The Wejr Board

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


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 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!


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.


10 Ways to Start With Strengths in Schools

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld

CC Image by Frank Wuestefeld

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.


Start With Strengths: Change the Lens. Change the Story.

CC Image from

CC Image from

How many of our students have strengths that either go unnoticed or unacknowledged in school?  When we discuss students, do we focus on their strengths and all they CAN do or their deficits and all they CANNOT do?  What are the stories of life at school for our students?  Are they all positive?

In my first year as an intermediate teacher and vice principal, I struggled to reach some students; I especially struggled to reach a student named Dom. After about 6 weeks of trying, I went to my principal, Roxanne Watson, and asked for help.  I sat with her and listed off all the things he could NOT and would NOT do.  After about 8 examples of things he could not do, she said, “Stop, tell me what he is GOOD at.”  That question changed not only who I was as an educator but also as a person.  I did not have an answer to the question.  After 6 weeks, I sadly could not state a strength of a student I had more contact with than anyone else.  In the 6+ weeks that followed, we worked to embrace the strengths within Dom and that changed everything.  We tapped into his strength as a First Nation drummer and singer and Dom became a leader in the class, the community and the school (please read Dom’s full story here).  When we changed the lens, we changed the story.

I recently interviewed Amy, a student at my wife’s dance studio.  Amy is one of the top dancers in the Fraser Valley, a dedicated leader in the studio, and a devoted student-teacher that helps develop dance in the younger students.  Passion for dance and the arts runs through her veins and she has such presence on the stage and in the studio.  Yet, when I asked her what her life was at school compared to the studio, she said

When I am at the studio, I am confident and get to be the real me.  At school, well… I am not good at school.  I just try to blend in… just be invisible.

This student, who can passionately perform in front of 600 people in a theatre and who consistently places at or near the top in every dance competition she enters… when at school, tries to be invisible.   Amy went on to say that hardly anybody knows her creative side and she rarely gets to share who she is at school. She did, however, get to do this with Mr. C.  Mr. C embraced her strengths in the arts as Amy was able to demonstrate her learning through creating – some through music and poetry and others through writing and sketching. She flourished in his class (and was rarely absent).  There were tests and quizzes but there was so much flexibility in how the student could learn and show their learning that Amy felt that she COULD do well in his class. She felt like Mr. C was truly interested in who she was as a person and because of that, she was completely engaged in his class.

You see, our students are building stories of who they are right now.  What we say to them and about them creates part of their story of who they are in school and beyond.  The conditions we create for them in schools affects who they are.  With this in mind, what stories are we helping to create in schools?  Are we helping to create positive stories that we can build upon or do we sometimes unintentionally work to create negative stories that cause our students to be disengaged from school?

During my years at Brookswood Secondary, Kent Elementary as well as my short time at James Hill Elementary, I have witnessed the power that occurs when we start with strengths.  When we create the conditions for children to use their strengths at school… they rise, they lead, and they flourish.  I am not saying we ignore the deficits; we definitely need to work to support the areas of struggle.  Struggle can be a good thing.  What we must do first, though, is start with strengths.  Too often, when a child struggles in school, we look at all the ways that he/she needs support in the areas of weakness… yet we fail to focus on using the “bright spots” or strengths.  Appreciative inquiry is a great place to start when discussing our students; ask questions like “what is working well?  when does he/she flourish? what strength can be tapped?”.  Through  my work with some wonderful students, staff, and families, I have seen the change that occurs when the first question is “what is he/she good at”?  I have seen a child that has severe anxiety with academics lead by reading to kindergarten students in the library each morning.  I have seen a child with significant behaviour challenges lead our tech crew by setting up and maintaining sound and tech equipment in the school.  I have seen students who could not be on the playground without engaging in conflict become a “coach” for primary students in the areas of dance and tumbling.  There is ALWAYS a strength within a child… when we take the time to find it and embrace it at school, the story changes.

We find what we are looking for. What we look for gets bigger and we observe it more often.  Teaching (and parenting) is a very difficult job.  There are days when I look back on my day and disappointingly wonder if I even said a handful of positive things to my kids and students.  Of course we need to continually challenge our kids to try new things (and make errors) and expand their comfort zones; we must continue to embrace the struggle and provide effective ongoing feedback for growth.  However, we need to seek out those strengths more often.  Julie Collette, of the Force Society and Kelty Mental Health said to me, “notice what we are noticing”.  We need to reflect and ask questions like: What are we focusing on?  When we interact and assess our students, is there a balance of strengths and deficits?  Are there structures in schools that allow some students to share their strengths but hinder others?  We need to shift our lens… start to reflect 0n what we are looking for and start to look for the strengths within ourselves and our students.

My challenge to myself and to all of us is to start with one child in our class/school (or our own child) and make an effort to find that strength and work to use it more often in schools.  Create assignments and learning opportunities that not only get students to do what we need them to do but also provide the opportunity for them to share who they are.

When we start with strengths, we change our lens… and by doing this, we change the story for many of our students at school.

I would love to hear more examples and stories of educators and families that have embraced the strengths of their children/students.  Please share those bright spots!

I recently had the honour of presenting a webinar for the Force Society for Kids’ Mental Health as well as a keynote for educators in North Central BC on this topic.  You can find a September regional viewing session close to you here or view the 60 minute webinar presentation on your own here.  You can also view 2 sets of slides below:



Looking Forward With Excitement; Looking Back With Pride

Walking on, looking back with pride.

Walking on, looking back with pride.

Pardon the delay of this post. It was originally written a week ago but the flu hit our family and it never got posted.

As I begin the next exciting journey of my career with the honour of being the principal of James Hill Elementary in the Langley School District, I have had many moments of excitement as well as many that have caused me to pause and reflect on my time at Kent.  Prior to the final week at Kent, I found myself looking back with a critical eye – looking for all the things I could have or should have done differently.  Maybe this was because I was handing my “stuff” over to the next principal, maybe it was because I was struggling with leaving a school and community I love, or maybe it was just me reflecting on how I need to continue to grow as an educator… but I think this caused a bit of a shadow over the many truly wonderful things I was privileged to be a part of at Kent.  After talking to a great friend and teacher at Kent, Stacey Garrioch, my sadness, nervousness, and minor regrets began to turn into happiness and pride.

I then made a list of the positive (major) moments, ideas, and changes that occurred during my time at Kent.  I have written about many of these in my blog before (linked below) but as I add closure to my journey at Kent, I wanted to describe the proud moments and changes that stick out to me and pay tribute to the efforts of the staff, students, and community of Kent Elementary and the Fraser-Cascade School District.  Please note that these changes were not my doing; these changes often arose from an individual or group on staff or in the community and I just helped to make the change a reality.

  1. Ending awards  This conversation began prior to my arrival at Kent but I was honoured to be part of the final decision to move away from student of the month and year-end awards. Rather than award a select few students for strengths in which we chose to be the most important, we decided to honour each child at one point during the year for the strengths and interests they brought to our school. Our year end ceremony moved from an awards ceremony, in which often only parents of award winners attended, to a grade 6 honouring ceremony in which our gym was packed as each child had family members there to support him/her.  Death of An Awards Ceremony and Rethinking Awards.
  2. Moving away from rewards and punishment  This is another conversation that was initiated prior to my arrival but I was proud to be part of its evolution.  We moved away from sticker charts and behaviour prizes to instead place emphasis on students doing the right thing… just because it is the right thing to do.  When negative behaviours arose we placed the focus on determining the lagging skills, putting supports in place to teach/coach the lagging skills, providing opportunities for restitution, and working to ensure their is a positive sense of belonging. In the past few months, the school has also created a team to implement self-regulation strategies into a few classrooms. My Issue With Rewards, Creating the Conditions: Student DisciplineThey Need Teaching – Not Punishment, and Movement Is Not A Reward.
  3. Focusing on student interests, strengths and passions  Too often we place all the emphasis on the deficits of our students and staff.  The previous principal of Kent, Roxanne Watson, helped to show me the powerful shift that occurs when we start with strengths.  One of the successful initiatives that we have had at Kent for the past 6 years is the Choices Program that provides the opportunity for teachers to teach in an area of their passion and for students to choose to learn in an area of interest or passion.  Kent has a tradition of strong athletics, music, Aboriginal culture with dedicated staff that support this each year. Honouring A Student’s Strength: The Story of Daniel and Giving Students Choices
  4. Putting a focus on outdoor play   It started with a group of teachers working together to create a beautiful garden in the back field.  Parents then built a sandbox.  We then built a hill!  All of these provide the students with so many more opportunities to be inquisitive and active in the outdoors. The Power of Outdoor Play: We Built A Hill.
  5. Making the school library (and the teacher-librarian) a priority  Kent School has shown me the impact a passionate teacher-librarian and well-designed library can have on literacy (not just skill but, more importantly, a love of stories and reading).  In addition to literacy as is traditionally defined, a teacher-librarian can be a leader in the areas of research, education technology, inquiry and professional learning.  The staff at Kent have also shown me that we do not need pizza parties, prizes, nor points to encourage kids to read. Creating the Conditions: A Love of Reading.
  6. Fostering a partnership with our First Nation Communities  Although Kent School has a effective relationships with a number of the First Nation communities, the working relationship with Seabird Island is one that should be a model for others to follow. The Seabird Education committee consists of band leaders who are passionate about creating positive change and working to ensure all children get the best education possible.  The admin and (passionate) FN Support Worker met with the education committee four times a year (in addition to other less formal meetings) in which we discussed evidence and actions that could help the students.   The education committee supported and challenged Kent School in ways that created change that benefited not only First Nation students, but also all the students.  This was REAL collaboration with REAL trust in which there was a dynamic tension that allowed for intellectual collisions to help move us forward.  We have a long way to go to ensure more success of our Aboriginal students in BC but Seabird Island and Fraser-Cascade have made significant gains in this area.  Seabird Education Committee: Learning Together
  7. Increasing parent communication with technology  A key belief of mine is that in order to best communicate with families, we need to meet them where they are.  At Kent, we moved beyond the paper newsletter to include more frequent information (that can initiate 2-way dialogue) sent out in our blogs, Facebook Page, Twitter feed, Remind101 (SMS), Flickr, YouTube, etc to create a variety of ways to share the wonderful things that happen at the school. Using Tech To Meet Parents Where They Are, Parent Communication: To vs WITH, and Your School Needs a Facebook Page
  8. Shifting the focus away from grades  This is not as significant of a jump at an elementary school as it is at a high school; however, a focus for our school has been to put less emphasis on the grade and much more emphasis on growth minsdset with descriptive feedback, success criteria, and clear learning intentions. This has helped to create better evidence of learning, decrease anxiety, and increase confidence. 6 Big Ideas of Assessment Practices
  9. Continuing to make inclusion a priority  This was nothing new for Kent School as we just continued down the path that was set in motion long before I arrived.  I was always proud to see all students fully included with support throughout the day; not only does this help the child with special needs but it also has a huge impact on all students as they learn communication skills, empathy, care, and (most importantly) friendship. Modeling and Teaching Our Kids to Reach Out and Include
  10. Creating time within the day for teachers to meet and tinker with ideas  We often say that collaboration is important and that we want innovative practices in schools yet we often fail to provide the structures to make these a priority.  In the past, I have tried some extra preps for innovation (“FedEx Preps”) but this year, we placed time in the schedule for innovation and collaboration. FedEx Prep: Time For Innovation, FedEx Prep: A Reflection, and Creating Time for Teachers To Tinker With Ideas
  11. Providing opportunities for student leaders  Student leadership is part of the culture at Kent School.  Whether it is through buddies, supervision, help with decisions, or running activities to improve the culture of the school, the students worked hard to lead. I recall someone asking what our “leadership program” was and, although I am sure there are some great programs out there, I responded with “we had dedicated teachers that model and encourage it… they create the conditions for students to lead.”  When we moved to a “Play First Lunch”, our staff, along with the grade 6 students, made sure that the younger students were supported in the transition.
  12. Increasing opportunities for students and staff to connect with others  Encouraging and supporting the use of technology and social media to connect and learn from others had a significant impact on our school.  Although we did provide release time for staff to visit other schools, the technology provided the opportunity for staff to connect with and learn from other passionate educators around the world.  I am proud of the many ideas that were ‘stolen’ from others to benefit students at Kent. :-) How Social Media is Changing Education
  13. Continuing to foster community partnerships  Being in a small town in which relationships are key, the school has a lengthy tradition of community partnerships.  Here are just a few examples:  twice a week before school, retired community members come in and read aloud to children (one-on-one) in the packed library;  students regularly work with the Fraser Valley Regional Librarian to help support stories and literacy; the choir regularly travels to community halls and care homes and performs for others; the grade 6s reach out to the care homes to play games, read, and do crafts with elders; the Kent athletes participate in tournaments and playdays with nearby First Nation communities of Seabird and Sts’ailes; students also attend celebrations such as Sto:lo New Year at Seabird each year; the high school leadership students are regular helpers at a variety of events we host; students and staff from the Agassiz Centre for Education buddy up with Kent students and also partner in a number of “Senior-Teen Luncheons” at the Legion Hall to promote generational relationships and understanding; then at Christmas, the school invites the community supporters in for a huge turkey dinner in our gym.  One of the most memorable (and heart-wrenching) moments was when our community embraced Lilee-Jean and her family as we welcomed this beautiful 2 year old in to spend her first and only day at school.  These community partnerships help the students learn far beyond the school walls. The Most Beautiful Morning Spent Dancing in the Rain
  14. Embedding Aboriginal ways and culture  Some key staff members have worked hard to make sure that Aboriginal education and knowledge of First Nation language and culture moves beyond being a “field trip”; culture, language, history, and story-telling all occur across the curriculum and throughout the day.  The idea of honouring a child for the gifts he/she brings to us is just part of what is done at Kent.
  15. Showing pride in who we are  We worked hard to honour children for who they are. We challenged and supported students to grow and excel and also remember the strengths and interests in their lives that help to create their identity.  One of the most memorable activities I have been a part of was Identity Day in which each child in the school did a project on themselves.  The conversations and learning that resulted from Identity Day spilled over into days and months following the event and helped to create better understanding and more confident learners in the school. I will always remember a luncheon/honouring ceremony when a cousin (a young adult) of one of the students nervously and emotionally spoke up; she said, “I went to Kent 8 years earlier… and struggled… and I am so proud to see my cousin go through Kent school and be PROUD of who she is”. Identity Day: Pride in Who We Are

I am so thankful for all the opportunities that were offered to me during my time at Kent School and the Fraser-Cascade School District.  Writing this post has shown me the awesome power of having a blog as I was able to look back and read about the learning moments that occurred during my journey.

As I finish the chapter that is my journey at Kent, I look back at powerful learning, close relationships and wonderful memories.  As I start my new chapter at James Hill, I look forward with excitement for the opportunity to create new learning, new relationships, and new memories. I have only been at James Hill a few times now and I am already learning so much from the staff. One of the greatest aspects of education is that, although we may have similar goals, things are done differently with a variety of perspectives in different communities and contexts.   Each school community has its own ‘ecosystem’ and these new perspectives and relationships inspire me and help me grow that much more.  I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be part of this community and write a completely new chapter of my life full of moments that will make me proud to be a principal and educator at James Hill.  Hopefully I can add a few small pieces to the already strong cultures and traditions at our school.


My girls and I “looking forward” with excitement!

Thank you so much to the communities of Kent and James Hill along with the districts of Fraser-Cascade and Langley.

If you are interested, here is the video I created for the community of Kent School that was shown on the last day of school.



Teaching Kids to be Good Losers?



Ok, I admit it.  I hate losing.  I hate losing even more when I know i don’t have a chance to win.  I have played hockey since I was in preschool and I continue to play to this day and I have always tried to play at my level or slightly higher.  If I found myself in a game in which there was absolutely no chance of winning, I often disengaged and made a joke about the game (picture me and some buddies from high school playing in a 3 on 3 tourney against a bunch of ex-pro’s… it happened and it wasn’t pretty).

Because of my stance on awards, people make assumptions that I am opposed to competition.  People who have played sports with me or for me know that I truly love what can result from a positive athletic experience.  Here is the thing, though… I love competing when it is my choice and when it is at a level that is  challenging and there is a (even small) chance for success.  I do not enjoy being thrown into a competition in which I have no choice and I have very little skill compared to others (think – me in a trades competition… yikes). I would rather practice, set goals, compete against myself, and gain some confidence.  If I choose to compete following this, I will likely enjoy it. (note: I also know that as a coach trying to build a program, we purposefully faced competition that was way beyond our skill level once in a while but our goal was different.)

So this is why I REALLY struggle with all the articles and posts going around that say “we need to teach kids to lose” and “we need to have our kids in highly competitive environments so they are ready for the real world“; I also struggle with the ones that state “all competition is bad for kids“.  What do these statements even mean?  They are surface level comments that often end there and do not allow us to go deeper into the discussion around learning.  I think much of what we do falls in the middle and this dichotomy of all ‘competition vs no competition’ misses the point of what we are really trying to do: teach skills and build confidence and resiliency.

When we state, “we need to teach kids to lose”, we make a huge assumption of what “losing” means and that our kids live in a world in which they never lose.  Kids lose every day.  Some kids come to school have had losses before they enter the doorways. If they lost the battle to have a mother and father… if they lost the battle to have a breakfast… if they lost the battle to have a good friend… if they lost the battle to be a “typical” child (whatever that means)… and yet, they still come to our school with a smile on their faces – are we supposed to teach them to be better LOSERS?

What we really need to be talking about is the need to foster a growth mindset (Dweck), develop self-confidence, teach resilience, and help our kids understand what to do when they set a goal and we do not achieve it. (feel free to insert the buzzword “grit” anywhere here).

Confidence.  It’s what it is all about.  I am not talking about self-esteem, I am taking about self-confidence. Telling kids they are great or giving or setting them up for fake victories may give them some self-esteem but this will quickly disappear when faced with an authentic challenge.  We need to work to develop real confidence and resiliency. When we are confident enough and are provided with a safe environment, we take risks, we fall, we reset, and we keep moving toward our goal.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes,

“…at the beginning of ever winning streak there is a leader who creates the foundation for confidence that permits unexpected people to achieve high levels of performance” (via Tom Schimmer)

So if we move the discussion beyond the idea of teaching kids to be losers (and a few winners) and we focus more on confidence and resilience, how do we actually do this as parents and teachers?  Here are some of my thoughts (and please feel free to add yours in the comments below – would love to learn more ideas)

  • Teach about a growth mindset – that intelligence and skill levels are not fixed… that humans are malleable and can learn any skill with purposeful practice.
  • Provide a safe environment for taking risks. Don’t catch them when they fall but provide a smaller fall and guide them on how to respond when they fall.  Check out Sheila Stewart’s excellent post on this.
  • Help our kids to set personal goals that are focused on growth and do not depend on beating someone else.  We cannot control what others do… if we win because we defeat someone with less skill level, is this a success?
  • “Get them on a winning streak” (Tom Schimmer). Provide enough teaching, guidance, and practice so that kids can achieve small victories.  Many of our kids have lost in school for a number of years and therefore, have no confidence and become disengaged.  By “over preparing them” (Schimmer) and creating authentic victories based on personal goals, we can increase confidence.
  • Embrace their strengths and support the deficits. Every child can be successful at something so find out skills in which our kids have confidence (or are interested in) and key on those strengths and use this as a platform to change the trajectory of their learning.
  • Meet them where they are.  Back up to where our kids can have success (or move forward so they can be challenged).  As Kanter writes, “Expectations about the likelihood of eventual success determines the amount of effort people are willing to put in.”   If students are faced with a task in which they believe that there is a chance of success , engagement and effort will increase.
  • If you are going to use competition, provide choice and work to place kids at a level that challenges them and provides an opportunity for success.

Let’s move away from (and beyond) the talk about teaching kids to be good losers.  It is a generalized statement and we have no idea what “losing” means to each child.  We can teach sportsmanship and respect but, in my experience, I have never succeeded in becoming a “good loser”.  Let’s go deeper and talk about confidence and what happens when we do not meet our goals.  Let’s meet kids where they are, provide a safe and challenging environment in which risk taking and making mistakes is encouraged… as long as we use it to become better.

I don’t want my kids to become “successful losers” (huh?).  I want my kids to grow up and become confident learners.  I want them to know their strengths and be aware of their areas they need to work on.  I want them to take risks and fall… and when they do, have the support and self-confidence to get back up and try again.  I am sure I will continue to make mistakes as a parent and teacher but I will continue to reset and try again. With the aforementioned developed skills and support from family and teachers, I know there is a good chance our kids will achieve more success and eventually lead a worthwhile life… which is defined by them.

I would love to hear more ideas and thoughts on this… feel free to share and/or leave a comment below.





Creating Time for Teachers to Tinker With Ideas #RSCON4

Finding out what we are curious about.

Finding out what we are curious about.

We often hear criticisms about the lack of innovation and creativity from administrators and staff in schools.  I understand these concerns; however, my response is, “if innovation and creativity are important, why do we provide educators almost no time in the schedule to explore and play with questions and ideas?”

UPDATE:  The YouTube Video as well as the slides from the RSCON4 session are at the bottom of this post.

A couple years ago, I offered to cover 8 classes (spread out over a few weeks) prep-free so a teacher could tinker with an idea.  I called it the “Fed-Ex Prep: Time for Innovation” (based on the idea shared by Daniel Pink in Drive – you can read my reflection here) as I was providing time for teachers to explore… with the idea they would have to deliver something back to the staff. Although this was successful, it only provided time for one teacher at a time and relied solely on me to cover.  It was a good idea but not something that changed the structure or culture at our school.

In our school, like many others, we see pockets of innovation and brilliance but I think we need to work to create the conditions for staff to connect, share, and collaborate on ideas.  I wanted to build on the Fed-Ex Prep to encourage more time for innovation and I also wanted to create more time for teachers/staff to meet during the day so I spent much of last year reflecting and trying to determine ways to implement collaborative time into our school schedule.  I already knew the WHY so my how/what questions were:

  1. How can we create time for teachers and staff to collaborate without any additional cost?
  2. What will we focus on during this time?

I spoke with many people and toyed with many ideas around shifting the school schedule (that is tied to the bus schedule that impacts most of our students) but this was going to take at least a year to gather input and support from parents, community members, and educators… and after those discussions, we still may have had hurdles to clear.

At the same time I was exploring ways to create time, I was also reading/researching the idea of a Professional Learning Community (the DuFour model).  Many people were helpful in this research (big shout out to my friends Bill Ferriter and Cale Birk) and I began to try to engage our staff in moving toward a PLC model and creating time in the schedule.  I had an idea for time in the schedule and staff were on board for this time to collaborate; however as we started to move into the PLC model, I felt it was not fitting the culture of our school – I felt I was following a slightly top-down recipe rather than meeting our staff where they are and growing from there.  (This is not a criticism of the PLC model… more of a criticism of how I was trying to implement it. I learned a ton from the reading and conversations that shifted my thinking.)  After a few meetings with staff around this, it didn’t feel right so I threw a tweet out there that asked for Canadian educators’ experience (as our system is quite different than the US) with implementing a PLC model in an elementary school.  One response caused a significant shift in my thinking – Delta principal Dr. Janet Lauman said she had done her dissertation (a must read) on learning communities in BC schools and she had seen successes and failures.  She encouraged a “Living Systems” model she was using in her school that created time for staff to collaborate but was way more grass roots and free for innovation.  After a few phone calls, coffee at Tim Horton’s, and dinner with a few of our teachers, Janet and I came up with a plan of what it was to look like at our school.

This was not going to be a PLC model nor would it be focused on specific school goals (although the majority of our staff meeting time is professional learning based on our school goals).  This would be time for teachers to meet and tinker with ideas.  Here is a summary of the simplicity and how it works for our school:

  • In the final months of school, we created a new vision and mission statement for Kent School.  We also discussed the WHY of collaboration time.
  • In the summer, we decided that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, during the period before lunch, we would have our teacher-librarian, our music teacher, and me available to cover classes so teachers can meet (2-4 teachers/staff – our special ed teacher is also able to cover for special education assistants so they can meet with teachers).
  • In the summer, we also went through the details of the scheduling and then asked the question, “what are you curious about? If you were given prep-free time during the schedule, what would you explore?”  We then posted all the questions and ideas on a board and put them into themes (ex. Technology, writing, self-regulation, outdoor education, and fine arts were some themes that stood out).
  • Once the year started, I would create the schedule a week in advance and either staff would come to me with a need or question or I would go to them with encouragement to explore one of their questions.  The time could not be used for a typical prep.

The simplicity of this model concerned me.  Would this really have any impact on our students?  Would staff use the time effectively?

We are one month into our experience of being a living systems learning community and the impact thus far has been significant.  We have had a teacher and special education assistant completely redesign their room so it supports more students in their self-regulation needs.  We have had our intermediate teachers meet to discuss cross-classroom art themes to explore and teach.  Our music teacher worked with me to create a website that will help to better the communication with parents and share the musical learning happening in our school.  We have had teachers (classroom and spec ed) meet with our child care counsellor to develop ideas on how to more consistently work as a team to teach the needed social skills of some of our students who struggle with behaviours. Our teacher-librarian met with a few teachers to discuss inquiry-based learning and implementing a different reading framework. The best part of all this is the simplicity.  Our grade 6 teachers met with our First Nation Support Worker to discuss ways to embed learning around Residential Schools into many parts of the curriculum.  The time we have created is basically “seed” time.  The conversations do not end after 45 minutes; they continue through lunch as well as after school (in person and online).  The time gets the ideas growing and more and more staff are asking for more time to meet to continue to grow these ideas.

We have had a challenging September with a number of new students coming to our school that require significant support (that we do not always have).  The stress level is very high but in spite of all this, there is a culture of learning and positivity in the air.  Staff are excited to learn and grow with each other.

Although we have not provided Google’s 20% time and we have not provided time for every teacher each week, the seed time we have created has encouraged teachers to set aside their busy schedules, meet with another staff member and simply tinker with an idea. There is never enough time… but this model has provided a window in to the impact that just a little bit of time can have for teachers to create positive change by meeting and tinkering with ideas.  This model is messy and I do not know where this time together will lead us; however, it is also grassroots, strength-based, organic and all about meaningful, relevant, personalized professional learning. I am truly excited to see where our staff takes these ideas in the coming months.

This post will be one of a few stories shared to initiate dialogue during my presentation, “Educational Leadership: Creating the Conditions For Passion and Innovation”, at the FREE Reform Symposium Worldwide  E-Conference that happens October 11-13.  My session will occur at noon Pacific on Saturday, October 11.  Hope you can join us and share some ways we can create the conditions for more innovation and passion in our schools and learning environments.



Thank you so much to Janet Lauman for her insights and leadership.

Here is the YouTube Video as well as the slides from the RSCON4 session:



The Power of Outdoor Play: We Built a Hill

Students celebrating on our hill.

Students celebrating on our hill.

“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories.These are the moments when the world is made whole.”

Richard Louv

In the past year, we built a large hill on our back field for our students. To some, the idea was silly… but to most, including our students, the Kent Hill has been something that has helped encourage play and learning in more ways than we ever imagined.

It is no secret that staff and parents at Kent Elementary have strong views on the power of outdoor play and exploration. For a number of years, there have been different ideas and activities like a community garden, outdoor education at the local research station, nature walks, the building of a large outdoor sandbox, and class hikes to the rivers and lakes. In 2007, some teachers at Kent applied and received grants and worked with local university programs and engineering companies to design and build our beautiful garden.

Kent Elementary Garden

Kent Elementary Garden

Within the garden are paths, large rocks, and stumps for kids to play on. In addition, the teachers (particularly Ms. Trish Fushtey) went to great lengths to work with local artists to have each child design and build their own concrete and tile stepping stone for the paths. What we began to notice was that more children were playing in the garden creating their own games than were playing on the playground equipment. We also took note that students loved to play on a little hill that was covered by plants.

One staff meeting a few years ago, I showed the video “Born To Learn” with the intention of simply creating dialogue around education reform. This video led to a passionate conversation around outdoor play and a “long shot” idea of developing a large hill in the field was even thrown out there.

As the garden needs regular maintenance, we held a work bee last year and some dedicated parents came and helped a few teachers and students weed and prune. During this activity, a comment was made by Kathie Cardinal (a teacher very passionate about outdoor education), that we once threw around the idea of building a hill out here… and because of the excitement and dedication of our parent group, they responded with – WHY NOT?

This got the ball rolling on the design and creation of our own Kent Hill. Collin Johnson, a parent and local engineer, worked to research and design the hill with safe and child-oriented slopes. Wendy Clark, Teresa Stoeckly, and Amber Kafi (parents) also worked with Collin to hold meetings and tap into local resources to help create this hill at little to no cost. We took the minutes and designs, along with our WHY, to the Board and asked for permission to build. Although there were some questions, in May 2012, the idea for the Kent Hill was approved and last summer the hill was built and seeded. When the students returned to school in September, the Hill was built but fenced off as we needed the seed to grow. We told them that when the snow arrived in the winter, the PAC had purchased 50 Crazy Carpets that could be used for the hill… the excitement grew along with the grass.

Open for sledding!

Open for sledding!

Unfortunately, our winter was a warmer, wetter one but we did get one sprinkle of snowfall… just enough to move the fences and free the sledders! Normally we would have to wait until the ploughs came to clear our parking lot to create our snow hill; this time it was all ready to go with only a few centimeters (half-inch) of snow.

Following the muddy winter, we finally opened the hill. Of course the students were thrilled to be able to run and roll up and down the hill – the challenge became getting them back into the school shortly after the bell :-).

It is difficult to express in words how the hill has enhanced life at Kent. When I presented our highlights (including the story of the hill – see presentation slides below) to the Board, I shared some expected outcomes of the hill: increased outdoor play, excitement, wonder, health, fitness, and excitement. I also shared the outcomes that we didn’t foresee: regular learning on the hill, infusing the hill into physical education classes and sports day, buddy play (as both primary and intermediate students have access), using for sensory needs (ex. spinning, rolling, climbing), and student developed self-regulation strategies.

The benefits were numerous. Teachers at Kent worked with students to create brand new minor games that used the hill as a key component of their PE environment. Many students stated their favourite event in sports day involved the hill. The last two in the above list really showed how much students can teach us. When a student is a bit antsy in class, we often encourage them to go for a walk or run in the field. I was working with some students that were having a rough day (behaviour-wise) and they mentioned they were having a high energy day. I asked them if they would like to go for a run with me around the school and their response surprised me… they said, “actually, can we climb up and down the hill a few times?”. After we did this, I asked them what they liked about the hill to get some energy out and they responded, “we like digging our hands in and helping us to climb – feels like we are bears”. In the child’s mind, the students were being bears; in my mind, these students had shown me that the hill can be used as a way to help students self-regulate by using not just their legs but also their arms and creative minds. Not only did a “simple” hill create the conditions for more play and joy outdoors, it also helped our teachers enhance play in class and helped our students with some of the sensory diets and self-regulation needs.

Kent Hill: So many benefits.

Kent Hill: So many benefits.

In a fast-moving, light-flickering, and sound-blasting world, I think it is that much more important to help our students learn to ground themselves with nature. What this development did was show us how much students love playing in the outdoors and that a simple, low-cost hill can be a great first step to creating more of a highly beneficial natural play area in schools.

Please take 2 minutes and watch the video below that was shown for the Board about our Hill.

Special thank you to current and former staff for modeling and encouraging the value of outdoor play and wonder.

This would not have been possible without the relationships with our dedicated parent community. Thank you to the following people for making Kent Hill a reality:

  • Collin Johnson, Wendy Clark, Teresa Stoeckly, Amber Kafi of our PAC
  • Abby Contracting
  • Kafi Landscaping
  • Kafi Bobcat
  • Burden Propane
  • District of Kent
  • Dogwood Manor
  • Kel-Mor Enterprises
  • Strohmaier’s Excavating
  • Timberwood Excavating
  • Wedler Engineering
  • Bott Development
  • Timbro Contracting
  • School District 78