Written by Dr. Alex McGregor, Deputy Head of School
Dr. McGregor is Deputy Head of School at UWC ISAK Japan. He also teaches History.
In a UWC context in which the growth mindset is king, it is an easy trap for educators to encourage their students to stare wistfully into the middle distance: their gaze focused only on the future. Always on the future. The Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix would likely have appreciated the imagery inspired by this sentiment. Indeed, if we replaced mortar boards with tricorne hats, many of our graduation photos may have captured the essence of his 19th century revolutionary tableaux. Or for those of a less political persuasion, perhaps our students are William Turner’s tugboat, heroically pulling the Fighting Temeraire to its final berth.
This sentiment is not simply found in our ‘Dare to Dream’ philosophy. Many of our systems are designed to promote a focus on the future: on output, on final product. Indeed, curriculum articulation is influenced by ‘Understanding By Design’, in which programmes are reversed engineered. IB course selection is influenced by university entry requirements. Feedback on student work is designed to lead to future improvements in attainment level. All of the above is logical. In fact, it is absolutely necessary if we wish to be intentional and strategic about student learning. However, we must still avoid the aforementioned trap. After all, if one only ever concentrates on the future, one may never feel fully satisfied in the present. We want our students to live meaningful lives in which they are committed to their own growth. But we also want them to be able to enjoy a serendipitous encounter without having always to check their watch; we want them to enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon lost in conversation without having always to excuse themselves early; we want them to ask each other, “What kind of day has it been?” without having always to describe what day it should be tomorrow.
Growth is vital, but permanent, endless, infinite change is exhausting. It can promote ambition, certainly, but it can also undermine one’s sense of self worth. After all, sometimes it is ok simply to be who you are right now. So yes, we should all think about what we want to achieve next school year and we should contemplate what tools and support we’ll need in that quest. But let us also ask ourselves, what kind of day has it been today?
This year, we saw our first class of National Committee students join our Direct Intake students to form the inaugural cohort of UWC ISAK Japan students. We celebrated UWC Day. We held school-wide conversations on the power of diversity, leading to a photo project that has transformed the walls of our campus. We hosted over 500 people from across the world at our UWC Opening Ceremony. We had a film and music festival, we had art exhibitions, we staged a musical. We took excursions to pick strawberries and see the cherry blossoms. We entered into working partnerships with local businesses, had yakiniku with our advisors, and celebrated our spirituality with interfaith. We traveled to Cambodia for Initiative for Peace. We traveled to Yokohama for Badminton. We competed in MUN events. We introduced our first ever Debate Club. We challenged ourselves with hikes, climbs and camping. We built robots. We participated in homestays with the local community. We enjoyed tea ceremonies, Fortune Cookie dances and fire alarms. We transformed how we think about homework, reporting, and predicted grades, turning them into opportunities for learning conversations. We wrote a G10-G12 syllabus explicitly aligned to the UWC mission. We invested in safeguarding. We devised a new system for residential life. We increased our health care provision, introducing an English-speaking doctor who visits our campus. We celebrated our diversity through Cultural Days. We took exams. We completed IAs and Extended Essays. We graduated. We said goodbye. We recruited new students to join us next year via an exhaustive, global search. We invited consultants to take a look at our school and tell us what they see. We endured a long winter. We all caught the flu. We designed new buildings to complete our campus. We saw a flying squirrel, took the bus to Saku and visited the onsen. And we renewed our commitment to transformational leadership.
This is not an exhaustive list. My inner Umberto Eco is tempted to keep going. But let’s return to our question. What kind of day has it been? Exhausting, clearly. But also beautiful. Challenging, obviously. But also inspiring. It has been a day of discovery. And perhaps most powerfully, despite the fullness of our range of commitments, we have never failed to find the time to simply talk to each other. Research and planning, structure and systems, growth and strategy: all of which are vital for a school to operate at the peak of its capacity. They are what a school needs, but they are not what a school is. A school is a place, our school is a place, that makes true an old African proverb: people are people through other people.
And now it is time for all of us to rest. It is time for all of us to slow down. It is time to enjoy a richly deserved summer break. The future is important, but there are times when it can wait. Today is just as valuable.