Dr. Peggy Pelonis, President of the American Community Schools of Athens, talks to Business Partners about her path to ACS Athens, the changing face of education, the importance of learning how to learn, and the crucial role schools have to play in preparing today’s youth to shape a better tomorrow.
What is the American Community School of Athens?
Founded in 1945, the American Community Schools (ACS) Athens is a private K-12 American international school located in Athens, Greece, with students from over 65 nationalities. The school’s educational philosophy is based on American principles and values, which means that the school is student-centered; we believe that all students can learn and thrive. We also believe that students should have choices within the educational curriculum that allow their talents and interests to emerge and become stronger. The ACS Athens mission states that “through excellence in teaching and diverse educational experiences, ACS Athens challenges all students to realize their unique potential: academically, intellectually, socially, and ethically — to thrive as responsible global citizens.” Our vision is to aim to empower individuals to be architects of their own learning; ACS Athens graduates are inquisitive, knowledgeable, principled, open-minded, caring, balanced, reflective, are able to think critically, and communicate effectively. We aim for our students to be conscious global citizens interested in improving life and living on the planet.
How does your background inform your current leadership role at ACS Athens?
I was raised in Los Angeles, California, by Greek parents who taught me to value education and who believed that a truly educated person is one who can understand and appreciate differences rather than fear them. Initially studying English Literature, I quickly became passionate about psychology from one of my course electives. My natural curiosity about people and what encourages each to thrive at times while blocking growth in other areas led me to not only study psychology but also to practice it, train other professionals, and eventually teach Master’s level students both at California State University and at the University of LaVerne. I was fortunate to train with some noteworthy people in the field; among them, Virginia Satir, a woman who managed to penetrate the male-dominated field of psychology of the ’50s and ’60s and who changed my worldview about people by showing me how “symptoms are misguided ways of attempting to solve painful problems.” This was fully evident to me when I directed a mental health community center in California and worked closely with the local prison, including many incarcerated youth for various crimes. About that time, while in my mid-twenties, one of my professors asked me if I was interested in accompanying him around the Los Angeles and Orange County areas to set up family education centers. We spent the next few years working closely with school districts, partnering with school administrators to set up evening training for teachers and parents that would eventually tap into discouraged and disadvantaged youth or young people from affluent households who saw education as a means to more affluence but without a purpose that could lead to fulfillment or contentment.
Eventually, I moved to Greece and developed an international training center for professional psychologists. The work led me to worldwide speaking and training engagements. It was then that a friend introduced me to John Dorbis, the Head of ACS Athens at the time. To my surprise, I received a call from him one morning asking if we could meet. After a very lengthy conversation, in reality, an interview unbeknownst to me, he asked if I would come to work at ACS Athens as one of the counselors was unexpectedly leaving the country. Having missed California and thinking that this would be a great place to bring in some of my past experiences related to education, I accepted.
A truly educated person is one who can understand and appreciate differences rather than fear them
Over the years, as ACS Athens went through various changes, I was also asked to take on varied positions in the school—teacher, Middle school and High school Principal, Dean of Academic and Student Affairs, and Vice President—equipping me with a unique and multivariate perspective. Eventually, my interest in international school leadership and professional development naturally led me to pursue an MBA and an Educational Leadership Doctorate. I also continuously engaged in significant research and practice related to coping with change and resilience, which led me to write various books on these topics. During this time, I worked closely with my predecessor, Stefanos Gialamas, and colleague Steve Medeiros, developing the vision of ACS Athens, establishing partnerships with universities, organizations, and businesses that would enhance the holistic educational experience of students. These partnerships and continuous engagements, along with my experience in higher education, continue to inform my vision for ACS Athens. Recruiting U.S.-trained teachers became a priority, and developing innovative programs that made ACS Athens a leader in education became the focus.
ACS Athens has successfully transferred to online teaching; how did all this take place?
2019-2020 was a year marked by significant loss and change; the latest of these being the Covid-19 pandemic. When we got word of the lockdown, the faculty had one day to prepare to go fully online. And this happened successfully, teaching synchronous and asynchronous lessons via an educational platform called Moodle. Middle school and high school teachers and eventually elementary school teachers were prepared and familiar with the platform as blended teaching took place at ACS Athens for several years via the i2 Flex model, coined by Stefanos Gialamas, developed by e-learning specialists, administrators, and faculty. i2 Flex refers to independent, inquiry-based, flexible teaching/learning. As an institution, we could predict educational changes that would involve technology, and we gradually prepared faculty for such a transition. Faculty preparation for online teaching takes time and is an evolutionary process. Institutions that understand that technology is continuously evolving and has become a necessary part of life understand that while students are well versed in technology, adults must become familiarized with such practice; in a sense, adults must go back to school to learn anew. Thus, the ACS Athens administration and e-learning expert provided professional development for faculty to become well versed in populating individual course shells and using such tools for teaching. Simultaneously, the recognition that online teaching is not merely a transfer of lecturing on the screen, because too much screen time can be detrimental, led to well designed synchronous and asynchronous teaching. This created an almost seamless integration with the affordances of pedagogically appropriate educational media and tools. Thus, during the March 2020 lockdown, students and faculty came together, guided by the administration and e-learning specialists on an online platform with well-designed courses. Despite the lockdown, instructional time remained intact, and learning took place without disruption. Online teaching is grounded in significant research that informs teaching personnel about technological advances considering that young people are natives in a digital world. However, being abreast of contemporary methodologies and exemplary educational practice presupposes that faculty is, what we call, reflective practitioners.
Online education also reflects in our partnerships. ACS Athens recently announced its partnership with Widener University, including two new international graduate programs: an EdD and an MEd in K-12 Education Leadership, with a focus on international school leadership. Both programs are low residency (with residency in both Greece and the US), with coursework completed online. This partnership allows ACS Athens and Widener University to collaboratively educate professionals who are preparing to lead K-12 schools of high caliber internationally.
What are reflective practitioners?
Learning with no disruption would not be possible without faculty comfortable with online teaching and comfortable with change. Within the daily duties and responsibilities of a teacher, finding time to research best practices and implementing new teaching strategies or refining old ones is sometimes a luxury. Thus, an educational institution serious about embracing and leading change must institutionalize a process that allows faculty to become reflective practitioners. This can only happen when processes are in place to encourage faculty to engage in self-reflection about their teaching continuously. We have developed a method of reflection-feedback-research-reflection-implementation-improvement that allows teachers to continuously learn and improve. It is no longer possible for teachers to possess all knowledge and be able to bestow that knowledge upon students. Students have access to abundant information. Today’s challenge is to guide students to critically think about the information they have access to, effectively synthesize it, and efficiently apply it to succeed. Most importantly, to effectively apply it towards not only personal success but also to improve life and living on the planet. For this to take place, a school must continuously support faculty by being intentional about both process and practice that will encourage lifelong learners and conscious global citizens.
What do you mean by conscious global citizens?
A conscious citizen is one who places value on being fully human while connecting with a higher purpose; one who values human life and the relationship with all living things, and takes responsibility for transforming skill into action, through ethical decision making, to ultimately improve life and living on the planet. Conscious citizenship is developed by creating the conditions to expand awareness of social, global, and environmental conditions while being empowered to assume personal responsibility by engaging in, committing to, and initiating positive impact. A conscious citizen of the world sees the interconnection of one’s actions and their consequences. A conscious citizen is continuously in a state of becoming and ideally reaches a developmental, emotional, and spiritual level of being in harmony with life. Teaching students about world issues such as those outlined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is one way to create awareness and connect local action with contributions to a higher purpose (SDG’s). The success of an educational institution is not immediately evident. When young students become successful adults, conscious citizens, contributing to a better world, we really see the results of our education. This is the vision that we, at ACS Athens, constantly strive towards.