Monday, April 30, 2012

Mentors - Paying it Forward

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.
Winston Churchill

     One of the really exciting aspects of being an educator has been the willingness of others to serve as mentors. A mentor is defined as someone who imparts wisdom to, and shares knowledge with, a less experienced colleague. A good mentor has the ability to listen. My colleague and friend, Ainsley Rose, says a mentor "asks questions that allow a person to arrive at answers rather than be told." That requires a strong capacity to recall detail and build on previously shared conversations. Many times the mentor role also expands to one of friend.

     As I have moved through my thirty years as an educator I have had the good fortune of being helped by some incredible teachers. As I added consulting and writing to my experience this has expanded even further and I feel so fortunate that folks like Wayne Hulley, Rick DuFour, Larry Ainsworth, and Rick Curwin have seen fit to offer their insights. Even as I write those names out I have to pinch myself to ensure I'm not just delusional.

     Sometimes the role of mentor is for an extended period of time. Wayne Hulley offered his insights to me for the first time almost two decades ago and remains to this day the single most significant educator and colleague in my career. Other times, the mentor appears when you open yourself up to the experience. I'll admit to being intimidated by Rick DuFour the first few times I had the opportunity to present alongside him. Not because of anything he did but because of the high quality and impact of the work he does. Yet, when I first approached him with a question he was so generous in time and spirit that I now count him as a trusted advisor when I need some deeper insights. Similarly, Larry Ainsworth and I connected at an event in Corner Brook and I was thrilled that he stayed for my keynote address. That he wanted to talk further at dinner that night and has subsequently guided me in my own professional growth has been a real blessing. Finally. mentors may come into your life over a shared belief. Rick Curwin is someone I've admired and quoted in my writing and presentations for a while. Technology allowed for him to see some of my work and reach out with some positive feedback. We have exchanged books and a commitment to stay connected.

     So, why share all of this with readers of this blog? I feel a debt to those who have aided my growth and think the best way to pay it forward is to offer the same assistance to colleagues and novice educators. Let me be clear - I don't consider myself to be in the league of those folks I've identified above. I also don't think it's necessary if the intent is to offer the best I can. I have been thrilled in recent presentations in Prince George, Ottawa, and Vancouver to have former students who are now educators come up and chat with me and stay connected after the event. It may not amount to what I have received but it is, and will continue to be, my pledge to add value to our profession and work towards paying down that debt of gratitude. I know I have many outstanding colleagues who, in doing the same, would ensure the high quality of education we are accustomed to, will carry on.

Friday, April 13, 2012

De-myth-tifying School

The great enemy of truth is very often not 
the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but 
the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. 
Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion 
without the discomfort of thought.

John F. Kennedy

     This week began with an opportunity to work with some incredible educators in West Haven, Connecticut as they designed complete lesson units using the rigorous curriculum design approach developed by Larry Ainsworth. His work on RCD began with the educators in this district and it was good to see how they have refined and utilized the steps in creating engaging units. Watching Larry working with the group was also insightful as the focus kept returning to those things that were in the control of the group and not on those over which control resided elsewhere. My conversations with teachers kept reaffirming that notion. They focussed their time and energy on the realities before them not the myths that occasionally bog us down. Close by the facility where the sessions were being held is Yale University where President Kennedy delivered the commencement address from which the quote above came. It resonated with me as I thought about the approach the teachers were taking despite some of the rumoured challenges (or myths) that were awaiting them as a result of the upcoming common core and changed associated with the new standards.

     The theme continued with a visit to Saint Patrick Regional Secondary after I returned to Vancouver. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting some incredible students and dropping in on a variety of classrooms. My bond with the fraternity of Science teachers compels me to share that the best snippet of instruction I saw was in the Physics class. Bias aside, it truly was an engaging and stimulating piece for the students and for the observers. As is often the case, the conversations with colleagues yielded the best insights. Talking with Principal John Bevacqua (@johnnybevacqua) and Vice-Principal Gab Donnici (@GABDONN) allowed us to dispel some of the myths that arise when people talk about faith based schools and the conditions found within their walls. The conversations were the same as any I have had in "regular" schools as we talked about students that struggle, students that excel, students that have profound special needs, and students that have incredibly unique talents. I was particularly impressed by the commitment to create meaningful relationships and a culture of caring. From my viewpoint that's the biggest reason the school has a 100% graduation rate, not because of some mythological belief that their students are drawn only from the elite end of the spectrum. The visit reinforced for me many of the tenets my co-authors and I shared in our book PBI: 7 Keys to a Positive School Culture. As I sat in the cafeteria at lunch I saw numerous examples of positive interactions involving students and staff. The gentle nature of the student interactions with John and Gab also let me know one of the secrets to their success. 

     While I understand that some myths have enduring value and that not all myths have as their core a desire to misdirect, I also know that schools and educators face enough real challenges without having to slay mythological dragons as they move forward with their work in the service of students. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Professional Development - Variety is the Spice

"Learning is not done to you. Learning is something you choose to do"

     This Seth Godin quote (part of his brilliant manifesto "Stop Stealing Dreams") was in response to a question he posed about what schools are for but I think it equally fits in the debate about the role of professional development in the careers of educators. As I continue in my latest role in education as a consultant and author, I often think about how I can continue to learn and grow as an educator while also contributing to the learning and growth of colleagues.

     One thing that is certain is this - when I facilitate a workshop for educators I learn as much as I present. Each visit brings a different context to an issue in education and each colleague offers an insight that adds to my knowledge. I love this form of professional learning, particularly as I don't have a full time job in a school or district. I also know that not everyone in the audience benefits in the same way and so a variety of formats for professional learning seems the most appropriate.

     I have always enjoyed attending conferences and have tried to take something beneficial from each one. I have to admit that there were times when the benefit was not as tangible to others, but the break from the ordinary was what I needed. I know I always returned more energized and eager to get back to my role. Conferences, however, need to change from simply being experts presenting for two or three days with little formalized time for sharing to more interactive forums. But, I firmly believe there is a need to have conferences headlined by some of the best thinkers in education. I also know that I enjoyed the edcamp I attended and think this might be a piece of the new conference model. I envision the keynote address being followed by a chunk of time where topics generated by that keynote could be debated and facilitated by interested participants. Follow-up could take a variety of forms but a recording and sharing of the information would be a key component with the possibility of the keynote presenter offering some feedback to the gathered information.

     I have also enjoyed other informal forms of PD such as conversations with colleagues through venues like book clubs, breakfast meetings, or coffee chats. The ebb and flow of both the participants and the topics are inspiring and prompt future conversations. Recently, I have also taken advantage of visiting schools and appreciate the welcome extended by teachers as I sit in their classes. Teachers are incredibly thoughtful about their lessons and passionate about promoting success for kids. One area of PD that I fell behind in, and am now trying to recapture, is reading journals, books, and current research. I admire many of the leading thinkers in education and like to have my thinking challenged as I move forward. As an aside, I often take full advantage of some of these thinkers when I have the good fortune to share the stage with them at conferences.

     One area of sensitivity that seems to be emerging is the notion of who "owns professional development". I think it's the wrong question and I refer you back to the Godin quote above. PD can't be done to you, it has to be something you choose to do and see value in. I also believe that PD can't be done entirely in isolation and benefits greatly from collaboration and pursuit of collective, as well as individual, objectives. As you move forward in your careers, commit to highly effective, quality professional development. The type of PD that comes with a variety of approaches.