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.