Monday, 27 January 2020

"Team" is a Verb.

I was recently asked to respond to the following question:

What are you most grateful for in your current role?

I answered without hesitation.
My team.

Much has been written about teacher isolation and the need for educators to foster collaborative relationships with colleagues. Whether separated by grade level, content area or the physical layout of a school itself, isolation can lead to stagnation and burn out. There is little debate that isolation has a negative impact on teachers, and by extension, their students. 

However, I would suggest that the need for a supportive, collaborative team for administrators is of equal importance. As the role of school administrator evolves, so do the associated stressors. As such, "going it alone" is no longer a feasible, nor a professionally responsible option. 

I am incredibly fortunate in my current role that my team consists of four administrators; a principal and three vice principals. However, numbers alone do not necessarily equate to a lack of isolation. 

"Team" is a verb, not a noun. 

Creating a strong team requires intentional, focussed action. As with any relationship, it takes time to establish trust. 

In addition to formal coaching and mentoring structures, I would suggest that more informal structures are also needed to build cohesive, effective teams. But in the midst of hectic and often stressful days, how can we "build in" both formal and informal structures? 

Below are five simple strategies to help build strong teams. 

1. Share your stories. Understanding the unique context that each member of your team brings with them to work every day is absolutely necessary. Whether it's young children, aging parents or a recent divorce, each of us has external stressors that may impact our lives on a daily basis. By sharing our stories with our team, we can offer additional supports when needed. 

2. Share the load. Although each member of an admin team may have different portfolios, with distinct tasks and responsibilities, offering a helping hand goes a long way. One of my most inspiring principals would often help stack chairs alongside the custodian and vice-principals at the end of lunch. 

3. Share your food. Most administrators eat hunched over a keyboard, or snack in their car between meetings. Food should be social. Scheduling time at least once a week to sit down with your admin team to eat lunch together can be enormously beneficial, not only for physical health, but also for mental well-being. 

4. Share your learning. Whether it's sharing Professional Growth Plan goals, or attending workshops together, learning alongside your team can help to inspire and sustain ongoing growth, both for ourselves and for our team members. 

5. Share (and celebrate) your successes. Sometimes we forget to acknowledge the great work of those closest to us. Along with "high five-ing" students, and giving kudos to exceptional staff, it's important to do the same for members of our team. A simple thank-you, a card (or a bottle of wine) goes a long way!

Ultimately, taking care of our team allows us to take care of our school communities and organizations. Leadership is a team sport

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Five Essential Elements of a Successful School Community

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. A clear, consistent vision. 

It is impossible to move forward if we don't know where we're going. 

A clear "road map" that provides a community with a sense of direction is essential. Finding a common purpose should be a collaborative process, and ultimately clearly communicating that vision of the future is the next essential step in any change process. In the midst of what what might be perceived to be competing agendas and initiatives, it is important that we are able to identify and articulate a common vision. We need to be able to "connect the dots" for staff and students, giving purpose and focus to individual initiatives under the larger umbrella of that shared vision.

2. 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."  

3. An environment where both 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.

4. A culture of collaboration and trust. 

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. 

5. 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 JoyDean 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"?

Monday, 11 March 2019

"Family and School Should Walk Together"

I was given the gift of a new perspective.

After over 20 years in education, as an educational assistant, teacher, and now school administrator (not including my own experiences as a "less than successful" student), I thought I had a pretty good sense of the education system - both the benefits and the challenges.

But this past week, through conversations with two families who are new to Canada, I gained a deeper understanding, and an even deeper sense of responsibility. 

In one conversation, a parent was looking for ways to connect her son to the school community. An ELL student who was older than some of his classmates, he was struggling to find a place to belong. An energetic and outgoing student in his home country of Brazil, the parent was beginning to see her son withdraw, and was understandably worried. 

I assured her that there were opportunities for her son, both in the classroom and through extra-curricular clubs and sports. As we talked, she shared with me some of his interests and together, we brainstormed ways to connect him to various groups within the school. I then met with her son to get a sense of how he was feelings and what he envisioned for himself. I assured both the student and the parent that I would continue to follow up and check in regularly to see how the plan that we'd created was unfolding. 

Ultimately, I did what any school administrator would do. As a vice principal, and a mom of a teenaged boy myself, I try to see every student through the eyes of a concerned parent. I treat them how I want my own son to be treated.

In a follow up email, the mother expressed her gratitude and her trust in the decisions that we made and founded that trust in the belief that "the family and school should walk together". This phrase stuck me. I was touched, and somewhat overwhelmed, by the trust she placed in the school. Not only did she expect that I would do the best for her child, it was an integral belief based on her perspective on the Canadian education system. To a large extent, it was why her family moved here. 

The second conversation was also with a family who was new to Canada. This time, both the mother and father came to my office. In the same way, they sat with me and shared their concerns for their son. Having moved numerous times over the past several years, back and forth from Saudia Arabia, the son was experiencing significant stress and anxiety. He began to avoid school, not because it was an unpleasant place for him, but because he was needing the comfort of his family home. Both parents shared heartfelt worries and hopes for their son. Through several conversations, I learned more about their family, their goals and their struggles. Again, the Canadian education system was a motivator in their move. And again, they expressed their trust and faith in me to do my best for their son. 

The irony is not lost on me that as someone who has spent the majority of their life either as a student or as an educator, it took the perspective of individuals who are new to this system to remind me of the integral role of schools. Not only are we supporting the success of individual students, we are also sometimes a vessel for the hopes and dreams of entire families. 

It was an incredible reminder that, "family and school should walk together" to support our students.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

The Gift of Understanding

All that we are is story. From the time we are born, to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What come to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we're here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that, we take the time to share those stories, we get bigger on the inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship-- we change the world, one story at a time. 
--Richard Wagamese

In the midst of busy days and numerous demands on our time and energy, it is easy to lose sight of this simple, yet powerful message. Each of us has a story, a context, that we carry with us through our day. We come into contact with numerous individuals throughout the course of our day-- at the drive-through picking up our morning coffee, at the grocery store, at the gas station on our way home from work. It's easy to fall into a familiar routine, to be weighed down by the responsibilities and pressures that bombard us. 

But I would suggest that it's equally as easy to take a moment to smile at a stranger, to hold a door open, to say thank-you, to let someone ahead of us in line. 

This holiday season, let's take a moment to see each other, to recognize our kinship, to learn each others' stories and exchange the gift of kindness and understanding. 

Wishing everyone a wonderful winter holiday! 

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Navigating Negativity: Five Steps to Strength-Based 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. On 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. Start with relationships. Relationships form the foundation for any successful organization. Students and staff need to feel connected and cared for. As such, leaders need to take the time not only to learn the stories of those around them, but to also share their own.

2. Assume the best. Research shows that individuals will rise, or fall, based on the expectations of those around them. If we believe that students and staff can achieve great things, they will. I try to begin every conversation with a student, parent or teacher with the assumption that they want to do their best, but might need some guidance on how to make that "best" a reality. It is my job to see the potential, the capacity, for great things in every individual. 

3. 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. It is important to be realistic about challenges, but it is equally important to identify and celebrate strengths. I do my best to re-frame obstacles as opportunities. I have learned to embrace challenges as an impetus for change.

4. Listen more, talk less. More often than not, individuals just need an opportunity to vent. Sometimes my most effective "problem solving" approach is to simply listen and provide a space in which they can discover their own solutions. In this way, leaders can build capacity in those around them. 

5. Keep calm. 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.

Friday, 5 October 2018

The Power of Your Words

On World Teacher's Day, a reminder of the impact of our words and actions in a child's life...

For sparking imaginations,
For inspiring creativity,
For igniting passions,
For shaping minds,
For all that you do,
Thank You.


Friday, 22 June 2018

Take a Moment to Celebrate

It only took a minute.

Actually, more accurately, probably about 40 seconds.

A moment to make a "good news" call to a parent who typically only gets phone calls when her son has done something wrong. In fact, I've been the person who's had to make several of those calls this year.

This boy has struggled to find his way and has made some poor choices earlier this year. Repeatedly. At one point, I didn't have much hope that he would be able to turn things around. He was on the verge of going down a road that would be very difficult to travel.

The last time I spoke to this student's mom, she was in tears in my office, accompanied by her son and an RCMP officer.

But then...something changed.

I'm not sure ultimately what made a difference- a supportive teacher, a persistent counsellor, a parent who didn't give up... I'd like to think perhaps that even I played a part.

But over the past several months, something changed.

He started coming to school. On time! I'd see him in the lounge working on homework with other students. He'd smile and say, "Hey Ms. Garr!"

So today I took a moment... A moment to call this student's mother and share with her the improvements that I've noticed and how happy I was to see the change. She paused in uncertainty. And then, I could "hear" her smile. She thanked me, saying how much she appreciated me calling. She was in tears again, but this time, it was happy tears.

Now, I'm not saying this student is perfect. He's still struggling in some classes. I know he will still have challenges and difficult choices ahead. But I took a moment to make a "good news" call to a parent, to celebrate where her son is today.

I hope it made a difference in her day. It certainly made a difference in mine.

Happy year end!

"Team" is a Verb.

I was recently asked to respond to the following question: What are you most grateful for in your current role? I answered without he...