Speaking the language of bureaucracy in a foreign land

One of the most tiresome and tiring parts of moving to a new country is getting all the basic things done so you can legally function there: work permits, residency, tax registration, driving license, health care, etc. These are all things that citizens pick up as they become adults and take care of these things one at a time. When you’re settling in as a foreigner, you need to get them all done at more or less the same time. Meanwhile, you don’t speak the language, don’t know where to go, etc.

tax-consultant-1249530_640Often, expatriates get these things done for them, rather than have to do them themselves. In previous moves, we’ve had our employing schools take care of much of this type of thing, or at least provide good assistance. Other people often hire a “fixer” – someone who speaks the language, knows the process, and is willing to grease the wheels for a fee. Other foreigners in Portugal had suggested we hire someone like that. In particular, they said, Portuguese bureaucracy was difficult and government officials would speak no English.

We wound up without a fixer on the day we wanted to start our process. Bull-headed, I figured I’d soldier on and see what would happen. It was intimidating and scary, but I put on a brave face and headed out, figuring that if I failed miserably I could then get the fixer to help.

Surprisingly, it went very smoothly. Most of the people I’ve dealt with have spoken some English with me and all have been friendly and very helpful. Maybe I’ve got lucky (a few Portuguese friends have suggested as much), but I have another theory.

frustratedConsider this: Joe and Pete are queuing up to speak with Teresa, who works in the government licensing office. They’ve both arrived recently and are getting licensed to live and work here. Joe goes in first. He sits down and asks Teresa, “Do you speak English?” She shrugs and says “não.” He then pulls out his papers and pantomimes what he needs, speaking English with exaggerated slowness and loudness – just as he’d do with someone who doesn’t speak English in his native country. He might try a few phrases of the language but he persists with English, figuring that everyone learns it here in school since all the waiters and shopkeepers he’s met do. He walks away a great deal later, convinced that Teresa (and all the other bureaucrats here) are difficult and unfriendly.

okPete then comes up next. He begins by apologizing to Teresa in her language that he doesn’t speak the language well. He fumbles through various phrases that he’s prepared ahead of time, explaining that he’s just arrived and he needs his licensing. He has a phrasebook and translating app and does his best to use the local language to communicate. No doubt Teresa will find him an easier person to deal with. Certainly she will appreciate the fact that he’s trying to use the local language.

This morning, I’d gone to my third government office here. I did just as Pete did, with a notebook full of phrases in Portuguese that I’d prepared ahead of time. I apologized for my poor Portuguese, but soldiered on. I’ve done that in other offices, and people switched to English for me. Today, this “Teresa” in the city office only spoke Portuguese. But she was willing to mime, repeat things in more simple terms. slow down, etc. She put up with my fumbling and made the effort to understand what I was trying to say.

When my wife came in, “Teresa” said (in Portuguese) that it was great we were trying to learn Portuguese: that it was the language here and we had to leave English behind. She was laughing and complimenting us both on our efforts, and sent us on our way with our paperwork and smiles all around.

I am convinced that I’m finding the bureaucracy here easier than I’d thought mainly because I’m making a strong effort to speak in Portuguese. Sure, I’ve been lucky with the people I’ve met. It probably helps when I try to meet them at the beginning of the day when they’re fresh. I’m also lucky to have enough time to work on it without juggling job responsibilities or schedules. But it really seems to me that my efforts in the language are key in being treated well.


photo credits: all photos from Pixabay, licensed CC0/Public Domain

Clothes Make the Woman

I’m old school. I think that people should dress (and dress up) for their job. I believe that making a good first impression is important in life as well as business. But I also firmly believe that whatever standards exist for clothes – formal or casual – should apply equally to men and women. Maybe I’m progressive there, because it seems that many don’t think so.

Watching the US Open this week, the existence of double standards was brought up in the old school world of tennis. Alizé Cornet, realizing she had mistakenly put her t-shirt on backwards, quickly stripped to her bra and put her shirt back on while on court. She got a warning from the umpire for unsportsmanlike conduct. This was reversed by the US Open organization, but the call was particularly noteworthy as it came in a week when the men were stripping down frequently in New York’s horrible heat. It also came after the administrators of the French Open announced they were starting up a tennis dress code, singling out Serena Williams’ catsuit as inappropriate and “going too far.”  While the dress code will apply to all players, the move seems to be a reaction to what a woman wore.

In schools, I’ve seen similar things. In my last school, students protested the dress code, particularly a rule against bare shoulders. The rule particularly affected girls, as boys who wore sleeveless shirts were often ignored. The students were heard, but their proposals for a gender-neutral dress code were rejected for being too permissive. This is fairly typical in schools: dress codes tend to target girls more than boys and tend to be quite restrictive. Shoulders, belly buttons, and upper legs cannot be shown. The worry is that the boys will be distracted.

This year, my daughter is doing online schooling. She’s delighted that her dress code is whatever she wants to wear. If her shirt gets shrunk in the dryer and shows off her belly button, it doesn’t matter. If she wants to wear her tennis shorts and they don’t reach down past her fingertips, nobody is going to be shocked.

It’s a shame that her old classmates will have to face such regulations. The girls will, anyway. The boys seem to be given a pass. Or at least they’re not policed as much.

If it’s OK for a male tennis player to take his shirt off to cool down, it should be OK for a female tennis player to take her shirt off to switch it around. If it’s OK for a boy to wear sleeveless shirts, it should be OK for a girl.


Taking the leap

It’s funny how easy it is to fall into a routine, even when doing interesting things. You do something adventurous, enjoy it and then want to do something adventurous again. What you did before worked, so you do something similar. That works again, so you do the same sort of thing the next time. You’re having an adventurous, exciting time of things …but you’re still getting into a bit of a rut.

That’s what I’ve done with my career in international teaching. I got a job teaching at an international school in Kenya. It was an exciting time, a wonderful experience. It was full of adventures and new opportunities, and I wanted to do more. So I went and got another job, this time in Indonesia. That was another terrific experience, so my wife and I got jobs in Zambia. Then the USA, which was a different type of adventure. Then Tanzania. Then Ethiopia.

Recently, we’d decided that it was time to move on from Ethiopia. We were enjoying the school and the country, made good friends and had good opportunities for our daughter, but we wanted more. We wanted a change. In some ways, Ethiopia had become routine and we wanted another adventure.

cliff-2213614_640But something different happened. This time, the routine didn’t work.

We weren’t ready to just take a job anywhere. We had something specific in mind. We wanted to live in Portugal. And there were no jobs available for us at the time. And the school we wanted to enroll our daughter in was full.

Suddenly, we were jolted out of our routine. What we’d planned for didn’t work out. It wasn’t going to be like our previous adventures. We were dismayed and upset. We were sad for our daughter and worried for ourselves. What could we do?

We decided to take the leap.

base-jump-1600668_640We are going anyway. We are moving to the place we want to live in, without jobs for the moment. We’re going to take our daughter, and find an alternative to the school we wanted. We’re going to make it work.

It’s funny what happens when you take a leap like that.

All of a sudden, we started thinking of fresh ideas and new ways of planning. We didn’t have new opportunities presented to us, but we started thinking up new opportunities that we could make happen for ourselves.

No teaching jobs? We could start a business. Or do part-time tutoring instead of teaching. Maybe teach online. We’ll have time to do all sorts of things – even do creative things like photography or painting or…

Rather than settle for a school routine for our child, we could homeschool her. Instead of being tied to a school calendar, we could plan trips to see family whenever we like (or whenever there are discount airfares). Our daughter can do as much sport as she likes, and travel for tournaments around the country and around the continent.

Once we made the leap out of the routine, suddenly there were a myriad of possibilities for us to explore and our minds were open to completely new ideas.
It’s an exciting time for us – scary and uncertain, to be sure. But the possibilities and potential opportunities are also exhilarating!

Life is like the monkey bars: you have to let go to move forward.
Leah Busque

An American Welcome

The queue snaked around the cavernous hall, following the serpentine path cordoned off to keep the crowds in an ordered line. Every now and then we shuffled forward a few paces and then stopped again. The clock ticked slowly. A television screen repeated a “Welcome to America” video. I looked down at the four passports in my hand: two blue, two maroon. My daughter and I, US citizens, were waiting in the entry queue with my wife and her mother, both Irish.

In front and behind us stood hundreds of visitors to the US: a family from Italy, an older couple from Germany, a group of young travelers from Brazil, a large group from Korea, a family from Lebanon, etc. The English flight crew from a British Airways flight waited in a separate queue. All of us were waiting on one immigration official. The clock ticked slowly.

welcomematI looked down the hall. There were over 40 counters. One was staffed in the visitors section. Six were staffed in the citizens section. Two large groups of citizens and permanent residents came through the hall and were processed while we waited.

After an hour and a half, the attendant personnel started sending visitors to the citizens section, as there were no more citizens coming through the hall. Our queue started moving faster and my family was eventually standing in front of an immigration officer. He looked at our two US passports briefly and then moved to the two Irish ones. He ignored the ESTA pre-approval printouts we had and asked my wife to put her hand on the fingerprint scanner. He barked at her when she moved her hand away, thinking her prints had been read: “Don’t move until I tell you to!” He then read her prints and then asked her to look into the camera. A minute after, my wife politely asked if he had done with her prints. He then asked my mother-in-law to come to the front. He scolded her for having dry fingertips which couldn’t be read by the scanner. He offered no assistance to her or gave her anything other than curt orders.

Two hours after entering the hall, we left and entered America. My mother-in-law asked if her expression had given away what she thought of the whole experience. We were all pretty fed up at the unpleasant experience and compared it to the welcome we’d received in other countries during our travels. We were white, English-speaking, Christian and half of us were US citizens. If our experience was that unpleasant, what must it be like for different groups?

The immigration officials are responsible for US border control, but they are also the first experience visitors get of the country. Wouldn’t it be good for America’s reputation if they presented a friendlier face and treated visitors like guests rather than criminals?

Sigh. God bless America…

Featured photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash. Welcome mat by Montco13 on Pixabay.

Backward looking forward

Four years ago I wrote about yesterday. Well, not exactly. I’m not really clairvoyant or a time traveler. What I wrote in 2014 was about a typical occurrence – an internet outage. These happen. Sometimes a cable breaks, sometimes a power problem disrupts service, sometimes other things can interrupt an internet connection for hours, days, sometimes weeks. It’s not a problem unique to our location, but it does happen here more often than many of us are used to. Therefore we kept mission-critical services (mail, e-learning, etc.) on local servers. It meant more work and headaches, but it also meant that we were in control and could reliably provide services to the school.

So when we were told about a month ago that we’d migrate from our self-hosted mail system (Zimbra) to using GMail, I was skeptical. I’m OK with GMail (I have my own account), but I’ve resisted such a move for years here precisely because of internet interruptions. If there was a disconnection and we were using GMail, I argued, we couldn’t even send notices to colleagues down the hall. We’d asked a Google representative about that at a local presentation and were told that they hoped the infrastructure here would support their services soon. Not very encouraging.

So we moved to GMail. Yay. (I do wonder what exactly is the advantage. I mean, it’s email. It works pretty much the same whether it’s GMail, Yahoo!, Zimbra, or whatever.) Monday was our G-Day. All communications were to be sent on our new GMail system. The old Zimbra system would remain in place for people to have access to old messages, contacts, etc. while we used GMail exclusively for internal and external communication.

Tuesday morning, guess what? No connection. The following message was sent out by the IT Help Desk at 8:10 in the morning:

Dear All,

Our Internet connection is down. Other systems like moodle and powerschool in the local intranet domain are working fine. All Google suites are down at the moment. If you happen to check your zimbra email by any chance and see this, please notify people near by you as they may not check zimbra because of the switch to gmail. We are communicating with telecom about the issue and will let you know when things are restored.

And that’s how communication gets handled here in the 21st century. We were out all day long. No messages. No shared documents. Confusion. Frustration.

If only someone had thought about this before today…


Image credit: I’d love to give credit to the “backwards baseball-cap wearing man shading eyes” meme, but I have no idea where it originated. It’s not mine. I stole it. Sorry.

Sheer Joy

There is no greater reward for a teacher than when a class of students is enthusiastically engaged in learning and expresses delight in what they are doing. When it comes in the last class on Friday, it’s even sweeter!

This is awesome!

It’s so cool!

I want to do this all day long!

These were the comments from my students at the end of the day and week as they reluctantly packed up their laptops and headed out of the door towards home. They had been thoroughly engaged, both mentally and emotionally, and the energy in the room was amazing.

The Computer Programming class at ICS has grown over the years from around 6 students to now 23 students learning the basics of programming. We’ve used various tools and techniques to teach programming, but we’ve settled on using Processing as an introduction to Java and object-oriented programming (and hence a good introduction to the IB Diploma Computer Science course) …but it is also engaging and appealing to a broad range of students.

In Friday’s class, students were building their first program. They had explored Processing and seen what kinds of things could be built. They’d looked at the code – a mess of {s and ;s and weird words like void and println. Now it was time to dig in and get started.

It was a wild ride. I wish I’d had the time or presence of mind to take photos and videos, but I was too busy bouncing between presenting programming basics to the whole class (what on Earth are those { } for??), helping individuals trouble-shoot, high-fiving kids who were eager to show what they’d done, etc. Every single student had a huge smile on their face and were eagerly sharing with their tablemates what they were doing & asking what the others were doing.

It is that kind of experience which teachers live for.

processingI’m lucky that I teach a practical, engaging course like computer programming. Students are creating new things and actively engaged in learning. They get to immediately practice and implement what they are taught and get immediate feedback when it works (or doesn’t). Sure, there’s a fun element to it (and Processing makes programming fun from the start), but the main thing is the success. They write some code, click “run” and immediately the computer does what they tell it. Their code creates an image on the screen as they imagined. Or it doesn’t, and they have to figure out what they need to do to make it work they way they want. Click “run” again – instant feedback.

My favourite times were when students would ask me, “what would happen if I did ______ instead?” I got to smile broadly and say, “Don’t wait for me to tell you. Try it out!” The students were experimenting and trying things out – a real inquiry activity. I had to give them enough information to make sure they got working programs, but they could alter the data and order of commands to make different programs. As I said to them, “The worst thing that will happen is you’ll get an error message and you’ll need to either fix it or change it to something else.”

If only teaching was like this every day. The reality is that this kind of energetic and energizing lesson is a rare treat. Teaching is one of the most demanding, emotionally draining and stressful jobs around. It’s seriously hard work. (And deadly serious work!)

But when a lesson goes like this, a teacher is on top of the world.

Just a teacher

After nearly 3 decades working in schools, with over half of that time as Technology Director or Principal, I’m starting out the new school year with a full-time teaching load and no administrative role. The reactions I’ve had from people are illuminating and have given me much fodder for reflection.

“Why do you want to be just a teacher?” This is the most common reaction I’ve had from people: disbelief that I would want to “step down” from administration and return to the lowly role of teacher. As in all other industries, the further one “rises” into the levels of administration the greater the pay and prestige.

However, if you look at education from the point of view of our most important stakeholders – the students – the teacher has the greatest impact, good or bad. Sure, counselors help them get into the best universities. Principals make the rules and shape their school culture. Superintendents or Heads lead the whole school into new directions and constructions. But for the typical student in any school, it is his/her teachers who make their school experience successful, enjoyable and worthwhile.

“What about your career?” Many are shocked at this “backwards” step away from the traditional career trajectory towards bigger and more prestigious roles. The expectation is that you keep on striving until you reach the pinnacle before you retire.

At this point in my career, I’m less interested in more and bigger ambitions and want much more to spend my time on the most important things. I entered into education to make a difference in the lives of children, and I continue to do so. Instead of shaping policy and directing curriculum, however, I’m now focusing on specific students and their development. It’s less broad an impact, but deeper and more meaningful.

“Are you enjoying the lack of stress?” This reaction amuses me the most! Having worked as both principal and teacher, I know that there is no stress greater than that faced by a teacher who wants his or her students to learn, grow and succeed. Every day, every class I’m struggling with issues such as “Am I reaching all the students?” or “Can I do better?” and “If I don’t succeed, neither will my students!”

I am absolutely delighted to be “just” a teacher this year. My students impress me every day and I feel renewed in my commitment to education. My career arc has bent in different directions than that of most teacher/administrators, but I am proud of the direction it is going. As I’ve told my students, “I’ve been promoted to full-time teacher!”

Happy New (School) Year!

Technology for all

It’s not news that technology is making a big impact on education. Schools are spending lots of money on computers, robots, tablets, 3D printers, etc. Curriculum is being rewritten to embed technology skills within every subject at all grade levels. Students are being required to learn computer programming and being encouraged to become makers.

roboticsBut it’s not enough.

In our world 50% of the population are female. But only 8-20% of engineers are women. Less than half the schools in UK have girls taking A-level physics (and only one in five of the students taking that exam are girls). 19% of students taking AP computer science  are women.

The various technology industries, businesses and communities are predominately male. And schools are not doing enough to fix that. Schools and teachers can’t solve the problem (there’s plenty of indication that it’s societal and influenced by parents), but we need to constantly work at it.

teamworkIn our school, we just hosted a special all-girls technology event. It was a lot of fun and the girls loved it. But we only had 13 girls. It’s a start, but it needs to happen again and again. And we have to bring in the younger ones to combat societal and peer pressure.

I’m in. I owe it to my daughter. I owe it to all the girls.

Girls Can!

3doodling“This was great. We should do more of these!”

Over a dozen MS and HS girls came to the ICS Makerspace/Robotics Lab on Saturday for a special girls-only technology session. They designed things, collaborated in teams, taught themselves new skills, faced problems and figured out how to overcome them, made things and had a great time! By the end of the day, every girl went home with something that they had designed and made using high-tech tools. If they had arrived with any doubts that they were capable of high-tech success, by the end of the day they knew that Girls Can!

Why a girls-only event? It’s easy to say that such functions should be open to everybody, but the world of technology is generally dominated by males and ICS is no different. Plenty of boys eagerly join the robotics team, sign up for programming classes, and spend time making and building with technology. Girls are under-represented and we recognize that they might need a little more encouragement to explore and learn with technology …and a girls-only session is a safe spot for them to learn and experiment.

measuringWe had a good mix of girls join us on Saturday, ranging from grade 6 to grade 12. (We even had a couple of elementary school visitors!) We started out with a general orientation to the tools available to the girls, and an explanation of some of the types of projects that they could take on. Some of the girls tried their hands at lots of tools – building robots, printing and cutting designs. Others had specific ideas for a project they wanted to do and stuck with it.

A special guest, Gillian Brewin, joined us and talked about her work with women and technology as well as the work her daughter, Danielle (who graduated from ICS in 2005), is doing: running a start-up workshop to encourage women to explore and use technology in their work.

ada-lovelace-day_indie-event_whiteThis event was also an independent event organized under the umbrella of Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of Lady Ada Lovelace, who in the 1800’s was the first computer programmer. We explained her story to the girls and invited them to read a brief biography of her, as well as a charming (mostly accurate) cartoon about her by Sydney Padua. (Read her book, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, which is in the library.)

It was a great day of learning and exploring!

Here are some photos from the day:

roboticsbuilding robots changingfilamentchanging filament on the 3D printer
3d_designinglearning to build 3D designs computerfiguring out the software preferences
3doodling2doodling with 3D pens cuttingworking with the vinyl cutter
luncha welcome break! teamworkteamwork!
talkan inspiring talk by Gillian lasercuttingwatching the lasercutter cut with a laser (duh!)


Cross-posted from my school blog.


Full STEAM ahead with Grade 10 students

img_3747“A chance to work on an activity required one to use their hands to build physical objects as opposed to writing or typing.”

There certainly was a buzz of excitement and energy around the SEC on Monday and Tuesday as the entire Grade 10 class worked in small groups on a variety of projects embodying STEAM concepts.

What’s STEAM? There’s been a push in many schools to focus on STEM subjects: that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Those are all important areas of study, particularly for our technology-infused world. But it just doesn’t show off human creativity and ingenuity, so if you add in Art you get STEAM.

Sometimes these areas are addressed by schools as separate subjects, with specific courses. Other times they’re worked into special projects or activities. At ICS, we’ve built in some days off-timetable where the regular class rotation doesn’t happen but students can work on other important projects that don’t quite fit into the class structure. Grade 10 students were given the chance to work on different projects integrating different areas of the STEAM subjects, focusing on group work and hands-on learning, while also following the Engineering Design Process.

img_3660“It was a nice break from the regular schedule, and I enjoyed being able to work on the same thing for more than an hour or so in groups but mostly independently from the teachers. I like how we weren’t doing a project for a grade but just to learn and have fun.”

The students formed themselves into groups of four and then chose a project to work on for the two days. There were six choices, covering topics from Biology to Mathematics to Sculpture to Geography. Each project was designed to be an open-ended challenge, requiring the students to investigate and plan, design and build a prototype and test it out. Some groups quickly came up with a solution while others had to go through a number of different versions until they got one that they thought fit their criteria.

“When we had to think as a group and come up with a solution to purify the water, it made us think and it was fun coming up with different ideas and trying to make them work.”

Integrated STEAM Projects:

img_3576Purification of water was one of the projects. Starting with the problem of polluted water which affects communities around the world, the challenge was issued to the students to develop a method for filtering that water to produce clean water which could be drunk. The students had to research water pollution and filtration and purification methods. They experimented with different filters, including sand and charcoal, and tested out the results. They worked on methods of distillation and condensation, learning about how to remove dissolved impurities. They worked with limited resources, being creative with how to accomplish their tasks with simple materials rather than complex manufactured supplies. In the end, the students spoke about their experiences with different prototypes and how they had to adjust their methods after getting unsatisfactory results. This is exactly how engineers work!

img_3730Another project with a water focus was the construction of a Tippy-Tap hand washing station. The students started with the problem of how poor hygiene can spread disease and how easy access to hand-washing stations can improve hygiene. Students investigated the problem and different designs of the tippy-tap station. They came up with different designs that would work locally (with the plan to install one example on the school campus), and found easily-available materials to work with. Each group built a station and tested out their work themselves and by teachers and other students who needed to wash their hands! Problems arose (muddy ground, difficulty in refilling, etc.) and solutions were worked out. In addition to materials and techniques, students found the group planning, building and testing process an interesting and valuable experience.

img_3755A few projects had Art as a key component, including a study of the cuttlefish’s adaptive abilities and a representation of those abilities in 3D artwork. Students learned about cephalopod adaptation through videos (such as this one about the octopus) and looked at the artwork of artist Ryuta Nakajima who uses the cuttlefish as a motif in his work. Students experimented with materials and designs to try to represent a cuttlefish or octopus in terms of its adaptation to its environment. Students discussed different concepts and ideas on how to easily display the fluid nature of cephalopod adaptation in a static artwork, and worked together to create something that was both representative and creative. Students came up with some pretty ingenious work considering their limited time and restricted access to materials!

img_3790Another project which included a clear Art focus was centered around the work of Alexander Calder, using Mathematics to create a balanced mobile artwork. Students discussed forces and balance, looked at Calder’s mobile and stationary work, tried different materials, and worked on ways to balance objects and represent the mathematical and physical concepts at work in the art. One group even developed a battery-powered magnet to test and demonstrate the effect of a consistent force on their mobile.

img_3741croppedStudents who were interested in Mathematics and Geography, chose a project in which they used the technique of an ancient Greek astronomer from Egypt, Eratosthenes, to measure the circumference of the Earth. Students had to research his technique and adapt it to our locale. They also had to get a measurement from another location other than Addis Ababa. Fortunately, we had a willing collaborator from Ghana, Andy Richardson, who got some of his 8th grade students at Lincoln Community School in Accra to take measurements. Using their measurements along with those we got in Addis, our students were able to make reasonably accurate (considering the tools we had available) measurement of the size of the Earth. In the process, our students learned not only concepts and skills related to math, astronomy, and geography, they also learned about accuracy in measurement and how small rounding errors can lead to big differences in real-life calculations.

img_3608Finally, for those students who wanted a more straightforward engineering task, they had a project to build a “robot” basketball player. With our limited time, they had to forego using our programmable mechanical robotics sets – but they were all invited to join in our robotics After-School Activity! Instead, they had limited mechanical equipment with which to build a machine to deliver a ball into a basket. They explored forces, levers, materials and tested out different designs, working towards a machine that was accurate and precise.


All in all, it was a busy and exciting few days. Students enjoyed the change of pace from regular classes and found the projects worthwhile application of academic skills and knowledge to real-life problems.

“I really loved the project and I wish we had a full week of STEAM.”

Cross-posted from my school blog.