Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic... & Relationships

It's the most wonderful time of the year.


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

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

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

Happy holidays all!

Saturday, 9 September 2017

They Don't Know That They Shouldn't

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 2 July 2017

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

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

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

1. Relationships as a foundation.

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

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

3. A culture of collaboration. 

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

4. A focus on joy and positivity. 

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

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

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Next Steps, When the Only Constant is Change

It's deceiving.

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

But in reality, the only constant, is change. 

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

It is challenging. It is invigorating

And it is exhausting

But, it is never boring

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

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

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

So, plan B. 

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

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

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

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

Relationships- the measure of my success.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Connecting the Dots

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Lessons Learned

I often have individuals ask me for advice about moving from a teaching position into an administrator role. Nearing the end of my second year as a secondary vice-principal (or assistant principal to my American colleagues) I'm hardly an authority.

If anything, a few years in, I'm even more painfully aware of what I don't know.
But, here's a little of what I have learned...

1. I have had to make sacrifices. Finding a balance between my professional and personal responsibilities is an ongoing challenge. I'm not sure if I'll ever figure that out.

2. I need to admit when I don't know something. And when I've made a mistake. People are incredibly forgiving and kind.

3. Relationships are the most important part of my job. They form the foundation for everything else. It takes time. But the rewards are enormous.

4. Talking is as important as listening. Listening is important. But talking is equally important. By taking the risk of being vulnerable and sharing my own story, I give others permission to do the same.

5. Mentors are essential. They encourage me. And inspire me. And tell me when I've done something stupid. All are needed.

6. The little things matter. Saying good morning , saying thank-you, giving a hug, holding a door open. The little things make a big difference.

7. I still have so much to learn. That's overwhelming sometimes. I feel the weight of the enormous responsibility of my role.

8. I love my job. It's the hardest thing I've ever done. And the most amazing. I am grateful every single day.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Leading Change: Getting it Done.

We know that meaningful, impactful change takes time. It requires thorough consultation and careful planning. Depending on the scope of the initiative, this consultation and planning stage may span the course of several months, even years.

However, there a comes a time in every initiative when it is simply time to get it done. It's been my experience that this can be one of the most challenging transitions for an organization- the point at which the abstract becomes reality and dialogue transforms to action.

Given that for most organizations a considerable amount of time (and money) has likely been invested in the consultation and planning stage, it's not difficult to understand why there might be a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty associated with the implementation stage of any significant change initiative. At the point at which implementation is on the horizon, individuals are fully invested, often on an emotional level. Again, this is understandable, even necessary. Passion and commitment are integral for the successful implementation of any initiative.

It is at this stage that I find it most necessary for decisive, courageous leadership. (I shared what I believe are the necessary attributes to lead change in one of my previous posts.Someone has to be willing to take the leap. It is that often uncomfortable step into the unknown. It invites the possibility of failure. It's a incredibly hard step to take. No question.

But sometimes we lead change. And sometimes we need to give it a little shove. To get it done.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

The Tipping Point

A tipping point is defined as "the critical point in a situation, process or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place."

This concept can also refer to the point at which anomalous acts become the norm.

Most often this concept is referenced in connection to negative acts- crime, racism, pollution...

But instead, how can we harness the power of critical mass in connection to acts of positivity?

What is the tipping point at which kindness and compassion become the norm and intolerance and hatred an anomaly?

What can we do to shift the balance?

Here's the answer.

Every kind word, every act of compassion, every good intention can move us closer to that tipping point.

Each of us has the power, the responsibility, to tip the scales.

What will you do to help?

Friday, 6 January 2017

Weighty Expectations

It's ok to quit. It's ok to stop doing something that others have come to expect you to do. It's ok to change your mind, to have second thoughts. It's ok to say no.

I'm saying this after a week of observing largely well intentioned challenges and directives to make resolutions and set goals. In addition to these "New Year's" challenges, many individuals are already struggling under the enormous pressure of maintaining expectations that they established in previous years. The weight of others' expectations, intermixed with our own self imposed standards, can be suffocating. Debilitating even.  

We are so incredibly hard on ourselves.

I'm not suggesting that goal setting and establishing high expectations, both for ourselves and for others, is not a valuable and necessary exercise. Although I'm not a big fan of New Year's resolutions, I am a firm believer in taking on new challenges and opportunities, of finding your "edge" and pushing beyond it... But sometimes the weight of either self imposed or external expectations can make it difficult, almost impossible, to change our current trajectory, to re-evaluate, re-assess and forge a new trail. 

I see the impact of these weighty expectations not only on my family, friends and colleagues, but on the students in my school community. With anxiety and mental health issues on the rise, how are our expectations of our students' contributing to this trend? Are our students forging their own paths to success, or simply following a route that others have mapped out for them? Are they pursuing interests and passions that fulfil their purpose and goal, or are they obediently complying with others' expectations of what they should be? 

In the end, I truly believe it's about finding a balance...allowing ourselves to be inspired, motivated and challenged by others, but also giving ourselves permission to shift course, to forge a new path in unexpected and uncertain directions. 

I'm still working to find that balance and although I have more questions than answers, I'm pretty sure it's not something that can be encapsulated in a New Year's resolution or accomplished within the timespan of the year. So I'm giving myself (and others) permission to take their time, to make mistakes, to risk disappointment and even failure. Because some of my most incredible and rewarding opportunities have come to me "by mistake". 

So, here's to more questions than answers, to the journey ahead, to a year filled with possibility and potential... 

Happy New Year. :)