Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tribute to a Friend

        Art Vallis was my friend and his passing has brought a flood of memories and recollections. The service held to honour him was a wonderful tribute and had us all feeling the range of emotions. But mostly I smiled because that's what Art would have wanted. He always raised my spirits whenever I had the good fortune to be around him. This picture is how I will remember Art - in control, a smile at the ready, and a twinkle of mischief dancing in his eyes.

        At the service we heard about many of Art's accomplishments like being one of the original group that began the "Painting in the Park" initiative for Vancouver students, and his tireless hours to have the "United Way" campaign take hold in the schools, and his work mentoring and supporting leadership development. The funny thing is, I never heard about any of these things from Art. That just wasn't his way, not the reason why he did the things he did. He truly was all about elevating others and helping them to become what they were meant to be. He was willing to mentor and teach but only if that was what you wanted. He was just as comfortable to be "in the moment" and learn from you. He enjoyed bringing smiles to others and having a reason to smile. This picture of my son, after a fishing afternoon with Art, only shows one half of two great smiles that afternoon.

        Art retired after thirty-five years as an educator in British Columbia that included many roles. He retired the year before I began my own career as an educator and was a bridge to education in a different time. What he taught me though, was that one key thing has never changed in our profession - relationships matter! Build those and continue to nurture them, and all the rest of the roller coaster world that is education will feel like a great ride with good people to share the experience.
        I didn't see Art often but I often felt inspired in his company. I am grateful that my wife and I went over to celebrate his anniversary with Marian a few weeks before he passed away. Despite all that he was dealing with, he was the true gentleman and a gentle man. I always left his company feeling there was so much more to talk about. When I have spoken about Art, people have asked me if he was a father figure to me. While that would have been more than welcome, he was so much more than that. Art Vallis was my friend and I will miss him tremendously.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Variables NOT Excuses

        Let me start this post off with a few declarations. I think teaching is the most challenging profession there is today. I think there are so many dynamics that impact our work, that it is rare to be able to do the same thing over time. I think we are blessed with people who choose to become teachers as they are truly able to change lives. I think we are all difference makers.
        Of all those statements, the last one only becomes inaccurate if we let it. And we let it by rallying around the excuses that are prevalent and become reasons why we might believe that success is only for those who deserve/earn it. I have heard many school share that they believe in "success for all" but once we scratch below the surface, the exceptions roll out. With some variation depending on locale, here are the reason most offered for why success can't be reached by some students - poverty, second language learner, single parent, First Nations (Native American), minority race. This despite the lack of research that would validate any of these as absolute blocks to student achievement and growth. Buffum, Mattos, and Weber (2012) state it this way

"Are minority students born with a diminished capacity to learn at high levels? Does learning any language besides English at birth genetically alter a student's ability to learn at high levels? Does poverty irreversibly alter a student's potential to learn? Of course not! A student's ethnicity, native language, and economic status do not reduce the child's innate capacity to learn. These misconceptions are part of the cultural beliefs and assumptions of far too many schools, however, and they become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the students these schools serve."  

        I am not suggesting that the information we have and know about kids should be blindly ignored. Just as I would not expect a patients' medical history to be ignored by a Doctor on subsequent visits. In that analogy, the Doctor also does not declare that the patient is never going to get better because of the existing conditions. In our world, the information we have about students should be regarded as variables. They clearly have impact on the learning environment for children. A lack of proper nourishment and rest affects results. A lack of a home environment conducive to learning affects results. A lack of fluency in the language of instruction affects the results. Fortunately, high quality instruction, well designed interventions, and some of the best adults I have met in my life (teachers) have a far greater impact on improving the life chances of students. Let's keep the clarity around these variables and steer clear of rallying around the excuses - no matter how significant they may appear to be.