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.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

     I am writing this at the end of two very positive sessions I led with a leadership cohort from the Western Newfoundland school district. The title of the event was "Leadership at Work" and the sessions all focussed on what skills are needed to be a leader today and for the future. My second session was about leading for learning and the group quickly developed a graphic around what the three big issues were at their school and how they were being addressed.  The activity produced a richness of conversation that we sometimes don't get to in the "busyness" of our daily work.

     The conversation then moved to the challenging aspects of the work we do and there was a palpable shift and an initial discomfort.  This happens when we confront the elephant in the room but (as is often the case) the group emerged from the conversation with a stronger sense of commitment and capacity to move forward.  

     There were many comments shared in the debrief and a couple that resonated with me were:
"Often we, as the adults in the system, are not representative of the kids 
we teach.  How do we connect with their realities?" 
"We had not had a high school graduate in thirteen years and needed to 
talk about this. The end result was that we produced 
two graduates and changed expectations."
The context was certainly different than any of my experiences but I was reminded of the importance of doing the right things for the right reasons.  Outcomes matter.

     Are you willing to address the elephant in the room or is it easier to turn away and find reasons to ignore the challenge? Most aspects of our work continue to change and we need to change with them to best meet the challenges and keep the focus on improving the life chances of ALL of our students. Einstein said "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them" and this is a reflection of the work we do today. While the problems may not be new, the context and the other involved in the matter will be.

     My time with colleagues in Rocky Harbour reminded me of the brilliance of my fellow educators and how the more I can get contributions from others, the less fearful I become in tackling the elephant.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Thinking Outside the Box You Created.


     One of the pure joys in my current role comes with the opportunity to observe other teachers.  I have been so fortunate to bear witness to the magic that occurs in classrooms across our country.  I've also come to realize that how we teach is a reflection of how we were taught and what our experiences were like as students.  This is the context piece that becomes so relevant when we get before a class of eager minds. It is also the biggest piece to determining the success of a new idea or instructional strategy that you may have picked up from a colleague.

     In the absence of context (or what I would define as shaping the concept to fit your current realities), new initiatives last as long as a current events review. The topic is interesting as long as you're interested but loses relevancy when you can't make the connection to what is going on for you. It's like talking about last night's game or the weather.  I can stay engaged for a brief period of time but my mind wanders to the next exciting topic. The hook becomes the personal relevancy and how I can improve my craft by implementing the new idea or reading someone's perspective and comparing it to mine.

     The latest edition of Educational Leadership has an interesting article by Thomas Hoerr in which he suggests our past affects the way we teach, lead, and supervise today.

"If you were a teacher's dream, how does that affect your education vision
and behaviour? Does your history of success make it harder for you
to hang in with students who struggle? Do you get frustrated
with students who don't seem to care?

If you were a challenging student, how do you react to the students who
get it right the first time and every time? Is it harder for you
to appreciate that honour roll students still need to 
be pushed and challenged?"

His questions remind me of the need to adapt my approach to the needs of the people I'm working with today and to encourage others to not accept any great concept as a prescription but rather as an invitation to take the ideas and make them better by adding what you know about your students, your school, your colleagues, your parents, and your community. 

     As you look at the students before you today and reflect on how they might be different than you and your peers were at a similar time in life, can you also see that your teaching strategies reflect those differences? Or do you teach the way you were taught and in the style that worked best for you? Hoerr concludes with the notion that "our philosophy and behaviours are framed by our histories and that can be productive or problematic".

     With the school year heading towards the home stretch, are you able to step outside the box that has framed your teaching approach? Can you try one more thing to move the student who has presented the biggest challenge? Letting go of "what once was" is often the first step towards "what can be".

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why do You do What You do?

March always seems to be the month of reflection.  I'm not sure if it's because of the long stretch between holidays, the emergence from the winter darkness, or thinking about how to make the last part of the school year the best. This March has been no different as recent events provided an opportunity to reflect on my career as an educator.

Disappointment comes in many forms and occasionally distracts you from what really motivates you and what your mission is.  Integrity, honesty, and an emphasis on creating strong, positive relationships are my core values.  The work I've done with folks in various roles in education across Canada and the United States has led me to believe that holds true for most.  I've also come to realize that not having control over other people's agendas doesn't mean you can't fulfill yours. My wife asked me the question of this post and it reminded me to get back on course with my purpose.  I got into education to make a difference in the lives of students and to inspire and motivate others to want to do the same. I recognize that completion of this agenda may take my entire career bit I'm enjoying the challenge. I asked a group of workshop participants this question: "What would you try to do if you knew you would not fail?" The response to that question might fill your career agenda.

This fit well with the bucket list I read on Shannon Smith's blog ( which had one item - why not create a learning community where each and every student, staff member, and parent discovers their passion and shares it with confidence? Pretty powerful stuff and very much aligned with the values I stated above.

So, why do you do what you do? My recent milestone birthday provided a glimpse into the progress I might be making on my agenda.  Some former students took the time to send reflections of their time with me. One particularly poignant one read (in part):

"Best of all, you instilled in us the ability to believe in ourselves and
to believe in each other - even when things looked most desperate."

Thanks Don, for the reminder that every day provides a new opportunity to exert a positive influence. Whenever I start to think about my career being about me and personal accomplishments, I'll remember it's about you and the thousands of other students I've been blessed to work with.

Friday, March 4, 2011

If We Don't Ask They Won't Answer.

I had the pleasure of working with a group of educators recently and we were looking at refining their assessment practice. High schools are often referred to as the last bastions of resistance when it comes to change in education.  That was NOT my experience with this group and we had two days of highly engaged activities and generated lots of great dialogue and quality assessments.

At the end of the first day, I went back with one of the hosts to talk further about the outcomes of day one and plan for the most effective use of day two.  We walked past one of the participants who was sitting outside the main office.  He commented on the day and we left him sitting there.  As we departed later that afternoon, the same individual was still there.  I found that puzzling and commented in jest that it was okay for him to leave unless there was something further I could help with.  He revealed that his car battery was dead (lights left on) and he was hoping for someone to have jumper cables.  My host indicated that she had some and plans were quickly made to jump start his car. This took all of two minutes to get him on his way.

As we left my colleague remarked that it was a good thing I asked the question or he may have been there for quite some time.  That got me thinking about the kids we teach.  Are there times when a little boost is all they need to get back on track? When the information available to you indicates something is amiss do you probe to find out more? Is learning stalled while you have the capacity to get it moving in the right direction?

The next time you see a student hovering outside your class, make the first move.  Ask a question and let the learning exchange begin.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Change Agent or Change Victim? The choice is yours.

     "The only constant in life is change."
     Never were truer words spoken that pertain to the life of an educator.  It both enrages and enlivens us and that is the beauty of the work we do.  Ask yourself this question - Does the school you currently work in resemble the school you attended as a student? If the answer is yes on all counts, then continue to do what has always been done and get the same results that have always been achieved.
     However, if something's different what are you doing to reflect that difference? Take an aspect that must be familiar to you since you're reading a blog that may have come to your attention via a tweet. Technology is an inescapable facet of a students' education today.  It is another literacy they must master to make a successful transition to that other world. Anybody remember the first computer they saw? You went to the computer room and it was just that.  Now I have a Blackberry that has more computing power than the lunar lander had.
     How about the social fabric? The last census revealed for the first time in Canadian history that more people over the age of fifteen (the long ago standard) were unmarried than married.  Does that not impact the work we do in schools today? Contacting the custodial parent is a much more time consuming matter than in the past.
     These examples are not meant as judgements or evaluations. And they certainly are not yearnings for the "good old days". They are simply illustrations of factors that are different and compel us to match our teaching strategies to meet these and many other differences.
     Hanging on to the way we've always done things and living your career as a victim of change doesn't strike me as the best response.  Educators possess the broadest skill set of any profession.  Combined with a passion for student success, we should always be the agents of change. We don’t get to choose the changes that come into our lives, but we do get to choose how we respond.