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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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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.

4 Comments

  1. Really love your work and thinking Chris. I’m going to make an effort to come out in person one of these trips to the coast. Also your girls rocked on the Twilight Zone. Cheers

    • Thanks so much, Dean! It has been far too long… would be great to see you again! I will pass your message on to the girls too. 🙂

  2. Fantastic story Chris – a great approach that shows respect for those before and a clever strategy to build your own future with the collaborative efforts of those lucky enough to have you as a Principal
    Thanks for sharing

  3. Another great reflection Chris. Your focus on collaboration, risks and ongoing professional development In some ways, reminded me of the work that I was a part of a few years ago using disciplined collaboration as the framework.

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