Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

"Re-Purposing" School Structures

"Innovative" is not synonymous with "new".

I had the opportunity to meet with admin colleagues today, in part to continue a conversation about  "re-imagining" teaching and learning in a secondary setting. Previous sessions have included visits to secondary sites in other districts to explore frameworks that extend beyond the "traditional".

In many cases, these are schools that are viewed as incredibly innovative and progressive. And indeed, they are.

But some of the most "innovative" ideas that I heard from colleagues today were not about introducing new frameworks or structures- they were about "re-purposing" existing frameworks.

One Admin team spoke about a process they undertook to re-examine the model of sustained silent reading. Over the years, the school community had evolved in ways that made the traditional model obsolete. However, despite their best efforts, teachers were reluctant to make what was viewed as a signifiant change and ultimately the initiative was voted down by the staff.

But rather than giving up, the team persisted, purposively and intentionally shifting their focus, identifying obstacles and continuing to work with staff to come up with a structure that incorporated elements of the "old", but also introduced some "new" components. They "re-purposed" the model of sustained silent reading. Not entirely new, but most definitely innovative.

A similar "re-purposing" has been occurring at my own school in connection to our Advisory model. A structure that is designed to build meaningful and sustained relationships between students and teachers, over the years some staff and students had lost sight of it's original purpose and intent. Among other indicators, we noticed that students were increasingly late to class, offering the excuse of "it's just Advisory" when they were questioned in the halls. This signalled a loss of purpose and intention in the Advisory classes themselves.

Rather than calling a halt to the Advisory model, we decided to meet with staff and students to explore what aspects of the model they valued, and what aspects they felt were less essential. As a school community, once we had decided on those elements we valued, we then looked at ways to provide additional supports. Gradually, we are "re-purposing" our traditional model of Advisory into a model that is "custom built" to serve the needs of our evolving school community. Again, not new, but I would argue, innovative.

Limited time and resources can be a significant barrier to the successful implementation of new initiatives and structures. But by re-examing and "re-purposing" existing structures, meaningful and sustained innovation is absolutely achievable.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Everybody Has a Mountain to Climb

It's a remarkable thing when one's passions intertwine in synergistic harmony...

Some of you may know that in my “free time”, I love to hike and even summit the occasional mountain. For me, hiking is a kind of moving meditation, an often solitary excursion that affords me the time to reflect and decompress. 

Summiting a mountain is an extremely humbling experience. It allows me to push my limits, both physically and mentally. The ability to persevere in challenging circumstances serves me well in other areas of my life as well. I have experienced the triumph of pushing past pain and discomfort, of taking just one more step when it seems impossible. I use this analogy when I'm speaking to students who are struggling with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I strive to help them to see their potential, their infinite possibilities. I try to help them to "climb their mountain" and experience that same triumphant feeling of success and accomplishment. 

In my role, sadly I see many children and families who are navigating incredible challenges. The stress and heartache of having a child who is sick and in need of hospitalization can be debilitating for families. As a vice-principal, I have often wished that I could do more to provide support to these families. 

And so, when the opportunity presented itself to combine two of my passions- hiking and helping children, I jumped at it. 

In August, 2018 I will be leaving on an expedition with an amazing group of people from an organization called Summits of Hope. Our team will be travelling to Peru, reaching altitudes of 4200 metres on our climb to Machu Picchu. Although the climb itself will be incredible, it’s even more special in that our goal is to raise money for children at BC Children’s Hospital.

I will be climbing over four days, ascending with a team of thirteen other team members. The funds that we raise will support cancer research, patient care, education, and advocacy for BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, and the Summits of Hope Endowment fund. 

As a member of the Summits of Hope team, I have committed to raising $5000. The prospect of that is somehow more daunting than the climb itself, but I plan to approach it as I do most things in my life- with faith, hope and a great deal of stubborn determination. And like most things in my life, I won't be able to do it on my own. I will need the help and support of friends, family and my team members. 

I hope that you will follow me on this journey. I know that it will not be an easy one- neither the fundraising nor the climb itself. But I also know that there are children whose "mountains" are so much more difficult to climb. In the end, all we can do is put one foot in front of the other, with faith, hope and a great deal of stubborn determination...

Please click on the link to my climber profile page if you would like to donate:

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"?