Author Archives: George

5 Questions To Drive Personal-Professional Learning

Image created by @GregPearsonEDU using Canva.

Image created by @GPearsonEDU using Canva.

In a world where more and more people realize their voice matters, simply engaging people is not enough.  People need to feel empowered in the process of work and learning.  The shift from compliance to empowerment is essential in organizations today.  With that in mind, how do we help people grow? The question is not, how do we motivate them, which is an entirely different idea.  Motivating others is possible,  but it is not long lasting.  We can only truly motivate ourselves for any sustainable amount of time, this is not something that can be done for us.  Leaders need to look at how we create environments that remove barriers, and support the development of the innovator’s mindset in individuals.  Leadership’s job is not to control people, but to unleash talent.  The environment and processes we create are important in helping people find their own way and strengths.

Yet we too often focus on external “motivators” to be the driver for change or even learning.  One of the biggest shifts in my own thinking in the past few years is how learning is such a personal endeavour, yet we try to package it up and decide the paths and passions for others.  Stephen Downes summarizes this sentiment nicely:

“We have to stop thinking of an education as something that is delivered to us and instead see it as something we create for ourselves.”

With that being said, there is a lot of professional development that is working to “incentivize” learning with the use of external motivators.  Immediately doing this, in many ways says that it is not something that is important to learn without the incentive, or else we haven’t take the time to focus on the “why” of the learning.  If people don’t understand why we are learning something, it will not stick.  They need to make their own internal connection.  I understand though that in some areas, I don’t need to really explain “why”, before we move forward.  For example, if there is a safety plan in school, I would have the expectation that people knew how to do it and spend their time learning any procedures that we have in school.  That being said, I have seen states require “credit hours” for professional learning and have watched people show up so they can check off that they were there.  This is not going to create powerful and deep learning, but is simply a checklist in the “game of school“.  If there is no ownership over our own learning, how deep will we really go?

So what would I do differently?

Daniel Pink talks about the important of autonomy, mastery, purpose in motivation, and with that in mind, we should think about developing long term professional learning with that in mind.  Although growth plans are something that have been prevalent in schools for as long as I have been teaching, I think it is important to ask questions that focus on those three elements, while also helping leadership remove barriers to help learners achieve their goals.  As we develop our own professional growth plans for any period of time, here are some questions that I think are important to include.

1.  What would you like to learn? (Autonomy)

Although this question has driven my own professional learning for years, it is still necessary to set the stage for deep learning.  Ownership over the learning is crucial in this process.

2. What questions will be the driver for your learning? (Autonomy)

Inquiry-based professional learning is a powerful process, which helps you to view yourself not only as a problem solver, but also as a problem finder.  It also helps the learner articulate why this learning is important to them and gives them ownership over the process. Here is an example of how these questions can drive growth.

3.  Why is this important to your? How will it help the school? (Purpose)

This is a crucial element to not only a person’s learning, but also to help them use their strengths to improve learning, while helping leadership understand those strengths to tap into.  The best teams in the world build upon individual strengths to bring people together toward’s a common goal; they do not try to mould people to something that they are not.

4.  How will you know (measures) that you have achieved your goals at the end of this time? (Mastery and Autonomy)

Accountability is crucial in this process but helping the person define their own measures not only helps them to define what “mastery” could look like, but also have autonomy understanding their own point “a” to point “b”.

5.  What barriers will you need removed, or what support will you need to be successful? (Unleash Talent)

This question is crucial and necessary to leadership.  A lot of reasons things don’t happen in schools is because of dumb policies and guidelines that make “innovation” extremely hard and simply “hoop jumping”.  One thing that I used to say to my staff all of the time was, “I cannot solve problems that I don’t know about.” That is true, but perhaps I needed to ask them a lot more what the problems were that I could help with.

 

To have a “culture of innovation”, developing educators as leaners is crucial.  Helping them understand their own passions and interests, and giving them opportunities to use them to further the vision of the school is paramount.  But if we see learning as a truly “personal” endeavour, focusing on the ideas of “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” in developing our professional learning plans is crucial into the development of both individuals as well as our organizations.

4 Ways We Can Share Our Stories to Drive Innovation

There is no more human profession in the world than education.

In fact, as content has become abundant, education has become more human.  Fifty years ago, and fifty years from now, relationships will be the most important thing we do in schools.  In fact, with information becoming plentiful, I would actually argue that relationships will become more important than ever.  If I do not feel valued to the place that I come every day, why would I continue to show up?

Yet in some cases, we take this human profession, and reduce our most precious resource, our students, to letters and numbers.  We have done this to teachers as well.  Instead of hearing their stories, we rank and sort so many involved in education, and lose the faces and humanity in our practice.  So many people, whether in government or administrator positions, say that standardized tests are not valued, yet so much is still measured by these numbers, both students and teachers.  The emphasis should be on the people, not numbers.

letter and numbers

This is not to say that accountability isn’t important in education.  Nobody wants bad teachers in the profession, including teachers, yet there is so much more to a story to a person than a letter or grade.  We have to think of different ways that our stories can be shared though and put more of an emphasis on the qualitative data, not the quantitative.  Both have a place in education, but the stories and observations that are shared need to be put in the forefront.

Here are some ways that we can really start to share these stories in a continuous and ongoing basis.

1. Tapping into the power of visuals. – The most powerful camera in the world, is the one that you have with you. Fortunately, most of us have one with us all of the time.  People like Tim Lauer, sharing pictures of his school on Instagram, or Tony Sinanis using YouTube to highlight his students in school newsletters, actually elicits emotional responses when I see what they share.  The old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”, is totally true.  So then what is a video worth?  These accounts are something that not only tell a lot about the happenings in the school, but they also encourage growth in their own school communities, as well as others around the world.  I know many have started Instagram accounts based on Tim’s work, while others have started school YouTube newsletters based on seeing Tony’s account.  I am not even sure where they got the idea, but I know that their sharing has probably made am impact both locally and globally, while sharing their story.

2.  A Year in Photos/Videos – As many schools in North America are either done or winding down their school year, I love the “montage” idea of sharing what has happened in school.  I have seen this happen at end of the year assemblies, but they are not often shared publicly.  Dean Shareski does a “year in review” video every year, that shows so much of what has happened in his year and tells a powerful story. I would love to see more schools doing this.

3.  Telling Your Own Story Through Digital Portfolios –  I am a big believer in the power of digital portfolios.  Not only do they give students the opportunity to reflect, but they give them an opportunity to share their voice and story in a plethora of unique ways. Many schools have focused on “engagement”, yet I believe that we need to empower those that we serve by not only asking them to share assignments, but tell their unique stories through these platforms.  In a world where anyone can have a voice, are we working with our students to help them share their voice with people around the world, or just contain them within the walls of our school, either physically or digitally.  One of my favourite quotes is from Shelley Wright, when she stated, “Kids often defy expectations when you give them the opportunity.” Do we encourage them to share their stories with the world in meaningful ways, or are we simply focusing on “doing school”. (Here are some resources on blogs as digital portfolios.)

4. The Simplicity and Power of a Hashtag – Simply having a hashtag for your school or class, not only taps into the power of sharing, but also helps drive innovation.  A hashtag is not just about communication, but it can be about culture.  You may not have your community all on Twitter, so we have used things like Storify to curate and share our learning and ideas with our community.  Having a Twitter account for your school empowers one voice, but having a hashtag, can empower all.  There is a lot you can tell to a community in 140 characters.

The human side of education is something that is extremely important to me.  Sharing those powerful stories not only paints a different narrative, but it can actually drive innovation. Seeing faces, and hearing voices, elicits a human connection to the work that we are doing.  In a profession that is extremely human, we have to remember the power we have to tap into one another, when we share these stories that tell more than any letter or number ever could.

The Acceleration of Leadership and Learning

I am a lot smarter now than I was five years ago.

Simply saying that out loud to people, tends to throw them off and sometimes even suggest there is a certain arrogance in the statement, but I am comparing myself only to myself, not to others.  That being said, I distinctly remember a few years ago a long time friend of mine who is a principal, was listening to me talk in a conversation, turned to me and said, “What happened to you? When did you become smart?”  Simply stated, putting myself into spaces where I had not only access to information, but more importantly, the thoughts of others, accelerated my learning in areas of interest.

I pride myself on being a “sponge”, and look for others to connect with that highlight that same attribute.  Do I know it all? Not even close.  But I am willing to not only grow, but apply what I know.  Any person in a leadership must embrace both the concepts of not knowing everything, while also having a willingness to learn.  Too many schools are limited to the idea of “we don’t know what we don’t know”, but don’t try to find out.

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” John F. Kennedy

When I first went into administration, my former principal shared with me the idea that I would become a much better teacher if I went to teachers classrooms.  Access daily to seeing great teachers teach, would give me an opportunity that I didn’t have as a teacher.  The problem was that I didn’t need to necessarily become a better teacher, but I needed the teachers in my school to become better.  Instead of seeing a practice in a classroom that we would share days or sometimes weeks later ensured that great teaching and learning would NOT go viral.  Instead of waiting, teachers would blog or tweet about their practice, and this openness would accelerate not only the learning, but the conversations that would happen in the staffroom.  People would start asking questions about what they saw through social media while they were in the staffroom; we did not depend solely on the scheduled professional learning days; we had access to the thoughts and practices of one another 24/7 and removed the isolation that had been so prevalent in schools years prior.

As a leader, this willingness to learn is essential to the growth of all those that you we serve.  My knowledge, or lack there of it, impacts all those around me.  Ignorance or a lack of willingness to learn from leadership often leads to slower growth from any organization.  Accelerated learning is crucial to accelerated leadership. As we grow, so do our organizations.  These ideas are correlated not only in education, but in all areas.

Some of the questions that drove this growth…

How are we breaking down both the time and physical barriers that have led the field of education to be “isolated”?

How does the ownership of my own learning impact those that I serve?

How do we make great teaching and learning practice go viral in our organization?


The old practices of waiting for the staff learning day for the growth of individuals and our organizations are no longer acceptable in a world where transparency and openness are becoming the norm.  If we want to accelerate innovate leadership and learning, closing our doors and mindsets to the technology that is afforded to us to create this openness in learning and leadership, is no longer acceptable.

Education, Academia, and Learning

My friend Amanda Dykes, shared this slide from a presentation on Instagram:

YouTube is the #1 educational site in the world. Sooooo why is it blocked in most schools???

A photo posted by Amanda Dykes (@amandacdykes) on

I thought it was an interesting tweet,because I am not sure of the accuracy in the wording.  As Amanda stated, for a site to be the number one “educational” site, schools wouldn’t block it.  If you changed the word to “educational” to “learning” though, that is something that I would definitely believe.  People use YouTube for learning all of the time.  Just the other night, I was trying to learn to play a song, and based on habit, one of the sites that I would look at is YouTube.  There is so much information listed on there that it is a shame that so many schools block it, prompting the “School vs. Learning” argument.

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 4.44.10 PM

 

This tweet from Leif Rask caught my eye though:

Again, “learning” and “academics” are not necessarily the same thing. In fact, when I googled the definition for “academic” one of the definitions was “not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest.” This only fuels the “School vs Learning” debate.

If schools are a place that promote learning, not learn about “school stuff”, but actually learn,to ignore the places where most of the world learns doesn’t make much sense.  We easily say things like “we need to teach a way a child learns”, yet we too often ignore the places where so many of them are going to do that.

The “Sponge” Factor

I learned a lot from my days as a basketball referee.  Although the environment was quite collaborative, as great referees work as a team on the court, there was also a lot of competition in the field.  The best referees would get higher level games, based on their consistent performance in games.

One of the things that I found interesting was the half time feedback referees would receive from evaluators.  Having between 10-15 minutes during a break in the next half, there was no time to mince words.  Evaluators could often be blunt and sometimes brutal in their feedback.  They needed you to correct your work now, and they didn’t have time for you to embrace their feedback.  The feedback given was not to be mean or harsh, but to make you better.

The interesting thing about this is that you could have two refs in a game, with one perhaps being a better quality at the beginning than the other, but what the evaluators would look at was not how good you were at the beginning, but how teachable you were by the end.  If feedback was given in the first half, they expected you to implement in the second.  Sometimes it wouldn’t work for a referee, but what the evaluators looked for was the willingness to take feedback and give the learning a shot.  You may not have been perfect in your first try, but your willingness to learn would surely improve your performance as a referee.  The ability to be a “sponge” was crucial.

This “sponge” factor is crucial for educators.  I have often said that I am much more comfortable working with a teacher that is willing to learn and grow than one who thinks that they have “mastered” teaching.  Things will change in education and society, and one that is not willing to evolve in their practice, will eventually become irrelevant.  It may not be next year or the following year, but it will come eventually.  The person that is willing to continuously learn and evolve will always stay relevant.  Yet there are people in all fields, that will totally listen to feedback, nod their head in agreement, and go back to what they have always done.  There is a difference between “hearing” or being “open” to feedback.

As educators are currently interviewing for positions, one of the questions that I have asked in interviews before was, “Tell me an area where you received feedback, and what did you do to improve.”  This question promotes a vulnerability that is needed to be an educator that we are not  a “know-it-all” but that we are willing to learn.  This willingness to embrace turnaround learning is crucial to growth, which is not only being open to feedback, but doing something because of the feedback you have received.

Change will happen regardless of our own personal growth. Are we open to your own evolution?

Innovation Does Not Happen in Schools If a Child Does Not Feel Loved

Innovation is something that I talk about a lot, but so are relationships.  They are connected, yet relationships can never be focused on enough.

I remember early on in my career, someone once told me that if a child comes to hug you, never let go first. They will hold onto you until they need it.  That has never left my mind.

When students tell me about some of the things that they deal with, even at such an early age, I think about how strong they are to show up to school every single day, and how privileged we are to be able to serve them.  Not only should we have high expectations for our students, but we need to also have high beliefs in what they can accomplish.  Innovation does not happen in schools if a child does not feel loved.  This can’t be the job of some teachers; it has to be all.  I will take a teacher that loves and believes in their students over one that is extremely innovative yet lacks the aforementioned qualities.

Schools are about people, not stuff. When you know someone believes in you, that is sometimes the only thing you need.

I was inspired to write this after watching this incredibly moving Ted Talk by Linda Cliatt-Wayman.  These words resonated to me:

If nobody told you they loved you today, you remember I do, and I always will.

My students have problems: social, emotional and economic problems you could never imagine. Some of them are parents themselves, and some are completely alone. If someone asked me my real secret for how I truly keep Strawberry Mansion moving forward, I would have to say that I love my students and I believe in their possibilities unconditionally. 

Find eighteen minutes in your day to watch it.  It will remind you of the power of a great teacher and leader.

Your Social Media Guidelines in One Sentence

Social media is becoming the norm as opposed to the exception in many schools.

With that happening, many administrators are rushing to make a list of policies and guidelines to ensure that teachers are using the medium wisely.  Yet the more policies and guidelines we have, the more we deter people from using social media.  I even recently saw a profile that explicitly stated that all students will be blocked from seeing their accounts as per district guidelines.  When we do that, we limit the opportunity to model what “appropriate use” could look like.

To me, your social media guidelines can be summed up in one sentence.

“Anything you can say to students in class, you can say online.”

That’s it.

Saying it online is similar to saying it to a student. No personal versus professional, just understanding that the context of social media and that anything online would be considered a public space.

Too many rules and guidelines can deter innovation or even using the space in the first place.

The simpler we make social media, the more likely it is that it will be used.

Just because it deals with technology, doesn’t mean we don’t use common sense.

It is interesting that when it comes to technology, many people are nervous about not knowing what to do when something goes wrong. One conversation I had recently, an educator asked me, “What would you do if you found a student was doing something inappropriate on their computer?” I answered a question with a question and asked, “What would you do if they were doing something inappropriate that wasn’t on their computer?”

She nodded her head and understood what I was saying immediately. Far too often, we are worried about the possibility of the unknown online, and think that the punishment should be spelled out ahead of time for students. We are often scared of what we don’t know, but the need for control is something that we are going to have to let go. The best leaders and educators don’t micromanage; they build trust.

Tons of schools have all of the consequences planned out for inappropriate use of technology, but I have never seen a single school do the same thing with a pencil.  Once we see the technology as crucial to learning, as many do with any writing utensil, our views obviously change on how we handle situations.

One of the approaches I have used with students, knowing that there are a lot of bad things that one could find online, is just having an open and honest conversation with them. I remember talking with students and simply saying, “If you find anything inappropriate online, either intentionally or unintentionally, I I want you to talk to me about it. I want to hear it from you as opposed to someone else because then you will have lost my trust. Obviously we all make mistakes and I trust you, so if you make one, I hope you will talk to me about it.”

No list of rules and/or consequences, just open and honest conversations.

Here is the one thing that I can guarantee, without a doubt, 100 per cent; something will go wrong. That being said, it is important to create a culture where students feel comfortable coming to you with the mistakes they have made.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t expectations or consequences for negative actions, it is just about treating people the way we would want to be treated. Sometimes we have to give trust to others before we can earn it ourselves.

Cloned Leadership

In my first interview for a position as an assistant principal, I remember talking to the principal and thinking that we couldn’t be any more different. We actually argued in the interview, and I walked away accepting of the fact that I wouldn’t be getting the job anytime soon.

A few days later I was hired by that same principal and it forever changed my thinking.

Were we more alike than I had initially thought? Yes and no. We both wanted what was best for kids, but our beliefs on how to get there had differed in many ways. That’s actually why I was hired in the first place. Our diversity and willingness to embrace the differences of one another ensured that we did not create an environment of “cloned leadership”; leaders hiring people that simply think and act like they do . Some people felt more comfortable talking to me as the assistant principal, and some felt more comfortable talking to him as well. We supported each other always, but our differences helped more people to connect with us in the building.

When I became a principal, my first action was to hire someone who I knew would disagree with me yet wanted to ensure we had the wellbeing of students driving their decision-making. My constant pursuit of the best answer, as opposed to my answer, made this hire crucial. When you hire someone who you know will challenge you, it can become extremely frustrating, yet it is crucial to growth. If someone doesn’t push our thinking and beliefs, how do we become better?

Yet I still observe many leaders that are looking for “yes” people; they simply agree with one another and challenges, although encouraged, don’t happen. Divergent thinking is crucial to innovation, yet too many leaders hire clones of themselves. When you have two (or more) administrators that aren’t willing to challenge one another, it often creates a culture where others don’t feel comfortable challenging ideas either, as there seems to be only one acceptable way forward.

I still believe that the best thing I ever did as a principal was to ensure that my first hire would be someone who challenged my thinking and would not always agree with me. It’s unfortunate that too many organizations take the opposite approach. Discomfort and challenge is crucial (and necessary) to achieve growth.

5 Teaching Practices I Would Never Do Again

As an educator for almost fifteen years, I think about what I used to do and shake my head at some of my thinking. Many of the practices that I had adopted were things that I had learned as a teacher and few had challenged at the time, or at least I did not have access to a different kind of thinking.  When we ask others to try and move forward in their practice, it is important to not only share our stories of success, but also our stories of growth. Vulnerability is crucial to leadership and building trust.

Here are five things that I used to do that I would never to do today.

1. The rule is the rule is the rule.

I remember walking into a teacher’s classroom and early in the morning, students were eating in her class while they were working. I became irate at her because the rule in the school was, no food in class, and it was hard when different teachers had different expectations for students. The problem was that the kids were hungry, and I know that I have trouble concentrating when I am hungry; kids would be no different.

What I know now is that when a rule is detrimental to kids, it’s often a stupid rule. In fact, the less rules we have in our schools, the more often we are able to treat kids as individuals. If the expectation is to do whatever you need to in the pursuit of helping kids, it is important to use wisdom and common sense to achieve this, as opposed to having a rule for every possible situation. This is not only respectful to students, but also to staff. I know that I am frustrated when employees in an organization are bound by a “rule” when common sense should prevail; schools should be no different.

I am frustrated when employees in an

2. “The bell doesn’t dismiss you. I dismiss you.”

I have been guilty of saying this far too often early on my career, and to be honest, I would love to see schools have no bells at all. It creates a Pavlov’s dog scenario where we are conditioned by a bell to get up and go to the next space. This is not conducive to learning. One student I saw on Vine said, “That’s such a stupid saying since the whole point of the bell is to signify the end of the class.” They are right.

So if you do work in a school that still has bells, how do you create learning where the bell rings that students are so deep in their learning, they don’t think to move? If a kid is engaged or empowered in their learning, the bell should be disappointing, not a relief.

3. “If you don’t get this done, you will not be able to go to phys. ed.”

With health and obesity rates on the rise all over the world, this is a terrible thing to hold over a student’s head. It says that healthy living and physical activity are not as important as other subjects in the school.

Here are a couple of issues I have with this looking back. If a kid loved going to physical education, I used that against them. Instead of building on their strengths, I used that against them. The other problem that it created was the student that hated doing physical activity, learned quickly that if they didn’t get their work done, I would hold them back. They used this to their advantage. Some of my best thinking has come during a workout or a run, and I am disappointed that I didn’t realize that movement was crucial to clearing our minds and growth not only physically, but also intellectually.

4. Asking students for feedback only at the end of the school year.

Feedback is crucial to growth, but if you use that growth only for the next group of students, it doesn’t seem to make much sense. There has been a lot of evidence that immediate and constant feedback is crucial for learning, so as a teacher, it is crucial to do this often throughout the year, to help the kids and staff that you are serving right now, not only next year. If this type of assessment is beneficial to kids, it would also be beneficial to our own professional growth.

5. Think my grading system was perfect.

If I look back at my own gradebooks, they make no sense to me now. Why is something worth 25% and something else worth 15%? Where do these magical numbers come from? Why would a test on one day be worth 50% of a grade, and a project done over weeks be worth 10%? Ugh. No sense at all.

What I am glad to see now is that more and more people are moving away from “grading” and moving towards competencies and written feedback. I am sure that in the world, people are still rated and numbered, but I doubt it is a powerful practice. Kids that are ranked and reduced to a number, often become adults who do the same thing.

Meaningful feedback takes time, but as teachers, it is essential for learning and growth. Believing that a number system for grades is somehow “scientific” and not actually totally subjective, was naive. It is also not effective if the conversation is led by the evaluator, as opposed to the learner. If we started the conversation by simply asking, where are you strong and where do you need to grow, the ownership of learning actually goes to the learner, not the teacher. Having students on the outside-looking-in on assessments, does not promote learning, only ranking and sorting.

When I look back at these practices, most of them are not things that I learned at university, but were things I experienced. As an adult, many of these things that I used to do to kids, I would hate being done to me. That is why I believe experience is crucial to growth in our organizations.

What things would you take back in your teaching career?