Working In The Middle East

I recently returned to Saudi Arabia for the fourth time in two years, and I have additional trips planned for November and February.   With all the crazy activities by extremist, and the conflicts amongst nations in the Middle East, I am asked frequently if I feel safe there.  The answer is an unequivocal YES.

Though I have traveled to Dubai, Oman and Qatar in the past decade, most of my time recently has been spent in the city of Riyadh.  This Capital City of Saudi Arabia is in the middle of the Kingdom and showcases some wonderful architecture.  It has all of the personality of every large city I have been fortunate to visit with arts, entertainment, historical landmarks, shopping, big buildings, crowds, traffic jams and hard working people dreaming and building a brighter future for themselves.  It is a bustling community with a rich culture, wildly different than ours in many ways, yet strikingly similar in a lot of their values.  Though our cultural similarities are overshadowed by the difference in gender rights.  And that is a whole other blog post.

The people I have worked with in Saudi Arabia, both men and women, have been amazingly gracious and welcoming.  They work hard to make you feel comfortable, welcomed and safe.  There is an appreciated focus on safety with very tight security.   Entering their country security is very much like ours.  In the international hotel in which I stay they have a security check of your vehicle when you enter, and an airport style metal detector when you enter the building.  Now we don’t see metal detectors at hotels here yet, but I did walk through one just this past week in two different schools in Oklahoma.   When meeting at the main offices of the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Public Education Development Project I usually walk, which is about a half mile from my hotel, and I have not once felt intimidated, concerned or even out of place. Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz

Now as for working with Saudis, there are a lot of communication differences making progress slow and frustrating at times.  All the people I work with speak English, but I have to admit that I do not understand everything they are saying, and I absolutely understand no Arabic.  It took me a while to realize they do not understand all of my English either, though they are hesitant to admit so, and most likely feel it would be rude to tell me as much.  But we all try very hard to communicate and we all are learning every time we’re together.  I did purchase Rosetta Stone, but I can only say boy, girl, dog and cat so far. And Rosetta doesn’t like my accent at all.

King Abdulla wishes one of his legacies to be a reformed educational system where all the children of Saudi Arabia are educated at a high level from kindergarten through college.  Dr. Mohammed Al-Zaghib is the CEO of the project and leads an ambitious team with great passion and a huge goal.  I certainly would not bet against this group, and am thrilled Solution Tree has been invited to play a role in their success.

Not surprising, the people of Saudi Arabia want the same things for their children as we do for ours.  To have them educated, safe, successful and happy.  They are absolutely no different than any other caring parent, and the people of King Abdulla’s project are no different than any other caring educator wanting to make a difference in the lives of their students.  But it is easy to see why this country is cautious to work with Western Companies.  So many outside companies look at the massive wealth of this nation and attempt to come in, make a quick hit, cash in and dash out.  They don’t really want to help, they want to prosper themselves, and only themselves. That is just plain wrong, especially in K-12 education were the stakes are way to important.  At Solution Tree we really want to make a difference in the world, and it is our belief that the best way to bring about global change is through education.  And that is why we do what we do.

Being Lucky

Having been in the event business now for 17 years, I have to say we have an unbelievable track record of never having a keynoter miss an event due to illness or travel.  On a very rare occasion we will have a breakout presenter miss an event due to unforeseen circumstances, mostly travel related, but for the most part it has been remarkably minimal.  Coming up on 1,000 Summits, Institutes and workshops you might say we are one lucky company, and we are, but not lucky the way you might be thinking.

We are blessed to have the presenters we have.  The quality of individuals who tirelessly present to educators ranging from eager to skeptical, and intense to apathetic, is unprecedented in our field.  Their job is no easy task, but WOW are they professionals and do they every care.

Let me give you a recent example of just how dedicated these experts truly are, and believe me they are not alone.  This is not an isolated case. This happened at our very last Summer Institute held August 13-15.

Rick and Becky DuFour spent 16 hours getting to Grand Rapids from Roanoke, VA.  One cancelled flight, one flight delayed two hours, another delayed 30 minutes,

and finally getting to the hotel at 12:15am with Becky kicking off the Institute with an 8:00am keynote in front of 1,000 in-house educators.

Tim Brown had his flight cancelled in Moline so he rented a car and drove six hours so he could arrive in Grand Rapids at 2:00am, and he is not only a presenter but also the emcee kicking off the event and introducing Becky.  And then he had tells me “I got to drive through some beautiful countryside on my six hour road trip.”  And he meant it, and by my calculations it was dark for nearly 5 of those hours.

Jack Balderman has a flight cancelled and drove from Midway Airport in Chicago to Grand Rapids arriving at 4:00am.

And Anthony Muhammad had a flight diverted from Phoenix to Yuma, only be bussed two hours back to Phoenix, to have another flight cancelled, and then hopping on a red-eye to Detroit and then driving to Grand Rapids to get to the Institute at 9:30am.

Are we lucky, you bet your bottom we are. We are lucky to work with people like these people, and we work with more than just these five examples.  We work with hundreds of pros just like these.  And that is why we do what we do.

Why go abroad?

As I have said, with almost as much boring redundancy as our Mission Statement, our Vision Statement is:

Transform education world-wide to ensure learning for all.

Here are the group of men I just spent three days with earlier this week in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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There are an equal number of woman at the training, in an neighboring room. The Saudi culture divides the population into separate gender trainings.

Tom & Susan (in her Abaya) Many, are two world class presenters and educators, who kicked off the first of four workshops introducing the PLC process to Cohort #1.  They did a phenominal job of working with translators and dealing with cultural issues.  I can not imagine anyone working harder or being more successful in introducing this work.


At a my meetings outside of the workshop, I was presenting our plans for future professional development in the region, and one high ranking official asked me “Why do you want to expand to Saudi Arabia, isn’t the United States big enough for your company?”  Wow, that one took me off guard. The good news is the honest answer was easy.

“Because it is our vision, why we are doing what we do.  It would be easier to focus solely on the US, and probably more profitable.  But if what we have at Solution Tree truly works, and it does, then why would we keep the secret to ourselves.  Why would we not share what has been proven successful in our country with others, and give our Authors an international platform to help kids succeed all over the world?”

In reality, we could downsize the company and only focus on PLC work, making my life a lot less complicated and the company potentially more profitable.  But the other areas in which we publish and provide professional development are important to real school improvement too.  We truly offer the highest quality opportunities for authors to take their passions and put it into the hands of educators who are begging for tested, proven and implementable solutions. So why wouldn’t we go global?

International work is expensive, it is an investment, and most always takes a long time before we see any significant financial gains, but we do see immediate personal advancement in teachers, schools, and districts which leads to significant gains in student achievement. And THAT is why we do it.


AP Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary School

Last week I was invited to AP Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary School in Raleigh, NC.  A phenomenal school run by a team of educators whose passion would be tough to surpass, lead by Dr. Muriel Summers.


My first contact with Combs was when I met Kendra Fisher on a flight to Indianapolis. When we were leaving the plane she recognized me from one of our events, a conversation about education broke out, and a friendship formed.  An extremely impressive young woman who invited me to visit Combs on my next trip to NC.  When I found an opportunity and told her I would love to meet the staff, little did I know that I was going to be ‘Leader Of The Week’ for a 5th Grade Assembly. 


Combs is implementing PLCs and has a culture that is built around Steven Covey’s 7 Habits in a extrodinary way.  This is shirt they gave me, and I saw at least four staff wearing the same shirt that day.


The students at the Assembly were a diverse population, extremely polite, well briefed on the event, and prepared for the occasion.  The panel of 7 students, professionally dressed, GRILLED me on each of the 7 Habits and they related to my life and Solution Tree.  This group was as impressive as a PLC Institute Panel of Educators at the PLC Summit.  I then fielded questions from the remaining students, had pictures taken, and was even invited by one young man to his house the next day for a pancake breakfast.


AP Combs is a model school of efficiency and professionalism.  They are a true Professional Learning Community, living out the 7 Habits each and every day, and know what it takes to develop young educators. 


It was an honor to be a ‘Leader Of The Week’ and my new e-pen pal and I are planning my next visit…with pancakes on the agenda.

The Land Down Under

Elaine and David Brownlow are two of the nicest people you will ever meet.  They live in Melbourne Australia and run a privately held family company, Hawker Brownlow.  David is an entrepreneur and former school teacher,  and Elaine, before raising their two children who are now in the business, was a typesetter who morphed into a phenomenal editor, acquisitions manager and now the head of Hawker Brownlow.  She is a damn good business woman…mate!

One of the attributes making Hawker Brownlow unique is that besides publishing their own materials they acquire book rights from other publishers, reproduce the titles in Queen’s English, distribute them in Australia and New Zeleand, and pay a royalty back to the publisher.  Brilliant.  Companies like ASCD, Corwin Press, Solution Tree, Josie Bass, Eye on Education, and Stenhouse Press would never be able to reach educators Down Under like they can, much less together…with no politics!!!  Heck, ASCD and Corwin barely talk to me, much less share shelf space.

Four years ago when I attended my very first Hawker Brownlow Annual Conference, their 7th at that time, it was easy to see they could expand their conference offerings and also provide on-site Staff Development.  When I say easy to see, it was easy for Douglas Rife, President of Solution Tree Press, to see.  He encouraged me to go to Melbourne, see their operations, and put Elaine and I together to dream and scheme.  Elaine and David were so welcoming and their operation so well run, a partnership seemed natural.  So in the course of a 30 minute meeting involving Elaine, Douglas and me, we framed out Hawker Brownlow Professional Learning Solutions (HBPLS).


Since the formation of HBPLS we have expanded and grown under the watchful eye of David and Elaine, but run by their daughter Clare and Mr. Gavin Grift.  Clare and Gavin are a powerful team expanding the reach of great educational thinkers like Jay McTighe, Ruby Payne, Bob Marzano, Mike Mattos, Anthony Muhammad, Dylan Wiliams, Andy Hargreaves and Rick and Becky DuFour just to name a handful. You can check out all the others at

All partnerships should be this easy, well run, and enjoyable.  The Brownlows truly make a difference in the lives of so many educators and school children in Australia and New Zealand with their unique publishing company, and our partnership.  And that is why we do it!