9

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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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.

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Working With Children With Challenging Behaviours? This Changes Everything

CC image from Madstreetz https://flic.kr/p/3n5Rik

CC image from Madstreetz https://flic.kr/p/3n5Rik

There is a simple mistake that the vast majority of us as parents and educators make when dealing with challenging behaviours: we focus on the behaviour.

When we focus on the problem behaviour, most of our theories and strategies involve attempting to get less of this behaviour. We bribe with rewards for when the behaviour might not be present and we punish when the behaviour does occur. This type of “behaviour intervention” makes a HUGE assumption… that the behaviour is a motivation problem.  We assume that if we can “motivate” (bribe/punish) the child to the thing we want him to do, after enough intervention, he will do it more often. Dr. Ross Greene says this is the philosophy that “Kids do well if they wanna [do well].”  This often “works” for the kids who don’t really have any significant challenges with behaviours (although when we try to “catch kids being good”, we end up teaching many kids to be good at getting caught being good and create further problems of kids wanting something in return for doing the right thing) but I have yet to see this work for the students who need the intervention the most.  In fact, I have often seen this approach work against students with behaviour challenges; we put a carrot out there (if you do this, we will give you this), the student then realizes he/she is not going to get the reward, and this actually brings out the problem behaviour that we do not want to see. If all we focus is on the challenging behaviour, we miss the most important part: the opportunity to create collaborative solutions for the underlying problems.

By assuming that challenging behaviour is a motivation problem… we forget that behaviour is a SKILL. Behind every action in kids (and adults) are numerous skills that people have learned over the years.  Skills like problem-solving, self-regulation, listening, critical thinking, empathy, academics, and many others all play a role in how we behave. This is the BIG idea that changes everything about working with kids with challenging behaviours: “Kids do well if they CAN… if they could do well, the would do well. Something must be getting in the way” (Dr. Ross Greene). This lens changes our role as educators and parents; our role then becomes members of a team that has the task of finding out what is getting in the way.

Kids do well if they can…. NOT kids do well if they wanna. When we make this shift in philosophy, we see that behaviour challenges are a result of a lagging skill and/or unsolved problem. By focusing on the lagging skills, we can actually teach kids the needed skills in a way that prevents the behaviour from occurring. I have used the philosophy for a number of years and it has been proven more effective than any other behaviour support I have used; this should not be shocking because when we view behaviour as a skill, our most important job is to teach!  If a child struggles with reading, we teach. If a child struggles with behaviours, we don’t simply bribe and punish… we teach.

Greene shares with us a few keys to working with kids with behaviour challenges:

  1. Kids do well if they can. Focus on determining the lagging skills and unsolved problems that are causing the behaviour.  Challenging kids are challenging when the demands of a task outstrip their skill level. We need to stop obsessing on behaviour.  Instead, we should be emphasising problems (and solving them) rather than on behaviours (and modifying them – when we solve the problems the behaviours are modified).  Expectations are important so we need to reflect on what our expectations so we can determine what our student may be having problem meeting. We also need to ensure that the bar for these expectations are close to the skill level of our students… much like we do with other aspects of teaching.
  2. Solutions must be collaborative and proactive. Too often, solutions we (as adults) come up with are done TO the child and what we need to be doing is coming up with solutions to unsolved problems (and lagging skills) WITH the child. This does not mean collaborating on consequences… this means collaborating on solutions to problems. (Note: I am not opposed to consequences that are logical and restorative but I think we too often believe that this will solve the problem when, if it is due to a lagging skills or unsolved problem, it rarely solves it and actually exacerbates the problem). Nobody likes a plan done to them yet we do this to kids with behaviour challenges all the time… and it often makes it worse.
  3. Model empathy and care.  When determined the lagging skills and unsolved problems and we work collaboratively as a team with the child, we show we care and can empathize with his/her struggles in certain skill areas.

I have tried to use this philosophy for a number of years with great success, but for some reason, I seemed to have recently sidetracked myself about it. This year, I have continually focused on the behaviours and dealing with what seemed to be crisis management without working hard to understand the underlying unsolved problems. As Greene says, “The more crisis management you do, the more crisis management you do.”  We have done a ton of crisis management this year and have done very little of focused discussions on determining lagging skills and unsolved problems and then working collaboratively to help teach the skills and solve these problems. Four members of our staff recently attended a 2-day workshop with Greene and it all came back to me; we realized we have made a number of decisions at school that have not helped with our students struggling with behaviours. We have been focused on behaviours and doing our “solutions” TO kids rather than with them. In the coming weeks and into next year, I look forward to our core team working to use Greene’s approach and working with staff and families to create more success for our students.

The challenge with this approach is that it takes so long. It takes so much time. It requires time for collaboration with staff and collaboration with the struggling students. The other side of this, though, is that our other attempts to provide intervention (that have not worked) have taken tons of time yet they have got us not much further ahead (and maybe even further behind) than we were at the start of the year. So the question is: how can we NOT make the time to work together to do something that has proven to work? Much like when a child struggles with reading, we make the time as best we can. The added challenge to problem behaviour (which is often tied to academics) is that it can affect the learning environment for staff and students… which is why it is that much more important to make the time to engage in this process.  The least that we can do is consider shifting our philosophy. If we don’t, we will simply continue to spin our wheels and end up with students and staff who are more stressed with bigger struggles that we had before. (an important additional comment by Steve MacGregor on Twitter: there needs to be a core group or a team approach to make this truly effective.)

We need to rethink how we approach behaviour in our schools. We need to move away from a program that focuses on behaviour (and attempting to change with carrots and sticks) and move toward a philosophy that seeks first to understand the unsolved problems and/or lagging skills, then help solve the problems and teach the needed skills.  This changes everything.

I highly recommend Dr. Ross Greene’s workshops and books (particularly Lost at School). You can also do a “walking tour” of his Collaborative and Proactive Solutions and get tons of free resources (like the ALSUP – Assessment of Unsolved Problems and Lagging Skills) on his Lives in the Balance website

NOTE: I understand that life is full of choices and there are times when behaviour is a choice. I am writing primarily about significant behaviour challenges in this post that we often assume are choices (but have been shown in my experience and many that Greene has worked with) to be caused by underlying unsolved problems. Also, Greene is very clear that PBIS (Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports) does not align with this philosophy as the focus is often on changing behaviour (with positive rewards/prizes/tickets) rather than determining lagging skills and working collaboratively to solve them.

I also like the term “unexpected behaviours” (rather than problem or challenging behaviours) that my friend Karen Copeland has encouraged me to use. The goal of the approach in this post is to make these behaviours more expected because when we know what is causing them, we can work collaboratively to prevent them from occurring. 

For a quick preview to Greene’s approach, watch the video below.

 

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Inclusion Through Strengths: Learning With Logan

Note: this story of inclusion is shared with the encouragement and permission of Logan’s mother.

Logan has been at James Hill Elementary since kindergarten. During this time, it has been easy to pick out all of his challenges – his struggles to read and write, self-regulate emotions, say the right things (and not swear), and his struggles to build real friendships. He has Autism and Tourette Syndrome and the journey n school has been a roller coast of emotions for Logan and his family as he faced a few good days combined with many, many challenging ones. (There was a time when we almost made the mistake of planning a half-day program because he was not having successful afternoons – thankfully, we listened to his family andworked together to create an afternoon plan that tapped into his strengths and interests and created success.)

As Logan has grown, his interests in things like animals (particularly reptiles and insects) were noted and encouraged by staff and his family to be used in school through a variety of projects. One of his grade 3 teachers saw a snake she had never seen before near her home so she took note of the characteristics, came in to the school on the following day and ran it by our expert, Logan, and he was able to identify they type of snake it was. Another staff member embraced his love of animals and ran a school-wide fundraiser, led by Logan, to bring in Canadian Tire money to donate to the Langley Animal Protection Society to help out local rescued cats. During this fundraiser, Logan went around to all the classrooms to share details about the initiative. Because Logan had struggles in communication, he used an iPad to read out the information to the students.

IMG_5095Fast-forward to grade 5. In the past few years, although Logan still has a love for Kingdom Animalia, he has developed a keen interest in communicable diseases, nuclear disasters, and safety from these and all sorts of disasters that can be harmful to humans. His parents have embraced this and Logan can often be seen walking around the grocery store or the school with a gas mask and hazmat suit. He has almost become our leader in pest control at the school. Although Logan has been physically floating in and out of the classroom, his participation in class has been fairly minimal… up until a few months ago. At this time, his teachers and support staff started to notice that his strengths and passions could be used in the classroom more often.

Although there has been much effort over the years to include Logan more effectively in the class, during a unit on communicable diseases, Logan’s experience at school shifted to a much more active, positive experience. He then became a classroom expert on the topic. He participated more in class discussions, he was engaged in the tasks, and walked with more of a “swagger” at school. One of his teachers, Colleen Giddings, then asked him if he wanted to share his vast knowledge of viruses with the class. The next day, Logan waited patiently and then when it was time, brought out his iPad and didn’t just share a few bits of information, he actually taught a mini-lesson on viruses! He walked around with his iPad and showed pictures and shared his knowledge and passion for the topic. Rather than trying to get him to participate, the challenge then became how to teach him timing – when and where to share his knowledge!

As the class is a shared classroom, his other teacher, Kathy Lambert, continued to chat with Logan about other areas of interest and asked him if he wanted to bring his hazmat suit in to share his knowledge about safety.   Not only did he just bring in his suit… he taught a full 30 minute lesson on nuclear disaster and radiation safety! He lectured and shared his knowledge, asked questions, answered questions from peers and also used a variety of tools like pictures, maps, stories, and even finished with a historical video on nuclear safety. This same student that struggled to be in class, speak to peers, read, write, self-regulate emotions… gave a 30-minute engaging lesson to his classmates. Logan is on a new streak and for the past few months, showed his story and identity at school has changed.

Inclusion is not just about helping certain students be more involved in a class; it is a mindset about how we do things. Over the years, Logan’s family and staff at his school have embraced who he is and what he loves. They have started with his strengths and when these strengths were brought into the school, he became more confident, active and engaged in class. His struggles are still there but these have been overshadowed by his strengths.

When we start with strengths, students flourish.
When we start with strengths, we use these to build on our struggles.
When we start with strengths, we work to INCLUDE.

Thank you to Logan, his family, as well as the staff and students at James Hill for showing the power of using strengths in inclusion.

Check out the 3-minute video clip below of Logan in his element… teaching his classmates about nuclear disasters and radiation safety.

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6 Keys to Connecting With the Disconnected

I recently had the honour or being asked to come back to work with the passionate educators of the Fort Nelson School district to continue our conversation in strengths-based education. For the keynote, we wanted to back up a bit and look at the importance of connection… the importance of relationships.

We know we cannot teach a child without a connection. Talking about the importance of relationships is nothing new but sometimes we need a reminder of our WHY.  With the high volume of tasks, checklists and day to day duties in schools, our why (larger purpose) of making a difference through relationships can somehow get lost.  The session in Fort Nelson was designed to be a summary and a reminder of what is truly important in education.

The kids who need the most love

CC image from Madstreetz https://flic.kr/p/3n5Rik

Connecting with students who are disengaged, acting out, absent, closed down, or have almost given up in school can be very challenging. Sometimes students, no matter how much we seem to try, will continually shut us out and/or push us away. As Russell Barkley writes, “The kids who need the most LOVE will often ask for it in the most unloving ways.”  We must remember our why, stay the path through the bad and the good to connect with our kids that need it the most.

Connecting is more important now than ever. According to a 2011 study of youth done by the Public Health Agency of Canada, just over half of our grade 10 students feel that they belong and have a teacher that cares about them in school. It is difficult for me to hear this as I know how hard we work in education. How can almost half of our students not feel cared for and a sense of belonging? The question must me asked… knowing this, now what? We know the links between positive school environment and mental health and we know the impact we CAN have on our students so what are we doing about this as educators, schools and as a society?

I know there are many more but here are my “6 Keys To Connecting” – these keys are designed to create connections, moments, memories, and an overall positive school experience.

  1. Be Interested. Make the time. Listen. Build trust. Josh Shipp tells us that “To a child, trust is spelled T-I-M-E”.  We need to make the time to listen, get to know students, and build trust… and we must make this a priority. Spending just a few casual minutes a day or per class with a student that lacks connection can go a long way. Greet every child, every day. As students enter our schools and classrooms, acknowledge them. Say their name. Value them. Let them know “they matter”. Greeting a student is something that takes zero additional time but can have a lasting impact when done over time. Listen – truly listen. My kids remind me to “Listen with your eyes, Daddy”.  Take a moment to not listen to simply respond or solve something but to listen to… just listen. When you make the time, you listen, and show you care, you will build trust. When you have this trust, students will let you in to their stories and you can then better understand their behaviours and where they are coming from. This helps to meet them where they are at and help from there. We know we are busy but we must always make time to be interested.
  2. Start With Strengths. Theirs and yours. I have written extensively on this topic as I truly believe it can create significant transformations in school culture (watch a recent TEDx Talk from me on this).  If we find what we are looking for, what ARE we looking for? What do we see? Look for both the character strengths and the strengths of skill and then tap into these with our students. I believe that the best way to connect with a child is through his/her strengths. Rachel Macy Stafford reminds us that we have many butterflies in our school – those students who we regularly see fly and are beautiful in what they do. The challenge is to find the fireflies – those students who only shine under the right conditions. It is our job to create the conditions for these fireflies to also shine and show their beauty. When we know students’ strengths, we can tap into this and even place them in leadership roles to help bring out the best.  Not only do we need to look for the strengths in our students but we also need to use the strengths of ourselves. It is no secret that when people spend time in an area of strength, they are less depressed, less anxious, and have more joy in life. This is true in school as well – for students and staff. I encourage people to bring in their strengths to their lessons and also volunteer their time once in a while at lunch or before/after school with kids in an area of strength. There are few stronger connections you will make with kids than when you and the students are engaged in activities in an area of strength.
  3. Celebrate and Build on Sucess.  Many of our students who lack connection have gone through their school life on a “losing streak”. They have not experienced success for months or years. The thing about a losing streak is that it only takes one “win” to snap it. When we seek out the good and then find, capture, and share it, we can snap the streak and sometimes even start a new positive one. I am not a huge fan of public acknowledgement. I know it works for some people but I prefer a more private moment. When you see a positive in a student, acknowledge it privately with feedback and a pat on the back, a fist bump or just a message saying thank you and you appreciate the effort. With the access to technology, we can also capture this in a photo or video and share it with the student, his/her family and, depending on the student (as well as permissions), with a larger audience.
  4. Be Interesting. Be relevant. Be engaging. George Couros asks us, “Would YOU want to be in your class?”.  Telling kids they will “need this in the ‘real world'” doesn’t cut it. It needs to relevant right now and connected to their lives. This is the same for adults – it is very difficult to learn anything when we are disconnected from the purpose. We often take ourselves too seriously when we need to be more vulnerable, share who we are, and bring joy and passion into the classrooms (and other learning environments). As I have been told by my kids, it is time to “let it go” – laugh, smile, and take risks with our kids. I know there is a needed balance but the “never let them see you smile before Christmas” simply pushes kids away. In addition to making our own classrooms more relevant and engaging, we can look to doing more school-wide events that make overall school life more engaging for kids. We can also develop programs that are purposeful and relevant for students (ex. trades, arts, etc) that also tap into the strengths of students and staff. Students often see us as “teachers” or “principals” rather than who we are. Being an educator is a huge part of who I am but it does not define me – it is part of my story. By sharing my love of dogs, I always have kids bringing their dogs and new puppies to meet me. This is a connection developed just because I shared a little of who I am through a video when I started at my school.
  5. Create a Sense of Belonging.  Include. Value. Belonging and being part of a community is a need for ALL of us. Do all our kids feel they belong? Do all kids feel they are included for who they are (regardless of ability, gender, sexual orientation, colour, race, religion, income level, etc)?  How do we know? An inclusive school culture is so important and it is not simply about students with disabilities – inclusion is for all of us. Many behaviours are a result of a drive to belong. Work to create safe, inclusive environments in our schools. (Do we REALLY believe in inclusion?)
  6. Lead with the heart. Teach with an ethic of care. Students may not always be listening but they are always watching. How we teach becomes what we teach – we are always modeling what we believe through our words and actions. I understand the challenges we face but we must always do our best to ensure that the decisions we make must comes from the angle of what we believe is best for kids. As the late Rita Pierson said in her TED talk, “Every Child Needs a Champion”.  Why not you?

In the end, we need to start with these keys as individuals and also combine this with ideas and events that create more of positive culture as a school.  We cannot do this alone but we can start with one. We can start with just one of our students who seems to lack connection and make the time, learn his/her strengths, build on success, make it relevant, ensure they are included… all the while by leading with our heart.

6 Keys to Connecting With Students

Download a PDF of the summary slide.

How do YOU connect with students? What was missed?