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School Growth: Small Changes Lead to BIG Impact

“If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.” — Dylan Wiliam

NOTE: I am continuing to use my blog as a way to be transparent and share my learning within my professional growth plan. One of my goals is to support staff professional learning and drive learning forward through instructional leadership in the area of literacy. To view my current growth plan goals (still developing), click here

During my years as an administrator, one of the big mistakes I have made is trying to do too much too quickly. This has caused burnout, disengagement, lack of focus… and an overall lack of progress. The staffs I have worked with have been very supportive and patient with me and provided me with regular feedback with how things are going. I remember in my first few years as a principal, our teacher-librarian pulled me aside and said, “Chris, we love the ideas you share… they are exciting and likely great for our school… but we can only do so much in order to do them well. How about we focus on one for a few months and then go from there.”  This feedback changed me as I realized that in order to do something well in a school, there must be focus, depth, collaboration, and commitment. By trying to do too many new things, I was actually moving staff away from the goals and ideas because I was stressing everyone out!

I met Simon Breakspear almost 10 years ago at a BC Principals Conference. I really liked what he had to say about creating change in education. I have continued to follow Simon and we have connected a number of times at various conferences and through various platforms of communication. His thoughts on “radical incrementalism” really resonated with me as a way to make small changes to create big growth. My friends Cale Birk (District Principal in Kamloops) and Neil Stephenson (Director of Instruction in Delta), mentioned the term “Learning Sprints” a number of times and recommended that I attend another session with Simon to check out his work on sprints. Last year, I attended a session with Simon and then I followed up this year at the BC Principals and Vice Principals Association fall conference to dive deeper into Learning Sprints.

From the Learning Sprints website:

Engagement in Learning Sprints supports the adoption of evidence-informed practices and enables educators to collectively plan, act and evaluate their impact. The approach is aligned with the existing research evidence into the features of effective teacher professional learning and the science of behaviour change.

…The process has been designed to be simplerelevant and manageable for already overloaded teachers and their leaders. Most of all, it is designed to be adaptable to your school context and focused on the challenges specific to your classrooms and learners.

(check out the site for free resources, videos, and support)

As I wrote in my last post, I moved to a new school this year and this school has a strong foundation of literacy and self-regulation along with an effective collaborative culture. The idea of Learning Sprints seemed like a good fit to build on the wisdom and strengths of the staff to help drive professional growth and student learning in the school. I also liked how the sprints framework encouraged small changes based on evidence-based practices while also focusing on instruction and involving a reflection and evaluation to see if the strategies were successful. The cycles of trying a new idea were short; if the strategy was not successful, the teachers could try again for another 6 weeks or move on to trying a new strategy. Simon talks about “failing small”; too often, we try a new strategy or idea for a long time (1 or more years) and then look back to see if it worked. The fact is that if the strategy is tried for a long period of time and does not create the intended outcomes, it is failing big because of the time and efforts taken to try something that didn’t work. By running shorter cycles, we can “fail small” and if something does not work well within the context, we can reflect and then either pivot and continue or stop and move on to try something different.  I presented the idea of Learning Sprints to teachers and they seemed to appreciate the autonomy to choose an area of needed growth for their classroom (as long as it worked within our action plan goal of reading) and they liked the idea of working collaboratively with colleagues to possibly learn new teaching strategies. We also discussed the idea of failing small and trying new ideas that involved less risk for students (and higher reward).  The sprints process would build on the expertise within the school, use evidence-informed practices, have a short 6-week cycle focused on clear goals, encourage collaboration, and involve reflection and assessment.

At each staff meeting (we meet every couple of weeks) through the first 2 terms, we spent a chunk of time on our sprints. It is important to follow the phases of PREPARE (Design, Define Assess),  SPRINT (Teach, Monitor, Support), and REVIEW (Analyze, Transfer, Reset). We were able to participate in two sprints this year (some groups chose to pivot slightly and continue on with the first sprint as well). As this was not only about the professional learning within the sprints but also about the sprints process as well, we had the following successes (based on observations and the survey with teachers) :

  • Focused collaborative learning teams.
  • Allowed for deliberate practice with instruction.
  • Didn’t feel like “one more thing” to add as it built on what we were already doing or hoping to do.
  • Created action/change in the classroom.
  • Led to positive results for student achievement
  • Led to more successful strategies learned to be added to the teachers’ toolkits.
  • Was a good reminder of the importance of assessment
  • Allowed for ongoing, collaborative learning and a chance to spiral deeper in an area of professional learning

And the following challenges:

  • Narrowing down the learning outcomes (we improved upon this for the 2nd sprint)
  • Trying to maintain the focus on sprints through report cards, reading assessments, etc
  • Keeping the sprints goals at the forefront of instruction
  • Having clear assessments (at the start) to determine if the strategies were working (this was my error and something that we improved upon for the 2nd sprint).
  • Needed to spend more time in the REVIEW phase
  • We need to find a better way to include non-enrolling teachers and support staff in the process (music, learning commons teachers).
  • We need to use common resources for ideas on evidence-based practices (we will be using research as well as Jan Richardson’s book, “The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading” next year).

The results of the Learning Sprints teacher survey were:

  • 88% of teachers said that “Learning Sprints helped me to focus on a small, manageable idea/strategy with my students.”
  • 81% of teachers said that “The Learning Sprints process helped with collaboration between grade group colleagues.”
  • 81% of teachers said they “saw a positive impact on student learning as a result of our efforts within the Learning Sprints process.
  • 75% of teachers said, “I was able to add a strategy to my teaching practice because of our efforts within the Learning Sprints framework.”

Although this was a learning year for the Sprints process, we have already seen success and it is clear that teachers found the process to be helpful in driving professional growth and student achievement in the school. When we surveyed teachers about the successes and challenges of our school action plan, a number of teachers also shared on their own that learning sprints was a key piece that we need to continue with as we move forward into next year.

Too often in my career, I have seen schools, districts, and provinces make huge changes without really knowing if they will be successful. When we make large changes, we take big risks as these changes require so much capital (funds, time, resources, etc) and if we do not achieve the intended outcomes, it is a big loss for all those involved. Learning Sprints allows us to bring in evidence-based practice for a short cycle to determine if it has a positive impact in our context. If it doesn’t work with our context, it is not a significant loss and we can pivot or reset to take a different path to support teacher growth and student learning. By making these small changes, over time, we begin to see big results… and a significant impact on school growth.

 

 

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School Growth: Building on Strengths

I will continue to use this blog as part of my professional growth plan to reflect, ask questions, and share ideas. This year, I have shifted my focus from “building staff culture” to “instructional leadership”.

Last summer, I was moved from James Hill Elementary to a school in my own neighbourhood, Shortreed Community Elementary.  Leaving JHE was no easy task because of the strong connections and relationships with staff, students, and families built over the 4.5 years there (my nephews also attended school there so this move meant that I would see both them and my sister less often). However, moving to my neighbourhood school would provide me with some amazing opportunities both personally and professionally as Shortreed is the school that my daughters attend and a school that is well known for its success with self-regulation and literacy as well as a strengths-based, inclusive philosophy. I was nervous to become principal of our neighbourhood school and also nervous to follow a highly respected principal, Ms Tanya Rogers, who had done some amazing work in her time there.

As a parent, I thought I had a good picture of the successful impact of Shortreed’s focus on self-regulation. Becoming a principal at the school made me soon realize that I had only seen the tip of the iceberg and that so much of the success was due to staff beliefs, understandings, and perspectives. I had a decent platform of understanding of self-regulation from my time at Kent Elementary and James Hill (based on the work of Stuart Shanker as well as resources like Zones of Regulation) but I had never observed a school that had such depth and had self-regulation as something that the staff and students “just did” all day, every day. For a school that has a number of vulnerable families and students who are facing incredible challenges, I was blown away by the overall calm, safe feeling in the school. The staff has shared how much has positively changed over the years as they have observed more success with student behaviour and overall achievement (and the amount of time teachers can spend on instruction and assessment). I have said that I wish I could have seen the changes taking place over the past 5-6 years; I could see how the school has now become a school well-versed in self-reg… but I wish I could have seen how it got there.

This year, I was also given the awesome opportunity to not only work with a very collaborative staff but also a new vice-principal, Mark Touzeau, who has been a teacher at the school through their years of growth in self-regulation and who also leads and teaches with a strengths-based perspective. I asked his perspective on our school action plan. Considering the success of self-regulation as a focus, could we now try to maintain that self-reg culture while shifting the focus to growth in reading?  He agreed that there had been an awesome success with self-reg and that we had a strong platform of literacy (especially reading) that we could build on.  With Mark’s positive experience with reading instruction and self-regulation, along with his strong relationships with staff, he could help lead us to shift from a focus on self-reg to a focus on reading.

We proposed the changes to staff at the start of the year. We would have “reading achievement” as our main goal while doing this on the shoulders of sub-goals in self-regulation, reading instruction, and formative assessment. Staff supported this change but I still needed to find out how they achieved so much success in the area of self-regulation.

One of our assistant superintendents, Woody Bradford, has been meeting with principals to review school action plans and principal growth plans. He took the time to listen to my story and ideas about not really creating much change but instead building on the success and strengths of the self-regulation focus at the school. He encouraged me to ask the staff to determine the reasons for the success and then see if we could use these strategies to extend to our focus on reading achievement. Both Mark and I loved the idea of building on the strengths of the school to continue our growth in reading.

To build on the strengths and successes, at a staff meeting, we asked the following questions:

  • How do we define success with self-regulation at Shortreed?
  • Consider the success of self-regulation over the past 5+ years…
    • As a staff, what has led to us getting to this place (processes, not simply tools)?
    • How can we use this success to continue to see growth and success with reading?

Staff met in grade groups and discussed their responses and these were gathered in a collaborative document. After analyzing the responses to questions 2 and 3, we noticed the following trends and key points:

  • A common philosophy (the WHY and the WHAT and HOW) of self-regulation was so important.
  • Common language helped so students and staff didn’t have to reteach all the time… they were building on skills at each grade level.
  • Consistent strategies. There was a base of school-wide strategies (ex. language around zones of regulation, body break, calming corner (with some key tools there), landing zone, breathing, etc) as well as some classroom specific strategies. The school-wide strategies provided the platform and the classroom-specific gave the teachers the autonomy to try some that would support their students.
  • Willingness to take risks, try new things, and assess effectiveness. Staff were encouraged to try new strategies and see if they helped. If they helped, keep them… if they did not help students to be more ready to learn, they could move on from those strategies.
  • Strong staff collaboration. Staff shared that they knew that they could best see growth through the sharing of successful ideas (and failures).
  • Ongoing professional development. The success of self-reg was not achieved through a single workshop or even a series of workshops; success happened with strong leadership and consistent efforts from staff over 3-5 years by keeping self-reg as a focus for professional development and staff meetings/collaborations.  By doing this, the staff was able to spiral deeper over time.
  • As we shifted into more of a focus on reading, staff recommended having clear grade-level expectations/guidelines. What was taught at each grade? What was expected at each grade? How do we build on this?

The highlight of asking these questions was that it acknowledged success, built on strengths, and came from the people actually doing the work. The staff could reflect with pride on the success and move forward with motivation as they had created a framework that would guide us in the years to come. 

What the staff ended up sharing through their reflections is not necessarily anything new in the world of organizational change. However, instead of simply stating “this is what we are going to do because this book says we should”, by asking the staff the questions (surface-level appreciative inquiry), we were able to create a guiding framework that is so much more powerful because it builds on the success and strengths of many staff members who lived and persevered through the successful changes in the past.

In future posts I will share how we are using this framework, as well as Learning Sprints, to drive reflections, conversation, and actions around continued growth and success of reading achievement at Shortreed.

A special thank you to the staff (both present and past) of Shortreed for their efforts in creating the positive changes that we can build on for the years to come. Former vice-principal Carol Perry was also mentioned by staff a number of times as someone who was instrumental in building the knowledge and skills around self-regulation and nudging the staff to make the mentioned changes. I will do my best to continue what you have all started!

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Building Staff Culture: The Importance of Slowing Down

Too often we communicate, make decisions, and act in such a rush. Yes, there are many decisions that can and should be made on the fly but there are also many times where we should take the time to pause, reflect, listen, and contemplate… and the best way to do this is something that we seem to be losing sight of in education (and society)… SLOWING DOWN.

As part of my professional growth plan, I continue to reflect on the importance of building staff culture but as I moved to a different school in August 2018, my goal has shifted to one focused on building a positive culture to one focused on Instructional Leadership. Although I continue to reflect on developing and now maintaining positive staff culture, I am hoping to wrap up some final thoughts in this post and possibly one more. For previous posts on building a positive staff culture, please read:

Slow Down… 2 words that I have repeated to myself over and over again over the past 2+ years as an educator, a formal leader, a husband, and a father. At one time, I was excited at the speed of my learning and communication as I was embracing all things technology and took pride at being a self-proclaimed “connected educator”. However, as I have taken the time to reflect on life in this hyperspeed world of information, communication, and notifications, I have realized that although the connections with people and ideas are much more vast, connections and ideas within my school and personal life have also lost some depth. Instead of reading and reflecting, I was scanning. Instead of talking, I was texting. Instead of resting, I was racing. As my friend Cale Birk once said, I was continually trying to “drink from a firehose”. I needed to change things… I needed to slow down.

By slowing down… I realized that we can do and feel so much more. My friend Carman McKay shared with our staff at James Hill last year about the importance of face to face conversations (or at the least, phone conversations) as this keeps us connected at a deeper level.  Deeper, meaningful relationships are not formed through quick text messages or emails so he shared that he will text but will not use that form of communication to replace face to face. Following these words from Carman, I also read a book called “Digital Minimalism” that included portions that echoed Carman’s thoughts. In a quest to connect with others, I was using social media to trick myself into believing that I was staying in contact and although I was aware of some parts of people’s lives, I was losing touch with closer relationships with friends, family, and colleagues. For me, I realized social media can serve a purpose and it can be a starting point to a conversation but should never replace an actual conversation.

By slowing down… I moved from skimming and scanning things online and started to actually read and reflect and think more deeply. I now read fewer tweets and blog posts but take more time to read books, research articles, and blog posts that made me think deeply about education and life. By reading less, it gave me time to think more. In doing this, I started to also focus more on things that were truly important in education and my life… things that were evidence-based and/or created a noticeable difference. By slowing down, I could read less, think and reflect more, and focus on fewer things more effectively.

By slowing down…  it helped me, as a principal, to move away from being quick to respond (often when emotions were high) to pausing, reflecting, and then responding in a more thoughtful manner. By doing things like taking email off my phone, I found I was less concerned about the speed of my response to a worrisome email and placed more focus on tone and thought in my words. Because I would only respond to email in front of a computer, I didn’t feel so rushed and I was more focused on the task at hand. I often would even pick up the phone (shocking, I know) and call someone back or request a face to face meeting after an email to ensure that we engaged in an actual conversation where there could more of a chance of empathy and understanding.

By slowing down… it has helped with my health and wellness. I feel I am less concerned about “keeping up” with blogs, tweets, and posts and more concerned about having meaningful relationships with those around me. I still struggle to slow down with being in a job that involves many people and a variety of endless tasks but I have realized that we do have way more time to make decisions. The small ones can be made on the fly but when we are supporting people in a building and have to make decisions that have a serious impact on these people, we all need a reminder to slow down and pause before making decisions. This has helped me to seek first to understand and lead better with my heart and mind.

By slowing down… I take less pride in being “busy”.  We are all busy in some way and this is not something we should wear as a ‘badge of honour’. Over the past number of years, my comfort and pride in being busy prevented me from looking around and seeing that others are willing and wanting to help. I often failed to notice the needs, wants, and wellbeing of others. I failed to notice the beauty around me and take the time to enjoy the moments with students, staff, and my friends and family. The simple acts of going for a walk outside, engaging in a real conversation, breathing deeply, and noticing the many amazing things around us have helped make me happier and healthier. By slowing down, I have embraced many more moments and ensured that I stay in that moment longer while trying to avoid that pull to the busy or perceived urgent matter.

My current school, Shortreed Community Elementary, is full of ALL aspects of life. We can get caught up in the speed of trying to quickly solve the many problems our children and families face; however, this can be overwhelming and exhausting. What some staff (at Shortreed and James Hill) have modeled to me is that in order to best support our community, I need to embrace the team, focus, listen, seek help, work through things in a face to face manner, and… slow… down…

By slowing down… we can create stronger and deeper relationships, make more thoughtful decisions, lead healthier lives.  By doing this, we can positively affect staff culture and the wellbeing of our entire organization.

I continue to have to whisper these two words to myself: SLOW DOWN. In a world that seemingly demands us to be faster, I encourage you to remind yourselves to simply slow down.

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Flexible Seating: What’s the Point?

I realize it is summer but some educators are have been reflecting on their current classroom set up or changes they have recently made to decide on what their classroom will look like next year.  I recently read a couple of articles from Mindshift and Edutopia (here and here) about flexible seating and it caused me to tweet out the following:

I have been critical of Twitter as it very rarely seems to create dialogue but for some reason, this tweet caused a number of different deeper conversations of which I thoroughly enjoyed and helped with my thinking.

As with any changes we make in education, it must come from a place of purpose. I like the question: What problem are we trying to solve?

So what is the point of flexible seating? What do we even mean by “flexible seating”? From the people I have talked to and those who responded on Twitter, it seems that the main purposes (yes, there are more but these were the main ones) of these changes in classrooms are:

  • comfort
  • decor
  • student ownership of the classroom
  • collaboration
  • self-regulation

Last year, we had 4 teachers decided to create pretty significant changes to their classroom set up. The district encouraged us to make these changes and because we had to get the orders for new furniture in by a deadline to get the stuff for September, we spent some money and ordered what we felt would help with classroom design. The error I made in this is that we actually never discussed the purpose for each classroom. We ordered it because we thought it would help but because we didn’t define the purpose, we were not able to see if “it worked” as a school (knowing the teachers that made the changes, they put a ton of thought into it and likely had a clear purpose in mind but I never asked the question). Whenever we make changes, we should have a clearly defined purpose or a problem we are working on; when we have this, we can assess at various points of the year if our solutions are hindering or helping.

For our school, some teachers made the following changes:

  • one classroom that kept the desks but added in some comfort areas and standing desks
  • one classroom that removed all the desks and used regular rectangular tables with chairs, shorter tables so students could sit on the floor, bucket seats, hokki stools, lap desks, and carpets. Lighting was also changed to a more natural light.
  • one classroom that removed all the desks and used smaller tables that could be put together and pulled apart for various reasons, standing desks, bucket chairs, and stools. Less fluorescent lighting was used as well as some aromatherapy.
  • one classroom that kept 2/3 of the desks but had options of couches and tables of various heights as well as some floor seating options.
  • one classroom that removed the desks and had tables of various heights. A carpet area was also added.

Throughout the year, we discussed how things were going with the new design.  For those teachers who made pretty significant changes, it was a struggle for 2-3 months to help students to understand their seating options and the responsibilities that came with this (helping students to purposely choose the best fit for them). After Christmas, some teachers felt that students started to settle in and they felt that this really had a positive impact on classroom community (care, collab, social-emotional). Some felt that students who needed to wiggle and move could do this and this helped with their focus and behaviour. For another teacher, the removal of desks was not working for her class. Students had significantly more self-regulation struggles and teaching a lesson posed a large challenge (students were very distracted at tables, struggled with not having their own space, and there was less calm, learning time for individual students) so a few tables were kept but desks were brought back in. Talking to a few students, they actually preferred the desks as they had their own space and were less distracted by those at their table.

As stated, we were not able to actually tell if the redesign helped or hindered students because I had not asked for clarity around purpose so we were not able to assess the impact.  The only thing we could go on was how it “felt” or “looked” to staff members. As a school, I think overall that the teachers liked the moves but there were some challenges.

Moving back to the aforementioned reasons that people choose to redesign their classroom, there are some questions/thoughts I now have:

  • Comfort: Comfort is important but does a more comfortable classroom lead to better achievement or more success? Classrooms need to be safe with a sense of belonging but we need to be careful that we are not putting comfort ahead of teaching and learning. I am more comfortable sitting on the couch or in bed but I get a lot less done than if I am at a desk. If comfort is the key reason for making these changes, keep in mind that some/many students need their own space and can become dysregulated if they have to share space or have too many options. How do improve comfort while also improving self-reg and/or achievement?
  • Decor: We all want our classrooms to look nice for students, parents, and colleagues. It feels great when we have a classroom we can be proud of.  When we shift the decor we always have to keep student learning at the forefront. Many people have said they are trying to model their classroom after a cafe – the “Starbucks” way of design. My concern with this is that people using Starbucks as a place of learning have a much different purpose than those in a classroom. People going to Starbucks are not learning from a teacher and are all self-directed. A high school learning commons area can use Starbucks as a model but for a classroom, there should still be an effective way for the teacher to teach a lesson (content knowledge is so important!) and having so many different areas with students facing so many different ways can be a real challenge. Even if we are just trying to change the look of our classroom so it is more trendy, we still need to be aware of these changes in achievement.  Are we assessing the effect of our changes on the classroom? What if these changes actually hinder learning in the classroom?
  • Student Ownership of the Classroom: Similar to the comments above, if student ownership is the problem we are trying to solve, how can we create solutions that not only help this but also benefit (or don’t take away from) student achievement? Ownership is important but this can be done in many smaller ways first to see if they make an impact (before changing the entire classroom design).
  • Collaboration: Creating more collaborative learning spaces is not something new as teachers have been getting students to push their desks together for years. I do see the benefit of tables but I also see the drawbacks. If a classroom goes to all tables, this could actually make it less flexible as tables cannot be taken apart and moved around for individuals or smaller groups. Collaboration only works if students have enough content knowledge to actually contribute to the dialogue. Ensuring that the classroom works in a way that the teacher can still teach content knowledge is important so how do we create environments that allow for instruction, individual practice and reflection, as well as collaboration?
  • Self-Regulation: For me, this is the most important reason to reflect on classroom design (and one that I have seen the most success). Beneficial changes in the classroom to help “down-regulate” and “up-regulate” can be done without having to throw out all the desks and bring in new furniture. Changes in lighting, adding calm areas of the room, and providing various seating options (actual seats like wobble stools and standing desks) can help with the whole learning environment and thus, help achievement. A few years ago, we brought in a couple standing desks and a few Hokki stools and then looked at the effect of written output. For some students, allowing them to stand or use a wobble stool helped them be able to write significantly more with a higher quality. For other students, the wobbling became a real distraction and actually hindered writing achievement. This creates a challenge as what works for one student may not work for others. What we did well was look at a specific way of assessing success/failure when we implemented a few ideas. When designing a classroom for self-regulation, seating options is just one thing to consider as there are multiple strategies that can be used with students to help them regulate themselves for effective learning. If a child is better regulated, their achievement should increase so this is an area that can be assessed throughout the year.

There is little to no clear research of the impact of classroom design on student achievement and with so many variables to consider, I don’t think there is a single optimal classroom design for all students and educators. Having said this, based on what I have read and the conversations I have had with people I work with and online, I think I will try to keep the following in mind when I work with teachers to redesign or reflect on classroom design:

  • Be specific on the problem, purpose of the change, strategies to implement, and markers for success. Without doing this, how will we know our time, efforts, and money are making a difference?
  • Keep some desks*. I am not saying you need to keep all of them but before making big changes, switch up a portion of the class and leave a good number of desks for those students who need their own personal space. *Note that this is more for grade 2/3 and above as many early primary classrooms have not used desks for years and lessons/instruction take place at the carpet.
  • Use small tables. Large tables actually take away from flexible seating as they present only one or two options for students. With smaller tables, you can put them together or move them apart as needed. If you are buying tables, you can also get tables that can be raised or lowered based on the need to stand or sit.
  • Offer comfortable areas. When starting small (in elementary/middle), for quiet reading, students may enjoy a bean bag chair or a bucket chair. Be clear with students the purpose of these areas so that when there is instruction or individual or small group work occurring, these are not used.
  • Offer seating options (stools, standing desks). You need not change your whole classroom to offer some seating options for students who may benefit from self-reg tools. Start with a few stools and some standing desks (or small, tall tables) to and see if student learning and achievement benefits from this. If we have evidence of increased success for an individual with a certain tool from past years/teachers, please embrace this as to go back to a standard chair may make the learning more difficult for the student. We can build on evidence from past success/struggles.
  • Fail small*.  One of the most common mistakes I have made is making significant (large) changes and waiting too long to see if it is working.  If you have a clear understanding of the purpose and the strategies, use the defined success markers to see if what you are doing is effective. After a short time (weeks or 2 months), check to see how the strategy is working. If it is working… keep going, if it is not, stop and pivot.  I have tried and observed classroom design that actually hindered learning so it is important to know the impact of the strategy.  *HT to Simon Breakspear for helping me with this.

If you are a teacher that does well (and whose students do well) in a classroom with all desks, don’t feel pressured to make significant changes unless there is clear evidence that it will positively impact your classroom. Some of the best teachers I have observed had classrooms with all desks while others had a variety of seating options. We are often quick to judge a teacher by what the classroom looks like at a point in time instead of moving deeper to look at the pedagogy and learning tasks that take place over a period of time. Be respectful in understanding that what works for one teacher and group of students may not work for someone else. Find what works for you and your students. Desks are not likely the enemy that some people seem to think they are.

I have seen success in a variety of classrooms (yes, even desks in rows! 😉 and I would argue that the success is due to the teacher rather than the furniture or set up. At this point, I am not for or against classroom redesign; what I am for is us reflecting and sticking with what works and/or trying ideas to see if there is a benefit to our students. As educators, we have very little time so when we put in time and effort, we need to be aware of the changes we make and the evidence of the impact of these changes on our students. With not much research out there yet on the impact of flexible design, we need to be clear on the POINT (our why) of the changes and then check to see if our HOW is making a difference.

As I am mostly thinking out loud on this one, if you have thoughts on why we should promote or be cautious of flexible seating, please share. Thank you to all those people at school and online who have pushed my thinking on this one.

22

Building Staff Culture: The Importance of Gratitude

As educators, we take a lot of our efforts and successes for granted. As we raise the bar and do more, implement new ideas, and have more success, our baseline grows and we seem to embrace this as a new normal. Although this continual drive for growth and increased success is exactly what we should be doing, we often forget to be thankful for what we have and forget to show appreciation for the efforts and qualities of others who help us in schools and beyond.

Teachers, admin, and school staff have very difficult jobs; these jobs can consume us with stress, fatigue, and, as a result, illness. Because of this, negative self-talk, venting, and negative conversations with colleagues can dominate the staffroom and office spaces. There can be a silent competition around who has had the most challenging day and, as Dean Shareski said a few years ago, we seem to [complain and] wear “busy” like a badge of honour. I have even heard someone say, “she/he is always so happy… must not be working hard enough.”. This stress, fatigue, negativity, and illness makes it that much more important to focus not only on student wellness, but also adult wellness in schools.

For the past few years, I have focused much of my reading on the ideas from the field of Positive Psychology (Martin Seligman, Shawn Achor, Shannon Polly). Ideas that were once considered “fluff” (such as strengths-based approaches, gratitude journals, mindfulness exercises, and a focus on happiness) are now supported by more and more research that shows the importance for not only personal mental wellness but also a positive organizational culture.

In the fall, I was at one of the lowest points of my career. Having a newborn (which is incredibly beautiful but lots of work) and trying to survive in a BC system that included a severe teacher shortage left me very unwell. Instead of looking for positives around me, I was resorting to using my “lizard brain” and constantly seeing threats and the negatives around me. I was unhappy as a principal and, at times, considered going back to teaching to see if I could once again find that joy in education. The odd thing was that things at a school level were going incredibly well… we had one of the most dedicated, collaborative and positive staff cultures I had ever been a part of… there was more laughter in the staff room and more willingness to take risks and try new ideas for the benefit of our students… and more examples of care toward each other that I had experienced before. Some days I saw all of this; most days, however, I was looking through “deficit-coloured glasses” and only saw the fact that I was teaching more than ever (as we were short teachers-on-call to replace teachers that were absent), I was spending more time working at night (as I had to catch up on stuff I could not get done at work nor in the evening as we had an amazing new little family member), I was engaging in very negative conversations, and external changes that were beyond my control (but affecting me) were causing more work and taking its toll on me.

Something changed in late November. This year, our district has made a commitment to improving adult wellness and our school had a team of four that are attending district wellness sessions. After the November session, I came home to a powerful note from my daughters (shared in the blog post: Maybe Dad) and this was a catalyst for some serious change for me. I started to focus on MY wellness. I went back to all that I had learned through Positive Psychology: I left work earlier; I stopped worrying about the things I had no control over; I shifted my self-talk;  a teacher encouraged me to use and focus more on my strengths; and I started to look around and see so many positives at our school.

Over the Christmas break, I spent a ton of time with my family. At nights, I re-read some old faves and started to reflect and make more changes. For years, I have read that a gratitude journal was helpful to feeling better, having more energy, and being happier… but it just didn’t seem like it was for me. When I was reading a chapter about gratitude, the idea of a “gratitude app” popped into my head. I did some serious research (actually, I picked the free app that was the top pick in iTunes) and selected a gratitude app called “Zest”.  It is a simple idea: take a few moments once a day to share what I am thankful for… and sometimes add a picture (if I had one).

I did this for a week and this week happened to be the first week of 2018 at work. During this week, I noticed a shift – I had more bounce in my step, more smile on my face, and saw so many more amazing things happening at school (and in my home). It has been 30 days of this gratitude app/journal and I can honestly say I have noticed a significant difference to my happiness both at work and at home. I see great things and say to myself, “remember this moment as it is something I should be thankful for”. I am retraining my brain to see the positives (which I used to be so good at).  Looking for the positives does not mean we ignore the challenges… but embracing the good things in life sure give us more energy to deal with the ‘not-so-good’ things when they happen! 

I have also challenged staff to show more gratitude not only to each other but also be more thankful for what we have at work and at home.

  • We continue to start every staff meeting with WWW (What Went Well) and encourage each other to share something we are thankful for and/or proud of (we have done this for years but I was forgetting to do this myself).
  • We continue to share a weekly newsletter, “10 Good Things to Talk About“, that includes 10 (often more) positive things that I have observed or staff have shared that we want our community to know about. I find writing this each week also helps me personally be more thankful for the awesome efforts of our staff members.
  • A staff member anonymously wrote a note of gratitude to EVERY staff member that acknowledged something very personal that each person brings to our school. You should have seen the smiles on people’s faces when they read these; we even had some people well up as they had never been acknowledged before like this.
  • We have started a “gratitude wall” in the staff room for staff to acknowledge the positives they see around the school (this is in the early stages).
  • Some staff have started their own gratitude journals/apps and even challenged their partners to do the same.
  • A teacher used a gratitude exercise with her grade 4/5 students and surround their classroom door with things they are thankful for.
  • A teacher did a lesson on kindness and gratitude with her grade 3 students and they then wrote personal thank you notes to classmates and staff.
  • Our PAC co-chair has asked every student in the school to write one thing they love about our school on a heart and these hearts will line our hallways. I loved seeing older students buddy up with the kindergarten students to help them with this!

Some other ideas that I use or plan on trying:

  • Send a loved one a video thanking them for something meaningful.
  • Write one thank you card/note or a gratitude email per week to a staff member/colleague.
  • Make one positive phone call a day/week to a family at your school.
  • Say thank you. Say it often and keep it authentic and personal (general appreciation is not as effective and be careful not to overdo it! :-))
  • Buy a coffee a week for someone and share your appreciation (getting a list of the staff coffee/tea preferences at the start of the year can be helpful throughout the year).
  • Encourage your children and family to share a WWW at dinner or bedtime.

The changes I have personally made have made me a better educator and principal. Let me be clear, though, it is not all perfect with rainbows and butterflies at school. We still have our struggles. We should have challenges as this is a part of growth and change as we try to do our best to continually improve for our students. So this shift is not about simply ignoring the struggles and challenges but, instead, using gratitude and a strengths-based lens to energize and support ourselves through the many challenges. Because of a focus on gratitude, I feel more patient, positive, and joyful at work and I have more energy when I get home.

As a school, the vast majority of the positives were already there (I just needed to see them more often) but this shift to gratitude has been noticeable. It has helped build staff culture by people taking the time to acknowledge the efforts and strengths of others and has left people feeling more valued for their strengths and efforts at school. This shift does not end with the adults as it spreads throughout the school and into the hearts and minds of students and families too.

Gratitude is a simple shift that can help each and every one of us; by making this shift it can help build school culture so there is more happiness and wellness in schools.

Have you noticed the many positives around you? Have you shared your appreciation with a colleague lately? If yes, please share some other ideas in the comments section below. If not, start NOW.

We used the video below to help create some dialogue among staff on the topic of gratitude.

A huge thank you to our staff for all the amazing work they continually do and for helping to bring more gratitude to our school. Thank you, too, to our district (hat tip to Renge Bailie, Gail Markin, and Megan Zazelenchuk along with the support of Maria Lerose and Kim Schonert-Reichl) for making adult wellness a focus this year.

NOTE: This post is part of my professional growth plan which is focused on building a positive school staff culture. I am no expert in this area but I have been honoured to learn from many others to help with my growth. It is my belief that one of our main roles as principals is to create the conditions for a positive culture. I will be using my blog to share and reflect on my learning journey. Other posts in this series:

8

Avoid Binary Thinking. Go To The Grey.

Much of what we do in education falls into grey areas. Yet, many of the conversations we have regarding education seem to use black and white statements and fall into the category of binary, or dichotomous, thinking. Binary thinking leads to look at ideas in education as right or wrong and good or bad. It can create an ‘us vs them’ mentality – “You are either with us or you are not!”  It can also prevent engagement in the conversations we need to have.

(I originally wrote about this topic a couple years ago in “The Problems With Black and White Statements in Education”

I think within our staff/district (and face to face) discussions, we try to go to the grey more often.  It is safer and people respectfully understand that most ideas and strategies we discuss fall on a continuum and we can explore the middle ground to seek to understand, reflect, and create change.  However, on Twitter and at conferences I seem to see/hear way more black and white statements – tweets or quotes that either say something is completely good or something is completely bad.  These polarized statements often get many retweets, yet I find that the big topic and issues in education are rarely so simple that they can be stated (and solved) in a single tweet.  Here are some examples of issues off the top of my head (I understand tweets are rarely stated like this but there are many examples that share a similar message):

Content is bad. Competencies are good.  Hold the phone… if we shift away from content to focus on critical thinking (for ex.), what the heck do we critically think about? How do we critically think about… nothing? How do we provide creative ideas on topics without an understanding of some content. We need BOTH! Yes, there have been times when a focus has been too much on content (I am definitely guilty of this) but I worry that there are educators shift so far away from content that students are missing out on key learning that can help with communication, critical thinking, creative thinking, etc. Find the sweet spot between content and competencies… that’s where the real learning happens. Learn competencies WITH content.

We need to end the use of worksheets.  Are ALL worksheets bad?  Doesn’t it depend on what is on the worksheet?  Doesn’t it depend on the task? Perhaps we need to talk about tasks rather than worksheets.

Grading harms kids and is bad practice.  Perhaps we should first discuss balanced assessment that includes effective practices in summative and formative assessments.  Is the problem more about how grades are used rather than the grades themselves?  Too often, we move away from grades (this is a ‘sexy’ idea that draws the attention of others and makes it seem like we are progressive) without changing our assessment practices. If all we do is move from a 6 point scale (grades) to a 4 point scale (performance standards) on report cards but we do not change our formative and summative assessment practices, it makes very little difference to student learning. I am not a huge fan of grades but I believe the conversation needs to first focus on balanced assessment… this is where we get the most impact on student learning.

We must stop lecturing in our classes.  I am not sure about you but I love a good storyteller or speaker. There is also a role for direct instruction. It is all about balance (and the grey) – if all we do is lecture, we likely have a problem; if we avoid direct instruction, the learners may not be clear on the content. A constructivist approach can help with engagement but as teachers and coaches, we need to lead the learning and this can include direct and explicit instruction based on key learning intentions.

Extrinsic motivation is harmful. (I have said this before).  Is ALL extrinsic motivation harmful? Hmmmm…. so feedback is bad?  Inspiring others through modeling is bad?  Motivation is on a continuum and there are areas (bribes) that pose problems but it is generalized statements like this that further encourage binary thinking that one is good, while the other is bad.  I believe we definitely need to move away from a focus on rewards (prizes, tickets, incentives) in schools and work to create more intrinsic motivation.  However, by using binary thinking around motivation, we miss out on the key conversations we need to have to make the shift toward more intrinsic (check out the research by people like Deci and Ryan who provide a balanced, informed perspective).

Homework hurts kids and does nothing for learning.  Homework is an important conversation. Maybe, though, we should talk less about the amount of homework and talk more about the tasks we are asking our students to do at home (and at school)? What if we get a student all jazzed up about a book and they rush home to open it up and dive in? What would happen if a student is so engaged in a topic or learning activity that they cannot wait to get home to do more? What if we work to bring the outside world into our kids’ learning so that when they spend time outside of school, they make strong connections to their learning inside of school? Still hurting kids? Does this do nothing for learning?

Desks in rows…. from the 19th century.   Are desks in rows always a bad thing? All the time? Not so sure. Do we need time for focused attention and quiet reflection? I would go nuts if I had to face the same person 4 feet away from me for 6 hours every day. Perhaps we should have more flexible spaces in the class that might be in rows and some in groups?

Leadership – good; management – bad.  Somewhere along the line, management got a bad rap. I have made the mistake of focusing too much on leadership and not enough on the management piece. Here is what I know now: if you cannot manage effectively, you will not be able to lead well. As Bruce Beairsto once told me, “Leadership and management are like the yin and yang… management builds the house and leadership makes it a home.”  We need to do both well.

Awards are good/bad. Yes, I am pretty passionate about rethinking awards in schools. Does this mean that I oppose all awards? No. Does this mean I am opposed to competition? Nope. Does this mean I think there should be a focus on participation trophies? Definitely not. We need to have the conversation… are awards ceremonies the best we can do to honour the efforts and abilities of our students? If we simply say awards are always good/bad, we may miss out on the chance to have the conversation about rethinking how we honour students.

I will be the first to admit that sometimes I see an old tweet or slide that I wrote and I shake my head at how polarizing (and sometimes arrogant) it was. Here’s the thing… it is EASY to tweet a dichotomous statement in a succinct manner that gets people’s attention and gets 100s of retweets; but we often lose out on the grey and miss out on the opportunity to engage.  If we do feel the need to make a polarizing statement, we need to be willing to engage when someone challenges us.  Keep the social in social media; respond when we are respectfully challenged so the conversation can move deeper and move to the heart of the statement. We need to continually reflect, be willing to be challenged and open to others’ ideas and opinions.

Some argue that binary thinking often elicits emotion and therefore, can initiate dialogue and I can appreciate that view.  We need to be careful, though, that our polarizing statements do not cause people to disengage. Yes, a less polarizing statement may get fewer retweets but maybe we will get more engagement and cause more people to actually reflect and discuss the topic instead of simply disagreeing and disengaging. If we are using polarizing statements to create conversation, once we engage, we need to avoid binary thinking and be open to other views, be open to life in the middle… and go to the grey.   The grey is where we find deeper reflective dialogue that helps create real change in education.

 

7

Maybe Dad: A Simple and Powerful Message From My Daughters

I sat there and stared at the table setting and welled up in tears. The other 3 plates contained what was left of a family dinner and mine lay there empty. Beside each table setting, my girls had written the names of our family members. Beside my name said “Maby”. Maybe dad. It was a message that broke my heart but I needed to hear. Too many dinner times I had arrived late or not at all because I was in a meeting or just trying to get that important email sent out. Too many dinner times, I had left my wife and daughters with the hope that I would be there for dinner but arrived 15, 30, or 60 minutes late. Now, we are at the point of “Maybe, Dad” for dinner. When we stop and listen to our kids, they can tell us so much… so much that comes unfiltered. So much that comes straight from their hearts.

I remember Chris Kennedy sharing that Barrack Obama had made it a priority to be home for dinner and if the President of the US could do this more often than not, so could he. Whenever I start to complain about my job, Chris is always the first person to tell me, “you signed up for this, you can choose to make it work for you”. I hate it when he says this but he is right. In our job as educators, there will always be the draw to be part of that committee, to attend that workshop, to be part of that meeting, to plan that perfect lesson, or to write that important email. There are many times when we can say no. Saying no to the things we don’t necessarily want to do is easier; saying no to the things we do want to do is much more difficult. We can, however, do this and make our families a priority.  We are all busy and we never have “enough time” but we can prioritize our time; if dinner time is important to me, I can make better boundaries and be sure that I am home for this more often. Yes, there are evenings when I absolutely have to be at the school or in a meeting but there are other times where it is my choice and I prioritize other things over these dinner times. This is not so much about doing way less but perhaps doing things differently. Instead of working until 6:30 and then heading home, I can head home earlier and catch up on work after the kids are in bed. I can still do my job well but shift my schedule so I do not miss out on the most important times in my life… time with my kids – these are times I will never get back and they must be a priority.

Having said this, I also think that we, as a system, need to continually strive to be more understanding of the importance of family and create the conditions for more wellness and balance in the lives of people within our communities. Each person is at a different place and we need to do a better job of seeking to understand and support. It is no secret that people who are healthier and happier are more engaged and more effective at work; we need to make this health and happiness a priority in our schools and districts. As principals and formal leaders, we can have a significant impact on this but we also need to take care of ourselves. The “airplane oxygen mask” analogy works here too – if we do not take care of ourselves, we will have a harder time caring for others.  There will always be a need for some late-afternoon learning sessions, volunteering as after-school coaches and club leaders, and having some fun as a staff beyond the school day but we need to be continually mindful of what we are asking of ourselves and others. If family is a priority and time with family makes people healthier, happier and more engaged at work, as a system we need to support this.

My goal is to put my family in my calendar like I do for meetings and evening events. I have to set better boundaries on leaving school to make sure I am home. I have to learn to say “I can only stay until 5:30”. I can be more reflective on what needs to be done and what can wait. I can be home for dinner more often.

In the past year, there have been some changes that have occurred that have helped me as a father. I am thankful that our superintendent has discouraged emails on the weekends as I find I can be at home and away from work on weekends (and to district staff who are bringing wellness to the forefront). I am thankful that my colleague George Kozlovic encouraged me to take emails off my phone so I can be at home and focus on family. I am thankful that my staff understands that I need to arrive at school a little later in the mornings so I can help my daughters get ready for school and my wife can look after our newborn son. Most importantly, I am thankful that my daughters set my name tag as “maby Dad” and sent me a message to shift my priorities and be home for dinner more often. There will be more times when I get to home to help to cook, serve the food, talk about “what went well” in our days… and the table is set with my name tag saying simply “Dad”.

Please feel free to share any ideas that have occurred in your school or district to help support those wanting to spend more time with family while maintaining their effectiveness as an educator. 

This song is a good reminder for us all…

12

What PROBLEM are we trying to solve?

This is a post in which I am sort of “thinking out loud” so I would love your thoughts.

I went for breakfast with a great critical friend of mine, Brian Kuhn, a few weeks ago. Brian is the CIO of the Vancouver School Board and we were discussing the many changes taking place and how we manage these changes (with technology but also other areas of change in BC schools).  I am reading Friedman’s “Thank You For Being Late” and within it, shares how our rate of change in society has surpassed the extent to which we can actually adapt to change. This reading, with the conversation with Brian, certainly got me thinking.

We discussed things like redesigned curriculum, collaborative software/apps (Google, Office 365, etc), online report cards, communicating student learning, phone systems, device management, MyEDBC, and online attendance. I was stating that with so many changes coming from outside, it is hard to encourage schools and educators to make positive changes on their own (in addition to the changes that are mandated).  Brian then said something that is simple but I cannot get out of my mind and have used many times already since being back in the buildings this year.  He said, when looking at new ways of doing things, we cannot look at the tools, new procedures, devices, etc without asking…. “What problem are we trying to solve?”

Once he said this, I went back to my sharing of the many changes that have been mandated or presented as options and asked this question. I have been sold on many “shiny” things and ideas in the past few years.  In my early years as an admin, I wanted to try everything because it looked great and someone had sold it well. As I gained experience (and hopefully wisdom), I have become more cautious of the new and shiny things and reflected more on the purpose (the WHY) of the tool or new idea.  When I use the question, what problem are we trying to solve, it can rule out the new and shiny unless it is helping us solve an agreed upon problem.

An example of the problem first approach would be what we did for our staff meetings. I initially started using Google Docs with staff because it was the “cool thing to do”… all the “cool kids” seemed to be doing it. Before I left my last school, I had a few staff members share with me that they felt there was too much tech and not enough face to face. When I arrived at my new school, we spent time discussing effective staff meetings. The problem that was stated by many staff members in an anonymous survey was that there was an inequity of voice in staff meetings – some staff member’s voices were heard much more often than others. We had defined our problem.  Now, if inequity of voice is the problem, then we can explore solutions that can help solve this problem. We can and do use tools like collaborative documents (ex. Google docs, Office 365) to provide an opportunity for people to share their thoughts and build off of the ideas of others without having to speak in front of people, we can use survey apps (ex. Google forms, Office 365 Forms) to get input from people (either anonymously or with name), or we can use strategies such as Pair-Share and Chalk Talk to have people share their voice in a small setting or in writing so it is more of a safe place.  Using Google Apps because it seems fun to try is much different than using Google Apps as ONE of the solutions to solve a problem.  We implemented a few different strategies to solve our problem and all have been effective at providing more equity of voice.

So when we look at the many changes and ideas that are presented to us as educators, it is important to engage in the dialogue around the WHY: what problem are we trying to solve?  Here a few initial thoughts based on my discussion with Brian:

  • If we are doing online report cards (vs sending home a paper copy), what problem are we trying to solve (environment? ease of access? time?)? Who is defining the problem? What is the current user (parents) experience with paper reporting? What will the user experience be with online reporting (are we asking)? What other problems arise as a result of this (new formats, new language, etc)? Is the problem big enough that it is worth making the change right now?
  • If we want teachers to do online attendance, what problem are we trying to solve? Who is defining this problem? What problems may arise with moving to online attendance (vs paper attendance)?
  • For Office 365 in our district, I believe the problems are clear: we do not have a central location to store documents that can be accessed by staff and we need to have a cloud-based storage solution that aligns with FOIPPA (stored in Canada).  Office 365 has been an effective solution for the issue of central storage and collaboration.
  • For solutions like the redesigned curriculum, the WHY and stated problems with the previous are vast but a key one for us is that in the previous curriculum, there was very little flexibility to dive deeper into topics and for teachers to have the autonomy to tap into students strengths and interests.
  • For communicating student learning, we have had numerous discussions with admin and teachers and I believe that the problem can be summarized as: report cards being sent 3 times per year does not provide parents with enough information to be fully aware of their child’s learning and work closely with the school to support development. If we then phrase it as a question, we can begin to explore the potential solutions. HOW can we use technology to provide a (parent) window in to student learning so they can become more engaged in their child’s education? OR If we use [WordPress, FreshGrade, Edmodo, or another preferred platform], will parents become more informed of their child’s learning so they can work more closely with the school to support their child’s education?

In the last example above, we move from stating the problem to framing the problem as a question to gather as many solutions as needed. This has been very helpful for us to create specific solutions once the problem has been stated. After all of this, we have to remember to always look back and seek evidence to see if our solutions are actually solving the problems we stated.

Too often we are drawn in and sold on solutions to problems which we have not even defined. Effective sales people do this very well as you walk away with something new that you didn’t even know you needed! In schools, we have so much change right now.  I love Brian’s idea of defining the problem first and then seeing if we can find potential solutions as I believe this will help us filter and manage the changes more effectively.

I am still working through this so I would love your thoughts or successes or challenges with managing change.

Image: Pixabay

10

Reconsidering the ‘Celebration’ of Canada’s 150 Years

As we near July 1 and have the opportunity to join millions of Canadians celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, I cannot help but think about those who will not exactly be celebrating the past 150 years.

I am a settler of European descent and I currently reside on the unceded traditional territory of the Matsqui First Nation and work in the traditional territories of the Kwantlen, Katzie, Matsqui and Semiahmoo First Nations.

As a school, we have been discussing and learning about history from an Aboriginal perspective – a perspective that was not taught to so many of us adults as we went through school. When I was in school, I learned about the colonial perspective and how Canada was “discovered” and how our “peaceful nation” was built.  I grew up knowing that my family was a settler but I was not aware that I was living on lands that were taken nor did I know about the many atrocities that have been done to Indigenous Peoples of Canada. I actually work near “the Fort” in Fort Langley but I have never taken the time to hear the stories of the Kwantlen People who have to stare across the river at this Fort, which represents so much loss to their families, lands, culture, and language.

In the past 10 years, I have learned a narrative that has made me seriously question the story of Canada as a peaceful nation. Through my work in education, I have had the chance to listen and learn from Indigenous leaders both directly involved in education (teachers, support workers, education committee members, etc) and in local communities (particularly from members of the Sts’ailes, Seabird, and Kwantlen First Nations). I have learned more about the horrific genocide that has taken place in which Indigenous families had their children taken from them along with their language and culture (and the incredible resiliency of the survivors). In the past 150 years (and longer), the Canadian government used tools of oppression such as Indian Residential Schools (in which children were kidnapped from their families and sent off to a school run by the government with the goal of “killing the Indian in the child”) and methods such as the 60s Scoop (in which Indigenous children were taken from families and placed in foster care); these violent acts in our history move us far away from having the identity of a peaceful nation that has been embraced by so many of us.

CC Image from Nichworby – Fort Providence Indian Residential School https://flic.kr/p/cwR2zf

We need to continue learning our history as a nation and reflect more deeply on the past 150 years.  National Aboriginal Day is on Wednesday, June 21 and I believe this is a great opportunity for educators, students, and families to ask the following questions:

  • What might the past 150 years look like from an Indigenous perspective?
  • Why might Indigenous Peoples NOT be celebrating 150 years?

  • How have the past 150 years been for Indigenous Peoples?

If there is evidence to show that people have been here for over 10,000 years, combined with the effects of colonialism (including the fact that Indigenous Peoples were not even invited to the “birth of Canada” in 1867), you can see why some may not be so big on celebrating “150 years”.

Many of us are proud to be a Canadian but we must also understand that not everyone has lived the privileged Canada that we have experienced; there is a significant portion of our history, some of which continues today, that is not respectful, peaceful or equitable. As a nation, we have much work to do on the journey towards reconciliation. This starts with acknowledging that a settler perspective of our history is vastly different than an Indigenous perspective. We must build an understanding of our real history as a nation and then move to action to reconcile with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

I realize that for many people there is much to celebrate on July 1 and many will still be excited to attend festivities for Canada’s 150th Birthday.  Having said this, I encourage you to take the time to not only attend the celebrations, but ask the aforementioned questions, and learn more about historical oppressive practices like forced moves to “reservation land”, stealing children to send them to Residential Schools, and removing children from families through the 60s Scoop. For regrettable aspects of Canadian history like these, it is no longer ok for us, as Canadians, to say that we didn’t know. If we fail to acknowledge and understand the Indigenous perspective of Canada’s 150 years we continue to promote a colonial culture and further marginalize Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

Enjoy July 1 but please work to be more wide-awake to a different perspective of the past 150 years in Canada.

See below for videos that share some history from a perspective adults were not taught. A powerful quote, “we cannot cling to our ignorance”. (Thank you to Bonnie VanHatten for sharing and for her continued mentorship)

12

Building Staff Culture: The Importance of TRUST

CC Image from T. Vogel https://flic.kr/p/i67wYD

My professional growth plan is focused on building a positive school staff culture. I am no expert in this area but I have been honoured to learn from many others to help with my growth. It is my belief that one of our main roles as principals is to create the conditions for a positive culture. I will be using my blog to share and reflect on my learning journey. 

Through my experience at a number of different schools, and having the honour of being a principal in two of them, I have learned that the 4 Pillars of Positive Organizational Culture in Schools are: strengths-based, collaborative, innovative, and focused. From my experience, these core areas are based on the values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care.  This post will share some my learning journey in the area of building trust (with a focus on building trust between staff and a principal).

In order to create positive change in schools, there must be trust – not only between staff members but also between staff and the principal.  In my first position as a principal, I moved from being a vice-principal to a principal at the same school so people already knew me and had a better idea of what I stood for as an educator. There was a level of trust already there but this was not the case when I moved to a new school.

When I arrived at my current school 3 years ago, I assumed that trust would be easy to build between the staff and me. I felt I was a decent guy with experience as a principal and there was no reason NOT to trust me… so building trust should happen rather quickly. I had plans to work on trust with me (as well as between staff) but I had no idea it would take as long as it did.  I have learned a ton in my 3+ years at James Hill, especially in the area of building trust. It is not something to be rushed and it takes a lot of effort and time to ensure that trusting relationships are solidified.

I am sure there are times when some staff do not have 100% trust in me but I do feel that, overall, there is decent trust built over the past few years. So what have I learned that was successful (and not so successful) in building trust between staff and a principal? Most of the following ideas have been stolen from others but have worked for me:

  1. Listen… really LISTEN. This was an area that I made a few mistakes. In retrospect, I spent a lot of time trying to prove myself by sharing my ideas and thoughts. I needed to spend less time trying to be interesting and more time trying to be interested.  When we shut up and just listen, it shows we care and it shows it is about US rather than about me. When we listen, we give people a chance to share as well as space to think. The best ideas often come from within and these are the easiest to implement; by just listening, we create the conditions for people to think and share great ideas. I have learned to take the notifications off my phone, put the technology away, avoid interrupting and making it about myself, be present… to truly listen.
  2. Make the Time. Schedule Meet ‘n Greets. I stole this idea from Cale Birk. In my first few months at the school, to get to know the staff and practice my listening skills, I created an online schedule and asked people to sign up for a chance to just sit and chat. My goal was to spend 15-20 minutes listening to learn about staff strengths, interests, curiosities, as well as some information about their families. When I put up the schedule… after about a week, nobody signed up! I was feeling disheartened but there was finally one teacher that took a risk and signed up and met with me. After we met, I realized that people assumed that I was planning to run a bit of an “interview” schedule. Whoops! It was a good lesson for me on making sure communication is clear. Once there was clarity of the purpose of these blocks of time (that actually ended up lasting about 30 mins each), staff all signed up and I was able to spend uninterrupted time listening to the thoughts and qualities of teachers and support staff. Using Cale’s idea of “Meet n Greets” was a great start for me to try to build trust with a new staff.
  3. Walk the Talk.  To build trust we must do what we say we are going to do. This is about effective management. For some reason, management has been given a bad rap and been overshadowed by the importance of leadership. Bruce Beairsto shares that leadership and management are the yin and yang – both are equally important and you cannot be effective in one without being effective in the other. As Beairsto says, “Management builds the house, leadership makes it a home.” A key error for me has been focusing too much on the leadership and not on the management. One of the mistakes I have made is saying “yes” to too much. For fear of being unavailable, I said yes to a lot of requests and, in doing this, was not able to follow through with commitments and promises. By not doing what I said I was going to do, I missed opportunities to build trust. I did learn how less is more so I started to say “not at this time” a bit more often and worked hard to follow through with ideas and commitments to actions for staff, students, and families. By focusing on effective management skills such as follow-through and organization, we can build more trust that has a resulting impact on leadership and culture.
  4. Be Visible. Moving to a school in January was a very positive experience. The previous principal had worked incredibly hard to leave the school after tying up as many many loose ends as possible. January and February were months that provided the opportunity for me to spend a lot of time in classrooms with staff and students. Being visible in classrooms led to great dialogue and a better understanding of who we were as a school at that time. If I spent this time in the office, I would have lost so many opportune moments to form connections and build trust.(Hat tip to George Couros for a lot of conversations about this).
  5. Be Transparent. When making decisions, I did my best to share the why. I know decisions were questioned but through this, my goal was to share that, as much as possible, the students were at the centre of these decisions.  It was also important to share which decisions we needed to make together as a staff, which decisions were made for us, and which decisions needed to be made by me (another idea I stole from Cale). It has been far from perfect, and sometimes we agree to disagree, but the transparency has helped people understand the why. When we are less transparent, assumptions can be made which will likely hinder the process of building trust.
  6. Communicate Clearly. As was stated above, unclear communication can cause misunderstandings and assumptions that hinder the building of trust. It is not what is said that is always important… it is what is HEARD that is important. There were some hard lessons of mistakes I made with this so it is important to learn to identify the people within the staff that you can bounce ideas off of and read memos before they are sent out. There are some people that will show trust more quickly than others so tapping into this relationship can be key in getting authentic feedback about communication. As trust builds, also does the number of people available to help you in this area. When what is heard is what is meant, we are not sidetracked by spending time clarifying and backtracking.
  7. Lead With Care. As Stephen M.R. Covey writes in The Speed of Trust, “the motive that inspires the greatest trust is genuine caring.”  Whether it is a decision about students, families, or staff, we must lead with what Nel Noddings would call an “ethic of care”. Our actions model our values so by leading with care, we can create the conditions for a culture of care and build more understanding and trust.
  8. Be Vulnerable. Putting ourselves out there can be hard but very powerful. I am lucky as I have significant privilege (being middle-class, white, heterosexual, male, etc) so this is easier for me to be vulnerable and share who I am (I shared this video of who I am with staff, students and families when I first arrived). Brene Brown shares that “Being, rather than knowing, requires showing up and letting ourselves be seen. It requires us to dare greatly, to be vulnerable.”  There is power in vulnerability… in putting ourselves out there.  As much as we can (again, easier for me), we can share our stories… stories of who we are, what we stand for and stories of both success and struggle. We cannot pretend to be experts; we need to be learners – learners that take risks and sometimes fail. When mistakes are made, I have learned from the feedback of others to own it, apologize for it, change, and move forward to work to repair it.  When we show vulnerability, we show that we are human and this makes relationships and connections stronger; with these relationships comes trust.

Although I thought trusting relationships would occur much more quickly than they did, I am so thankful and fortunate that I had (and still have) a staff that was patient with me through my mistakes, struggles, and eventual successes. Trust takes time but it is crucial in moving to a positive organizational culture. While we are building trust with our staff, we are modeling effective relationships and also working with each other as colleagues to create an environment of trust and a resulting collaborative culture (a topic that will be reflected upon in a future post).

If you have further ideas that would help me and others continue to build trust and grow, please share in the comments section below.