ABOUT ANTHONY VANDARAKIS
My educational experience for the past twenty-three years has provided me with a wide and rich perspective on formal education and school leadership. I have lived in four countries on three continents where I have contributed to grade 6-12 education in a range of educational contexts, including high achieving public schools, charter schools serving marginalized urban students, and prominent international schools for children of diplomats and business leaders. I have served as teacher, program coordinator and, for eleven years, as vice principal and principal.
Leadership, as I define it broadly, is the ability to develop impact: to cultivate influence in a classroom, to foster learning for individual students and marginalized groups, to effect change through supporting teachers, and to contribute to the updating and design of existing and new programs, all with a view to ensuring the wellbeing of individuals and groups within society.
My time in the Chicago Public Schools afforded me a variety of experiences, ranging from work as a provisional substitute teacher in 1999, to a vice principalship from 2008 to 2013. My most impactful accomplishment during those fourteen years in Chicago was a leadership role in the creation of a public high school that provided all students with opportunities for international travel. The three-year process of starting a new school was a long and arduous one, yet the experience was unforgettable. After a full day of teaching, our team would meet well into the evening. Weekends and holiday breaks were opportunities to dream big and map the steps necessary to transform our shared vision into reality. The intense effort paid off: in January 2008 we were awarded our charter, and that spring we began recruiting students and hiring teachers. Launching a new high school revealed the positive results of our meticulous planning, while also exposing the need to react, pivot, sometimes backtrack, and always to reflect. Leadership in this environment was paramount: leadership in adversity, leading of people (faculty and students), programmatic leadership (we became an International Baccalaureate Diploma Program School) and leader as learner since, as members of the white, privileged class, we needed to understand and meet the needs of the students and families in our school who came from marginalized communities.
As this school grew, so did my ability to learn and to lead. Each year we added a grade level of students and hired additional faculty. We updated classrooms, expanded into a new and larger school facility, and improved curricular and after-school offerings. For our new high school, learning opportunities abounded, from getting to know our new student population to joining academic and sports leagues. With this, my role as leader evolved from that of the only administrator on campus handling day to day functions, to one of three vice principals who focused on our international partnerships and student travel. For almost five years our high school project challenged, frustrated, and rewarded us. The growth experienced was tremendous. As a committed learner, however, after our first class of seniors completed their program and graduated, I too decided to move on, keen to continue my journey as an administrator-learner.
I accepted a position as High School Principal at a U.S. International School in Quito, Ecuador, serving international students, children of diplomats, and host country nationals. Leading in an international setting was quite different from what I had experienced in my home country and city. Private international school clients have different priorities and expectations; when parents pay a steep tuition, they expect personalized service and flexibility in grading and other policies. College applications are a prime example: Students at our school were attending the highest ranking 6-12 institution in the country. Explaining to parents that this alone would not guarantee acceptance to the finest schools in the U.S., U.K., or Canada was an ongoing challenge. In my experience, parents there placed a premium on family time, and often complained about or disregarded their child’s homework responsibilities over the weekend. These ‘in country’ norms were new to me. I had often heard principals describe themselves as ‘lead learners’, and I now knew why. I cherished my time in South America, absorbing the sights, culture, and the novel experience of a private international school. While leaving my home in the USA had been difficult, the change of environments gave me an experience of a new kind of learning: Experiential Learning (EL), the process of the learning journey and the return after to share the experience with others. The Ecuador experience gave me the opportunity to practice it myself: I was learning by doing, and the experience of that was highly rewarding and impactful, affording me the potential to share this learning with others as I moved on.
Seeking change, for the next three years, I served as director of technology and international partnerships at a school in New York City with technology at its pedagogical core.
My time at Tech International Charter School in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx was as much a cultural and socio economic ‘experience’ as was my time in South America. The majority of students in our school were children of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and were fully subsidized: all students received free or reduced-cost meals. Leadership in this context required a different set of skills, since what was required in terms of classroom management, student/employee discipline, and academic remediation stood in stark contrast with my previous school practices. Leadership at Tech was hands-on; school administrators were present in classrooms not only observing and evaluating but often co-teaching. Administrators participated in department planning, sat in on parent/teacher meetings, and supervised the lunchroom. Leadership in this context was defined as service and partnership: one’s title, academic pedigree and past successes were inconsequential. New Yorkers - parents, students and teachers - don’t pay homage to your college degrees, the office you occupy, or the places you have worked. What matters there is the issue they have, the one right in front of them, and whether you can help or not. The administration was expected to be there to solve problems quickly, and leadership in this context required agility, ideas, and a service mindset.
In NYC, something of critical importance impacted my thinking about education: I was awakened to the natural synergies between Experiential Learning and technology. With the majority of students remaining in a classroom setting while a smaller group ventured out to gain experience and then return to share it, the addition of technology to EL created a multiplier effect which promised to augment the experience both for the traveling groups and for those still at school. The technology was simple, scalable, and provided the students of color at our school with meaningful experiences typically reserved for their well-heeled, downtown, Manhattan ‘peers’.
Building on this experience, and ready for a new challenge, I changed continents, from the shores of the Hudson River in NYC to Athens, Greece, as a new High School principal. My next challenge was to lead a faculty of 35 teachers into digital teaching and learning, to shift a tech-reticent faculty into the 21st Century. As daunting as this task appeared, my commitment to the benefits of blended and digital education ran deep, and I approached the opportunity with commitment, as well as theoretical and technical skills. I was not imposing someone else’s directive: it came from me and I was all in. My colleagues, on the other hand, were not so convinced. They had their doubts, personal preferences, and concerns about moving to a blended approach. Leadership in Greece required combining the traits I had absorbed in Chicago, Quito and NYC. Taking an active approach to professional development, providing guidance through my teaching examples, and supported by colleagues’ respect for the office I held, I found several early adopters who were keen, and the work that I initiated continues today by those who succeeded me.
All of the above experiences have contributed to my commitment to exploring and harnessing the potential of Experiential Learning. As my research stands today, I am fascinated by the intersections of a ‘learning by doing’ approach to education, as envisioned by philosopher John Dewey. I want to explore the potential in a model where students both go ‘out there’ and stay ‘in here’ as a part of their educational experience. I also need to investigate whether, and if so how technology can increase participation, better support learning, and reduce harmful byproducts of travel. Ultimately, I would like to develop a new Experiential learning model that is enriched by the integration of technology. For this, I have came to Canada, QC, Montréal and McGill University to pursue my doctoral research. Now that I have achieved my PhD I hope that through the learning associated with that accomplishement I will be able to harness my life-time commitment to teaching and learning, and to apply it to the challenge of significantly expanding our understanding of what Education can look like in the 21st Century. I believe that if I can introduce, validate, and help mobilize this timely and innovative new model of teaching and learning, I will have the potential to make a significant and impactful contribution to the world of Education.