Saturday, December 31, 2011

Banjo and the Beach (A Metaphor for 2012)

     I feel very fortunate to live where I do with the pacific ocean one hundred meters outside my front door. It's great to be able to walk along the beach and take in all that nature has to offer. Lately the high tides have mad it virtually impossible to walk along the beach forcing Banjo and I to take the greenway for our strolls. Banjo is our six month old Springer Spaniel and never was there a more aptly named breed. She has boundless energy (the photo below is a rare shot of calmness infrequently seen) and loves the beach walk replete with chasing waves and seagulls.

     The walk this morning looked like it was going to be relegated to the greenway once again but Banjo was itching to get down to the beach. The other problem with the high tides of late has been the deposit of numerous logs making the beach walk more of a challenge. Banjo was not to be deterred today and about a third of the way along the path she yanked hard on the leash to draw my attention to the right and in the direction of the beach. It looked like there was enough sand for us to go down and continue the walk. The other aspect of the beach walks I enjoy is picking up pieces of beach glass. I'm not really sure what I'll do with the collection (and that is a challenge to ponder at a later time) but it's fun to find odd shapes or colors.

     As we continued our walk we got to a spot where the logs and the high water suggested a return to the greenway but Banjo had other ideas. As mentioned earlier she has boundless energy and simply bounded over the logs picking a route that allowed for the walk to continue. I, with considerably less energy and enthusiasm for the route, picked my way over the logs clearly questioning where my leader was taking me. It was interesting that when I looked at the logs as a whole, it seemed impossible. Tackling each log as an individual challenge reduced it to a more manageable task. After some scrambling we got to a clear stretch and I was happy to have made it through the difficult part. I found some great pieces of glass and, at the extreme end of the walk, made the best find.

     The walks always provide great thinking time and I began to wonder how often I may have missed out on something because I ended the journey a little too early or stop pushing when it got a little too hard. Further thinking led me to the point where this seemed almost too simplistic - that is I didn't want to reduce this to the naive belief that simply hanging in there would always guarantee the best piece of glass would be waiting for me at the end. Sometimes the struggle is just that and there are no tangible rewards at the end. What I did realize is that often it is just about the journey and that journey can be a fabulous reward in itself. Especially when you are taking it with a great companion.

     Best wishes to all who read and follow this blog for a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2012!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Greet Them With the Gift of You!

     I read with great interest a recent blog post by Josh Stumpenhorst (@stumpteacher) that spoke about the concerns for some of our students as they headed off for the Christmas break. He listed some of the challenges these students might face ( and reminded educators to "remember when those students start acting out there might be a reason behind it. They might be afraid of leaving the safe, calm, and loving environment that is school."  My experience tells me this is equally a challenge for students when they return to school. For all of the same reasons listed, some of our students return from a world that may function in direct opposition to many of our expectations in the classroom and they may have spent many days in a much more chaotic realm. Their return to school tends to be a bit uneven and fraught with frustration for the teacher who felt significant progress had been made prior to the break.

     How best then, to make their return as positive as possible? The first few days should be devoted to reviewing routines and expectations. Not with an eye towards issuing consequences but to ensuring that all the gains realized before the break remains the focus and the foundation for future growth for all students. Teachers might want to think about planning a field trip or a classroom activity that involves a lot of visual or hands-on stimulation and student interaction during the first week after the break. This would engage all of the students in a positive and pro-social event that will allow a quick return to the old, familiar, and desirable routinesThe more negative the experience the student might have had, the more effort required on the part of the educator to reconnect that student to some of the positive attributes. Many of you represent the sole positive role model your students might have in their lives, Never underestimate the difference you make. As I was watching my favorite holiday classic ("It's a Wonderful Life"), I imagined George Bailey as a teacher. The significant and profound impact that educators have for all of their students becomes even more so for those students that teeter on the edge. Not to suggest to any readers of this post to be either macabre or egotistical, but take a moment and reflect on what might be if you were not a significant adult for so many of your charges.  

     The Christmas holiday and New Year's celebrations produce a lot of emotion and do create many positive memories. I'm not suggesting that we avoid interacting with those students for whom this is a blessed time but merely suggesting that we recognize that some of our students come from the other extreme. Rather than getting frustrated or disappointed that there appears to be a loss of all that was gained pre-break, take a moment to realize what was achieved and recognize the path to achieving that might be a little easier to tread the second time around. The best gift we can ever give our students is the gift of ourselves. Perhaps we should all wear a bow on our first day back. 

     Merry Christmas and best wishes for a healthy and happy 2012.

Musical Charlie Brown's Christmas Tree- 24 Inches Tall

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stepping in it Again (Rewards Redux)

     The discussions around rewards and motivation have produced numerous perspectives, blogs, books, and guest columns over the years I've been in education. It's a topic that can be polarizing for those who remain rigid in their views or enlightening for those who value the insights shared by colleagues. I'd like to think I fall in the latter category as I know my views on this topic continue to evolve. I'm not the same teacher I was 29 years ago; I've learned from the brilliant educators who have gone before me, beside me, and after me. Having said that, it's also important for me to state that I'm not prepared to firmly plant both feet in the camp of those who would advocate for an absolute absence of any extrinsic motivators. And here's why: I firmly believe that extrinsic motivation is a pre-cursor to intrinsic motivation for some of our students. Two examples, one quite recent and one from a lifetime ago, illustrate why I have held on to this belief. 

     A recent visit to the DSBN Academy (see my recent post on this school at and conversations with the students resulted in a student quite honestly stating to me and his peers that he hates school. I was not surprised given his experiences up to that point - a lack of success and a greater lack of engagement with future prospects looking quite dim. He is now in a new environment where the focus is on what he is capable of doing going forward with a group of adults committed to helping him achieve his potential. As I debriefed with the staff afterwards, we could all see that this youngster would need some overt efforts and some extrinsic motivators before he starts to get the sense of experiencing success and recognizing his talents. This example reinforced for me two key points; first, not all kids start with the same skill set or tool box and second, and even more troubling to me, is that we sometimes magnify the differences through ineffective practice or a deterministic view that not all will be successful.

     The second example is a personal one. I grew up a child of poverty and abuse who followed five older siblings to school. School success was not a priority for any of them and the expectations for the sixth Hierck child were not high. It was not likely, nor fair to my teachers, that I was going to be intrinsically motivated or do the right things for the right reasons. In fact I probably was motivated but my motivation was towards those things that would be viewed as anti-social, and that I was well versed in. I can recall teachers who I simply wore down and pushed to the point where they had little energy left to salvage anything for me. It's not that I was unaware of the right things or didn't see what success created for my peers. I just didn't see how that was a possibility for me nor did I have any examples at home that would have made it seem attainable. The details of the changes that occurred for me are beyond the space a blog permits but one of the key pieces for me came in the form of extrinsic motivators. When my family moved across the country and I arrived in a new school, opportunities appeared that allowed for a significant change to happen. One of the first forms of extrinsic motivation came in the form of math contests that spurred a confidence level in me that allowed me to view things differently. I will remain forever grateful to Mr. Huberman for identifying a skill in me and setting up a forum that provided acknowledgement for that skill. I had not had much experience with that feeling and built on that experience. It was one of numerous external pieces that shaped a new direction for me. As is the case with many of our students, I didn't need the external forever but it was the kick-start that allowed for change to occur. This view is summarized in our recently released book:

“Over time, the goal is to move to more intrinsic and less extrinsic 
reinforcement, when students make good decisions for the sake 
of satisfaction it instills instead of the rewards it brings."

     While I know that my practice has been enriched and improved over time, I also know that some things I did early in my career have stood the test of time. One of these that also fits my notion of external motivators is an activity I called post cards from school. Each student in my Science class was given a 4 x 6 index card and asked to draw a picture on the unlined side of any science related theme. I used this as an early indicator of what appealed to them in the course. I collected the cards and on the right half of the lined side I wrote the parent/guardian name and home address. These then became post cards that I sent home at some point during the school year. Post cards always contain only positive messages and that was the challenge for me. I needed some authentic, descriptive feedback that I could share about each student. This could have been a challenge for my struggling learners but instead focussed my attention on looking for the good news. On some levels it was a bigger challenge to create a message for my most able learners that went beyond some of the standard comments they have received throughout their school careers (a pleasure to have in class, a commendable student, outstanding achievement, excellent work) and also carried some meaning. The impact of this extrinsic reward was palpable throughout the school year as both students and parents appreciated the recognition.

     Moving forward, I remain open to my thinking continuing to evolve around this topic. I do want to avoid the creation of a dependency on reward before the exhibition of expected/accepted behaviors. I also want to remain committed to helping those students who aren't connected to their intrinsic motivators make those connections. Even if it takes a little external magic to make it so.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Behavior and Habits (Another Book Excerpt)

            The last few weeks seem to have generated lots of tweets and blog posts on creating positive learning environments and achieving desired behavioral outcomes with our students. Many of the posts also speak to the need to steer clear of rewards, tokens, or awards as a means to achieving these desired outcomes. In our new book (Pyramid of Behavior Interventions: Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment, Hierck, Coleman, and Weber offer the following thoughts:
            Behavior is learned.  Repeated behavior is habit-forming.  If we want to form positive habits, we need to learn, practice and repeat positive behavior.  However, we do not want to leave the impression that we are so strongly behaviorist in our approach that we think kids will salivate at the sound of a bell like Pavlov’s dog.  B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists make some valid points, but this clinical thinking needs to be put into the context of human inter-relationships.  Alfie Kohn (1996) is also right when he says “behaviors occur in a context that teachers have helped to establish; therefore, teachers have to examine and consider modifying that context” (p.16).  Kohn goes on to argue that schools should be about community, not compliance.
            Covey (1989) helps us balance these two approaches and puts it into perspective when he talks about “proactivity”.  To be proactive is to be in control of our lives.  As Covey points out, “Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions” (p.71).  It is not simply a stimulus-response formula.  Between stimulus and response is choice.  Our freedom to choose, and our ability to make choices and decisions on how we will respond to the stimulus, determines our behavior.  Basically we behave in certain ways to either get things or to avoid things – physical, psychological, or emotional.  But we have control over the behavior we choose. To be sure, behavior is learned.  Thankfully, we can teach ourselves and we can teach others how to make positive choices regarding behavior. In other words, we must balance the behavioralism of B. F. Skinner with the humanism of Carl Rogers.
            It is our role as parents and educators to help kids learn how to make good choices.  We cannot assume they have these skills when they come to us, rather we need to teach these skills directly.  We have to believe that what we do with kids does make a difference.  We must believe that we have an influence on the way these kids change, grow and develop while they are in our care. At the heart of education is a positive, engaging learning environment where kids both know what is expected of them and are internally motivated to do it.
            While students are learning to become intrinsically motivated, they need nurturing and support.  Before students can internalize appropriate behaviours they need to learn the required skill set.  They need to learn and practice the skill set in the specific context.  To change behavior we need to, as Kohn (1996) suggests, modify the context in which student behavior occurs. This is not about manipulating behavior through fear or punishment.  Rather, this is about creating positive, proactive systems and structures that are conducive to students learning to become self-motivated. Self-motivation is recognized as a critical self-regulatory strategy.
            This should happen in middle schools and high schools, not just elementary schools.  The skills taught and the language used to teach it should be age appropriate, but it must continue as kids grow and mature.  Whether we call it social responsibility, citizenship, or character education, we owe it to our kids to support them as they learn to become full and active participants in our society. These are behaviors that can be learned.
            When a student has trouble learning these behaviors, we cannot dismiss it as a personality problem or character flaw.  We must not use excuses such as “He comes from a bad home” or “She lives in a tough neighborhood” or “Well, you should see the parents”.  We need to believe that intrinsically every child has the potential to act in a positive, productive manner.  Some need more instruction and support than others to get to that state of behavior.  We must separate behavior from personality.
            It is also important not to personalize the problem behavior.  That is, we should not generalize a bad behavior choice as indication of a “bad kid”.  Similarly, we should not take the poor behavior choices by students personally.  As adults we should not get angry or take the student’s misbehavior as an indication of personal failure on our part.  In the heat of the moment, this is sometimes difficult to remember. It’s just behavior. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Teach Them How to Swim

            Much has been written and even more debated in schools and at professional development sessions about the need to prepare students for the “real world”. Those who advocate that this is the role of educators speak about the need to “keep it real” or “make it similar to what they will encounter when we are no longer there to support them”. Folks speak of the real world with a fervent disposition and a passion that belies the fact that many of us educators haven’t spent much time in that world. This dawned on me when my colleague Tom Schimmer (@tomschimmer) asked a seemingly innocent question: “How much time have you spent outside the ranks of education?” and by that he meant the extended period defined in years not just my summer times. I suspect my answer is similar to many of my colleagues – none.  I’ve been going to school every September for the past forty-five years. It really is the only world I know and can speak proficiently about.
            Others who believe we should mirror what is out there forget that we exist in a different world. As I have moved through various leadership roles, my vacation time has decreased but my last contract still called for six weeks. Many of my teaching colleagues can easily add another four weeks to that total (even discounting busy times and the extra work all educators perform, there are still two weeks at Christmas, one week at Spring Break, and as many as ten weeks in the summer) which does not match up with any of my friends plying their various professions in the real world. I know this can easily be defended by the volume and complexity of work that educators do during the school year but it’s a fairly unique situation.
            Those who cry foul about not matching with the outside world often use this as the rationale to argue against second chances or to argue for academic consequences for social misbehaviors (late assignments, truancy, cheating) as if to suggest that we must prepare students for the harsh realities by mimicking them. Yet my own practical experience (failing my driver’s license the first time) and checking into other professions (doctors, lawyers, airline pilots) indicates to me that the real world is full of second chances and remediation. When I failed my test I was provided with absolute clarity as to what I needed to improve. The natural consequences were that I had to take another lesson, wait longer to drive my car, and book another test. Upon completion I wasn’t told it was unfair to those who passed in one attempt. Nor was I given conditions on my license like no driving on weekends or bad weather. The professions listed above provide second chances. Not all of us are going to the Doctor that graduated top of their class. Some are going to the bottom achiever who may have made errors along the way. All of us can be satisfied with our medical care however because we know all who graduated have met the standard. Similarly some lawyers need more than one attempt to pass the Bar exam and some pilots spend more hours on the flight simulator. Once they have mastered the learning outcomes they are free to practice their craft.
            As for the notion of consequences and the suggestion that the world is all about sink or swim (and therefore our schools should also be sink or swim), I love the response Dr. Rick DuFour gave at a recent PLC conference during his keynote address. “To prepare our students for this notion of a sink or swim world, we ought to teach them how to swim.” We are blessed to have students grace our hallways for a significant portion of their lives. While I may be convinced that the real world is different from our educational world, I think it’s critical that we take the time we have with them and arm them with as many skills and strategies to face those challenges, that we provide an environment that allows for mistakes to be made and growth to occur, and that we take them from where they are and bring them to where they can be.
            During my schooling I learned how to diagram a sentence, find x, conjugate a French verb, perform a left hand lay-up and despite all of the emphasis behind each, I have not been asked to ever demonstrate any of these in the real world. I can see the skill development that might teach a student something that might be relevant moving forward. I also know it is rarely expected that both the task and the boss change every hour, and yet this is what our students face.
            The push to replicate the real world only seems to occur when the discussion is focused on what and why students need to change. I appreciate the fact that our world is significantly different and value the opportunity to work with students to help make that transition smooth. The real world will have them soon enough. Let’s have them enjoy the world they are in. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

DSBN Academy - A New Approach, Unlimited Possibilities

     I recently had the pleasure of visiting the newest school in the Niagara Falls school district (DSBN). The Academy was born out of the recognition that education plays a vital role in helping children to overcome the effects of life’s challenges. The comprehensive social and academic support provided by the DSBN Academy will be key to empowering students to become the first in their families to graduate from a post-secondary institution. The school opened in September with a cohort of grade 6 and 7 students and will add a grade each year until a full 6-12 student body is in place. 

     From the start of the day where Principal Tom Reynolds greeted every student as they came through the main doors and they, in turn, greeted me (and many of the staff members) with a firm handshake and a cheery good morning, through their recognition of me as I visited their classrooms, and concluding with their deep and meaningful questions and comments when I spent 45 minutes with them in an assembly, I was very impressed with what has happened in the first few months of the school's existence. Make no mistake about it - the students at the Academy come from a variety of backgrounds and little of their experience to date included success at school or aspirations of continuing beyond fleeting thoughts of high school graduation. You can always count on kids for the unvarnished truth and I was humbled by both their public and private comments that reflected some real struggles and some forming dreams.

     I was also impressed by the creed (listed below) that formed the basis of what the collective group is striving for. It's a vision shared equally by staff (they had to apply to be a part of the school), parents (they had to endorse the move and provide volunteer hours at the school) and the students (they had to summon a courage to commit and demonstrate an ability to shed some of the negative labels and experiences that had dogged them to this point). 


We Believe.
We are the young men and women of DSBN Academy.
We strive for excellence not because we say it but because we work hard for it.
We believe in ourselves, our teachers, and our families
To guide and teach us through our triumphs and tribulations.
We will not falter in the face of any obstacle placed before us.
We are dedicated, committed, and focused.
We never succumb to mediocrity, uncertainty, or fear.
We never fail because we never give up.
We make no excuses.
We choose to live honestly, respectfully, and optimistically.
We respect ourselves and in turn respect all people.
We have a future, for which we are accountable.
We have a responsibility to our families, our community, and our country.
We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers.
We believe in ourselves.
We believe in each other.
We believe in the DSBN Academy.
We are the Argonauts.
We Believe and We will Achieve.

     After the assembly I was touched to receive an Academy T-shirt and a statement from the student leadership that I was now part of the team. I look forward to maintaining contact with the school as it continues to grow and flourish. In my short time there I was moved by many individual students and felt a strong bond with the adults as they worked together to alter outcomes. Tom and his team continue to espouse (and model) the belief that all who enter the school will be successful. I saw evidence of this when I visited a class during mentoring time. The conversation turned to getting good grades (A's and B's) and why that was important. Rather than hearing some of the traditional responses I have heard around ranking and sorting or some sort of status, it was all about putting oneself in a position to receive funding for post secondary and that this was available to all of the kids at school.

     I have been fortunate as a presenter to receive some great positive feedback after a presentation. It all pales when I reflect on the grade 6 Academy student who patiently waited after the assembly and mustered the courage to address an adult he only recently met. I kneeled down so our eyes could meet as he said, in barely a whisper, "You rock! Thanks". Another one of those visits where I left richer than when I arrived. 

Students Olivia and Connor with Principal Tom Reynolds
and the author who is proudly wearing his new Academy T-shirt.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Out of Africa

Staff at the American International School of Abuja.
Many of the teachers in this photo will pursue
other teaching opportunities in the next 2-3
years. Their good efforts will transcend their time at AISA.
     My recent trip to Nairobi and Abuja provided some wonderful travel moments, which I’ll treasure for a lifetime. They are one of the value added pieces of being an educator and a great reminder of how fortunate I’ve been in this career.

     As an educator I was really keen to find out what would be different, better, worse, or common to my context. My context has been derived from 29 years as an educator in British Columbia in a variety of roles (teacher, vice-principal, principal, university sectional instructor, president of a provincial organization, Ministry of Education project manager, assistant superintendent, and executive director) and locations. But, it’s my context and it’s continually shaped by interactions with fellow educators.

     The AISA conference in Nairobi, Kenya brought me in contact with educators from at least a dozen African nations. That seemed like a good sampling and I set out to ask many questions during the seven-hour sessions I facilitated. I thought the student body at these schools would preclude any of the challenges I might have encountered. That was my bias borne out of the notion that if parents were paying large sums of money to send their children, it was likely that very few serious challenges would emerge for the teacher. Here’s where context plays a role again. The teachers described similar concerns and a range that exists in most schools I’ve visited. The pyramid of behaviors we describe in our book ( exist just as clearly. I was also regaled with many stories of student success and breakthroughs. If I had closed my eyes for a moment, I could have imagined myself in many of the schools I have visited.

     The school visit to the American International School in Abuja, Nigeria provided further evidence that schools are schools, kids are kids, and great educators practice their craft everywhere. The two days we spent on assessment practice yielded similar questions and successes to any I’ve conducted on home turf. In fact, what drove the point home of the effectiveness of pursuing the right outcomes came as a result of a relatively unique challenge the international schools face. They have a significantly high percentage of staff turnover annually. While my belief and much of the research I’ve read suggests a five to seven year window for effective leadership to emerge and take root, these schools hardly ever see anyone approach the lower end of that scale at the principal or assistant level. Teachers that stay beyond the two year initial contract are rare and those that stay beyond three are almost unique in their schools.

     You might ask how the school can gain an identity or have a vision with such turnover. That’s where attaching yourself to the right things becomes the glue to hold things together. Schools that pursue effective assessment practice and engage in ongoing formative assessment while providing descriptive feedback do so not because this is the passion of certain individuals on staff but because it’s the right thing to do. Having everyone fluent in this means that there are always some individuals that bridge those entering the staff and those leaving. It becomes something that is transmitted in the effective dialogue teachers engage in as professional learning communities. Rather than answers being derived from the well of “that’s the way we’ve always done it”, the answers need to make sense to those coming in as being the best way to do things. 

     Despite working with numerous groups over the last few years on assessment and professional learning communities, the obvious benefits of these initiatives in an immediate way had escaped me. I was stuck in my old paradigm that it took time for these to take route and become effective and that meant having committed people stay for long periods to ensure the work survived. Thanks to my colleagues in Africa, I was reminded that these things work because they are the right pursuits for educators to follow.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Time Is On My Side (Yes it is....)

     I was inspired by a recent post by Chris Brogan ( "The time we're losing" that Darcy Mullin (@darcymullin) brought to my (and others) attention. In it Brogan argues that we have plenty of time to accomplish our goals but get caught up in other people’s “urgent and emergent” or get distracted by time wasters that prevent us from reaching our goals.

     I’d like to take the notion a little further by suggesting that time is our most precious resource in schools today.  How we use that time says a lot about our priorities and, in essence, defines what our school is all about.

     Think about your last staff meeting.  How much time was devoted to professional conversation compared to “administrivia”? When you get together with your colleagues is more time spent on the “great late debate” or on improving outcomes for students? It becomes apparent very early on in my visits to schools when I hear the nagging conversations focus on hats, food in class, and tardiness that a shift needs to happen if we are to move forward with the real reason we’re in the education profession. I’m not suggesting that these items should be blithely ignored but that they need to be addressed and then monitored (but less frequently than academic and social-emotional outcomes). Consider the discussion on tardiness. In essence this is a time waster focused on devising a consequence that will eradicate this problem. As if 150 years of public education and the educators over that time have never discussed the issue or found the silver bullet. Over the years the conversation is rendered moot when I ask any gathering of educators if there is anyone who has never been late to a staff meeting. It’s the rare occasion when I see a hand raised, and that individual is usually challenged by their colleagues on the veracity of the notion.

     I like to start my work with groups off by asking people who or what inspired them to become teachers and to recall a positive moment in their careers. I love watching how animated the discussion becomes and how positive and alive people are during the five minutes. Inevitably I end the sharing far too early which reminds me of a couple of things. First, teachers like to talk and share good news. Second, we don’t get enough time to do that. While I agree with both these sentiments, I conclude the activity by reminding the group that, more often than not, they have not taken even five minutes nor shared with a colleague a positive experience that occurred in recent memory. Yet, most will have spent considerably more time than that on things that did not generate have the excitement the five-minute activity did.

     The challenge for us is to keep the focus on “the main thing(s)” and not get distracted by all of the background noise. If the starting point is to create a five minute chunk , what’s holding you back?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Moving Forward (With a First Step Back In Time)

You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only
connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that
the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to
trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.
Steve Jobs

         I made a career decision to pursue what I am most passionate about and where I might have the greatest impact as an educator. Decisions like this rarely come lightly and the first steps are always the most cautious. My inaugural step away from security was made more comfortable by a return to familiar ground.
         I had a chance to return to the school district where I began my career 29 years ago. I found myself swamped by memories as the plane touched down at the Williams Lake airport and the drive to town only added further color to my recollections. Dinner with former colleagues and a quick scan of a very old yearbook brought a comfort that clearly escaped Thomas Wolfe when he remarked that one can never go home again. It felt like putting on your favorite old sweater. The one that, despite a few holes, always made you feel warm.
         The success of the workshop the next day was fueled in equal parts by my desire to ensure the day was memorable for all of the participants and the support of some of my mentors from those early days as a teacher. That some retired colleagues would come out and spend time in a session spoke volumes of their dedication to their craft and of a relationship that started me on the path to where I find myself today. Words cannot adequately express my appreciation for the support I received as a “newbie” and the support I received as this next phase of my career as an educator gets established.
         What I came to realize at the end of that day is that we all make a different contribution to the success of students and to the success of each other. My circle of influence has shifted considerably in the last five years and I have become a better educator because of the contributions of so many others. There is still so much to learn and my metaphorical classroom (that I sit in as a learner and lead as a teacher) has no permanent home but instead has an ever-changing construct and population.
         My calendar going forward has trips to Kenya, Nigeria, Nova Scotia, Indianapolis, Niagara Falls, and Nunavut. I know there will be expectations placed on me to provide a spark to further engage the good work of colleagues in all of these locales. I also know they will all provide a spark that will ignite further passions in me to ensure that I can make a difference as an educator.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

It's All About Relationships

     The title of this piece may seem trite to some and a well used "catch phrase" to others but the truth  is, the longer I'm in this profession the more overwhelming the evidence that speaks to this being, perhaps, the one universal truth about our role as educators. Two recent experiences brought this home once more.

     I have to admit that high school reunions are not my cup of tea - at least as far as attending with former classmates - and I have passed on being a participant at any of them. However, I am always honored to attend when former students extend an invitation to be a part of their event. The most recent one was another chance to catch up with a wide range of students and see the growth that has occurred over the last two decades. It's always a treat to hear a positive recollection or mention of support and I continue to be amazed at how a seemingly innocent and unintentional act on my part was significant for the recipient. It reminded me of the Chinese proverb that states "the one that plants the tree rarely gets to enjoy its shade", but in this case I did get to enjoy the positive outcomes.

     The second event was more personal as my youngest daughter got married to her high school boyfriend. My new son-in-law also happens to be a former student that I suspended, and the story gets better. I was honored to be asked to be the Master of Ceremonies at the reception and my first question to the assembled crowd was "How many of you spent time in my office?" More than a third of the crowd shot their hands up including most of the bridesmaids and groomsmen. The best man got a big laugh when he mentioned how shocked everyone was to hear the groom was marrying the Principal's daughter. Fortunately, grade nine is not terminal. The kids I had to spend lots of time with and work to effect changes in their lives were now adults exercising (mostly) good choices and were happy to share their updates with me. I was the beneficiary of some personal sharing and positive feedback.

     Perhaps the most fascinating story came from Travis. My recollections were that he and I didn't go much longer than a couple of days between his visits to my office during his three years at the middle school where I was Principal. Most of the time was spent trying to discern what he was interested in and what we could do to engage him more positively in school life. He had his share of baggage but also had a spark that just needed to be fanned before erupting into the flame that would add definition to his life. Travis surprised the happy couple with this painting:

He had created it from two photographs he had and the clarity of his work make it impossible to misidentify the couple. I was stunned by his creation as were most of the guests, and asked Travis about his talent. He confessed to only starting this "hobby" as he was thinking about a gift and that the completed work took him the better part of a day. I was chuckling to myself thinking how it might have been nice to know after one of our lengthy school talks that there was this brilliant light at the end of the tunnel. It was great to see him accept accolades (and orders for future paintings) with a confidence that belied any of the struggles he may have once experienced.

     My mantra over the last number of years has been that every student is a success story waiting to be told. Helping them to discover and tell their story drives me forward. The rewards are numerous and the journeys incredibly satisfying.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Have a Great Day! (The Choice is Yours)

     As educators I think we are all story tellers first and foremost. As a learner I find that I most connect with others who, in telling their story, also reveal some of the struggles they have dealt with. I don't relate very well to those who have an aura that indicates they have never made a mistake. I've also come to realize we are largely responsible for creating the world we live in or at least how we view that world.

     As I reflect on the school year that has concluded I know that I had way more good news than bad and yet I let the bad news consume me for a time. Not getting a job I really wanted knocked me for a loop. The time spent being disappointed detracted from enjoying other aspects of my life and that was a poor choice on my part. Especially when the end result was that I ended up having the opportunity to take on an incredible job that I would not have considered otherwise.

     I know it is easy to see what's wrong or missing but it does little to create forward progress. How we view the setbacks and respond to them is what allows for gains to be made. Research speaks of a 4:1 positive to negative ratio or the need to have four positive actions to outweigh the impact of each negative action. This is where we can exercise choice. Rather than looking at these five math statements  
3 x 5 = 15
10 – 6 = 4
2 + 7 = 9
11 – 8 = 2
12 / 4 = 3
and noticing that one is wrong, perhaps it is more prudent to notice that four are right. This by no means dismisses the notion that one of the solutions is incorrect. Instead it becomes a question of where we spend the bulk of our energy. Do you notice the one student without supplies or the twenty-four with them? Is our attention drawn to disparaging the tardy or honoring those present?

     I know each day I wake up and ponder the issues about to unfold, I have a choice to make. I hope I'll decide to have a great day more often than not. Seems better than the other option. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

10 Questions Looking for a "Yes" Answer! (Book Excerpt)

     I am thrilled to be part of an author team with Charlie Coleman and Chris Weber and happy to see the book will be out this week ( Here's an excerpt that is timely as our thoughts drift away from the recently completed school year and towards the upcoming one:

     Educators must make a commitment to approach challenges in a positive way, by helping students find their passion as they prepare for a world vastly different than the one we faced. We cannot change the students who come into our schools; rather, we must change our approach to working with them. We must commit to proactively serving students by anticipating their needs.

     We can predict that students will experience frustration, confusion, and perhaps failure in the absence of clearly articulated routines, structures, and expectations for their learning environment. Over the years, as we have worked with many staffs in a number of school districts, our repertoire of strategies for improving student behavior and overall educational effectiveness has evolved. While there can be no complete, exhaustive list of strategies for making a difference with students, we hope that those presented in our book will help you and your school community get to a place where staff, students, and community members can answer “Yes!” to the following ten questions (Hierck, 2009a):
1. Does everyone in our school agree on why we are here?
2. Does everyone really believe we can make a difference for all kids?
3. In terms of making a difference, do we have a common school-wide vision?
4. Are clear and specific school-wide systems in place to make our vision a reality?
5. Are classroom plans in place that match the school-wide systems?
6. Are individual student support options in place?
7. Do procedures in the office support the school, classroom, and individual plans?
8. Does every adult talk about these plans openly, regularly, and systematically?
9. Do we know, with measurable evidence, that the plans are making a difference?
10. If our plans are not making a difference, are we willing to try something new?
     I hope you'll enjoy the book and look forward to any feedback you might want to share.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Descriptive Feedback - Life's a Beach!

     Summer is trying to arrive and most educators are striving to get a break and recharge their energy reserves. Therefore, posts should be short (also a nod to Twitter friend @Nunavut_Teacher who likes short posts) and specific. So here's my first attempt at a shorty....

     Yesterday I was having a great time with my granddaughter on the beach and at the park when I caught myself doing what we some times do in education - giving feedback that was meaningless even to an 18 month old. I caught myself saying "good job" and "nice work" as she was putting rocks in a bucket or sliding down the slide. It reminded me of a brilliant post by Nicole Vagle (check it out at that spoke to the need to go beyond these trite phrases. I committed to trying it out with baby Isabella and gave her specific feedback about the size of the rocks she was gathering and to look for different sizes as the bucket got full. I told her she could go faster on the slide if she pulled her legs together rather than having one out to the side that caused her to slow down. Now, I am willing to admit that the sun was shining on me and I could have been a little dopey but I am convinced that she changed what she was doing based on the specific feedback I was giving. If it works for babies, what a powerful intervention it must be for our students! Just a thought before heading back out for more Grandpa time.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Alfie and Me

     As our Twitter (#kohnbc) book review of Alfie Kohn's "Beyond Discipline" winds up this Thursday, I am left thinking where his thoughts and mine intersect and where they diverge. I am comforted by the knowledge that they do both and here's why. It is imperative that educators read lots, talk lots, and grow lots. I am fortunate to be asked to come work with a variety of educators and my opening comments always address the notion that my experiences are just that - mine. They are neither better nor worse, more compelling or more inspirational, absolutely foolproof or considerably flawed. They work for me and continue to evolve despite my career having stretched for twenty-eight years (and counting). The important piece for anyone in the audience is the need to contextualize what you hear and read. This is where I stand with Alfie.

     I can fully endorse the notion that we are not looking for mere compliance achieved through bribery or positional authority. That creating a sense of community is the ultimate objective to enhance learning for all. And that "management" in its coldest definition does little to change the view that the problems always rest with the students. However, I also know that many of our students (and I fear the number is increasing) come from structures where there is little to model their behavior after and even less to gain in an intrinsic sense, from demonstrating it. A colleague shared a recent event at graduation that helps to illustrate this:
"Fred and Damian were two of the biggest behavior problems in middle school. As their principal I had to deal with them on many occassions for minor and major offenses, including several suspensions. School was not a high priority for them. When I moved to the high school this year, Fred and Damian were in Grade 12. Once again, I had to be on them to pro-actively prevent them from getting into situations that would jeopardize their graduation. Both needed some personal attention (hounding) to get the credits required to pass Grade 12.  At our Valediction Ceremony, in cap and gown, and in front of 300 grads and 2000 on-lookers, Fred and Damian got to walk across the stage and shake my hand. As I reached out my hand, spontaneously, these two tough boys rejected the hand-shake and gave me a big hug."
Ultimately, where Alfie and I come together is on our fervent belief that it all starts with a relationship. In order to move away from some of the rigid structure he chillingly portrays, educators need to invest time and energy in creating and cultivating positive relationships with their students (and with each other!). This is initially very time intensive but the benefits far outweigh the cost. My view is that some of our students need to be led out of some dark corners that may not have been made by us but heavily impact our attempts to create a community of learners. The mere act of saying "Good Morning" may not be enough to alter a morning that was headed downhill long before the student arrived but if it is delivered sincerely and because it reveals something about you (rather than being a "device" designed to get compliance as Alfie would be concerned about), the change may happen over time.

     A number of posts in recent days have looked at the notion of relationship building. I love Sean Grainger's (@graingered) sharing of "Norm" schools. He talks about a colleague who suggests we need “Norm schools”… the kind where “everybody knows your name,” and not just during regular school hours. This is the powerful impact that building a relationship can have for those students who need a place to feel safe. George Couros (@gcouros) also talks about this impact when he says "the relationships that we build with our staff, our community, and especially our students are the foundation of a successful school." I firmly believe that this approach will render obsolete the need to create new consequences or engage in the never ending "late debate".

     As I continue my learning journey I know that Alfie and I will intersect again. I appreciate that he pushes my thinking and equally appreciate the contributions my colleagues in education continue to make that enhance my knowledge base.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Beyond Discipline or Beyond Common Sense?

     I realize the title of this blog might be a little inflammatory and that's not the intent. I really enjoyed the first session of the #kohnbc book chat on Twitter last night (thanks @birklearns) and am looking forward to our conversations around the next chapters on Alfie Kohn's book "Beyond Discipline". The timing was excellent as I had just returned from a quick dash to Chicago where I had the chance to co-present with my good friend Charlie Coleman. I learn from him each time and enjoy the stories he shares from his classroom experiences. It provided a good counterpoint to some of what Kohn writes about and was part of the reason we chose to reference his work in our book.

     Some of the comments shared last night resonated with me and mixed in with the Chicago event prompted this post.
"Kohn is so good when reading but in practice sometimes hard to make practical."
Dave Meister (@phsprincipal) shared that thought and it reminded me that our classrooms are not test laboratories free of all of the frailties of society. They instead consist of a wide range of kids with a wide range of talents and abilities (and yes they ALL possess both) displayed under a wide range of circumstances. Some of these factors may require us to move into those areas Kohn sees as negative and labels as controlling.

"Behavior in school must be contextualized when taught."
Tom Schimmer (@tomschimmer) shared this gem and it provided the clarity that expectations vary from place to place in schools. You can't accurately describe expected behavior at the assembly which will be held in the gymnasium from your classroom seat. "Be Safe" looks markedly different in a kindergarten classroom than it does in a grade 12 classroom.
"Too often we hold students to higher standards than we hold ourselves."
Darcy Mullin (@darcymullin) gave the third prompter to me with his comment about expectations that often times seem to only be externally employed. If we don't model what we teach then we are teaching what we model. The rule that states "No food or drink in class" doesn't have fine print excluding adults from adherence but it seems to be employed in a tiered way.

     So how does this tie back to Charlie and Chicago? He shared a story that I won't do justice to in print but hope to provide enough details to connect the dots. Charlie spoke about an elementary class of his where Mikey was the student who misbehaved the most. This was widely known as Mikey had been the most challenging student in each of his previous years and his reputation was set. As the teacher Charlie was determined to make a change in that reputation and pass along a better Mikey than the one he inherited. Here's where it rubs Kohn the wrong way. He used a merit ticket as a method to try and change the behavior. Given how far to the negative the behavior had gone, it required some overt action to pull it back to acceptable and then beyond to expected. Charlie really honed in on Mikey and rewarded him more frequently than others. At the end of each week a draw was held for some other trinket or positive outcome. Mikey never won these draws and Charlie could not understand why as Mikey's odds were much higher than the other students based on the number of tickets he received. Finally on a day when Mikey was away, Charlie looked in his desk and saw, that despite the overall chaos, there was a neat pile of tickets sitting in one corner. He asked the students who sat near Mikey if they knew this was occurring and heard that Mikey proudly showed off his stack with the comment about how often Mr. Coleman had caught him being good. I cannot find a lot of problem with the approach or the outcome for the student. Would I expect to continue to have to do this? No. The approach would be to move away from the overt to more covert methods but the desired changes required something different. Here's one other outcome that I appreciated hearing from Charlie. He would start each day with 30 tickets in his pocket. If he still had lots left at the end of the day he knew that he had missed out on noticing a lot of wonderful things that happened in his class and he committed to not letting that happen often. Think about your classes. Could you really have 30 students for five hours a day and not see a myriad of great things happening?

     I appreciate the views that Alfie Kohn has brought to the education world and I believe in a lot of the approach. I also know after 28 years that there are many ways to move kids forward and I'm not prepared to toss out any that might be the first spark to the fire that burns within all of our students.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

This too will pass...

     Lately it seems that there is a lot of dialogue about what needs to change in our education system and what might be the best way to affect these changes. It strikes me that many of these conversations have been going on in similar format throughout my 28 year career and don't progress much beyond the conversation.
     A recent study ( released by Mussio and Associates looked at the impact of birth month. Their conclusion - December babies are less likely to attain benchmark standards at grades 4 and 7 on time, and are less likely to graduate on time. I don't think I'm the only educator who already knew this. In our province the graduation rate (defined as six year completion) continues to hover around 80 percent for all students and around 50 percent for Aboriginal students. This also is not news. We know that our most disadvantaged learners struggle with a two month summer break and come back for the start of the next school year having lost much of the gain attained in the previous school year. Yet we still run a school system on the agrarian calendar and talk about how this works for the majority. We know about the impact of poverty and of children living in disadvantaged homes and still resist making substantive change to the system that will address these issues.
     Let me insert a disclaimer here before those pockets of brilliance that exist across all systems get riled up and want to highlight their outstanding work. These should be the norm and not the exception to a healthy education system. When one of the schools in our district had an incoming class of kindergarten students who screened significantly below standards for kindergarten readiness, we didn't shrug our shoulders and say "let's hope they catch up". Instead the teacher, with support from district staff, embarked on direct instruction with the intent to close the gap. By the end of the school year, the students were kindergarten ready. They could not be abandoned in grade 1 and so the process must continue.
     The point is that we have a wealth of information at our disposal and we are not using it to create the systemic change that is required for today's learners and tomorrow's community members. We cannot continue to address the needs of the future with the unmodified recipe of the past. I cringe when I hear educators say they are tired of the assessment conversation or hearing about personalized learning. My response to that is simple - you are having the wrong conversation! Instead of dismissing a topic, shift the dialogue to student success. Make it about what we collectively need to do in altering the inputs to improve the outcomes.
     Dr. Randy Pausch spoke of brick walls as indicators of how much we wanted something. If we see them as excuses to stop, we may not have really wanted to achieve the goal. I wonder if he also meant the brick walls of our schools being resistant to the winds of change.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What Wayne Said....

     I love this time of the school year and likely not for the reason that might seem obvious - that it's almost over! I chuckle to myself when non-educator friends talk about the year winding down as they have no idea about how the emotions of staff, students, and parents wind upwards. No, I like this time of year for the reflection that occurs. Sometimes it is at graduation and other times at retirements of beloved colleagues. But it's always a positive experience from my perspective.

     It's also the time I invariably find my self thinking about those who have inspired me over the years and the mentors I have been fortunate to have. Lately, I find myself thinking a lot about my good friend Wayne Hulley. I can't escape recalling a phrase or two that he has used that provides me solace during a challenging moment or simply brings a smile to my face when I'm struggling to find my "happy place". I've created my top ten "Hulleyisms" that continue to inspire me to be the kind of educator he describes and models.
  1. What happens to you is very often beyond your control but your response to it is what makes the difference.
  2. Parents are sending the best kids they have.
  3. Different isn't always better but better is always different.
  4. Hope is the belief that all students can learn and that school staffs are capable of turning that belief into a reality. 
  5. In school improvement, no adults in the school are unimportant. 
  6. To change outcomes for students, schools need leaders who care enough and can express that caring to other people.
  7. Our time is now if we choose to make it so.
  8. School reform is as much an act of the heart as it is an act of the head.
  9. Effective schools are willing to undertake not just restructuring but also reculturing to reach their goals. 
     And my newest favorite (simply because Wayne agreed to write the foreword to the book Coleman, Weber, and I wrote) that demonstrates the ease with which he can synthesize material and bring it to a place that educators can relate to:
  1. School improvement will never be easy because it forces schools and teachers to change their behaviours.  However, committed staff, with constructive proven strategies can make a positive difference. 
     I know that all of us can think of inspirational figures throughout our careers and most of us have been blessed with positive role models. Wayne has been all of that and more and I feel very fortunate to have spent time with him over the last fifteen years. If ever there was an educator for whom the Order of Canada was designed, Wayne Hulley would be that educator. Thanks for the encouragement, support, and guidance over the years my friend.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


(Turn and face the strain)
     I read with great interest a recent post by Cale Birk ( that questioned if/how often school leaders should be moved. While his query was about Principals and Vice-Principals, the same question can be asked of anyone in a school district leadership role. One of the comments was posted by Johnny Bevacqua who referenced the research we heard at a previous BCPVPA conference where the optimum length of time was suggested to be five to seven years. This has generally been my experience but I think there are some exceptions to the research.

     I should also declare that part of my motivation for this post is my own upcoming move. Leaving the role of Assistant Superintendent after three and a half years to take on the challenge of being the Executive Director for the BCPVPA feels like the right move despite not meeting the optimal length of time to effect change. Part of my thought process on the topic is that sometimes a move occurs because of external factors. The time spent in my current district provided some great personal connections and insights that I felt would allow me to take the district to new heights. The final decision was not mine and this prompted a good period of reflection to determine next steps. The new Superintendent has great ideas of his own to also propel the district forward. I determined it was better to find another spot to carry forward my thoughts and continue to have a positive impact on education in my region. Although I didn't stay for five to seven years, I have been reminded often in recent weeks about the contributions I have made and the long term impact of some of the work. Change, in this case, didn't have a time constraint.

     I was also pleased to see a tweet from Justin Tarte about his new assignment as an Assistant Principal. This is another role that I feel departs from the requirement of five to seven years. I have always advocated for the role of AP (or VP) to be a learning role where having different mentors as Principal provides a rich learning environment. Generally speaking I would consider switching these folks to another school after two years unless a vacancy occurred that would allow them to become a Principal. The role of VP/AP should not be a career move but instead serve as training for future leadership challenges. Working under different leaders and at different sites provides insights that are not as readily available when familiarity settles in.

     As I start thinking about making my move to a new role (and thanks by the way to all who have sent their good wishes) I do so with the premise of being there for five to seven years and effecting the positive types of changes that will be necessary to keep the organization vibrant and forward thinking. I also know that time has a way of bringing forward new challenges, new decision makers, and new opportunities. Most importantly I want to embrace each day with the notion that today matters and positive impact doesn't have a shelf life. The last words (as did the introduction) go to David Bowie:

Time may change me
But I can't trace time

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Yesterday, Today, and/or Tomorrow

     Anyone with a role in education today knows that we don't work in a static environment. Despite that I still hear colleagues that appear to be trapped in one of three places - yesterday, today, or tomorrow. I'd like to suggest that our work (and more importantly the success of our students) demands that we spend time in all three.
     There are those who focus only on the past and long for "the good old days". These folks long for the "Leave it to Beaver" family unit where school was the law and parents and students never questioned a decision rendered. This notion might work if all of the other factors associated with those bygone days were also still in vogue.  Pick any aspect of life today and ask yourself if it is the same as it was during your parents' time. Technology is a favorite topic of folks following this blog. Remember the first computer you saw? Compare that with today where I have a Blackberry that has more computing power than the lunar lander had. Other aspects like the social fabric are also considerably different.  The great Satchel Paige once commented, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." He may not have realized he was giving advice to educators but it certainly fits and serves as a good reminder that our work, while learning from the past, requires us to face the challenges we see today.
     Paige's advice may seem to indicate that today is the most relevant place to devote our energy and I do think that is where I spend much of my time. I've also come to realize that it's not enough when I think about preparing students for what lies ahead. Today is significant in that we need to assist kids and each other with all that is fluid in our world and that appears to change daily. Arming students with a different set of three "R"s - research, resiliency, and responsibility - may connect more with the realities they face than to stick with our traditional areas of focus. The concern with focussing only on today is that it precludes us having an eye on what's coming next. The thoughts of former Secretary of Education Richard Riley that the top ten jobs in 2010 didn't exist in 2004 serve as a reminder that "today" is very transient and needs to include an eye towards the future.
     Before we rush headlong into what's next, it is important to realize that focussing only on the future is a never ending game akin to a dog chasing its' tail. The reality of the future is that it never arrives! We need to assist our students to be able to take on all that might come their way and to empower them with a sense of hope. Fullan talks about hope not as a naive, sunny view of life but instead the capacity to not panic in tight situations and to find ways and means to address challenges. This is the future facing the majority of our students. While we may help them by arming them (or familiarizing them) with some tools, it is ultimately up to them to take what we have placed before them and run with it.
     A recent conversation with my son David gave an excellent summary of this topic. He said, "I look at the past with great humor and the future with great's the present that is wearing me down!" The balance needed to walk in all three views is a challenge but it is essential as we continue in our various roles as educators.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

For Whom the Bell Tolls

     I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Seattle earlier this week.  It was a refreshing change to attend as a participant and a great learning experience as I spent time with colleagues from British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Wyoming, and Tennessee. One of the more interesting conversations centered on what to do with students that have been struggling all year and seem destined for failure.  Depending on the jurisdiction there was anywhere from four to eight weeks left in the current school year.

     An educator let out an exasperated sigh as she reflected on the number of strategies she had tried with the end result still being that her student was hovering around the mid 40's as his grade and only four weeks left in the year. She suggested that her energies might be better spent with those who were responding to the interventions. I asked her to tell me a little more about the particular student and she described a student many of us are encountering. Little prior academic success, no support from the home, poor socializing skills, and a big chip on his shoulder concerning adults. She then added a number of vignettes about interactions she had with the student over the course of the year. These all struck me a positive interactions and I asked her if she thought these were reflected in her assessment of the student. She did admit to the personal growth the student had demonstrated but was frustrated by the lack of comparable academic growth. We talked about the time left in the year and what else could be done to continue the progress being made. It may not result in the student meeting the standard but clearly it should not be viewed as a failure.

     While we are challenged with book ends that mark our school year and are compelled to provide a final grade on the academic achievement of students during that time, this should not be confused with measuring the growth of students.  There is a Chinese proverb that states "the one who plants the tree rarely gets to enjoy its' shade", and that is so true for us as educators.  Clearly we must continue to plant the seeds of knowledge and tend to the garden that is our classroom.  Whether or not I, as the teacher of record, get to see the end result is not as relevant as whether or not the student experiences growth. As we collectively work to improve the life chances of all of our students we should also reflect and build on the work of those teachers who worked diligently before us to move students along the continuum of growth. As we head to graduation ceremonies let's remember the great work done by our Kindergarten teachers.

     You may recall the end to John Donne's Meditation 17 part of which is quoted in the title of this blog. The meditation ends with "it tolls for thee." Remember this as you look at the rest of the school year and contemplate who time is running out for. We are the difference makers and should continue to be just that until the final bell tolls.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Courage to Lead

     I was recently asked to give one word that I felt best described leadership. When asked a question like this I try to clear my mind and let the question find the answer. The word "courage" tumbled across my lips and intuitively it made sense.
     The dictionary defines courage as "the ability to do something that frightens one". While this definition touches on aspects of the work we do as educators, it does miss being a complete fit. I've always felt that the balance of being a confident leader is to not be inconsiderate.  It is this aspect of self-doubt that is often a hallmark of strong leadership.  It is the skill that allows for acknowledgement of the good work being done coupled with the ability to confront current realities.  We live and work in an environment that is defined by change and we have a responsibility to respond to that change.  The greatest things I did early in my teaching career have little contextual reference today.

     Positional power can be misused and set the work of a school back. Roland Barth talks about the significance of the relationship between Principal and teacher as being the greatest contributor to school success and the driver for all other relationships in a school ("Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse", Educational Leadership, March 2006,Volume 63, Number 6). The balance then, comes in engaging all who have a stake in the outcome in the conversation of why changes need to occur and what those changes might mean.  It's important to have all of the information at your disposal and to be prepared to have your thoughts challenged.

     Courageous leadership is not limited to the formal positions defined in school district but instead, is displayed across the system.  Recent blogs have highlighted great teacher leadership and powerful leadership lessons learned from our students. The power of two students in Nova Scotia to challenge bullying based on perceived sexual orientation spawned a wonderful celebration in schools across our country where we all don pink and think about the impact of our actions.

     Courage should not be used as a weapon to blindly charge forward. Instead, it must be balanced with the perspective that comes from walking in the shoes of others and being open to having their experiences influence the final outcome.  If I have developed any skills as a leader in my twenty-eight years of being an educator, it is because of the contributions of others that have emboldened me to be courageous in the face of significant challenges. Thanks.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Parents - A Positive Attribute of Successful Schools

     I recently had the pleasure of delivering the opening keynote at a parent conference hosted by the Simcoe County District School Board.  The "Circle of Learning" conference ( is organized by the parent involvement committee (what a great idea for all districts to have) and part of their mission is to connect parents with student  success. This is the third year they have organized the conference and the goal is to build the participation levels each year. I also had a chance to sit on a panel and hear some interesting perspectives and some common themes that align with my daily work.

Circle of Learning 2

     The comments also served to remind me of the valuable role parents have played in many of the successful outcomes I've seen happen in my twenty-eight years as an educator.  Whether it was a commitment to communicating with individual parents about the positive attributes of their children I was privileged to teach or seeing a middle school PAC grow from a small core of fundraisers to a group of 50 or more that initiated change and became the strongest advocates for our school, their contributions have also been precursors to larger positive outcomes.
     Communicating with parents continues to be an important part of my work today. Often times the point of interface is the midst of a crisis where resolutions are not as quickly achieved. Still those moments provide deep insights such as this recent communique I received from a parent:
“He is not the perfect child, if there is such a child, and I'm sure he will have his moments, but I would like them handled with maturity and fairness and with the professionalism that we can expect from the school and the adults who have been trained to deal with these situations.”
The point being made is that parents generally believe that educators have skills and abilities additional to their own and this might provide a deeper insight into resolving the challenges with the child.  Ponder this question - Do you think that your communication with a parent about a problem their child has is a revelation to that parent? More often they are aware of the challenges and limitations as they spend significantly more time with the child.  They are looking for some additional assistance in managing the problem and, in my experience, are much more likely to feel part of a team when invited to co-create a solution.
     Anything we can do to include parents in the daily lives of schools and to remain active participants in the education of their children will almost certainly guarantee a positive result.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday - The End of the Week Stories

     Early in my career I used to gather with colleagues at the end of the week over a cold drink and share stories of the week that was. In general, these stories could be characterized as "the disasters of the week" and often referenced negative events (albeit with a humorous spin to them).  Those who had the best story to share would sit quietly and let the pretenders share their event before relaying the "mother of all stories". These longer sagas created lots of laughter and provided some release from the stress of the work we do.  I'm not here to condemn those story swaps and was a willing participant. Instead, I wonder if we should start taking a similar amount of time to share the awesome things that are percolating daily in all of our schools.

     Public education appears to be the recipient (or cause in some people's view) of bad news in society today. If the key folks in the system (teachers, parents, principals, vice-principals, administrators, and students) only share the disasters in these social gatherings, who will be the bearers of the good news?

     Today marks the end of Education Week in my locale and I want to share with you some of the tremendous events that occurred. We had fabulous displays of student work at the two malls in our larger communities and at various businesses in our smaller ones.  Students took great pride in seeing their work displayed (as in the photo) and many community members were provided insights into the work going on in schools.  We had the graduating students reading to elementary school students on one of the days, a math class being delivered on another, and a music class performing on a third. These all occurred in the mall and drew lots of positive attention. Our elementary schools took part in the district basketball tournament which was also open to the public.

     What's happened in your schools this week?  As you head into the weekend which stories will you share? If you have the time to post a comment, share something great that happened in your school. All of us have the capacity to be transmitters of good news and empower each other with many more good news stories to share.  At the very least it may cause those who believe they know our world to pause and reflect on why educators are a critical component of a healthy and sustainable future, and perhaps stop imposing challenges that impinge on our capacity to be difference makers.    

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Leadership: It's in You to Give.

     I've had the pleasure of working with many school and district leaders over the last few years.  The enthusiasm shown by these folks coupled with their desire to continue their learning bodes well for the immediate future of educational leadership.  One of the questions that arose during a session has stuck with me as I was thinking of my current role.  The question was “How many leaders did you leave behind?” and it caused me to reflect on my education career.
     I thought about my first teaching position at Anne Stevenson Junior Secondary in Williams Lake.  John Dressler was the Principal and his style was one that encouraged people to take risks and explore their leadership potential.  It is not surprising to me that more than a dozen of my colleagues on that staff have moved into administrative careers.  I also thought about many of my strongest teachers and was able to find that the majority had continued to provide excellent leadership in expanded roles.
     An examination of my own administrative career at Trafalgar Middle School in Nelson and at the Distance Education School of the Kootenays provided me with a positive response to the question posed.  I am excited to see how educators who exhibited leadership at those two schools have grown and taken on new challenges.
     Grooming your replacement is never an easy task but it is one that we are in the best position to take on.  The responsibility for developing school leaders will be a major challenge over the next few years as the demographics indicate an impending shortage of good candidates. Who are the leaders in your building?  What are you doing to cultivate their skills?  How can you help in the identification, promotion, and support of these new leaders?  It is an exciting opportunity and one we cannot afford to miss.  Let’s remind everyone about the reasons we are in these cherished positions in schools and districts and promote the positive outcomes that we are able to generate.
     Talk to your school leaders and take on the challenge of nurturing and supporting their development.