Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Navigating Negativity: A Strength Based Approach to Leadership

People don't typically don't come to me when things are going well.

This isn't a complaint. It's the reality of the life of a school administrator. We are the problem solvers, the peace keepers, the crisis responders. In any given day, I will usher crying students, angry parents and frustrated teachers across the threshold of my office. As I walk the hallways at break and lunch, I am bombarded by questions and queries, complaints and conflicts. When my email dings or my phone rings at eleven o'clock at night, it's rarely good news. 

So in the midst of what can sometimes feel like a sea of negativity, it is even more essential that I maintain a positive mindset and strength-based approach to leadership. 

I have developed the following strategies to assist me in this approach:

1. Assume the best. I try to begin every conversation with a parent or teacher with the assumption that they want the best for their child/student. We all want our children to be successful. It's our approach to achieving this success that might cause misunderstandings and conflict. 

2. Shift the focus. Education in general can be very deficit based. We tend to focus on what needs improvement rather than what is going well. As such, many conversations are focussed on identifying problems rather than finding solutions. Instead, I do my best to re-frame obstacles as opportunities. I have learned to embrace challenges as an impetus for change. 

3. Listen more, talk less. More often than not, people just need an opportunity to vent. Sometimes my most effective "problem solving" approach is to simply listen and let individuals sort through their thoughts until they discover their own solutions. 

4. Don't take it personally. While I am sometimes the target of anger and frustration, I have learned that it is rarely about me. In my role as a school administrator, I may represent an individual's previous negative experiences rather than their current reality. I remind myself that everyone has a story, a context, and I do my best to maintain a calm and professional demeanour in the face of heightened emotions. 

I'm not pretending that any of this is easy. If I am tired, or sick, or overwhelmed by the stressors of my day, I can find myself pulled in to the negativity. It is a conscious effort to maintain positivity in the midst of challenges. Some days are more difficult than others. Some days I fail. But I do my best to extend the same patience and understanding to myself as I do to others. And I try again the next day...

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Three Barriers to Sustained Growth & Innovation

Let me begin with a qualifier...

The following observations are not founded in any specific, research-based evidence. They are, however, the result of my twenty plus years of experience in various educational roles- from special education assistant, to classroom teacher, to teacher leader, to secondary administrator. Each of these roles have afforded me incredibly valuable experiences and insights.

As with many "veteran" educators, I have been involved in the inception and implementation of numerous initiatives and projects over the years. For the most part, each began with the very best of intentions, to improve student learning. But along with this common element, there is, unfortunately, another commonality that many of these initiatives shared. For the most part, they were unsuccessful.

Now I'm the first to acknowledge that "success" can be perceived in a myriad of ways. Many of these "failures" taught the individuals and groups who were involved invaluable lessons that served to inform future initiatives. But they also sometimes served to demoralize and fatigue the members of the organization whose energy and support was integral to success.

So why is it that the majority of initiatives fizzle out and dissipate before sustained implementation can significantly impact student learning? 

I would suggest the following three factors are important contributors.

1. Over commitment. Rather than identifying just one or two areas of focus and actively warding off distractors, schools and districts jump from one initiative to the next. Bill Ferriter  addresses this in his post "Does Your School Have an 'Avoid at All Costs List'?"  I call this the "squirrel" effect. Again, it is well-intentioned. As educators we tend to be incessantly curious and so as each "next best thing" comes along, the temptation to jump on board is difficult to resist. But ultimately, this leads to important projects that fall by the wayside as the next "newer and shinier" initiative comes along.

2. Leader turn-over. Whether it's at the district or school level, the frequent movement of individuals in leadership positions can have a destabilizing effect. Although I strongly believe that an influx of "fresh blood" can be a powerful spark for innovation and growth, frequent changes in leadership can sometimes halt initiatives just as they are beginning to gain momentum. While skillful leaders do their best to ensure continuity by establishing frameworks that outlast their presence in an organization, often their eager and again, well-intentioned replacements bring with them their own unique set of visions and goals. Many of us have experienced the disorienting and sudden "shift" that can accompany a change in leadership.

3. Lack of clear vision. This one seems obvious, but somehow it remains as the most significant barrier to sustained and successful growth and innovation. There are a number of factors that can contribute, including the two that I've identified above. But this may also be the result of competing or conflicting visions within an organization. With this comes a level of frustration and disconnect on the part of key stakeholders who find themselves pulled in numerous directions. This "tug-of-war" can have an immobilizing effect. In "Leading Change" I discuss other necessary attributes, but the ability to identify and articulate a clear vision is at the forefront of successful leadership.

As I continue my learning and leadership journey, I am mindful of these observations as I work within my own school and district to support student learning. Ironically, many of these insights are the result of mistakes that I've made along the way, accompanied by subsequent self-reflection and readjustment. But ultimately, I believe that as long as we are all willing to acknowledge and learn from past experiences, there really is no such thing as failure.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic... & Relationships

It's the most wonderful time of the year.


It's also a time of increased stress and anxiety for many students and families. As we near winter break, I am seeing the impact of that on my school community. Although this is a time of joy and celebration for many, for others it can be a stark reminder of what they may be missing from their lives...

So this is a gentle reminder, to myself and to others, to keep a special eye out for those students (and staff) who might be struggling a bit during this time.

Because we don't just teach reading, writing and arithmetic. We are a family. And families take care of each other.

Happy holidays all!

Saturday, 9 September 2017

They Don't Know That They Shouldn't

As someone who knows that relationships are foundational to the success of a school community, I've had some anxious moments these past few months as I faced the daunting prospect of learning the stories of new students and staff. That anxiety comes from the fear that as I am taking the time to understand the diverse complexities and needs of my new school, I will miss something...something or someone might fall through the cracks. 

Of course logically I know that this responsibility is not mine alone. I need to rely on the members of my school community to help add pieces to the puzzle. Counsellors, office and cafeteria staff, custodians, teachers, parents...they each have a role to play in supporting student success. But I still feel the weight of that responsibility. In the end I know that the more I understand about my school community, the better equipped I am to do my job. 

However, some of that anxiety has been laid to rest in these past few weeks. It began even before students arrived, with a steady stream of teachers dropping by my office to introduce themselves in the midst of prepping for a new school year. They were curious about my background and experience. But mostly, they were intent on welcoming me.

And it continued this past week as students began classes. I was blown away as student after student, from grade 8 through 12, came up to me, introduced themselves and shook my hand. They smiled, looked me in the eye and told me how glad they were that I had come to the school. Such warmth and confidence left me speechless.

When I remarked to my Admin partner how overwhelmed and impressed I was by this phenomenon, she simply smiled and responded, "They don't know that it's something that teenagers don't typically do. We've never told them that. They don't know that they "shouldn't", so they do."

That's the remarkable thing about kids. They don't know they can't, unless we tell them.

If we consistently maintain high expectations and believe that they can, they will. These students are compassionate, mature and confident because the adults in their lives believe that they are. Their capacity is endless. 

Moving ahead, although I still feel a heavy sense of responsibility, my anxiety has lessened somewhat... My goal in the coming months is simply to live up to the incredible standards that my students have set. 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Four Essential Elements of a Successful School Community: The Non-Negotiables

As I'm in the process of transitioning to a new school community, I've had numerous conversations with individuals over the past several weeks, often rooted in their speculation around what will be "different" about the students, staff and structures at my new school.

While it's true that each school context is unique and comprised of diverse needs, challenges and strengths, I would suggest that there are certain elements that form the foundation of all successful school communities.  These are what I identify as the "non-negotiables".

1. Relationships as a foundation.

Students and staff need to feel connected and cared for. In her article "If You Want Students to Learn, They Need to Feel They Belong", author Tricia Taylor highlights the importance of relationships in creating a sense of belonging in school communities.
"Cognitive scientists explain that belonging is important because when we belong, we feel safe, and a safe brain is ready to learn. On the other hand, when the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for regulating stress, feels threatened or is on high alert, information is then blocked from freely entering areas of higher cognitive memory consolidation and storage. A safe brain allows for a growth mindset and better executive function, which means being better able to make mistakes/take academic risks; having a higher level of self-efficacy (more willing to set higher goals, etc.); and practising more self-control, which results in less conflict. We are also better able to persevere and think hard about tasks."  
2. An environment where students and staff are encouraged to learn and take risks. 

If students are the only ones who are learning, that's a problem. We need to model the same curiosity and desire to learn that we hope to instil in our students. That means taking the time both individually and as a staff to identify potential areas of growth.  In The Innovator's Mindset, George Couros talks about the need to "embrace" the "messiness" of learning. By modelling a willingness to take risks and extend our own learning, we create a culture that sees "not knowing" as an opportunity rather than as a deficit. This is a powerful example for our students.

3. A culture of collaboration. 

We're all in this together. Ultimately, we all have the same goal- to support the social, emotional and academic success of our students. An impossible feat if we attempt it on our own. But collectively, we can provide the myriad of supports and opportunities that are necessary to meet the needs of a diverse student population. This means carving out the time to connect with colleagues, families and community organizations. The success of our students is a shared responsibility. 

4. A focus on joy and positivity. 

This might seem naive to some, but in a system that tends to be more focussed on what needs to be fixed, rather than what is going well, it's important to take the time to be joyful, and celebrate our successes. 

In his book, Embracing a Culture of Joy, Dean Shareski writes the following:
"Doing joyful things might be the most important work we do. And when leadership in particular makes it clear that joy for joy's sake is important, then culture begins to change. Maybe we can be better, more humane, more just and more joyful than the real world. What a great lesson and model for our students."
The reality is that there is no one "right answer" when it comes to identifying the elements a successful school community. But I would suggest that it is essential to have the conversation. What do your parents, your students, your staff identify as their "non-negotiables"?

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Next Steps, When the Only Constant is Change

It's deceiving.

On the surface, schools appear to be highly regimented, structured environments, regulated by bells and pre-determined schedules. 

But in reality, the only constant, is change. 

Each school year brings new challenges, new initiatives and new possibilities. It is the unpredictable and fluid nature of a school community that I love. 

It is challenging. It is invigorating

And it is exhausting

But, it is never boring

In two weeks, I will be making the move to a new school. After only two years at my current school, I must admit that this is a bit of a daunting prospect. It has taken me two years to gradually learn the stories, the context, of my current students and staff. 

As someone who values relationships as an essential foundation of a school community, that understanding and insight is partially how I gauge my success as a leader, and set goals for the year ahead...

But as poet Robbie Burns and later author John Steinbeck so aptly noted, "the best laid plans of mice and [wo]men often go awry..."

So, plan B. 

Fortunately, I have also come to the understanding that my most rewarding opportunities have come from unexpected change and challenge

So despite being somewhat daunted by the prospect of learning the stories of a new school community, I take with me incredible learning and rich experiences, and I am excited by what lies ahead.

It is with enormous gratitude and appreciation that I look back on the last two years. 

And in the end, I am not starting again. I am simply continuing the journey

Relationships- the measure of my success.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Connecting the Dots

Do you remember the "connect the dots" pages we used to work on when we were kids? You know, the ones where you had to search out the consecutive numbers in order to connect each dot to the next. Ultimately, when all of the dots were connected, the bigger picture would reveal itself. Some were relatively simply, with the picture already apparent without having to draw the lines between each dot. But some were far more complex, the bigger picture a mystery until more lines were drawn between the seemingly unrelated points, gradually revealing the completed picture. As a child, I would sometimes get frustrated with the complexity of these more intricate pages, losing my way as I searched out the next "dot". Sometimes I would persist. And sometimes I would give up.

In any large organization or district, we are faced with a similar task...

We are presented with numerous tasks and initiatives which on the surface, may seem unrelated or disconnected. I would argue that our job as school and district leaders is to help to connect the dots for our staff and school communities. We need to help others to see the bigger picture. We also need to ensure that we are taking a close look at any new initiatives that we are developing to see how they align with our "bigger picture". If we don't, we risk that same frustration that I faced as a child. If we want individuals to persist, or better yet, to take ownership of new initiatives, we need to be selective in what we are asking them to do, sometimes functioning more as a filter than a conduit.

This analogy extends to the classroom. As teachers, we need to explicitly connect skills and content to the world beyond the classroom. We need to help our students to see the bigger picture, the relevancy of what they are learning. Again, if students aren't able to see these connections, they can become frustrated by seemingly unrelated tasks. But by "connecting the dots" and providing our students with greater insight into the purpose behind what we are asking them to do, they become partners in their learning, rather than simply passive and compliant participants.

The reality is that some things just need to get done and that not every task or initiative is inherently connected. Sometimes we aren't privy to the bigger picture ourselves. And sometimes we just have to trust that the bigger picture will reveal itself in time... But whenever possible, if we are able to communicate our purpose, our "why" to others, we can avoid some of the frustration and fatigue that can serve as a very real barrier to meaningful growth and innovation.