Brantley Turner is the East Asia Education Director for Dwight Schools with campuses in New York, London, Seoul, Shanghai, Dubai, Online and is currently launching Dwight School Hanoi. Ten years ago Brantley co-founded the only Sino-US cooperative high school in China, Shanghai Qibao Dwight High School. Serving as the American Principal at Qibao Dwight until July 2022; Brantley continues to serve on the school governing board. She looks forward to sharing her non-traditional path to educational leadership and how making a ruckus is a part of her approach to all things school.
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Leverage Culture to Challenge Your Comfort Zone
What’s one of the biggest, scariest or most challenging decisions you’ve ever made? Years ago when my wife and I moved from Houston, Texas, to Belgium, that was a big decision. And it was scary, and it was hard because we were moving to a place that was unlike what we grew up with, but the benefits were so rewarding. I wouldn’t trade or make a different decision. It was so worth it. Today’s guest Brantley Turner, had a similar journey, although her work lasted much longer overseas than mine, and instead of central Europe, she landed in China. She had an amazing experience, and of course it came with all sorts of challenges as well. But these challenges grew her. Today’s a really fun conversation because we get to explore what that international move was like and what it taught her about leadership and the lessons she learned. Ruckus Maker are so practical and applicable to what you do, no matter where you lead, whether that’s in the middle of Kansas, or if maybe you’re in Hong Kong or Australia, you can learn from Brantley’s story and we’re so excited to bring her on as our featured guest. Hey, this is Danny, Chief Ruckus Maker over at Better Leaders, Better Schools. And this show is for you, a Ruckus Maker, which means you invest in your continuous growth. You challenged the status quo, and you design the future of school now. And we’ll be back with the main conversation in today’s episode right after some messages from our show sponsors.
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All right. We live here, Ruckus Makers, and I am joined by Brantley Turner, who draws on 25 years of China-based work in 10 years as the founding principle of the only Sino, US independent Cooperatively run high school approved by the Ministry of Education in China. Brantley is consistently ahead of conversations that others are having about globalized education for the 21st century, driven by a belief in the power of disruption. Chiba Dwight is a living laboratory that allows those within it to experiment with the assumptions and worldviews that we all hold and the ways those can hinder or empower us to advance. She’s committed to restless innovation and leadership and management, school improvement, and a cutting edge arts program that drives student outcomes unmatched in China. This unique school setting is used as an example for policymaking in Beijing that shapes education in China and around the world. Brantley is recognized for her pioneering work with East West School leadership in impeccable Chinese communication skills. Welcome to this show, Bratley.
Thanks Danny. It’s great to be here.
Absolutely. So you worked in Chinese schools for a while. Tell us a story where you were really pushed out of your comfort zone.
I hear that bio and I start to think, yikes, it sounds so intense, but I do think the whole experience is just a collection of stories and wonderful, challenging different human stories. Truly though, I was pushed out of my comfort zone daily. I spent 10 years in China starting and running Chiba wight, and 23 years in China or in and out of China total. Obviously, I’ve got so many stories about questions that you maybe can’t ask in necessarily a Western context, but I feel like I’ve been asked everything. I used to go to the hairdresser and he would tell me if I looked like I’d gained seven pounds or four pounds or lost weight since the last time I saw him, I would show up at school and have my colleagues tell me you looked a lot better yesterday. I just think that the stories are all about how to learn how to be vulnerable and absorb that candid communication and just get you out of your own head.
That’s interesting. The hairdresser story reminds me, so my wife is Zimbabwe, and within her Shauna culture when you show up, if it looks like you’ve been eating well, they’ll say, Hey, you’re looking fat. It’s actually meant to be a compliment, because that means you have resources, you’re eating well and that kind of thing. It’s just really interesting having those cultural experiences. Can you tell me a little bit, just maybe about yourself and putting yourself in that situation and interacting in interesting and different ways. How did you do that successfully? Some of that feedback you got, it’s like it could be jarring and these are the easy examples that you shared.
Absolutely. If we think about ruckus making and your whole mission and theme. The reality is I walked into a situation not necessarily, certainly not on paper, at Ruckus Maker, pretty uptight pretty tightly wound even in throughout schooling in college, good student. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. My parents are from the south. My dad’s from Alabama, my mom’s from Tennessee. Spent a lot of time down there growing up. It was kind of like that paradox between Brooklyn and South Alabama. And that really carried me and stewarded me into China. I Hadn’t spent much time abroad I didn’t grow up traveling a lot and when I was 17, my parents moved to Hong Kong. I didn’t go with them, I was about to go to college. But it just opened this opportunity for me to start accessing particularly mainline China, because my mom was working in Beijing.
And it was just about saying yes to stuff and embracing things and just slowly kind of shedding that wall or shield or whatever it was that I felt like had been kind of driven by my own culture and the rawness of stepping into a new culture when you don’t know the rules, so you don’t know if you’re playing by them or not. And you know, just getting interested. I was really into history just generally, like reading history, learning history. So China has a lot of history and I started learning the language and it gave me access to people and their stories, which is really what makes the history. And it just stayed interesting. To put people like to anchor them in time started going to China in 1993, that’ll be 30 years ago this year I was 17. China has ridden an extraordinary arc over the last 30 years. I consider it a major privilege to have been involved in going from a witness to participant in that whole system and the good, the bad and the ugly and a lot of l lessons learned. But just to be honest, like my prevailing mindset of the whole experience is just say yes to stuff, even if you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.
Tell me more about that though, because for the, some Ruckus Makers listening, that could be quite scary. And require substantial courage just to say yes, especially when you don’t know what’s on the other side. I’ve learned to embrace that too because for me, I view it as a coin. There’s fear in whatever could happen. On one side, adventure opportunity, excitement on the other. How do you say yes in those moments?
Particularly with starting the school that I started with the co-principal in China, a Chinese woman by the name of Wang Fang. We really got to this place where we felt like if we can get comfortable with the worst case scenario, we can do this. And we would walk through what in our different definitions is something that we can’t live with. And if we can get comfortable and live with every other aspect of this, we can keep moving forward. A big part of that lesson also was collaboration and cooperation. Having somebody I was on the journey with. So in that school founding I was hand in hand with the colleague the whole way through. And the other part of it is in a lot of ways, I’m here on the podcast and the show today, I am way less qualified, esteemed prepared than most of your guests and certainly a lot of your listeners I’m sure.
And that has served me well. No one would’ve made me ahead of school. I do not have the credentials that the that a lot of folks in the world are carrying. I have subsequently tried to build those, like speaking to your constant learning and ongoing learning aspect of ruckus making and just sort of being willing to say, I know I’m not the expert. How can I find the people that are, how can I ask for help? I I often say like, hire the smartest people and get out of their way. I think that served me well. I don’t think I know everything. I don’t know everything. Certainly China taught me that, and I feel that way in the US too. So being curious, but also being really respectful of difference and different approaches and ways of thinking and just, it’s not even a leap when you feel like you can build a team to get through something with you.
That team part is really important. I think you said something to the effect of hiring smart people and getting out of their way. Do you have any tips for the Ruckus Maker watching or listening in terms of how you attract these sort of a player, Ruckus Makers to the team? Especially right now, at least in US, I don’t know if this is true in China too but finding teachers, finding administrators is a great challenge. Sometimes the bar is do they have a pulse, let alone are they the right fit in an excellent team member? So how do you approach that?
I think we should, we know we gotta add the caveat. That teaching is so hard and leading schools is so hard. I mean, it’s so underappreciated. Understood the pandemic you thought it would help us out on that and didn’t necessarily do. First of all, I would start by saying, not in my bio, what is not kind of updated yet, but it’s the new, new information as I’m in New York at the moment because I’m primarily working on developing our newest Dwight school, which is gonna be in Hanoi, Vietnam opening in 2024. I left China, back to New York, spending a lot of time in Vietnam, and that’s a whole new experience. I can’t speak Vietnamese, I certainly have a l tons to learn about the culture and the context, but I’m getting this brilliant opportunity to build that team and just started and hired a couple folks.
I really connected with that idea of where are people gonna come from. In this great resignation, like where am I gonna find people? And the real challenge is I’d love to say I throw away the resume, but life has also taught me that if I only do that, I might wind up with some problems when I really dig in on the school confidence set. I wouldn’t say just blow it all up. I think you are looking for certain characteristics of how folks feel about students and what their dedication to the craft is. Are they inspired? Like are they ready to challenge themselves? That’s a huge part. Not only just what can they teach and what are their credentials and you know, what’s their degree. I think you need a balance. I’m a big assessment center fan, so certainly for leadership posts in schools, I like to design a really comprehensive assessment center. Not just panel interview ask questions about the resume, but really putting people through tasks, trying to design tasks that challenge the teacher or the leader as much as they indicate who we are as a school group, the Dwight schools, and what our culture is. Pull in the Dwight schools has seven schools around the world, and I pull in colleagues from Shanghai, Dubai soul, et cetera, all to participate in that assessment and to give feedback. Again, I come back to that theme of don’t do it alone. Use your networks, collaborate, try to pull in as many different types of CVS as you can, but then don’t just go with your own gut. Use your team to check your bias to sort of get you straight. If you’re not seeing clearly what’s gonna work in this particular position. I don’t have any magic answers, but also just do your best.
I think the assessment center was some of the magic. Let me reflect back too, because I haven’t heard that term before Brantley, but what I’m hearing is, yeah, okay, there’s the panel, there’s the usual questions, that kind of stuff. But even more importantly, there’s some kind of performance task, some real world thing that the applicant’s gonna do, which lets you see how they think through problems maybe how they collaborate with others, so on and so forth, how they work. But it also gives them a taste how you do things at your school so that they know potentially what they’re getting into. Do I have that right so far?
Absolutely. So maybe it’s helpful if I give a really specific example of something I recently. Call it an org chart, a management chart, some kind of chart. We basically all have them at schools. And right now for Hanoi, our chart’s a circle and students are at the center. And I feel really good about like the graphic impact of this collaborative wheel, but at the end of the day, it’s still an org chart and maybe it’s not, right. Maybe it’s needs changes. One of the tasks that we designed was, and all the folks at the different positions higher, lower level kind of in that org chart got the org chart and they told us what was wrong with it and they shared their vision for what they liked and how they would change it. It was brilliant because not only was I crowdsourcing wonderful people who wanted to join the school’s deep kind of engagement with this chart, but also then learning from them where they thought we were making mistakes.
Like was tech connected enough to teaching and learning? One person’s opinion, it wasn’t. And so from that I created a different job called director of Innovative learning. And the beauty of startups is you can do that. I definitely have more of the startup experience and a lot of folks are listening from much older schools and established schools, but why not use hiring new people to even test some of those existing structures that you have? And getting to write it down because the other thing about it is we talk a lot about managing for diversity and cognitive diversity being one strand that’s very important. But do we really speak to that? If people don’t interview well then are you creating parts of your process that give them that space? And you may have some, a great interviewer who’s terrible on paper or doesn’t take a task seriously. Or you may have a great paper task person who you want on your team because they can write but they don’t speak well or they’re nervous. I’ve just found that not only in doing the solid work of please help us improve this school or create this school, but also help us manage for your needs so I know how I’m gonna manage you or support you to do your best work, which probably looks really different than my best work.
Great example. Thank you for sharing that, Brantley. So your charter experience was a lot about paradox. How did you hold ideas that seemed to be at odds with each other and deal with those paradoxes as they came up.
Always started by thinking about our students. We were right educating in China, primarily Chinese national students, grades 10 through 12, only high school because of the way the regulations work in the younger grades. And these are students in our case doing international baccalaureate, full diploma, extraordinarily rigorous global curriculum in English non-native speakers, generally native speakers of Chinese. How do my students take four Chinese national subjects, history, politics, geography and Chinese language, and hold the IB and make space for the critical thinking required in the IB, the challenging, the questioning, the why of the IB. And I would start with that and just say to myself, all right, first of all, these 15 year olds can do this. My hats off to them first, second, if they can do this, what is it about them?
It’s because they’re striving, they’re yearning for something, they’re trying to access something. I just said to my mom the other day, we were at a basketball game in New York watching my ninth grader play. And I told her that I thought the greatest gift that I had been given was the ability to put myself in a daily basis back into the shoes of how I felt when I was 15. To me is the beauty of teaching because you’ll stay connected to like the struggle and the pain because you see it on your students’ faces or in their lives every day. And so that’s what I do. How did I deal with it? I didn’t say, let me change my value system, I said, let me try to walk in the shoes of that value system and see what I can get from it, or how I can counsel people to think or feel differently as opposed. And just my guess my motto for that is I really try to focus on getting it right, not being right, getting it right can look really different. And it’s really hard to not wanna be right.
Yeah, that’s a good distinction too, between getting it right and being right. So thank you for sharing that. I’m loving our conversation. We’re in a pause here for a second to get some messages in from our sponsors. And when we get back, I’d love to talk to you about how you work with people where you might not actually agree with their ideas and how they wanna move forward, which is an essential skill. As a leader, well learn how to successfully navigate, change, shape your school’s success, and empower your teams with Harvard Certificate in School Management and leadership. You could get online PD that fits your schedule. Courses include leading change, leading school strategy and innovation. Leading people and leading learning. Apply today at BetterLeadersBetterschools.com/harvard.
Today’s podcast is also sponsored by Teach FX and teachers use Teach FX to record a lesson and automatically get personalized insights into their classroom conversation patterns in teaching practices. See Teach FX for yourself and learn about special partnership options for Ruckus [email protected]/BLBs. And today’s show is also sponsored by Organized Binder, a program which gives students daily exposure to goal setting, reflective learning time and task management, study strategies, organizational skills, and more organized binders, color coded systems implemented by the teacher through parallel process with the student, helping them create predictable and dependable classroom routines. You can learn more and improve your student’s executive [email protected]. And we are back with Brantley Turner. When you say China or people think about China, a certain set of ideas and beliefs and assumptions probably come up for the Ruckus Maker listening. And from your experience, what have you learned about leadership and how to work with ideas and or people that you might not necessarily agree with?
At the, the top of the podcast I’m sure some folks thought like, yikes, I don’t know if I wanna go into this because obviously you’ve had other podcasts on how the Asian education system works and that’s not really where we’re going today. It’s not about us versus them. And I think that’s really key. First of all, I had the privilege of always having what I would call my kind of like safe circle. I heard many things a day, I don’t know, 30 times a day that I thought, you can hear that in the US too. You change the time, oh yeah, we’re gonna do this, gonna have after school. Certainly not to say that it would only be, but I mean real intercultural, like, well I don’t think I’m gonna get comfortable with that. I always had my inner circle to be like like couple of texts after the admin meeting, like, for real like, you have to have that group. I never had a situation where I didn’t have somebody that I can go to and say, I don’t know about that. And those were people who were both of Eastern heritage or Western Heritage. It wasn’t to say like, I just ran to the Americans to talk about that sometimes it was the American who had the idea we didn’t like. So part of that is also then like removing the country. I hate people will say like this is China. I’m like, Nope, nope, I don’t do that. I don’t do that. Because that’s creating that tribalism that we all need to get away from. If people just wanna label you and box you up and like say Brantley’s all about this or all about that, like, no, no, no, no, we’re not gonna do that in the sense that that’s not gonna be what we accept as a way of starting dialogue. Again, create that safe space so that you do have people you can kind of sound off and you can do that safely and comfortably to right. Flip it. You do this a lot on the show, like flip it and sort of say, okay, I’m gonna try to, like, you’re gonna need to help me get there. And, and I did that daily, particularly with the Chinese principal Wong Fong. That was our actual title. Mine was American principal, hers was Chinese principal. We were like walking in those national shoes daily.
I would just say, look, this is gonna be really hard for me to like wrap my head around. I need you to talk to me about why and make people do the work. An example would be you wanna introduce a new tech, pro new tech platform at school. We’ve all done it. If we’re school administrators, you’re dealing with whoever you’re dealing with, don’t go in with one. I would never do that. I would never have one option. I would never have one quote. And it amazes me how often that’s the case. And I really need to hone in a market where I was gonna be resisted a lot or challenged a lot. I use tech as an example because you can’t use Google in China and you can’t use Facebook and you can’t use YouTube and you can’t use Instagram. Knowing those are not on the table, I need to bring in systems that don’t challenge, but still get me where I wanna get. I’m gonna really research three and I’m gonna bring all and I’m gonna tell which one I want, but I’m gonna really listen if somebody wants something else, and I’m gonna try to really understand. Again, just another theme of your show is trust. I had to build trust before I got to that point where we could have comfortable and uncomfortable conversations that were actually productive and it took time.
Awesome. Thank you Bradley. I’m personally curious first I admire that you could speak read and write Chinese, what an incredible skill. But now you’re moving to Vietnam and found in new school and that’s not the case for Vietnamese. How are you approaching that challenge?
Terrifying. but you know, what is happening and I’m really trying to embrace is I have time. I can actually think I was in a constant situation in China where I might be one of the only people translating a conversation for folks that that couldn’t communicate. And that takes a lot of mental brain power space. And what would wind up happening is I would translate with like no time to process the idea. So one of the things that I’m doing for myself this year is valuing that time and space to process ideas in a way that I think I value so much more because I used to like know everything that was going on around me all the time. I couldn’t disengage like whether a restaurant or a meeting. I also don’t know what people are talking about in Hanoi, when I’m there, I try to use my other senses to focus. And so I’m just trying to be really deliberate and really intentional working on my email communication not long narratives, using bullets, getting straight to the point, answering the question in the first line. All these skills that I didn’t need to utilize because I was able to communicate so seamlessly. So taking it as an opportunity, I guess.
Awesome. When I think about you creating that space, to be able to process and that kind of thing. Creating space makes me think of resting too. And so how can rest be a form of resistance?
Love it. Trisha Hershey, I don’t know if you’ve been reading that, but she has a book out at the moment. Called Rest is Resistance and I’m all about rest. She does have the Ministry of Nap. I don’t know if I’m there in the sense that I may not always honor that as a value, but rest is everything I said at the leadership training at the beginning of the year in New York. I know we revere and we should revere Ruth Bader Ginsburg nothing but respect. But I know one of her tropes was that she slept like four hours. And I think to myself, well what if she slept eight? I’m a real believer, shut it down, go to sleep. I don’t do the all-nighters it, it tortures me for my students that sleep and lack of sleep is of value for, especially for these IB kids trying I walk. I guess maybe that’s my form of meditation. I’m like a walking meditator. I walk a lot. I have this really crazy image that my phone sent me this week, which was in the lockdown in Shanghai. I didn’t walk for 61 days and my, it goes blank and it goes dark and then you see the curve come back up and just how critical that is. I get a lot of my ideas from just hitting the road. Another thing I think school leaders really have to fight for that ability to do the walkie eating, to do the walking phone call and just remembering to get out of the office and walk the building. I would say that’s another way I almost rest by taking that walk.
That’s so good. And before we get to the questions I ask everybody at the end of the show, I’ll hopefully I’ll remember my three points. We’ll see. But rest is huge. In our leadership community for school leaders, we talk about the Ruckus Maker mindset tool. And the fundamentals, eating, sleeping, moving meditating and unplugging. But all of it’s like fundamental. And a lot of it’s about re re renewing your energy. You know, there’s this performance coach, Dr. Michael Vet, and essentially he says like, on the world stage. Like top performers, they don’t talk about working hard because everybody does that. And so really the interesting thing that they all discussed is like, how are you recovering? How are you resting? Because that’s how you meet that top performance. Okay. Point two was I read recently, I don’t remember the article so I can’t attribute it but it just was talking about how actually walking meetings are so much more productive because it gets you out of the usual traditional like me and you looking at each other , and talking and that kind of stuff.
If you’re out in nature and your mind’s kind of wandering as well you get a more authentic response. So would you just encourage the Ruckus Maker watching or listening to see how you might play with walking and connecting with your staff and students. The last piece, I’ve told this story before, so here’s the like ten second version, first draft of Mastermind my book, which is now bestseller, the first draft, terrible of course. I had to figure out how to make it better, it was through walks with my puppy in the Park in Syracuse, New York. love walking and thank you for highlighting that. Onto the last few questions, everybody gets Brantley, if you could put a message on all school marquees around the world for a single day, what would your message be?
I have so many, but I think ultimately it’s the spirit of cooperate. It’s easier to not cooperate and I want to focus global mindset schools around the world, they can’t solve the world’s problems if they don’t.
Yeah, awesome. And if Brantley was building her dream school. And the only con there were no constraints in terms of resources, your only limitation was your imagination. What would be the three guiding principles? Building this dream school
For me, one is always starting with context because what works for a given culture or context doesn’t work everywhere else. And so that’s why I’m always fascinated by what we can learn from other school systems in other places, but I just don’t march with that. Let’s put what works in New York and Hanoi. We can learn and adapt, but you’ve gotta know the context and do all that hard learning and research and listen to your local colleagues. If you are in the international landscape on what works. And if you’re in the US and you’re not from that part of the world or that state or that neck of the woods do the research and learn because context is everything and educating. Two is definitely build the team and every team looks different. And a startup team from school A is not necessarily the right startup team for school B. Validating that context and then building the team that’s gonna meet your mission in that context and doing everything you can make that faculty strong. That’s who then serves the most important third, third sort of stakeholder priorities. The students. And while I think we all should point to that as, as the mission of our schools, it’s all really about what is working for them and what is not. And we can have every idea, but if we don’t come back to either like the action research mindset or the really listening shadowing our students for a day, figuring out what their life is like, how does the timetable work for them, then we spend a lot of time talking without, to me getting to the heart of the issue. So I’m yet to know what my own dream school looks like. But I think always those three points in any, in any culture or environment is steward. You’re in the right direction.
Awesome. We covered a lot of ground today, Brantley. Everything we discuss, what’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?
Challenging the status quo sounds like a really big thing. It’s like asking a teenager, what’s your passion? I feel like the question could be intimidating. What I wanna do is inspire everybody to say, most of you probably do, do it as educators, even if you don’t feel like you do. But if you really can’t figure out a way to challenge the status quo in your context, move, take a break, get out, try something different. Don’t leave the profession if you can. We need every teacher we can, but move abroad. You’ve done that in your own life. I’ve done that and that movement, that disruption. if you don’t feel like you’re challenging this status quo in your current context, find a way to disrupt even yourself, move your body, get out.
Thanks for listening to The Better Leaders, better Schools podcast Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel at Better Leaders better schools.com or hit me up on Twitter at Alien earbud. If the Better Leaders, better Schools podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at alien earbud, and using the hashtag b lbs level Up your leadership at Better Leaders Better schools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, class Dismiss.
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Why do students struggle? I’d argue that they lack access to quality instruction, but think about it. That’s totally out of their control. What if there was something we could teach kids there was something within their control that would help them be successful in every class? It’s not a magic pill or a figment of your imagination.
When students internalize Executive Functioning Skills they succeed.
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