delegating! You cannot and should not take on everything, even if you are a type A personality. Harnessing the support of others will make your team and your own leadership stronger. More on that in advice two! 

Continue to invest in leadership training in areas such as difficult conversations, giving constructive feedback, and supporting others. You can never have enough training or development in this area. Rehearse challenging conversations in advance. Know the main points you need to get across well and speak these with compassion. Prepare for pushback or defensiveness and listen with understanding while still holding on to the integrity of the conversation. Try to look at decision making from all angles and invite your dissidents in. Allow them to poke holes in your plans or ideas before going public with them, and always credit their input. They will make your ideas stronger, allowing you to adjust and tweak before sharing them widely.

My second piece of advice to young Keryn is in two parts; part one is to invest in people. Building relationships matter and it's vital to curate these daily with regular check-ins, asking questions and follow up questions about what is going on with your faculty, their lives, and their family. Drive to connect on the everyday things and build from that base. The stronger that base is, the easier it would be if you had to connect on a more challenging issue. Part two of this is to invest in people who invest in you. Remember that spending your energy, respect, and expectations are a two-way street, regardless of your position. It is important to always remain professional while still being careful where you give your time and energy. Protect your own integrity and leadership values by giving positive energy to those who share theirs with you. Not everyone will do this, or at least, not everyone will do this in a positive way. But for those who do, give it back unreservedly and wholeheartedly. Who you choose to surround yourself with says a lot about your values and beliefs and often shows others who may be uncertain where to look to.

Which leads to my third piece of advice, strive for balance. Leadership always has busy seasons, so you need to be mindful of your planning and priorities. Plan to mentor and support new teachers before recruiting season comes around. Schedule and protect time for this throughout the year. Plan and book times in your own calendar before anyone else books that time to do “weekly maintenance,” time to be with kids, check in on new initiative work and curriculum planning, classroom observations, and parent meetings. Save emailing for the commute if you can, or at another time when students and teachers aren’t in the building. Set boundaries for weekends - still working on this one - and honor them the best you can. Taking time to recharge and switch off working is a bit like the old adage of “pausing to sharpen the tools before continuing.”  Sometimes a break is all you need to have a fresh perspective on a challenge and renewed energy to continue to work on it.

Lastly, remember to make space to pay it forward when you can; think about all of those who helped support you as a leader and pay attention to those who may need support on their journey. I would tell younger Keryn that motherhood will shape the leader you will become, so support women who take maternity leave, or who need time to be with their family. Family and homelife has to come first, and this has to be shown in action as well as words. Just the same as for students. When all is right at home, all can be right at work. You need to take care of personal needs before you can give yourself to students and teachers' needs. I’ll never forget when Viki (January’s Advice Letter), who was my principal at the time, smoothed the way for me to take needed leave for my young daughter when she said, “We can cover you here (at school), but you can’t ever be replaced at home. Please go take care of her. She needs you now more than we do.”

Finally, know that humor and an authentic apology can go a long way at smoothing over mistakes you may have made, or things you have forgotten. Balls will be dropped, communication may not be as timely as you like, and at the end of the day you are human!  If you can leave each day knowing that you have given and done your best, that is more than enough.

As my mom liked to say to me, and now I want to pass on to inspiring leaders in education, “I believe in you. Let that strong beautiful spirit of yours be your guide.”


Born and bred in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, Keryn has been teaching and leading at international schools since 2003. With an equal love of Asia and Europe, Keryn and her PE teaching husband, James, have bounced between the two continents, working in and exploring London, Vienna, Abu Dhabi, Vietnam, Zurich, India, and Luxembourg whilst developing their love for an international lifestyle, travel, culture, and outdoor experiences. Keryn's career began in elementary teaching, and after a brief foray into MYP Theatre teaching, she fell into a love of developing curriculum. After leading curriculum development in three different schools, Keryn is now the Lower School Principal at the International School of Luxembourg, and proud Mama of two thoroughly international and resilient TCK daughters.  

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