Building Staff Culture: The Importance of Gratitude

As educators, we take a lot of our efforts and successes for granted. As we raise the bar and do more, implement new ideas, and have more success, our baseline grows and we seem to embrace this as a new normal. Although this continual drive for growth and increased success is exactly what we should be doing, we often forget to be thankful for what we have and forget to show appreciation for the efforts and qualities of others who help us in schools and beyond.

Teachers, admin, and school staff have very difficult jobs; these jobs can consume us with stress, fatigue, and, as a result, illness. Because of this, negative self-talk, venting, and negative conversations with colleagues can dominate the staffroom and office spaces. There can be a silent competition around who has had the most challenging day and, as Dean Shareski said a few years ago, we seem to [complain and] wear “busy” like a badge of honour. I have even heard someone say, “she/he is always so happy… must not be working hard enough.”. This stress, fatigue, negativity, and illness makes it that much more important to focus not only on student wellness, but also adult wellness in schools.

For the past few years, I have focused much of my reading on the ideas from the field of Positive Psychology (Martin Seligman, Shawn Achor, Shannon Polly). Ideas that were once considered “fluff” (such as strengths-based approaches, gratitude journals, mindfulness exercises, and a focus on happiness) are now supported by more and more research that shows the importance for not only personal mental wellness but also a positive organizational culture.

In the fall, I was at one of the lowest points of my career. Having a newborn (which is incredibly beautiful but lots of work) and trying to survive in a BC system that included a severe teacher shortage left me very unwell. Instead of looking for positives around me, I was resorting to using my “lizard brain” and constantly seeing threats and the negatives around me. I was unhappy as a principal and, at times, considered going back to teaching to see if I could once again find that joy in education. The odd thing was that things at a school level were going incredibly well… we had one of the most dedicated, collaborative and positive staff cultures I had ever been a part of… there was more laughter in the staff room and more willingness to take risks and try new ideas for the benefit of our students… and more examples of care toward each other that I had experienced before. Some days I saw all of this; most days, however, I was looking through “deficit-coloured glasses” and only saw the fact that I was teaching more than ever (as we were short teachers-on-call to replace teachers that were absent), I was spending more time working at night (as I had to catch up on stuff I could not get done at work nor in the evening as we had an amazing new little family member), I was engaging in very negative conversations, and external changes that were beyond my control (but affecting me) were causing more work and taking its toll on me.

Something changed in late November. This year, our district has made a commitment to improving adult wellness and our school had a team of four that are attending district wellness sessions. After the November session, I came home to a powerful note from my daughters (shared in the blog post: Maybe Dad) and this was a catalyst for some serious change for me. I started to focus on MY wellness. I went back to all that I had learned through Positive Psychology: I left work earlier; I stopped worrying about the things I had no control over; I shifted my self-talk;  a teacher encouraged me to use and focus more on my strengths; and I started to look around and see so many positives at our school.

Over the Christmas break, I spent a ton of time with my family. At nights, I re-read some old faves and started to reflect and make more changes. For years, I have read that a gratitude journal was helpful to feeling better, having more energy, and being happier… but it just didn’t seem like it was for me. When I was reading a chapter about gratitude, the idea of a “gratitude app” popped into my head. I did some serious research (actually, I picked the free app that was the top pick in iTunes) and selected a gratitude app called “Zest”.  It is a simple idea: take a few moments once a day to share what I am thankful for… and sometimes add a picture (if I had one).

I did this for a week and this week happened to be the first week of 2018 at work. During this week, I noticed a shift – I had more bounce in my step, more smile on my face, and saw so many more amazing things happening at school (and in my home). It has been 30 days of this gratitude app/journal and I can honestly say I have noticed a significant difference to my happiness both at work and at home. I see great things and say to myself, “remember this moment as it is something I should be thankful for”. I am retraining my brain to see the positives (which I used to be so good at).  Looking for the positives does not mean we ignore the challenges… but embracing the good things in life sure give us more energy to deal with the ‘not-so-good’ things when they happen! 

I have also challenged staff to show more gratitude not only to each other but also be more thankful for what we have at work and at home.

  • We continue to start every staff meeting with WWW (What Went Well) and encourage each other to share something we are thankful for and/or proud of (we have done this for years but I was forgetting to do this myself).
  • We continue to share a weekly newsletter, “10 Good Things to Talk About“, that includes 10 (often more) positive things that I have observed or staff have shared that we want our community to know about. I find writing this each week also helps me personally be more thankful for the awesome efforts of our staff members.
  • A staff member anonymously wrote a note of gratitude to EVERY staff member that acknowledged something very personal that each person brings to our school. You should have seen the smiles on people’s faces when they read these; we even had some people well up as they had never been acknowledged before like this.
  • We have started a “gratitude wall” in the staff room for staff to acknowledge the positives they see around the school (this is in the early stages).
  • Some staff have started their own gratitude journals/apps and even challenged their partners to do the same.
  • A teacher used a gratitude exercise with her grade 4/5 students and surround their classroom door with things they are thankful for.
  • A teacher did a lesson on kindness and gratitude with her grade 3 students and they then wrote personal thank you notes to classmates and staff.
  • Our PAC co-chair has asked every student in the school to write one thing they love about our school on a heart and these hearts will line our hallways. I loved seeing older students buddy up with the kindergarten students to help them with this!

Some other ideas that I use or plan on trying:

  • Send a loved one a video thanking them for something meaningful.
  • Write one thank you card/note or a gratitude email per week to a staff member/colleague.
  • Make one positive phone call a day/week to a family at your school.
  • Say thank you. Say it often and keep it authentic and personal (general appreciation is not as effective and be careful not to overdo it! :-))
  • Buy a coffee a week for someone and share your appreciation (getting a list of the staff coffee/tea preferences at the start of the year can be helpful throughout the year).
  • Encourage your children and family to share a WWW at dinner or bedtime.

The changes I have personally made have made me a better educator and principal. Let me be clear, though, it is not all perfect with rainbows and butterflies at school. We still have our struggles. We should have challenges as this is a part of growth and change as we try to do our best to continually improve for our students. So this shift is not about simply ignoring the struggles and challenges but, instead, using gratitude and a strengths-based lens to energize and support ourselves through the many challenges. Because of a focus on gratitude, I feel more patient, positive, and joyful at work and I have more energy when I get home.

As a school, the vast majority of the positives were already there (I just needed to see them more often) but this shift to gratitude has been noticeable. It has helped build staff culture by people taking the time to acknowledge the efforts and strengths of others and has left people feeling more valued for their strengths and efforts at school. This shift does not end with the adults as it spreads throughout the school and into the hearts and minds of students and families too.

Gratitude is a simple shift that can help each and every one of us; by making this shift it can help build school culture so there is more happiness and wellness in schools.

Have you noticed the many positives around you? Have you shared your appreciation with a colleague lately? If yes, please share some other ideas in the comments section below. If not, start NOW.

We used the video below to help create some dialogue among staff on the topic of gratitude.

A huge thank you to our staff for all the amazing work they continually do and for helping to bring more gratitude to our school. Thank you, too, to our district (hat tip to Renge Bailie, Gail Markin, and Megan Zazelenchuk along with the support of Maria Lerose and Kim Schonert-Reichl) for making adult wellness a focus this year.

NOTE: This post is part of my professional growth plan which 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. Other posts in this series:


Maybe Dad: A Simple and Powerful Message From My Daughters

I sat there and stared at the table setting and welled up in tears. The other 3 plates contained what was left of a family dinner and mine lay there empty. Beside each table setting, my girls had written the names of our family members. Beside my name said “Maby”. Maybe dad. It was a message that broke my heart but I needed to hear. Too many dinner times I had arrived late or not at all because I was in a meeting or just trying to get that important email sent out. Too many dinner times, I had left my wife and daughters with the hope that I would be there for dinner but arrived 15, 30, or 60 minutes late. Now, we are at the point of “Maybe, Dad” for dinner. When we stop and listen to our kids, they can tell us so much… so much that comes unfiltered. So much that comes straight from their hearts.

I remember Chris Kennedy sharing that Barrack Obama had made it a priority to be home for dinner and if the President of the US could do this more often than not, so could he. Whenever I start to complain about my job, Chris is always the first person to tell me, “you signed up for this, you can choose to make it work for you”. I hate it when he says this but he is right. In our job as educators, there will always be the draw to be part of that committee, to attend that workshop, to be part of that meeting, to plan that perfect lesson, or to write that important email. There are many times when we can say no. Saying no to the things we don’t necessarily want to do is easier; saying no to the things we do want to do is much more difficult. We can, however, do this and make our families a priority.  We are all busy and we never have “enough time” but we can prioritize our time; if dinner time is important to me, I can make better boundaries and be sure that I am home for this more often. Yes, there are evenings when I absolutely have to be at the school or in a meeting but there are other times where it is my choice and I prioritize other things over these dinner times. This is not so much about doing way less but perhaps doing things differently. Instead of working until 6:30 and then heading home, I can head home earlier and catch up on work after the kids are in bed. I can still do my job well but shift my schedule so I do not miss out on the most important times in my life… time with my kids – these are times I will never get back and they must be a priority.

Having said this, I also think that we, as a system, need to continually strive to be more understanding of the importance of family and create the conditions for more wellness and balance in the lives of people within our communities. Each person is at a different place and we need to do a better job of seeking to understand and support. It is no secret that people who are healthier and happier are more engaged and more effective at work; we need to make this health and happiness a priority in our schools and districts. As principals and formal leaders, we can have a significant impact on this but we also need to take care of ourselves. The “airplane oxygen mask” analogy works here too – if we do not take care of ourselves, we will have a harder time caring for others.  There will always be a need for some late-afternoon learning sessions, volunteering as after-school coaches and club leaders, and having some fun as a staff beyond the school day but we need to be continually mindful of what we are asking of ourselves and others. If family is a priority and time with family makes people healthier, happier and more engaged at work, as a system we need to support this.

My goal is to put my family in my calendar like I do for meetings and evening events. I have to set better boundaries on leaving school to make sure I am home. I have to learn to say “I can only stay until 5:30”. I can be more reflective on what needs to be done and what can wait. I can be home for dinner more often.

In the past year, there have been some changes that have occurred that have helped me as a father. I am thankful that our superintendent has discouraged emails on the weekends as I find I can be at home and away from work on weekends (and to district staff who are bringing wellness to the forefront). I am thankful that my colleague George Kozlovic encouraged me to take emails off my phone so I can be at home and focus on family. I am thankful that my staff understands that I need to arrive at school a little later in the mornings so I can help my daughters get ready for school and my wife can look after our newborn son. Most importantly, I am thankful that my daughters set my name tag as “maby Dad” and sent me a message to shift my priorities and be home for dinner more often. There will be more times when I get to home to help to cook, serve the food, talk about “what went well” in our days… and the table is set with my name tag saying simply “Dad”.

Please feel free to share any ideas that have occurred in your school or district to help support those wanting to spend more time with family while maintaining their effectiveness as an educator. 

This song is a good reminder for us all…


How taking email off my phone helped me win the inbox battle and live more in the moment

CC Image – Dean Shareski https://flic.kr/p/4wpGFf

There were moments in the past few years when my inbox reached over 1000 unread emails. I felt like I was drowning each time I looked at my Outlook or my phone email app.

I remember when I used to take pride in how “connected” I was – how I could be contacted at almost any time and how I could connect with so many others in so many ways.  Then I started to realize that being so connected was actually causing me to disconnect with those right in front of me – my family, my friends, my colleagues. I was missing so many moments because I was either staring at a screen or sitting there pondering how I should respond to a challenging email, tweet, or post.

I decided to take ALL notifications (other than texts) off my phone so I could stay more in the moment. It was about at this time when I realized (ok, my wife helped me to realize) I had a problem because although not having notifications helped me to focus more, I was still checking my phone many times each hour… and now I was not just checking the notifications but I was opening up the apps to see if there were notifications. #fail

New plan. I was still convinced that I needed to be connected for work purposes and that Twitter and Facebook were the problem so I took these apps off my phone.  This worked wonderfully as I was not being drawn into conversations and I was able to be way more in the moment when I was either with family and friends or at work.

There was still a big problem. I felt that in order to keep up with the many (often over 100) emails each day, I needed to regularly check my emails on my phone. I was convinced that if I did not do this, I would fall way behind in the inbox battle. I started to read more books on increasing focus, organizing my mind and life, and disconnecting more often. In almost every one of these books, they gave the same recommendation: only access email from your computer and only do this at certain times during the time at work. I recall thinking that, “yeah, that may work for some people but, as a principal, I get over 100 emails a day… this is not going to work”.  I continued this addictive pattern of regularly checking my emails on my phone to keep up with all the emails.

About a year ago, I happened to be sitting next to a colleague, George Kozlovic, a high school principal whom I have a ton of respect for and who seems to be well connected in the world of education, and he happened to share that he did not have email on his phone.  Wait a minute… the principal of one of the largest high schools in the province does not need to have emails on his phone? I pressed for more info and he said the same thing that the books said – he checked it only from his computer when his purpose was to check emails. Hmmm…. Koz got me thinking.

Last summer, I needed some pure family time so I did it… I took email off my phone (I can just hear how “proud” my dad would be of me for this “gigantic” step… haha #notsomuch … as he shakes his head about people on those stupid phones).  Yes, this is a no-brainer for many people like my dad but for me, this was a significant step. What if someone needed to contact me about the school? What if someone needed something? How many emails would I have when I checked in a few days???  It was the summer so I thought it would be an easier step to see if these were actually real questions to be worried about.

Freedom! Wow, the fact that I could not check my emails from work freed me up to just simply BE. I could BE a dad. I could BE a husband. I could BE me! I would forget where I left my phone more often as I didn’t check it. I was less interrupted and got into “flow” more often doing tasks I wanted to do (as research continues to show how ineffective multi-tasking is for getting anything done). After a couple weeks (yes, 2 weeks) of no emails, I checked my email expecting to learn something huge about school or work and to get that inbox drowning feeling again… but I had hardly any new emails and none of these were urgent. I did this for the rest of the summer checking emails every 1-2 weeks… but could I really do this during the school year?

I kept email off my phone and started the year. I knew that I could check webmail through a browser on my phone but the extra steps that are required somehow prevented me from checking email. Once I left work, I left my emails. On weekends, no email until Sunday night. When I was home… I was home. After 9 months of this, here is what I have learned:

  • If you always check your email… you will think you always have email to read/write.
  • By not checking emails so often, I write way fewer emails. Because I write way fewer emails, I get way fewer replies. The number of emails I get each day is about half of what I used to get.
  • Many emails that I once thought I needed to respond to… I now know do not always require a response. The string of “reply-all” emails can be scanned and deleted rather quickly (unless it this conversation is a priority).
  • Sometimes an email is sent to me and by the time I check in the morning, the issue has been resolved. By being so available, I was making myself more needed than was necessary. If it is something urgent, all staff and colleagues have my cell number but people do not want to interrupt family time.  I think people believe that email is less intrusive as it is up to the receiver to check their inbox… which I now know is true. Staff will now send an email knowing that I will likely not respond until the next day.
  • I am more focused during email time and I believe I write more effective emails. I found when I used to email on my phone, my emails were less professional and much quicker (especially my responses). Now, my emails are a bit longer but I feel have more clarity with a more professional tone.
  • I can accomplish way more in a day than before. It takes minutes to get back to what we are doing each time we get distracted so being pulled away by emails causes everything else to take longer.
  • I am winning the inbox war. My inbox rarely gets above 10-15 emails that require a response and I can often get this back down to zero in the morning before school.
  • In the evenings and on weekends, I am only at work when I choose to be at work. I still need to work many weeknights and some hours on the weekends but I am not drawn into a work mindset by an email that comes on my phone. I can also now be on my computer working at night and not check my emails which also increases work efficiency.

I realize there are people that are reading this and thinking, “Wejr, man, you had a problem when you were tied to your phone that much”… and they would be right.  I wasn’t alone, though. Even at work, in meetings, an email would be sent to our admin team and I would hear phone after phone buzz or beep and see people like me leave the moment to check our phones. That WAS me. I was so worried about missing out on something from outside that meeting… that I was missing out on the discussions taking place inside the meeting.

We live in a time where there is an expectation to always be connected. This is a trend and expectation that needs to stop. At our last admin meeting, our superintendent provided some wise words and encouraged us to avoid checking email between Friday evening and Sunday evening to help with wellness. Many educators have a concerning work:life (lack of) balance so strategies like this are important to implement. I encourage people to take an additional step to take the notifications off and, even better, get the emails off your phones.

Yup, I did have a problem with a bit of an addiction to checking emails and a problem with feeling like I was drowning in my inbox – but I think I have solved this one. By taking email off my phone, I am winning the inbox battle and living way more in the moment that is right in front of me.



Support the “Joe Bower ‘For the Love of Learning’ Memorial Scholarship Fund”

1934412_1504838759818195_6139379762909434988_nBack in January, we lost a true reformer in education and a close friend of mine, Joe Bower. I have not been able to find the right words to express the impact Joe had on me as a person and as an educator. Few people pushed me more in the areas of motivation and assessment than Joe did.

Shortly after we lost Joe, I sent his family a message that, although is not very “principal-like”, it was from the heart and it revealed a portion of what Joe meant to me and provided a small window into our relationship:

I came across Joe’s blog about 7 years ago and was immediately drawn to his progressive thoughts and ideas. He was not some philosopher spouting off ideas on what others should do… he was actually doing it. He was “being the change”.

I reached out to him on Twitter and this led to 6 years of Twitter chats, email conversations, Skype calls, text messages, and phone calls. 

Joe not only made a difference to his students but also to our students. As we moved away from rewards and awards (as well as shifting the focus to more formative assessment) at our school, Joe became my go to guy for all things motivation and assessment. If I had a quick question, I would fire off a Direct Message on Twitter and he would respond with some advice that would help dialogue at our school.  If I needed more of a heart to heart conversation, we would Skype. He Skyped from his school, his home, and even his car – he was always there to chat and help move our school forward. I must have told him endless times that I owed him a beer… and he was always sure to remind me of this. 

In 2012, Joe and I put in a proposal to present together at a conference in Calgary.  It was accepted and we were planning to present on moving away from rewards and awards – he would focus on the classroom side and I would focus on the school side. He would bring the teacher perspective and I would bring the principal perspective. Unfortunately I had to back out because of family commitments. I never knew that I would never get this opportunity again. 

I never called Joe a close friend as we had never actually met. Now that he is gone and I look back at all those conversations we have had over the past 6+ years, I realize there are few people in my life that I spoke to more often than Joe. He was a close friend and, although we never actually spent time in the same room, he changed me as a person and as an educator. He supported me and challenged me in ways that every close friend would. 

I am so thankful Joe blogged (I am sure there were moments that drove Tamara nuts as he was on the computer writing late at night).  He had so much wisdom and critical reflections that have been shared worldwide and will continue to be shared for years to come. He was a Canadian hero in education to many of us as he stood up and was able to say what so many of us thought. Many people disagreed with him but he stayed the path and was always willing to listen to the other side. His honesty (ok, he was blunt) was refreshing for so many.   He has helped so many educators worldwide move to a more positive method of teaching and parenting. 

In addition to the regret of not presenting with Joe and meeting up for that beer, I regret not knowing him on a more personal level. We joked around about our families but I never saw the tender side of Joe as a father and as a husband. The picture of him with his kids taken by Loni left me sobbing as it was such a reminder of who he was and who will be needing him the most. 

Someone asked me one time, “what will your legacy be?”. I know Joe has left an incredible legacy in the education world – one that will be carried on for generations. People will look back and say, “I actually talked to him one time” or “as Joe Bower once wrote…”.  He was an educator ahead of his time… and he took so much of the heat that has allowed us to make changes more effectively. He also has left a legacy with his friends and family as all his thoughts on child development were reminders on how we needed to rethink some of the things we were doing. 

As many regrets as I have, I am so glad that I often shared with him how important Joe was to me. He knew the impact he had on my students and on me both as a principal and as a person. I thanked him many times. 

As I looked through the hundreds of Direct Messages we shared since 2009, I laughed and I cried.  I saw the many invites we had to meet up and reminds me once again how Joe was the closest friend I had that I never had a chance to physically meet. He reminded me over and over again that I owed him a beer and we both knew it was our way of saying that we needed to meet up soon. He shared the greatest compliment to me one time as we were talking about his struggles at school.. In typical #BowerStyle as he said, “You are doing such cool shit at your school.  I would give my left nut to have you as my administrator”. He then added, “I wouldn’t give it to you literally… just metaphorically”.  🙂

I would give my left nut (metaphorically, of course) to go back and go for that beer. 

I miss that guy so much. xoxo

Following his passing, I have been able to text and chat on the phone with Joe’s dad, Jim Bower, and he has shared so many awesome stories of farming, baseball, hockey… and family. He shared a video with me of Joe playing catch with his son… I cannot even think of that video without my heart aching. However, through this, I am finally getting to know the “other side of Joe” – the side that Joe referenced in the private conversations but also the side that so many of us in the education world never got to be a part of. Jim has also shared his desire to keep Joe’s philosophies and ideas alive through social media (check out our A Tribute to Joe Bower Facebook Page) as well as through Red Deer College, a place that Joe attended and was very fond of.

Many people have asked how to contribute to Joe’s legacy.  Last week, a new scholarship was announced at Red Deer College (shared by Joe’s friend and former colleague Ted Hutchings on the Facebook Page):

Please consider contributing to Joe’s legacy. Joe was a graduate of the RDC/U of A Middle Years Program. Yesterday, a new scholarship was announced at Red Deer College as part of the “20th anniversary celebrations of the Middle Years Program”. This scholarship will support middle level pre-service teachers who demonstrate a passion for learning. The scholarship, called “The Joe Bower ‘For the Love of Learning’ Memorial Scholarship, supports those students who need financial assistance to help pursue their education and become middle level teachers.

Visit the website below and select “Other” in the designation drop-down menu and type in “For the Love of Learning Scholarship”


Not a week goes by where I don’t think, “What Would Joe Bower Do?”… whether it is about working with students that present unexpected challenges, or conversations on homework, or debates on assessment and motivation, I continually reflect on our dialogue and the ideas Joe shared.

Let’s work to keep the legacy of Joe Bower alive. Share his posts and please consider donating to the “Joe Bower ‘For the Love of Learning’ Memorial Scholarship Fund” to support future teachers in the middle years program.

My heart goes out to all of Joe’s family… as always, I send all my love. To them, I apologize for how long it has taken me to write this. I am so grateful to Joe’s family and close friends who continually reach out to me and the people in Joe’s community beyond Red Deer to maintain a small piece of that beautiful connection we had with Joe Bower.


We Wore the Orange Shirts… What’s Next? #orangeshirtday

Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters

Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters

Today was (is) an important day in the steps toward reconciliation in Canada. Today, many people wore orange shirts “in honour of residential school survivors and in memory of those who did not”.  This is a huge start in creating awareness of the tragic and horrific years that residential schools were in existence; in addition, it is also a chance to highlight the incredible strength of the thousands of people that survived their residential school experience.

I was proud to look around at so many colleagues in the Langley School District wearing orange today as a way to say that we are committed to reconciliation.  Thank you to Michael Morgan along with our leadership team for putting this at the forefront of what we do as educators in Langley.

Having said all this… some of my critical friends (who are so passionate about equity) who continually challenge me to be better would say that wearing an orange shirt is easy. It just scratches the surface of building understanding and working toward real reconciliation.  As Justice Sinclair shares at the video on the bottom of this post, “We cannot look at quick and easy solutions because there are none” and so the more important question is, “what can we do today to make steps toward reconciliation?”.  We did an amazing job of supporting Orange Shirt Day… so what’s next?

One of the challenges that I face is the fact that I often do not know the answer to this question. However, I have had the privilege and honour to work with incredible people who have continually challenged and mentored me during my years in the Fraser-Cascade School District (Kasey Chapman, Nancy Pennier, Robert Genaille, Tyrone McNeil along with far too many to name in the communities of Seabird Island and Sts’ailes) as well as people whom I get to work with now in the Langley School District (Cecilia Reekie, Donna Robins (and the Gabriel family), Bonnie VanHatten along with many others).  If there is one thing I have learned through the many conversations I have had with these mentors along with many survivors of residential schools is that I just need to listen.  I need to listen to the stories. I need to listen for guidance. I need to listen to determine how to support (and work alongside with) those who will lead us to reconciliation as we move down this important path.

Orange Shirt Day has led to more questions from educators, students, and families than I have ever encountered in the past and this is such a positive start. The challenge is moving beyond the single day event and making this an important journey toward reconciliation.

I feel I have very few answers. I also know that this is ok because I have many people that are leading me and so many others down this path that we must take as an education system and as a society.  “Every Child Matters” – every child in our past, present and future matters.

Thank you to everyone who has promoted Orange Shirt Day and taught me so much about the tragic experiences of residential schools as well as the incredible strength of those survivors. We must now keep the dialogue and actions going beyond Orange Shirt Day. Connect with those who can lead us on this journey together as a Canadian society. Reconciliation affects all of us. Take the time to simply listen to our neighbours and community members, ask questions, seek to understand, seek guidance, and move forward together.

As terribly difficult it is to hear the stories from the survivors of residential schools, it is so moving to see the unbelievable strength in people. I am honoured to to have the opportunity to be even a small part of such an important journey in our country’s history.

What Is Reconciliation from TRC – CVR on Vimeo.

For some key resources and powerful, yet heartbreaking stories, visit the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada websites.

Here are 10 books to read with children to help teach about residential schools. 



Through a Child’s Eyes… It Was the Best Day Ever

IMG_0644As a parent of twin four-year-olds and a principal of an elementary school, there are times when I look back with disappointment in the way I responded impatiently or somewhat disrespectfully to my kids and/or students. As I lay calmly in bed later at night, I think, “why did I respond like that? It really wasn’t a big deal, but I made it into a big deal simply due to frustration. Why can’t be better at…”

We can be so critical of ourselves. I see my wife at home as well as some staff members at school who are often very hard on themselves when reflecting on their day spent with kids. It is so easy for us to see the negatives… to see all that went wrong in a day. I am not saying it isn’t important to look back with a critical eye but far too often the negatives become the focus.

I recall observing a teacher do a fantastic science lesson that had students moving, engaging with others, reflecting, and creating. Kids loved it! When I asked the teacher how she thought it went, she listed off all the things that went wrong in her mind. That is far from what I saw. What we see depends on what we look for. If we look for the positives and strengths, we will find them; unfortunately, we too often look for all the problems. We need to see both but we also need to do a better job of seeing the strengths.

A few months ago, I was away for a few days and I texted my wife and asked how the day was. She said that our girls had a really rough day filled with meltdowns, tears, fights, and frustration. I felt for her as I can only imagine how hard it is for my wife to run her business and look after twin preschoolers by herself… especially during a day full of meltdowns and tears. The interesting thing was that when I Facetimed my girls at bedtime, it was a very different story of the day.  They eagerly told me they went for a bike ride, they swam, they baked cookies, they read stories… and they told me it was “The Best. Day. Ever!!!”.

Simple moments that we may take for granted can be important memories for our kids. I need to remind myself to take the time to look back with a more positive lens so we, as adults, can also smile at these moments. We know we will look back years from now and smile… the challenge is to do this now.

Teaching is incredibly difficult. Parenting is incredibly difficult. But these are the best “jobs” in the world… because, as teachers and parents, we have the power and the opportunity to possibly make a child’s day “the best day ever”.

To all the educators and parents/families out there, have a wonderful school year and here’s to making many days the “best day ever”.

Thank you to our Superintendent, Suzanne Hoffman, for reminding me of this by showing the following film at our summer admin meeting. Take 4 minutes and watch this powerful short film, “To A Child, Love is Spelled T-I-M-E“. #grabthekleenex


Not Everyone Is Able to Tweet and Post Who They Are

There is often much discussion around the separation of our professional and personal lives on social media.  Some districts strongly encourage this separation while others encourage the blending of both.  I have been a supporter of the latter as I believe that if we share who we are online we develop better relationships with others.  In December, I tweeted the following:

From an organization perspective, I wholeheartedly agree with my tweet.  I encourage people to share who they are and be transparent in their views on education.

However, my friend Royan Lee gave me some pushback on this idea when he tweeted,

What I did not realize when I tweeted that, was that my view on the subject was coming from a lens of privilege – the lens of a middle class, white, heterosexual male.  Where I fell short in my tweet was that I failed to empathize with those whose lives are considered less acceptable to some.

When Royan brought this side to my attention… I stopped and thought about deleting the tweet, but then realized this is all part of the learning.  It was not my intention to be ignorant but by wearing my invisible napsack of privilege… I felt I was.

I immediately thought about my friends who have struggled most of their lives with a target on them for being gay.  I thought of my gay friends who are now so happy with their girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, and kids.  I thought of how these important friends that have inspired me and taught me so much cannot always share who they are for fear of being attacked by those who judge and throw stones.

I have been attacked for my views on education and sometimes these became personal; however, I have never been attacked for who I am or who my family is. For those with a personal social media account where they share all of the joy in their lives and happen to be gay (expand to LGBTQ), it is a sad reality that, because of societal views and judgment from others, they feel they cannot share this personal joy in their professional streams.

I recently shared a video of who I am with the families and staff of my new school.  It was very well received and it immediately help foster some relationships with families.  In reflection, I cannot help but think about what it would be like if I did not have the “typical wife and two children” family.  What if my wife and kids were a husband and kids?  Would I still share this?  I feel we have a fairly liberal society in BC but there would likely still be some families that would shut me out or view me differently.  We all love to belong and love to be accepted and although I would hope that I would have the courage to be publicly proud of my family, I am not sure I would as that might be risking this feeling of acceptance.  It is reflection like this that help me to attempt to look through the lens to help me understand how difficult it must be for my gay friends and many others who want to share who they are but live in a society that still has some people that look to judge rather than seek t0 understand.

I was going to write another post about the importance of sharing who we are… and I still believe this is important;  however, it is much easier for people with a life that is more acceptable in society.

Although Royan’s tweet was not specifically about the LGBTQ community, it was a wake up call for me to change my lens and seek to understand the difficulties for students and adults to post and tweet who they really are.  To all my friends, as well as those in my network, for whom I failed to understand their lens…. I apologize.  Thank you so much to Royan and the many others who continue to teach me to empathize with others and attempt to view life through a new lens.

Looking through a better lens.   cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Kevin Dooley: http://flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/4196773347/

Looking through a better lens.
cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Kevin Dooley: http://flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/4196773347/



My Late Homework (please don’t dock marks)

Photo from my figure skating days... with my good buddy Hogues who has been a life-long hockey teammate.

Photo from my figure skating days… with my good buddy Hogues who has been a life-long hockey teammate.

There has been a chain of blog posts (or memes) going around with bloggers challenging others to share a bit about themselves, answer questions, and then ask others to do the same.  I am not a big fan of homework but I see the benefit of sharing who we are and letting people in.  Because I have procrastinated so long with this post, I have had a number of bloggers assign me more.  I was going to ask my mom to write a note to excuse me for part of it but instead I decided to pick my favourite questions that have been asked and answer those ones (because it is my blog… and I can ;-)).

As far as I know (and I may have missed someone), I have been assigned this homework by: Starleigh GrassKat MulskiAmy IllingworthBrent CatlettDr. Spike CookGlen ThielmannAaron AkuneVictoria OlsonPeter JoryBill Ferriter, and Tia Henriksen.  Rather than answer all the questions, I have chosen my favourite ones.

First, here are 11 random facts about me:

  1. One of my heroes growing up was Sylvester Stallone.  Why?  Well, the movie “First Blood” was filmed in my hometown so our grade 1 class got to watch some of the filming, my grandpa got to work on the film (with his backhoe), Rambo (and his stunt double) rode down the main street of Hope on his dirtbike for a scene and he happened to ride right in front of my dad’s sporting goods store, AND I got to spend some quality time with Sly and my buddy Brian Druet as we chatted and hung out in the movie theatre for a few minutes.
  2. I used to know every line to Dumb and Dumber, Forrest Gump, Tommy Boy, Ace Ventura, and Old School.
  3. I met my wife while I was teaching high school phys ed.  None of our department felt we could teach dance very well so we brought in someone from a local dance studio to teach hip hop.  This someone turned out to be the woman of my dreams… who apparently got swept off her feet by my mad skills on the dance floor. #notsomuch
  4. Because my future wife was a dance teacher, I did everything to impress her… including participate in a dad’s dance group (pure comedy) for a number of years. Once we were married, I even “starred” as “Daddy Warbucks” in her studio’s musical production of Annie.  (There may be a video or 2 out there of my lengthy dance career… and I use the term dance very lightly).
  5. My wife and I have seen every Friends episode… two or three times.
  6. My mom helped me get my first admin job.  She was a retired teacher and happened to be working as a teacher on call at the school when she heard that they were looking for a VP.  I applied, went through the process… and started my career in admin!
  7. I am colour deficient.  A lot of people call this being “colour blind” but I actually can see colours… I just struggle to differentiate between red/green/brown and blue/purple.  My wife has to help me plan my attire so I match.
  8. Our first born’s middle name, Jovie, was named after one of the lead characters in the holiday movie “Elf”.
  9. I used to be a figure skater.  Prior to starting to play hockey, I spent 2 years (ages 4-5, with a number of my buddies) learning to skate in the local figure skating club.  During that time, I was in the carnival as a “purple-people eater” and an “usher”.
  10. I did not like to read when I was growing up.  I cannot get enough of it now.
  11. Snakes are the most feared organism on the planet… my dad agrees with me.
  12. BONUS: I was the 2-time goat milking champion at the Agassiz Fall Fair.

My responses to questions by others:

  1. What’s your favourite Seinfeld episode (or line)?  Definitely George when he “discusses” collaboration on his “Jerk Store” comeback. 
  2. What would you like people to say about you after you are gone?  He helped to create the conditions to bring the best out of me.
  3. Dog or a cat or an animal person?  Definitely a dog person… REAL, committed, friendship.  I wish everyone was as happy to see us as our dogs.
  4. What book are you currently reading?  Just started Learning In Depth by Kieran Egan; just finished “Orr” (story of Bobby Orr) and Covey’s “The Speed of Trust”.
  5. What is a major change you would make to the BC Education System?  Movement away from a focus on grades (particularly up to grade 9) which will help align formative and summative assessment practices.
  6. Best Place you’ve vacationed?  Jamaica for our honeymoon (although my backpacking trip through Western Europe was unreal too).
  7. Who do you look up to the most?  For personal advice and mentorship, I most often go to my mom, dad, sister and wife. I am so lucky to have people close to me to guide me in my life.
  8. PC or Mac?  I am definitely a fan of Mac for their reliability and speed… although I am seeing the benefit of other devices in schools.
  9. How do you spend a day electronic-less?  This is an interesting question and one I will participate in this summer… although I would have to drive there using a truck that uses electronics, I would LOVE to spend a day fly fishing on the Skagit River… with a break for lunch with a sandwich and a good book.  I have not done this for years and it is something I need to get back to doing as there is nothing that grounds me more than being in the river.
  10. What actions do you take to combat racism?  My goal is to always say or do something to take a stand.  As a white male, I have experienced very little (if any) prejudice in my life; in the past 7 years (especially), I have worked to analyze and reflect upon my “invisible backpack of privilege” and attempt to see the world through the lens of others. This has helped me to become more wide awake to the racism around us and to take a stand against it.  By doing and saying nothing, we state that it is acceptable; therefore, we always need to speak and stand up.
  11. How would you describe your interactions with the first peoples on whose territory you currently live and/or work on?  I am a bit embarrassed to say that my relationship with the first people’s in the Langley area is very surface level.  I have lived here for years but not made the effort to seek understanding and awareness of the local cultures.  I am proud of the relationships that were built with the first peoples in the Agassiz region (my former place of work) as I believe that I worked hard to understand the people and truly listen and learn from the local communities.  I look forward to learning more about the cultures and traditions of my local community in which I now live and work.
  12. What is the best gift you have ever received?  My first response would be getting the gift of twin daughters (and their hugs, art, gifts)… but most parents would say this.  I am not sure about the BEST gift but I recently I received a gift from the Aboriginal community when I left my former school that brought me to tears.  The gift of a steering paddle, hand carved and painted by local artist Harvey Robinson, was given to me to symbolize leadership, wisdom, and teaching.  It is a gift that I hang proudly in my new office… and one that means so much.

My challenge is for the following bloggers to share 11 facts about themselves,  answer the questions below, and ask 11 questions to 11 others:

  1. Steve MacGregor
  2. Stacey Garrioch
  3. Hugh McDonald
  4. Darcy Mullin
  5. Kyle Timms
  6. Shawn Blankenship
  7. Aaron Rowe
  8. Jesse McLean
  9. Remi Collins
  10. Deirdre Bailey
  11. Roxanne Watson


  1. What was the biggest AHA moment that changed you as an educator?
  2. Provide an example of an activity you do that symbolizes your family tradition or culture.
  3. Do you like the use of school-wide awards?
  4. Left or right handed?
  5. What is your favourite line from a movie?
  6. If someone has to share a concern with you, what is the best way to do it?
  7. If you could retire tomorrow (or are already retired) how would (or do) you spend your time?
  8. In your final days/minutes, when you about to take your last breath, and you think back to all that you have done or going to do… you will be most proud of ________.
  9. Which book is next on your “to read” list?
  10. Describe a moment on social media stands out to you as something that has had a significantly positive impact to you or someone else?
  11. How do you make the time to be quiet, still and alone?



Why I Took Facebook and Twitter Off My Phone

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by Quinn Dombrowski: http://flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/8107606569/

image cc licensed (BY SA) flickr photo by Quinn Dombrowski: http://flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/8107606569/

I am proud to call myself a connected educator; however, I am not proud to say that being connected distracted me from my students… and my kids.

When I first joined Twitter in 2008, I was skeptical and was trying to use it to try to figure it out to help my wife use it for her business.  Later that year, I found the power of creating a personal learning network and for the the next few years, I could not get enough of talking all things education on Twitter and through blogs.  As a new principal, the people I connected with through Twitter we instrumental in helping me to grow and survive the first few years; however, I had trouble turning off and the phrase “power down, Wejr!” became quite common in our house.

From http://xkcd.com/386/

From http://xkcd.com/386/

I loved being so connected as there was always someone to talk and debate issues in education.  Real friendships grew out of my interactions on Twitter and I would never ever question the value of social media in education and professional learning.

This past year, my word has been “FOCUS” as this is an area I have always struggled with.  I currently have half of our large hedge trimmed, 2/3 of our patio rails painted, and only the back lawn mowed.  My wife jokingly says I must have A.D.D. but I actually do have a significant struggle with focusing on one thing at a time.   I am not good at being still; if there is a spare moment, I need to be doing something.

What I noticed this past year is that the “something” that I often needed to do when there was a spare moment was to check my social media apps on my phone. If the kids had to go to the bathroom, I would check my phone.  If I went to do laundry and was not with the girls for a moment… I would check my phone.  If I was walking down the hall… if I was waiting in line…I would check my phone.

I knew something had to change so I took all notifications off my phone aside from text messages.  I STILL went and checked my phone… but instead of checking the notifications, I would actually open the Twitter or Facebook app just to check for replies or messages.  As sad as this may sound for a “thirtysomething” to be doing this, you can imagine how hard it is for our students and teens when social interaction and connections are that much more important.  To be clear, I would not check my phone when I was with the kids – I had the self-control to avoid that.  The problem was that I would check when I had that spare moment and although I would put the phone away as soon as I was with the kids (or students), I often became distracted.  I was distracted by a message or reply that got me thinking… and when the wheels started turning about a tweet or a message, I found myself absent from the next few moments with my students or family.

As we hit the summer, I wanted it all to be about my family.  I decided to take the Facebook and Twitter apps off my phone and disabled email.  You would not believe the impact this had on me.  For the first few days of the summer, whenever there was a bathroom break for the girls (during the “Daddy.. PRIVACY” phase), I would think to go to my phone.  That was a huge slap in the face to me about how often I would reach to check.  I learned to be still.  I learned to enjoy those quiet moments.  For me to check my social media and/or email, I would need to open my laptop and at a time when my focus would be connecting online.  This meant that when we were at the park, or on a walk, or away for a week camping… I could not check my social media.  I realized that by connecting less, I was connecting more.  I was not distracted and my focus was 100% on the people that were right in front of me.The reason that I want to share the story of my highs and lows of connectedness is that I think we need to find a balance that works for us, our students, our jobs, and our families.  We are in a time where being connected is becoming less optional and I worry that with so many opportunities to connect, we lose the deeper connections with those directly in front of us.  I am not saying that social media is a negative or a bad thing nor am I saying we need to avoid social media; my connections online have led to deep relationships with people that have had a huge impact on my life.  I am also not saying that everyone needs to do what I did as most people likely have more self-control than me.  What I am saying is that we need to make social media work for us.  We do not need to be available at all times to all people.  We need to be available to the people that are with us in that moment. We need to model effective, respectful, and appropriate use of our devices to our kids.  We need to step back and reflect on our purpose.

Brene Brown wrote,

Connection is why we are here. We are hardwired to connect with others.

I truly believe in the power of connection.  With access to so many people who are willing and able to connect throughout the day, it makes it that much more important to be reflective and purposeful in how and when we use social media and technology in our lives.

Thank you to the student in Jonathan Vervaet’s education class at Simon Fraser University that asked me the question, “Can we be too connected?” as my response led to this post.  Thank you, too, to my wife for her constant nudging to “power down”.

Be sure to read my friend Dwight Carter’s post Disconnect to Reconnect as this had a large impact on me last summer.

Note: I realize that I can still access the web version of social media sites on my phone but for some reason, I was able to prevent myself from doing this.  As I am now at work and have learned more self-control, I have added email back to my phone.


Living the Legacy of Lilee-Jean

Sharing a moment with Lilee-Jean as her principal after her first day of kindergarten. (photo by Andrew Putt)

Sharing a moment with Lilee-Jean as her principal after her first day of kindergarten. (photo by Andrew Putt)

As I sat at a stoplight, my phone flashed that I had received a message and with a quick glance, I saw it was from Lilee-Jean’s father, Andrew.  I had constantly checked Facebook for updates on LJ in the past week hoping for some miracle… but as I sat parked on the side of the road, I read “She’s gone, man…”.   I sat there hunched over in my car sobbing.  It was a moment so many of knew was coming yet nobody knew how to prepare for.  All I could do was sit there and picture Andrew and Chelsey holding their beautiful baby girl… a girl only 2 years and 9 months old that had captured the hearts of thousands.  From the Love For Lilee Facebook Page:

It is with broken hearts we make this post.. As of 5:25pm, our princess Lilee-Jean Frances Putt, our angel here on earth, is now looking down on us from heaven. She had a rough day today, and is no longer in any distress. She passed away curled up in Mommy’s arms, listening to daddy play his guitar. – Chels & Andrew.

It has almost been a week since the world lost a beautiful princess. My wife and I have had many hugs and held our daughters so tightly that they asked us to stop.  I have written about my relationship with LJ and her family before when they visited at our school following surgery because students at our school had fundraised for her.  I also had the honour of being Lilee-Jean’s only principal when she attended her first day of kindergarten at our school as Chelsey and Andrew decided to embrace LJ’s last few months and Dance in the Rain.

I started to reflect when someone asked me, “How do you know the family?”  I wasn’t sure how to sum up how I knew Lilee-Jean and her family but I just said, “I know them because of this incredibly beautiful and heartbreaking journey.”  I met LJ because of the fight; however this family captured my heart because of the way they embraced life… the way they took whatever was dealt their way – and danced.

Last night, I saw a picture of Mary (LJ’s grandmother) holding Lilee-Jean shortly after she was born.  It came to me that at that moment, a few days after LJ was born, we were also holding our girls for the first time.  At that moment, nobody knew what the next 2 years and 9 months would bring.  This is the thing that scares me so much… there is no warning for this and it could happen to any of us.

When I lost a good buddy and teammate of mine last year, I was really struggling so I called my friend Mike to ask about how he lives on after the passing of his mother at a very early age.  He said, ” it is a life-long struggle… but although she is gone, I know that she lives on through me and through my kids in how we teach and how we act – we live her legacy”.

The story of Lilee-Jean and her family has been followed by thousands and thousands of people in the Fraser Valley and Worldwide through social media, radio, TV, and print.  The family has somehow found the strength to recently reach out and thank individuals for little things we did along the way.  As I was reflecting on the image of Mary with Lilee-Jean, I thought about what WE, those who have been touched by this family, can do to carry on Love For Lilee… I reflected on how we can continue to better our lives, carry this beautiful angel with us… and live the legacy of Lilee-Jean.

I want the family to know the impact they have had on me.  I want them to know how they have made me a better person.  I want them to know that I am a better parent and educator and how the message of Love For Lilee will be carried on in homes and schools for years to come.

The Legacy of Lilee-Jean in my life:

  • Be vulnerable and share who we are. Chelsey and Andrew let so many of us into their lives. As difficult as this must have been at times, they shared their love for Lilee which led to so many others #LoveForLilee.
  • Connect.  Brene Brown wrote, ““Connection is why we are here. We are hardwired to connect with others”.  We often get busy in our lives and isolate ourselves in our work and in our homes.  It is important to connect with others – especially within our own communities and neighbourhoods.
  • Cherish the moments.  I will always remember the photos and stories of Andrew making lunches and having tea parties… of Chelsey snuggling with LJ in her bed… of walks on the beach with family in Harrison… of the moments that were taken to feel and listen to life – the sound of a child’s breathing and the feeling of her beating heart.  When they cherished these moments… it made me do the same.
  • Show empathy.  Love for Lilee shows how empathetic many of us can be… and this models and teachers this virtue to our kids.
  • Snow for Christmas in August. (photo via Chilliwack Times)

    Snow for Christmas in August. (photo via Chilliwack Times)

    Serve others. We often get wrapped up in trying to become happy by serving ourselves when true happiness comes from serving others.  Love For Lilee brought so many examples of people reaching out as a community – the story of how the Chilliwack Chiefs Junior Hockey team delivered snow for LJ’s Christmas morning in August still brings tears to my eyes.  Donate to a great cause.  Volunteer to help others.

  • Come together more often as a community.  We often hear about the good ole days of community and how we do not have this anymore.  Lilee-Jean brought out the best in the communities of Agassiz-Harrison, Chilliwack and Abbotsford to prove that there is still so much strength in community.  Seeing pictures of an entire neighbourhood decorate and get dressed up for Hallowe’en in July so LJ could go trick or treating one last time…
    #loveforlilee Hallowe'en

    #loveforlilee Hallowe’en

    hearing about and supporting so many pageants, parties and fundraisers so the family could be with Lilee every day…. seeing the picture of Chelsey’s road lined with pink balloons as she arrived home a few days ago.  Just a few of the endless stories of how this beautiful little girl brought out the best in her community.

  • Embrace the day.  It was so inspiring to see a family embrace every minute of every day… we can all learn from this.  There will never be another day like today – what shall we do today?  Hold on to your kids.
  • DANCE IN THE RAIN. “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass… it is about learning to dance in the rain.”  This saying is now up on my wall and will guide me in so much of what I do.

Thank you so much to the Whittle and Putt families for inviting my family into theirs.  I will always have a part of LJ in my heart and I promise continue to live the legacy that is Lilee-Jean Frances Putt.

A family that changed me forever.

A family that changed me forever.

To learn more about Lilee-Jean and how to continue to support the family, please go to the Love For Lilee website or Facebook Page.