8

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)

7

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. 

 

5

The 4 Pillars of a Positive Staff Culture

Part of 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. 

I have been privileged to work at two different schools in the past 10 years each having their own organizational culture.  Culture is something that is hard to see but we can always feel; it is the vibe of a school – the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours that exist within a school staff. In order to create change in a school, we need to work as a staff to create a positive school culture. As Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” so before we can talk about driving real change and having deep reflective conversations, we need to change the behaviours to change the culture. So how do we do this?

At James Hill, our staff has focused on building positive staff culture for the past few years. Our goal was to build school culture, not by isolated team-building activities but through the important work we do together.

To ensure we were acknowledging the importance of behaviours, we started with creating some norms or commitments for our staff meetings and collaborative time (Hat tip to Cale Birk for the idea). The staff came up with the list below and I am sure you can see some themes that arise from the list.

This set of commitments guides our behaviours and has helped create an environment where the staff meetings are a place safe enough to have those conversations that often take place in the parking lots and staff rooms. Prior to a discussion that may have some opposing views, we remind ourselves of these commitments.

More recently, we have talked about the attributes of an effective staff culture.  Staff shared their experiences both in a positive culture as well as a negative culture. They then captured words to describe a positive culture and the words were put into a wordle (Hat tip to Suzanne Hoffman for the idea).

Through the work we have done as a staff and through my journey with them, as well as my learning with the staff of Kent Elementary (my former school), I have come up with what I believe are the Four Pillars of a Positive School Staff Culture. I am sure there are many more areas that could be used as pillars but these four have been most effective for our schools. The pillars include cultures that are:

  • Strengths-based
  • Collaborative
  • Innovative
  • Focused

As you can see, these four pillars are also based on the values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care. These values weave their way through all four pillars and without them, the pillars can crumble.

In future posts, I will go through the pillars and values in more detail but here is a summary of the 4 pillars.

  • A strength-based culture is one that believes that EVERY staff member has strengths that can be tapped into to benefit the school as a whole. Feedback with staff always starts with strengths (characters and skills), staff memebrs are given the opportunity to determine their strengths, and each staff member is encouraged to use these strengths in the important work with students.
  • A collaborative culture is one that believes the “smartest person in the room is the room itself” (David Weinberger). Staff tap into the strengths of each other and engage in reflective dialogue to drive professional learning forward and create positive change. Trust is a huge part of a collaborative culture and a big change we wanted to make was to move the “parking lot conversations” into the staff meetings. Truly listening to others is such an important way to build trust and a collaborative culture.
  • An innovative culture is one in which educators feel safe to take risks, think critically and creatively, and implement new ideas with support. An important shift we have tried to make is moving from the question, “Can we….” to the question, “HOW can we…”  An important role for principals is to work to provide the resources (time, materials, etc) to build an innovative culture and help good educators become great educators.
  • A focused culture is one that knows the key areas of growth that the school is working on as well as the strategies that can have the most impact in the classroom. With so many ideas, policies, and procedures being sent our way, it is important to be a good filter and keep the staff focused on they vision and mission.  This continues to be my highest area of needed growth.  

The aforementioned pillars are based on important values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care that not only guide our behaviours but also guide our journey toward a positive school culture.

At James Hill, we have had our challenges but have made huge strides in moving toward a positive staff culture. This year has provided so many examples of a staff that sees the strengths in each other (and taps into this), collaborates in scheduled meetings as well as on their own time, and is willing to take more risks to bring new ideas to the classrooms. With a revised curriculum in BC, focus has been a challenge for us but we will continue to grow in this area as we use the other three pillars to help create more focus on our mission and goals as a school.

I look forward to reflecting and sharing not only my learning but also our growth as a school organization to continually become a more positive school culture.

 

 

2

5 Reasons to Rethink Awards Ceremonies

CC image from G. Grossmeier https://flic.kr/p/7Es433

As we near the end of March, many schools have moved into the final term of the year and this often leads to discussions about awards ceremonies in schools.

I recently had the honour of travelling to Red Deer, Alberta to present on the topic of rethinking rewards and awards in schools (view slides here). This was such an honour as Red Deer is the hometown of a late friend of mine, Joe Bower, so I was able to meet his father, brother, and wife during my time there. Joe was a strong critic of the use of rewards and awards in schools and he and I had regular dialogue on the topic. My keynote was a tribute to all Joe taught me and all he stood for as an educator. A special thank you to David Martin for bringing me there; it was wonderful to finally meet him and his wife and to see that he is an even better guy in person than he is online. 

Jim and Jeff Bower – father and brother of the late Joe Bower.

When I say that we need to rethink awards in schools, many people immediately think that I believe in awards for every child. This is far from the truth; when I share that we need to rethink awards, I think we need to move away from awards altogether.  I have been privileged to work at two schools that have moved away from awards (I acknowledge that this is an easier move at elementary school than high school) to a system that works to honour all students for their strengths and growth. The lack of awards has not taken away from our academic achievement and has helped to create a more supportive and collaborative school community. Although many of these ideas overlap, here are my 5 main reasons to rethink awards in schools.

Although many of these ideas overlap, here are my 5 main reasons to rethink awards in schools:

  1. Awards shift the focus from the process (learning) to the result (award).  Whenever we offer a reward or an award for doing something, we risk shifting the focus to this extrinsic offering. There are over 50 years of research in the world of social sciences that have shown this over and over again. By focusing on the award, students use skills that give them the best chance to win the award: compliance (no risk-taking), point-gathering (and grovelling), getting noticed, and beating others. Why be creative and take risks when this can lessen your chances of getting an award? We also risk defining value of our students based on awards. If they win, they are valued… if they do not win, then what?  Also, if we feel that awards motivate students, we have to consider that awards only motivate those students who have a chance of winning. Seeing that a similar group of students win each year, do we really think that awards motivate a good number of our students? Are awards the best tool we can use to “motivate” students?
  2. Awards are not always about excellence. They are mostly about simply being better than those around you.  One argument that schools often make is that awards portray excellence. My argument is that they might highlight excellent results for a select few students in a certain area but they are more about excellence relative to those peers around you. Awards are often for the “top” student in a certain category so in order to win, you simply need to be better than your peers. If you are in a school that believes that awards are essential, why not have a standard? Why not have multiple winners if multiple people achieve that bar? Also, I often wonder what population of students deems the “top student” award acceptable – a class of 5? 50? 100? A student in a smaller school/class will have an advantage as they have to “beat” fewer classmates. It is also important to remember that even at Harvard, 99% of students are not in the top 1% of their class (HT to Todd Rose for this reminder). If awards were so crucial to excellence and success, why do we not have awards in our families for the best child? Parent awards in schools and communities? Teacher awards in schools?
  3. Awards encourage a culture of competition and inhibit a culture of collaboration. I am not opposed to competition; I play sports, I have coached sports for a number of years and I hate to lose. I believe there is a role for competition in life but we need to be careful when we add competition into learning and education. Success in a competitive culture is about defeating others at all costs.  Why would we collaborate when it could build success in those around us and lessen our chances of winning? We can also create an attitude of superiority in that we have students that, even if they do not say it, they may believe that they are better than others… and why would they think this? Because we tell them this with the awards! Why would a student collaborate with a “lesser student” if this could risk bringing their own achievement down (in their eyes)? In the end, education is not a zero-sum game (winners and losers); if we try to truly personalize education for our students, how can some be winners and others be losers? If we believe competition is important, make it a choice – encourage students who enjoy competition to enter contests so at least those who have no desire to compete are not forced into a contest. Competition for awards in schools is nothing like the world outside of school. Outside of school, we CHOOSE to enter competitions and often choose to enter competitions that we have a chance at being successful. With awards, we force kids into a competitive game and then we create the criteria and select the winners (and losers) in learning.  If you are a strong believer in competition in the classroom, perhaps use more ‘competitive collaboration’ that occurs when students work together (stealing ideas is encouraged) in healthy competition against other groups and learning/innovation wins (see more on this from George Couros here).
  4. Awards assume that ALL students learn at the same rate and have the same opportunities. In this awards game, we assume that students all start at the same point when they come to us in September and then reward the person that finishes best. If a student comes in to the school year way ahead of his/her peers and they finish only slightly ahead of their peers, is this the best learner? Has this child achieved the most growth?  There are so many factors that affect a child’s achievement (beyond his/her control) such as: family and home life, mental health, date of birth, genetics, parent education, socioeconomics, income and educational opportunities, language, and parent social and cultural capital. So, in saying this, are awards (particularly those in elementary schools) more for the students… or the parents? I also often wonder at what age is it appropriate to start offering awards – preschool? primary? intermediate? middle? high school? Why at this age?  Each child is different so it is important for us to honour each student’s educational journey throughout their time with us.
  5. Awards offer a narrow criteria of success.  By only offering awards for select criteria and for a select few students, how many students are missed? Again, I am not saying we should give awards to every student, I am trying to show reasons to rethink. How many students have strengths or show awesome growth but then are told that they are not valued at the year-end awards ceremony?  What kind of hierarchy of education do we create when success in certain areas of learning are valued more than others. As we move away from a focus on percents, how do we decide the winner? (I have been part of some intense debates as both an intermediate and high school teacher as staff fight for their student to be named the winner). If we believe ALL students have strengths and ALL students can learn, how do our awards ceremonies align with this belief?

Instead of naming a student who is THE best, our goal as a school should be to work to bring out the best in EVERY student.

Does an awards ceremony at the end of the year that honours a select few students based on narrowly defined criteria bring out the best in every student? The concerns around awards far outweigh the benefits so I encourage you to start the conversation to rethink awards in your school.

For more posts similar to this on rethinking awards ceremonies, click here. For an example of a different way of honouring students, see below. 

Thank you to David Martin for the opportunity to share! (pictured with his wife, Jenn)


At our school, although we do not have a “replacement” for awards at our school, we have chosen to honour every grade 5 (we are K-5) in the school during monthly assemblies. At some point through the year, students are selected (alphabetically) to be honoured by standing up in front of the school and having the principal share their strengths, interests, and virtues. (Students complete a survey in which they share what they believe are their strengths (character strengths and talents) as well as a few interests. Teachers also share what they believe are the students’ strengths and interests.) 

  • Example: Teachers believe Tim is 
    • an enthusiastic and engaging student who gives the impression he is always mulling something over –  has a very active mind
    • just as able to work independently as he is with a partner or in a small group
    • a “hands on learner” who is quick to begin work on assignments and check for understanding if he is unsure of himself
    • creative thinker
    • very capable student in Mathematics – he seeks to master and apply concepts and really enjoys tackling challenging problems and finding multiple solutions
    • enjoys sharing his learning during class discussion 

    Tim says that:  

    Inside of school, loves: P.E, Math, Art
    Outside of school Loves: Piano, Video games, Swimming
    Character strengths: Creativity, Curiosity
    Skills: Math, Video games
    Wants to be a Scientist Architect Engineer
    Wants to people to know he LOVES ice cream
    Advice: anybody can be anything if you try hard enough


 

 

 

 

0

Moving Beyond the Sit ‘n Git Model of Professional Development

This post was originally written for the Canadian Education Association in 2015. I believe it is still relevant and important today. 

I often wonder if what we see as teaching at professional learning events would be acceptable in a high school classroom. If the purpose of professional development (Pro-D) is professional learning, then what is our evidence that learning does, in fact, occur? Are we using effective teaching practices in Pro-D?

Although Pro-D is evolving, the “Sit‘n’Git” way of learning seems to still be alive and well in many conferences and workshops throughout Canada and the U.S. In the past five years, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat in a large conference room for a number of hours with hundreds of other dedicated educators and not been provided with the opportunity to even talk to the person beside me. People are spending hundreds and thousands of dollars to attend these events to listen to a series of lengthy lectures without the opportunity to network and wrestle with the presented ideas. I’m not opposed to a keynote address to start off the day with some inspiring, thought-provoking ideas; however, if there is no opportunity to take these ideas and move deeper, many of the thoughts that are initiated in the keynote get lost as I move on to the next session or listen to the next presenter. It’s no secret that in order for deeper learning to occur, we must DO something with a new concept; we must apply new learning to take it from an idea to implementation. Our current typical model of Pro-D makes deeper learning a challenge and often only leaves participants with a few ideas that are unfortunately left on the shelf with the many glossy white binders from workshops of years past. At some point we need to stand up and say that a high volume of “Sit‘n’Git” style of Pro-D is no longer acceptable and is an insult to those who have spent money, time, and effort to attend. While doing this, we also need to rethink the conference model and professional learning so that it better aligns with what we want to see in classrooms.

There are many articles written about rethinking professional learning (for example – http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/04/20/is-the-pd-day-broken/ and http://www.cea-ace.ca/sites/cea-ace.ca/files/cea_fone_teacherpd.pdf) For me, the experience needs to be relevant, continual, and collaborative. As educators, we need time to take an idea, wrestle with it, discuss it, and then plan for implementation. Ideally, there should also be time for follow up with reflective dialogue either as a staff or as a group.

In B.C., the current learning model for teachers is five to six separate (often not aligned, surface level) PD days, monthly staff meetings, and (optional) after school workshops. Is this the best we can do? We know the importance of professional autonomy, so how do we offer this and also ensure that professional learning moves beyond surface level workshops or lectures that give participants the chance to mentally opt out? What is our collective responsibility as schools and districts to create the conditions for deeper learning that affects positive change?

It will likely be some time before we completely rethink Pro-D, so how do we make the best use of our current model?

One of the most effective ways to create change is to focus on the bright spots and build from there. There is a powerful movement of professional learning opportunities that have moved away from the “Sit’n’Git” model to one that taps into the strengths of participants and creates more opportunities for networking. All of these require TIME and it is important for us to change the question from “CAN we provide time for Pro-D?” to “HOW CAN we provide more time for effective, ongoing professional learning?”. 

Here are eight ideas to move us beyond the “Sit’n’Git”:

1. NETWORKING/COLLABORATION TIME AT CONFERENCES – We don’t have to blow up our system; we can start small and ensure that there is important “blank” space in between workshops or following keynotes for teams or groups of people to move the learning deeper. Within workshops, always provide time for participants to DO something with their learning; move from the “sit’n’git” to the “make’n’take”. We can use models that encourage inspiring ideas (keynote, workshop) as well as the time to take the WHY of ideas and move to the WHAT and HOW. I am excited to present in Red Deer next week at the Central Alberta Teachers Convention and they have the Thursday planned for presentations and workshops and the Friday planned for networking – a great way to take the new ideas and dive deeper the following day. 

2. TEACHER ACTION RESEARCH – B.C. teacher, Jennifer Delvecchio, shared a grassroots concept of a“growing learners/pedagogy from within” group of teachers that used some of the allocated Pro-D days – along with school supported time (and some of their own time) – to take a concept and spiral deeper over time. Teachers looked at published research and then reflected on their own practices to question and implement change to benefit student learning. By continually analyzing practice in their own classrooms and making the time to meet a priority, they were able to use the published research in a way that actually created positive change in their classrooms. By tapping into teachers’ curiosity and providing small bits of time for reflective dialogue based on gathered evidence of student learning, we can drive powerful professional learning forward. I have seen the power of this in the past 2 schools in which I have served as principal. Teachers (and staff) have used professional development days, after school workshops, and collaboration time (in addition to their own time) to continually meet with a partner or small group and spiral deeper in their learning. This has a significant impact on student learning and the learning conditions in the classroom (see #3).

3. COLLABORATIVE TIME AND INQUIRY – For the past 2 years in the Langley School District, time that was previously allocated into two learning days in the year has been spread out over the year in the form of six collaboration mornings (80 minutes each). This model is more organic and teacher-driven than the typical professional learning community (PLC) model as educators are encouraged to choose an inquiry question with a small group of colleagues and then take the time to spiral deeper into their inquiry (see Spirals of Inquiry by Halbert and Kaser).  Another example of providing small bits of collaboration time at a school level (based on the passions and curiosities of staff) can be read here.

4. IGNITE EVENTS – Ignite sessions can feel kind of like an “underground” professional learning experience where a number of people meet and listen to others share a story, an idea, or an experience through a short series of slides (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide). There is some sit’n’git but the best part about the events is the networking that occurs before, during, and after the series of five-minute presentations that plant seeds of conversations.

5. EDCAMPS – More and more districts and even some schools are offering Edcamps as a way to tap into the strengths and knowledge of participants. With no formal set agenda and no formal lectures, participants bring their topics to the day and help facilitate conversation on participants’ areas of interest. The challenge with Edcamp, along with many of these participant-driven events, is keeping the passionate dialogue going beyond the event.

6. RETHINKING STAFF MEETINGS – Many schools are making professional learning the focus of staff and department meetings. If information can be sent out in a memo/email, leave it off the agenda and free up time for engaging discussions and reflections on student learning. Something as simple as “what have you tried since the last workshop/conference/collaboration that has had an impact (small or large) on student learning?” should be discussed at staff meetings. Cale Birk is doing some great work on Learner-Centered Design (LCD) that shows the power on redesigning the time we spend together learning as a staff.

7. INSTRUCTIONAL ROUNDS – The Kamloops School District has been exploring the use of Instructional Rounds (based on the work out of Harvard as a way to provide ongoing dialogue and reflections based on non-judgmental observations of educators by educators). The challenge is providing release time for rounds to take place but if a district is willing to consider HOW money is spent on professional learning, instructional rounds should be on the table.

8. SOCIAL MEDIA – There are many different platforms (Twitter, blogging, etc.) that can continue conversations past the event (and also help with the sharing of good ideas). Social media can help to connect people in areas of passion or curiosity who can have conversation that can lead to deeper dialogue in other platforms. Dean Shareski challenges us to connect with one person at an event and keep the conversation going beyond that event.

The Sit’n’Git, single event idea of Pro-D does not align with what we know about teaching, nor about professional learning. We need a sense of urgency to create change in this area. Start small. Build on what is working. Let’s work together to making professional learning more relevant and continual so it leads to deeper change in education.

5

How taking email off my phone helped me win the inbox battle and live more in the moment

CC Image – Dean Shareski https://flic.kr/p/4wpGFf

There were moments in the past few years when my inbox reached over 1000 unread emails. I felt like I was drowning each time I looked at my Outlook or my phone email app.

I remember when I used to take pride in how “connected” I was – how I could be contacted at almost any time and how I could connect with so many others in so many ways.  Then I started to realize that being so connected was actually causing me to disconnect with those right in front of me – my family, my friends, my colleagues. I was missing so many moments because I was either staring at a screen or sitting there pondering how I should respond to a challenging email, tweet, or post.

I decided to take ALL notifications (other than texts) off my phone so I could stay more in the moment. It was about at this time when I realized (ok, my wife helped me to realize) I had a problem because although not having notifications helped me to focus more, I was still checking my phone many times each hour… and now I was not just checking the notifications but I was opening up the apps to see if there were notifications. #fail

New plan. I was still convinced that I needed to be connected for work purposes and that Twitter and Facebook were the problem so I took these apps off my phone.  This worked wonderfully as I was not being drawn into conversations and I was able to be way more in the moment when I was either with family and friends or at work.

There was still a big problem. I felt that in order to keep up with the many (often over 100) emails each day, I needed to regularly check my emails on my phone. I was convinced that if I did not do this, I would fall way behind in the inbox battle. I started to read more books on increasing focus, organizing my mind and life, and disconnecting more often. In almost every one of these books, they gave the same recommendation: only access email from your computer and only do this at certain times during the time at work. I recall thinking that, “yeah, that may work for some people but, as a principal, I get over 100 emails a day… this is not going to work”.  I continued this addictive pattern of regularly checking my emails on my phone to keep up with all the emails.

About a year ago, I happened to be sitting next to a colleague, George Kozlovic, a high school principal whom I have a ton of respect for and who seems to be well connected in the world of education, and he happened to share that he did not have email on his phone.  Wait a minute… the principal of one of the largest high schools in the province does not need to have emails on his phone? I pressed for more info and he said the same thing that the books said – he checked it only from his computer when his purpose was to check emails. Hmmm…. Koz got me thinking.

Last summer, I needed some pure family time so I did it… I took email off my phone (I can just hear how “proud” my dad would be of me for this “gigantic” step… haha #notsomuch … as he shakes his head about people on those stupid phones).  Yes, this is a no-brainer for many people like my dad but for me, this was a significant step. What if someone needed to contact me about the school? What if someone needed something? How many emails would I have when I checked in a few days???  It was the summer so I thought it would be an easier step to see if these were actually real questions to be worried about.

Freedom! Wow, the fact that I could not check my emails from work freed me up to just simply BE. I could BE a dad. I could BE a husband. I could BE me! I would forget where I left my phone more often as I didn’t check it. I was less interrupted and got into “flow” more often doing tasks I wanted to do (as research continues to show how ineffective multi-tasking is for getting anything done). After a couple weeks (yes, 2 weeks) of no emails, I checked my email expecting to learn something huge about school or work and to get that inbox drowning feeling again… but I had hardly any new emails and none of these were urgent. I did this for the rest of the summer checking emails every 1-2 weeks… but could I really do this during the school year?

I kept email off my phone and started the year. I knew that I could check webmail through a browser on my phone but the extra steps that are required somehow prevented me from checking email. Once I left work, I left my emails. On weekends, no email until Sunday night. When I was home… I was home. After 9 months of this, here is what I have learned:

  • If you always check your email… you will think you always have email to read/write.
  • By not checking emails so often, I write way fewer emails. Because I write way fewer emails, I get way fewer replies. The number of emails I get each day is about half of what I used to get.
  • Many emails that I once thought I needed to respond to… I now know do not always require a response. The string of “reply-all” emails can be scanned and deleted rather quickly (unless it this conversation is a priority).
  • Sometimes an email is sent to me and by the time I check in the morning, the issue has been resolved. By being so available, I was making myself more needed than was necessary. If it is something urgent, all staff and colleagues have my cell number but people do not want to interrupt family time.  I think people believe that email is less intrusive as it is up to the receiver to check their inbox… which I now know is true. Staff will now send an email knowing that I will likely not respond until the next day.
  • I am more focused during email time and I believe I write more effective emails. I found when I used to email on my phone, my emails were less professional and much quicker (especially my responses). Now, my emails are a bit longer but I feel have more clarity with a more professional tone.
  • I can accomplish way more in a day than before. It takes minutes to get back to what we are doing each time we get distracted so being pulled away by emails causes everything else to take longer.
  • I am winning the inbox war. My inbox rarely gets above 10-15 emails that require a response and I can often get this back down to zero in the morning before school.
  • In the evenings and on weekends, I am only at work when I choose to be at work. I still need to work many weeknights and some hours on the weekends but I am not drawn into a work mindset by an email that comes on my phone. I can also now be on my computer working at night and not check my emails which also increases work efficiency.

I realize there are people that are reading this and thinking, “Wejr, man, you had a problem when you were tied to your phone that much”… and they would be right.  I wasn’t alone, though. Even at work, in meetings, an email would be sent to our admin team and I would hear phone after phone buzz or beep and see people like me leave the moment to check our phones. That WAS me. I was so worried about missing out on something from outside that meeting… that I was missing out on the discussions taking place inside the meeting.

We live in a time where there is an expectation to always be connected. This is a trend and expectation that needs to stop. At our last admin meeting, our superintendent provided some wise words and encouraged us to avoid checking email between Friday evening and Sunday evening to help with wellness. Many educators have a concerning work:life (lack of) balance so strategies like this are important to implement. I encourage people to take an additional step to take the notifications off and, even better, get the emails off your phones.

Yup, I did have a problem with a bit of an addiction to checking emails and a problem with feeling like I was drowning in my inbox – but I think I have solved this one. By taking email off my phone, I am winning the inbox battle and living way more in the moment that is right in front of me.

 

4

10 Secrets to Raising an Award-Winning Student (a slightly cynical post)

It is no secret that I have concerns with the focus on awards in schools. For the past 9 years, I have been privileged to work as a principal in two different school communities who have both moved away from traditional awards ceremonies. As someone once told me, “we need to be hard on ideas and soft on people” – this is a satirical criticism of the IDEA of traditional awards ceremonies in schools and is meant to highlight issues with (and challenge people to rethink) the use of these in schools, and is NOT meant to be a criticism of parents nor educators. 

CC Image from Abhijit Mhetre https://flic.kr/p/9aJMYw

CC Image from Abhijit Mhetre https://flic.kr/p/9aJMYw

Defeating others is crucial to the success of our children, and it is our role, as educators and parents, to prepare our students for the big bad real world that is out there that will eat you up and spit you out. I was having trouble sleeping last night so I came up with a list that will help me raise my kids as well as my students to become better than others and win more traditional awards at school.

10 Secrets to Raising an Award-Winning Student:

  1. Have parents with a post-secondary education. There is much research to support a correlation between parent education and student achievement. This is not really a secret so, if you want a student to win academic awards, it is important that the child’s parents have something beyond a high school education. (I realize there is exceptions to this but the correlation is pretty clear)
  2. Have parents with higher income. There is also a correlation between socioeconomic status and traditional achievement in schools so, again, it makes a difference if the parents have more financial and cultural capital to access more support and educational opportunities.
  3. Be born in the first 3 months of the year. Schools organize students by date of birth (or as Sir Ken says, “date of manufacture”) so being born in at the start of the year can give a student a significant advantage. In Canada, a child born in January could have almost 12 months of advantage through growth and development as compared to a peer born in late December (some states use September as the cut-off so it would be a similar comparison to a child born in September and a child born in August).  Although the date of birth has less of an impact as the student get older, it makes a difference in schools for early learning opportunities and resulting student confidence and self-efficacy.
  4. Place the majority of the focus on getting good grades. Many awards are decided based on who has the top marks in the grade level so getting a good percentage and/or GPA is essential to cleaning up the awards. Therefore, it is important to pay less attention to soft skills and the process of learning and more attention to getting good grades. The 0.1% in the grade book can make the difference between an award-winner and an award-loser so it is important to ask for bonus marks and do everything to collect the most points in school.
  5. Avoid collaboration. Remember that the people around your child/student stand in the way of him/her winning the award. Awards are only won by defeating those around you so, by collaborating, you could be hurting your chances as you may be making those around you that much better.
  6. Avoid courses that challenge the student. As was stated in #4, the goal is to get top marks so by enrolling in courses that are not an area of strength and that are challenging for the student could result in lower marks. Also, I have heard that students can enrol in courses with “easy-markers” (I am not sure what this means though) so this could help their chances at winning as well.
  7. Self-promotion is key. Decisions on awards are sometimes made as a team so it is important that academic accomplishments are shared so everyone knows the top grades and other achievements that have been attained. Also, awards are heavily based on short-term extrinsic motivation so self-promotion, along with the focus on grades, will help keep the emphasis on the extrinsic (rather than intrinsic).
  8. Attend a small school.  Winning awards is not about achieving some standard or level, it is simply about being better than those around you. If you attend a smaller school, you have a much better chance of winning as there are fewer students around you.
  9. Give awards out in the home and community.  Because awards mean that we stand for excellence, it is important to also give awards in your home to your top child. This will not only highlight excellence but also help teach the other child that loses the award how to cope in the big, bad real world. Outside the home, work with the community to give top parent awards and top children awards so families and community members can also compete with each other in the promotion of excellence.
  10. Comply, comply, comply. A great way to getting top marks is to colour inside the lines and think inside the box. Do not question the way things are done or try to be creative and do things in new ways as this may mean that you will not do exactly what the school is asking and, therefore, risk getting lower grades. There is a game within in school and those who learn the rules of “doing” school well and comply, collect the most points, and beat those around them… win!

As you can see, there are so many variables that are beyond the control of our students that impact who wins the traditional awards in schools.  Parent education, parent financial and cultural capital, student month of birth, school size, etc all provide some students with an advantage and leaves others with a disadvantage. We, as educators, often express concerns about school rankings because of these aforementioned factors yet we rarely question the ranking (well, ranking by placing at the top) of students in schools that are affected by these same factors.  Most of the time, parents and students are doing the best they can but face hurdles outside their control which can affect achievement at school. As a community, we need to help ALL students go over/around these hurdles so we can create the conditions to bring out the best in each of them. Having said this, we need to ask ourselves, as a school community, if traditional awards ceremonies actually promote excellence and bring out the best or if they simply promote achievement using narrow criteria defined by adults within the building. Are awards the best we can do to highlight student learning and growth in our schools?

I am not saying that the answer is to “give awards to everyone” (which I oppose) as this creates a whole different issue; I am saying, though, that we need to rethink how we honour our students and we need to create new ways of promoting excellence and celebrating learning that goes beyond our traditional awards ceremonies in schools.

Please do not tell me thoughts like these are creating this “enabled” generation of millennial adults (whatever that means.. apparently I just missed the cut-off to being a Millennial). The vast majority of schools still use traditional awards and millennial adults went through schools that used awards… so if a lack of responsibility and independence is a concern (which is a valid concern), let’s talk about this and discuss strategies we can use every day to improve this for our children and community.

The late Joe Bower and I had many conversations on this topic and I feel like these thoughts are a tribute to him. Check out one of his posts on this topic here.

 

0

Find the Fireflies: Create the Conditions for Them to Shine

Through my work in promoting a strengths-based education and culture in schools, the question often gets raised: where do we to start? People often agree that to bring out the best in people, shifting our lens to a strengths-based approach is where we want and need to go but the thought of working to embrace the strengths of all of our students can be a bit overwhelming.

My challenge to people is to start with strengths by starting with ONE. Find one student who you observe to lack connection and that possibly has strengths of skill and/or character that might not being revealed and embraced at school.  Take the TIME to get to know this student at a deeper level and work to determine his/her strengths. A few minutes a day of focused time to simply listen can build trust and provide an opportunity to learn and tap into the strengths of a student (think of the difference this would make in a school If every staff member started with one). When we take the time to listen and determine the strengths, we build strong connections and a clearer understanding of how to better engage the child in school.

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-8-42-41-pmOne of my favourite analogies about starting with one is from Rachel Macy Stafford. She writes about how, in schools, we often see the butterflies. They are easy to spot and see their strengths; they fly beautifully in school. She challenges us to find the fireflies – those students who only shine under the right conditions – and to work to create the conditions for these students to shine more often.

When we start with the strengths of one student, that one firefly, we can make a huge difference to this student. If everyone starts with one, we slowly shift the culture of a school to a strengths-based culture; a culture in which fewer students’ strengths go unnoticed and an environment in which our fireflies have a chance to truly shine.

Start with one. #StartWithStrengths. Find your firefly.

For a deeper look into a strengths-based approach to education and leadership, check out my recent TEDx talk here and below.

1

Sports Day: Shifting From Competition to Inclusion

IMG_6764Last year at James Hill, we made the decision to move away from points and 1st-4th place finishes for our annual elementary school Sports Day. We felt that the focus on points and winning was misaligned with the goal of the day. Seeing students and parents arguing with grade 6/7 student facilitators about who finished 2nd and 3rd in the “Rubber Chicken Relay” made it fairly clear that something needed to change.

I want to be clear that I am not opposed to competition (ask anybody I have coached or played with or against) and there is a role for healthy competition in youth development. I am not the guy that thinks we should give out participation trophies for everyone for just showing up at a tournament but I do think that we often put the focus on winning when the focus should be on development (that is for another post.. in the meantime, check out Changing the Game Project). I do think that our school’s “Sports Day” (which does not really involve a single “sport” and could be renamed) is a day in which the main purposes are fun, teamwork, and movement.

Last year, I did have some questions from parents asking if not focusing on competition was ill preparing our kids for the “real world”. I understand this concern and we do provide opportunities for our older students to compete in floor hockey, track, cross country, basketball and other artistic and academic competitions. For Sports Day, I strongly believe we need to align our activities with the purpose and goals of the event. I am not sure, though, if winning the “Bottle Fill Relay” is the real goal of sports day and helps to prepare our six-year-olds for when they are 18 and entering the world beyond school.  I do know that focusing on movement, fun, and teamwork is a great way to spend a day together as a school community.

When we moved away from the competitive nature of the day, we saw some significant improvements in teamwork, inclusion and fun. People were cheering each other on right through the duration of the activity and often there became a side-event that created even more fun for our students. For example, in our Bottle Fill Relay, rather than the only goal being to fill up the bottle the fastest, our grade 5s started splashing each other as they participated in the event and this resulted in more cheers, laughs, and smiles.  A teacher also recently shared this story with me:

Not having the points and placings has really helped to create more of an inclusive sports day. In the past, when a child with any type of physical or mental struggle(s) was placed on a team, there were statements whispered like, “now we are never going to win.” or “there goes our chances”. She went on to say that this year, not having the overt competitive aspect created the conditions that brought out the best in teams. Students were working together and cheering each other on more than in past years. The goal was not to finish first but, for some students, to simply finish with smiles. Those teams that had a child with physical and/or mental disabilities on their team looked to him/her as an asset rather than a liability (it bothers me to say that students looked at others as a liability in the past but for some, it was unfortunately true). Students with struggles were cheered MORE for their efforts and their accomplishments. Nobody said “oh man, we have Steven..”, they said, “let’s go, STEVEN, we can do this!”. More kids cheered. More kids participated. This was the most inclusive sports day ever.

The key lesson for me is that our purpose needs to guide our actions. Is there a role for competition in schools? I believe there is but elementary sports day should be about movement, fun, teamwork, and creating the conditions to bring out the best in ALL our kids.  Kids will still be competitive with each other in a fun way; however, when we shift our focus away from competition, we get more collaboration, more fun, and more inclusion.