By Craig Davis
In wrapping up the end of our academic year and my own three years as Pearson’s president and head of college, I wanted to highlight a few points by way of reflection on my own time at Pearson College UWC and, more importantly, as part of the transition process with incoming President and Head of College, Jason McBride.
From his base at IGS International School in Kuala Lumpur, Jason and I have had a number of virtual conversations over the past few months. Of course, we also met in person over lunch in my house during his interview process. Since Jason was confirmed as the incumbent, we have been working through a growing document together identifying key points of transfer to help ensure a seamless transition to new leadership at our school on the traditional and unceded territory of the Sc’ianew First Nation.
But as one does when looking ahead, I was also prompted to review some of the milestones and memorable events during my three-year tenure at Pearson.
Together with my family, I moved from Hong Kong to Pedder Bay in July 2020, during those relatively early days of restricted travel and strictly enforced rules about where you could and could not go. My family’s arrival to an even quieter-than-usual summertime campus was quickly superseded by the need for school leadership to pivot and make decisions based on ever-changing regulations and prohibitions. I’m proud of the team with whom I had the privilege of working with during that time.
For me, like many others charged with leading organizational and community teams during COVID, the suppressed PTSD of dealing with endless crisis management issues every week over two years has led to willful amnesia! The irony is that while we introduced Trauma Informed Training for our staff as a new initiative during the second year of my time here, the re-emergence of the Omicron virus over the 2021-22 Winter Break apparently wiped my memories of useful strategies for healing those wounds!
This, of course, highlights something positive that emerged during that crisis period. Namely, the urgent need to increase all of our support, training, resources and focus on student mental health and wellness. We strategically identified the need to increase the capacity and skill set of all of our Advisors, our Faculty, our Houseparents and our Campus Healthcare Team to identify and deal with emerging mental health concerns before they became critical incidents that impacted students and taxed the resource available.
Following the successful global models of Social Emotional Learning, Positive Psychology, Life Skills and Character Education, our belief was that students need structured, timetabled time to come together to learn about life, self-care, sleep hygiene, diet, self-management, relationships and how to live together in a healthy way. In a different era with different students, this may not have been a structured, timetabled need. However, the view of our healthcare and wellness team was certainly clear, and Pearson’s CORE program was created. The fact that students interviewed in January 2022 by our Council of International School’s evaluators identified the CORE course as one of their favourite elements of the whole Pearson experience was particularly pleasing.
Of course, the COVID crisis also created other opportunities borne out of the imposed insularity of lockdowns that particularly affected residential schools and colleges. In the absence of healthy community service projects, access to greater Victoria itself, organic interactions with a range of adults from all walks of life and normal wide-ranging experiential expeditions across the region, students channelled their energy and changemaker impulses on the only institution they had real agency over, the College itself.
Our Village Gathering meetings have long served the college well and continue to do so today. However, the often-forensic scrutiny of every element of College life during COVID; the residences, food, finance, operations, facilities, summer programs, the curriculum, hiring, contracts and even our assessment policies led me to propose an additional mechanism for student involvement in granular decision-making.
From this, students researched and gained access to our sister school UWC Mahindra’s College Assembly Constitution – a model that detailed meaningful student involvement in every significant decision-making committee in the school. Subsequently, Pearson’s own College Assembly was born, and we are now into the third year of the assembly. (The CA renews itself annually with past participants leaving and new or incoming students joining annually.)
I have been tremendously impressed with the high level of debate, self-organization, governance and decision-making that has come out of this initiative. It is not without its problems or critics of course, but it is still relatively early days. “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good,” has been my motto on this front, and I feel, like many of the CA reps themselves, that this provides more concrete opportunity and agency in decision-making than simply the Village Gathering body alone.
This leads me to a third “C” following the CORE program and the College Assembly – our new and innovative Climate Action Leadership Diploma (CALD). I was recently interviewed by my new school about my proudest accomplishments during a long career in education. Without hesitation, CALD came straight to mind!
I was thinking about this recently after dropping into a lecture by Thomas Homer Dixon from the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University, whose book Commanding Hope formed part of a wide range of touch points and inspirations for the CALD program. For me, these touch points also included the enveloping smoke my family and I experienced regularly in Singapore as a direct result of ecosystem mismanagement in Sumatra which in turn could be traced back to ruthless corporate interests fixated on palm oil cash crop profiteering originating in Singapore.
Obviously, the zoonotic causal factors behind COVID, SARS, bird flu, and so on also pointed to ecosystem destruction, which is a challenge to all of us on this planet. For us as a family, this was brought home for us when we arrived at Pearson expecting the clear, clean skies of the West Coast of Canada. The forest fire smoke greeted us on Vancouver Island as we experienced the beginning of a now familiar extended forest fire season – the conditions for which are a direct result of climate change — leaving the regular haze season in Southeast Asia for the supposed clearer skies of the Canadian West Coast did not turn out as expected! And I note with regret, as the world has seen this spring, the impact of an extended forest and wildfire season is, again, literally in the air that we breathe.
All these highlight the interconnectedness of the problem – the poly-crisis, a term popularized by Thomas Homer Dixon — and the lack of any remaining safe haven from the consequences of climate change.
I remember writing a piece for the UWC movement in early September of that year calling for schools and colleges to shift more of their attention to climate change. Obviously, if we were to lead this call, Pearson itself needed to do something substantial and innovative to forge this path for the movement.
Digging into the work of our former colleague Heather Gross and others, I could see the College already had embedded the concept of Place-Based Education as a unique characteristic of the College, with its learning principles influenced by our campus home on the land and the adjacent seas which have been stewarded for time immemorial by members of the Sc’ianew First Nation and other Coast Salish Nations.
Previously, discussions and work had been advanced to advocate for a UWC-wide diploma that could better capture and credit the excellent place-based education of our Marine Science course or the Coastal CAS group as well as the increasingly expanded Indigenous Knowledge component of the Theory of Knowledge course which, I note with gratitude, could be traced back to the pioneering work of Eileen Dembrowski at Pearson.
In this context, we also recognized that our newly-forged Reconciliation Action Plan called for the decolonization of the curriculum and the Indigenisation of learning, teaching and educational values. Hovering in the background was my own early awareness that the UWC-wide Harvard Impact Study was going to highlight frustrations many UWC students have with an International Baccalaureate Diploma whose assessment practices and singular disciplinary bias seemed increasingly at odds with students demanding to have meaningful curriculum interaction.
UWC students want learning that reflects real-world issues and more importantly, helps construct solutions and impacts that can ameliorate eco-anxiety or any sense of frustration that making concrete change is impossible. This is when I landed on proposing we use the International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme (IBCP) as a mechanism, not necessarily for the primary purpose of career readiness, but instead, as a more flexible curriculum model that would enable us to create a bespoke changemaker course more suitable for the motivations, energy and interest of globally-minded UWC students at Pearson.
At the same time, I met with Pearson alumna Dr. Deb Saucier, the president of Vancouver Island University. As a leader, Dr. Saucier has led and presided over an education institution that has conscientiously built rich and meaningful relationships with local Indigenous groups and has expertly curated First Nations courses. Dr. Saucier was keen to partner with Pearson not only because of her own connection to the college but as a Métis educator with a passion for the Indigenisation of the curriculum, and she felt this was a wonderful opportunity to join forces.
All of these ideas and influences resonated and converged beautifully with Marija Dang, our then-Experiential Education Coordinator, whose own wonderful anthropological background working in places such as Ladakh, India, provided a great opportunity to move this work forward. Marija took up the challenge of taking these collective ideas and translating them into curriculum documents, meeting with our university partners Professors Robin Cox and Deb Morrison at Royal Roads and working with International Baccalaureate evaluators to turn Pearson’s Place-Based Education into a workable, deliverable curriculum.
This program baton is now being brought forward by Emily Coolidge, who, as Director of the CALD Program, successfully guided the first year of our inaugural CALD cohort. As Marija moved over to UWC Atlantic College to help set up a similar systemic changemaker course inspired by our collective climate action program work at Pearson, we can safely say that we have accomplished a significant amount of work in this space that will helpfully continue to grow across the entire UWC movement and beyond.
The final piece I wanted to highlight in my reflections interconnects closely with our climate program. The appointment of Pearson’s first-ever Director of Indigenous Engagement and Initiatives has been a tipping point for the College and fulfills a promise made in our Reconciliation Action Plan. Personally, and I’m sure I speak for many others across the Pearson community, getting to work with Director Rebecca Beauchamp has been a delight and an inspiration!
We both taught components of CALD, but more importantly. we engaged together through and with the College’s Reconciliation Working Group, which continues to be dedicated to implementing all of our stated actions and commitments. Some of my fondest memories are attached to this work, such as the moving unveiling of our SENĆOŦEN House signs with Sc’ianew Chief Russell Chipps, Elders and students, as well as the “unofficial” unveiling of our new and powerful SENĆOŦEN language welcome sign along Pearson College Drive. Watch for a future community ceremony to mark this excellent work that went into creating this visible statement of greeting and respect for those upon whose territory we live and learn.
The two-day ISABC event we hosted around the theme of Reconciliation and Indigenous engagement with Board Chairs and Heads of independent schools from across the province was warmly embraced by all who attended. In particular, the critical self-location exercise Rebecca hosted on the community lawn with this collection of VIPs and Ministry of Education representatives will be etched in my memory for a long time.
Outside of the ceremonies and “formal” events, I was honoured to spend meaningful time with the “Indigigang,” the name that campus students of Indigenous heritage gave themselves. I look at those times, which often took place in the warm confines of the irreplaceable Candice Hall, our Indigenous Student Wellness Coordinator and my Executive Assistant with gratitude. The kindness and guidance available during these continue to contribute to the evolving safe space that has become available for our Indigenous family members.
These are just a few of the highlights from my time at Pearson, many of which have supported components of and commitments in our 2022-27 Strategic Plan, “Making the Global Local.” This will be the work Jason will continue and add to, hopefully without the traumas and tribulations of a global pandemic! We know other challenges will emerge, that are inevitable, but as an experienced leader who is very familiar with the UWC movement and the best IB schools, there is nobody better than him to continue and expand upon this work.
In conclusion, I wish to thank Ty Pile in particular, for going above and beyond during my own transition and for being an outstanding leader during COVID by ensuring our plan, process and procedures gave us the best possible opportunity of remaining open. The entire Leadership Team at the College has been very patient with me and my idiosyncrasies! In a smaller-staffed institution, each of these leaders carries burdens and challenges much beyond their job descriptions.
This thank you also obviously applies to all Faculty and Staff as well as to the resident and Houseparent community, who are always outstanding but never more so than during our lockdown period. Board support has been exceptional, and I thank past Chair Anne McLellan and current Chair Lori Sterling as representatives of a team of Board members who, behind the scenes, have given more time and support than any standard volunteer group.
I mentioned Candice Hall earlier as she has modelled the characteristics of many employees and volunteers connected to Pearson in giving more time, talent and emotional support than can ever be reasonably expected! Thank you to you and all of the other “Candices” out there – our College would be nothing without you.
Thank you to students – many who I’ve gotten to know well – and especially to the families of our students whose constant support for their young leaders is always outstanding. And speaking of backers, many, many thanks to our alumni who always help keep us on track and to all the friends and supporters who have generously given of their “time, talent and treasure” to Pearson College UWC over the last almost half-century.
With that in mind – I hope to see many of you at our 50th-anniversary reunion in the summer of 2025!