The Wejr Board

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


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)


The Problem With Black & White Statements in Education

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by the BCth:

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.



“Be More Interested Than Interesting”

Be more interested: Listen.
cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Bindaas Madhavi:

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


Building Trust With Parents

LISTEN. CC photo from

At Kent School we meet with a few different parent groups throughout the year and always get helpful feedback on how we can improve things at for our students.

Today we had a First Nation Honouring Ceremony for our kindergarten and grade 1 students so prior to this event, we invited the parents to come in an hour early to discuss education at Kent School (we have created a few First Nation Parent Groups based on previous feedback from parents).  We were thrilled to have over half of our students’ parents come in early.

We started the discussion with examples of how most parents ARE already involved in their child’s education and how some are engaged as well as explaining the difference between involvement and engagement.  I then demonstrated all the ways that families can use technology to become either more informed or more engaged with the school.

As with most meetings, I feel the most important part is the dialogue.  I spoke about how, although I believe school-family communication is very important to student learning, this cannot be done effectively without trust.  We wanted to hear from the parents about how the school can work to build trust in families so they not only feel comfortable coming to the school but also confident that they can speak about their child and feel they have been heard.

After some table talk, we asked the parents to share their thoughts.

  • A father spoke up first and said, “it’s simple… the only thing I ask is that when I discuss my child, LISTEN.  I have been part of schools that have constantly told me what to do but never listened to what I had to say.” [in my opinion, in addition to listening I think we (as educators) need to seek out voices of those who generally do not speak up]
  • A mother spoke up and said, “We know what our child cannot do, we want to hear HOW he is learning and what he CAN do – we appreciate when schools do this on phone calls, meetings, report cards… kids also need to hear this – that they have strengths and areas they need to work on”.
  • A mother stated, “If the school has to tell us something concerning, it is much easier to hear when it is sandwiched between some positives.”
  • A mother discussed how her work affects her involvement, “I feel so disconnected with the school because I work.  I know teachers work all day so I don’t want to bother them in the evening.  I like the idea of having other ways to communicate with teachers so we do not interrupt their time away from school… this would really help me. That way, I can stay connected to my daughter’s school better at times that work for me and the teacher.  I WANT to be connected in person, but working full time makes it tough.”
  • A group of parents said the like receiving the positive phone calls and comments (see post about Friday 5 Positive phone calls)  so they know that just because the school number comes up on the call display, it does not mean it is a bad thing.

There are so many reasons why some parents do not feel they have a relationship with their child’s school.  Policies and directives cannot build trust with parents; however, relationships can.  This is where we need to start.  Build relationships by LISTENING to parents and ENGAGING in dialogue around their child’s learning.

Too often, the education system tells parents what to do or makes judgmental statements that further disengage parents.  We all know that working WITH parents to increase involvement enhances learning in children.  A few parents and families from Kent School have spoken up and provided feedback on how to build trust…

Are we listening? 

Thank you so much to the families that provided feedback; also thank you to our passionate First Nation Support Workers who continue to work so hard in helping our school build relationships with our families.


It ALL Starts With Relationships

CC Image from Beatnic

I am thrilled to have a former student, Kenny Kou, write a guest post on my blog.  Kenny and I have been conversing (and challenging each other’s ideas) for the past few years on the topic of education reform through email while he was enrolled as an math/engineering student at the University of Waterloo.  He has now started a new journey as a grade 5-7 teacher in Nigeria.  He sent me an email about his experience during his first 6 weeks; his narrative demonstrates the importance of working WITH students by building relationships through understanding.

By Kenny Kou

On the first day of one of my creative writing classes, some of my students were acting up, so I asked them to stay behind afterwards. Instead of cussing them out (as was my initial plan), I decided to listen instead. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, and what they enjoyed about school. One of the students said he wanted to be an engineer. After a few leading questions, he made the connection that to be a successful engineer, he would have to be able to write well. He’d have to be able to articulate his points, and outline his ideas in proposals. Since that class, he’s been very co-operative and friendly.

I’m also teaching Language Arts to a class of five Grade 7 students. All of them are quite energetic, but one of them takes the cake. He is always jumping around, spouting out random comments during the lesson and interrupting both his classmates and me while ignoring instructions. Even when it comes to his writing assignments, you can see the energy flying all over the page as he’ll frequently go from one idea to the next without completing the first thought. One day, I pulled him aside at lunchtime and spoke with him about the upcoming story-writing project. We talked about what he was going to write, and then he gave me a few of his ideas. They were all fantastic ideas, and he could have made a great story out of any of them. But then we talked about how it was important to create structure for his ideas. That he would be able to write a great story once he put his ideas into the framework and combine the structure with his creativity. After that chat, he started to pay much more attention to instructions, as he could finally see the value in them. Although he still gives me trouble occasionally, his behaviour has vastly improved. Some of the other teachers in the school have complained about him being difficult to teach, but he has been a welcome presence in mine.

In my Grade 5 Language Arts class, two of the students have exceptional difficulty reading at grade-level; when they failed to follow along with their classmates, they resorted to misbehaving, which set off a chain reaction of the other boys joining in and goofing off with them. Since the second week, I have had two hours per week of class time with just those two boys to work on their basic language skills. During those sessions, we joke around with one another, talk sports and keep the atmosphere really relaxed; but, we also get through the lessons. We’ll intersperse social and academic, while occasionally blending the two together to make the lesson individualized and relevant to their own interests. Over the past few weeks, they have demonstrated great growth in their comprehension abilities. As a bonus, their behaviour in the class has also substantially improved. Not only are they not acting up in class, they’re preventing their classmates from stepping out of line by calling them out whenever anyone misbehaves.

Only six weeks down, but I’ve learned first-hand so much about the importance of working WITH the students. As opposed to resorting to discipline as a first strike, I’ve been working to understand WHY the students behave the way that they’re behaving. As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to make the lesson meaningful to the students. In order to do that, I have to learn about what is important to them and figure out how to incorporate those values into creating a lesson that they will buy into. Only then will I be able to provide them with the education that they deserve. It’s been a great learning experience so far and it truly has been learning with the students.

Here are more thoughts from Kenny from previous emails…

  • The students are able to see me as their ally instead of their boss. It’s allowed them me to connect with them, and improve the overall classroom environment and their attitudes toward learning.
  • My next battles: education is not a race and convincing students that learning is more important than grades. Despite my efforts thus far, “Is that an A” is still a very common question and “I’m done” is a very common phrase in my class.

I look forward to hearing more reflections from Kenny during his journey as a new teacher. Thanks for taking the time to share, Mr. Kou!


Parent Communication: TO vs WITH

Communication TO is not the same as WITH. photo from

As our school moves to attempt to add another stream of communication to parents via SMS (text messaging), I have been asked – “how many ways do we need to communicate with parents?”  Should parents not just try harder to stay informed of their child’s education?

My responses are twofold:

  1. We need to differentiate our parent communication so we meet families where they are.  Each family has a varied level of involvement and engagement due to time availability, access to technology, and ability to exchange in dialogue.  Some families have the social-cultural capital (non-financial social assets like time, education, confidence, etc) to engage in ongoing face-to-face dialogue with the principal, teachers and staff at their child’s school; others prefer to use technology (email, blog comments, Facebook, etc) to communicate while some families are content (or due to family circumstances, it is the only option) to receive information from the school.
  2. We need to be clear of the difference between communicating TO families and communicating WITH families.  There is a purpose for both but we need to be very clear that TO and WITH serve different needs for our families.  Communicating TO families is a way of broadcasting information while communicating WITH families is a way of exchanging in dialogue.

So with the understanding that we need to meet families where they are and we need to use a number of different tools to communicate both TO and WITH families, what are some ways we can do this?


  • newsletters
  • reports
  • announcements, newspaper articles and ads
  • emails, SMS
  • Website
  • Twitter feed
  • Blogs
  • Facebook Page


The key with parent communication is clarity of PURPOSE.  We cannot say that we communicate WITH parents effectively if we are not visible in the public and our technology does not encourage feedback and dialogue.  Technology is not a replacement for face-to-face dialogue but can be used in a way to increase the likelihood of these meetings through developing confidence and better school-family relationships.

Schools have traditionally worked to improve communication TO parents and families. In today’s system this is not enough. We, as educational leaders, need to increase dialogue and communication WITH families by not only making ourselves more visible but also by embracing the available social media tools to meet parents and families where they are.



A Principal’s Map For Parent Involvement

I am pleased to once again have Sheila Stewart (@sheilaspeaking) write a guest post for The Wejr Board.  Sheila is one of my mentors on the topic of parent and family engagement in school.

Sheila’s perspectives and advice regarding parent involvement come from a variety of roles and experience in education and working with parents.  She is involved in local and provincial parent networks in Ontario, and she supports newcomer families with English language learning.  In the past 8 years, she has worked collaboratively with a number of principals and administrators to support parent involvement initiatives, consultations, and activities.  She recently presented to principal candidates on school councils and parent involvement.

A Principal’s Map for Parent Involvement* by Sheila Stewart

I think being a principal is an amazing and key role to have in education.  I also recognize the work load of principals—from managing the physical space of the school to the responsibilities they have to the school community—staff, students, and families. The responsibility of establishing parent involvement, outreach and communication strategies at the school will rest a large part on the principal as well.

From Davi Sommerfield

Parent involvement has become a frequent topic of conversation in education lately with the many ways that it is analyzed, interpreted, and deliberated upon.  The visions for and expectations of parents in both their involvement in their own child’s education and in the broader context of school and community may also vary from district to district, and from stakeholder group to stakeholder group—each may want something different in what it looks like and in its outcomes.

So…where to start as new to the principal role, or new to a school?

From the system level (Ministry/Depart. of Ed./District/School Boards) the message may be that the kind of parent involvement to foster and focus on is that which increases student learning and/or specific “achievement” outcomes.  I am not sure there is a set of clear and certain strategies that can be used and measured, but not all should be at loss because of this and nor should parent involvement be dismissed.  I believe that the links with parents and families remain essential to supporting students.

The culture and climate of the school will become apparent quite quickly to a new administrator.  This is the context where a principal will need to navigate various avenues that are suitable to the parents and families of the school’s students.  It is important for principals to find a style that is appropriate to his or her school community, whether the school is large or small, urban or rural, elementary or secondary.  A principal who develops strong relationships with parents and parent groups, will have parents who are more likely to become involved in the school community, and this in turn will have a strong impact on the overall effectiveness and inclusiveness of the school.  The principal will be key in modelling and setting the appropriate positive tone and connections with parents.

As long as principals are familiar with their local policies and mandates regarding parent involvement and parent advisory groups, they should be able to create a suitable and flexible plan for the school community.  Parents will be diverse in the ways they want to be involved, and the best plan for parent involvement should honour this.  Policies and guidelines can be helpful, but there will always be realities to consider.

Before establishing a plan, a principal might want to consider the following:

  • Get to know the ways parents connect to the school currently (e.g. face to face, formal/informal, electronically, social media).
  • Take some time before moving forward with new plans—extra time may be needed to build relationships and trust to support changes you may want to make ahead.
  • Build on what is working well—lead through listening.
  • Help all stakeholders connect to the broader picture of education, while still maintaining that each student matters and has unique needs.
  • Create opportunities and spaces to understand and gain clarity about what parents need, what the comfort zones of involvement are currently, and what barriers exist.

A principal might also want to determine the following:

  • Are parents involved in authentic, engaging ways, or are they receiving mixed messages about the nature or pathway of their involvement?
  • Have parents been receiving information about the positive things and extra efforts that teachers/staff have been doing to support students and the school? (creates confidence and can inspire further support from parents)
  • Has the school demonstrated a welcoming approach and honoured the roles and expertise of parents in their child’s life and in the community?

Communication Comes First!

Regardless of the approach or plan, it will be important to establish clear communication plans and strategies—who, when, how, how often, what—between the school/principal and parents/community, between teachers and parents, and also the parent group with each other and the school’s parents.  Principals are ultimately responsible for school communications, so they need to be clear and strategic in all the various protocols that may be preferred by both teachers and parents. Steve Reifman also has a great list of suggestions on his blog, “9 reasons to communicate frequently with parents”.

It is also important that the school community is aware of how 2-way communications can occur.  This may involve a number of different ways, including electronic communication and/or social media.  Opportunity for 2-way communication often IS the parent engagement.  All else can flow from there, in a much more proactive and realistic way which may also reduce the need for conflict resolution.  On-going input and feedback from parents will also help inform a principal’s decision-making at the school.

Here is what it might look like as you proceed into the school year:

  • Parents who want to support from home will know that it is valued and will still have access to support and 2-way communication channels.
  • Parents who wish to help in the classroom and/or communicate with their child’s teacher will know when and how to do that.
  • Parents who are committed to and interested in the more structured and organized meetings and activities at the school will be valuable and vital for further connections and partnerships with families through shared leadership and outreach.
  • Parents who attend special events, read the school news and blogs will feel connected and will share the good news with others in the community.
  • Parents who cannot attend the school as often will know how to communicate with the school or teacher or parent group.

What is it all for?

Clear and understood channels for communication and an inclusive vision of the different way that parents will support kids should enhance the principal’s ability to facilitate partnerships and positive relationships within the school community that will ultimately support student experiences at the school.  Through various communication and involvement pathways, all parent participation can be valued.  As valued and trusted participants in education, it is more likely that parent involvement will benefit principal leadership, teacher support, and student learning, as well as contribute to an inclusive, vibrant school community.

I hope this framework of ideas is useful and leads to discovering more effective and practical strategies that can be shared further.

*Note: at Kent School, we have a goal of “Family Engagement” as we realize that the support systems of many of our students extend beyond the parents. The ideas from Sheila will be applied to our goal.

Thank you to Sheila Stewart for her efforts and thoughts with this post.  As always, comments and questions for Sheila and others are appreciated and encouraged.


If I Were In Your Shoes

Shoes - image from

Shoes - image from

I just finished reading another great post by Timothy Monreal (@mryoungteacher) on “Teaching Empathy“.  I do not disagree with Tim as I truly believe that the modeling of empathy and care is so important in our schools as well as in society. As I was reading it, though, I thought about one of my pet peeves: the statement “If I were in your shoes”.

Here is the thing: to be blunt, I appreciate the sympathy but you are NOT in my shoes so please do not pretend that you know what it is like to BE in my shoes.  I have been speaking with a friend who has a child with a significant disability.  He is doing his absolute best to make things work for his child along with his family.  He came to me and said, “people keep telling me they know how I feel and then giving me advice on what they would do if they were in my shoes… they don’t know everything about me and they don’t know what it is like to me.  I just wish people would give me some space”.

BOOM.  We don’t know everything about what someone else is going through.  All we know is what we are observing from our perspective. It is so important to model and practice empathy; however, we need to be careful to offer advice to people and pretend we know what it is like to BE them.  We can often mistake sympathy with empathy.

The most important thing we can do is listen, truly listen.  Be there… be there in the moment with that person.  Listen with your eyes.  If advice is requested, let’s ‘walk’ with the person and give advice from our shoes… and not pretend we actually understand what it is like to live in in the shoes of someone else.

Something I continue to work on…


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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