Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Learning in a Pandemic: Connections Over Content

Trauma informed education. Social-emotional learning. Empathy based instruction. These are all practices that have increased in prominence as the conversation continues around what education should look like during a pandemic. Indeed, if you were to walk into a school in most parts of BC today, things would likely look quite different. And yet, I would suggest that they don't look quite different enough.

The reality is that many of these differences are more reflective of new provincial health protocols rather than significant shifts in education. In part, I would argue that this is due to our innately human desire to "get back to normal". We crave familiar routines and structures. As such, some educators are struggling to deliver "pre-COVID" content to "post-COVID" students. Many parents are also feeling the pressure to get their children "caught up" as a result of missed time in the classroom. In both scenarios, students are the focus of this increased stress and anxiety. 

With the very best of intentions, we are essentially "punishing" students during a pandemic. 

By struggling to squeeze the same pre-COVID content into a school day that for the most part is structured significantly different, we are exhausting ourselves. And our students. And it worries me. Because with a somewhat heavy heart, I've come to realize that we're in this for the long haul. Even if a vaccine was to be introduced tomorrow, the impact of the last ten months will permeate our society for years to come. It would be an impossible task to attempt to compensate for all that we have lost. 

And so, we need to give ourselves, and those around us, "permission" to let go of some things in order to focus on those elements that are essential to a school community: relationships, connections, curiosity, exploration and a love of learning. 

My son was a member of the graduating class of 2020, otherwise known as a "Quaren-Teen". Rather than traveling the world as he had originally planned, he is working full time on an organic vegetable farm. He may or may not return to school at some point. He has no idea what he wants to do in the coming years. And I'm totally ok with that. Because he is still learning. He is still growing. We've both had to let go of our pre-COVID plans and expectations in order to make space for new plans and adjusted expectations. 

Learning during a pandemic should look different. And not just because hand sanitizer and masks feature prominently in our schools. But because we have shifted our teaching and learning to address what is truly essential for the success of our students in this new reality. 

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Managing Change - Our New COVID Reality


At my core, I am a creature of habit. I would suggest that for the most part, many educators are. We like structure and routine, predictability and patterns. Change is uncomfortable. And unsettling. It is an unknown element that fills many of us worry and stress. But I have also come to understand that in that place of uncertainty, growth and learning happens. Learning happens on the edge of understanding.

In many ways, this pandemic has forced us to re-examine long-held systems, to re-envision which aspects of our traditional structures best serve our communities. It has been an opportunity. With so much "new-ness", innovation and change is a constant. And for the most part, we have come to accept that. 

But with change, comes anxiety. It is palpable in our communities. It is real. And it can be debilitating. And so I am mindful of doing my best amidst all of this "new-ness" to also offer the security and stability of familiar routines and structures. 

The next few months will be about finding a balance. A balance between the new and the familiar. A balance between those things that must be implemented, and those things that we can take the time to examine. reflect upon and consult. 

I am in a new city, in a new district, at a new school. But like my fellow educators, one element remains the same - we will do our very best to support our students. 
No matter what. 

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Bridging the Distance in Distance Learning

When connections and relationships are essential to a successful school community, how is it possible to sustain and build upon those connections during this time of distance learning? Not only is this a challenge facing teachers, but one that school and district administrators must also consider as we strive to support our staff during challenging times.

Ideally, the ground work has already been established. The strong relationships that were founded when we had the opportunity for regular, face-to-face interactions will still exist. But even in those instances, new demands on our days might lead to some neglect of these strong ties. There is a tendency to assume that those who we feel "jut know" that we are here to support them may not need as much contact. But the overwhelming "new-ness" of our current state has a destabilizing effect on everyone.

Establishing connections with individuals who are new to our organizations is even more challenging.  As social creatures, we rely a great deal on "in-person" interactions. As such, establishing strong professional relationships via email, even video-conferencing, can be significantly more challenging.

In previous posts, I've shared what I believe to the be the essential elements of a successful school community (Five Essential Elements of a Successful School Community). I would suggest that these elements are even more essential during this time of distance learning. But with the complication of physical distance and a myriad of new obstacles, we need to be even more intentional in our approach.

Here are a few new understandings that I've come to;

1. Everything takes more time. With irregular schedules and less reliable methods of communication, I have learned to be patient, extending timelines for myself and others. Tasks that previously would have taken a few minutes, can now extend to days, even weeks. Operating on "old" timelines is unrealistic and stress invoking. We will all get there, eventually.

2. Everyone is feeling stressed and anxious. To varying degrees, each of us is operating in a new and challenging context. For many of us, we have shifted from a somewhat predictable and routine schedule to a very new reality. Our work days have likely taken on new hours. Our working environments look remarkably different. And our future is uncertain. I have learned that this constant state of stress and anxiety impacts each of us differently, and to be mindful of this in my interactions with others.

3. Relationships are more important than ever. Related to my first two points, I now "build in" time just to chat. While taking this time can be challenging with looming deadlines and numerous tasks to complete, I try to prioritize the person over the objective. Intentionally building in this time to connect and discuss topics that may be unrelated to the task at hand is ultimately more effective than trying to barge ahead with an agenda. Those few moments can provide valuable insight and understanding.
Relationships are more important than ever. 

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Relationships Not Rules

You might not expect to hear this from a school administrator, but I don't believe in rules.

That's not to say that I don't have high expectations for students. But I don't believe that a long list of "Do's" and "Don'ts" is in the best interest of any student or school community. Students are complex. They are unique. And so when I speak with a student who is struggling, it is the relationship that I have worked to establish with that individual that guides my response, not a list of rules.

Ultimately, successful school communities are built on relationships, not rules.

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.

Learning in a Pandemic: Connections Over Content

Trauma informed education. Social-emotional learning. Empathy based instruction. These are all practices that have increased in prominence a...