Monday, January 30, 2012

Tenet #10 - First With the Heart, Then With the Head.

     Bryce Courtenay wrote a great book called "The Power of One" which was a favorite of my son. The main character in the novel, Peekay, talks about his own battles through life and decided his approach must be "first with the head, then with the heart". He was not prepared to open himself up to the hurt that came with letting others into his life. I believe as educators we need to look at this the other way around. We need to have our students know we care about them first and the curriculum second. I have found this to be the most effective practice with all students and especially so with those who have baggage they sometimes bring to school.

     As I think back on some of the biggest challenges I have faced with students in my career I can say with confidence that the potential severity of the issue was always lessened by the time and energy I had invested pre-conflict. This is not to suggest I always got it right or that my human emotions didn't sometimes get the best of me. But here's the interesting part. If I had spent any time building relationships with my students, even when I got it wrong and lost my cool, they were remarkably forgiving. In addition to helping during the tough patches, having a positive connection with students also provided me enjoyment in my role. It was an added bonus to being an educator. I know that the relationships I have with many former students today were built on a foundation established when I was their teacher, coach, or Principal/Vice-Principal. A previous post ( talked about a recent example of these connections. 

     Daniel Goleman’s (2006) study of students identified as being at risk found that those placed with cold or controlling teachers struggled academically—regardless of whether their teachers followed pedagogic guidelines for good instruction. But if these students had a warm and responsive teacher, they flourished and learned as well as other kids. These results show that quality of relationship, above all else, is the springboard to success.

     A quote attributed to the late Chief Dan George provides an insightful reminder about the long term impact of connecting with the heart before the head:

"Always speak from the heart. When we get old, the brain forgets, 
but the heart, the heart never forgets." 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tenet #9 - If We Don’t Model What We Teach, Then We are Teaching What We Model.

     One aspect about being a teacher is that you are always teaching. This extends beyond the classroom and often times, beyond the walls of school. Modeling the desired behaviors reminds students of the expectations for all members of the community. Contrast that with having a rule, for example no food or drink in class, that is broken regularly by the teacher arriving with their cup of coffee. What message is received in this case? Rules exist only for some members of the school community? Once you become an adult, the rules don't apply? This disconnect creates a huge challenge for educators as we try to ensure appropriate conduct but don't necessarily display it. Does your staff room operate under the same behavioral expectations and guidelines that you desire in your classroom?

     The modeling can take several forms. For example, are you a "Good Morning" person? If this is your normal greeting pattern, then stick to it. Even in those moments where you don't receive a similar reply. For some of our students this is foreign territory. They aren't greeted that way at home or on the street and they aren't quite sure of the right response. If you're only doing it to control their behavior they will sniff out your insincerity and won't respond. If this type of greeting isn't your style, think about how you do acknowledge students. Is it warm and sincere? How do you greet your colleagues? No matter how alone I thought I was I quickly realized my behavior was being watched by many others. The modeling may also be in how you choose to share yourself with your class. One of the best examples I saw of this was with a teacher who brought her "Bag of Me" with her to class. In that large bag were personal items that related to various times in the teacher's life. Students could pick out an item and the teacher then shared the story of why that item was significant. This built a positive relationship and provided a method by which students could also share their stories.

     It strikes me as patently unfair to expect that our students will thrive in a world of "Do as I say, not as I do.", and that we would be better served by demonstrating appropriate conduct in an authentic fashion. Remember the eyes are always on you.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tenet #8 - Are you Looking for a Code of Conduct or a Code of Consequence?

     One of the areas that occupies a lot of time in staff discussion is student conduct. Often times these conversations get diverted to a discussion about consequences. About what we, the adults, need to do to them, the students, to gain compliance. I want to be clear that I am in favor of us having expectations for appropriate conduct for all members of our school community. I'm also in favor of the adults modeling those expectations. And I'm really in favor of us dealing with the behavioral miscues that occur with our students in the same way we deal with academic miscues - by providing strong remedial efforts to help students more closely approximate the desired behaviors. However, as Paul Dix argues in a blog post on the UK Guardian, 

"Most behavior systems are based on the "Punishment Road". The idea  
that for every behaviour there is a punishment to fit the crime; a punishment  
that is severe enough to give the child a road to Damascus and change  
their ways. For children who won't "do as they are told" the solution  
is to punish them, in increments of severity, until they will."

The frightening aspect of this approach is that it works for those students who are afraid of the consequences. However, for our neediest learners or those who come from challenging home environments, the effects can be severe. For these children we simply become the latest adult in a long line of adults who have let them down. Rarely are these students worried about the punishment or the consequences that result from them.  As Dix comments, "What they are coping with in their own lives far outweighs any threats that school can issue." These students need support not consequences. They need adults who display an understanding of who they are and demonstrate a desire to help them to meet the challenges.

     I am convinced, based on numerous conversations with teachers, most recognize this but they feel  stuck with a school-wide system or philosophy that weighs heavily on punishment being the answer. Students are given consequences with little regard to what they might need in order to change the negative behaviors they are demonstrating. If the student persists, we up the ante until they are asked to leave. It begins with the conversation staffs first engage in when the topic of student deportment arises. If the dialogue is all about control and "laying down the law", it will not be a surprise that more energy is spent on designing new consequences than in structuring growth opportunities to address the changes we can assist our students in making. This will also predetermine the end result for every conversation on behavior. It's like the old analogy that says if the only tool I have in my toolbox is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The health and welfare of our students demands that we have a more complete toolbox. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Tenet #7 - Every Student Represents a Success Story Waiting to be Told.

     Of the ten tenets that are foundational to my views as an educator, this one is the one I'm most passionate about. It has become my mantra over the last number of years and is the one belief I will really try to push on my colleagues (if they don't already believe this to be true). I also take great pride in my inability, after 29 years as an educator, to be able to accurately predict the future of any student. As a result I err on the side of "anything is possible" especially when students are engaged and passionate about their learning.

     When I present this viewpoint I have been asked if it's my intent to make educators feel like they will never be successful. That if I insist on 100% of students meeting success as the target, we'll never reach that lofty goal. My reply to these queries is three-fold. First, I am not so naive as to ignore that, sometimes, the other outside influences in a student's life so overwhelms them that they cannot complete their time with us. They may leave and pursue other options but I always want them to know school will always be an option if they are willing to return. Second, I take no pride in setting the bar too low and then reaching the goal. Should we aim for a 95% success rate? If we achieve that is it cause for celebration? What about the 5% we missed? If they remain faceless and nameless we may find a way to walk away from their lack of achievement. But what if I asked you to put names and faces to that 5%. Could you do that with a clear conscience? Could you identify kids who are not entitled to a viable future? Kids for whom prisons are constructed? Third, our definition of success may not be the same. While academics are very important, not all of our students will go on to a post secondary degree. All can be contributing members to the communities we live in. If we have taught them the value of relationships, the ability to seek out knowledge, and given them confidence in themselves, we will have sent forward an individual we can all take pride in.

     In a brilliant post ( Chris Wejr (@MrWejr) outlines the two options available to all of us as educators. We can take the easy option or we can push for the harder to achieve option. I see no value in limiting the potential of any students by denying them opportunity or shrinking their available skill set even further by denying them access to all of the richness that schools contain. Every one of our students has a gift and a talent. They may not even know its potential. They are all success stories waiting to be told. Our job is to help them unfold their story.

She contemplated for a second, searching for the right words. Then they came to her, and a smile emerged as she realized their truth. 

“I’m a student. With or without your support, I am the future.”

* From the upcoming book “I Am the Future” by Tom and David Hierck (Spring release date)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tenet #6 - What We Focus On Expands.

     After almost thirty years as an educator I feel I can walk in to any school and know what's important to the adults in that building within five minutes. Actually, it's got nothing to do with experience and I'm confident anyone reading this post could do the same thing. The key lies in what we choose to spend our time on. I believe our most precious resource in education today is time. Most educators will tell me they don't have enough time to accomplish the myriad of demands placed on them. I have not yet had an educator tell me they end each day with a half hour to kill and spend it pining away for more paperwork!

     If this is the case, how we choose to spend the time we have is a pretty clear indicator of what's important to us. If your staff engages in the "great late debate" frequently or we spend lots of time talking about food in class or kids wearing hats, then this defines what we see as important. Particularly when those topics come at the sacrifice of engaging in great dialogue about our practice, student progress, and involving parents in our schools. Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting schools ought to ignore the items around expectations and guidelines. I'm just not sure that hours spent talking about tardiness are well spent. The reality is we spend most of that time thinking about new consequences as if that might be the tonic. When I ask educator audiences to raise their hand if anyone can assure me they have never been late to a faculty meeting, I rarely get a hand raised. That doesn't mean it's not important, it just not as important as the time we devote to it and the good conversations we sacrifice because of that debate.

     If I come to your school what will I notice in that first five minutes?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tenet #5 - Dreams Should Come in Size XXXL so That We Can Grow Into Them.

     The fifth belief I hold dear follows very closely on the previous one ( that speaks to the notion of hope. It's important for us to have dreams that are bigger than ourselves and to work towards those dreams. When I work with educators one of the questions I ask them to consider is this:
What would you try to do if you knew you would not fail?

It's a parallel question to the one illustrated in the cartoon above and speaks to the notion that individually we limit ourselves by creating obstacles. Sometimes it is based on past experience as articulated by this Allen Glenn quote that Brian Barry (@Nunavut_Tweeter) has on the mast of his blog: 

"The biggest obstacle to school change is our memories."

Other times it is based on the brick walls we find. We start out with the intent to find out why we can't pursue the goal. Education is littered with many convenient excuses - too little time, underfunding, too many learning outcomes, socio-economics, immigrant families, single parent to name a few- that may allow us to rationalize why we couldn't achieve our goal. When these emerge I like to remind people of the words of Dr. Randy Pausch who said:

"The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show 
how badly we want something.  The brick walls are there to 
stop the people who don’t want it badly enough."

Denying your own dream on the basis of any of these excuses is really a personal choice. Denying the dreams of your students is also a choice and one we should stay away from. Not every student in grade one will become what they think they want to at that time (the grade isn't the relevant piece here) but how do we know which ones will and which ones won't? Cody Hodgson of the Vancouver Canucks knew he would be a professional hockey player and told that to his grade one teacher Laraine Forgrave. Forgrave told Hodgson that she believed that he could play in the NHL. She also told him that if he ever did manage to reach his dream, he’d have to promise to get her tickets to a game. When the Canucks faced the Toronto Maple Leafs a month ago, Hodgson delivered with tickets for Forgrave and her husband. He also spent time with them after the game. It's much better to help kids reach their big dreams than to snuff them out.

     I believe it's important to have goals that go beyond being checklists or tasks to accomplish. I also know I'd rather be the person who believed in someone's potential and saw them reach their goals rather than the person who tried to talk them out of it or negatively inspired them (they reached the goal to prove you wrong). So while you pursue your own dreams, remember you also hold the power to encourage and support your students as they strive towards theirs. Dreaming big may mean it takes your entire career to accomplish the goal but just like the elephant analogy, the road to achieving the goal starts with a first step.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tenet #4 - When We Eliminate Hope, We Create Desperation

     I have always believed that our primary role as educators is to be merchants of hope. If every student could leave our educational system with hope, then we will have done more than we ever could by focusing on academic rigor, attendance, or standardized test results. When I think of hope in this way, it's more along the line of Fullan's definition:

"Hope is not a naive, sunny view of life. It is the capacity not to panic in tight situations, to find ways and resources to address difficult problems."

Providing every one of our students with this capacity will allow them to take on the challenges they will face regardless of what they decide to do after graduating. Granted, it's a shift from providing only tangible skills but the world they are entering isn't looking for the defined skills as was prevalent a generation ago. Seymour Papert, as referenced in Dylan Wiliam's brilliant new book "Embedded Formative Assessment" ( talks about the skills students of today need:

"The skills that you can learn at school will not be applicable.
They will be obsolete by the time you get into the workplace
and need them, except for one skill. The one real competitive
skill is the skill of being able to learn. We need to produce
people who know how to act when they're faced with situations
for which they were not specifically prepared."

     The absence of hope, created in part for some of our students through the daily reminders that they failed, serves to put those students on long term losing streaks. Streaks for which there seems to be no end point. Disappointment leads to Discouragement. Discouragement leads to Disengagement. And, sadly,  Disengagement is a short step away from Disappearance. These students leave our system with minimal skills and even less hope. In these situations poor choices are often the only choice. The law of survival supersedes the laws of the land. As Martin Luther King stated: "A riot is the language of the unheard." We can lament as adults that we no longer feel safe in our communities or that we need more jail cells or more "tough on crime" politicians and judges. Or we can recognize that our time is now with the kids we have to be those merchants of hope.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tenet #3 - It's Not About Arriving. It's About Striving.

     I have had the opportunity to spend time with educators in every province and territory in Canada as well as the majority of the states in the United States of America. I've worked with people in every role in the system and with folks who cover the career range from first year teachers to those about to retire. The vast majority of these people are making a difference in the lives of the students they serve.

     My message in tenet #3 is simple. You have been recognized for the contributions you can, or have made which has resulted in you holding the great job you currently have. I believe we hire the best and the brightest to be educators. But here's the point of this tenet - keep making those great contributions. Don't stop pushing the envelope, leading the charge, or whatever metaphor drives what you do. Don't rest on your accomplishments but instead continue to be the inspirational educator your students and colleagues need. While it may be your twenty-fifth year as an educator, it's the first year the current students have you and they deserve the best version of you.

     The low hanging fruit can be reached by anyone. It takes a special talent to get to the good stuff.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tenet #2 - Every day provides a new opportunity to exert a positive influence.

     It is an unreasonable expectation that we get every aspect of our lives perfect every day. As I reflect on my time as an educator I know there were days when I was not the best teacher my students needed that particular day. What provides me solace is the notion that I tried to not let one bad day become a bad week. I tried to follow MY struggles with a much better effort the next opportunity I had with that class. I choose to emphasize my responsibility as that's all I really have control over. But here's what my reflections of those moments tell me - each time I chose to come back with a positive approach, the better the overall environment was for others. Contrast this with an approach that carries the bad vibes forward on successive days. The result of this action is a furthering of a negative environment where fear of reprisal rules the conduct of all. 

     We are all only human and we all have our unique buttons that can be pushed. We're also subject to the trials and tribulations that are part of our daily lives. It's a given that we'll have tough moments and they don't only schedule themselves apart from our interactions with others. I know I'm not always the best educator, best spouse, best parent, best friend or best in any of the other interactions I have. I also know that the dawn of each new day provides an opportunity to exert a positive influence and shape some of the future outcomes.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tenet #1 - Learning Does Not Take Place in Ten Month Segments. It is Continuous.

     The school year runs for approximately ten months and at the end of that time teachers are charged with the responsibility to provide a mark or some form of final grade. However, the learning (or , the for some the learning loss) continues after the teacher-student relationship has ended for that school year. What are the impacts for educators in this scenario?
     First, students will return after each break at different places on the learning continuum. Some will have returned from environments where their learning is enhanced and enriched by additional experiences. Others will return having lost the gains they achieved with you and may be further behind in their peer group than previously. There are numerous articles that speak to summer learning loss ( that impacts our neediest learners.
     Second, learning is not static. Opportunities to learn exist all around our students, and the extensions they make from the information we share in our instruction, varies from student to student.
     Third, we are not the only contributors to the knowledge gained by our students. This is even more pronounced with all of the advances on the technology front. A generation ago teachers held the knowledge and shared out a new packet daily. That was life B.G. - before google. Today, access to knowledge is ubiquitous.
     Fourth, the end of the year (or course) can't be simply viewed as an all or nothing result. What about the gains made by the student during the time they were with you? Where do we reflect those gains made despite the standard not being achieved?
     The active learning our students engage in occurs both in and out of a place called school. How we acknowledge, recognize, and validate this learning is part of the challenge. The Chinese proverb that resonates with me as I wrestle with recognizing the learning that occurs beyond my ten month window with students is this:

The one that plants the tree rarely gets to enjoy its shade.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tom's Ten Tenets

     Over the course of my almost thirty years in education some themes have emerged that have guided my work over time. What's really interesting for me is that they continue to be relevant with the work I do with educators today. These ten tenets frame my beliefs and are part of the message I share today. Over the next few weeks I will write a separate post about each one and share some of the significance I think they play as we continue to refine what we do to produce the best outcomes for students and all educators. Here's my top ten list (in no priority):

1. Learning does NOT take place in ten-month segments.  It is continuous.

2. Every day provides a new opportunity to exert a positive influence.

3. It’s not about arriving.  It’s about striving!

4. When we eliminate hope, we create desperation.

5. Dreams should come in size XXXL so that we can grow into them.

6. What we focus on expands.

7. Every student represents a success story waiting to be told.

8. Are you looking for a Code of Conduct or a Code of Consequence?

9. If we don’t model what we teach, then we are teaching what we model.

10. First with the heart, then with the head.

     I'm looking forward to sharing my thinking on these ten tenets and hope they provide a spark for you to take forward to ignite a conversation with your colleagues.