Personal Devices: An Inevitable Paradigm Shift? Part II

This is a follow-up to the piece that I wrote back in February on personal devices inside of the classroom. It is also part of an email that I sent to the staff this morning on the topic. As noted, personal devices have been an ongoing topic for our school this year and our Digital Citizenship Team met several times to unpack the following two questions:

  • Are cell phones impacting students’ social and emotional development?
  • Are cell phones impacting student performance?

In order to better understand the context of this work, it’s important to first understand the history in terms of how technology has truly taken off in our school in the past 10+ years.

DFHS: Early Years

DFHS was one of the early innovators in Westchester County (and nationally) when we moved to being both a BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) school as well as a full one-to-one Chromebook school starting in 2013. Between the years of 2013-2017, our focus was on how technology could be used as a tool to enhance student learning. This was where we placed most of our focus in terms of professional development, it was the focus of my dissertation at the time, and our school became a model for how to use technology responsibly and as a tool for enhancing the development of Wagner’s 21st century “survival skills.” We presented nationally at conferences on this topic (including IB), we positioned our one-to-one as a vehicle for promoting equity and access, we chose technology as a focus for one of our Tri-States visits (and we were lauded for our work), we hosted several site visits for districts who were trying to follow in our footsteps, we encouraged the use of cell phones for things like in-class “tweet chats,” and we focused on digital citizenship to ensure appropriate use and creating a positive “digital footprint.” 

Starting to Rethink the Shift

By around 2018-19, we started to notice that the radical technology shift had happened perhaps a bit too quickly in certain respects, and we started to discuss approaches for blending what might be considered more traditional approaches while still enjoying the enhancements that instructional technology was providing. At this point, our school was fully one-to-one, all teachers were using Google Classroom, and operating out of the Google suite of applications was commonplace. In many ways, the Chromebook had replaced the traditional looseleaf binder that we all grew up carrying. Areas that we looked at, for example, were reintroducing more “pen-to-paper” writing as opposed to leaning so heavily on Google Docs. Around this time, we also did a summer student and faculty read of the book How to Break Up With Your Phone. While we certainly noticed a major uptick in student cell phone use at this time, we also were reflective enough to realize that the “addiction” applied to us as adults as much as anyone else. 

The Pandemic

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, DFHS was better positioned than most schools because we had been so progressive in the years prior. Whereas many districts struggled and scrambled to transition, DFHS had a very small learning curve as all students had devices, we were fully operational using all Google Apps, and communication was effortless due to Google Classroom. Our work at that time focused exclusively on remote learning, and more specifically how to provide students with the most robust and effective synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences in a remote setting. We also shifted seamlessly in the “social” side of things as our school (and district) had always been so proactive with leveraging social media to unite our school community. The DFHSVirutalCommons, for example, was born during the pandemic. Given all of that, and not surprisingly, DFHS knocked it out of the park during this time, and we continued with a mostly online instructional model during the first half of the 2020-21 school year as a result. 

Pandemic Fallout 

When we returned back to full in-person learning during the latter part of 2021 and officially during the 2021-22 school year, we noticed right away that there were large learning gaps that came as a result of the time away from school. This was (is) a national issue, of course, and not one that is DFHS specific. We also noticed that students (adults too) had become increasingly distracted by personal devices (cell phones). This isn’t surprising since we all had access to our phones during online meetings and classes and became accustomed to simultaneously looking at devices (or multitasking on one screen) when online classes and/or meetings were taking place. When in-person learning resumed, it became a real challenge to “unlearn” this behavior, and in ways everyone has had to negotiate this personal challenge as a result. 

Our Responsibility

Similar to where we were a little less than a decade ago, it’s once again our responsibility to teach positive digital citizenship so that students are best prepared for life beyond high school, including college, the workplace, and even personal interactions. The good news is that we continue to do a great job of addressing areas such as appropriate online interactions, creating a positive digital footprint and image, and how to appropriately manage and balance online access to information in our school setting. With regard to the latter, we are seeing a major shift (and challenge) that seems to have happened virtually overnight with ChatGBT. Such is the nature of the rapidity of technology. 

Another area that we are also dealing with, and one that is perhaps a bit more immediate and pressing since it is in front of our faces daily, is the potential distraction that personal devices might have for students when they are not needed during classroom instructionAgain, this seemingly dramatic shift isn’t surprising given the two-year “online” world that we all lived in during the pandemic. As a result, it is this area that our digital citizenship team has chosen to focus on, and it is one that we are hoping to tackle aggressively at the start of next year. 

Next Steps

In thinking about how to best educate our students on the topic while providing clear messaging that will help to support a shift in behavior, we have identified some clear steps that we can take at the start of next year. In doing so, we fully understand that every teacher has discretion for how to best manage their respective classroom space, and as a principal I have always trusted teachers to make professional choices and supported teachers in those decisions. This situation is no different. Given that, here are some next steps that we will take for next year:

1) Support Classroom Policies: First and foremost, I’ll always support classroom policies and procedures that teachers have in place. This includes areas such as grading policies, class rules, behavioral expectations, and cell phone policies. In other words, with regard to the latter, if a student is insubordinate in any way and in-class interventions were determined to be unproductive, we will also support escalating the issue at a school level as per our code of conduct. Similarly, I will always support grading policies that connect behavior expectations/participation. Simply stated, there should always be an impact on the quarter grade if a student does not comply with class rules, procedures, and policies. This is always something that I included as a classroom teacher and it was in part why we created the participation rubric many years ago.

2) Develop Common Practices and Norms: Building upon the point above, the digital citizenship team plans to continue this work with our teacher leaders (and all teachers) on developing proven practices, strategies, and norms that work with regard to personal devices. The more consistent we are the better.

3) Phone Holders: Many of you already have phone holders in your classroom that you may (or may not) require that students use when entering the classroom. For September, we will purchase enough so that every teacher can have one if so desired.

4) Universal Messaging: In my welcome back email to parents and students, I will provide messaging around the distraction that personal devices have had on student learning. With that, I will explain that students must comply if teachers or staff request that students put devices away. Failure to do so can result in insubordination and will be addressed via the code of conduct. 

5) Education: I’m including this last but honestly it’s the most important of all. We need to think about the digital citizenship aspect of this so that we can proactively educate students on how to best manage distraction. For example, we might think about another summer read (or fall read) of the book How to Break Up With Your Phone. Or maybe we do this as a staff read to start instead. Truth is, we all can be easily distracted by our devices, and I’m definitely included in that. 


Personal Devices: An Inevitable Paradigm Shift?

It’s hard to believe that it has been ten years since I started this blog. Over the past decade I’ve been privileged to share the DFHS journey on so many topics, including our IB DP and MYP Programs, our shift to a one-to-one environment that blended both Chromebooks and BYOD, and the long list of schoolwide activities, initiatives, and lessons that helped to capture the “story” of our school. In looking back at some of the posts from 2013 to around 2018, there was so much talk in those days about the power of technology, leveraging personal devices in order to enhance learning, and of course the “survival” skills that students would need beyond the walls of our school. While many of those principles still hold true, and while we clearly witnessed the critical role of technology during the pandemic, many high schools are now faced with some new concerns, questions, and perhaps lessons that are perhaps an unintended result of moving too quickly with technology. 

Since returning to in-person learning, a challenge that our staff is continually raising involves the distraction (addiction?) that personal devices now have for so many students in our classrooms. This shouldn’t surprise anyone since students were on their phones non-stop while being forced to stay home during the pandemic. This is coupled by the fact that we are now working with a generation of students who have had access to iPhones and iPads for their entire life. Having a device in hand, all day every day, is truly all that our students know at this point. So what to do? 

Our Digital Citizenship Committee has been tackling this question for the past several months and we have identified some strategies for turning this challenge into a learning experience for our students. The following is an excerpt of an email that I sent to our staff a few days ago that helps to contextualize the shift, share the historical context for our newer staff, and of course to discuss some immediate next steps that we are looking to take. 

My suspicion is that most public high schools have had a similar journey and are now facing similar challenges…

Historical Context 

DFHS was far ahead of the curve in 2012 when we made a commitment to one-to-one technology in our school (and district). At that time, our hallways were filled with “no cell phone zone” signs and we were way behind the times as far as how we were responding to what was fast becoming a whole new landscape in education. During that same year, we provided all teachers and staff with a brand new MacBook (a luxury we still enjoy), we took to social media with Twitter accounts that most teachers still use, and we piloted a one-to-one Chromebook program with our 9th graders while using a BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) approach in our other grades. 

We also spent a great deal of time in those early years discussing digital citizenship, and an important part of that discussion was rooted in the understanding that we were preparing students to enter a world (college, workplace, etc.) where they would always have a personal device in their hands. While personal devices offered wonderful opportunities in terms of always having access to information, it also raised important questions (and subsequent lessons) around distraction, managing urges appropriately, and of course creating a positive digital footprint for the world to see. 

By 2016, DFHS was a full one-to-one school and we quickly became a “school to visit” for many districts who were moving in this direction. We had fully transitioned to Google Classroom and Gmail at that point, and we also presented to a packed house at the IB World Conference in Chicago that year on this topic. It was also the focus of our Tri-States visit in 2017. At the time, in terms of “IB for All,” our work as a one-to-one school further connected to our goal of promoting equity and access for all students. 

The Pandemic

All of the work that our school (and district) had put in from 2012-2019 was truly put to the test in March of 2020 when the world went remote. While so many schools in our county (and nation) struggled with this transition, our teachers and staff were quick to spring into action so that the shift was significantly less bumpy for our students. All teachers were already fully operating out of Google Classroom, all students and teachers had been working with Chromebooks for years, and many of our teachers had become true “stars” in terms of using educational technology as a vehicle for enhancing student learning. As a result, we quickly created a plan for synchronous and asynchronous learning, and our focus for the next year was on how to become the most dynamic and impactful “remote teachers” given the multitude of limitations that were out of our control. All of these efforts resulted in learning experiences for our students that were predictable, certain, and ongoing so that content and skill acquisition could be maximized as appropriate at the high school level. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2021 and our students returned to in-person learning after a year of learning from behind a computer screen. While the shift back to in-person learning was pretty seamless in terms of schedule, routine, and overall pedagogy, it also became clear that many of our students were now distracted by their personal devices more than they had been pre-pandemic. This wasn’t necessarily surprising considering many students were likely multitasking with their phones during remote learning. We were now faced with the challenge of a new learned behavior, and we continue to see this spill over into our classrooms up to the present day. 

Digital Citizenship

One of the guiding principles that served as the underpinning for our digital citizenship work back in 2013 is now resurfacing with greater urgency ten years later. Specifically, we are faced with the question of how to instruct students on the proper use of personal devices, and more specifically how to manage the distraction that they can provide when a person is required to be engaged and attentive with an in-person experience. While this can include personal interactions, the greater issue that we now face is inside of the classroom. As a school, our job is to prepare students for college and/or the workforce. Both of these areas are what is coming next once our students move on, and both would be far less forgiving than we might be within the walls of DFHS. 

Next Steps

Our Digital Citizenship Committee has been meeting since October and it is composed of teachers who are exploring strategies to teach appropriate etiquette inside of the classroom. The committee is still meeting and is always interested in obtaining more strategies that might be working across the building. Please feel free to share any good ideas! For now, we are exploring the following:

  • Classroom Cell Phone Holders: Some of our teachers have been incorporating these and have had excellent results. We are going to place a larger order for any teachers who are interested. 
  • Chromebook/Chargers: We are also exploring the possibility of adding some spare devices in classrooms for students who assert that they need to use their phone because a Chromebook isn’t charged.
  • Digital Citizenship Curriculum/Lessons: Several years ago we did a schoolwide read of the book, How to Break Up With Your Phone. Some of our teachers have continued to implement these principles into the classroom while we discuss bringing this text back once again as a future schoolwide reading book. 
  • Class Expectations: Perhaps the greatest impact that improper cell phone use can result in for a student would be on how it impacts the overall grade. Some of our teachers have been successfully using the “phone tracker” that is included in our MTSS Tier 1 intervention bank. This is an excellent tool for helping to keep students accountable and can directly connect to a student’s overall course grade.  Please be certain that our administration will always support teachers who hold students accountable in this way.
  • Code of Conduct: As an extension to the point above, our Code of Conduct is very clear as it relates to insubordination. Specifically, all teachers have the professional discretion to create class rules and policies given the desired outcomes of a respective course. If students continue to disobey rules, and once all Tier 1 interventions are explored including parental contact, teachers can absolutely escalate the matter to administration for insubordination. The expectation is always that cellphones are put away if that is what is being asked by a teacher. Again, our administration will always support teachers in this way.
  • “Tech Down Day”: Our Digital Citizenship Committee is going to explore a “Tech Down Day” in March that will emphasize the importance of healthy habits with technology. Sarah will send more on this in the coming weeks. Our Digital Citizenship Committee is also surveying students today in our English classes on this topic and their in-class habits. The early data is already suggesting that this work will be well supported. 
  • Communication: Our plan is to communicate with parents and students about this topic and the importance of promoting digital citizenship. We will send this out once the committee has worked out the details for our “Tech Down Day.” Again, please feel free to share any and all strategies if you feel that they would be helpful.

While it’s important to recognize that we are really still learning as we go given the rapid advancement of technology in our culture over the past ten years, we also recognize that schools play a pivotal role in preparing students to properly balance its use. By no means is our intention to reduce or eliminate the use of technology. That’s neither realistic nor genuine in terms of day-to-day life in 2023. Instead, our hope is to pause, adjust, and to implement approaches that serve to guide and support students as we work to properly manage this potential distraction while continuing to harness the power that personal devices provide.

Why IB? (IB vs. AP)

IB DP or AP? The debate is a longstanding one as schools continue to grapple with how to best meet the academic and social/emotional needs of all students. The pandemic has only intensified this discussion. This was certainly a topic for us here in Dobbs Ferry when I started in 2011, and it is one that still surfaces from time to time with community members who are unfamiliar with the program and are naturally curious. As life-long learners who practice the very qualities outlined in the IB Learner Profile, including the need to be “reflective” and “inquirers,” it is important that we continue to assess our program, how it aligns to our strategic goals, and how we communicate this information to our school community. These discussions are ongoing for us at DFHS, and the “Why IB?” question is one that I’ve written about many times over the past ten years on this site. Here’s the latest version…

DFHS continues to be one of the few public schools in our region that is truly “IB for All,” and our instructional program includes both the IB MYP for students in grades 9-10 and the IB DP for students in grades 11-12. Our reputation as a successful IB public school, coupled with the fact that we were the first IB DP school in our county to be authorized all the way back in 1998, has allowed us to share our “story” with school leaders from across the nation. We are often the district for other schools to come visit when they want to learn more about the program, and we present annually at the IB Global Conference to share how a diverse public high school can allow for increased student access (and success) to both the MYP and DP.  

A typical question (and concern) that many school leaders pose during these discussions is how to fully balance two large competing programs such as IB and AP within one school building. For many, the idea of bringing on a new program such as the IB DP is an easy “sell,” but the challenge of phasing out a pre-existing program that many feel strongly about is a bit more complicated. The question, then, is do we need to have one or the other? The short answer that I always give to this question is “yes,” a school should go “all-in” with one particularly for students in the upper grades. Although having both might make some sense for schools that are phasing one program in and another out, a long-term plan that includes both a full IB DP offering and a full AP offering only serves to muddy the vision for the faculty and students, the professional development plan for the school, and the overall direction of the organization. The end result is likely a high school program that lacks direction and cohesion due to the differing philosophies that respectively guide each program. Instead, my recommendation is always to choose one and to do that one to its fullest potential. The direction will be clearer, the work will be more purposeful, and the overall results in terms of student access and overall performance will always be better.

Having worked closely with both programs as a teacher, an assistant principal, and for the past twelve years as a principal, I’ve been able to see and experience some of the differences between IB and AP first hand. While both have plenty of selling points, and the AP program when implemented well has its merits, my list of reasons that follow the question of “Why IB?” continues to grow. I actually started this list all the way back in 2013 when I started this blog, and while the list is pretty long, here are a few of the main ones that keep resonating for us here at DFHS: 

IB Philosophy: Regardless of the grade level or course, the IB philosophy and approach should be evident in any class in an IB World School. For example, an English 9 class that is taught in an IB School should look very different from the same course that is being taught up the road at a non-IB school. At DFHS, for example, all units of study and daily lessons are rooted in essential questions, Approaches to Learning (ATLs), Related and Guiding Concepts, a Global Context, and international mindedness. An added focus on the IB Learner Profile is embedded into all aspects of our school and serves as the underpinning for our academic and social/emotional programming. This philosophical approach helps to blend the IB MYP with the IB DP, and our teachers embed these “big ideas” and concepts into their daily lessons to ensure that students can make connections across the disciplines. At DFHS, our program is designed to ensure that all students are IB students who will ultimately choose to access the Diploma Program at varying degrees starting in grade eleven. This will range from students who enroll in a minimum of two IB DP courses (English and Math) to those who choose to pursue the full IB Diploma. With AP, there isn’t necessarily an “AP for all” philosophy in that way, and the program is more often better suited for a tracked population of students who will ultimately enroll in AP courses.

Access: To expand on the point above, the IB makes it much easier for all students to access DP courses in grades 11-12. They do this by offering both Standard Level (SL) and Higher Level (HL) course options that are, in most cases, spread out over two years to allow for greater inquiry and exploration. In addition, all students at our middle and high school (grades 6-10) have been full IB students since our MYP authorization in 2016, and all students complete an IB Community Project in grade eight and an IB Personal Project in sophomore year. This alignment between the two programs has significantly increased the number of students who continue to successfully access the IB DP in grade 11. Furthermore, the IB requires that all schools have a clear special needs policy to ensure greater access for all students, and at DFHS all of our teachers receive IB training. In addition, many of our IB DP courses are co-taught with a special education teacher to ensure that our students are fully supported. While the AP program certainly accommodates the needs of all students, the greatest difference is with the difficult entry point and seemingly high level of exclusivity that exists for students who choose to enroll in AP courses. Simply stated, far more students will access IB courses in a full IB World School as opposed to the number that will access AP courses in a more traditional situation.  

“The Test”: When I attended AP training years ago, I was told flat out by the instructor that “the test” drives the course and that students who enroll should do so with the expectation that they will score at least a 3 if not a 4 or 5. Assessments, assignments, and other tasks must be “AP-based” and inquiry, analysis, and creativity should be limited to what is necessary for success on the AP exam. Conversely, IB DP courses are driven less by the pressure of one test and instead contain a blend of internal and external assessments over the course of two years. These types of evidence-based performance tasks are also embedded into all aspects of our curriculum in grades 9-12. This not only provides a more well-rounded picture of what students know and are able to do, but also allows for a deep understanding of the subject since more time is provided for inquiry-based authentic tasks. The benefit of this approach was on full display during the pandemic. As many tests were either canceled or, in the case of AP, administered remotely since the test determined the entire student outcome, the IB was able to easily pivot and provide a “non-examination” pathway that allowed students to receive a grade using the assessment measures that were used over the two years of the course. 

Community and Support: The IB community allows teachers to stay connected and to come together locally, nationally, and internationally. At DFHS, our teachers receive formal IB training before teaching an IB course, all teachers meet with colleagues from their respective regions via “roundtables,” and we connect annually with teachers nationally and internationally when we present at the IB Global Conference. In addition, our teachers share and acquire resources via the MY IB resource center, they receive ongoing formal training (online or in-person) along with informal school-based professional development, and of course they are re-trained when changes are made to the IB subject guides every seven years. All of this helps to ensure that IB teachers remain current, connected, and on the cutting edge. Similar opportunities exist for students, including IB World Student Conferences in locations around the world.

College Recognition: The mission of the IB is to promote the development of an international education while providing an opportunity for students to earn a diploma that is recognized around the world. Though the IB recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, it is not until the past ten years that the IB has become commonly recognized by United States universities as a benchmark for academic excellence. Universities are also awarding credit for IB HL courses that are on par with AP courses, and several are now awarding a full year of credit to full IB Diploma students. From an IB perspective, and for us at DFHS, the focus has never been on helping students to earn college credits in high school although that is a wonderful perk. Instead, our focus is always to provide students with a robust and versatile academic experience that the IB Program provides so that they are best prepared for college, the workforce, and beyond.

One final thought…

While both the IB MYP and DP are the right choice for us at DFHS, an important point that we always consider is what additional programs and/or courses are out there which might enhance our work as an IB School while maximizing the time spent with our students each day. This ongoing reflection has led us in the direction of adding courses and smaller programs that further support our established goals, including a three-year science research program that directly supports and enhances our IB DP science program, a course such as AP World History for students in grade ten that directly prepares students for IB DP History in grade 11, and our AP Computer Science elective that serves as an added option given the interests and academic needs of our students. In the end, the key for any school is to always understand its respective context, the resources associated with that context, and to choose and design a program that best supports its students respectively.

MAC Day 2022: Caring, Togetherness, and Community

History and tradition. Two words that fully capture what Dobbs Ferry is all about. From the murals that adorn our hallways to our football games at Gould Park, DFHS holds a proud history that truly sets our school community apart from all others. Our ability to join together in times of need and for important causes that impact the lives of our students, families, and community members is truly what sets us apart! This was especially the case during the pandemic. At the core of the IB Program is the importance of compelling students to “think globally while acting locally,” and during the pandemic our students and staff continued to support one another as each of us was challenged personally due to the fear and uncertainty that was so prevalent during that time. Despite the massive restrictions, we found new ways to stay connected, including the creation of our DFHSVirtualCommons Instagram page, and we found creative approaches for maintaining our traditions, including our annual MAC Day.  

So who is Coach Mac, and why do we have this day at DFHS? 

In May of 2006, tragedy struck Dobbs Ferry when we lost our football coach, teacher, mentor, and friend Coach Mac. This loss was not only difficult for his football players, but also the student body and faculty of our high school. Coach Mac made an impact on every individual he encountered here in Dobbs Ferry. His personality was infectious. He had a larger than life aura and it was impossible for any person he met to forget him. Many would say it was his unique look and the “handlebar” mustache. Others might say that it was the fact that he would be wearing shorts on a sub-zero degree day in January. Those that knew him best though would argue that it was because he made every single person he came across feel important.  He made people, no matter who they were, where they came from, what their situation may have been, feel that they mattered. He represented caring, togetherness, and community. He represented the very best of Dobbs Ferry. He represented what we are all about, and what we always strive to be.

In the summer of 2006, just prior to the start of school, the students of DFHS came together to honor Coach Mac for all that he had done for them and for this school. They decided to name an annual field day in his memory, and the following year, on Friday, September 21, 2006, Fox 5 NY had its morning show Good Day NY broadcast live from our turf during our second MAC Day. The school spirit could be felt everywhere throughout town. It was a fitting celebration of Coach Mac, and a wonderful way for our school and community to show everyone what Dobbs was all about.

Fast forward to present day and our school is now prepared for our 17th MAC Field Day. In past years, our students have used this occasion as a  vehicle for supporting an important global cause within our local school community. This year, our students are joining to raise money for “Make-A-Wish” to support young children with critical illnesses. As always, our mission is to promote service learning and civic engagement while emphasizing the development of student driven, student focused, and student run endeavors. Our current students are already part of our school’s rich history, and continue to find new ways to give back while aiming to inspire future generations in the same way that past generations have inspired them.

In addition, our 17th MAC Day will truly have “something for everyone” as the students in our Activities Branch, led by Maria Addona, continue to design new activities based on student interest. In addition to the many traditional “field day” events that we have each year, our 17th MAC Day will also feature a talent show, trivia competition, senior photos, community lunch, and of course our culminating pep rally. This year truly promises to be our best MAC Day yet as we not only unite and celebrate a beloved figure in our school’s history, but also celebrate our own perseverance as we navigated the pandemic by truly supporting one another. There is truly no place like Dobbs, and MAC Day is just one of many examples of what separates our school community from all the rest!

Remarks to the Class of 2022: DFHS Pride, History, and Legacy

To the Board of Education, Superintendent Brady, Administration, Faculty members, Parents, Family members, Friends, Students, and Graduates…

In typical years, my commencement remarks center around reflections of the past four years and some final parting words of advice to our graduates that I always hope might stick as they move onto the next phase of their lives. This year, however, I’m going to do things a bit differently. On Wednesday, our seniors walked through the hallways of Springhurst for the final time as students in our Dobbs Ferry Schools. For those of you who don’t know, this is a tradition that we started with the Class of 2016, and it provides our graduates one final opportunity to go back to where it all started, to see and thank their former teachers before they move on to the next chapter of their lives, and of course to hear and sing “I Remember Springhurst” one final time. It’s a moment that gets us all choked up, and no matter how many years Principal Drake and I make that walk we find ourselves getting flooded with emotions each and every time because it speaks so near and dear to the close knit community that we have here in Dobbs Ferry. For our students, it connects the past with the present, and includes so many of the people, including their teachers, who directly impacted their lives and helped to make them the graduates that we have sitting here before us today.

When our current graduates first officially entered Dobbs Ferry High School in September of 2018, they instantly became part of a rich history and legacy of former Dobbs Ferry students and teachers that dates back to the Class of 1934, the first official graduating class who walked the halls of our current school building. I am now finishing up my eleventh year of serving as the principal of our high school, and each year that I serve I am more and more humbled and honored to be part of that history. There were 14 principals who came before me since 1934, and we have had countless teachers who have served our students, and made Dobbs Ferry the place where they have made their life’s work.

This year is unique for us, because in addition to all of our graduates sitting here before us today, we also have a large (for Dobbs Ferry High School) graduating class of teachers, each of whom will be retiring from our school after many years of dedicated service to our students and community. And just as we celebrate our graduates here today, and recognize how they are forever part of the legacy of our school, we also celebrate our teachers, who after decades of service to our students and village are also prepared to move on to the next chapter of their lives. In thinking about each of our retirees, each whom taught our students so much inside of the classroom, our graduates can also take some final lessons as they now move on to life after high school.

The first of our distinguished group of retirees is Ms. Paulette Sirakos, who is completing an incredible 41-year career in education, with her final 20 years being spent with us at Dobbs Ferry High School. During her time at Dobbs Ferry High School, Ms. Sirakos taught all levels of mathematics, and was instrumental in starting up a number of our school clubs and programs, including our Math League Team and Peer Tutoring Program, while sharing her passion for Sign Language with her students and of course her love of the band Queen. Ms. Sirakos was an individual who was simply born to teach, and she was tireless in her preparation and dedication to her students.  From Ms. Sirakos, our graduates learn of the importance of always holding ourselves to the highest standard of achievement. Ms. Sirakos always demanded that of both herself and her students, and she provides our graduates with a role model of an individual who never cut corners, always put in the work, who always demanded the best from herself and her students, and always received great results due to that mindset. Thank you, Ms. Sirakos, for your 20 years of dedicated service to the students of Dobbs Ferry. We wish you the very best in your retirement. 

Our next retiree, Mrs. Maureen Lindner, leaves us after serving as a teacher in Room 309 at Dobbs Ferry High School for the past 23 years, and 25 in education overall. Ms. Lindner wore many hats as a teacher in our English department, including that of teacher leader for several years, and also served as the advisor of Orpheus, our school literary magazine, as well as serving as the first advisor for both our GSA and Anime clubs. Perhaps the greatest lesson that Ms. Lindner leaves for our graduates is the importance of being a true team player. Over the 11 years that I worked with her, Ms. Lindner was always selfless when it came to what is in the best interest of our school and our students. Whether it was being asked to teach new classes for the first time, which happened frequently with classes such as TOK, Advisory, and IB English SL, or taking on new clubs or endeavors that she perhaps didn’t know a whole lot about but it was what the students had wanted, Ms. Lindner recognized the importance of always doing what is best for the team, and that by working together with kindness, flexibility, and empathy there’s so much that we can accomplish as a whole. Thank you, Ms. Lindner, for helping to make our school such a wonderful place to be. We wish you the very best.

 After 23 years of dedicated service to our district and 39 years in education, our next retiree, Ms. Marion Halberg, is ready to move on to the next phase of her life after leaving behind a legacy that is certain to carry on well beyond her years in Dobbs. During her time at DFHS, Ms. Halberg has been a champion for all students and a true leader in helping to promote equity and inclusion into all aspects of our school. As our ENL coordinator, Ms. Halberg worked tirelessly to ensure that so many families and students were welcomed and supported as they transitioned to Dobbs, and as our IB DP Coordinator for the past 12 years she was an instrumental member of our team as we truly moved to IB for All at Dobbs Ferry High School. From Ms. Halberg, our graduates are provided with a true example of an individual who dedicated her life to providing equal opportunities for all students, and a belief that all people have the ability to advance beyond their circumstances if provided with the right support, belief in themselves, and desire to put in the hard work necessary to achieve one’s goals. Thank you Ms. Halberg to your tireless dedication to so many areas of our school, for your work as our IB Coordinator, and for leaving Dobbs Ferry a much better place that you found it. We wish you the best in your retirement.

Our next retiree leaves our schools after over 30 years of dedicated service to our Dobbs Ferry school community. Mrs. Marcia Heffler began her career in Dobbs Ferry in 1982 as a permanent substitute teacher, and soon moved on to various leave replacement positions in all subject areas before beginning her formal assignment in 1993 as a Spanish teacher in our Dobbs Ferry Schools. In addition to her work inside of the classroom, Mrs. Heffler has also been an active member of our village since moving to Dobbs in 1976, she raised both of her daughters in Dobbs Ferry, both of whom are graduates of our high school, she served as the President of the Home and School Association (prior to being named what is now the PTSA),  she served as a village Trustee and then Deputy Mayor of Dobbs Ferry, and was in charge of many committees, especially ones that were connected with Youth and Safety. In addition to being a constant advocate for all students, perhaps the greatest lesson that Mrs. Heffler provides to all of our graduates is the importance of serving and giving back locally. As an IB World School, we work to inspire our students to think globally and act locally, and Mrs. Heffler is a member of our school community who did just that. Thank you, Marcia Heffler, for your tireless dedication to our students, school community, and Dobbs Ferry village. We wish you the very best in your retirement.

Our final retiree has been dazzling students in Room 311 of Dobbs Ferry High School since 1983. For the past 39 years, Mr. Neil Abbatiello has truly graced all of us regardless of whether or not we were privileged to have him as a teacher. Mr. A, as his students call him, has an amazing ability to bring out the very best in all students, and truly believes that all students can be exceptional in anything that they do if they believe in themselves and they are provided with the right amount of positive encouragement. He took this approach not only as a math teacher, but also as a basketball and varsity softball coach in our district, and also as a father of three Dobbs Ferry Graduates, Andrea, Ali, and Neal. But despite all of Mr. A’s talent, and his overall popularity with everyone, if you know him at all you definitely know that he is completely uncomfortable at this very moment with me talking about him as I am. And that is perhaps the greatest lesson that our graduates can all take from Mr. A. Humility. In life, it is never necessary to seek accolades, or to tell people how good you think you may be if you are truly great at what you do. If you work hard, get great results, and have passion for what you do, others will notice, and you won’t have to tell them. This is very essence of being a true leader, and it is the type of quality that will draw others to lead alongside you. So while I congratulate and thank Mr. Abbatiello for a lifetime of service to our students, I am also pleased to share that his passion for teaching still burns strong, and although he is retiring, we will have him back in our school next year on a part-time basis so that future students can continue to be inspired by his positive energy and love of mathematics. Congratulations, Mr. Abbatiello, on a what has been a wonderful career in Dobbs Ferry. Have a great summer, and we’ll see you in September.

Just as we take individual lessons from the people who have touched our lives, whether directly, or perhaps for some of you, indirectly as is the case with our retirees, we also take two final lessons and important takeaways that all of you, our graduates, can be left with as you now prepare to venture to your next step, whether it be when choosing a major in college, or a job that you immediately want to pursue, or another experience that may be part of your journey.

First, choose a path in life based on your passion, and not based on money. One quality that is consistent among all of our retirees is a burning passion for their life’s work, and when you follow your passion in life, whatever that may be, you will find a level of personal fulfillment and intrinsic reward that will make you feel like you never worked a day of your life. It will inspire you to pour your heart and soul into all that you do, and with that you will soon find yourself on a path that allows you to rise to the top of your profession, whatever profession or pursuit that may be. By chasing your passion, and not money, you will also be pleasantly surprised to find that money will soon find you.

Second, seek opportunities throughout your life to contribute beyond yourself. While it is without question important to set and accomplish personal and professional goals, and I strongly urge you to do that, seeking opportunities to act selflessly will allow you to leave behind a legacy of giving that can truly transform the lives of people all around you. For some, this may mean acting selflessly towards your friends and family, and you all have wonderful people around you here today who are great role models when it comes to that, and for others, it might also mean finding new ways to serve your community, whether locally or on a much larger scale. Regardless of how you contribute, the intrinsic rewards that you will find will far surpass anything that can be found extrinsically, and the difference that you make in the lives of others will carry on to future generations.

The legacy of this graduating class will be forever etched into the history of our school, and you all now join a long line of graduates, teachers, and staff who have followed their passion, contributed beyond themselves, and went on to live wonderful and fulfilling lives. It has been an honor to serve as your principal over these past four years, I thank you for allowing me to be part of such an important time in your lives, and I wish you the very best as you leave all of us here today.

Congratulations to each and every one of you, the Dobbs Ferry High School Class of 2022.

Why IB? Revisiting the Question 10 Years Later

This year’s IB Global Conference in the beautiful city of San Diego will be once again buzzing with energy as IB educators will be in-person for the first time since the pandemic to share their stories, experiences, and examples of best practice. It is always rejuvenating to attend this conference in normal years so having the chance to go back with colleagues after two long years away will make this trip all the more sweet. This year’s conference theme, “Embracing Innovation, Inspiring Change” is both timely and practical considering the massive innovation and change that was forced upon all school districts in March, 2020. For some, the change was rocky, but for others, including IB World Schools like ours, the change was smoother and much more seamless. This is a direct credit to the IB philosophy with regard to teaching, learning, and assessment. It was also a reminder to all of us that the question of “Why IB?” isn’t much of a question at all. The answer is obvious.  

In 2013, I wrote a piece after the conference in New Orleans that addressed the “Why IB?” question for the first time. Four years later, I came back to this question as our team presented at the IB World Conference in Orlando, and I now find myself coming back to it once again as we start to move beyond the pandemic. Similar to how I felt in both 2013 and 2017, the question of “Why IB?” is an important one as we continue to consider what is best for all of our students in what is clearly an ever changing landscape. Navigating the pandemic as an IB World School only further confirmed this point. While so many students and teachers struggled with a curriculum and program that was “test driven” and rigid during that time, our IB students were provided with flexible approaches that included a focus on academic skills, an emphasis on mental wellness, and a “non-examination” route that best honored the work of our students. All of this helped to greatly offset student stress while inspiring learning and, perhaps most importantly, providing certainty in the most uncertain of times.

Over the past ten years, our school (and district) tripled our overall participation in the IB Diploma Program, we became fully authorized in the IB Middle Years Program (MYP) in 2016, and our efforts were recognized when we earned a National Blue Ribbon in 2020. To put it plainly, we are “all in” with regard to IB and we believe that all of our students are better prepared as a result of attending an IB World School. That was certainly the case during the pandemic, and it continues to be the case as we get back to a new feeling of “normal” in our schools and around the world. 

So “Why IB?” Here’s why…

The Program is Fully Inclusive: Perhaps the greatest quality of the IB Program is that all students receive meaningful and equitable access to the curriculum. At DFHS, all students enroll in at least two IB DP courses, all of our teachers are IB trained (including special education), students take an average of four IB DP courses before graduating, and all students fully access the IB MYP while completing a Personal Project. In addition, the qualities that are outlined in the IB Learner Profile, coupled with our earlier work using the IB Excellence and Equity Framework (E2), made our recent district wide focus on DEI (Diversity Equity and Inclusion) a natural one for our school. As always, our focus continues to be on creating a welcoming environment for all students while providing a curriculum that is truly representative of the diverse student body that we have at DFHS. This approach and philosophy is at the very core of the IB, and it is precisely what set our school apart from the rest when we were awarded a National Blue Ribbon in 2020. 

It Promotes International Mindedness: The curriculum and pedagogy of the IB focuses on international perspectives while emphasizing the importance of students exploring their home culture and language. A fundamental IB principle is for students to “think globally and act locally,” and at DFHS we recently moved to “IB CAS for All” for students in grade eleven along with a service learning venture that all sophomores engage with upon completion of the IB MYP Personal Project. In Dobbs Ferry, this mindset has prompted our students to make incredible contributions within our village while allowing them to focus on the implications of their actions on a global level. Over the past few years we have also seen a rise in both new students and exchange students from around the world who have chosen to attend our school because we are an IB World School. This new development has not added to the richness and diversity of our school community, but has further allowed our students to examine all core disciplines from multiple perspectives and respective “ways of knowing.”

21st Century Learning: The theme of this year’s conference, “Embracing Innovation, Inspiring Change,” speaks once again to the IB’s commitment to preparing students with the skills needed for success beyond the brick and mortar of schools so that they may make a difference in all corners of the world. DFHS was well ahead of the curve on this front when we introduced a full 1:1 Chromebook program back in 2013, and we shared our story at the IB World Conference in Chicago in 2015. Our focus at that time was on how our 1:1 further promoted equity while allowing students to further develop the ever important 21st century “ATL” skills. Those same skills, as it turned out five years later, were put to the test and were ultimately on full display as we navigated the pandemic with greater ease and continuity than most other districts. As we now move to a “post-pandemic” world that is radically different from what we knew only a few years ago, this current generation of students will continue to compete for jobs and services that are yet to exist. In doing so, those same skills will once again be called upon as they will need to adapt, solve problems, collaborate, and communicate with colleagues in what is now a full interdependent world. 

The Research is Growing: A great deal of research has been conducted by the IB and outside agencies to determine the degree to which students are prepared for success in the more competitive colleges and universities in the world. Findings repeatedly show that IB students are not only accepted at higher rates, but graduate within four years at a higher percentage and with higher overall grade point averages. This point has been verified to us by our own graduates who come back to our school each year to discuss the high level of preparation that they had as a result of the IB DP and how, in some instances, they felt “over-prepared.” I first wrote about this topic nine years ago (check out the post “Why IB: Student Perspectives” (12/20/13) for more) and am planning to once again solicit this qualitative data from our recent graduates when we return next year. 

The IB Community: IB teachers are members of a special community of educators from around the world. As such, teachers are able to network and collaborate with colleagues that are both local and overseas, and this was especially an advantage for us as we navigated the pandemic. This year’s conference will be a wonderful opportunity to see some of the colleagues that we met during the pandemic “in person” for the first time. In addition to traditional “training,” all IB teachers participate in roundtable discussions with colleagues from local schools and have access to the My IB. This resource provides IB teachers with resources, updates, a robust program resource center, and an opportunity to connect with other IB teachers and Heads of School from around the world.

IB for All: Service Learning at DFHS

The DFHS story of “IB for All” is well documented in this blog. Our school was the first public high school to be authorized as an IB Diploma Program (DP) school in 1998 (#DFHSIB20), and our shared belief in “IB for All” served as the driving force behind obtaining authorization to the IB Middle Years Program in 2016. We proudly share our story annually at the IB Global Conference by focusing on a specific aspect of how we accomplish “IB for All” in a small, diverse suburban public school district. In 2015, we presented in Chicago on how our 1:1 Chromebook program promoted equity and access to the IB DP, and in subsequent years we focused specifically on areas such as program development (Toronto, 2016), special education (Orlando, 2017), and the MYP Personal Project (San Diego, 2018). In 2019, our focus evolved to include service learning, and more specifically how we are working to further promote a “think globally act locally” mindset into all aspects of our school. This focus was especially timely during the pandemic, and while it in ways forced us to “rethink” the “how” of service it never shifted our belief in the “why.”

A belief in the importance of contributing beyond ourselves is at the core of the IB mission to create a “better and more peaceful world.” This level of service, however, means less when it comes as a result of a school requirement (“every student must complete 30 hours of service or else!”) or as a way to enhance a college resume. With this in mind, our focus has been on how we can inspire students to freely and voluntarily engage in meaningful service without it being a mandate or requirement. The trick here, of course, is for students to be so inspired by what happens inside of school that they want to make a difference outside of school. Not always an easy feat, even for an IB school.

When IB celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, we proudly celebrated our 20th anniversary using the hashtag #DFHSIB21. As part of our celebration, we took on #GenerationIB as a rallying point for encouraging service and civic engagement in an effort to truly make a difference in our community. That work has continued through the pandemic and  into this school year as can be still found under the hashtag #DFHSIB21. Here are some of the steps that we take annually to maintain the momentum: 

Establishing a Clear Vision: I meet with our department leaders every August to set the course for the upcoming year prior to the arrival of our faculty. Part of what we discussed this year was the work that we have done with “IB for All” in relation to our continued focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), and next steps that we may take to continue to push our school forward. Service learning and the idea of “CAS for ALL” has long been something that we have talked about and this is the first year that we have all of our juniors fully involved in IB CAS activities. In addition, all of our sophomores engage in a service learning project upon completion of the IB MYP Personal Project. Early on, it was important that we came to consensus on the following definition of the term to share with the faculty: “Bringing awareness and empathy to global issues that exist and thinking about how we can tackle those issues in our local community.” In addition to providing a direction and vision for the school, the definition has moved service learning to a level of deeper understanding of the issues that exist in order to compel and inspire actual and tangible service.

Inspiring Service: There is perhaps nothing that makes me shake my head more than the idea of “completing” service as part of some type of requirement. Though it may come with the best of intentions, we too often see people completing service essentially because they are being forced to. Service needs to come from within. It is selfless by its very nature and the reward is intrinsic and personal. At DFHS, we have had early conversations about how to inspire such levels of selflessness so that students are compelled to seek opportunity to serve based on their own passion. These conversations are now ongoing inside of our classrooms within the context of our curriculum. This integrated approach to service within the curriculum aims to inspire action outside of the walls of our school.

#Generation IB: As part of 50 years of IB (1968-2018), students around the world from all four IB programs showcased their efforts to find solutions to some of the most pressing global issues. At DFHS, our IB MYP teachers and students took this on as a complement to the Year 5 MYP Personal Project. At the start of the year, MYP teacher @MsCairoHistory challenged her students with the following essential question: “What are some of the greatest challenges facing humanity, and what can be done to remedy them?” This question served as a focus for the course and is one that we are challenging teachers and students in all disciplines in all grade levels to consider. Since 2018, and throughout the pandemic, all teachers of all subjects helped our students to reflect upon how the respective content that they are teaching impacts the larger global world. In doing so, student thinking continues to be broadened beyond the walls of our school and the call to act and make a difference with tangible service comes from within.

Promoting Service:  A few years back we started a full campaign to truly imbed the IB Learner Profile into all aspects of our school. This included revamping our behavior expectations to include IB Learner Profile qualities, adjusting all aspects of teaching and learning based on the profile, and most significantly recognizing the members of our school community who demonstrate one or more of the respective qualities. In terms of service, we have taken a similar approach by embedding service learning into our curriculum and by promoting the great service initiatives that our students are leading throughout our community. Our IB DP CAS Coordinator, Sarah Grosso (@sarah_grosso2), shares a great deal of these initiatives on her Twitter page. Check it out! It’s important to note, however, that the point of doing this isn’t necessarily to provide an extrinsic reward in as much as it is to celebrate the work of others and to inspire thought and possible action in others.

We are looking forward to sharing our work in our upcoming IB MYP Evaluation visit in March! We are also excited to learn more about what is happening in other IB MYP schools so that we can be further  inspired to find new ways to think globally and act locally.

IB for All: The IB MYP Personal Project

Authorized in 1998 as the first IB DP school in Westchester County (NY), Dobbs Ferry High School (DFHS) is a model public school for how to best promote student access to the IB DP. We present annually at the IB World Conference on this topic and regularly welcome guests from districts who are interested in learning about how our rich diversity serves to enhance our work as an IB World School. All students at DFHS take an average of three DP courses and approximately thirty percent pursue the full IB Diploma. This “shift” to “IB for All” has evolved over the years. At #IBORL2017, we shared the DFHS story while placing a specific emphasis on special education. In 2018, we turned our attention to the MYP Personal Project (Year 5) for our presentation in San Diego, CA. This post set the stage for that presentation. 

In 2016, DFHS was authorized as an IB MYP school and all sophomores completed the MYP Personal Project for the first time in 2017. We are now completing our sixth year as an IB MYP school and we are gearing up for our first official evaluation visit in March, 2022. The MYP PP has further allowed DFHS to promote access to the IB DP while providing all students with rich academic experiences that will prepare them for success beyond the walls of our school. The MYP PP has also allowed us to further instill the IB Learner Profile into the fabric of our school while providing our students and staff with more opportunities for reflection and growth. It is also paving the pay for new initiatives, including a transition to “IB CAS for All” which is now in effect at DFHS. 

The following guest post was written by Dobbs Ferry High School teachers Mallory Cairo (@MsCairoHistory) and Connor Cohn (@MrCohn9), and is part of a larger series of posts around “IB for All.” Ms. Cairo was part of our presentation team in San Diego. 

We live in a moment in human history in which we can access a mind-boggling amount of information, oftentimes with the small devices that live in our pockets and our hands. It’s not often enough that we stop to ask ourselves, as educators, but also as citizens, how do we engage with that information? How can a person begin with an idea or a datum and take it from a discrete piece of information to a logical conclusion? How can we assure that our students are able to confront the information they will be bombarded with for the rest of their lives in a meaningful, effective, and thoughtful way? Oh – and also – what do students actually want to do with their time?

Enter the MYP Personal Project (MYP PP). Dobbs Ferry High School implemented this aspect of the MYP curriculum for the first time during the 2016-2017 school year. At DFHS, all students complete the MYP PP while enrolling in an enrichment research course during their sophomore year. The Personal Project is the culminating task of the IB MYP.  Each part encourages students to reflect on or display a different component of the learning and research process, from identifying an inquiry question to researching the question, chronicling the information they find in the report, and somehow showcasing it in the product. The MYP PP is performance-based, authentic, and a true reflection of the the IB skills that students develop over the course of the MYP. It also prepares all students at DFHS to further access the IB Diploma Program (IB DP) starting in junior year.

The benefits of the MYP Personal Project Research Class:

When DFHS moved through authorization for the IB MYP, a great deal of consideration was given to how to best have all students complete the Personal Project while not overloading their workload and/or increasing stress in the sophomore year. The ultimate decision to enroll all students in a sophomore research course that was modeled after Science Research Year 1 proved to be a good one as students not only had time to complete the project, but also had an opportunity to learn research skills across the disciplines that moved well beyond the MYP PP.

There are additional benefits to integrating the personal project within a sophomore research class. The structure of an every other day class allowed the teacher to guide them in brainstorming, researching, and completing their projects.This class takes advantage of two current (research-based) trends in education: interdisciplinary study and student choice. The project gave our students and faculty a chance to collaborate across disciplines and grade levels as students conferred with faculty from both our middle and high school about the research questions they had formulated themselves.

Differentiation at Its Finest

Perhaps the greatest feature of the MYP PP is that it is truly differentiated based on student interest. As a result, it quickly becomes an endeavor that students care about, connect with, and ultimately “own.” Students not only work with faculty members to choose a topic, but also demonstrate their understanding by designing a product that best suits their learning style and areas of strength. In terms of topic selection, the flexibility that the MYP PP provides in terms of “choice” gives educators a great opportunity to scaffold “how to choose.” To students, bridging the gap between what they do in school and what they do at home was sometimes difficult. Lessons during the month of September were mainly exploratory, giving students an opportunity to grapple with their choice in order to create a research-based project around their interests.

The flexibility in terms of choice resulted in some truly amazing products from our students, including but not limited to: a video essay about Chance the Rapper’s impact on inner-city Chicago, a remade car engine, a live action lesson on American Sign Language, a live action dog show, and a video essay about “filler” words in the English language – all projects that attest to both the interdisciplinary and self-directed nature of the Personal Project. In May, we held our first IB Personal Project Expo for all of the members of the Dobbs Ferry community. It was a true “coming together” for our town and built even greater momentum around the amazing work that we are doing at DFHS.

Final Thoughts

The MYP PP provides a brilliant opportunity for students to choose something that interests them, grapple with informational sources, and to interact with the community to showcase their hard work. Having students design their personal project via an every other day class is an incredibly useful tool that allows a teacher to guide the research process. The skills from this project are highly transferable, from Global History 10 to everyday adult life! Students build critical thinking skills that allow them to assess information and pursue long-term logical arguments. Allowing student choice will ultimately create more independent learners, and the Expo Night during which students showcase their work is a fabulous evening to celebrate achievement. We are looking forward to sharing our story at #IBSD2018!

What is the role of the IB Head of School? (updated from 2013)

One of the first posts that I published all the way back in 2013 was written in the hotel lobby of the IB Conference of the Americas in New Orleans, LA. The focus of the piece was on the role of the IB Head of School, and my plan at that time was to maintain a blog that would attempt to answer some “essential questions” in education, particularly as they related to the IB program. Fast forward almost seven years and a lot has changed. Seven years is a long time, both personally and professionally, and my views have certainly developed, changed in some instances, and of course raised more questions in others. I’ve always viewed this blog as a place to flesh out and articulate my thoughts around many issues, and it has also been an invaluable tool for communicating these ideas with our school community. I admit that I do check out the blog statistics from time to time to get a sense of the posts that seem to continually get the most “views,” and am surprised at certain posts that either get or do not get lots of activity. The post “Why IB?” in 2013, for example, had over 1,500 views in a day, which was a surprise because I remember writing it as a small piece to get some much needed buy-in within our small community. I never imagined it would take off that day as it had. The same continues to happen with the short three paragraph post that I wrote on the “role of the IB Head of School,” which still gets around 20 views a day on average.  

To be honest, I knew very little about being an IB Head of School when I wrote that post in 2013. I was finishing my second year in the role, I was still getting my footing as a principal and a school leader, and the IB DP at our school was on the cusp of massive changes that would occur over the next several years. All of that has been well documented in this blog. Over the years, our school has hosted many site visits for the IB DP and now the IB MYP, and I often find myself discussing with principals what their role is as the IB Head of School. I generally find  that principals fall into one of two camps with regard to this question: they either don’t see themselves as being involved with the IB Program and leave the work to their IB Coordinator or they find themselves overly involved in the logistics of the program and fail to grasp that their role as a Head of School is a critical piece (I stress the word piece!) of a much larger puzzle that is needed for success. So after doing this for awhile now, I thought I’d take another look at this question and offer some clearly defined responsibilities of the IB Head of School:  

Communicate the Vision: Above all else, the role of the IB Head of School is to communicate the vision of the program with the school community and to set the course for all of the work that needs to occur in this regard. The Head of School is essentially the public “face” of the program, and is the person who speaks with parents and community members, articulates the vision and mission of the IB, presents the big ideas and objectives, inspires others, and generates excitement and enthusiasm for the program. This is especially important for schools that offer both IB and AP programs as well as other academic programs that might compete. This situation, while common, provides its own set of challenges for the IB Head of School and can often result in different people heading in different directions without a common vision. Regardless of the set up, however, the IB Head of School serves as the instructional leader from a big picture perspective and needs to provide clarity of purpose and a singular vision for a school. 

Build a Strong Team: In order for an IB Head of School to truly do what is needed from a big picture perspective, it is critical that a strong team is in place to handle each of the roles in the IB hierarchy. I’ve written time and again on the importance of the IB Coordinators and the necessity of having individuals in these positions who are smart, organized, detail oriented, and in support of the vision and mission of the program. There is absolutely no room for a weak link when it comes to the coordinators for either the IB DP, MYP, CAS, or EE. At DFHS, we have exceptional individuals in each of these positions and they are the ones who essentially “run” the nuts and bolts of the program on a day-to-day basis. The same holds true for a school’s IB Administrator, IB secretary, department leaders, and of course teachers. As a Head of School, I work closely with all of these individuals respectively and completely empower them to run their aspect of the program without any micromanaging from me. 

Maximize Resources: A key responsibility of the IB Head of School is to find ways (sometimes creatively!) to offer an IB Program that is robust in terms of offerings and is differentiated based on the interests and abilities of all students. This is especially the case with the IB Diploma Program. In its best form, the IB DP should provide an array of Standard Level and Higher Level options for students so that there are multiple pathways for students to acquire the full IB diploma. This is a challenge at a small school like ours so it has required us to maximize what we offer based on the strengths of our teachers, our IB budget, professional development needs, the courses that will generate the greatest number of student interest, and an overall academic program that supports “IB for All” starting in grade 11.

Professional Development: Ensuring that coordinators, faculty, and staff receive ongoing and current professional development is a given for any IB Head of School. In this regard, the Head of School must work closely with the IB Coordinators to identify teachers who are in need of formal IB training and/or who need to be re-trained based on changes to each respective subject area. In order to achieve the singular vision discussed above, it must be a priority that all faculty members receive IB training. Beyond IB training, all professional development and curriculum work at the school-level needs to be connected to an aspect of the IB Program to further support the idea of a clear and singular vision for all. Finally, the IB Head of School must also be dedicated to his/her own professional growth beyond the initial IB Administrator training that all heads are required to attend. The IBO now offers a series of different workshops that directly emphasize a specific aspect of IB leadership. Learning needs to be ongoing for everyone, and the Head of School is responsible for modeling this behavior for the entire school community. 

Communicate and Celebrate: Perhaps the best way to build excitement and support of the IB Program is to find opportunities to share what is happening with the school community and, if possible, the whole world. Social media makes this easy, and this blog is evidence of that. An IB Head of School needs to have an active presence on social media, a school-wide hashtag (#DFHSIB21), and a school Facebook page that celebrates the work of staff and students. There was a time when this concept was progressive. Now it’s just basic. So if a Head of School is not ensuring that this is happening, well I’m not sure what to say. In addition, the Head of School should take opportunities to present at IB conferences and invite faculty members to join these presentations. Our school presents annually at the IB World Conference and we often invite teachers to join when the topic is based on their work inside of the classroom. This approach is great for morale, bolsters the profile of a school, rewards teachers and students, and generates more buy-in within a school community. Again, this is pretty simple and common sense stuff. 

While the focus of this piece has been on the role of the IB Head of School, it should be noted that many of the ideas discussed can certainly apply to any building principal or school leader. Having a clear vision, strong communication, a commitment to ongoing professional development, and developing a team of empowered leaders are fundamental concepts for a leader in any role. In order to achieve this, leaders need to actively demonstrate those same IB Learner qualities that we work to instill in our students. We never stop learning, we never stop reflecting, and we never stop growing. Please feel free to share any other aspects of leadership that in the comments section below so that we can continue to learn, reflect, and grow together.

Yearbook Caption: Class of 2021

To the Graduating Class of 2021,

During his 1963 radio and television address on civil rights, President John F. Kennedy reflected upon his hope for peace, unity, and equality in the midst of violence and rising tensions in our nation: “I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” Nearly sixty years later, JFK’s words still hold true, and they in ways capture the essence of all that we value as an IB World School.

The COVID-19 pandemic that was unexpectedly thrust upon you during the latter part of your junior year is something that will be studied and talked about for years to come. This period resulted in unspeakable loss for so many, including family members, friends, and renowned figures from around the world. For all of you, there was added loss as both junior and senior experiences, memories, and moments that are too often taken for granted were suddenly erased before they ever had a chance to happen.

Despite the loss, however, we saw people from every race, ethnicity, and culture come together as one to rally behind a common cause. We witnessed the true human spirit in full force, as workers on the frontlines risked their lives daily to help others, and as all citizens of the world played a role to help “flatten the curve” and then to ultimately get vaccinated. Amidst tragedy, we found love, we found connection, and we found selflessness. We also found hope, as Americans from across the nation came together in protest as we continue to strive for true equality. Although we still have much more work to do, our citizens continue to stand up against discrimination and bias and recognize that the “rights of every many are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” As graduates of an IB World School, it is incumbent upon all of you to lead this necessary change and to be true pioneers in the creation of a “better and more peaceful world.”

The legacy of this graduating class will be remembered for generations like none before, and it has been an honor to serve as your Principal during this unprecedented time. I wish you all the best for a life that is filled with health, happiness, love, unity, and peace.


John J. Falino, Ed.D.