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Toby Walker On Helping Children Thrive and Excel In School

Yitzi Weiner @ Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine
Please encourage kids to read. Maybe I have a bias here as a Humanities teacher; as a bookworm. Reading opens so many doors and windows on the world. It is so important for children to have that experience. It doesn’t have to be a book. Reading screens is OK as well.

School is really not easy these days. Many students have been out of school for a long time because of the pandemic, and the continued disruptions and anxieties are still breaking the flow of normal learning. What can parents do to help their children thrive and excel in school, particularly during these challenging and anxiety-provoking times?

To address this, we started a new series called ‘5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School.” In this interview series, we are talking to teachers, principals, education experts, and successful parents to learn from their insights and experience.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure to interview Toby Walker.

Today, as Vice President of BASIS Independent Schools, Mr. Walker leads a network of schools where students thrive in a culture of excellence and where they achieve extraordinary outcomes. Hailing originally from a small village in rural England, Mr. Walker has worked in Education across three continents. After earning his degree in Political Science and Contemporary History from the University of Sussex, Mr. Walker spent time working in public policy research with a focus on education and skills. He contributed to consultation papers on education reform for the UK government and worked closely with educational institutions as well as employers in the UK. Mr. Walker has traveled extensively and spent two years designing and implementing a high school English and history curriculum for an international program in Fukui, Japan. Mr. Walker has a strong commitment to BASIS Independent Schools, and he served as Head of School for BASIS Independent Silicon Valley for more than five years before moving into the role of VP of the network. Previously, he worked as the Director of Student Affairs at the Silicon Valley campus. Prior to that, he taught a variety of AP courses in the humanities at the BASIS Scottsdale campus. Having seen first-hand the impact that a BASIS Independent education can have on students, he is proud to be a part of taking BASIS Independent Schools to the next level and cementing the network as offering some of the finest educational institutions in the world.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us a bit about your “backstory”?

I have worked in education almost all of my professional life. I’ve studied history and politics then moved into teaching and curriculum design in the United Kingdom. Then I ventured over to Japan where I spent two years as a classroom teacher and curriculum developer at an international high school. The school was actually quite similar to BASIS Independent Schools, since it focused on high academics and understanding academic outcomes while also supporting children so that they come out loving learning and enjoying their time in the classroom.

One of my friends joined BASIS Curriculum Schools in the US and persuaded me to join her. I taught world history, comparative government, and humanities AP courses. After teaching in the classroom, I moved into administration as a director in the network. As a school leader, I helped to open a campus at Silicon Valley and then the online program last year during the pandemic.

I am one of those people that knew from quite a young age that I wanted to be in education as a profession. In my family, education was a high priority. I have been bitten by the bug of education, and it is something I know I will spend doing for the rest of my life.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I think the most interesting thing that I have done — and it was very daunting at the time — was to work with a senior on a Senior Project. I felt an enormous amount of responsibility. Fortunately I was working with an incredible student — highly intelligent, driven, creative, thoughtful individual. The way that we structure the Senior Project in BASIS Independent Schools changes the dynamic and relationship between the teacher and the student. It now becomes a much more of a collaborative process, and a process where the student is leading the inquiry. I learned so much from the student. It is a testament to how well we prepare young people to tackle advanced materials and also to be independent thinkers and thought leaders in certain areas. I was a teacher at the time and a Senior Project Mentor. It completely made me fall in love with this idea and program. It changed the way I thought about the teacher student dynamic in the senior year at BASIS Curriculum schools.

To give you some more background on the first Senior Project that I advised, the student’s family was originally from a part of southern India where there was no written alphabet that was unique to the language they spoke. They used a combination of other written alphabets, so you could write in this language but it was not unique to that language. What he did was look at creating an alphabet and written script for the language. He looked at historical trends, such as population, migratory patterns in that area, and different characteristics of different scripts. Then he started building letters, and he ended up building a type of alphabet for the language he spoke.

The student went on to study organic chemistry in college; nothing to do with his senior project. He was intellectually curious, and the topic had a personal connection to him. I can all but guarantee you that there was no one else in high school that year that spent six months developing a language.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Something I have found value in is a quote from Robert Macfarland, who is a nature writer. “Before becoming a writer you must become a reader. Every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write.” I use that quote as a bridge to education, since in order to become a teacher you have to be a learner. In order to craft and support effective school leadership, you need to have been in a classroom. Any hour spent in the classroom is an hour learning how to teach and run good schools.

Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success?

I enjoy communicating; I enjoy talking to people. My style of leadership — whether as a teacher or school manager — is always to try to build consensus as much as possible and build teams that feel they have a shared goal and shared values. I also love being in classrooms; I love being in schools. It is this sort of happy marriage with my career. I really do get to be active in an area I find incredibly interesting and satisfying.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, we are very excited to open a new campus in Bellevue, Washington for the fall of 2022. This school will be BASIS Independent Schools’ tenth U.S. campus, joining schools in New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Northern Virginia.

Our schools offer a robust and very-forward looking set of STEM courses while also providing equally strong courses in the Liberal Arts, humanities and languages. As you can probably tell from the Senior Project I mentioned, our focus is on the interdisciplinary nature of learning. Expanding the program will make the curriculum available to more students. This will help families, since we have seen first-hand that many are seeking a program rooted in innovation, high expectations, and transparency.

For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority about how to help children succeed in school?

As Vice President of BASIS Independent Schools, I lead our network of private schools where students thrive in a culture of excellence and where they achieve extraordinary outcomes. I served as Head of School for BASIS Independent Silicon Valley for more than five years before moving into the role of VP of the network. Previously, I worked as the Director of Student Affairs at the Silicon Valley campus. Prior to that, I spent years in the classroom teaching a variety of AP courses in the humanities at the BASIS Scottsdale campus.

Can you help articulate the main challenges that students face today that make it difficult to succeed in school?

I think that we have obviously lived through an incredibly challenging and upsetting few years as a society. Our students have faced the challenge of having their worlds turned upside down from a societal standpoint, looking at this pandemic sweep across our country and our world. They have lived with the very real change of having to adapt to distance learning and forms of online learning. Sometimes they have had changing modalities; they have gone from the school to the Zoom screen and then back to the school. We are still living through this. We still have classes being closed. We still have classes being opened and then closed. I do not think we should underestimate the impact that has had on our children academically and socially. We are seeing this right now as students are returning to school. There is a kind of renegotiation of some of those social interactions that students have with each other as they get used to being back in the learning environment.

At the same time, we have also seen incredible societal change that also impacts our children’s education. We have rightly placed an emphasis on diversity and inclusion in our schools and in our culture. We have seen a rapid change in the way we discuss a number of political, social, and environmental issues. We as educators have a responsibility to equip our students with the language necessary to navigate these changes and also with the open minds that are required to be participants in what is a rapidly-changing environment.

All of that is in the abstract. I think that we as a society can be very proud of the way that we prioritized student learning and leveraged technology in new ways to maintain educational excellence for our kids. For BASIS Independent Schools, I am particularly proud of the way that all of our schools were able to use new platforms to facilitate online learning that wasn’t just students watching videos but was interactive. Many schools adapted some version of a flipped classroom approach where students were working at home individually — or in groups — and then bringing that learning to an interactive, dynamic classroom setting.

I don’t think that there is a substitute for the classroom environment. I don’t think it’s possible to do that fully online. However, I am so proud of the way our teachers stepped up and our school leaders supported those teachers in continuing to provide a rigorous, world-class curriculum, and we saw the results. In middle school — 6th, 7th, and 8th grade — our Comprehensive examination results were very, very strong. We did not modify the questions and the items that we used. We held students to the same standards, and what we saw was immeasurable academic outcomes and student performance that was as impressive in the pandemic year as it had been in previous years if not more so when you consider the challenges students faced. We also saw that in AP exam results. I know all schools, including BASIS Independent Schools, have placed increased focus on student support, counseling services, and emotional support as students return to the school environment, and that is absolutely essential.

Can you suggest a few reforms that you think schools should make to help students to thrive and excel?

I think that what we need to do is allow students to have space to think and space to express themselves in school. That is something that is changing and that is a wonderful thing. Students are advocates for themselves. They are advocates for the things that they want to learn about, but they also are advocates for the causes they want to prioritize — the activities that they want to be involved in. We have seen this so much in the past five years, students actively wanting to participate in charitable organizations and in social justice organizations. We as a society need to make sure they have the space they need to express themselves in this way.

Two approaches that I think are really important: One is that you need to have programs, and two is that you need to have initiatives that are deliberate and well-thought through. They must be effective for supporting students. These need to be planned.

All of our schools have some versions of these two approaches. Any BASIS Independent School teacher will give up at least an hour for office hours for students and many are giving up much, much more. This is time outside of the classroom where learning can be much more personalized and much more interactive. Students know they have that intellectual support from their teachers.

We structure our schools so there are Deans of Students and Directors, whose primary role is to be an advocate for students and a support network for students within the school. We have peer tutoring, since we have learned that students learn differently from each other in a way that they do not always capture in the classroom. We leverage that to make sure students are there for each other and also building those social networks.

Schools also need to be data driven, placing an emphasis on looking at the data in a meaningful way when it comes to academic outcomes. There are clues in the data. There are clues in the data that will help student academically but will also be a sign of any social concerns we may have around the student’s overall performance.

Can you please share your “5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School?”

1- Parents can support their children and their schools by letting kids know it is OK to make mistakes. It is OK to fail, and actually in doing so that’s often the best learning experience. Make sure that students feel comfortable that maybe they will not always know the right answer — that there are many right answers.

2-Parents need to give students space at home. As parents we guide, we influence, and we support. But we need our students to find their own voice, and be comfortable expressing themselves at home and at school.

3-Please encourage kids to read. Maybe I have a bias here as a Humanities teacher; as a bookworm. Reading opens so many doors and windows on the world. It is so important for children to have that experience. It doesn’t have to be a book. Reading screens is OK as well.

4 & 5- The last two are advice that everybody should follow. These are difficult times for many of us. Have a healthy balanced diet and get lots of sleep. Make sure you are getting to bed at a reasonable time and are rested and relaxed for the next day whether you are preparing for an AP exam or the first day of Kindergarten.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

We need to give teachers autonomy and flexibility in the classroom. There is the old adage that writers are told to write what they know, and that applies here. We need to allow teachers to teach what they know best in the way they deem best. At our BASIS Independent Schools we give provide support and have the BASIS Curriculum, which does require teachers to meet a set of common standards, but they have the freedom to determine how best to guide their students toward mastery. In the classroom, we empower our teachers to provide instruction and assess learning in the ways that fit their passions and their students’ needs.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Recently, I have been reading the work of Julie Lythcott-Haims, who wrote the wonderful book “How to Raise an Adult.” She actually spoke at our BASIS Independent Valley campus not too long ago. I think that she offers great insight into how to take young people seriously and not underestimate them.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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Yitzi Weiner is a journalist, author, and the founder Authority Magazine. He is also the CEO of Authority Magazine's Thought Leader Incubator, which guides leaders to become prolific content creators. Yitzi is also the author of five books. In 2017, he created the popular, “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” series that highlights the empowering lessons learned from the experiences of high-profile entrepreneurs and public figures. This series has inspired a mini-movement among writers, with scores of writers worldwide profiling inspiring people to share their positive, empowering, and actionable stories. A trained Rabbi, Yitzi is also a dynamic educator, teacher and orator. He currently lives in Maryland with his wife and children.

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