Using Van Halen to Answer the Big Question

GWA’s December Break began yesterday, ending a Fall filled with frenetic activity.  Tomorrow we board an Air Canada flight to take us across the Atlantic and North America to land in Vancouver, then drive across the U.S. border at the Peace Arch to spend 10 days criss-crossing the State of Washington to celebrate the holidays with Brian’s immediate and extended family.  That will mark Brian’s third and Audrey’s fourth trans-Atlatic trips in seven weeks.

Audrey’s solo trip started two weeks ago when she flew to Atlanta for an international educators recruiting fair at which she and GWA’s Director of HR had the longest line there of over 60 prospective hires jockeying to interview with them for teaching and staff positions.  She refers to hiring events like this as speed-dating because schools have a very small window with each applicant to decide whether to offer contracts, and vice versa as applicants decide at which schools they want to work. Frenetic barely begins to describe the environment at these affairs.

But besides holiday and school recruiting trips, we also jetted westward “across the pond” twice in November for Audrey’s final two job interviews as we wrapped up the process of deciding where the next phase of our expat expedition will take us.  Both trips took us to Latin America, resulting in offers from two wonderful schools – one in Guatemala and another in Panama – that won our hearts and engaged us in their missions and visions. In the end, after much discussion, deliberation, and discernment, we are most pleased to share our decision to move to Panama City to join the International School of Panama community next July.

Knowing where we will go next lets us relax in a way not possible since the difficult decision nearly a year ago to continue our adventure abroad elsewhere instead of remaining for another several years in the Morocco we have come to love.  Education is one of the few fields in which employment transitions run in annual cycles instead of short-term transitions that complete in a matter of days or weeks. To be professionally responsible educators must make decisions whether to renew contracts or seek new opportunities far in advance of actual changes in employment status.  Often that means telling one’s school of a decision to move on long before one actually has another position lined up at another school. So it was with us as we told the board in February of our plans, giving us a year-and-a-half to find our next spot and GWA the same to find Audrey’s successor as Head of School. Nine months later everything is sewn up with ISP’s board having announced two weeks ago that Audrey will be their next Director and GWA’s board announcing this week who will succeed Audrey here in Casablanca.

Through that time we remained cautiously optimistic about finding the right school for our next gig.  Having lived across the U.S., travelled the globe widely, and lived the last four years in Morocco, we worried less about location and more about fit in the school as we started exploring posted jobs last Spring.  Granted, we were picky. We weeded out “for profit” schools. We paid close attention to school missions and visions. We looked for boards whose members collectively and individually displayed growth mindsets, an appreciation for best practices, and a collaborative approach to working with a school Head instead of getting “in the weeds” with school administration.  We did not shy away from schools with work to do, but we sought a reasonable level of institutional stability. Likewise, as much as any geographic consideration, we sought schools in countries with a reasonable level of political stability and without too great a potential threat to personal safety (whether from crime or terrorisim). At least this time, now as empty-nesters, we had the freedom to choose a school without the added consideration of what impact moving our children into it would have.

Our pickiness cut back seriously the number of contender schools into which we probed more deeply.  At various times in our search, we had to fall back on our cautious optimism to keep anxiety from running amok because the number of postings garnering our attention seemed much smaller than what we imagined we would encounter.  One of Audrey’s references, an education consultant known internationally for her work with schools around the world, confirmed that the “pickins” seemed a little light but reassured her that the right opportunity would appear. We looked seriously at schools in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe.  To round out the continents, finding job opportunities in Australia proved very difficult; and Antarctica’s penguins group in colonies, rookeries, and waddles instead of in schools.

We got information about schools in lots of ways.  Surfing the internet let us see not only how schools presented themselves but in many cases also how others viewed schools or context that we might not gleam from schools or headhunters directly.  For example, if a school had an interim Head but offered no information about how that circumstance came to be, our friends at Google could provide information about how the previous head had gone from being the Director of Advancement years ago to a Head who expanded the campus (perhaps too quickly) and then stepped aside midyear for an interim to take over while the board could search for a permanent replacement.  We got information from our network of headhunters, consultants, and international educator peers, discovering that a school might have a very union-like faculty culture that requires top administrators to have experience working with a teachers union; that a school’s board may have been a mess a decade ago buy has worked hard to learn, grow, and employ best practices today; or that a country had recently put a tight limit on the number of years expats could stay in the country, consequently guaranteeing both high faculty turnover each year and difficulty enticing educators to join the school and fill the high number of open positions each year.

Gathering intelligence on prospective schools let us decide where to and where not to apply.  In one case we had almost decided to apply when we learned that the departing Head suddenly changed his mind and now planned to stay at the school, making the posting evaporate.  Very strange, with such wishy-washiness probably marking a place where we would not want to go. Overall, Audrey applied to about 15 schools, give or take. Of those, she moved forward in about half, and of those in which she moved forward she pulled out from some after learning more about the school’s details through further interviews or other sources of information.  In the end, she was a finalist at four schools.

Brian joined Audrey on one finalist visit to an eastern European school in September, and the next week she headed solo to an international boarding school in the western U.S.  The first seemed like a great prospect in a wonderful city rich with history and culture, and the first day on campus went very well. However, in a session with the board on the next day, she encountered a board member bent on restructuring the school’s org chart so that the board would hire a Managing Director who would report directly to the board instead of to the Head.  Having endured such a structural diversion from best practices at a previous school in her career and with no desire to repeat the experience, she said that would be a deal-breaker for her. After arriving with high hopes based on all the positive things we had learned about the school, we left with huge disappointment packed in our carry-on bags as we flew back to Casablanca.

The next week, Audrey flew alone to the U.S. for a few days at the international boarding school.  We did not have U.S. boarding schools on our radar, but this one grabbed our attention. When Audrey had a Skype interview with the board, they impressed her so much as a highly evolved board of top tier professionals scattered around the U.S., all deeply familiar with modern pedagogy and dedicated to best practices in board and school leadership.  In the end, they hired another candidate who was a perfect fit for the school and its circumstances; but Audrey received high praise from several board members and even outreach to stay in touch with them as an inspirational education leader. During our stay in Washington State, we even hope to meet up with one of these board members in a continuation of the relationship that began back in September.

With two good prospects falling away, going into October Audrey counted on Brian’s confidence that all would be well and we would end up – recalling a favorite prayer of Brother Clem at the Redemptorist schools where Brian was Head in Baton Rouge – “Where we are supposed to be when we are supposed to be there.”  The searches in Guatemala and Panama heated up through October, and Audrey had to work with the boards on when she would be able to visit as a finalist because our November calendar had since last Spring included our daughter Margaret making her first visit to Morocco in the second week of the month. Both boards proved very accommodating, and we scheduled trips that bookended Margaret’s visit in November’s first and third weeks.  So in the first week of November we flew from Casablanca to Paris, Paris to Panama City, and Panama City to Guatemala City. The visit was great, we were able to explore outside Guatemala City on a day-trip to the old capital of Antigua, founded in 1542, and we found the school community welcoming and full of heart, ready to take on together as a community the challenges facing the school. We left knowing that we finally had found a school to which we could say, “Yes!”  But, being transparent with the board, we made sure they knew we had another finalist visit scheduled in Panama a week after we would return to Casablanca.

As Margaret’s visit ended and we packed for Panama, Guatemala indicated their desire to have Audrey as their next Head of School.  But without a formal contract and offer to lock in, we went to Panama while continuing open discussion with Guatemala. So a week after returning from Latin America, we hopped on Air France again to repeat the Casa-Paris and Paris-Panama route on the same flights as before.

The Panama trip also went beautifully, the community also welcomed us warmly, and the board seemed inclined to bring Audrey to their school.  Besides time at the school, we hiked in the rain forest and fed bananas and grapes by hand to monkey on islands inside the Panama Canal.  Despite feeling like Guatemala could work well for us, Panama had our favor. Audrey told the ISP board that she could not in good conscience keep holding off Guatemala after completing her visit.  So while they had not planned to make a decision for several more days, the ISP board moved heaven and earth to give Audrey an offer the day we arrived back in Casablanca…even with the preceding day being a national holiday (Panama’s independence day) with several board members traveling out of the country.  With ISP’s offer in hand when we got home, we made our decision and let both schools know. Both the ISP board chair and ISP’s current Director told Audrey subsequently that when the board shared the news with ISP’s faculty and staff, they cheered and applauded. Hard as it was to make a decision, we knew we had made the right one.  Once ISP told us they had announced the news, we did the same with a post on Facebook, revealing our next destination by posting YouTube’s video of Van Halen’s “Panama” song from 1984.

Now, looking ahead to our Panamanian relocation in July and planning another trip to Panama sometime late-Spring to find housing and for Audrey to work on the leadership transition with ISP’s fantastic departing Head (with whom Audrey bonded immediately), we nonetheless remain dedicated fully to completing our time in Morocco and at GWA with the same “all-ahead full” approach we have practiced since we first arrived in July 2016.  That said, we expect in many ways it will get harder and harder to get closer and closer to the end of this school year. The life of international educators carries much excitement and the ability to experience the world. We have made wonderful friends in Morocco. The unhappy flip side of that, though, is that moving on to our next adventure means having to say goodbye to those friends who have made our time here so meaningful. In many ways they are family, and we will miss them as such, even as we settle into our new circumstances.  That will make starting our transition hard, necessary as it will be in the coming months.

Meanwhile, as we bid adieu to the frenetic Fall, it also serves as an incentive for us to value every beautiful sunset over the Atlantic that we see from our balcony each night, knowing that we have a finite number left for us to enjoy; to value every interaction we have with the marvelous friends and peers we have here; and to make the most of each moment each day.  As we think further on it, that seems like what we should do every day regardless of where we are and what might lie ahead. So for that daily affirmation we feel much appreciation.

On your mark, get set, here we go!