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5 Reasons to Rethink Awards Ceremonies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

    Tim says that:  

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


 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

10 Secrets to Raising an Award-Winning Student:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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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? 

 

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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.  http://bit.ly/1Q8rvmF

Source: Corporate Leadership Council 2002 Performance Management Survey. http://bit.ly/1Q8rvmF

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. http://bit.ly/1Q8rvmF

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?

@chriswejr

 

 

2

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

CC Image by Ryan Haddad https://flic.kr/p/inZ5S

CC Image adapted from Ryan Haddad https://flic.kr/p/inZ5S

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”.

 

0

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

Image donated from Lindsay Helms Photography

Image donated from Lindsay Helms Photography www.lindsayhelmsphotography.com

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!

11

10 Ways to Start With Strengths in Schools

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld https://flic.kr/p/7yvVKy

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld https://flic.kr/p/7yvVKy

I sometimes struggle with the volume of posts that give lists of  “5 ways…” or “10 reasons…” but I have recently been asked a few times how schools could get started using a strength-based model with students.  This list is by no means the end but more about the start; these are thoughts that have worked in schools I have had the privilege of working in; however, the context of your school is different so the ideas will vary depending on the school.  If you have further ideas or examples, I would love to read them (and steal them) so please leave them in the comments below.

Shifting the lens in schools to a focus on strengths rather than deficits… a focus on CAN rather than cannot… has been one of the most significant changes for me as an educator, formal leader and parent.  Where do we start?  What can we do this month? This year?  (there are links embedded in the list if you would like further detail on some of the stories and ideas).

  1. Shift from MY students to OUR students.  A previous teacher or a teacher in a different subject area can have knowledge of a child’s strengths and a positive relationship with the child.  Do we embrace this relationship or do we shut it out?  If we shift our focus from being classroom teachers or subject teachers to school teachers, can we better tap into the strengths of other adults in our building? Relationships are not zero-sum in that if one person has a strong relationship, it does not mean that others cannot as well.  Students need at least 2-3 strong, positive relationships with adults in the building.  These strong relationships often come with the knowledge of a student’s strengths… embrace these.
  2. Make the first contact about the strengths.  Make that first contact a positive one.  When we start the year, inquire into the strengths of our students – inside and outside of school and tap into these throughout the year.  Run a class or school Identity Day. Make the first contact with parents a positive one.  It doesn’t have to be about something the student has done but more about sharing that we value him/her and we know who they are.
  3. Schedule in time for a child to use his/her strengths in school.  If a child has a strength in the arts, technology, or with helping younger students (for example), provide time in the day or week for this to happen.  A student who struggles will often flourish when given a purpose or an opportunity for leadership beyond the classroom.  The important thing is to not use this as a punishment or reward.  If it is important to help change the story, schedule it in… but do not use a child’s strength as a carrot/stick to have them do the things we want them to do.  If we use it as a reward, we may get some short term compliance but the student will soon figure out that his/her strength is not valued.  Having said this, I do know that students will try to get out of doing the things they do not want to do and things in which they are not successful (adults do this too).  This is why it is scheduled in to the day/week/month so the students have to continue to work on areas of struggle AND they continue to get opportunities to use their strengths in a way that helps the school community.
  4. Teach parts of the curriculum through the strengths/interests.  Start with one lesson or one unit and ask how we can include the strengths and interests of our students.  It doesn’t have to be a big shift like Genius Hour but can be smaller shifts that include the curriculum like guided inquiry, writing assignments, reading reflections, and different ways of demonstrating student learning.
  5. In meetings, start with the bright spots.  If we are having a meeting about a child, start with the positives and see how these can be built upon. We need to acknowledge the struggles and look to how we can tap into the strengths to build confidence and change the story.  As principals, we can model this in staff meetings as we start each meeting/topic on sharing the bright spots.
  6. Start the conversation on how we honour students in schools.  Are there certain strengths we honour over others?  How do we honour the strengths of students that fall beyond the traditional awards and honour roll? Are traditional awards ceremonies the best we can do?
  7. Reflect on our assessment practices.  In our assessments, do we build on what students CAN do or do we focus more on what they cannot do?  Do our assessment practices build confidence or strip it away?  I know it is not a black/white practice as we need to support the challenges too but we need to reflect on the balance of strengths/deficits in our assessment practices.
  8. Watch those labels.  Do the designations of our students define them?  I realize there is a need for designations but I wonder if sometimes these work to put lids on kids.  A designation should come with a plan on how to embrace the strengths of the child and help us to support the deficits; it should not BE the story for our students.
  9. Start with strengths of staff and the school community.  Are we embracing the strengths of the adults in the building?  Do we tap into the strengths of parents and families in the school community? Once we know a child’s strength, how can we use the aligned strengths in our school community to help?
  10. Share the stories.  Share the stories of strength in your classroom and schools.  When you look for the bright spots and you share these beyond the classroom walls, you shift the culture of the school.

We find what we are looking for. When we start with strengths, we change the lens we look through and see the strengths in our students more than the deficits. When we change this lens, we change the stories of our students at school.  For many, this change in story can be life changing.

In BC, we have many schools that are already making this shift and we have a golden opportunity to create more space for us to bring in the strengths. This list is just a start.  If you have other ideas, please write them in the section below.  Hopefully, I can tap into YOUR strengths which will help me and others through the stories and the comments you share.

Click here to access a FORCE society “In The Know” series webinar on the topic.