Educator series: #3. The itinerant educator
Meet the principal (for now) of TIDE Academy
Adam Daniel, the principal of TIDE Academy in Costa Rica, grew up in rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Before he was an educator, he was a hockey player on the professional track, moving away from home before he was 15 to play hockey with boys from all over the world. He was a little different from his teammates, being “the guy who wanted to meditate and chill.” When he decided not to pursue hockey as a career, Adam took over running a seed cleaning company for friends and helped his father on the family farm.
On the side, he coached hockey and realized the best times of his week were with the kids he coached. In his 20s, he went to university for an education degree in an inquiry- and place-based program. From that more “modern” training, he did a 180 and deliberately chose to teach in traditional schools in England.
He taught in Nicaragua for a few years, and now he’s at the end of his five-year contract as principal of TIDE Academy in Costa Rica. Adam is an educator with a nomad’s heart, happiest to stay for a few years at a school and then move on.
Here’s a little about Adam’s educational experiences and philosophy, in his own words:
What we’re lacking in schools today
Where does your philosophy of education come from?
I wasn't a highly academic student, but what I learned in hockey was how to be a leader. I was very resilient. I was very personable. You're meeting people all the time; you're able to adapt.
Something like 80 or 90% of teachers were academically gifted students. The student that got gold stars when they were in Grade One usually becomes the Grade One teacher that's still based on the gold star chart. They're modeling the same kind of learning. Universities are the same. Well, what about the people that [aren’t academically gifted] who could actually be highly gifted educators?
Where is the blend and who's getting pushed out of that industry? What skills might some educators not be integrating into their curriculum? If you ask successful people what habits and skills made them successful, you get a lot of: work ethic, resilience, willingness to learn, connection skills. So where are we teaching those skills?
What I saw in studying education, especially traditionally, is we've upheld a way of educating for the last hundred years. One of my professors told me
“The world has changed so much, if somebody died a hundred years ago and came back from the dead there are only two places they would feel comfortable--prison and school.”
Inquiry-based and place-based learning
You were trained in inquiry-based and place-based learning. What do those terms mean?
Place-based is just learning from the space around you. You hear that thrown out a lot. It takes a lot of training to be able to hit your curricular outcome, because you have to pretty much have the curriculum memorized and then be driving kids’ questions into starting a thematic unit around something. And inquiry-based is inspiring questions—showing a video on 50 cool facts about Egypt, for example. Some kids start talking about women rights, some about “how did their money work? How did the soldiers work?” It's not so factual, they don’t need to remember the dates of Cleopatra.
It's a little bit more front-loading for teachers, but once you can release them, it's really great because if you have a class of 30, with Timmy, who has a little bit more difficulty doing research and being self-directed—he might go an inch deep and a mile wide on a bunch of topics. Our higher ability students, we can make them go an inch wide and a mile deep. We might be able to question them again: how did the women’s rights of Egyptians change who we are today?
Now you’ve got kids digging deep on research and they come up with really good products.
A lot of the schools I’ve researched have inquiry-based learning and they like to advertise it. The method seems to be suitable for all levels of learning because it's very personalized.
It's more hands-on, like for an inquiry-based lesson of electricity--instead of saying, “here's the diagram of a circuit, a circuit runs like this,” it would be: two batteries. One little light bulb. Four alligator clip wires. “You guys have five minutes to light that bulb up.”
They draw what they’ve tried. “Okay, you guys—it didn't work. Draw that.” That's our evidence of learning as teachers. They might get it. They might not get it. But when they go on to learn about those circuits, the retention goes up because they have some connection to that knowledge. So when they come back to it in a year or two, they can connect to that situation.
If we just base knowledge on memorization and regurgitation, we already know it’s not going to be retained for 80% of the students. Math, we're doing as memorization for a large part of it—you have to memorize formulas when you get older. English, especially when I was teaching in England, you're memorizing grammar. You have to memorize dates and people in history. In science, you have to memorize the bonds… we're teaching the same skill, memorization, which is a great skill to have but we're using it in every subject.
A lot of the time teachers are entering schools [after training] with these beautiful theories. But how to implement those in practice, let's say with 30 kids or 16 or 12, can be very difficult and very frustrating.
I think that's one of the reasons why we're seeing a real high teacher burnout. We're not integrating them to the classroom. We're not letting them shadow a teacher first. You're saying, “Okay, now here's your classroom. You have no support anymore--good luck!” Training in the classroom might be the last three months of somebody's internship, after you've learned all the theories. That's not enough. The internship itself can start the burnout for some teachers because they need to make extended lesson plans and it’s very scrutinized. You have people observing your classes all the time.
I noticed for a lot of the teachers I trained in England, that was what started their burnout. It's already high stress just to get your training. Then they're thrown into a classroom with not a lot of support and it’s very difficult.
How come you didn't get teacher burnout when you were doing your internships?
By the time I was in education, I was 26. I was super amped up about it. It was stressful for me, but I think a lot of those life skills I’d learned earlier, like running my own company for four or five years, helped so my stress tolerance was a little bit different than someone that went from high school into education and a classroom of 30 kids. I had coached lots of kids, I was doing a lot of that stuff already, and I was used to talking in public—all of those things.
The surprising next step: a very traditional British school
I was 27 or 28 when I graduated [from education school]. I decided I was going to move somewhere. And I was like, “Well, where's one of the hardest places to teach English? What's one of the most scrutinized?” I'm about all this “fluff education” like place-based inquiry, all those flashy words that schools throw out now.
And I looked it up—England. So I said, “I'm gonna move to England.”
You said to yourself, this is where it would be most challenging to teach the way you teach?
No, I wouldn't even get to teach that way. It was going to be direct teaching, grammar terms, systems. You have to update everything in systems. It was the total opposite of what I agreed with.
You wanted to teach in a completely different style from how you believed in teaching?
Maybe I'm challenge driven. I wanted to challenge myself.
And did you want to challenge your own theories of teaching?
Yeah. I have a lot of teachers in my family, aunties and stuff, and they're just like, “No, this is the way you teach this.” Very traditional. So I thought, you know what? Let's go for it. Let's go change it up. I took a job in England with 33 kids in grade four and five my first year.
I worked at two public schools there. In math, there was feedback every day. You have to mark your book with stamps. [As a student] you either come back and you're doing something to help support your question from the day before or to extend your learning into the next step. Let's say you're doing two digit and one digit multiplication, and you got that right. I might be like, “Hey, great, you got all of 'em right? Try this one.” And it's three digit by one digit or two digit by two digit. It works really good in theory, but the marking and the stamps and the systems there were so structured.
I switched schools and I ended up working more with special education students. Oh, and I had taken on a little bit of counseling kids. I had done so much work on my own mindfulness and I was taking so many courses on breathwork and that kind of thing that I was really excited to start integrating those with the students, especially kids that had anger issues, especially boys.
When I was able to do that, we started seeing results with those kids. They’d come to our room every day, hang out with me, we’d talk about our feelings.
They started a program where they targeted some of the lower ability students and I took them separately and just with lots of enthusiasm, passion and excitement, and a little bit more of differentiated instruction, a lot of hands-on learning to build that mathematical and English knowledge, we were able to get our test scores through the roof.
So you were doing their method though, not inquiry-based or anything?
Yes, it was very rigid. For me, the system was really good. The amount of work and time it took was not practical for most teachers, but the system really worked and I took a lot of those systems with me after I'd left.
How many kids were you teaching?
I was teaching amongst all the grades, so in total there were probably 180 kids I would see in a week. So you get them up these levels and then they're assessed. They keep assessing, they do standardized tests. We’d get them in the mail.
We were testing twice a year. They’d go up a level and then the school was like, “Rah rah!”
One problem is when people start finding ways around tests—then it's a lot of test prep, memorization, drilling practice. Critical thinking was dropping. That’s something I had noticed in England.
How did you notice that?
Anytime you asked the question “why?” Or with mathematics, they were always asking for help: “Tell me what to do.”
I don't know if that's instilled fear, a fear of being wrong. I'm not sure how that happens. That critical thinking aspect is already failing in most places. Most education systems, it's easier to monitor and assess on levels. We see it in China, Singapore, England…we get more and more testing and the tests are now becoming harder and harder. The more schools and councils that figure out systems like we did to get those levels up, the more they keep changing what the bar is to achieve by those ages. How you teach critical thinking is a whole other topic.
Teaching critical thinking
Well, how do you teach critical thinking? Do you think that inquiry-based is a better way? Because students have to figure things out by themselves?
Yeah, that's a way. Debate is a way, introducing multiple ways of thinking about things is a way.
What does that mean?
I would say in social studies and in science, teaching multiple theories. Not just a textbook theory, but looking at different theories, even if they're radically wrong. In education, we shy away from anything that challenges everything. They even tell us as adults, “Don't talk about religion, don't talk about politics.” Going through Covid—“don't talk about that.” I don't know if I totally agree with that personally myself. A lot of times, that's when we learn how to be in a place where we can start critically thinking about things. Where we can see things that we might be opposed to. Why are we opposed to that? What are the reasons I think that way?
That's a fearful thing as a parent, because the children might start thinking differently than them. My kid might come home and say, “I think I want to be a Buddhist.”
So we don't bring a lot of those other opinions into our circle, and I think that's what generates a lot of the critical thinking.
But as a private school, it's a very difficult thing to do because I'd have parents lined up out the door. If you say, “The first unit we're gonna do this year is: Should we or shouldn't we get a vaccination?” Come on. I might as well resign.
It's just so difficult and we're starting to tiptoe around so many things that you would have to create a space for that as a school, where that was already preempted to parents. That's where I think we have a lack in education as well, the inclusiveness of the parents in what you're trying to accomplish at a school. If you would preempt the parents, “We're going to have this discussion. Here are the parameters of the discussion. The first things we do is teach kids how to have a conversation, not an argument. How to recognize when it is an argument. And how do we know when we’ve passed the point of a constructive conversation? When we’re in defense mode and we’re not learning, nothing’s getting solved here?”
Teaching in Nicaragua—where his Middle Way starts coming together
[After England] I was going to move back to Canada to take my master's degree in social and environmental injustice. I came to Costa Rica for a trip [in 2017], to Tamarindo. I was staying at a hotel, met this guy, he said, “My wife works up at this school, San Juan Del Sur Day School. It's a phenomenal school.”
So I went up there, we picked up the kids in this old Land Cruiser and we had some frozen chickens in there that they were cooking for lunch--they had school lunches up there every day. They had all this stuff in there. And I was like, “What is going on?” There are 15 kids in there. [The owner]'s trying to talk to me and interview me. We go up this mountain and it was in a place called Finca Las Nubes, with clouds and nature trails.
I walked in there and I almost started crying. Wow. This place was beautiful. We talked, they only had an early years position, like daycare. I was like, “No, I'm not gonna take that.” So I went on my merry way two weeks later.
I was going to tour Costa Rica for two months. But she called me up and said, “I really need to hire you.” We talked about curriculum development, and I had this idea of blending some of the way that we tracked the core subjects of math and English in England but not putting the same stress on them or the same result. They’re an assessment for learning, not of learning, so that we can track these kids on baby steps.
Because what I liked about it is when you get a student that comes to school in grade 6, but they’re at a grade 3 level. Where do you start with that? And you’re different in every strand in math—in fractions, in geometry, in place value—but there’s a stepping stone that you can take in all of them. So we assess them: They’re just recognizing fractions. Then they’re adding fractions with similar denominators. Then unlike denominators. Then mixed numbers, improper fractions.
So I wanted to implement that system in a way that was based on personalized learning. And I wanted to work with the IB curriculum that I had never worked with, but was very familiar with.
Why were you familiar with it?
Oh, I studied it just as a hobby. [editor’s note: this man was born to be an educator.] I liked that they had thematic units for social studies and science for the whole school. I wanted to take their thematic units and integrate curriculum from Canada into what those thematic units would be for each class. I wanted to do that with a blend of the personalized learning.
The Middle Way
That's where my Middle Way comes in, where with core subjects of English and math, I still think there's a system and skills to learn from a traditional standpoint. We need to read. We can't mess around with reading, man, and I don't like messing around with math.
If we have to choose a subject that we're gonna teach more by rote learning, let it be math. The numbers are there. Let's not mess with that one. We know we don't get retention in social studies and science [with rote learning]. Let's play with that one a little bit. Let's do more of the project-based learning.
Tell me more about the Middle Way, as pertains to education. Sounds like that’s a big part of your philosophy.
It's starting to come out more and more. The structure of discipline that we had [in childhood]—just do things cuz you're told to do things, to [nowadays] we’ve had a lot of fluff and we're always trying to figure out the softest way to do things. “Oh, you don't like to do presentations? Well, you shouldn't have to do presentations. I'm so sorry.”
There's a middle way. Even with what we expect from students, there needs to be a middle way. It can’t be that we don't ever have to use a chalkboard. We don't ever have to write in our books. We don't have to take any notes. It's all inquiry-based and place-based learning. All hands-off schooling. The kids learn as they go. They'll read when they're ready to read.
We’ve got all these schools throwing bells and whistles on things. It's all “the new way to learn this.” And then you have these schools that are so structured and so traditional.
It doesn't have to be “Sit here, read these words, memorize these sentences.” There has to be a blend of the two somewhere. There has to be a middle way, and that goes for mathematics, that goes for science, that goes for disciplining classrooms, respect for teachers in classrooms. There's a time to question, and there’s a time when you need to sit down. I think that we're losing that gray area. This might not be for every school; I think there are other schools I don't know about that are already doing this middle way that probably exist.
With writing and reading, it doesn't have to be a stressful but we have to still be doing comprehension exams. It doesn't matter if you want a post-secondary education or not. We need to write, we need to learn how to use our words. We need to learn listening skills, representing skills, speaking skills. I think that's what got me on the middle way—I'm not saying everyone's gonna be a public speaker, but if we allow people to start opting out of trying or being afraid to try to do those things and getting that support at home, it's going to make it more difficult on them. In my viewpoint, this is the time to try and push them out of those situations to feel comfortable.
But I also have to respect a parent's viewpoints. If they believe, “For sure my kid cannot talk in front of the class in Grade Two,” then we don't do that. But then we start seeing after three to four years of that, is this student having more trouble socializing with kids? Having more trouble pushing some of the boundaries that they could’ve possibly pushed when younger?
It sounds like this is a real example that you're seeing.
That’s a real example. But it's not necessarily students that have come from here, it's for students from other places. It’s a good thing parents wanna stick up for their kids, but it seems to be at a place where challenging your child is almost seen as a bad thing. We're trying to be friends with kids more than we're trying to be parents to kids. I'm starting to see that a little bit more.
[If the student doesn’t like something], there's no, “Hey, what's going on there?” It's just, “My kid doesn't want to do that.” “They don't like that teacher.”
You have to set a boundary somewhere, but I also think there's this delicate dance as educators where it's sometimes easier not to do something about it than to stand up for something.
On communication with parents
I like the student disciplinary [part of school administration] 100%. I call that personal, social and emotional healing rather than student disciplinary because most of the time we're working on personal, social, and emotional growth. Even in high school, they're too young to need discipline. We need to start working on anger. We need to start working on anxiety. We need to start working on whatever it is that we need to start developing.
Parent communication is easier here because you have 80 families that you can proactively talk to. Proactivity is always better than reactivity. That's something that teachers and administrators don't like. I don't know what it is: they'd rather not say anything and then react to the situation.
Whereas I find as a leadership skill over the last years—always be proactive. Parents love getting emails. “Hey, she had such a great day in class. We love having her. Let us know if anything came up.” No parent is gonna be like, “Oh, why did you email me today?”
Now you've opened up these parameters for people to be able to talk to you if something does come up. We're a community of people trying to do what's best for a child. Keep it always rooted in a child's learning. Get your egos out of it.
Admin has its stresses. But when a classroom is humming, it's beautiful. When you can do that from a school level, when you can have 11 healthy, happy teachers for the most part, the reward is so fulfilling. But sure, I think admin can wear down on people and sometimes you need to step away from it or change your venue.
The four-day workweek works
Where are you in that journey? Do you feel worn down?
Not here. The thing here is there's a lot of time [with the four-day week] to replenish yourself. For your teachers and you.
I think as human beings and even parents, we probably have to do a better job of doing that in all aspects of our life. We have to do better at carving out time to meditate, to go on a beach walk. We don’t put as much time and energy into those things that make us happy.
So do you think more schools would run better if it were just a four-day week?
I really do. I think the shorter workweek would be beneficial for everybody. It could still be five days a week. You could just come for fewer hours, with more prep time for teachers, more training time, more support. The last hour would be collaboration time; it's much more healthy.
So you don't think that the extra contact time is necessary?
No, I don't believe that. It’s one of the criticisms of TIDE, but I haven't seen a detriment to the academics.
For students that are already achieving or are self-directed learners, they can go even further. I'm finding that they're not restricted in learning. A lot of those kids are coming to you bored because they're sitting in their classroom with 30 people. An hour class and 30 kids is two minutes a kid. That is no contact time at all.
With eight kids or 10 kids, you’re always just having that learning and contact time. You have to be able to know where all your pupils are.
Does that work though, in a public school with 30 kids in a class?
I don't know. I would love to try that out to see how it would work in a class of 30 kids. Would it actually give me more prep time? A lot of times I think where teachers are lacking is there's so much contact time with students, which is great, but by the time you're done for the day, you might not be taking the time to differentiate your lessons. It’d be nice to know if them doing what they do now four days [versus] five days a week, would they have the same knowledge retention at the end of school?
The freedom of being a private school
In public schools, it seems like they’re trying to make teachers bend to everything and no one ever gets to have their own personal philosophy. We've [TIDE] made it very clear that we're happy to have our teachers and when you have a waitlist [for the school], it's way different because you can dig your heels in a little bit more.
“We're trying to accommodate you. We've tried to do that three times. We can't provide that for you anymore, so here are some recommendations of other places.” That's one of the nice things about being a private school.
Are we a good fit for this time and place of your journey? It might be a year, it might be two years. If you have no personal, social, emotional development because of Covid, let's say, and you want to come to us to develop that confidence in yourself…then you can go back to that classroom of 30 and be confident.
What’s next after Adam’s TIDE contract ends next summer
Is your next step to start your own school?
It might be something in the future, but as of right now, I don't know. I'm gonna step back from it for six months. I'm gonna spend some time getting centered again, seeing who I am outside of here.
I don't think I’d want to be all into [opening a school] myself. It seems like a lot of stress to take on. But I could partner with somebody like TIDE and use all the systems. I consult with other schools a lot too, and I might get into more consulting now.
I might come back. I might be gone for a year and then knock on [the TIDE owner’s] door and say, “Hey, do you need a director now? I've had my sabbatical, I miss it so much.” Or I might be talking to you in 10 years, “Man, I shouldn't have left that job.”
But that's gotta be my journey, you know?
Pretty Good Things
The Kids Should See This
Adam recommends the site The Kids Should See This, a curation of kid-friendly videos covering everything from food to space to art. It’s lot better than letting the kids loose to find their way around Youtube themselves.
Teachers fighting the good climate fight
Another example of teachers doing heroes’ work, sneaking lessons about climate change into their curricula when state standards have not caught up to real world needs.
“One of the things I have students do is find people or corporations or inventions that are making a difference, so they don’t feel defeated. There are so many things out there that people are doing, whether it’s changing your light bulbs at home or you’re getting corporations to change how they do business."
—Ana Driggs, sixth grade teacher in Miami.
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