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Creating the Conditions: Instructional Leadership #Leadership20

This is the 3rd part in the “Creating the Conditions” series; Part 1 was on Student Discipline, Part 2 was on Love of Reading.

I recently had the honour to present in the Leadership 2.0 MOOC series (in which I am learning alongside others) on “Providing Instructional Leadership” (To view the archive of the presentation click here - you can also view the slide embedded below).  When George Couros asked me to be part of this, I looked over the sessions and chose Instructional Leadership not because I am an expert on this topic but more because this is the area of current focus for me as an educational leader and this would be a way to learn from others.  I figured doing this would challenge me and give me the extra push to channel all of the reading and learning conversations I am having into one 60 minute session. (please note that due to the size of this topic, this is one of my lengthier posts but please have a read and add your stories at the end so I can learn from your experience).


As I communicated with people like Bill Ferriter (who continues to challenge me to be better), I realized that I had some concerns with the term “Instructional Leader”.  To me, that term states that there is a single instructional leader; what the staff of Kent Elementary has taught me is that that everyone can and should lead – and that many people can work together to facilitate instructional leadership.  The key role for me as a principal is to create the conditions for our staff  to be more of a professional learning community and create more opportunities for people to be involved in the instructional leadership of our school.

My reflections lead me to discussions with Bruce Beairsto and Jacquie Taylor (2 former BC superintendents who now work as consultants and volunteer as mentors) about how I can work to create the structures for the conditions for instructional leadership.  Both Bruce and Jacquie said they had a similar concern: the management side of school leadership had been given a bad rap and is something that is crucial to effective principal leadership.  Bruce said, “Leadership and management are the yin and yang of administration… management and leadership are equally noble, complex and necessary.”  He also used the analogy of a house when he said “You need management to build a house but only leadership can make it into a home” (more from Beairsto).  Through these conversations, it became clear to me that I had focused mostly on relationships and conversations but had focused too little on the structures that could facilitate more effective dialogue and put these conversations into action.  The key question for me this year is: how can I work to create the conditions for more  instructional leadership in our school?

One book that I read in my Master’s program was by Blase and Blase and in it, based on their work with hundreds of teachers, they summarize how teachers described effective principals.  The best thing about this list is that this is the feedback that has often been given to me by the staff in our school. Blase and Blase stated that effective principals:

  • lead with a shared purpose
  • empowered teachers (although I struggle with the term “empower”)
  • fostered collaboration and collegiality
  • supported risk taking and innovation
  • helped teachers become inquiry oriented
  • provided resources and time for professional growth

The majority of staff that I have worked with, both as a teacher and a principal, want to lead.  They have an area of passion or interest or they have some questions and want to explore; the challenge is often creating the conditions in which it more comfortable to do this.  When I think back to Deci and Ryan’s work on motivation (also explained by Daniel Pink), the ideas of autonomy and purpose stand out.  How can principals work with staff to provide the needed professional autonomy and voice in developing shared purpose?

Professional autonomy is one of those terms that is defined in so many different ways.  I strongly believe that in an environment of professional learners, professional autonomy can help teachers to flourish (we have “linchpins” in our schools that especially need that autonomy to fly and lead).  I like differentiating between professional autonomy as “freedom FROM” and “freedom TO” that was discussed by Blase in “Bringing Out the Best in Teachers”.  In a top-down controlled environment (think micromanagement), teachers often want freedom FROM doing things that they are directed to do; in a supportive, collegial environment, teachers want the freedom TO try new ideas and dive deeper into areas of interest.  It is important to also note that there are some ideas and initiatives that are agreed upon by staff (the “non-negotiables”) that teachers should not move away from (ie. consistency in assessment).  In our district, teachers have the option of doing some learning team professional development and are given time in lieu.  The past year, we had 5 teachers discuss ways that we could increase the joy in reading at Kent School; they met and learned together far more than the “earned” time in lieu and their conversations and ideas have had a significant impact on our school (click here to read more).  Professional autonomy significantly impacts student learning in our school as staff have shown that when they have ownership (purpose) of their learning, motivation increases.

Being part of the instructional leadership in a school is crucial to the effectiveness of a principal.  In order to be part of this, there must be TRUSTING relationships and credibility.  When meeting with staff we must work had to listen… truly listen.  When listening, I often come back to this story:

A little girl came home from school with a drawing she’d made in class.  She danced into the kitchen, where her mother was preparing dinner.
“Mom, guess what?” she squealed, waving the drawing.
Her mom never looked up.
“What?” she said, tending to the pots.
“Guess what?” the child repeated, waving the drawing.
“What?” the mother said, tending to the plates.
“Mom, you’re not listening.”
“Sweetie, yes I am.”
“Mom,” the child said, “you’re not listening with your eyes.
Mitch Albom

If relationships and trust are important to us, whether it is with students, staff, or families – listen with our eyes.  Doing this allows for us to not worry so much about what we are going to say next and more about actually hearing the message being communicated.  Having trusting relationships helps with the personal credibility needed to be on an (informal) effective instructional leadership team in the school.  Professional credibility comes from the earned respect from others based on knowledge and experience.  Therefore, it is so important for principals to stay up to date on ideas and practices, share this with others, and, most importantly, be in classrooms.  Both being in classrooms learning from teachers and actually teaching a small amount each week (one of the greatest learning experiences I have had as a principal was co-teaching grade 1 reading with a very experienced and effective primary teacher) can only work to build relationships and both professional and personal credibility with staff.

One of the biggest barriers to staff learning, leading and trying to go deeper with their ideas is RESOURCES.  As Chris Kennedy has stated, “If we want people to do well, we need to give them the tools.”  How can principals use the (often small) budget to provide staff with the resources to participate in instructional leadership by enhancing their practice?  The cheapest way to do this is to offer a few tools and TIME.  I find that few teachers ask for much other than time.  As principals, I think we need to move from people asking permission to try new things to asking “how can we…” try new things.  This year, I have offered teachers the option (this is not a requirement in our district) to do an inquiry-based growth plan, not for accountability and not to be sent anywhere outside of school, to help me provide the resources for teachers to grow in area of interest.  I have been so excited to read these and engage in dialogue on how our school can help facilitate their learning.  My former principal, Roxanne Watson, modeled to me the importance of offering teachers time to learn; I again have offered to cover classes for any teacher wanting to observe another.  I will also again offer a “FedEx Prep: Time for Innovation” so teachers can have some extra prep to explore an area of interest and apply that to their practice.  I am hoping that by engaging in reflective dialogue with our staff, I can better provide the tools for our staff to enhance their learning and, in effect, be more involved in instructional leadership.

As we model learning, it is important that we share this with staff and encourage collegial learning.  As Linda Lambert writes:

For decades, educators have understood that we are all responsible for student learning. More recently, educators have come to realize that we are responsible for our own learning as well. But we usually do not move our eyes around the room—across the table—and say to ourselves, “I am also responsible for the learning of my colleagues.”

We need to share our learning and share the learning happening within staff.  I believe one of my roles is to be a connector of learning in our school; I need to connect educators that are separated by bells and walls by sharing the learning story and encouraging staff with similar interests to connect.  This can be done best through face to face but also through email and social media.  Staff meetings are the only time we get to be together as an entire staff; as Scott Benwell said to me, “in BC, we have a total of about 15 hours in which we can meet as a staff – how are you going to organize that time?  Is this time best used for reporting out information or is it best used for collegial discussions that drive us forward as a school?”  Staff meetings must be effectively prepared in a way that leads to important dialogue and sharing for our staff (for a fantastic post on this, check out Cale Birk’s recent post or any of the posts at Bill Ferriter’s blog) as this can be a key structure to facilitating instructional leadership.

Staff (principals included) also need to be encouraged, supported, and challenged. As most of you know, I am not a huge fan of public recognition of individuals so I believe that private conversations that acknowledge the hard work and efforts of our teachers are so important.  Hand-written notes are something I need to do more of as I know how people appreciate these.  Staff do not work hard to get the “prize of a note” but feedback on their (often amazing) efforts can go a long way.  Feedback can also be used to challenge a staff member to reflect on certain practices.  Having difficult conversations with staff is never easy for me, but as Johnny Bevacqua says: “we need to go skate into the puck and go to the hard places”.  A colleague in the district, Mark Classen, has pushed me to seek to understand and see through the lenses of the other person; he has helped me to sit beside and discuss concerns rather than sit across from and debate.  Even our best teachers need positive feedback as well as a push to be better.  Tom Schimmer recently challenged me to approach educational conversations as “gentle nudges” rather than the right vs wrong ways of doing things.  This perspective has helped me engage with a variety of educators (both in and out of our sch00l) in effective conversations that move the focus from teaching to learning and drive both parties forward.  Having trusting relationships can open the door for 2-way feedback that will not only challenge our staff to be better but also make it easier for me to receive feedback to make me better.  It is also important that principals and teachers in our schools understand that when principals enter the classroom, it is to be further engaged in the LEARNING of the school and not to just participate in surveillance.  Although I realize that often when ANY adult enters a classroom to observe it is natural to see change, the more we are in classrooms (and GET OUT OF THE OFFICE!), the less likely it is to be viewed as an event and more as part of the conversation.  Through the conversations, gentle nudges, and positive feedback, all those involved in instructional leadership will see more growth both individually and as a team.

To create the conditions for instructional leadership, it is important that we engage in discussions and are aware of literature on current effective pedagogy.  For curriculum and assessment, one of the areas that we have focused on has been the practices included in Assessment For Learning, particularly having clear learning intentions and criteria as well as using effective descriptive feedback that student can act upon.    When I first started to learn more about AFL and became an administrator, I made the mistake of coming across (preaching) as using the practices of AFL was “right” and not using them was “wrong”; by doing this, I alienated many people in the conversation.  Since then, I have worked with teachers to highlight some of the work already being done in our school as well as setting up reflective staff meeting discussions of assessment practices to give some gentle nudges both in group and individual discussions; too, teachers have challenged my ideas and caused me to continually reflect.  For summative assessments, we are currently trying to use school data to inform us (NOT evaluate) but we have to ensure that this data is as real as we can make it – we have to work to make the data more consistent, ensure that we are assessing the same standards, and not participating in grade inflation/deflation (through late marks, zeros, bonus, etc).  Ideally, we would like to have what Benwell calls an effective dynamic tension between where we are now and where we want to be.  Although we continue to challenge each other, the strengths of staff members,combined with avenues for reflective dialogue, have moved us all forward in providing more effective, consistent, transparent assessment practices in our school.

Creating an instructional vision must be done from within.  It cannot be MY vision because if the staff does not feel they have ownership, it stays as MY vision and goes nowhere.  I need to have a voice but so do others.  The key questions I am asking myself and others are: how do we create a shared vision? how do we KNOW it is a shared vision?  One of the responses is quite simply to truly listen and build the vision from the strengths within the school.  Are other people being heard? Are we tapping into the effective practices already in our schools?  A shared vision with a sense of purpose can guide us in so many instructional decisions; getting to that point requires active listening and open reflective discussions about what we believe as educators.

Another aspect of leadership that I am working on is being a more transparent educator.  I think it is important to show that it is acceptable (and encouraged) to take risks and be vulnerable.  Leadership requires people to put themselves out there and possibly be wrong.  To facilitate instructional leadership, we need to model vulnerability and transparency and encourage staff to pursue the questions they/we have.  David Wees and John Spencer have challenged educators to not only share the successes but also the failures.  I have shared my “oopses” with staff and I plan to blog on this in a future post.  As Brene Brown wrote, “To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness.”  It is important that we show care… that we show feeling… and, at times, we show vulnerability.

As I said, the topic of instructional leadership is vast as so many aspects of leadership come into play.  I believe that the main role of a principal is to create the conditions for instructional leadership to occur in our schools.  The key questions that I am exploring are: what are the conditions that facilitate more instructional leadership that drives each of to be better educators… and how do I create these conditions?

I look forward to reading any insights/stories you can share of the positives and/or negatives of instructional leadership in your schools.

 

 

 

 

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My Favourite Teacher: My Mother

When I think back to all the learning that took place up until now, I have to say that my favourite teacher was my grade 7 home economics teacher.  I have actually known this teacher my entire life – she was there on the day of my birth and we are extremely close today.  This teacher is my mother, Lynne Wejr.  Although I am sure I learned a whole lot in that grade 7 year, it is the lessons that have been taught and the qualities that have been modeled that have shaped me to become the person I am today.

My favourite teacher: my mother

My favourite teacher: my mother

When I think about trying to put into words all that mom has taught me, the key word that comes to mind is: FAMILY.

Although my parents never had the perfect marriage, for my sister and I, they were the perfect parents  (you can read more about what my father taught me here).  I never remember a time when my mom was not there for me.  She has been at every sporting or school event, family barbecue, birthday party, and special occasion.  She was there for every heartbreak, every failure, every fall, and every injury.  No mother in the world can say they supported their son more than my mom.

Now that I am a father, and my wife celebrates her first mother’s day, I want to take this time to reflect all that my mom has taught me and say… thank you.

Thank you for…

  • always putting family first
  • being there when I needed a hug - when I was a child all the way through a recent loss
  • being my biggest fan – on the court, on the field, and on the ice – whether I was in first place or last place
  • driving me everywhere I needed to go and providing me with opportunities to follow my passions
  • being firm when I needed discipline and gentle when I needed guidance
  • encouraging me to take risks and challenge myself
  • teaching me that success was based on hard work and effort rather than ability
  • sewing the holes and hemming and unhemming my pants growing up
  • teaching the importance of trying new things (as a teacher, my mom never taught the same position for more than 5 years – she worked as elementary, middle, and high school teacher as well as a special ed teacher and librarian)
  • being so excited whenever I call
  • putting up with my grumpy years (ages 13-27  ;-) )
  • teaching me to jive dance
  • staying up all night with me to get my last-minute projects done
  • looking after Ozzy and Mason (and letting our 150lb Bullmastiff Ozzy pretend to be a lap dog)
  • demonstrating the power of forgiveness
  • teaching rather than punishing
  • showing me the reward was the task itself
  • honouring me for who I am rather than the things I have done
  • being the glue that holds our family together
  • being the best Nan to my girls that they could ever imagine
  • modeling to me the patience, care, and love that it takes to be a parent like you

Mom, I know that I don’t say this enough but thank you, I love you and appreciate you more than you will ever know.  Happy Mother’s Day!!!

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Standardized Testing: A Parent Voice

Frustration

I am pleased to have Sheila Stewart as a guest writer.  I have been introduced to Sheila’s passion around education  through Twitter and although Sheila is from Ontario, her thoughts on technology, standardized testing, and learning reach far beyond that province and her words tie in well with BC’s discussion around the local standardized test, the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA).

Sheila is a very engaged parent in the world of education.  Her roles include:

  • a parent of 2 teens in Thunder Bay, Ontario
  • School Council Co-Chair at the High School
  • Coordinator, School Council Chairs Network
  • Parent member, Parent Involvement Committee
  • Network member & online community moderator, People for Education, Ontario
  • Follow her on Twitter at @sheilaspeaking

by Sheila Stewart

I shouldn’t let newspaper editorials get to me so…..but…..when they sound so definitive on education like this, Measuring Literacy

….other voices are needed…….so here was my response:

Learning and Measurement

A recent editorial noted the variety of literacy activities highlighted locally during Ontario’s Literacy Week.  The editorial, “Measuring Literacy” (Sun., Jan. 27) touched on technology, literacy, standardized testing, and associated outcomes.  I also believe there are many ways to foster literacy development and demonstrate that learning.  Everything is very connected, and impacts can be both negative and positive.  The influence of technology can be overwhelming, but I have remained willing to consider the positive opportunities for education.  I have continued to see examples of how technology as one tool in the learning environment can provide many opportunities to further support literacy, communication, collaboration, and engaged learning.  As with any new technology, the use of it as a teaching tool can only be as effective as the training and experience of the teacher.  Digital literacy doesn’t necessarily promote the use of sub-standard language skills per se.  As with many things, there are always many variables that can impact skills and outcomes.

I am aware of many educators in Ontario and in other provinces who care deeply about creating authentic learning opportunities to help their students’ strengths, passions, and individual growth as citizens.  There is much more to supporting learners that may not be reflected on a standardized test.  And much more feedback on learning is important for students, and for their parents as well.  If the individuals who spend time in classrooms are expressing concerns about the impact of standardized testing on the learning environment, then I say we should at least have a listen and not conclude that it is only about a fear of being evaluated themselves.  It is my understanding that current standardized testing in Ontario is more of a “system” measure and much less to do with information about individual students and teachers.

I would also be cautious in saying that “parents”, in an all-inclusive way, value the information from standardized tests.  Parents are diverse, as is our province.  I know a number of parents who have become unsupportive of standardized testing and have concern about the impact of so much focus on these outcomes.  Can we feel satisfied that all is well based on reports of one set of data?

There must be something valid to the concerns about standardized testing if so many provinces are involved in a debate about their usefulness in supporting student learning.  I agree with the writer of the editorial, “Good education is essential to Ontario’s future.”  For us in the north, I hope we continue to dialogue with all partners in education and keep asking the questions of why….what does that mean….what else is needed….is that enough….how can we help….as well as, what is possible with technology?

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Honouring A Student’s Strength: Story of Daniel

“We don’t know who we can be until we know what we can do.” – Sir Ken Robinson

(This was originally guest-posted as an “A-Ha Moment” on  Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension.  With all the talk about how we changed our awards ceremony to focus on ALL our students’ strengths, I felt now was an opportune time to cross post.  Thank you to Pernille Ripp for the opportunity to share Daniel’s story.)

How can we truly see the potential of our students if we fail to provide the environment to bring out their talents?

I have always wanted to be a high school teacher and I was exactly that for 7 years. You never know where your life will lead you and, while completing my Master’s Degree, I was offered the opportunity to work with an amazing principal at an elementary school. Roxanne taught me to seek out the strengths in people and bring these talents out from within and opened my eyes to the power of strength-based, rather than deficit-based, teaching and leadership. My aha moment came in my first few months of being an elementary school teacher and a new vice principal.

When I did the tour of the school I was to be a teacher/vice principal, I met Daniel (pseudonym). Daniel had a smile that was contagious but was disengaged and struggled in school; the reason I met him that day was that he was in the hall after being asked to leave class. I never asked him why he was in the hall, I just started asking him about his life outside of school; we talked about music and friendships in the few moments we shared together on that day.

The next year, I was to teach a 5/6 class (in addition to the vice principal duties) so when we were creating the classes, I requested that Daniel be placed in my class. To be honest, in the first month, I really struggled with the transition from teaching 17 year-olds to teaching 11 year-olds. Many of the students had behaviour, social, emotional, and academic challenges so I spent many hours bouncing ideas off Roxanne and other teachers trying to find out how to reach these kids. I specifically started to talk about Daniel as he was so withdrawn in class – always refusing to take part in any learning activities and that smile that drew me to him seemed to have disappeared. She asked me what I knew about him; the truth was that I knew very little about him other than he struggled in class and liked music. She encouraged me to find out more about him; find out what he loved, what he was good at and try to bring that out in him.

During the next week, I spent a recess having a snack with Dan. I found out that he lived in a nearby community in which he spent two hours on the bus each day, lived with his Grandmother because his mother was far too young, and we shared a common interest in Johnny Cash. We spent much of the recess singing a variety of Cash songs and just laughing. Later that day, I was speaking with the First Nation Support Worker (Nelson), sharing with him about the moment that had occurred, and he let me in on another strength of Daniel: First Nation drumming and singing. He said this was something that he recently witnessed in his community but maybe something that we could support. The FNSW asked me if he could take Daniel and a few others to work on this interest; I believed this was a great opportunity so for 2 weeks, Nelson spent a few mornings a week drumming with Daniel and two others. What progressed after this changed the way I teach and live my life.

I asked Daniel if I could come watch one recess. I was blown away. Daniel was so into the drumming and singing that he would actually be sweating with pride as he was doing this. A few weeks later, I asked him if he could perform for our class – he unfortunately declined. Nelson encouraged him to sing and drum with him in front of our class. He nervously agreed and blew us all away when he performed; other students cheered when he finished and then asked if they could be part of “his group”. Daniel was now not only working with his strengths but also leading others to do the same. His group added girls and grew from 3 to 6 and then 8, including 2 students from another class. They played for our class every Monday morning, to start our week, and every Friday afternoon, to finish our week. They even gave themselves a name, Sacred Connections, and began to play for other schools and community events.

The moment that brought me almost to tears was right before Christmas. Each week, 1-2 new students would join up front in the singing and drumming. We often don’t see the impact of small changes but right before Christmas, the group actually had no people to play for, because every single student was up there singing with Daniel! To create an audience, I invited Roxanne and a grade 4 class to come and see the performance. We all sat there in awe of what Daniel had done not only as a performer, but also as a leader.

The other parts of Daniel’s school and life were drastically changing too. His friendships grew, his efforts in school improved and he became very engaged in learning activities. His reputation grew as a leader in the school and community and his group was asked to play at a local pre-Olympic Games (2010) event and in the spring he was asked to perform with Pow Wow drummers at a huge event in front of our entire school and community! Daniel had gone from a disengaged, quiet student who refused to take part in the learning to a proud leader and confident learner in our school.

Leadership and Strength

Daniel leading the "Welcome Song" to start our week.

That year was one that changed my life. It was not just one aha moment but a series of moments that shaped me as a person. I want to thank Roxanne, Nelson, and most importantly Daniel for teaching me that, as educators, the most important thing we can do is provide the optimal conditions for people to grow, bring out their strengths, and truly flourish.

Rather than only recognize those select few award winners at the end of the year, we need to honour every student every day.  Every child has a strength and passion within him/her; we need to help EVERY student to find this and excel in his/her own way.

Here are the comments that the person who taught me the most about this, Dominic (Daniel).

Dom 1Dom2

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Questioning Awards and Grades

Ending Awards in Schools.

Ending Awards in Schools.

As a result of our school’s decision to end our traditional awards ceremony and the blog post by Janet Steffenhagen, Bill Good of CKNW 980 in Vancouver interviewed me and hosted callers on the topic of awards, grades, and motivation in schools.

Please have a listen – would love your thoughts and feedback.

UPDATE – I have added the radio interview with John Tory of the Live Drive on NewsTalk 1010 out of Toronto.  Thank you to Shannon Smith for recording.

I was a bit frustrated with the focus on grades as I was more prepared to discuss the impact of our decision at our school but grades, too, fall under student motivation and is an important conversation to have.  The interview is 18 minutes long and the last caller provides some shock value for you!

One of my grade 3 students said it best while listening to the interview (and the last caller) with his mother when he asked, “why is he saying school is bad?”  Love it.

I have to add a quote to respond to the last caller (thank you to my assistant superintendent for this):

“When it comes to the assessment practices that employers trust to indicate a graduate’s level of knowledge and potential to succeed in the job world, employers dismiss tests of general content knowledge in favor (sic) of assessments of real-world and applied-learning approaches.  Multiple-choice tests specifically are seen as ineffective.  On the other hand, assessments that employers hold in high regard include evaluations of supervised internships, community-based projects, and comprehensive senior projects.”

From the book: “Breaking Free From Myths About Teaching and Learning” by Allison Zmuda.

Please click here to listen to CKNW interview, come back and leave a comment with your thoughts.

Thank you to Bill Good and CKNW for the opportunity to continue this important conversation.

Please click here to listen to NewsTalk 1010 interview.  Thank you to John Tory for the opportunity.

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Is Learning A Sport?

Awards: One winner, many losers.

Awards: One winner, many losers.

“Schools are not about awarding the best and brightest, but developing the best and brightest.  Awards take away from this.  We can not let our own bias of our own school experience or beliefs get in the way of what research has told us about effective pedagogy.” — George Couros

“Recognizing every student is no more an exercise in mediocrity than believing all children should graduate from high school.” — Joe Bower

This week the topic of awards surfaced again on Twitter.  As a result, Vancouver Sun reporter Janet Steffenhagen posted part of my blog “Death of An Awards Ceremony” that described the decision parents and staff made to significantly alter the way we recognize kids.  Instead of our year-end awards ceremony, we decided to have a year-end honouring ceremony along with recognizing individuals throughout the year for their individual strengths and passions.  Awards ceremonies are zero-sum, meaning that although they create a few winners, they create many losers. Some great conversations are happening on Janet’s post so please chime in with your views here.

Through twitter and Janet’s post, a common opposing argument to ending awards is that if we get rid of awards we:

“should end all games in a tie”

“might as well get rid of championships”

“might as well eliminate sports teams too”

“are not preparing our kids for the competitive environment that is the ‘real world’”

Sport is huge in my life.  My friends, players and teammates will tell you: I am one of the most competitive players and coaches in the rink and on the court.  I have spent the majority of my adult life coaching volleyball, basketball, and track.  During this time, although the main goal was never to just win but more about the journey and process, I was involved in sports that resulted in a winner and a loser.  I am not against competition (there are still fun, healthy competitive games in schools and classrooms); I am against awards ceremonies and events that place emphasis on the result rather than on the learning.

The key difference between sport and learning is that you CHOOSE to play sports and you go in with the knowledge that there is a winner and a loser.  Students should not go to school to win; students should go to school to learn.  Students should not go to school to compete for some award at the end of the year; students should go to school to collaborate and learn from teachers and peers.  We rob our children of intrinsic motivation by continually offering extrinsic motivators.

Also, for those who say, “if we get rid of awards, we might as well get rid of test scores and grades and entrance exams”; I say: ABSOLUTELY, these also do not promote learning.  I will, however, leave this conversation for another post.

To many people, unfortunately, learning does seem to be a sport.  For those people who believe this, here are some questions to consider:

  • When/why did learning in school become this zero-sum activity that creates winners and losers?
  • Are certain areas of school favoured over others?
  • How do you award the top learner?  How is one learner better than another?
  • How much do politics play into awards in schools?
  • When did learning in school become a place where “some students need that competition to excel”?
  • Is it more about the parents wanting their kids to have awards or is it about the kids needing awards?
  • Who has taught these kids that awards are important?
  • What stays with you for life – the intrinsic motivation of knowing that one can learn or the extrinsic motivation of trophies, certificates and prizes?
  • Do we give out awards for top academic child in the family?  If an argument is that we “need to prepare students for the competitive real world”, why do most not do this within their own families?  (I am still awaiting for me to get to this “competitive real-world” that people keep telling me about – please see my post “School IS the real world for our students”)

Obviously, I am being a little cynical with these questions but hopefully it makes people reflect on the flaws in having learning viewed as a sport with winners and losers determined at awards ceremonies.

If all students can excel in something and all students can learn, how can there be losers?  The answer: hand out awards for learning and make learning a sport.

We need to work to see the value and strength in EVERY child, EVERY day.  If we resort to recognizing only a select few at the end of the year, we are failing the majority of our students.  Let’s tap into our students’ interests and work to honour our students for the strengths and passions within each one of them.

Learning is NOT a sport, it is a journey; an enjoyable journey that never ends.

UPDATE: PLEASE WATCH THIS VIDEO (added from Sue Downey’s comment.. perfect!)

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Be There… Really?

Be there.  Two simple words that are so powerful.  Posts by Connected Principals colleagues Lyn Hilt and Dave Meister got me thinking about this once again.  With so many distractions in our lives (for me – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Email, SMS, etc), it becomes that much more important to be in the moment, to be there.

Although the following video is a commercial for a cell phone, it is a good, humourous reminder to be there for the moments – and not let them pass by.  Next time you catch yourself missing out on a moment, be there.  Really?  Absolutely.

Enjoy ALL the moments with friends and family this holiday season.

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When You Comin’ Home Dad

Finding balance as an educator is an ongoing challenge.  All the time spent prepping, assessing, meeting, and learning are the things that make great educators but they also affect life’s balance between work and family.Family

For my wife and I, these next few months will be the most exciting, challenging, and  joyous times of our lives as we are expecting twins in November/December.  As these children will be our first-borns, I want to make sure that I alter my life in such a way that my family is always the priority.

Education will always be ONE of my passions but it will never come close to the passion I have for spending time with family.  The main goal for me in the next year will be: BALANCE.   I want to be the parent that my parents were to me.  I want to be there to play, watch, teach, learn, read, coach, share, and love.

Although I have heard this song many times, I have never really listened to the lyrics.  As I am now approaching fatherhood, this song brought tears to my eyes as it developed a whole new meaning to me.  Please have a listen and reflect on the balance in your life.

The saddest part of all this is that Chapin died 7 years later… and never got to see his children grow up.

I need to find the balance to be there for the many special moments with my children.  I never want to answer the question, “When you comin’ home dad?” with “I don’t know when“.

Thank you to presenter and ex-principal Denis Harrigan of Victoria for introducing this to me.  Thank you to my parents for always being there.

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Listen With Your Eyes

originally posted on “Connected Principals”

As leaders, whether we are administrators, teachers, coaches, parents or students, a skill that is often lost is listening.  Too many times we think we need to provide answers or solutions when all we really need to do is listen.

Have you ever been in a conversation and not known what the second half of the dialogue has been because all you were thinking about was what you ‘needed’ to say?

Have you ever been in a meeting and been interrupted before you completed your thought?

Have you ever drifted during a conversation and began to think about something completely different?

Do you know someone that flips the conversation to stories about him/herself all the time? Does he/she ‘one-up’ you? (“That’s nothing, this one time…”)

One of my goals for the past 2 years is to become an active listener – to be there in the moment – during conversations with my wife, family, colleagues, students, and staff members.  What does this mean?  What does this look like?

  1. If you are truly listening, you are not thinking about what YOU are going to say, you are thinking about what the speaker is saying.
  2. In an effective conversation the thinking moves deeper.  Ask questions built upon what has been stated by the speaker.
  3. Pausing is good.  Before you respond, pause and reflect on what has been said, then think before speaking.  I have been working on this skill by observing many of our First Nation leaders (including our FN Support Workers in our school)- conversations need not be rushed.
  4. The most piece of a conversation is not what is said, but what is heard.  Make sure you truly understand what the speaker is stating.
  5. Listen with your eyes.
A little girl came home from school with a drawing she’d made in class.  She danced into the kitchen, where her mother was preparing dinner.
“Mom, guess what?” she squealed, waving the drawing.
Her mom never looked up.
“What?” she said, tending to the pots.
“Guess what?” the child repeated, waving the drawing.
“What?” the mother said, tending to the plates.
“Mom, you’re not listening.”
“Sweetie, yes I am.”
“Mom,” the child said, “you’re not listening with your eyes.
Mitch Albom

As educators we need to be active listeners to many different speakers: students, staff, administrators, parents, and community members.  Most often, when engaged in conversation, we do not need to know the answers or jump to a solution or a story about us – we just need to be there, in that moment, and listen with our eyes.


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Making Meetings Meaningful

Originally posted on Connected Principals

As a teacher, I sat through endless staff meetings where information was relayed and the same teachers commented and gave their donated ‘air time’.  As a principal, one of my main goals was to make staff meetings meaningful.  Just like a teacher designs his/her lessons with the students in mind, staff meetings need to be designed with the staff in mind!

My assistant superintendent, Scott Benwell, made a comment to me that put things in perspective for me.   “We have about 15 hours a year set out for staff meetings (due to contract agreement in our district); how are you going to spend those 15 hours to make these meetings the most effective?”

Although I have been a principal for just over 1 year and I continue to learn new ideas every day, here are 10 things I try to do to make meetings meaningful:

  1. Limit the amount of relayed information. If it can be stated in a memo/email – do that!
  2. Spend the majority of time on professional development. This does not mean having your staff sit through another PowerPoint presentation about data.  Facilitate conversations with your staff about topics that are meaningful and that have impact on student learning.
  3. Disagreements are powerful. Some of the best meetings in which I have been involved included fantastic, passionate debates around what we do for our students.  One of the best things about education is that two educators can completely disagree but believe wholeheartedly that what they are doing is best for kids.
  4. Keep to the scheduled time.  If a meeting is set for 1.5 hours, keep it to that time (or shorter).  Staff members have busy schedules!
  5. Invite to Optional Meetings. If there is a topic/issue in which some staff members are truly passionate, invite them to an optional meeting to discuss.  In this way, the only people at the meeting are those that have an invested interest.  Some of the best conversations have occurred at these optional meetings.
  6. Include Everyone. Stop the hierarchy.  If we truly are a learning community, include all staff members.  Too many times, support staff feel silenced at staff meetings; they are as passionate about kids as teachers/administrators so make sure all members have an opportunity to have their voice heard.  Remember that a staff meeting is not about YOU, it is a STAFF meeting. The most effective change is when it comes from the staff so provide a platform for people to feel comfortable speaking.  Include staff in the development of the agenda as well.
  7. Put Out the Agenda in Advance. This may seem like a no-brainer but it is key to having effective dialogue.  People can come prepared to discuss and issue/topic.  Conversations that are thought-out rather than reactive are that much more powerful. Also, limit the number of items on the agenda so there is time for conversations to go deeper.
  8. Set It Up! Make sure that the place in which you meet is set up in a way that encourages all to share their voice.  It is often effective to split up the cliques of people in fun ways too – people can learn more from hearing perspectives of people they may not talk to on a regular basis.
  9. Food, Glorious Food! Meetings often occur after school – people are tired and hungry so keep the staff nourished!  We have an awesome spread each staff meeting as each staff member signs up to bring food one time during the year.
  10. Use Humour.  Stories, Seinfeld Clips, comics… set the tone. George’s Views on Collaboration – Jerkstore! (video could not be embedded, sorry!)

Remember the limited amount of time that all staff members are together – make the most of this time, make it meaningful.

As I love to hear more tips from other educators, please comment so we can continue to improve our meetings.

Following the writing of this draft, I came across a recent post on the topic by Scott Elias: ‘Meeting to Meet’.

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