I first wanted to say thank you to our student speakers this morning: you expressed so wonderfully what it means to be here at SAS, and why I think all of us are here.
I hope that each of you has had a wonderful summer: time to refresh, recharge, spend time with family and friends, and really reflect on that sense of joy that you bring in here from the summer. I hope that every day throughout the year you will carry with you the sense of joy and energy that you so palpably have today.
I'd like to start us off today by asking, whether you are a newbie like me or have been here for 30-some years, to take a moment and reflect on what it was that brought you here. Of all the places that you could be working, why here at Singapore American School? Take a minute, chat with the person next to you, and share: Why are you here? Why did you decide to come?
Thank you. I hope throughout the year that you often come back to that sense of purpose. And I hope that you will not only reflect personally but continue to share as you did this morning with each other, so that we can build our common purpose.
So, how would I answer that question of why are we here as a family? I think we are here first and foremost for the opportunity for our kids. I am not sure I could describe the SAS opportunity remotely as eloquently as our student speakers just did, but that is what we hope for our own children who will be students here. It all starts with you, the extraordinary educators at SAS: our teachers, and indeed our whole staff, your commitment to your professional craft and your sense of being a team. And I will say we are particularly attracted to the diversity here at SAS and what that diversity offers—the opportunity to learn so much from your peers both inside the classroom and outside the classroom. So as a family, that's what we are here for.
As an educator, that's also what I am here for personally. I truly believe that our diversity—diversity of background, language, race, nationality, sexual orientation, or viewpoint—is a source of strength for us in this community. When I look around at what is happening in my home country of the United States and throughout the world, this could not be more important. Diversity is not a source of weakness or conflict, but diversity is truly a source of strength. And it is my hope that our students and indeed all of us as staff, faculty, and parents will truly be able to have a lived experience every day of being in a community where we both celebrate and respect our differences, and equally celebrate all that we have in common as people: shared values, shared concerns, the shared humanity that brings us together.
If we can celebrate our differences and also celebrate all that we have in common, then those lived experiences will have a profound impact on all of us and hopefully help shape how each of us in turn shapes our communities and our world in a better way.
Since this is my first time with all of you, I'd like to take a moment if I could, and introduce myself.
I start with my family. Here is a picture of my mom and my dad, my brother, my sisters and all of our kids. This picture was taken about seven years ago before my mom passed away. Our family has long prized the value of education for both the boys and the girls in the family. We had the good fortune of having all four of my grandparents go to college. In fact, my grandmother was one of the very first women, in the 1920s, to graduate from Stanford Law School. It was a huge jump for my grandparents, being born of the immigrant generation that had come to the US at the end of the 19th century.
My mom was very much a scholar. She learned Greek and Latin, French and Italian, art, and literature. My mom was someone who loved reading at least a book a week. When I think of my mom, I picture her with a book in her hand, except for those rare moments when she might have been throwing it at one of us kids, telling us to put down whatever basketball or baseball we were holding and sit down and read!
If my mom was a scholar, dad has been an activist. I was born in October of 1964. A month later, in November, Lyndon Johnson was elected President of the United States on a platform of promising a war on poverty in our country. Just a few weeks after that election, my dad picked us up from California and moved us to Washington, DC. He became one of the first employees in the newly formed Federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). OEO was the spearhead organization in the war on poverty, working with impoverished and disenfranchised communities throughout the United States, hoping to build not just their economic power but also their community voice.
Growing up in Washington, DC in the ‘60s and ‘70s certainly had a deep impact on me and my brother and sisters and on who we are today. We lived in a recently integrated neighborhood, and I remember those years as a time of tremendous hope in our country. We were emerging from the genocidal horrors of World War II. We were emerging from the pain and the triumphs of the civil rights movement. There was a profound sense that we as a community could—we had it in our power if we were committed to it—right the historical wrongs of our nation and build a better community and a better country.
That optimism still stays with me very strongly today. I think it's an optimism that all of us need to draw on as we build our communities. Perhaps it is only in Washington, DC that you dream of growing up to be a civil rights lawyer, and that's what I did dream of. But, life took a different path and I ended up in Hong Kong 32 years ago teaching English at a low-income secondary school in Kwai Chung near Hong Kong’s container-port terminal.
That's a picture of me. It's my first year teaching. I very much enjoyed my time in Hong Kong. Every time I walked a street or turned a corner, there was something new to learn and experience—a new language, history, traditions, culture, food, music, fashion in a dynamic time in Hong Kong’s history.
After teaching, I started law school. Two years later, the student movement swept across China in 1989, ending tragically in Tiananmen. I ended up taking three years off between my second and third year of law school to come back to Hong Kong. I took a job working for a remarkable man named Martin Lee who was head of the Hong Kong Bar Association and a member of the colony’s legislature. And working with Mr. Lee, we had the chance to draft a bill of rights for the city and the election laws for the first democratic election that the British colonial government had ever allowed in Hong Kong.
It was an exceptional opportunity to witness a political awakening in Hong Kong and to help prepare for what was going to transpire after 1997. I certainly have watched with great concern over the last two months what's been happening in Hong Kong, and I’ve been filled with inspiration at times, sadness at times, and a deep worry about what is going to happen in our sister city.
After that time in Hong Kong, I heeded my mom's desperate pleas to go back and finish my last year of law school, which I dutifully did. I knew that I really wanted to come back to Asia and decided to go into the telecom sector, given its potential growth in Asia. I spent the next 12 years in international telecom, both in Asia and the United States, both in the government sector (in the Clinton administration working on international telecom policy) and also in the private sector.
And then, a little over a dozen years ago, I accepted the opportunity to become chief operating officer in the Denver public schools and then for the last ten years served as Superintendent of schools in Denver. For those of you who are familiar with big-city urban school districts in the United States, you would know that that time was not without its challenges and, certainly, not without its controversies.
At the same time, I am proud of our progress in the Denver public schools. As the schools significantly improved, we became the fastest-growing urban school district in the country. In a district where over two-thirds of the students are low-income kids, we increased by over four times the number of kids who were taking college courses through concurrent enrolment, IB courses, or AP courses. We also more than doubled our number of students of color who graduated every year and went on to college. And I am proud that we lowered our dropout rate by over two-thirds.
In doing so, our singular focus was, how do we support, coach and help develop our educators? Above all, as a school community, we are the sum total of the talents and teamwork of our people. So we introduced and developed by far the largest teacher leadership program in the country. In the Denver public schools, over 500 teacher leaders, about one in every 10 teachers, serves today as a teacher leader—teaching for half the day and leading a team of teachers for the other half. Our teacher leaders lead team meetings and also spend time coaching and giving feedback to teachers on their teams about their teaching practice.
During this period of change, we tried to lead from our core values as an organization. Especially at times of controversy or difficulty, we used those core values as our North Star to guide us.
After stepping down as the head of DPS not quite a year ago, I had the chance to teach educational leadership courses with masters and doctoral students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. That helped get me back in the classroom and it reminded me of the joys and also the challenges of teaching. My students certainly were not shy about giving me feedback about my own teaching, which helped me become a better teacher.
Switching hemispheres, this is a picture of us as a family three weeks ago, in a familiar spot for you all, the arrivals hall at Changi Airport, ready to begin our adventure here in Singapore. In beginning that adventure, I am excited to be joining such a strong team, an innovative team. I am grateful for the welcome that you all have given to me and indeed, to our whole family.
In these early months, above all, I am looking forward to learning. I will be doing a listening tour to be able to meet with all of you. I will be hosting faculty meetings at every grade level and doing likewise with students and parents. I want to hear your voices and learn from you: What's going on? How well are we doing? What are our successes? What are our growth areas? How well are we implementing and realizing our vision, our mission, our strategic plan? I want to hear what advice you have for me as your new kid in town.
I want to pay special attention to how we are building the kind of culture that we all want to have as a community. Because I believe strongly that as an organization, either we actively build the kind of culture that we all want to have, or, alternatively, we passively default to a culture that probably none of us want to have. I want to learn what we are doing to build the culture that we all want to have.
As part of that, I look forward to getting to know you professionally and personally. My wife Carin and I have just moved into our house nearby. Monday nights are going to be “open dinners” in the Boasberg-Chow household, and we look forward to having each and every one one of you for dinner over the course of the year to get to know you.
Recently, I got to share the SAS practice of taking the Strengths Finder assessment—as they say in Chinese, “ru xiang sui su” or “enter the village, follow the customs”. On that assessment, my top strength is that of a learner, along with context, focus, strategic, and achiever.
As a learner, I hope that SAS will be a place where students develop a true passion and a love of learning that will serve them throughout their lives. We are living now in a time of great change, and that change will only accelerate in the world our kids will graduate into and work in. Their future will be less about knowing one certain discipline or set of facts but rather more about adaptability. A willingness to learn and a love of learning is vital to helping them take on and succeed in the challenges they will face in their time to come.
For our kids to develop their love of learning, we as adults must model and embody a love of learning in all that we do, whether that is in our professional learning communities or through a culture where we both accept and give each other feedback—as my students last year were so willing to give me.
I very much appreciate the job you all have done in developing our DSLOs, which represent our aspirations for what it means to be a great learner today and into the future. Our DSLOs start with character, because all the learning in the world means nothing unless it's grounded in our character. And we define our character through our values—values of honesty and compassion, fairness, responsibility, and respect. The Eagle Way. Our values are our North Star to orient ourselves by in times of choice and decisions.
After starting with character, we have our learning aspirations of cultural competence, creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and content knowledge. As we emphasize our DSLOs for our kids, it is equally important that we celebrate them for ourselves as adults. This is both for ourselves to grow as lifelong learners and also for us to model for our kids. Please take a moment, turn back to your shoulder partner, and talk about one of these learning values that you feel you are particularly strong at, and also one where you think you have some growing to do.
Thank you for taking that time to share.
In our strategic framework diagram, our DSLOs are at the center of our three strategic anchors of excellence, extraordinary care, and possibilities. We start first with our culture of excellence. I think what that means is helping each of our kids truly reach their full potential. We know that each of our kids is different. Each of our kids is going to have different strengths and different challenges. Regardless, we want to be there to help each of them strive for excellence and reach their full potential as young learners, to help them reach their full potential as human beings. Through our personalization of learning, we try to meet each student where they are and have each student develop a strong sense of ownership of their learning. We want them to be aware of not just what they are learning, but why they are learning it, and how they might use that learning.
Second is our culture of extraordinary care. Our students this morning spoke passionately about that care. We believe that the social and emotional growth of each of our students is as important as their academic growth. In this large school of 4,000 students, we want to ensure that each of our kids truly feels respected and valued, known, cared for, and surrounded by a whole team of caring adults.
Third is our culture of possibilities. This culture is full of a sense of innovation, a willingness as students and as adults to learn best practice and to say, hey, how can we make it better? How can we innovate both for our benefit as a school community and hopefully for the benefit of the broader education community beyond. Our culture of possibilities does not stop at the classroom door. Our students tell us that they learn as much on the dance floor, in the art studio, on the athletic field, on the debate stage, and through the extraordinary myriad of service clubs that we have here at SAS as they do in our classrooms. Luckily, you couldn't find a better place to enjoy a culture of possibilities than here in Singapore. This multicultural hub is home to peoples and cultures with centuries of traditions and history. It is a city with a remarkable past and with its eye very much on the future, a city that sits at the center of this vibrant region of Southeast Asia.
Our mission statement is clear that we aim to provide our students with an exemplary American education with an international perspective. Our school here at SAS does not look like—nor should it look like—what an exemplary school might look like in Dallas or Detroit or Denver or Des Moines, because we have so much more to offer our students, thanks to the diversity of our student body and community. So it's my hope that this incredible asset of Singapore and the assets of our community will be very much a part of the culture of possibilities here at SAS.
Finally, coming back to our starting point today, I hope that we bring a sense of joy to all we do. I hope that we care for each other with the same deep care that we show our kids; that we maintain a sense of balance in our lives; that we celebrate not just our work lives but our family lives. Because when we show that care to each other and to our families, that helps sustain us and recharge our own sense of joy that we want very much to bring to our kids every day.
In closing, I'd like for each of you to think, what is the one commitment you are willing to make to bringing a sense of joy to our community here at SAS?
The commitment that I make to each of you today is to really spend time to get to know you: to meet with you all, to visit your classrooms, to get to know you both personally and professionally, and to hope to begin building a set of relationships that are at the heart of any successful community or successful school.
So, please take a moment and write down your thoughts: "What's the one thing that you are going to commit to doing to bring joy and help build our community here?" You can see all your answers roll through the screen.
With that, a huge thank you to all of you and I can't wait for the year to begin.