The Wejr Board

…sharing stories that reflect on the present & future system of education


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.


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.


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

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? 



The Wrecking Ball: A Story of Inclusion

15936739285_460b008ec5_zFollowing a thought-provoking session on inclusion with colleague Diana Wilk at our district pro-d day (as a follow-up to a memorable day spent with Paula Kluth in the fall), I tried to share a story with her but emotionally struggled to get through it. It is a story of inclusion being modeled by kindergarten students and one that we can all learn from.

As in the majority of kindergarten classes, we have some students that struggle with personal space and can demonstrate some behaviours that can be looked at as being socially not acceptable.  One student in one of our clases, Justin (not his/her real name), has some challenges and loves to wreck towers, buildings and other things that students have built with blocks, lego, and other items.

Our teacher, who cares deeply about Justin, decided that while Justin was learning that this was not acceptable to wreck other students buildings, she would take a picture of the students’ completed tower/building before it was dismantled. As students in kindergarten are often so accepting and patient, this temporary solution seemed to be working while Justin learned the necessary skills.

A few weeks ago, two girls had created a rather large structure with blocks. They were beaming with pride and asked their teacher to take a photo of their work. While the teacher was going to grab her camera, she heard, “Justin….NO!” and then turned to see Justin run over and smash the structure to pieces. The teacher comforted the two students and then took Justin to a calmer area of the classroom to once again talk to him and remind him about respecting other people’s work and personal space.

After a few minutes of working with Justin, the teacher was interrupted by the two girls asking if they could talk to Justin. They then brought over Justin to their newly created structure and said, “we built this tower but we need someone to take it down… will you be our wrecking ball?”  Justin then turned into his own version of a wrecking ball and dismantled the structure as the girls cheered him on. The smiles in the faces of all three students, and the tears in the eyes of the teacher said it all. These students had come up with this inclusive solution on their own. Justin continues to cherish his role as a wrecking ball and is learning to wait until the timing is right to do “his job”. This role has enhanced his sense of belonging and created a more positive experience for him and his friends.

Inclusion does not just benefit those who struggle. By creating the conditions for moments like this to happen more often in schools, we can teach and practice the skills of empathy, understanding, and care and support our students in teaching so many of us that inclusion brings out the best in ALL of us.

CC image from Michele M.F.


8 Strategies to Bring Out the Best in Your Staff

IMG_2546As a school principal I am always reading leadership books and listening to podcasts on how to create the conditions for an effective organizational culture in schools. Each school and organization is different but I have appreciated the books by authors such as Dan Pink, Jim Collins, Steven Covey, Robin Sharma, Seth Godin and many others that have focused on the emotional aspect of organizations. Pink’s book “Drive” (based primarily on the research of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan) has been instrumental in helping me to work to create an environment that makes professional autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose at the core of what I can provide for staff members to help bring out the best.

An area that I continue to see having a large impact on organizational culture in school is strength-based leadership.  The idea is rather simple: encourage staff members in areas of strength as much as possible and watch them flourish. Educators are often highly criticized by the public (you will see that many governments do not follow the research referenced below when working with educators) so a strength-based lens really helps to create a more positive organizational culture that focuses primarily on what we CAN do rather than all the things we CANNOT do (yet).

My reading recently led me to some research that supports what I have observed actually works in education and this research was not conducted in the field of education. The Corporate Leadership Council surveyed over 19000 employees in 34 large companies (ex. Canon, Lego, LG, Lowe’s, H&R Block, Caterpillar, etc) in 27 countries to determine what are the key strategies to increase performance in the workplace.  The paper was released in 2002. It is a lengthy document (but well worth the read) so I have summarized what I believe are the 8 (alright, there are more) key points from the research. I am not a huge fan of quantitative data, but I believe there are some very important trends in this research. I have added my thoughts as they relate to the role of school and district administration (in italics).

Note: “The term “impact on performance” indicates a shift, either up or down, in the percentile rank of the employee” (p. 7a)

  1. Employee understanding of performance standards resulted in an increase of 36.1% in individual employee performance.  Providing clarity around what is expected in our schools is key to teacher and staff performance. I am not saying that principals decide these expectations but are we (principals and district leadership teams) asking our teachers and staff what quality instruction looks like? Is this clear to new and experienced staff members? Do we have a vision of instruction at our schools? On the other side of this performance management aspect, the use of ranking employees (sometimes done in the US through test scores) resulted in an extremely low increase of 0.1%.
  2. A culture that encourages risk-taking resulted in an increase of 38.9% in individual employee performance.  By promoting a risk-tolerant culture, employees are encouraged to push themselves beyond their current practice (p. 21a). How much of our school culture is based on compliance? Do we provide autonomy and time for teachers and staff to try new things and take risks?  How do we support this?
  3. Internal communication resulted in an increase of 34.4% in individual employee performance.  When employees were able to engage in effective communication with their peers, believed that management was sharing all relevant information, and felt they had a voice with management, performance significantly increased. Are principals and district leaders sharing all relevant information with teachers and staff? How is this information communicated? Are we facilitating time for collaboration and communication for staff members? Are we creating the conditions for teachers and staff members to be heard and feel they have a voice in our schools?  On the other side of performance culture was that “differential treatment of best and worst performers” (ex. bonuses for better performers and the weeding out of low performers) only resulted in an increase of 1.5%. “Weeding out underperformers and rewarding top performers does not in itself provide employees with information, resources, or experiences that directly improve their performance” (p. 21a).
  4. Helping find solutions to problems at work resulted in an increase of 23.7% in individual employee performance. Helping employees to attain needed information, resources, and technology resulted in an increase of 19.2%. Are we helping to make the job for teachers and staff members easier by solving problems and providing them with the needed tools?  I remember Chris Kennedy said to me, “it is our job to give good teachers the tools to become great”. I know our budgets are tight but do we provide enough resources to help our good get to great? On the other side of the manager-employee interaction aspect, “measuring employee performance and results” resulted in only a 5.6% increase while “making frequent changes to projects and assignments” resulted in a decrease of 27.8% in individual performance! Can we please move on from measuring and ranking teachers using test scores? How often do we ask people to shift the focus to a new goal, a new flavour for professional learning? Are our school and professional plans for one year or longer? Are we given the time to take our projects to completion?
  5. Emphasis on performance strengths (in formal reviews) resulted in an increase of 36.4% in individual performance while the emphasis on performance weaknesses resulted in a decrease of 26.8% in performance. (In addition, an emphasis on personality strengths resulted in an increase of 21.5% while an emphasis on personality weaknesses resulted in a decrease of 5.5%).  The swing from emphasizing performance strengths to emphasizing weaknesses results in a whopping 63.4% in performance! In our feedback to staff during evaluations, is the focus on strengths or weaknesses? Are we continually taking the time to acknowledge the strengths of our staff members? We always want to provide each other feedback for improvements, being “tough” or providing too much negative feedback can undermine the goal of the performance review.
  6. Providing fair and accurate informal feedback resulted in an increase of 39.1% in individual performance. Manager knowledge about employee performance resulted in an increase of 30.3%.  According to this research, fair and accurate feedback was the single largest driver of individual performance. How often are we in classrooms and follow up with informal fair and accurate feedback? In order for us to have knowledge of performance, we need to be in classrooms – how do we make this a priority? Instructional Rounds may be something to consider so feedback is not solely coming from admin.
  7. Providing informal feedback that helps employees do their jobs better resulted in an increase of 25.8% and emphasizing personality strengths in this feedback resulted in an increase of 22.3%.  Are we providing helpful feedback? Is there a relationship there that makes the presence in classrooms and informal feedback actually valuable? When we are in classrooms, does our presence and follow up feedback actually help or hinder performance? On the others side of informal feedback, when performance weaknesses were emphasized, performance actually decreased by 10.9%.
  8. Being provided with the opportunity to work on things you do best resulted in an increase of 28.8% in individual performance.  The opportunity to do things people do best “contributes more than any other on the job development or training opportunities to improve performance” (p. 43a). Do we know the strengths of our staff members? Are we aligning opportunities with these strengths? Are we encouraging leadership opportunities in areas that people do best?

Here is a summary of the best drivers of performance (resulting in increases of 25% of greater):

Source: Corporate Leadership Council 2002 Performance Management Survey.

Source: Corporate Leadership Council 2002 Performance Management Survey.

Here is a summary of the worst drivers of performance (resulting in a decrease in performance):

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 10.13.07 PM

Source: Corporate Leadership Council 2002 Performance Management Survey.

For me as a principal, this challenges me to be better and continue to grow in the following ways:

  • Be in the classroom more often – not to “hover” or just to be there to provide informal feedback but to also find out what the strengths of staff members are and to determine the resources staff members need to be successful in their jobs. Often we need to provide ideas, feedback and needed resources, then simply get out of the way.
  • Make sure feedback (formal and informal) is fair and strength-based.
  • Ensure that staff members feel they can take risks in their classrooms and have the time/resources to support this. I need to also make sure that staff feel that I will support them if they take a risk and it does not go as planned.
  • Have more dialogue with staff around creating clarity of what effective instruction looks like. Yes, there are many ways of teaching but are there certain characteristics that we should be striving for in our schools?  This needs to be a staff discussion and not a principal-driven expectation. I often hear that the principal needs to be the “instructional leader” which I believe is flawed. As a principal, I teach only a small amount and I think that we need many leaders of instruction on staff and the principal needs to be a part of this… with teachers. Staff should drive the conversation on clarity of expectations in our classrooms and it is up to us (as admin) to create the conditions for staff to be supported to meet these expectations in the classrooms.
  • Make time for effective communication. This involves helping to ensure there is effective communication between staff members, making sure I share all relevant information (and build trust with transparency), and actually take the time to LISTEN to staff members.
  • Provide leadership opportunities in areas of strength for staff members.

When I look at the above list, as a teacher, it seems these were also goals for me with students and the classroom community. Although this research is not from the field of education, it was timely for me but I also wonder what was missed from this? What other ideas and areas (particularly in education) can help create a “high-performing workplace” in our schools? As I strive to grow in this area I would appreciate thoughts from teachers, admin, as well as people in other fields.  How do we create the conditions that bring out the best in the educators in our schools?





We Wore the Orange Shirts… What’s Next? #orangeshirtday

Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters

Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters

Today was (is) an important day in the steps toward reconciliation in Canada. Today, many people wore orange shirts “in honour of residential school survivors and in memory of those who did not”.  This is a huge start in creating awareness of the tragic and horrific years that residential schools were in existence; in addition, it is also a chance to highlight the incredible strength of the thousands of people that survived their residential school experience.

I was proud to look around at so many colleagues in the Langley School District wearing orange today as a way to say that we are committed to reconciliation.  Thank you to Michael Morgan along with our leadership team for putting this at the forefront of what we do as educators in Langley.

Having said all this… some of my critical friends (who are so passionate about equity) who continually challenge me to be better would say that wearing an orange shirt is easy. It just scratches the surface of building understanding and working toward real reconciliation.  As Justice Sinclair shares at the video on the bottom of this post, “We cannot look at quick and easy solutions because there are none” and so the more important question is, “what can we do today to make steps toward reconciliation?”.  We did an amazing job of supporting Orange Shirt Day… so what’s next?

One of the challenges that I face is the fact that I often do not know the answer to this question. However, I have had the privilege and honour to work with incredible people who have continually challenged and mentored me during my years in the Fraser-Cascade School District (Kasey Chapman, Nancy Pennier, Robert Genaille, Tyrone McNeil along with far too many to name in the communities of Seabird Island and Sts’ailes) as well as people whom I get to work with now in the Langley School District (Cecilia Reekie, Donna Robins (and the Gabriel family), Bonnie VanHatten along with many others).  If there is one thing I have learned through the many conversations I have had with these mentors along with many survivors of residential schools is that I just need to listen.  I need to listen to the stories. I need to listen for guidance. I need to listen to determine how to support (and work alongside with) those who will lead us to reconciliation as we move down this important path.

Orange Shirt Day has led to more questions from educators, students, and families than I have ever encountered in the past and this is such a positive start. The challenge is moving beyond the single day event and making this an important journey toward reconciliation.

I feel I have very few answers. I also know that this is ok because I have many people that are leading me and so many others down this path that we must take as an education system and as a society.  “Every Child Matters” – every child in our past, present and future matters.

Thank you to everyone who has promoted Orange Shirt Day and taught me so much about the tragic experiences of residential schools as well as the incredible strength of those survivors. We must now keep the dialogue and actions going beyond Orange Shirt Day. Connect with those who can lead us on this journey together as a Canadian society. Reconciliation affects all of us. Take the time to simply listen to our neighbours and community members, ask questions, seek to understand, seek guidance, and move forward together.

As terribly difficult it is to hear the stories from the survivors of residential schools, it is so moving to see the unbelievable strength in people. I am honoured to to have the opportunity to be even a small part of such an important journey in our country’s history.

What Is Reconciliation from TRC – CVR on Vimeo.

For some key resources and powerful, yet heartbreaking stories, visit the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada websites.

Here are 10 books to read with children to help teach about residential schools. 



We Find What We Look For In Our Students – So What Do We See?

CC Image by Ryan Haddad

CC Image adapted from Ryan Haddad

When we look at our students with struggles, what do we see? The following video is an incredible story of how a teacher/professor became so frustrated with a student for sleeping in his class… that he actually asked him why.

We find what we are looking for.  If we look and see a “sleeper” in class, we will see a student with no hope, no potential, and one that is as disengaged as it gets. However, if we look through a different lens, a lens of an inquiring mind, we may see there is untapped genius just waiting to come out.  Check out this must watch video:

This educator could have looked at this student as simply a sleeper and written him off like many others had before. Instead, he chose to go deeper and ask the important questions about what the behaviour was telling him and what actions were resulting in this behaviour.  When he did this, instead of looking for deficits, he found strength… he found passion.

Becuase he asked “why” and looked for this strength, he was able to work with this “sleeper” to create a game that changes lives. So many of us have been touched by the awful disease that is Alzheimers.  Michael Wesch was able to create the condition for his student, David Dechant, to flourish. Dechant and Wesch created a team of students who then worked with residents of the Meadowlark Hills continuing care retirement facility to create a game that would keep memories alive. The students listened, scanned old photos, read journals and diaries and used all of these to create a game for the residents – a game that would help them to remember for a brief moment their life with their significant other, their home, and the many stories that made them who they are. Had this teacher seen his student only for his deficits, this life changing use of technology would not have happened.

Watch the trailer for this life-changing game, “Falling Up – an Interactive Empathy Game” at the bottom of this post.

At our staff meeting this week, I shared these two videos.  I shared these videos because these capture my WHY of educational change. We need to continue to change education so students like David (“the sleeper”) no longer go through our education system learning all the things they cannot do and very few things they actually can do. We need to change so we can tap into the interests of our students, bring out their creative strengths, and use these to help them lead a worthwhile life. I recall as a high school teacher hearing parents tell their kids, “just get through school.. then you will be fine”. If we bring more of our students’ strengths into the school, not only will they “get through school”, they will have a positive identity as a learner and often flourish in an education that is more meaningful and relevant.

We find what we look for. What do YOU see in your students? Are you tapping into those strengths within?

Thank you to George Couros who recently wrote about this video in his great post, “Finding the Genius”.



Take the Lids Off Kids… and Watch ’em Shine!

Image donated from Lindsay Helms Photography

Image donated from Lindsay Helms Photography

As I walk in and out of classrooms this week (the first week for our students with their 2015-16 teacher), I love seeing the “about me” activities. There is never an easier time to strike up conversations with kids than when they are sharing something about their culture, family, strengths, and interests.  The harder part is getting a word in with them and moving around to talk to more kids as so many love to share when this is the focus.

Last week we had Marika van Dommelen, from the Rick Hansen Foundation, come and speak to our kids about accessibility and inclusion. As a woman with spina bifida, she shared how, growing up, many doors were closed for her as she was told that she would never swim, never drive, never have kids, and never complete a “regular” education. Her family fought hard to keep these doors open for her as she said they focused on all that she COULD DO instead of what she could not do. Years later, she has proven everyone wrong and opened all those doors that were once closed by adults close to her as a child.

It was yet another reminder of how often we respond to a child’s struggles and, although unintended, possibly hold kids back from success in an area of strength. Chief Marilyn Gabriel of the Kwantlen First Nation recently said to our admin team,

“The role of our elders is to look for that gift in our children… and then work to develop and nurture this gift so they can become our artists, nurses, singers, and teachers.”

It is our job as teachers to not only work to help areas of student struggle but also work to bring out the gifts and strengths that lie within.

Kids flourish when they are given the chance to work in an area of strength. They rise up when asked to lead. Yet, when a child is misbehaving, our first reaction is often to close the doors… to put a lid on the student. We take away “privileges” that are possible strengths like PE, play time at recess, extra-curricular activities, and helping out in other classes. Of course, there must be (logical) consequences for misbehaviours but maybe we aren’t looking at the bigger picture or maybe we are looking through the wrong lens. What if there were consequences for behaviours and ALSO the opportunity for students to lead in areas of strength? What if a child’s identity was able to positively shift based on the opportunity to work in an area of strength?

I have seen this over and over again – when kids are placed in leadership roles in a school, they always rise up.  Students with “behaviour problems” become our tech crew, our big buddies, our gardeners, and our own “Mr. Muscles’ Moving Company”. Their identity as a student changes. They no longer see themselves as a “problem” but instead see themselves as worthy and even a positive leader.

If a child is struggling, don’t close the doors and take their strengths away. Schedule time in each day/week for students to be able to use their strengths in such a way that their behaviour has no impact on whether or not they get to do this important leadership work.

As educators and parents, it IS our job to bring out what is within… so the question is: what are we bringing out? This year, let’s work to bring out the strengths in our students. Take the lids off kids… and watch em shine!


Through a Child’s Eyes… It Was the Best Day Ever

IMG_0644As a parent of twin four-year-olds and a principal of an elementary school, there are times when I look back with disappointment in the way I responded impatiently or somewhat disrespectfully to my kids and/or students. As I lay calmly in bed later at night, I think, “why did I respond like that? It really wasn’t a big deal, but I made it into a big deal simply due to frustration. Why can’t be better at…”

We can be so critical of ourselves. I see my wife at home as well as some staff members at school who are often very hard on themselves when reflecting on their day spent with kids. It is so easy for us to see the negatives… to see all that went wrong in a day. I am not saying it isn’t important to look back with a critical eye but far too often the negatives become the focus.

I recall observing a teacher do a fantastic science lesson that had students moving, engaging with others, reflecting, and creating. Kids loved it! When I asked the teacher how she thought it went, she listed off all the things that went wrong in her mind. That is far from what I saw. What we see depends on what we look for. If we look for the positives and strengths, we will find them; unfortunately, we too often look for all the problems. We need to see both but we also need to do a better job of seeing the strengths.

A few months ago, I was away for a few days and I texted my wife and asked how the day was. She said that our girls had a really rough day filled with meltdowns, tears, fights, and frustration. I felt for her as I can only imagine how hard it is for my wife to run her business and look after twin preschoolers by herself… especially during a day full of meltdowns and tears. The interesting thing was that when I Facetimed my girls at bedtime, it was a very different story of the day.  They eagerly told me they went for a bike ride, they swam, they baked cookies, they read stories… and they told me it was “The Best. Day. Ever!!!”.

Simple moments that we may take for granted can be important memories for our kids. I need to remind myself to take the time to look back with a more positive lens so we, as adults, can also smile at these moments. We know we will look back years from now and smile… the challenge is to do this now.

Teaching is incredibly difficult. Parenting is incredibly difficult. But these are the best “jobs” in the world… because, as teachers and parents, we have the power and the opportunity to possibly make a child’s day “the best day ever”.

To all the educators and parents/families out there, have a wonderful school year and here’s to making many days the “best day ever”.

Thank you to our Superintendent, Suzanne Hoffman, for reminding me of this by showing the following film at our summer admin meeting. Take 4 minutes and watch this powerful short film, “To A Child, Love is Spelled T-I-M-E“. #grabthekleenex


10 Ways to Determine the Strengths of Our Students

The job of an educator... CC image from

The job of an educator… CC image from

It is no secret that I am a big believer in embracing the power of a strength-based philosophy in education. I have written about the why and how, but the question that comes up in workshops is: how do I determine the strengths of my students?

An important activity is for students to understand that each and every one of them has strengths.  These can come in the form of activities (ex. dance, hockey, math, etc) and in the form of character strengths. It is also important to share what these strengths could look like in each student; strengths are not something that a student needs to be the best at but more about personal skills, qualities, traits and virtues that students have developed.  For a poster of 24 character strengths (developed by Dr. Martin Seligman) click here.  This poster can be used as a way for students to choose character strengths that may represent them.  For middle and high school students, I recommend watching the short film “The Butterfly Circus” as a way to lead to deeper dialogue on the view that every person has strengths and it depends on the perspective we choose.

Through the work of many passionate educators whom I have had the chance to work and/or learn with (in schools as well as online and in workshops), I have come across the following ideas:

  1. “All About Me” Activities – These are common in many classes and provide students with the opportunity to share a bit about who they are through a visual arts or writing process.
    • The Identity Tree – family and friends make up the roots, interests and strengths make up the trunk and character strengths/virtues make up the leaves

      Identity Trees

      Identity Trees at James Hill Elementary

    • Student Identity Crest – include family, culture, strengths and interests
    • Presentation – each student creates a slide/poster that includes important images and words of strengths and interests.
    • All About Me Book – often used for students with special needs but is something that can be used for all students.  Some of the students at our school have been doing this with the “Book Creator” app on the iPad.
    • Movies – some of our students have used iMovie to share a bit about themselves to share with peers and educators in the school.
  2. Class Survey – use a paper survey, a google form, or other online surveys (with permission) to ask questions about strengths and interests in and out of school.  You can also survey family members to provide thoughts about the student.  This would be great to be included in a student’s file.
  3. Shared Stories – through prompts, students can share stories of themselves that reveal strengths.
    • “What makes your heart sing?”
    • If I had a day to help someone/something I would…
    • I was most proud of myself when I…
  4. “Who Am I?” Flowchart – I came across the flowchart created by Leyton Schnellert (2011) and recreated it in the image below:

    Wh Are The Students? created by Leyton Schnellert (2011)

    Who Are The Students? created by Leyton Schnellert (2011)

  5. Spend Time With A Student – A 2×10 strategy can be done for students who are struggling but can also be used as a way to get to know any student. Spend 2 minutes a day for 10 days straight having a natural conversation with a student. Find out what brings out the smile and move deeper in the following days. Other teachers I know have lunch (or “tea”) with one or two students each week engaging in natural dialogue.  Something as simple as spending quality time can have a lasting impact on a child and open up our eyes to their lives beyond school.
  6. Identity Day – Although this is generally done as a school-wide event, it can also be done within a class.  During Identity Day, students plan, prepare and share a presentation about themselves.  They can present on a strength, an interest, their family, culture… anything that represents who they are.  I have been involved in two school-wide Identity Days and it is a great way for students and staff to better connect with each other on strengths and interests.  For a description of Identity Day, click here. For resources that can help you run an Identity Day click here.
  7. Create Space for Strengths to be Revealed – More and more teachers are providing time each week for students to explore and create in areas of strength and interest.  Ideas like 20% Time, Genius Hour, and Innovation Days provide opportunities for students to showcase and bring out their strengths.
  8. Strengths Chats – For educators struggling to find the strengths in one or two students, Kathy Cox has developed a strengths grid that can be used to frame individual conversations with students (called “strengths chats”).  She has divided strengths into social, academic, athletic, artistic, cultural/spiritual, and mechanical. You can view the strengths grid in her article here.
  9. Observe – Take the time to watch and listen to your students. Ask the right questions. Instead of asking “how was your weekend?”, ask “what was good about this weekend?” or be like Dora and ask “what was your favourite part?” :-).  Create space in the lessons for students to share stories that reveal skills, traits, and virtues. You can also ask family members and friends to share what they feel a student’s strengths are.  In elementary, watch a child during choice times and recess.
  10. Ask Adults – If you are struggling to see the strengths within a student, check with a former teacher, coach, family member who has observed the student in his/her element doing something that helped them to flourish in that moment. If a student had success with a former teacher, tap into this!

For the vast majority of our students, it is not difficult to create the conditions for strengths to be revealed.  The challenge is often to create ways for these student strengths to be used more often within the school. For some ideas to get you started on including the strengths of students, click here. For some of our students, though, life has been a series of challenges and they often hesitate to open up to let us in.  For students with years of struggle, the fact that they come to school most days can show a real strength in resiliency, determination, or courage so this can be a starting point to embracing character strengths.

Some may be overwhelmed with the thought of trying to determine the strengths of ALL student (some high school teachers teach 200+ students during the week); my recommendation is to start with one student… use some of the aforementioned strategies to determine the strengths of one child and build from there.  The role of the principal is critical as well as they too must be involved in modeling and looking through the strength-based lens to impact school culture beyond the classrooms.

I realize many teachers already do some or many of these ideas and some do much more. I would love to hear and learn more… how do you determine the strengths of your students?

Click here for an archive of a great Edcamp35 conversation on embracing the strengths of students.

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