Category Archives: Fostering Effective Relationships

Are you focused on the “stuff” or the person?

Here are two approaches to the same thing…

Let’s say you want educators in your school to start reflective and professional blogs.  One way that you could get them to do it, is by really pushing the value of blogging, show them the “why”, talk about the need for it, and put some real pressure on others to move ahead.  You could probably mandate it (which I have seen done with many initiatives that have failed) and have people do it for awhile, but as soon as they can get out of it, many will.  There are many initiatives out there that would be beneficial to our students, and focusing on how we are so behind, rarely ever puts us ahead.

Now a different approach, and one that I am still working on in my growth.  Let’s say you wanted educators to blog, but you didn’t start at that point.  Maybe you go into classrooms, observe things that are happening, and talk about their positive impact on student learning.  Sit down with the teacher, talk about their strengths, and then share the impact that they could have on the rest of the building on other educators, and perhaps sitting down and writing a blog together could be a way that we could share those strengths with others, and make great teaching and learning go viral.

In each scenario, you could have an educator write a blog, but in the first, we are starting from a deficit model (here are the things we can’t do), and the second, is starting from a place of abundance.

As an administrator, it is important that you know the strengths of each member of your team, before you know their weaknesses.  If you can’t find them, maybe you aren’t looking.  If you dig down deeper into each scenario, the first starts with a focus on the outcome (blogging), but the second starts with a focus on the person.  That is leadership.  Stephen Covey made the simple distinction between management and leadership; we manage “things”, we lead people.

Taking time to find the strengths of individuals is not an expenditure, but an investment, that can come in copious amounts of growth.  In most cases, when people know that they are valued, the distance they are willing to go is much further than when we constantly point out weaknesses.

The Privilege of Kids #EDUin30

This week for the #EDUin30 question, I asked about how you build relationships in your role with students.  The best teachers in the world connect on some personal level with their students.  They do not only know their students, but their students know them.

I talked about this in my post to the response to the question:

Honestly, I remember hating doing supervision.  Teaching was really overwhelming for me and every minute that I had to myself, I really appreciated.  Having to “deal” with kids outside was a pain.  Then one of my administrators talked about the “privilege” we had in connecting with kids during that time and that we should see it as an opportunity as opposed to a burden.  That totally changed my mindset on it early on my career, and after that, I loved supervision.

After that, I would really connect with kids, talk to them about things happening, play basketball with them outside, and would actually walk back into my class rejuvenated.  This was not just kids in my class, but kids all around the school that I did not have the same opportunities to connect with during the day.  It became a privilege and an opportunity in my eyes and made my day so much better.

Nothing changed other than my attitude, and sometimes that’s the most important thing.

5 Ideas for Conversations on Change

“Teachers don’t want to change.”

I hate this statement.

It does more to end a conversation than it does to start it.

It is a comment I have heard far too often, and honestly, believe less and less and seems to be a way of blaming others for lack of growth in an organization.  We only have a finite amount of time in our day, and because of this, simply saying something is better doesn’t mean others agree.  A lack of change in any organization is often more a reflection on leadership than any group of people, or an individual.  The ability to “sell” change and create systems and a culture where trying something different is not only encouraged, but applauded, needs to be something that people in traditional leadership positions needs to constantly focus on.  Learning is something that never stops or stays stagnate, and because of that, organizations must reflect that we are not only in the business of “people”, but also of being open to and leading change.  It is the only constant.

For example, I have heard many conversations from educators wanting to try something new is met with so much bureaucracy and hurdle-jumping, that it is not worth the effort at the end of the day to try something different.  It is almost as if many schools are blocking their own teachers from being great.  The role of people in leadership and support positions is not to control talent, but to unleash it.

So what about those that may still be resistant to change?  How do we work with them.  As I look back to my best leaders, these are some things that I have noticed in their work in helping people move forward as individuals.

1.  Start every conversation focused on “what is best for kids”.

This is Stephen Covey’s focus on “starting with the end in mind”, but it is imperative that the “end” is explicit to people in any conversation.  The majority of educators are there for children, and if a conversation starts with talking about helping children, it helps to keep our focus on the important work that we do.  If as a leader, we are not able to share why something is best for kids, why would or should anyone embrace it anyway?  Conversations in education always need to start from this point.

2.  Listen.

So many people are constantly trying to sell something to someone else, and our conversations can go off track very soon.  If you really want someone else to move forward, it should not start with what you think it is important, but trying to be empathetic of another person’s situation and ideas.  Once you really understand where they are coming from, you have a totally different starting point from when you started in the first place.  It is also imperative that you are able to implement their point of view in your conversations, not simply separate ideas into “what you think” versus “what I think”.  There are common grounds but we need to listen to one another to find them.

3. Focus on where they are, not where you want to be.

Years ago, I started to really think about helping move people from “their point A to their point B”.  If you are able to break something into measurable chunks instead of having a grand vision of where everyone needs to be, it shows that there is a focus more on process, than product, which has become more of an emphasis in our classrooms.  These smaller wins along the way lead to someone building confidence and competence along the way, which helps leads to success.  As much as there is talk about the importance of “embracing failure”, people want to be successful.  We just have to realize that success looks different for different people, and that if we start where someone is instead of focusing on where we think they should be, people are more likely to be successful.

4. Walk away with a plan moving forward.

There are lots of great conversations that end with no action planned.  This is often a huge loss and can be a waste of time in the long run.  At the end of conversations we should look at what we are going to do because of the time we spent together, and also talk about following up in the future.  Writing something down also makes it more likely to happen, because we become more accountable to what we have shared.  Walking away without a mutual plan can often lead to nothing changing long term as there are so many other things that can get in the way.  It is also crucial for “check-ins” throughout the process.  I have seen a lot of schools have “Professional Growth Plans” that are written at the beginning of the year and then discussed at the end of it.  If you only focused on looking at something twice a year, how successful do you think it will be?

5. Support.

Leaders do not only help others find a path to move forward, but they are in the trenches with them throughout the process.  Checking in and seeing how things are going is one aspect, but actually finding powerful resources for someone else, asking them follow-up questions, suggesting professional learning opportunities for them (and even going with them), or a myriad of other opportunities, are crucial in development.  Saying “do this” is not as powerful as saying “let’s do this together”. People are way more likely to be successful in the change process if they know someone has their back throughout it.

Change can be scary and honestly, stress inducing.  The more people know that we are in this work together and that it is all about supporting our students, the more likely individuals, and ultimately organizations, will be successful.

Feedback or noise?

I don’t know if it is because it is basketball season, but stories from coaching and reffing have been popping up in my head in relation to leadership.  As I was listening to someone tell another story about the “squeaky wheel that gets the grease”, I thought about the coaches you would pay attention to when I was officiating basketball, and why you would really listen.

I remember one game in particular, where we were discussing the game plan as officials before we started, and my partner said, “the coach on the visiting team doesn’t say much, but when he does, you need to listen because it is probably legitimate.”  The coach did not argue every call they didn’t like, but they chose to use their voice when they thought it was imperative.  As hard as it is to admit as a former official, there were many coaches that did the exact opposite and were constantly complaining about every single call that was not in their favour.  In a tense environment, it is hard to acknowledge everything coming your way, and the more spread out you are, the harder the job becomes to do well.  Constant complaining is no longer feedback or “picking your battles”, but it can simply become noise that many choose to drown out.

I have read so many articles written on dealing with the “squeaky wheel”, but there are few that discussing how not to be that person.  In a time where a lot of things are either changing or need to change in education, it is easy to complain about how fast or slow things are going, but after awhile, I know that commentary can go unheard if it is just a constant noise.  In the last little while, I have really tried to think about what is important to bring up and push, and what is not necessary at that moment.  There have been times that I wondered how to deal with the squeaky wheel, but I am also thinking about making sure that when I do say something to others, it doesn’t simply become “noise”.

A Simple Smile

I love this tweet:

Honestly, I could not agree more.

I am really trying to make going to the gym a priority every morning, and some days, it is harder than the others.  There is never a day that I regret going to the gym. Ever.  But that being said, it is sometimes hard to get going and push yourself.  Every morning, when I check-in, I always say “good morning” and smile. A lot of times though, I am sometimes ignored or brushed off.  It is probably the worst way to start my workout.  Being there is tough and to really push yourself can be exhausting, not just physically, but mentally.  Someone’s demeanour towards you can really make an impact on your day.

Then I think of this in the context of school.  I have seen schools where educators walk right by a student without even acknowledging them, and every time that happens, it kills me inside.  We can’t say how important are students are to us, and then follow it up by not acknowledging them.  This is not just educators to students, but educators to educators as well.  And what message does that send to kids?  If we don’t acknowledge each other, what lessons do students take from that, and apply to their interactions with peers?  Learning is hard and sometimes exhausting, so every moment we can make a difference and school a welcoming place, we have to take.

School culture is not as complicated as we make it.  If we want people to get better, they have to know they are already valued.  If they don’t know that, good luck.  This is something so simple, but for some it still seems way too hard.  A smile can make someone’s day, can be infectious, and have a tremendous impact on school culture.

Questioning the Data

Proven methods of working with students are something that are important when working in schools, but there are a few things that I question when I hear schools talk about solely “data driven”.

First of all, nothing works for everyone. Nothing.  So when we look at “proven methods”, we are often looking at something that is more focused on the “system” than an individual, kids still get left behind.  We might get a better “grade” at the end as a system, but we are still failing kids.  If something worked for 100% of kids, we would all know it, and we would all do it.

Secondly, there are often so many things that are going on in school, how can we really compartmentalize the “one thing” that works?  For example, let’s say your school is focusing on the thoughtful use of technology in classroom, health and wellness, and improved assessment, and you see an increase in grades through the school.  Which initiative led to the increase or how much did anyone single initiative lead to whatever score you are looking for?  Unless you isolate something it is hard to tell what is successful.

This leads to another issue…what is the measure of success?  You may see an increase in test scores but kids might hate coming to school every day, because it is easy to teach to a test, while also killing a love of learning in our students.  You can also see that you can improve a score in anything if you put a massive focus on it. If you have a school or district focusing solely on “literacy scores”, leading to more hours focusing on traditional literacy (reading and writing) in the classroom, other things get lost in the shuffle.  Many organizations are looking for people who are creative, yet you see many programs in arts education that promote this creativity getting cut in search of “better test scores”.  So then what? When we focus on becoming great at one thing, something else usually gives.  So what is important and what isn’t?

But maybe I am way off with these thoughts.  I am not saying that data is not necessary, but more importantly, that we question how we got the data in the first place. I recently read a blog post titled, “The Lack of Evidence Based Practice; The Case of Classroom Technology“, where the author talks about how the use of technology has not increased “academic achievement”, and I would not argue this at all.  Adding technology to your schools often only makes your it “school plus computer”.  If you are not looking to change teaching and learning practice because of these technologies, obviously nothing will change.  But there is to more what is happening than any number can tell us, and that is why questioning the data in the first place is extremely important.  I also think there is a great irony that many school district statements “vision and mission statements” say very little about test scores, but when they measure if they are successful, that becomes the biggest driver.

So it is essential to find a balance.  We have to still look at “what works” from other places, and ask questions to dive deeper.  But we also have to still develop the “innovator’s mindset” in educators to encourage them  to develop new ideas that may help the kids in front of them right now.  If we wait for everything to be researched before we use it, we are going to lose a lot of kids.  Before something was researched, somebody tried it first with no data to support if it would be successful or not.  That is why relationships are so important in education.  Understanding who the learner is in front of you will often lead to creating new solutions for that child.  They don’t have the time for you to wait.

Data is important, but so is the ability to be adaptive and flexible.  We have to look at what works, what has worked, ask questions why it worked, but also look to create new and better opportunities for the students in front of us.  If we don’t look to people within the education system to be innovative, why would we expect kids leaving the system to do the same?

Questions to Challenge Practice

Recently in a workshop, I told participants that I was about to ask a question that might bother some of them. Then I asked the question, “in school today, what do you think is more important to teach today; how to write an essay or how to write a blog?” I told them that this was meant to challenge them a bit, and that, if you really think about it, is it more likely that a student writes a blog after school or an essay?  Some people were visibly bothered by the question.  That was kind of the point.

One teacher started to challenge the question, and said, “part of my job, is to prepare kids for their next step, and many of them will have to write an essay in post-secondary.” She then told me that the majority of her students were probably going to go to university and writing a proper essay is crucial.

I then asked, “what if you were teaching students that weren’t likely to go to university; would the answer change?” You could see that she was thinking about if the answer would change. We then talked about the idea of writing an essay and sharing it through a blog. Would a student writing for more than a teacher, but for an audience, improve the quality of work?

Ultimately, I don’t have a position on the question. I never did. Different students will need different things, and writing a blog post and an essay could be helpful with different aspects of learning, and a combination of both could also be powerful. The more a student writes, the better they will become at writing.

The point of the question was not to get an answer. The point of the question was to think about why we do what we do. If you have students write essays because students have always written essays, that is not a good answer. It has to go deeper than that.

The more questions we ask to really think about what we do in education, the better off we are. What would your question be?

A Fine Balance

I was sitting in Starbucks, listening to music, and reading blogs, when I came upon Amber Teamann’s post titled, “Collaboration…who doesn’t have time?”  I thought about her post, and linked it to my own thoughts on collaboration, and honestly, sometimes our over-emphasis on collaboration in schools. We tend to swing from one extreme to another in education, and I think about my own experience in the profession.

As I have become older, I have become more of an introvert, and my time sitting in a coffee shop, with headphones on, NOT talking to anybody has become pretty important to my development as a learner.  Many schools have adopted “common planning time”, with the idea that it is beneficial to work in teams to learn from one another while also ensuring that we work together to create the best learning opportunities for our students, shifting away from “prep” time alone.  In my opinion, a balance is important.  I need time bouncing ideas off of people and having conversations, but it is so necessary for me to make my own connections to my learning.  If you think about a teacher’s work, you are spending the majority of your time with students, then on the times, you are in meetings or professional learning with others. Where do we have built in time for reflection, connecting, or processing, which are so crucial to our learning?  If we don’t build that in to our own professional time, why would we build it into our classroom time?

Years ago, I heard of a school that actually had two hours a month on a professional learning day where you were NOT allowed to talk to anyone else on staff. No conversations, no phone calls, no emails.  You were on your own.  Some people might hate the idea, but in a time where our lives are seemingly becoming faster, the idea of slowing down seems kind of nice.

I spent the weekend with a friend and he was talking to his son about his “quiet” time later in the day.  It wasn’t a time for a nap (necessarily), but just about having some time to be on his own, for his development, not just for the sake of being alone.  It really got me thinking about our time as professionals,  Would slowing down, having some time to process, connect and reflect on our own be as crucial as collaboration for our growth?  Is that time built into our school year?  I think in an “always on” world, the opportunity to just be on your own for some time is crucial.

The Power of Branding (Book Review)

I am going to start off by saying that there is something about the term “Branding” in connection with schools that just throws me off.  I think in education, where our work is so “human”, the term “branding” just doesn’t sit well, although I do understand why people use it.  Sharing your story in schools though, is especially important today, not because it was not important before, but it is just easier to do so.

That being said, I decided to read the book “The Power of Branding; Telling Your School’s Story”, by Tony Sinanis and Joseph Sanfelippo, not necessarily because I was interested in “branding”, but I have known of both of the writer’s work in schools and how they were doing great things, and wanted to see what they shared.  I will have to admit that I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of the book, but right away, it was more than about “branding”, but was more about “leading with the heart” and building connections.  That caught my attention right away.

What I loved about the book was that it shared practical ways to “tell you story”, mostly through social media, but it focused on, more importantly, creating your story by simple things.  The authors shared simple things about knowing student’s names, celebrating birthdays in the community, and making their connections so personal.  In a topic that could have been so cold, they showed the importance of human connections.  I know a lot of people love the Simon Sinek quote saying, “people don’t buy what you do, but they buy why you do it.”  The one thing that I would add is that many people don’t buy “why” you do anything, until they “buy” you.  If you do not facilitate real connections amongst people, your story will not be as powerful or real, as opposed to making real connections first.  This book puts these connections out in the forefront.

The other element of this book that I loved was the focus on not simply telling a story, but making that story a reality.  It reminded me of the article, “Good Companies are StoryTellers. Great Companies are StoryDoers“.  Although it is a business article, the title applies deeply to education.  If you tell a “great story”, it will be meaningless if a student comes home and says that school sucks.  The most powerful “word of mouth” in education will always come from the mouths of our students. The authors understand this concept and share some great examples of schools and teachers that create great experiences for their students.

This is a short read that is great for school leaders and really surprised me.  If I could change one thing, it would be the title.  It does not talk about simply telling your story, but a lot about creating it, which is much more important. The book goes way deeper into the importance of relationships than the title would imply, which is part of the reason why I loved it so much.

If you are interested in the book, here is the link.

Blog Launch Party (Reflections)

I was recently invited to speak to Mrs. Holden’s Class where they had their “Blog Launch Party“.  I spoke to them for a few minutes about my journey into blogging and the impact it has had on my learning and the opportunities that it has created.  It has been amazing what I have learned in the last four years through the process and I was honoured to share it with the class.

What happened after I talked to them was that all of the students commented on to each other’s blogs and they all learned from each other in the process.  It was a great way to get them excited and then rolling into the project.  Such a great idea (again) from Mrs. Holden’s class.

We even talked about my visit to the St. Louis Zoo since their class connected with them this year, so we sent them this selfie:

Hey @stlzoo…I was just with some of your fans here in #psd70. They wanted to say hi!

A photo posted by George Couros (@gcouros) on

Within minutes, the St. Louis Zoo, responded back and sent them a message from one of their friends:

It was a great activity and a great opportunity to learn from and with a class.  Thanks Mrs. Holden’s class for a great afternoon!

(If you have the opportunity to comment on some of the student blogs, they are listed on the right of the classroom blog.)