6

Building Staff Culture: The Importance of TRUST

CC Image from T. Vogel https://flic.kr/p/i67wYD

My professional growth plan is focused on building a positive school staff culture. I am no expert in this area but I have been honoured to learn from many others to help with my growth. It is my belief that one of our main roles as principals is to create the conditions for a positive culture. I will be using my blog to share and reflect on my learning journey. 

Through my experience at a number of different schools, and having the honour of being a principal in two of them, I have learned that the 4 Pillars of Positive Organizational Culture in Schools are: strengths-based, collaborative, innovative, and focused. From my experience, these core areas are based on the values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care.  This post will share some my learning journey in the area of building trust (with a focus on building trust between staff and a principal).

In order to create positive change in schools, there must be trust – not only between staff members but also between staff and the principal.  In my first position as a principal, I moved from being a vice-principal to a principal at the same school so people already knew me and had a better idea of what I stood for as an educator. There was a level of trust already there but this was not the case when I moved to a new school.

When I arrived at my current school 3 years ago, I assumed that trust would be easy to build between the staff and me. I felt I was a decent guy with experience as a principal and there was no reason NOT to trust me… so building trust should happen rather quickly. I had plans to work on trust with me (as well as between staff) but I had no idea it would take as long as it did.  I have learned a ton in my 3+ years at James Hill, especially in the area of building trust. It is not something to be rushed and it takes a lot of effort and time to ensure that trusting relationships are solidified.

I am sure there are times when some staff do not have 100% trust in me but I do feel that, overall, there is decent trust built over the past few years. So what have I learned that was successful (and not so successful) in building trust between staff and a principal? Most of the following ideas have been stolen from others but have worked for me:

  1. Listen… really LISTEN. This was an area that I made a few mistakes. In retrospect, I spent a lot of time trying to prove myself by sharing my ideas and thoughts. I needed to spend less time trying to be interesting and more time trying to be interested.  When we shut up and just listen, it shows we care and it shows it is about US rather than about me. When we listen, we give people a chance to share as well as space to think. The best ideas often come from within and these are the easiest to implement; by just listening, we create the conditions for people to think and share great ideas. I have learned to take the notifications off my phone, put the technology away, avoid interrupting and making it about myself, be present… to truly listen.
  2. Make the Time. Schedule Meet ‘n Greets. I stole this idea from Cale Birk. In my first few months at the school, to get to know the staff and practice my listening skills, I created an online schedule and asked people to sign up for a chance to just sit and chat. My goal was to spend 15-20 minutes listening to learn about staff strengths, interests, curiosities, as well as some information about their families. When I put up the schedule… after about a week, nobody signed up! I was feeling disheartened but there was finally one teacher that took a risk and signed up and met with me. After we met, I realized that people assumed that I was planning to run a bit of an “interview” schedule. Whoops! It was a good lesson for me on making sure communication is clear. Once there was clarity of the purpose of these blocks of time (that actually ended up lasting about 30 mins each), staff all signed up and I was able to spend uninterrupted time listening to the thoughts and qualities of teachers and support staff. Using Cale’s idea of “Meet n Greets” was a great start for me to try to build trust with a new staff.
  3. Walk the Talk.  To build trust we must do what we say we are going to do. This is about effective management. For some reason, management has been given a bad rap and been overshadowed by the importance of leadership. Bruce Beairsto shares that leadership and management are the yin and yang – both are equally important and you cannot be effective in one without being effective in the other. As Beairsto says, “Management builds the house, leadership makes it a home.” A key error for me has been focusing too much on the leadership and not on the management. One of the mistakes I have made is saying “yes” to too much. For fear of being unavailable, I said yes to a lot of requests and, in doing this, was not able to follow through with commitments and promises. By not doing what I said I was going to do, I missed opportunities to build trust. I did learn how less is more so I started to say “not at this time” a bit more often and worked hard to follow through with ideas and commitments to actions for staff, students, and families. By focusing on effective management skills such as follow-through and organization, we can build more trust that has a resulting impact on leadership and culture.
  4. Be Visible. Moving to a school in January was a very positive experience. The previous principal had worked incredibly hard to leave the school after tying up as many many loose ends as possible. January and February were months that provided the opportunity for me to spend a lot of time in classrooms with staff and students. Being visible in classrooms led to great dialogue and a better understanding of who we were as a school at that time. If I spent this time in the office, I would have lost so many opportune moments to form connections and build trust.(Hat tip to George Couros for a lot of conversations about this).
  5. Be Transparent. When making decisions, I did my best to share the why. I know decisions were questioned but through this, my goal was to share that, as much as possible, the students were at the centre of these decisions.  It was also important to share which decisions we needed to make together as a staff, which decisions were made for us, and which decisions needed to be made by me (another idea I stole from Cale). It has been far from perfect, and sometimes we agree to disagree, but the transparency has helped people understand the why. When we are less transparent, assumptions can be made which will likely hinder the process of building trust.
  6. Communicate Clearly. As was stated above, unclear communication can cause misunderstandings and assumptions that hinder the building of trust. It is not what is said that is always important… it is what is HEARD that is important. There were some hard lessons of mistakes I made with this so it is important to learn to identify the people within the staff that you can bounce ideas off of and read memos before they are sent out. There are some people that will show trust more quickly than others so tapping into this relationship can be key in getting authentic feedback about communication. As trust builds, also does the number of people available to help you in this area. When what is heard is what is meant, we are not sidetracked by spending time clarifying and backtracking.
  7. Lead With Care. As Stephen M.R. Covey writes in The Speed of Trust, “the motive that inspires the greatest trust is genuine caring.”  Whether it is a decision about students, families, or staff, we must lead with what Nel Noddings would call an “ethic of care”. Our actions model our values so by leading with care, we can create the conditions for a culture of care and build more understanding and trust.
  8. Be Vulnerable. Putting ourselves out there can be hard but very powerful. I am lucky as I have significant privilege (being middle-class, white, heterosexual, male, etc) so this is easier for me to be vulnerable and share who I am (I shared this video of who I am with staff, students and families when I first arrived). Brene Brown shares that “Being, rather than knowing, requires showing up and letting ourselves be seen. It requires us to dare greatly, to be vulnerable.”  There is power in vulnerability… in putting ourselves out there.  As much as we can (again, easier for me), we can share our stories… stories of who we are, what we stand for and stories of both success and struggle. We cannot pretend to be experts; we need to be learners – learners that take risks and sometimes fail. When mistakes are made, I have learned from the feedback of others to own it, apologize for it, change, and move forward to work to repair it.  When we show vulnerability, we show that we are human and this makes relationships and connections stronger; with these relationships comes trust.

Although I thought trusting relationships would occur much more quickly than they did, I am so thankful and fortunate that I had (and still have) a staff that was patient with me through my mistakes, struggles, and eventual successes. Trust takes time but it is crucial in moving to a positive organizational culture. While we are building trust with our staff, we are modeling effective relationships and also working with each other as colleagues to create an environment of trust and a resulting collaborative culture (a topic that will be reflected upon in a future post).

If you have further ideas that would help me and others continue to build trust and grow, please share in the comments section below. 

 

5

The 4 Pillars of a Positive Staff Culture

Part of my professional growth plan is focused on building a positive school staff culture. I am no expert in this area but I have been honoured to learn from many others to help with my growth. It is my belief that one of our main roles as principals is to create the conditions for a positive culture. I will be using my blog to share and reflect on my learning journey. 

I have been privileged to work at two different schools in the past 10 years each having their own organizational culture.  Culture is something that is hard to see but we can always feel; it is the vibe of a school – the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours that exist within a school staff. In order to create change in a school, we need to work as a staff to create a positive school culture. As Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” so before we can talk about driving real change and having deep reflective conversations, we need to change the behaviours to change the culture. So how do we do this?

At James Hill, our staff has focused on building positive staff culture for the past few years. Our goal was to build school culture, not by isolated team-building activities but through the important work we do together.

To ensure we were acknowledging the importance of behaviours, we started with creating some norms or commitments for our staff meetings and collaborative time (Hat tip to Cale Birk for the idea). The staff came up with the list below and I am sure you can see some themes that arise from the list.

This set of commitments guides our behaviours and has helped create an environment where the staff meetings are a place safe enough to have those conversations that often take place in the parking lots and staff rooms. Prior to a discussion that may have some opposing views, we remind ourselves of these commitments.

More recently, we have talked about the attributes of an effective staff culture.  Staff shared their experiences both in a positive culture as well as a negative culture. They then captured words to describe a positive culture and the words were put into a wordle (Hat tip to Suzanne Hoffman for the idea).

Through the work we have done as a staff and through my journey with them, as well as my learning with the staff of Kent Elementary (my former school), I have come up with what I believe are the Four Pillars of a Positive School Staff Culture. I am sure there are many more areas that could be used as pillars but these four have been most effective for our schools. The pillars include cultures that are:

  • Strengths-based
  • Collaborative
  • Innovative
  • Focused

As you can see, these four pillars are also based on the values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care. These values weave their way through all four pillars and without them, the pillars can crumble.

In future posts, I will go through the pillars and values in more detail but here is a summary of the 4 pillars.

  • A strength-based culture is one that believes that EVERY staff member has strengths that can be tapped into to benefit the school as a whole. Feedback with staff always starts with strengths (characters and skills), staff memebrs are given the opportunity to determine their strengths, and each staff member is encouraged to use these strengths in the important work with students.
  • A collaborative culture is one that believes the “smartest person in the room is the room itself” (David Weinberger). Staff tap into the strengths of each other and engage in reflective dialogue to drive professional learning forward and create positive change. Trust is a huge part of a collaborative culture and a big change we wanted to make was to move the “parking lot conversations” into the staff meetings. Truly listening to others is such an important way to build trust and a collaborative culture.
  • An innovative culture is one in which educators feel safe to take risks, think critically and creatively, and implement new ideas with support. An important shift we have tried to make is moving from the question, “Can we….” to the question, “HOW can we…”  An important role for principals is to work to provide the resources (time, materials, etc) to build an innovative culture and help good educators become great educators.
  • A focused culture is one that knows the key areas of growth that the school is working on as well as the strategies that can have the most impact in the classroom. With so many ideas, policies, and procedures being sent our way, it is important to be a good filter and keep the staff focused on they vision and mission.  This continues to be my highest area of needed growth.  

The aforementioned pillars are based on important values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care that not only guide our behaviours but also guide our journey toward a positive school culture.

At James Hill, we have had our challenges but have made huge strides in moving toward a positive staff culture. This year has provided so many examples of a staff that sees the strengths in each other (and taps into this), collaborates in scheduled meetings as well as on their own time, and is willing to take more risks to bring new ideas to the classrooms. With a revised curriculum in BC, focus has been a challenge for us but we will continue to grow in this area as we use the other three pillars to help create more focus on our mission and goals as a school.

I look forward to reflecting and sharing not only my learning but also our growth as a school organization to continually become a more positive school culture.

 

 

0

8 Strategies to Bring Out the Best in Your Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 10.13.07 PM

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

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

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

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

@chriswejr

 

 

0

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

Image donated from Lindsay Helms Photography

Image donated from Lindsay Helms Photography www.lindsayhelmsphotography.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8

Sometimes We Don’t Need to Fix It, We Just Need to Shut Up and Listen

One of the key things I have learned from my wife, as well as some staff members, is that it is often more about listening than it is about problem-solving. Although there are many times when a problem needs to be fixed, there are times when our only job is to listen, sympathize, and/or empathize with what the person is telling us.

I recall a colleague telling me about a time in which he sat and listened to the many things that were wrong with a teacher’s class and how she was frustrated with a lack of support for her students. My colleague told me that after he listened, he worked hard to change a number of schedules to provide more support for this teacher. I am sure, if he is like me, he was proud of his efforts in helping to solve the problem. When he went to the teacher and shared his solutions, she became even more frustrated and said, “I wasn’t looking for changes… I just wanted you to listen!”. He spent the next few hours undoing his solutions.

In a meeting a few years ago, I brought up the topic of staff room dialogue. I said that I felt that the focus of the majority of conversations should be about working toward a solution rather than merely voicing concerns. A colleague responded, “sometimes, we just need to vent and not solve the problems.” At the time I struggled to comprehend this but as I grow, along with the help of a number of conversations with my wife, I am starting to realize that sometimes the most important thing I can do is… shut up and listen.

Check out this short entertaining video that shares this point… #lessonlearned (Thanks to Michal Ruhr for sharing)

18

Share Who You Are, Let People In

A family sharing a little bit of who they are… with me.

Sharing who we are and letting people in are so important to building trusting relationships with students, staff, family, and the community.

Yesterday, I was in my office gathering some things together after the bell had gone, when a kindergarten student, “K”, peered into my office and in the smallest,sweetest voice said, “Mr. Wejr, would you like to come and meet my dog?”  My first thought was that this was a child excited about her new dog and wanted to share it with people so I immediately (and excitedly, as I love dogs) said, “Sure!”

When I walked to the front of the school, not only was there a dog there waiting to meet me… but a BULLMASTIFF waiting to meet me!  Two years ago, we lost our beloved Ozzy to cancer.  This was such a challenging time for my wife and I as Ozzy was our life for so many years.  We still miss him every day and whenever I see a bullmastiff, my stomach fills with excitement and my mind fills with great memories of our big bear.

I said to K’s mom, “Oh my… a bullmastiff! My favourite breed in the world! Did you know this?”  She then let me know that she had walked with her dog to school to pick up K and there was a group of parents at the other end of the school.  When they saw the bullmastiff, they told her that she had to take her to meet Mr. Wejr!

When Ozzy was diagnosed with cancer, I was very emotional but I actually mentioned it at an assembly and shared much of his final months/days with people through social media.  As hard as it was, I let people in.  Staff reached out to me.  Students continually asked how Ozzy was doing and always were there for hugs.  When we lost Ozzy, inspired by words from my buddy George, I wrote a blog about losing our “little” guy and celebrating the life of Ozzy.  Staff and families of Kent School, along with many people online whom I have never met, read the post and reached out to me with empathy and care.

I think too often we feel that we should hide our personal stuff from work.  We hear (especially on social media), “keep the personal and professional separate”.   I know that we need not share ALL our personal stuff but what if I had not shared any of the love and struggles we shared with Oz?  What if I kept stories of who I am as a person outside of school completely private?  Would I still get moments like the one that happened yesterday?

I strongly believe that, as educators, we need to share who we are.  Put ourselves out there.  Let people in.  Be more vulnerable.

I don’t meant that we need to do this solely through social media and I don’t mean we need to just share our tough times.  We need to be comfortable with sharing more of our personal side – the moments of joy, sadness, success and challenge.  As a principal, there is nothing I love more that hanging out, playing and chatting with the students every recess and lunch. I get to share a little bit of who I am and I get to see a little more about who they are.  My students check out photos of my family on Instagram and constantly ask how they are doing.  I also really enjoy the informal dialogue with parents and staff at the end of the day.  I love it when a parent or staff member comes to tell me something about an event or topic which they know I can relate (ex. dogs, toddlers, books, sports).  When we do this, we humanize us.  We move from Mr. Wejr: the principal – to Mr. Wejr (or Chris): the person, the teacher, the husband and father, the sports fan… and the guy who would love to meet my dog.

When staff, students, and families see us for who we truly are, the relationships change… the conversations change… and the moments change.  

Thank you to K and her mom for taking some precious moments out of their time together to share a little bit of them in a moment with me… and their dog.

9

Moments Like This…

From a non-reader to a buddy reader

This morning I had one of those moments that make me so proud to be part of Kent School.  I have written about the passion and effort our staff put in to developing confidence and a love of reading in the past but the moment I experienced this morning sums this up perfectly.

Sarah (pseudonym) arrived at our school two years ago as a non-reader.  She lacked both the skills and interest (and support) in reading and was a very upset and emotional child at school.  This morning, I walked into our library during our “Early Morning Readers” time (community volunteers and intermediate buddy readers support children who want to come and read before school) and saw Sarah waiting at a table to read with a child.  Our teacher-librarian helped her to get set up and then it happened… she sat down with a primary child and began reading with him.  This moment is what it is all about – a minor moment overall but a huge moment for her.  Sarah had gone from a non-reader with no confidence or interest in reading to a point in which she was choosing to volunteer her time before school to help a younger child read.

This is what happens when staff and students work so hard to develop a Culture of Reading at a school… you get moments like these.  The irony is that she read with a boy that likely could read at her level or beyond but this did not matter.  Sarah had the skill, confidence, and love of reading to make the choice to be a leader in our school and share her joy of reading with a younger child.

Relationships. Sense of belonging. Confidence. Skill development. Leadership. Love of Reading.  Such an honour to experience and share moments like this…

41

The Problem With Black & White Statements in Education

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by the BCth: http://flickr.com/photos/bcii/4499830063/

I continue to hear how certain educational practices are harmful to kids. Things like homework, desks in rows,  multiple choice questions, worksheets, and tests are stated as being “toxic” and “educational malpractice”.  I think as educators we need to be careful when we make dichotomous statements like these as they tend to end the chance for any productive dialogue.

I have made this mistake before… many times.  I have my areas of passion and there are mindsets and ideas that I have strong opinions about but I have learned (and continue to learn) that when we make statements that polarize people, you leave very little opportunity to engage.

I saw this tweet today by a few educators whom I truly respect:

I believe this came from a statement from Alfie Kohn and people were just sharing his message but I am not sure. Now, I have big concerns about homework (see here for our staff conversation) but this statement about homework leads me to a response of: REALLY? Of all the things we do during the 7 hours kids are at school, homework is THE biggest killer of curiosity?  How are we defining homework? What if we move to an inquiry-driven system in which school is real life and they continue their learning at home?  How do we even start the conversation about questioning homework when the statement says that teachers who assign homework (again, not defining what it is) are killing curiosity more than anything else in school.  Do we really think someone who believes in giving  homework will discuss this after a statement like this?

Tom Schimmer once said to me, “Be careful of the tone of your message as it can alienate those you are trying to reach”.  When we use powerful polar statements, they often “sell” and get retweeted… but do they do anything to move the dialogue and create educational change?  It is no secret that I am a fan of Alfie Kohn’s ideas… but I struggle with the tone that is used.  Compare Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” with the writing that Kohn has been doing for years.  They both have similar messages (and cite similar research) but Pink provides a gentle nudge while Kohn makes us feel like we should lose our teaching licenses if we give homework, use worksheets, or have desks in rows.  Kohn has done very well with the language he uses (and again, love his ideas, personally enjoy his books, and the research he shares) but so many are alienated by his tone and the dichotomous statements he makes. As educational leaders, is this the tone we want to use to create the conditions for change?

We have some fantastic teachers at our school.  Sometimes we have desks in rows, sometimes we give worksheets, and sometimes we use multiple choice.  As my buddy Cale Birk mentioned to me: “Maybe we should be questioning the learning tasks (activities) that students are doing?”.  I would add – maybe we should be less concerned about some instructions/questions written on sheets of paper (or a screen) and the location in which students are sitting and instead focus our attention on student learning and level of engagement.  Is there NEVER a time when kids prefer to work alone?  Is there NEVER a time when some learning should be done away from school? Black and white statements make it seem like this is the case… and, unfortunately, often end the chance for any professional dialogue on the issue.

The few examples stated are important conversations we need to have as educators.  We need to question our assessment practices as well as our learning activities and what we expect of kids away from school; but in order to effectively engage in conversations around these topics, we need to move away from the dichotomous, or black and white, statements of education.

Education is full of grey areas – some darker and some lighter.  If it was easy we would have figured it out long ago.  The vast majority of educators do not intend to harm students with their practices… it is important we listen and attempt to view through the lenses of others.  Only then can we start powerful conversations about educational change.

 

11

“Be More Interested Than Interesting”

Be more interested: Listen.
cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Bindaas Madhavi: http://flickr.com/photos/mkuram/5961100771/

At some point in the past year (for a variety of reasons) the how, the why, and the when of social media slightly changed for me.  I have been reflecting a ton on the purpose of social media to me – both professionally and personally (see Social Media in Education: Who Is It Really About?).  I have been thinking about HOW I read online (unfortunately, often just scan) and HOW I interact with others. I have been thinking about the purpose of social media as it pertains to my learning and my life.  I have altered the amount of time I spend learning from and with others online.

Over the holidays, one of the books I read was Mark Goulston’s “Just Listen: Discovering the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone”.  Among the many things that resonated with me in this great read was that I realized in the past few years, I have spent too much time trying to be interesting online and less time being interested offline (and online).  I have spent so much time communicating, learning and connecting that it has distracted me from the DOING both in my school and in my life outside of school.  I also know this is all a part of my continuous learning journey to be a better leader, educator, and person… to me, this is growth.

“The measure of self-assurance is how deeply and sincerely interested you are in others; the measure of insecurity is how much you try to impress them with you.” — Mark Goulston

Some people have asked me which single word defines my goals for 2013.  Although I do not generally make new year’s resolutions, I believe that the word that has driven me to be better in the past year and into this year is: FOCUS.  In addition to spending more focused time with my family and in my school, as well as in my personal and professional learning, I need to focus more on LISTENING and being INTERESTED.  I will continue to share interesting things that I read and the successes we are having at Kent School but I will work harder on being more interested in those around me.

“If you want to have an interesting dinner conversation, be interested. If you want to have interesting things to write, be interested. If you want to meet interesting people, be interested in the people you meet—their lives, their history, their story.”  — Jim Collins

Related post: Listen With Your Eyes

21

Creating the Conditions: Student Discipline

“The proper question is not, ‘How can people motivate others?’ but rather, ‘How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?’ ” — Edward Deci

In the past number of years we have gone through a very positive and significant transition at our school.  Through the work of the staff (current and previous), we have moved from a punish and reward mentality to one that is focused on creating the conditions for students to learn the skills to be successful. We have gone from long line ups of students at the office at the end of lunch to maybe one or two students ‘arriving’ at the office during an entire day.  Most of the issues we now deal with are minor and dealt with in the moment in a learning manner, away from “the office”.

So how has the staff of our school worked to create these conditions?

A few teachers and special education assistants often talk about “backing up to where they are” when working with kids.  When we discuss student discipline or “behaviour plans” we do not discuss what needs to be done TO the child but rather what can be done FOR the child.  Appropriate behaviour is full of self-regulation and social skills that needs to be taught; punishment and rewards do not teach.  There is no standardized boxed program (or one in a big white binder) that we can buy that will solve our discipline issues.  Students are individuals and the conditions need to be created that not only help school culture but also help the student.  At our school,  staff work hard to create the conditions so we can back up to where the student is and help him/her develop the self-confidence and social skills needed to be more successful in a school setting.

For about the past 4 years, we have had a group of boys that are the rough and tough jock type.  They have turned every square inch of our school and field into some sort of hockey rink at some point. I love these guys… I coached them at recess times when mini-hockey sticks were almost regular sticks to them; however, their drive  and ultra competitive nature often gets the best of them.  Last year, their aggressive play came to a head as we seemed to be dealing with some sort of minor altercation almost every day.  We banned hockey for a few days and then the game of choice became “touch” football (their definition of touch turned out to be different than mine).  It seemed like any activity they played turned into a physical battle. I met with a Special Education Assistant (who is also a supervisor at recess/lunch) as well as a few teachers (and phoned a parent who has a similar perspective on student discipline) and we asked the question, “what conditions can we create for these students to be successful?”.  The answer came to us: they needed a coach.  They needed someone nearby that could bring them into a huddle every now and then to have some reflective discussions so they could come up with their own rules to create more fair play in the games.  Also, this coach would help some students to understand when they needed a break to regulate their emotions.  We decided we would decrease the area in which they could play – not as a punishment but but to create the conditions for them to have an adult closer if/when needed.  This small group of boys decided they wanted to play soccer and have the supervisor nearby to help them with any disputes.  They came up with some rules together and then began the games.  What happened next was one that made me sit back and smile.  What started out as a game of 8-10 boys turned into a game of 12…. then a game of 16.  A week later there were over 30 students – of all genders, skill levels, needs, and ages – playing soccer in this small area.  The game had the conditions – a level of intensity coupled with a sense of fairness – that made these students all want to play.

The start of something special – a few more students join the reflective huddle with the recess “coach”.

Of course we still have students that struggle with behaviours and some learn much faster than others; however, when we change the lens of discipline from one of punishment and rewards to a lens of skill development and self-regulation, we see students begin to develop and actually shine in an area of their life in which they once struggled.  There is not one main thing that can be pinpointed as something that changed the culture of discipline at our school.  Through the years before and during my time at the school, there has been dialogue on restitution, strength-based teaching, growth mindset, mediation, First Nation culture, awards ceremonies, leadership/mentorship, relationships, etc… all with a focus on kids.  All of these conversations have pushed us forward and provided us with more tools in our toolbox so we can work together to create the conditions for more student success.  We still have a lot to learn but I believe we are definitely on the right track.

All students are good kids – some come to school with more skills than others in certain areas.  When we have a student struggling with reading, we find ways to create a support network to teach the skills; this support network also must be developed when children struggle with behaviours.

Create the conditions for students to be successful: back up to where they are, support them through coaching, be patient… and watch them flourish.