Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

The Heart of the Matter

Things are rarely as they seem. And sometimes in our haste to solve problems, maintain efficiency and restore balance, we lose sight of what's important. Sometimes with the best of intentions, we convince ourselves that addressing surface issues means that we have "fixed" a problem. We assess, we determine a course of action and we implement, without really taking the time to delve a little deeper. Without taking the time to get to the heart of the matter.

To use a medical analogy, many times in school communities, we treat the symptoms, we don't cure the illness.

I truly don't believe that this is intentional. I believe that it is the byproduct of good people trying to do the best they can with limited resources. And one of the most most precious resources in any busy school community is time. Fostering relationships takes time. Building trust takes time. Collaborating and consulting with others takes time.

That means some hard choices. To extend the medical analogy, we need to set up a bit of a triage in our school communities. It means asking ourselves some important questions...

What do we value? What are our priorities? What is non-negotiable? And what can we let go of?

In a perfect world, we could do it all. But in reality, we need to invest our time where it needed the most. If we don't, we will continue to apply bandaids to broken legs.

But our kids are worth more. They are worth investing the time to get to the heart of the matter...

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Leading NOW

Our quiet leaders. 
Earlier this week I was fortunate to be able to attend a school board meeting where two groups of students presented to trustees on diverse and important issues. Under fairly intimidating circumstances, these students were poised, passionate and articulate. I was incredibly proud. But at one point in the evening, I heard someone say to one of the younger students who presented, "You will be a fine leader one day." And it struck me- this student wouldn't just be a fine leader "one day". They were leading now.

In my own school community, there are numerous examples of student leaders. Although it's often the students in more formal roles like Student Council that are recognized as leaders, I see students leading every single day.

They lead by holding the door open for another student. They lead by volunteering to set out chairs for an assembly. They lead by picking up garbage in the hallway. They lead by being kind to a new student. They lead by example. So as much as I'm incredibly proud of our students who organize our clubs and lead our ceremonies, I'm equally as proud of our quiet leaders. They are not just preparing to be the leaders of tomorrow...They are leading now.
Not just future leaders. Leading NOW. 

Saturday, 29 October 2016

From Traditional to Transformative

How do we foster transformative teaching and learning within existing traditional structures? 

While curriculum changes are leading us towards significant change, the reality is that many schools and districts are still constrained by traditional structures that could pose significant barriers to meaningful growth.

Traditional structures can encompass everything from the concrete, (the physical spaces of our school community) to the less tangilble (closed mindsets).

Let me begin with one example of the concrete...

While the physical space of a school community does not necessarily impede transformational teaching and learning, it can pose a significant challenge. Traditionally designed as a collection of "little boxes", how do we encourage and support teachers and students to move beyond the walls of their classrooms to engage in collaborative learning experiences?

As part of the West Coast Regional Exchange, facilitated by Stephen Hurley and Max Cooke from the Canadian Education Association (CEA), I had the opportunity once again to marvel at the beauty of our venue Norma Rose Point, a school which was designed for teacher collaboration. Although principal Rosa Fazio is quick to point out that it is more about the mindset than the physical space, I couldn't help but think about the impact that teaching and learning in such a space might have on the hearts and minds of the members of that school community. This thinking was extended through a conversation with the head teacher of an alternate program. He shared his struggle to convince "his kids" that they were valued within a physical space that was aging and run down...

Yes, transformative teaching and learning can and should happen within traditional and sometimes less than ideal physical spaces, but I don't believe that we can discount the impact, both positive and negative, that those spaces can have on staff and students. Not an insurmountable barrier, but something to be considered.

Other traditional structures might include elements such as timetables, staffing and budget constraints and ministry guidelines.

Should a bell schedule really signal the end of learning?

With the integration of a new curriculum in BC, we have an amazing opportunity to continue to transform learning for our students. But it's not enough to simply squeeze a new curriculum into our existing traditional structures. I would suggest that if teaching and learning does not begin to look significantly different in BC schools, then we will have failed our students.

We now know better and so we need to do better

There are no easy answers. But we must continue to have these conversations. What are the non-negotiables within our districts and school communities- those elements which we are unable to change? And what are the elements that we are able to address and transform to facilitate the types of learning experiences that we know are best for our students? 

As Stephen Hurley reminded members of the CEA west coast regional exchange, "an issue is where an opportunity and a challenge meet." So, rather than viewing existing traditional structures as insurmountable barriers to transformational teaching and learning, we can instead view these as opportunities for innovative and creative solutions. I look forward to continuing this conversation, both with my colleagues in BC, across Canada, and globally. 

Sunday, 11 September 2016


It sounds simplistic, but my goal for the first week of school was simply to notice...

I noticed that the student who could barely make eye contact with me last year, walked confidently through the front doors of the school on the second day, and said "Good morning Ms. Garr!"

I noticed the grade 8 who was immediately swept up by a welcoming group of friends as they arrived.

I noticed the look of trepidation on another grade 8s face as they ate lunch by themselves, doing their best not to be seen.

I noticed who was sitting together at the opening assembly. And who wasn't.

I noticed the parent sitting anxiously outside the front office, not quite able to bring themselves to leave.

I noticed the teacher who was feeling overwhelmed by "one more thing".

I noticed that our secretaries treat the adults and the students in our building with the same respect and kindness.

I noticed that our custodian is never too busy to help.

I noticed how at the end of the day, despite feeling exhausted and slightly overwhelmed, I am looking already forward to the next day...

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Leading Change

Whether you're a school based administrator, a teacher leader, or part of a district senior management team, leading in times of change is different. Leading change is significantly different than navigating change. Or simply surviving it.  The reality is that leading while maintaining the status quo doesn't involve the same complexities and challenges that are associated with moving into uncharted territory. As Captain Kirk would say, leading change means going boldly where no one has gone before... As such, I would argue that it requires a unique set of skills and abilities.

Reflecting on my own experiences and through my ongoing conversations with colleagues, the following are attributes that I believe are necessary to lead change.

1. Passion. Enthusiasm and conviction is infectious. The ability to inspire and motivate others, especially when change can involve difficult decisions, is essential. Although we need those around us to ultimately take ownership of any new direction or path, a leader's passion can spark the initial movement and momentum.

2. Transparency. Trust and open communication is integral to any organization. Individuals need to understand why change is necessary, what the intended outcome is, and how we're going to get there. They need to be partners in the process, not simply passive participants. As well, the reality is that not every initiative is successful. Leading change means admitting that we don't have all of the answers, that we make mistakes. If we have worked to foster trusting relationships with those around us, individuals will continue to support us during more difficult times.

3. Resilience. There will never be a scenario where change is embraced wholeheartedly by an entire organization. Leading change means being able to shoulder dissenting opinions and sometimes outright hostility. Sometimes described as a "thick skin", the ability to not take "personal attacks" personally is key. Leaders need to be able to maintain a calm and consistent demeanour.

4. Empathy. Change can be unsettling. It can be a time of uncertainty and flux. Even when the changes that are being implemented are leading to something better, leaders need to understand that leaving behind familiar routines and expectations can lead to anxiety, even anger in some individuals. Leaders also need to be empathetic towards those individuals who are simple unable to accept change. They can't let that halt their progress, but they can treat these individuals with patience and compassion.

5. Courage. Even with the knowledge that change is necessary to move our schools and districts forward, it can be overwhelming to face the prospect of leading during transformative times. For those of us who have experienced significant change, we know that it can be "messy". Leaders may feel the same anxiety and ambivalence as those around them. But they have the confidence and courage to embrace those feelings of uncertainty with the understanding that it means they are moving forward into new learning and growth.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

One More Thing

We all get a little lost sometimes. We lose sight of our purpose, our goals. We get bogged down in the minutia of our busy days and frustrated by seemingly unending demands on our time and energy.

In education, there is always "one more thing". The latest trend, technology or curriculum change. These pressures explain why as "back to school" approaches, my teacher friends are sharing posts filled with a mixture of excitement-tinged anticipation... and anxious dread. And why at the end of June, one of my admin colleagues shared that his goal for the school year had simply been "to survive". Disheartening, perhaps. But understandable. This job can be overwhelming at times. And sometimes we can lose our way...

So as the school year begins, how can we balance our responsibility (yes, responsibility) to facilitate and embrace innovation and change, and the very real sense of fatigue and frustration that is often voiced by educators? As someone who wants to continue to support and facilitate growth in my school community and district, how can I justify adding "one more thing"?

Here's how...

Such a gift.
I ran into one of my old students today. This is a rarity for me, as I've changed schools and districts. More often than not, I send a student on their way at the end of grade 12 and I never see them again. So today was a gift. Not only because I got to see this particular student, who gave me a huge smile and an even bigger hug. But because sometimes I lose my way a little bit too. I get bogged down in the minutia of my day. I feel overwhelmed and anxious.

So with the school year about to begin, today's chance encounter was an incredible reminder of why I continue to push myself to do more. To do better. And why I continue to encourage and support my staff to take on "one more thing". Today I was reminded that I helped shape who this young man had become...

You see, every single day, we make a difference. We impact the lives of children. We help shape the future. What an incredible privilege. But with that privilege comes a responsibility. The responsibility and willingness to take on "one more thing", to embrace change, to move forward with intentionality and purpose. It can be overwhelming. And exhausting. But take a look at that young man's smile...
It is so worth it. 

So if you discover at some point this year that you have lost your way, I hope, like me, you are given this gift. This reminder of why we do what we do. And I hope that helps you to find your way back. Because our students need us. And for that reason, I will continue to do one more thing.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Dare to Be.

Although many of us are still blissfully immersed in the warm and hazy days of summer vacation, I was reminded by a post from my cousin whose children attend school in Arizona that for some of us, school has begun. I've had conversations in the past with colleagues about the back to school dreams that seem so prevalent among many educators, from beginners to experienced. Sometimes triggered by that first "back to school" commercial, anxiety tinged dreams often stem from a desire to do our very best for our students

As someone who finds it challenging to fully embrace rest and relaxation, (I'm working on it) my mind is never far away from planning and dreaming for the year ahead. I'm fortunate to work at an amazing school, with dedicated staff and highly motivated students. But as is always the case, there is room for growth. There are things we could be doing better

So in the midst of setting some goals for the year ahead, here's what I noticed... I divided my goals into two categories: "plans" and "dreams". Somehow I differentiated between these two- "plans" being those practical, concrete goals that are safe, attainable, achievable. And "dreams" being those that are risky, abstract and perhaps more challenging to achieve. "Plans" are safe. "Dreams" are risky. 

In life, and as part of my professional journey, I've learned that if I'm avoiding a conversation with someone, it's probably a conversation that I need to have. As a school administrator, I've had to learn to have those difficult conversations. They're never easy. They're often uncomfortable. But in the end, they are important conversations that need to happen. And they often result in meaningful and important change. 

See the connection? 

By categorizing some goals as "dreams", I was giving myself permission to push them off to the side, to "avoid" them. Which likely means they are exactly the goals that I need to be working towards. 

For many of us, we allow ourselves to dwell in the safe harbour of attainable goals. But in order to support meaningful change in our schools and districts, we need to push ourselves to dream. As Greg Satell writes in a recent post, we need to "dare to be crap". Greg's reference was in connection to creativity, but I think it applies to any undertaking that requires an element of risk. 

Scary stuff. But if I want to help my amazing school community be even better, we're all going to need to "dare to be..." Dare to be creative. Dare to be innovative. Dare to do things differently. Dare to fail. Dare to try again. 

So in the midst of these hazy, warm days of summer vacation, perhaps we can all spend just a few moments in the hammock, on the dock, in the deck chair, dreaming about what we are going to "dare to be" in the year ahead...
To create successful school communities, we need to "dare to be..."

Friday, 15 July 2016

A Better Mirror

The first time I met Christina, I knew there was a story.

The second week into her grade eight year, she'd been referred to the office for making racist comments in the hallway. Walking into my office, Christina unceremoniously plunked herself into a chair, scooped up a candy from the container on my desk, popped it into her mouth and proceeded to tell me in great detail, and using some fairly colourful language, why it wasn't her fault that she'd used a racial slur against another student.

I let her continue, not correcting her language, or calling a halt to her rather creative and clearly embellished version of events. I just sat. And listened. And watched. And wondered what could have possibly happened in this thirteen years old's life to bring her to this point...

Looking over her file after our first meeting, my suspicions were confirmed. To say that Christina had weathered some challenges in her young life would be an understatement. By the time she found her way to me, Christina was a seasoned veteran of social services, ministry testing and behavioural interventions. Navigating ongoing dysfunction at home and learning challenges at school, Christina had a remarkable talent for finding her way into the middle of physical and verbal conflicts on a daily basis. She was a tough cookie. A vulnerable kid wrapped in a tough protective shell.

With the additional insight into her story, over the next 6 months I carefully and consciously worked to develop a relationship with Christina. And when I say worked, I mean it. She didn't make it easy. A girl who had been repeatedly let down by the adults in her life, trust was a foreign concept to her. Her "go to" defence strategy was to push people away by whatever means necessary- both physically and verbally.

Over time, and with a number of supports in place, Christina began to experience some success. But as is so often the case, just as things seemed to be going well, she would inevitably find a way to sabotage her progress. Thirteen years of deeply engrained distrust and dysfunction wasn't easy to overcome. And so I continued to work at it. Because underneath the tough shell, I could see Christina's potential- an undeniable spark of intelligence, creativity and compassion. On a daily basis I tried to be Christina's mirror- to help her to see what I could see...

Thankfully, not every student has faced Christina's challenges. But every student has a story, a context that they carry with them as they walk through the front doors of our schools and into our classrooms. As educators, it is our responsibility to learn these stories and to carefully and consciously work to build the relationships that will support each students' unique path to success.

"To This Day" by Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan has always resonated with me. In it he writes;

...if you can't see anything beautiful about yourself
get a better mirror...

Let's never forget that for many of our students, we are that mirror

Saturday, 9 July 2016

My People

I had the amazing opportunity this past week to present an Ignite as part of the 39th annual BCPVPA short course at UBC. Short course is structured around the BCPVPA Leadership Standards of  instructional, relational and organizational leadership and moral stewardship. It's an inspiring week of learning, sharing and connecting with educational leaders from around BC.

Being invited back to present by Ian Landy was pretty special. Attending short course a year ago marked the beginning of a new journey for me. Reading over my post from last summer, "Are You Talking to ME?", it's clear that I was feeling both inspired and overwhelmed by the road ahead.

But most importantly, I was energized by the connections, the relationships, that I had formed over the course of the week. Although the sessions that I attended during short course last summer provided me with a wealth of valuable knowledge, it is the relationships that have sustained me through the challenges and successes of this past year.

You see, as much as the role of a school leader requires us to support our students, teachers and families, we must also establish strong networks of support for ourselves. As Langley vice principal Kim Anderson shared during her Ignite,
"We need to find our people, so that we can be their people."

I've learned a lot this year. I've learned policies and procedures, structures and guidelines, standards and practices...
But most importantly, I have learned to listen and lean on my people.

From endless advice, to notes of encouragement, to much needed hugs, I can't imagine having moved through this past year without the wisdom and generosity of my people.

So although I'm certain that the participants of this year's short course have learned a great deal that will serve them well as school leaders, I'm hoping that even more importantly, they were able to find some of their people. Because it is these people, these relationships, that will sustain and energize them on their journey ahead.

Friday, 24 June 2016

One of Those Days

Yesterday was one of those days... I won't include a laundry list of challenges- we've all had those days. But as I've discovered over and over again, the universe works in miraculous ways. And at the end of that day, I received the most remarkable gift.

It cost nothing. And it meant everything.

It was the gift of words. It was an important reminder of the impact that we have on our students' lives, often without without even realizing it. It was an affirmation of a year of learning, listening, sharing, and a thousand "good mornings". It was an incredible insight into the heart of an amazing student.

It was truly a gift.

So, at the end of an amazing school year, one that has included new challenges and new opportunities, my deepest thanks, appreciation and gratitude to those who have supported, inspired and sustained me. Feeling tired, blessed, and excited for the journey ahead...

Friday, 20 May 2016

Make Yourself at Home

I often marvel at the contrast between my own experiences in school, and those of my students. One of the most significant differences is the lack of connection that I felt to my school community. There was nowhere that I felt that I truly belonged, and although I had a few memorable teachers who stand out as having impacted my learning and growth, I essentially drifted through my high school years with little engagement in my school community.

In contrast, many of the students at my school treat it as their second home. They are infinitely comfortable there, to the extent where I need to occasionally remind them of some important boundaries and guidelines.

Here are just a few examples of our students making themselves at home...

  • In the course of a day, I've had students ask me for everything from bandaids, to bus fare, to help with putting their tires back on to their bikes. Students who forget their locks quite often leave their bikes in front of my office to keep them safe. 
  • One of our students comes to the office every morning before school to get a key to the music room. She is trusted by the band teacher to use this as her own private practice space. 
  • As both my VP partner and myself keep chocolates on our desks, there is a group of grade 8 boys who regularly stop by to ask for candy. 
  • It's not uncommon for students to walk directly in to my office, "forgetting" to check in with our office staff first. (Here's where those reminders of  boundaries come in!)
  • We often let students into our gym at 7am to play basketball. And escort them back out at 7pm. 
  • A student called after school to ask one of the secretaries if she would check if he had left his phone plugged in to the wall in his classroom. Not only did she retrieve it for him, she called him back at home to let him know that she had. (Our office staff rock.)
  • On a Pro D day, when most teenagers relish the opportunity to sleep in, our entire grad class came to school to work on a lip synch video. 
While I've heard some people refer to this as proof of the sense of entitlement that is often associated with this generation, to me, it is evidence of a sense of belonging that many our students feel. To them, it isn't simply a school- it's their community, their home away from home, their safe place

The fact that I have students who know that their vice principal will stop what she's doing, find a wrench, and get down on the ground (despite the dress and heels) to help fix their bike, just makes me happy...

Friday, 13 May 2016

The Measure of Success

There's no denying the enormous complexity of a school community. They are fluid, incredibly diverse, multifaceted microcosms of society.

But in the face of this complexity, there is also one simple constant. Relationships. They are the essence of every interaction, every challenge and success, every mission statement and growth plan. They form the foundation for all that we do. They are at the heart of learning

So as we head into the final months of the school year, and perhaps begin to reflect on the success of our year, I'm challenging myself to focus less on the numbers and more on the people...

Did I do my best to connect with every student, every adult in my school community? Did I take the time to hear their stories, to truly see every individual? Did I work to establish trust and transparencyDid I value, encourage and respond to the voices of my community? And how can I continue to build on this foundation as I look ahead to a new school year end?

In the end, how will I measure the success of this school year? By the smiles in the hallways. By the high fives and fist bumps. By the ratio of "good morning's" to grunts. 

It's hard to plot on a graph, to factor into a report, or to display in a trophy case, but in the end, it's at the heart of all that we do. And I truly believe, there is no better indicator of success

What's important in a school community?

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

It's Happening

At the risk of confirming Dean Shareski's assertion that I'm "old", I have nonetheless been in the field of education for a few years now. In addition to my own formative (and somewhat challenging) experiences as a student, I was an educational assistant for four years, a classroom teacher for seventeen, and am currently making my way through my first full year as an administrator. Similar to many experienced educators, in that time I've experienced countless new initiatives, frameworks and platforms. And I've also heard the voices of those who suggest that despite the "new", not much has actually changed...

Perhaps I'm naive, or just extremely fortunate to be surrounded by forward thinking, innovative, and transformative individuals (which I am), but here's my take on change-

It's happening. 

Don't get me wrong, there's definitely room for continued growth and certainly there's no cause to slow our momentum, but I would suggest that education is undeniably evolving, gradually responding to the needs of our students and of our global community.

I created the visual below simply as a method to capture some of the transformations that have challenged, informed and inspired my ongoing professional growth.

Ok, here's my disclaimer and my invitation...

First, the disclaimer- this is by no means intended to be a definitive "list" of paradigm shifts or instructional innovations. Nor is it meant to be a dichotomy, a "good vs. evil" of the evolution of education. As we all know, it's not as simple as that. It's just a way for me to make sense of some of the transformations that I've witnessed, and an opportunity to acknowledge (and thank) some of those "forward thinking" folks I mentioned above. This visual reflects my perspective, my lens. Likely by the time I hit "publish" I will have additions and revisions to make. But that's the beauty of learning. It's fluid.

Now, the invitation- just as I enjoy WestVan Superintendent, Chris Kennedy's "Top 3 Lists", I appreciate the opportunity to gain insight into what contributes to other's thinking and growth, into what inspires, irks and motivates those around me. Again, I'm fortunate to be connected to many individuals who willingly and generously share their learning with me, and I welcome the opportunity to connect with even more.

So while this type of overview is typically a "new year's" or a "year end" kind of thing, I find myself with a little time to ponder and reflect. A silver lining and a gift...

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Who Are the People in Your Neighbourhood?

Who are your school community heroes? Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Those of you who grew up in the 70s might be familiar with the Sesame Street classic, "Who are the People in Your Neighbourhood?" In addition to a nostalgic stroll down memory lane, it's an important reminder of the number of people who contribute to the well being and success of a community. In a school community, many of these people quietly and efficiently go about their jobs, with little recognition of the integral role they play. But in order to support the often complex needs of our students, to learn their stories, we need to solicit input from all members of our community. We need get to know the "people in our neighbourhood", and ensure that their voices are heard and valued.

Just a few of the many heroes that help to support student success. 
I was recently privileged to speak to an amazing group of educators in Prince George, BC. Through some incredibly open and honest conversations, we were able to identify numerous individuals who contribute on a daily basis to the social, emotional and academic success of our students. But even more important than the compiled "list", was the amount of warmth and appreciation that was being expressed as educators shared story after story of the impact that these individuals had on the lives of their students. I couldn't help but wonder how often those sentiments were expressed to those individual in person... How often do we say "thank you" to the heroes in our school communities?

Simply put, supporting student success is a team sport. We can't do alone, nor should we. I challenge you to take a look around you tomorrow as you walk through the parking lot and halls of your school. Who are the people in your neighbourhood, your school heroes who contribute to the success and well being of your students, and staff? And when was the last time that you said thank you for the important role that they play?

Monday, 25 April 2016

Learning By Accident

                                       "It sounds great. But it's just not what I'm looking for..."
This was the response of a gentleman who'd asked me to give him the "Coles Notes version" of my session as he was trying to decide whether or not he wanted to attend. Please know, I don't in any way take that personally. I appreciate his honesty. And I understand that attending a conference is quite literally an investment- of time and money. Time away from our family, time away from our school communities. An investment in our students. So I understand that people feel the need to be purposeful in choosing which events and sessions they'd like to attend. And my story is not for everyone. I'm ok with that. 

But I've also come to understand over the past several years that much of my best learning happens by accident... It's the impromptu conversations while waiting in line for a coffee. The sessions that I wander into after not being able to find the ones that I originally planned to attend. The chance meetings while waiting for an elevator. I've come to understand that if I allow myself to be open to opportunity, it will find me. Pretty darn cool. 

So having recognized that much of my best learning happens by "accident", I'm purposefully less purposeful in seeking out that "perfect" learning opportunity. I've come to realize that in fact, every experience is an opportunity to learn. And that sometimes, even when I think I might know what I want, instead I tend to find exactly what I need...

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Quiet Ones

Some students, you just can't help but notice. They're the students whose names you learn first in September. Sometimes it's because they're the first to volunteer to answer a question, or to pick up a notice from the office. And sometimes, it's because they're the one that you've had to ask to stop poking the student sitting next to them, and to please sit down, six times within the first half an hour of class. You know, those ones. For a myriad of reasons, there are students that we just seem to notice.

And then there are the others. The ones who on a busy day, when you haven't gotten to your attendance first thing, you can't quite recall whether or not they were in class. The ones who when the first parent teacher interview comes along in October, you need to look back through your notes to be sure that you're prepared with something to say to the parents. You know, those ones. The quiet ones. For a myriad of reasons, there are students that we just don't seem to notice.

It's hard to write that. It's not something that any educator wants to admit. We do our best to reach out to every student, to learn a little of their story, to support their diverse needs. But with numerous demands on our time, there always seem to be those few students that at the end of a semester, or year, you think to yourself, "I wonder if there was more I could have done?"

The challenge is, that for the most part, the quiet ones tend to do okay. They comply with instructions, follow the daily routines, and make their way through the day without complaint. And yet, they also tend to make their way through their days with very little interaction with their peers. Or with the adults in the building. They are on the periphery our school communities. And that's not ok.

The question that keeps me up at night is, what am I missing if I let the quiet ones slip unnoticed through our hallways day after day? What am I not noticing?

The thing is, I was one of the quiet ones. Those who know me now probably chuckle a little at that... It's not often now that I get described as quiet. But it wasn't until long after school that I began to very consciously push myself outside of that comfortable, quiet place, to find my voice, to feel worthy of being noticed.

And so, as a vice principal of a high school of over 1200 students, and with the help of the members of my school community, I continue to challenge myself to really see those students, the ones who are sometimes doing their very best to remain invisible. Because for that very reason, we need to notice them. Because I don't ever want to ask myself that question again, "I wonder if there was more that I could have done?"

Monday, 28 March 2016

Learning, from Sea to Summit

I learn so much from others. But for me, having the time to process and reflect on what I've learned is essential. Hiking provides me with an opportunity to do just that. It gives me some time to think, offers a good metaphor for some of my insights, and reminds me of how much I still need to learn. 

So, a little of what I have learned...

1. There is difference between taking risks and being reckless. Although it's impossible to prepare for every eventuality, it makes sense to gather as much information before hand as possible. A solid plan and the right tools can make all the difference.
1. My travelling companion. Hiking on my own means I need to take precautions and be prepared.

2. There are times when it's necessary to put your head down and just power through. But there are also times when you need to pause to look up, take a breath, and make sure that you're still on the right path. Sometimes there are clear markers to guide you, and other times the path is less obvious. 
2. Thank goodness for trail markers. 

3. There will be seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But overcoming adversity often leads to innovative solutions and amazing opportunities
3. Can't go over it. Need to go around it. 

4. Periods of darkness and fear are inevitable. There are times when you will be certain that you're on the wrong path, that you're headed in the wrong direction...
4. The creepy part. Reminds me of the forest with the monkeys in the Wizard of Oz.

5. But have faith. Darkness can be followed by great beauty and light
5. So beautiful.

6. Being mindful of limitations is a strength, not a weakness. It is only by recognizing our limitations that we can continue to learn and grow. 
6. Wouldn't it be helpful to have signs like this in life? "Just a heads up, there's some hard crap ahead, so..."

7. Independence and confidence are important. But there are times when you will need some help to continue to move forward
7. I've learned when to grab the rope. 

8. As much as you plan ahead, unforeseen circumstances will arise. Often these are beyond our control. The only thing that we can control, is how we respond
8. Yup. Snow. Awesome.

 9. Take the time to appreciate and celebrate when the path is smooth and things are going well.
9. A different view around every corner.

10. And be grateful for the little things that make the journey a bit less treacherous. 
10. Stairs. Helpful. 

11. It's important to find a balance between looking ahead and staying rooted in the present. Focussing only on the path ahead can cause you to lose your footing. 
11. Sometimes it seems easier to go across the log. Except when it's slippery. 

12. There will always be an easier way...
12. The gondola is easier, but so much less rewarding. 

13. But the more difficult route may get you to where you really need to be
13. Sometimes you just need to slog through the mud. Might as well try to enjoy it. 

14. The journey is never really over. To live is to learn. Even at the summit, there are always more paths to take. 
14. Taking a moment to breathe and be grateful. 

Sunday, 20 March 2016

An Invitation to Share

There is nothing more humbling that having a fourteen year old living in your household. In addition to openly scoffing at the number of views my TEDx video has received, my son has informed me that my talks can be "a bit of a downer" and that all I do is make people cry. Nice. But I get it. Fourteen year old boys aren't enormously receptive to heartfelt conversations. And he's right, we tend to learn best when we are able to balance some laughter with the tears. His advice is occasionally lacking in tact, but he's definitely got his own unique brand of wisdom. So, despite his sometimes less than glowing feedback on my work, I welcome his perspective, and I quite often seek out his opinion and insight.

This "fourteen year old perspective" has been especially helpful lately as I've continued to explore the relationship between connectedness and student learning and achievement. I speak to educators about the importance of learning our students' stories, in order to best support, celebrate, and build upon their diverse skills and abilities. I passionately believe that before we can move our students forward into new learning, we need to understand where they are now.

But what I have also been reminded of, with the help of my son, is the importance of educators being able to share their stories as well. In a recent conversation, he agreed that he appreciates it when his teachers take the time to learn about his life, his successes and his challenges. That it helps him to connect with his teachers, and ultimately with the curriculum. However, he then added, "But mom, teachers like it when I ask about their lives too...".

Because after all, relationships are reciprocal. Sharing goes both ways.

As beginner teachers, we are often cautioned to maintain our professional distance, to set firm boundaries and expectations with our students. "Don't smile until Christmas" is still a common mantra for "classroom management". Thinking back to when I started teaching, I followed this same advice- I thought that if I let my students see that I didn't have all of the answers, that I was "less than perfect", that it would somehow undermine my role. To me, respect equalled control. Sharing my vulnerabilities with my students seemed inconceivable. Unprofessional. Risky. But maintaining that veneer was exhausting. It wasn't who I am. 

And so, I began to share my stories...

I distinctly remember the first time that I cried in front of my students. I was teaching them how to write a narrative essay, and we were using the generic prompts from past provincial exams as exemplars. The topic on that day was "Beauty can be found in simple things." My students were struggling with the topic, and with the time constraints imposed by the rigid exam format. In an attempt to model the writing process, I told my students that on that day, I would write alongside them, and then be the first to share my finished draft. We put our heads down, and started to write, and at the end of the allotted time, I began to read.

I had written about the birth of my son... my now fourteen year old son. About seeing his brilliantly blue eyes for the first time. About the mixture of wonder and fear that I felt in that moment. And much to my horror, as I began to read aloud, I started to cry... I was mortified. I had broken the "rules" that I had worked so hard to establish with my students. I took a moment to collect myself, and then quickly transitioned into a "safer" portion of the lesson.

But here's what I noticed almost immediately. My students connected with my story. And they felt safe to begin to share their own. By taking the risk of being vulnerable with my students, I gave them permission to do the same. By letting go of some of that rigid "control" that I had established, I gained so much more. It was truly one of the most impactful moments of my teaching career. I understood that I couldn't ask my students to do something that I wasn't willing to do myself.

I'm not suggesting that teachers share every aspect of their private lives. Clear boundaries are important to maintaining respectful, caring relationships in a school community. But by sharing our stories with our students, we invite them to do the same. And in my current role, I see the importance of extending this same practice to my staff. I value their stories, their context, in the same way that I do each of the 1200 students in my school.

As Richard Wagamese writes, when we "take the time share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship -- we change the world, one story at a time..." 

Friday, 4 March 2016

"Why do you do this?"

A typical Friday morning... Standing at the front door of my school saying "good morning" to tired teenagers and tired staff. With less than a week until spring break, everyone is in need of a rest.

But this morning, as I waited to greet the "stragglers" after the second bell, one student stopped as he passed by and came back. 

He said, "Can I ask you something? Why do you do this? Why do you stand out here every morning?

As someone who occasionally struggles to be succinct, I launched into an explanation... That I sometimes feel like I get stuck in my office and don't get the chance to see kids as much as I would like. That I like to check in and see how everyone is doing in the morning. That I appreciate the opportunity to say "good morning" to everyone as they come in...

And then I paused, realizing that this was likely way too much information for a groggy teenager first thing in the morning. 

I finally said, "Why do I do this? Because it makes me happy." 

He responded, "Good answer." and walked away. 

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Problems Solvers & Dreamers

Most school administrators by nature are "problem solvers". On a daily basis, we navigate any number of "problems", ranging from the the predictable, to the extreme. And rather than simply being reactive, we do our best to look ahead, to use our judgement and experience to proactively anticipate and respond to possible challenges or obstacles that might otherwise negatively impact our school communities. It's a necessary and valuable skill set. But at the same time, it's a mindset that's difficult to shake at times.

This past week, I had an opportunity to meet with colleagues to engage in some "big picture" conversations, exploring what the future of education might look like for our students- everything from a redesigned curriculum, to reimagining the physical and digital spaces in which that learning will occur. 

But as we engaged in this dialogue, a pattern began to emerge. One person would propose an idea, and then another would systematically list the possible obstacles and challenges. We struggled to shake that deficit based mindset. And really, it's not surprising, because to some extent this is what we're required to do on a daily basis... We're expected to anticipate and respond to challenges. We are the "problem solvers". But as my friend, principal Rob Laing reminded us, we're also the "blue sky" people, the dreamers

I'm not suggesting that we spend our days with our heads in the clouds, oblivious to the very real challenges that impact our school communities. Sometimes our students need to us to be the "problem solvers".
But sometimes they just need us to DREAM BIG...

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Root to Rise

Finding my edge, on the summit of Mount Baker. 
The one constant in my life is change
As such, I've become accustomed to that somewhat uncomfortable feeling that tells me that I'm on the edge of new understanding. I've learned to welcome that feeling, even to seek it out. Having experienced the other side, the amazing growth and insight that comes from pushing past that discomfort, I've gradually learned to embrace change.

But at the same time, I've also come to understand that I can't impose my eagerness, my desire to move forward, onto others. I can share my vision, my passion and my story, but ultimately, individuals must discover their own unique path forward. However, as a school leader, I can help to support the members of my school community as they find that path. And in the same way, I can continue to seek out their support as I move forward in my own learning.

The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros
In yoga, there is a saying, we must root to rise. Essentially, this is a reminder that we need to first ground ourselves in the present, in order to move forwards. Our "roots" provide the stability, the essential foundation that all potential growth results from. If we remain fixated in the past, or alternatively, are only focussed on the future, we lack the stability to initiate meaningful, sustained growth. In yoga, as in life, it's about finding a balance...

Translated into an educational context, rooting to rise suggests that before we are able to integrate new, potentially transformative instructional and assessment practices, we must first have an understanding of where we are now. I am privileged to have been welcomed into a school community that has a rich history, with many valued traditions. As such, it is essential that I take the time to understand the context, the culture, the story of where I am now in order to best support my staff and my students as we move forward into new learning, and new understanding.

Let me just close by stating the obvious, which is that I haven't come to this understanding on my own. As I've made note of in previous posts, I have many teachers in my life. Wise, patient people who generously listen, advise and support me as I continue to make my way on this journey. My hope is that I am able to repay this kindness by providing the same gentle guidance for others.

Monday, 8 February 2016

The Outer Circle: Refocusing on the "What"

For the human mind, accustomed to thinking linearly, 
exponential change is a difficult concept to grasp. 

-- Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed

In the midst of a rapidly transforming educational landscape, it makes sense to give careful consideration to the the why. Simon Sinek's "golden circle" reminds us that if we're not able to clearly articulate the purpose behind significant change, it doesn't matter how innovative, how transformative it might will likely be met with scepticism and resistance.

Simon Sinek- Start With Why
But I've come to realize that with my focus largely on that essential inner circle, I had drifted somewhat from the outer ring, the what. With the implementation of a new curriculum, that what has been the topic of a rich dialogue amongst BC educators. With the world at our students' finger tips, how do we provide them with relevant, meaningful and engaging educational content? How do we choose what to teach? 

The good news is that to some extent, we don't need to decide. The new curriculum offers unprecedented choice to BC's students- an opportunity to explore individual, diverse interests and passions. And yet, the what provides an essential foundation, a framework.

By nature, I tend to be a "big ideas" kind of person, and sometimes lose sight of the essential foundational details. Fortunately, amidst the many inspirational "big ideas" that were shared at last week's FISA convention, I was provided with a remarkable reminder of the importance of the what by Charles Fadel, founder and chairman of the Centre for Curriculum Redesign. In his book, Four-Dimensional Education, Fadel explores the significant challenge that educational leaders face to keep pace with exponential growth on a global scale. As such, he identifies several integral "dimensions" as educational goals and presents a framework for 21st century education.

So while it's important to "Start With Why" when implementing significant change and innovation, I would suggest that refocussing on the what can also provide a useful reminder of those equally essential details, the foundational framework for a meaningful, transformative educational experience for our students. 

Saturday, 16 January 2016

It All Comes Down To This....

In the midst of hectic schedules, and seemingly unending demands on our time and energy, we sometimes lose our way. We get tired. And frustrated. And impatient.

And then something happens. It's usually something small, something that on any other day would go unnoticed. A student holding a door open for us. A smile in the hallway. A high five in the parking lot. 

And then suddenly, we remember. It's about the kids. And it's all worth it. 

Because it all comes down to this...
One question:
What's best for our kids?
One rule:
Do whatever we can to support them.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Uncovering Creativity

I have a hard time quieting my mind. Although I've practiced yoga for a number of years now, I still struggle with meditation. Instead, I revel in the more physically challenging poses, the ones that push me to find the edges of my strength and flexibility. But ask me to lay still, to quiet my mind, and I'm enormously challenged. Savasana is one such pose that requires a stillness of mind and body. For me, it is by far the most difficult pose. It forces me to strip away the worries and wonderings, to shift into a mindful state of calm and focus.

It strikes me that as a school leader, I need to facilitate this same mindful state of calm and focus in my school community. Often, when we talk about innovation, we tend to focus on providing our staff and students with additional skills and tools. We invest in technologies and professional development that will add to our skills and abilities. But I would argue that innovation is as much about stripping away as it is adding to. If staff and students are already feeling burdened and overwhelmed by the numerous tasks and responsibilities that fill their days, how likely are they to achieve a mindset that will allow for creativity and innovation? 

I believe that this mindful state of calm and focus exists naturally within each one of us. And so, in addition to facilitating the acquisition of new skills and abilities, my role is also to help to strip away some of the burdens that sometimes stifle this natural state of creativity and innovation. With this in mind, I would argue that my challenge is two-fold: to be looking ahead towards continued growth and innovation, but also to be firmly rooted in the present to ensure that I am effectively managing the numerous tasks and responsibilities that are so essential to the functioning of a dynamic school community. My hope is that by working to alleviate some of the more burdensome tasks and responsibilities that might act as obstacles, I can help to uncover this natural state of creativity and innovation that already exists within each one of us.