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The Lessons Between the Lines

Bruce McWilliams, ISS Executive Vice President

It’s funny how sometimes the smallest things resonate the loudest. Maybe it’s the feeling you get walking down a school hallway for the first time; perhaps it’s a paragraph buried inside a young student’s essay. You often can’t describe why, but unremarkable moments have the power to reveal the grander journey of a school.  

In my role as Executive Vice-President of International Schools Services, I have the good fortune of walking down many school hallways. As I work with school founders to envision and create new schools, over the years, I get to return to schools we’ve planned together and see how the student body continues to grow and flourish. This fall, I visited Riffa Views International School (RVIS), a school for which I was the Founding Director in 2007-2008 and that I now visit twice a year.  When I went last month, RVIS was consumed with the furor of a national inspection. The inspection team had taken over the boardroom and the school had festooned it with at least 90 white binders, each meticulously detailing the progress RVIS had made since its last inspection. MAP scores, co-curricular program attendance, curriculum articulation, IB results and parent surveys: everything was there, a neatly compiled tour-de-force that demonstrated the school’s very real quality. 

But what caught my eye was an essay posted amongst the few, unassuming samples of student writing tacked to the boardroom wall. The author of this particular piece was an eleventh grader. He had assisted in a service learning project, in which our students helped rebuild a decrepit house for an impoverished family in the neighborhood.  This wasn’t just a fundraising event, but a “Jimmy Carter-esque, get your hands dirty” type of project – something that many of our students have limited experience in. I walked to the wall and read this reflection:  

RVIS-service.jpg“I know I have the good life. I know my life is better than 50% of the lives out there. Working at the house was a good experience, but I don’t know how to say this. Maybe I was doing it for selfish reasons. Working at the house made me feel good about myself. We are helping a poor family and that makes me feel good... selfish right? But on the third day there, we loaded up two large trucks with all kinds of debris. It was a hard day of lifting old doors and bed mattresses, of shoveling gravel and scraps and metal and tile. I was exhausted. It wasn’t until we were heading back to the school in the van and I looked out the window to see a gardener shoveling dirt in a garden that I had an epiphany. It was then that I truly knew how hard other people work. I am not talking about poverty. I’m talking about work involving strenuous labor, day in and day out in heat that can reach 50°. People who don’t have my lifestyle. I shoveled for one afternoon. The man I watched does it every day. I have a deep appreciation for them and a feeling of esteem, respect, and admiration for those who do this.” 

As I finished reading, I found myself thinking about my very first meeting with the RVIS founders, years ago before the campus opened as a K-5 school. We were undergoing a vision/consensus exercise, designed to crystalize our vision for the school we were creating. I asked, “Imagine we are seven years down the road, and your first graduating class is walking across the stage to receive their diplomas; what personal characteristics do you want them to possess?  What values and character traits would you hope the school had instilled?  What kind of young adults are we seeking to create?”  

The questions elicited a strong response from the founders, who clearly valued students possessing character, empathy and a strong sense of values. Over the coming years, as we crafted the culture of the school and developed new programs, that early vision always burned brightly; everything we did had that future graduating student in mind. I turned from the student’s writing and once more gazed at the white binders, impressive in their scope, their detail, and the measured way they described the school’s many great achievements.  Yet I realized the most impressive thing in that boardroom was the earnest reflection behind me, humbly taped on the wall. The student’s writing so eloquently showed how the RVIS experience opened a door for his perspective-changing epiphany. For the first time in his life, that student truly saw those menial laborers and began to understand their humanity in a profoundly different way.  
We cannot measure the change instilled in that student. The insights he gained in that moment will never be neatly categorized on a standardized test report. Still, this was probably one of the most valuable lessons he learned at our school. He will likely forget how to do quadratic equations over the years (I know I have), but he will remember that gardener. 

As I near the end of my career, I am reminded of the truly important work we do as educators. Of course we immerse our students in robust academic programs and provide outstanding opportunities to grow academically, athletically, and artistically -- that is a given. But for me, as I reflect on a lifelong career in international education, those small defining moments are the most rewarding. 

My advice to all of you carrying the torch and continuing to do great work is this: never lose sight of the qualities your students will possess when they make that future walk across the stage. Keep noticing the small things, and keep making a difference. 

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