Two Years Abroad pt. 3 – Learning & Leading (and finding my groove)

Learning about the community and the leadership work and finding my groove as the new principal of the Canadian Section of SHAPE IS.

For Part 1 of this multi-part series, click here.

For Part 2, click here.

On July 2, we watched movers load our possessions, one by one, into a 40-foot shipping container.  The Department of National Defence took good care of us during our move. We packed nothing. We moved nothing. We loaded nothing. The Canadian moving crew was amazing.  Once packed and loaded, we spent one full week in temporary accommodations in Canada. We stayed local so that we could walk to the house, now empty, to take care of our two cats, before jumping on our flight.   I also chose to store my car instead of having it shipped overseas. 

On the morning of July 9, we packed our suitcases, picked up our two cats, Venus and Merlin, and headed for Toronto International Airport. We had a mid-afternoon direct flight to Brussels but allowed ourselves plenty of time. We had all of our documentation ready to go: passports, military move order & posting message, cat vaccination receipt, tickets and boarding passes. We had no idea what to expect at our departure from Toronto or our arrival in Brussels.  This was the first time either of us had flown on a one-way ticket under someone else’s direction.  

We landed in Brussels just after 7:00 am local time.  I came to Belgium to assume the role of principal of the Canadian School on S.H.A.P.E. (SHAPE is the acronym for the base. It stands for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and is N.A.T.O.’s strategic headquarters in Europe.) In my 15 years as principal, I always saw my primary role as one that embraced learning.  Now our entire move was a learning experience. My personal learning started immediately. And it never stopped. 

We were blurry-eyed and jet lagged but ready to take on the entry process. But entry was surprisingly uneventful, even after we told the border guard we were staying for work for at least two years. They asked for no documentation other than our passports. They didn’t even acknowledge that we had cats with us! This was not a North American airport.  A few minutes after processing, we were ready to pick up our rental car and head to our temporary accommodations in Mons, much faster than anticipated. 

We knew that we would be in temporary accommodations for a few weeks while we awaited the arrival of our goods. They were being shipped by freighter. We booked a stop-gap room to allow the cats to roam for a few hours after spending over 16 hours in their crates. Our apartment inspection occurred later that morning. This was a mandatory step before being given access to our space.  It ensures the space is as needed and stated and that any needed repairs can be affected by the landlord.  It also allows the landlord to record the condition of the property at the start of the lease. The military were already paying the rent in preparation for our arrival so, although our goods were still weeks away, we could have access to the apartment immediately after we inspected it. This meant the cats could come in right away and roam freely. They were the first occupants of the apartment. Our hotel was within walking distance of our new place so we planned to spend most days at the apartment and use the hotel for sleeping. 

We stayed close to our new home in Mons. We explored the city on foot. We needed to remain nearby in anticipation of the arrival of our goods. We would be provided as little as 24 hours notice.  I also committed to going into the school one day each week during the summer. 

The Canadian school in Belgium doesn’t stand alone. It’s a small section of a much larger International School on base.  The SHAPE International School consisted of eleven sections operated under the direction of eight different nations and overseen by a Director. The Director worked in conjunction with each nation’s National Military Representative, or NMR, and each section’s principal to ensure that the schools met the needs of the military and their families.  To get a sense of the Canadian sections structure, take two small Ontario schools, one English and one French, squeeze them together, superimpose a secondary governance structure that includes 11 principals from eight different nations, add a director and a military structure that includes the needs of each NATO partner and you can start to imagine the different influences on the day-to-day operations of my new school. 

I had so much to learn.  I had spent 15 years as a principal with a school board’s infrastructure there as support. This would be different. There was no such infrastructure. There was no superintendent. My direct report was 6000 kilometres and six time zones away. The responsibilities of a principal include overseeing instruction, discipline, organisation and management of the school. In Ontario, these key responsibilities are supported by the infrastructure of a local school board.  At a CAF overseas school, much of this responsibility sits more directly in the lap of the principal. To add to the difference, the school needed to act in direct support of the military infrastructure, members and dependants on base. 

My wife and I had always discussed staying for at least three years. That seemed the minimum time to make all of this moving and shaking worthwhile. We also talked about other scenarios: four years, five years or more, if the work went well and the DND and my Ontario school board allowed me to stay. This longer-term plan certainly impacted my initial decisions at the school. I was never a principal to jump in and act right away, unless I found a ‘must change’. I always preferred to move slowly and get the lay of the land. I set out to watch and learn. I went into every class multiple times every day. I was on the schoolyard greeting students in the morning, connecting with them at lunch time and wishing them well at dismissal. I connected with parents and caregivers in-person and electronically.  I felt I had time to learn about and experience the culture of the school.

I also had to filter this new experience through my preconceived and pre-existing ideas and biases. I had come in with certain expectations. For example, the narrative from CEM up to this point was that DND schools attracted ‘the cream of the crop’, a vague phrase often used to describe the high calibre of staff who successfully applied to these positions. I had a preconceived notion as to what ‘cream of the crop’ meant for me. 

As one example, I assumed that, given the opportunity to work in a system that is isolated from a school board and explicitly states that professional development is personal would mean that all staff were motivated self-directed learners. So, one quick change I made was to add even more additional learning time and resources. Time is often an identified barrier to personal learning so I imagined a school where additional planning time was allocated specifically for professional learning.  I then assumed self-directed learning would flow with little or no checks for accountability. In most cases, this perspective was supported. But in others, to my surprise, it was proven as false.

My work as principal would also be weighed against the expectations and preconceptions of others.

There were aspects of the day-to-day work of leading and managing the school on SHAPE that were just like the schools I had worked at back home.  There were also some major differences.  Classes were all multi-grade with two and three grades per class. Class size was also significantly smaller, ranging between 8 and 20 students. Major student behaviour concerns were almost non-existent. (Although I was not one to suspend a student unless absolutely necessary, no student behaviour led to a suspension during my time in Belgium). The teaching staff and I were expected to be much more involved in the community. There were TGIF/DMCVs at the Canadian bar on base. There were Canadian and NATO community events and gatherings. Although we were not expected to attend them all, neither could we avoid participation altogether. The line between personal and professional life was different and the expectation of participation for teaching staff was laid out in policies and procedures of the overseas school.

Now, I loved this. I often sought out opportunities to be part of the greater school community while back in Ontario. I’d coach a local sports team. I’d volunteer for a local organisation. I’d involve myself in fundraising. For me, being part of the greater school community was easy. 

At SHAPE, the parent and military community was supportive of the school’s work in general and my work as school leader from the start. I have always stated that building and maintaining relationships in schools are the keys to a successful principalship. Military members have a reputation for being tough. And they are. But, and I realize that this is a generalization based on my unique and limited experience, they are always respectful.  They were strong advocates for their community. They were relentless advocates for their children’s education. But I never… not once… felt a need to suspend a conversation because a parent was being aggressive or belligerent. Not once did I feel that questioning an initiative, pushing back on a decision or navigating a difficult topic, even during what would become the most challenging times I have ever worked in, was personally or professionally disrespectful. Unfortunately, although the instances were rare, I can’t say that about any other school I have worked at.   

One other unique experience at the start of my work at SHAPE is the shared nature of the school. I already mentioned that the Canadian section was part of a larger campus of several other schools. But the Canadian and UK schools actually share a building. Although the programs were different and the classes were separate, they were dispersed throughout the building. There was not a UK section and a Canadian section of the school. There was just the UKCAN (pronounced “You can” – brilliant!) school with classes spread out throughout the building. Partnership opportunities included shared field days, a blended house system and a series of guidelines around character and behaviour known as the UKCAN promises. It also meant working closely with another school principal. Jens Niedzwiedzki was the head teacher of the UK section. He and I would work hard at further integrating the UKCAN community. We would meet regularly to discuss shared initiatives. As one example, our library was a shared collection and both our librarians, Jules and J.D., worked together seamlessly. Our separate budgets supported a combined collection so students benefitted from broader access to literacy materials. 

But, most importantly for me, I got to watch another principal work ‘from the inside’. Rarely does one principal get to work so closely with another. Although Jens and I would become great friends (Check out our foray into live music as an example), he would also provide me with the most formative professional development of my two-years in Belgium. Watching him work, talking to him and learning from him and with him was awesome! He is one of three formative connections I would make during my time in Belgium. 

During the first half of the year, our biggest contribution as a staff outside of our day-to-day work in the school was the Canadian School Christmas market. This massive endeavour involved dozens of parent volunteers, the entire teaching staff and, in one day, would raise over ten thousand Euros for school programs. The Christmas market is also where I’ll lead off in part 4 of this multi-blog post series. Stay tuned!