This is the first of a multi-post series outlining the unique experience I just completed as principal of the Canadian Section of the International School in Casteau, Belgium. This school is operated by the Canadian Department of National Defence and is part of a school campus that serves the children of military and NATO staff who work on the NATO military base there.
I hope you enjoy it.
Leading up (to the opportunity of a lifetime)!
I am one month home after a two-year absence. I left the town of Orangeville, Ontario to assume a school leadership role that was unique. By unique, I mean that only one other Canadian principal can claim the same job. In July 2019, I began my role as the principal of the Canadian Section of the SHAPE International School. This school is operated by the Canadian Department of National Defence for the Canadian Armed Forces. It is housed on the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe base in Casteau, Belgium. SHAPE, as it is commonly known, is one of two of NATO’s Allied Command Operations headquarters.
This opportunity came about because I got curious about an email intended for my teaching staff and sent to my inbox.
I discovered this unique posting while falling through an email rabbit hole. Each September, I would receive an email from our HR department. It was intended for teachers interested in applying to overseas positions with the Canadian Armed Forces. I was asked to forward the email to all teaching staff, which I did every year. I always assumed the email was for teachers who were veterans or part of the CAF reserves.
In September 2018, for the first time ever, I read the email. I read it because I was professionally ‘stuck’. I imagine many of you have been there before. My ‘stuck-ness’ began in 2014. I had been a principal/vice-principal for 10 years. I had been a teacher for 11 prior to that. I had almost 10 years ahead of me.
I began to look for other leadership opportunities. I applied to positions with Ontario’s Ministry of Education in three different departments. On all three occasions, I was invited for an interview. On all three occasions, I was unsuccessful.
I had also applied for system-level leadership positions with my Board. I put my name forward as a candidate for Principal of Program, Assistant to the Superintendent of Program and Manager of Elementary Staffing and Recruiting. Again, I was unsuccessful at all three. My Board has some fabulous leaders and some great ones got these positions. But I won’t lie; I became frustrated. I started to question my abilities. My self-esteem took a beating.
Then, in June of 2016, only weeks before the end of the school year, a system-level leadership position came up. It was unique. It seemed challenging. The successful candidate would lead the process of developing, implementing and monitoring our Board’s new French Immersion registration process.
My superintendent was honest. She stated that this position would have little to do with instruction. The successful candidate would be focused on policy, would be part of the Program Department but would work alongside the Planning Department, superintendents, trustees and the Director. She was blunt and stated that it would be challenging and political. It was also uncharted territory. The position and the project were new. I still put my name forward for consideration. In hindsight, after speaking with colleagues, I believe I was alone in doing so. Nonetheless, on June 28, 2016, I informed my school community that I would be leaving after four years to assume my new position as FSL Lead. This position was a 12-month position and started on Monday, July 4.
The role was extended by one year and I spent two years in this position. I loved almost every minute of it. It was challenging. It pushed me well out of my comfort zone. The work focused on policy review and creation, and registration and population data. There was no direct work with students. In the end, I was proud of the work we did. I did not want to return to a school-level position as principal. In many ways, it felt like a ‘been there, done that’ moment. It also felt like a small step backwards. Nonetheless, the school I was placed at was one that I was familiar with and enjoyed. I was happy with where they put me. I had taught there and served as vice-principal. I also knew that, with my retirement date looming in the not-so-distant future, it would be the last school I worked at.
Or so I thought.
As I dug deeper into that fateful September 2018 email, I discovered that the Canadian Armed Forces operate three overseas schools: two in The Netherlands and one in Belgium. The schools recruit annually for Canadian teachers with a focus on Ontario. This year, they were also looking for a principal! Principal candidates needed at least five years of experience, be fluent in French and English and include a letter from their board providing permission to apply and to leave for at least two years should they be the successful candidate.
My wife and I discussed what this opportunity might bring. We went back and forth about whether this experience would fit our current situation. We loved the idea of being in the heart of Western Europe. I loved the idea of leading a truly bilingual school. We were excited about the possibility of having family and friends visit, giving people a home base from which to explore Europe intimately.
But it also meant a massive relocation into an unknown area. Although my wife had moved to Canada from Australia in 2008 and. Had experienced a massive relocation, I had never lived outside of Southern Ontario. I had visited Western Europe extensively but that was 35 years ago! We would be moving away from everything that was familiar to us: my adult children, our friends, our house and neighbourhood and all our day-to-day experiences. Shopping, banking, driving and all of life’s occurrences would be new. In the end, we decided to let the process decide. I would apply. If I was the successful candidate, we would firm up our decision then. If not, nothing lost.
The application process opened on September 1st, closed on November 1st, and felt rigorous. I first needed to submit a letter from my Board expressing their support were I to be the successful candidate. The job was based on a loan of service between the Department of National Defence and my school Board. I would continue to be employed by my Board and they would ‘lend’ me to the DND for the term of my contract.
I also needed to submit a cover letter, an updated resumé, a statement of interest and two letters of reference. I needed to complete the Children’s Education Management’s (this organisation became known as CEM to me quickly) seven-page Application form. If I was successfully screened as a viable candidate, I would need to complete an oral French assessment and, finally, participate in an hour-long interview with the Director of CEM, the Canadian Education officer of CEM and one military representative.
For the two months that my application package sat in the hands of the DND, I had convinced myself that I didn’t stand a chance at being selected. I pictured scores of much more talented and much more effective school leaders applying. I had also experienced enough disappointment from unsuccessful applications that I assumed my lack of success would be a forgone conclusion. I was told from CEM that I would hear either way by December 1.
December 1 came and went, and I received no word. I wrote off the application as a learning experience. I put the process out of my mind. A week later, I received an invitation to an oral French proficiency test. Now this shouldn’t have bothered me at all. French is my first language. My parents hardly spoke English when they moved to Toronto from the East coast of Canada in the early 60s. I learned English from late 60s and early 70s T.V. I attended French language schools through elementary, secondary and my first year at university. I did use some elementary level French at work but otherwise I was extremely out-of-practice.
I didn’t know what to expect. I was provided with a 30-minute time slot but given no further instructions beyond how to log on. I was worried wince I have no experience with the jargon of education in French. Would there be leadership questions? Curriculum-related questions? I need not have worried. The 5-minute French general conversation passed in a blur and I’m sure it went well since, at its conclusion, I was told I should expect an interview invitation.
Now this was becoming real! During the first week of December, I went from dismissing the application as merely a professional learning opportunity to starting to believe that I could be headed to Belgium to work as a principal for the Canadian military. The invitation for an interview came just a few hours later: Friday, December 14th, 2018 at 11h00.
I know I don’t interview well. I’m excellent when it comes to casual conversations. I love to discuss learning, both in general and specifically. I’m passionate about education. I love to learn but also have my own extensive knowledge base from which to draw.
In a timed interview that is anything but organic, I become very nervous. I lose my train of thought. I second, third and fourth guess myself. I had been invited to almost a dozen interviews for different leadership positions over the past 15 years. First VP interview? Unsuccessful. First P interview? Unsuccessful. The Ministry of Education thrice? Unsuccessful. Central positions at my own Board times three? Unsuccessful. My two-year FSL position was offered to me after a casual conversation with the Superintendent and likely because no one else applied. There was no formal interview.
This would be one hour and nine questions, all centred around the Ontario Leadership Framework. Two of the questions would be asked and were to be answered en français! I had one week to prepare. And now I WANTED this job! There was no more sitting on the fence. For personal and professional reasons, I now wanted to live in Europe. I had my wife’s full support. She wanted to live there, too. After loads of discussion, we concluded that this would be a hard-to-pass-up, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I reviewed the Framework. The general topic of the questions had been shared with me, so I reviewed that too. Then, about two days in, I realized something. I was trying to prepare for an interview of a job that I was already doing successfully for more than 10 years. This was unlike any past interview. I didn’t need to prepare. I was already prepared. I just needed to be myself. I needed to answer questions based on my practical experience. I needed to convince the panel that I had successfully led schools before and could successfully lead theirs. So, I stopped reviewing and started reflecting. What were some examples from my own practice that I could share? What were some stories from own my practice that I could tell? And most importantly, how could I best prepare myself for the one-hour online interview process as if it were a casual conversation centred around school leadership and student learning?
We are now familiar with the online interview. It is commonplace. But, in 2018, that wasn’t the case. I had never experienced one. This would be a new process for me. I took the morning so I could prepare without distraction. I had a healthy breakfast. I limited my coffee intake. I prepped a water bottle. To help me remain as comfortable as possible, I chose to interview from my home instead of my office. I groomed my beard. I chose my outfit. And I decided not to wear pants! That’s correct. My interview attire was business on the top – shirt, tie, jacket – and PJs on the bottom.
During the interview, I was the most comfortable I had ever been. I talked about my own practice. I was calm. My French was strong. After all, I was interviewing for the job of a principal, a job I was already in. I was just requesting a change in location.
Despite a couple of minor technical difficulties, I ended the interview feeling good about the results. That was rare. My best interview and it was conducted partially while in my pyjamas. I told my wife I did well and that the outcome was now in someone else’s hands.
The interview team told me to expect a response before our school breaks for the holidays. One week. My wife and I thought about and talked about little else. We started planning what our life would be like living in Belgium. We made mental lists. But we shared this with almost no one. I had informed only a small handful of people about my application: my supervisors, my children, my vice-principal. My wife had mentioned it to her family. Otherwise, this was a private affair.
On Thursday, December 20th, around 09h30, I get an email from the CEM Education Officer. It said something like: “Thank you for taking the time to interview with Children’s Education Management…” a bunch of other words that escape me now… “the results of your interview are outlined in the attached document. ”
Smiley face! With that simple addition to the end of the message, I knew before I opened the attachment that the job was mine. Nonetheless, I closed my office door at school and read the attachment. I had been offered the position of principal at the Canadian Section of the SHAPE International School in Casteau, Belgium. I had 24 hours to consider it and respond. I called my wife. I told my boss and my VP. But my focus at work was understandably elsewhere. My life was about to change in ways unimaginable.