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.