Author Archives: George

Learning and Life

My dad passed away almost a year ago and I have been forever changed.

I have written this before, but I feel that everything has just slowed down a bit.  Life doesn’t seem as fast paced as what it once was and his passing has made me refocus.  It is often said that great athletes see the game they play at a slower pace and can recognize things coming at them differently.  I feel that since my dad has passed, the game has slowed down for me.  Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad.

In the last year, I have taken the time to focus more on myself and the people closest to me.  I have enjoyed having some of those people experiencing great things with me. I have tweeted less, blogged less, and feel like I have lived and experienced more.  I learned quickly that life is short and although I want to make a difference in the world, I also want to appreciate those closest to me and make a difference with them.  I have not been as successful with those relationships in many ways, but I have tried harder.  I have spent better time with fewer people.

Although I started this site to be an “educational blog”, it was weird for me at first to write about personal things in this space.  I have written about times that I have struggled personally, and events such as when I lost my first dog, and the opportunity for reflection in an open space, I feel, has made me more cognizant of my own life.  Many people get turned off by this type of writing in what is an “educational space”, but what I realized is that this space was never meant to be focused solely on education, but always on learning.  If you don’t think that you learn something when your dad dies that applies to the kids you deal with every day in a school, you are wrong.  How much will a kid care about math when they lose someone close to them?   The human connection that we have in schools will be the reason that schools will always be relevant and these life lessons, and how we deal with them, bring a lot to our students.  If you only teach the curriculum to a child, you have come up short.

In a weird way, I feel closer to my dad now more than ever.  I make it a focus to talk about him when I speak to honour his impact on me as an educator, but more importantly, as a person.  When you lose someone, you always have regrets on what you didn’t do or say, but I am trying to focus on what my dad gave me and what I can give others.

Am I where I want to be?  When I ask this question, I am not talking about my career but my development as a person.  I know that I have a long way to go but these moments in life teach you a lot about yourself, where you have been, and where you want to go.

I miss my dad every day, but I know that even though he is gone, my continuous reflection on his life and what I learned from him, ensure that he will impact me and help me grow as a person and teacher.

Attracting the Best Talent

As I was working out at gym, I watched a member go to the front desk and ask if they could cancel their membership.  The person working the front desk, obviously instructed to do this, told the member that they would have to talk to a “sales specialist” before they could actually cancel their membership.  This was obviously a last ditch opportunity to get as much money as they could from this person, and since no sales assistant was available, she had to come back another day to cancel her membership.

I thought about how terrible this process was and what it would mean long term for the company.  Yes, they would probably squeeze another month out of the person and receive 60 dollars, but long term, she would probably complain to her friends about how poorly the company was run and how they were ultimately focused on the bottom line as opposed to people.  Making a little money now might lead to a large loss later.  Word of mouth is crucial to organizations.

Comparatively, I have seen this done with great teachers.  I know of one who was in a situation where they received a new job only a few days after the division negotiated deadline to give notice for the next school year.  Instead of letting the person take another job that they wanted, they really pushed the person to stay another year because they knew they had a skill set that would be hard to replace.

Does this make sense?  Should you make a teacher stay in a position they want to leave and have them resentful for another year?  Luckily for that teacher, they found a job the following year and they had a much better fit professionally and personally, but the damage was done on what they thought of the organization.  Instead of pushing people to get better, it seemed they focused on holding them back.

My philosophy that I learned working with Parkland School Division is that you never hold a person back from their dreams.  In fact, you encourage them to pursue them.  In my first year as a teacher, I was offered a job as an assistant principal late into July, and although I could have technically been told that I was not able to break the contract, my principal encourage me to take the position and assured me that she would find someone great.  This treatment of myself made me only speak highly of the organization and how they treated me and it was something that I focused on as an administrator.  Sometimes you have to let your best people leave to encourage their dreams, but that treatment will only encourage more great people to want to be a part of your organization.  I would much rather have an amazing educator in my school for two years than an average one for fifteen.

Would you want to be a learner in your own classroom?

There has been a lot of talk about this video that was anonymously shared by a teacher from Chicago Public Schools:

The outrage shared by many educators is that this is a terrible way of professional learning and it really undermines teachers.

It is almost like we are treating them like children…right?

I just wonder how many hits that video (over 130,000 at the time I am sharing it on this blog) would have received if it was a classroom full of students doing the same thing? Would people have cared as much? They should. I also wonder if someone in that session will use the same techniques with their own students? Often we teach the way we were taught and if we do not change the experiences teachers have in their own professional development, we can’t really expect them to change anything in their own classroom.

The question I have been asking a lot lately is, “would you want to be a learner in your own classroom?

If this wouldn’t work for me (which it wouldn’t), then it is not going to work for my students.

3 Things That Should Never Change in Schools

Although I often speak about the things that we need to do to develop and further the way we teach and learn in schools, I would still consider myself a little “old school”.  Brought up by very traditional parents and being a part of a community that I loved, there are things that I believe should never change in the school environment and will be vital to educational institutions in the future, although they are rooted in the past.

1. The Focus on Relationships 

My best teachers during my time in school, are people that I still hold dear to my heart to this very day.  Was it because they inspired me by a test that I had to write in the classroom? Never.  What I appreciated was how they made me feel valued as a person, and not simply a student.

I had a science teacher when I was young, and since I struggled with the subject, I was quite a handful in the class.  The next year when we had a different teacher lead the course, the connection that I had with the teacher was different and I put much more effort into the course and my work.  I still never did truly well in the subject, but I cared a lot more, because I was cared for as a person.

As the old adage goes, students will never care to know, until they know you care.

In 100, 200, 300 years, relationships will always be the foundation of a good school.  Without that focus, schools would surely become irrelevant.

2. Opportunities Outside of the Classroom 

As schools continue to cut budgets, often programming outside of the classrooms tend to be one of the first things to go (unfortunately, mostly in the fine arts).  This is not a good thing for our students.

In my own experience, the opportunity to play sports in school led me to develop leadership skills, as well as understanding the importance of being on a team and working together.  The opportunity to take part in the drama program, gave me the confidence to speak in front of others.  Both of these programs have had more impact in what I do today than anything else than I have ever done in school.

It is great to see districts like Chris Kennedy’s in West Vancouver not only promote these opportunities, but give kids different opportunities that are new to school.  If schools are to develop well rounded individuals, there is a huge importance in offering different programs to our students outside of the classroom.

(By the way…many teachers around the world provide these opportunities on a volunteer basis!)

3. Learning in a Respectful Environment 

I have to admit that I have walked into schools and have cringed at some of the words that I have read on clothing.  Surprisingly, it was not only by students but sometimes even staff.  It is important that as an educator or student you feel comfortable, not only physically but mentally as well.  I believe in the importance of relationships (as outlined in this post), but also of being able to work in an environment where people’s differences are respected and free from derogatory remarks.

Schools should be a “safe” place, and safety also deals with the notion of being comfortable to share ideas and be respected by one another, no matter who you are.

The idea that we need to continuously prepare kids for their future is something that always sits in the back of my mind.  Pedagogy often needs to change as we continue to see different ways of learning and understand how the brain works.  That being said, there are some fundamentals they should never go away and will make schools a place that students want to be.

Some ideas will never get old.

Choosing Not to Know

I had two administrators approach me yesterday and start a conversation.

One told me about how their IT department had closed all social media in their school and about how their fear that if they were to open it.  The fear shared was that their would be so many more issues of cyberbullying, inappropriate content shared, amongst other things.

The other told me about how their school district has all social media sites open to their students and have very few issues.  In fact, he had shared that since the network was opened, the issues lessened because of their focus on teaching digital citizenship.

Huh.

The question that came to my mind was, are these districts talking to one another?  My other thought was, do the districts that have things opened even try to talk to the ones that are open?  Seriously, people have open networks and have very few issues yet so many others with closed networks talk about the fear of what could be if schools decided to open their network.

Does looking only within our own organizations and focusing on the “fear factor” really help our students?  I am guessing you can figure out what I think.

If you are interested, here is a simple rubrics to start a conversation on this topic: Is Your School’s DIgital Citizenship Practice a Pass or Fail?

A Focus on Consumption

I’ve hit a slump.

Blogging has been slow and an arduous task as of late, and I seemingly have struggled to find inspiration to write.  I have committed myself to continuously write in this blog because it helps me to focus not only my growth as an educator, but as a person.  Thinking and sharing out loud has truly made me grow in my thinking and has helped to clarify my thoughts.  The process of blogging has been extremely helpful.

So why the slump when once it was so easy to write?

Probably one of the reasons is that I am trying to spend more quality time with those that I care about, and putting down the phone, hiding the computer, and just valuing someone else’s presence.  Finding balance is key so I have been comfortable with writing less.

I don’t think thats’ it though.

To me, one of the biggest reasons that I have had trouble with writing is that I have focused on creating and sharing more, and consumption less.  I attribute this to not only having less time to read the work of other educators, but also I have been spending a lot of my time on the road, preparing and delivering presentations, not having the time to simply sit and get.

Yup, I need more sit and get.

The importance of creation in schools is something that I truly believe in and should be a huge focus, but I also believe that there is still a huge value in the delivery of content and information.  Learning from hearing others, reading, viewing, watching, and simply consuming information, often gives us the inspiration to create.  Several years ago, John Medina, writer of “Brain Rules”, talked about the idea that creation without consumption would be similar to playing “air guitar”; you would have an idea of the motions, but you wouldn’t necessarily be able to create any meaningful.  That makes sense to me.

So I am going to make more of a concerted effort to try and get to other sessions at conferences, spend more times in classrooms when I am home, read more educator blogs, and happily consume some information.  WIthout that focus on consumption, the ability to connect, create, and develop my own thoughts will continue to be a struggle.

I Learn, I Dream

Below is the “vision” for Parkland School Division:

Our Vision

Parkland School Division is a place where exploration, creativity, and imagination make learning exciting and where all learners aspire to reach their dreams.

What I love about this vision is the use of the word, “learner” as opposed to “students”.  WIthin my interpretation of this shared vision is that every person within this organization is empowered and expected to continuously grow.  If that is the case, it also encourages all “learners” to “aspire to reach their dreams”.  I remember seeing a district having an advertisement that it was a “great place to work”.  So would you want to simply “work” or “aspire” to reach your dreams?  I know what I would choose.

I saw a tweet sharing Krissy Venosdale’s picture below:

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 3.42.44 PM

 

Interestingly enough, the tweet stated:

This should be every student’s commitment to education.

What I would challenge is that it shouldn’t only be a student’s commitment, but the commitment of all those involved in education to do those things.

If we are all learners, these actions would be the norm, not the exception.

“The world only cares about what you can do with what you know.”

I read a fascinating article from Thomas Friedman on the weekend (read the whole thing) on what Google looks for in hiring employees.  Here is the last paragraph:

Google attracts so much talent it can afford to look beyond traditional metrics, like G.P.A. For most young people, though, going to college and doing well is still the best way to master the tools needed for many careers. But Bock is saying something important to them, too: Beware. Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job. The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it). And in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.

A couple of thoughts…

First of all, as a principal, I rarely if ever looked at a person’s marks from university when hiring them.  It was not a determining factor especially since I saw that some of the worst teachers from my time in school had the best marks in university.  This is not always true, but when someone has mastered the way school has been done, the notion of school looking different for students is pretty tough to swallow.  The skills that Friedman referenced that Google looks for are similar to what I looked for in hiring a new teacher, and I am guessing, it would be similar to most employers today.

Secondly, if these skills (leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn)  are so important for a company like Google, will this skill-set not become the norm for others? And if they are, how will a system that is so focused on grades and marks deal with developing skills that can’t be easily measured?

The Small Ripple

Working with my good friend Shaye Patras, Principal at Blueberry School, I have had the opportunity to do one-on-one visits with his school in the last 12 months.  A few years ago, one of my suggestions I made to many administrators, Shaye included, in the area of using Google Apps, was to move all of your work you do as a principal to using Google Apps with staff. Although this is a little change, it can make a big impact.  Doing simple things such as sending agendas out to your staff on a Google Document, or asking for feedback through a Google Form, can make a big impact.  It doesn’t make much sense to encourage the use of Google Apps for Education by sending your staff a Word Document.

This goes back to the notion that if you want to innovate, you must disrupt your routine.  It also lends to the idea that if you want to change things in the classroom, you have to change the way we do things organizationally.  People are more likely to embrace change when they experience it.

So with these opportunities of visiting every three months or so, I have seen HUGE changes not only in skill level, but openness by staff and students to try different things.  I give a ton of credit to the teachers in the school for being open and wanting to grow, but with Shaye willing to try something new and model that he was willing to take risks, he opened the door for his staff to do the same.  You can never expect people to take risks unless leaders model it; saying it is not enough.

With little changes in the way that we do the things we have always done, you can start a ripple that can lead to a big wave.

Being mindful or…?

There is no doubt that I believe in the importance of technology and it’s impact on relationships and learning in education.  If you asked people twenty years ago how they found information, their answers would be all over the place.  Ask them five years ago, and many would have said, “Google”.  Ask them today, and answers might range from not only search engines like Google and YouTube, but they might also look towards social networks such as Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter.  We are not only connecting to information but more importantly, people.  If this does not make a difference in how we teach and learn, we are denying our kids something that adults use all of the time and sometimes, don’t even really notice.

Yet I often hear about people warning ideas that we need to be “mindful” of the impact of technology, to which I agree.  I believe that if you are going to find meaningful ways for your students to engage using technology, teachers should focus on learning with technology first.  I would consider hiring someone to teach math that had never taught the subject before, but I would have a hard time hiring someone who never learnt math before.  This is the position many schools are in with technology and its impact on our world and the way we learn.

Some would see this lack of knowledge as a hindrance, yet I see it as an opportunity as there has been a huge refocus on the “teacher as learner”.  If you want students to become expert “learners” then we nee to be expert “learners” as well.  Conveying that to a student is what makes someone a great teacher, but if we don’t understand the new opportunities for learning for our students, how can we effectively teach them to thrive in our world today and in the future?

My concern is the “mindful” argument with many is a means to end a conversation as opposed to starting one.  I have heard many make the argument about our lack of “mindfulness” on the use of technology, that do not give suggestions on meaningful ways to use it with our students or even educators.  This is not all, but often pushing to be more “mindful” with no other suggestions of meaningful use really is “anti-technology” just disguised by another name.

Here would be my first question when I hear that argument…What are some meaningful ways that you would suggest students use technology in their learning?  I often get a question on the other side of the spectrum dealing with some of the “pitfalls of technology” and I answer it often from a place of experience as opposed to avoiding the question altogether.

If we can’t offer the negative impacts of technology without sharing the positive, are we truly being mindful or are we simply hiding a negative bias with a more acceptable term?