Category Archives: Fostering Effective Relationships

The Impact of a Teacher

It has been hard watching the news and hearing about strike action and funding cuts to education in so many provinces around Canada.  Being a part of education, I am not only seeing educators go out of their way to do more for their students, but also continuously tweak and innovate their practice.  Of course, as in every profession, there are weak parts, but I have been lucky enough to travel around the country and see so many dedicated educators that go above and beyond what is expected of their profession.

This made me think of my own teachers and their impact on me.  There are so many different stories I could share that go way beyond one teacher.  Like my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Stock who was one of the most kind and caring people I have ever known, sending me messages 30 years later congratulating me on becoming a principal.

Or my grade 3 teacher Mrs. Penrose who sparked a love of drama and “being on stage” as an eight year old, that has never left me, who wrote on my report card, “You can achieve any dream you want if you put your mind to it”, and constantly pushed me throughout my entire time in elementary to love music and acting.

Or my grade five teacher Mrs. Sloan who had my class run a business at our school and taught us about “entrepreneurship” long before it became a “21st century competency” and was just the best teacher ever.  She even made lawn bowling seem amazing.

Or my grade eight teacher Mr. Hill, who is the principal of my former elementary school, who made a bet with me that his Seattle Supersonics would beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs one year, and had to wear a Lakers sweater I gave him in 30 degree celsius temperature for the entire day.

Or Mr. Bellamy in grade 10 who inspired us to create commercials in class that I can still remember to this day and wish YouTube had existed because I am sure ours would have got at least 100 hits.

Or the countless coaches that put in so much of their own time to help me explore my passions and teach me way beyond any game.

Or Mr. Steele, my high school principal, who didn’t judge me by the kid I was, but treated me like the person I could be, and believed in me even though I was huge brat for many years in high school.

Or the huge group of teachers that came to my father’s funeral to support my family even though I was the last of my family in school and it had almost been 20 years since that time.

I could go on and on about my teachers that made such an impact on me, and the current educators that I serve every day that make such a difference.  This is not meant to be a political statement at all, but more just showing gratitude to the many educators who have made such a difference in the lives of so many.  I have often said, “if we only teach the kids the curriculum, we have failed them.”  This is something that was not told, but has been shown to me by so many educators throughout my time in school.

Thank you.

(I encourage you to share your stories about your teachers to the #EDUin30 hashtag, as this week’s question asks for that.  My 30 second story is below.)

Drown or swim?

As always, it is an honour to work with schools and school boards to share my learning with them, and in return, learn from their ideas as well.  I always encourage push-back in my sessions because I want to create an atmosphere where we all get better, including myself.  The challenges are crucial to our development as learning organizations.

Recently, I worked with the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) and we talked about changing learning and learning environments. What was really special about this day was that there were several high school students in the room as part of the day.  During the first part of the morning, I went and talked to the students and asked them on their thoughts about different things (should teachers use twitter with them, ideas on snapchat, what their learning looks like) and the conversation was so amazingly rich.  As I talked to them, I shared some of the ideas that I was going to present on, but asked them to think critically about what I shared and challenge me after in front of the group.  If I am talking about opportunities for students in learning, it is imperative that I ask them about their opinions and pushback.

What was really inspiring to me was one of the students talked about how it wasn’t really a great idea to use Twitter with students before I talked.  By the end though, she was advocating it’s use to her teachers, because she had seen used in a different way.  I was almost in tears listening to her as she was open to learning and new ideas, and then advocated for herself for something new.

Another amazing moment was when a student advocated that we spend more time on “life” and less time on school (I almost cheered out loud!).  The analogy that he used for the idea of social media was pretty profound.  He said (paraphrased),

“Social media is like water because it is everywhere in our life.  We can ignore it and watch kids drown, or we can teach kids how to swim.  Which way are you going to go?”

Wow.

I was deeply moved by this experience and I thought to myself, why do we not do this more?  We are talking so much about “what is best for kids”, without any kids in the room.  Innovation has no age barrier, and it is important we not only bring them into the conversation, but tap into their brilliance.  How often are we asking kids to be a part of our workshops or “talks”, and not only telling them to be a part of the conversation, but openly telling them to challenge us?  This should be the norm, not the exception.

If any of those students are reading this post, I just want to thank you for your inspiration and ideas.  I hope you know how much your words were appreciated.

(P.S. Here is my #30SecondReflection on the day below.  I am wanting to do this more to push my own learning.)

Always Let Them Know You Care, Even When it is Tough

This week in #EDUin30, I asked the question, “If there is an incident in school (with a student), how do you communicate with families?“, to help educators that are probably going into the interview process coming up, or to share with educators that have any number of years of experience.  With the number of ways that we can communicate, my fear is that we go away from the things that are most important.  For example, I always caution educators to NEVER deliver bad information through an email.  Without hearing tone or sometimes losing context, this can make a bad situation much worse.  This is one of those examples of things in education that does not need to change.  Face-to-face, or a phone call, is still a much better alternative.

When I was an assistant-principal, I remember my secretary at the time communicating something with me that I still remember to this day.  She said something like, “When you call a parent about something bad that their child has done, just know that you are probably going to destroy their world, even if it is only for a short amount of time.  Make sure they know that you still care about their child.”  This advice never left me.

So when I would talk to students about something that happened that was less than desirable, I would focus on two questions; “Why are you here?”, followed by “What would you do in my position?”  It was important to let the kids talk and work there way through the situation, as opposed to me solving the issue.  I want them to be able to deal with situations without my presence, and these questions created independence and accountability to themselves.

After we would work through the situation, I would call home, with the child in the office.  Why this was important was I would talk to their parent or guardian, and start off by telling them any positives that I saw with their child, but then share with them that they had an incident at school, and then would pass the phone over to the child to explain.  This ensure that they learned to take accountability for their actions while also making sure there was no miscommunication.  They would also share how we would move forward after the fact.  After this conversation, I would talk to the parent or guardian, and share the process, and often, how proud I was of their child for taking accountability and working through their problem, and then often remind them that all of us, make mistakes.  It was important for both the child and the guardian to know that I valued them and that none of us are perfect.  Did I do this 100% of the time?  No, because certain situations called for something different, but this was pretty standard practice, and a far removal from the notion of the school principal yelling at a kid from making a mistake, which I have seen far too often.

There are so many times that things happen in school, and no matter the community, I can guarantee mistakes will be made.  What is important is that we work with our families and communities to let them know that we value each child, and sometimes especially when they screw up.  It is easy to love when all is perfect, but it is more crucial to do it when it is not.  I am forever grateful to that secretary for sharing something with me that has stuck with me for so many years.

(Below is my short video reflection on the topic…Please feel free to share your reflection to the question to #EDUin30 and #EDUin30w10.)

The Words on the Walls

As I walked into a school, I noticed a sign that something similar to, “For the safety of the school, please stop at the office to sign in.”  Immediately, I felt a tinge of anxiety as I wondered if something was there that would make the building unsafe, and I wondered if the students had ever felt the same.  Maybe most of them weren’t worried, but the sign shouldn’t evoke a feeling of the school being “unsafe”.

I remember listening to Martin Brokenleg earlier this year and he had mentioned this exact idea.  He said to think about the tone we set in the building when we have signs like this, compared to a message of, “We would love all visitors to come to the office so we can welcome you upon your arrival.”  The message was the same, but the difference in words sets a totally different tone once you enter the building.

There are so many little things around our building that we don’t notice and hence the importance of trying to look at things with fresh eyes. We encourage risk taking, yet I have seen signs in schools about the importance of not making mistakes.  Risk taking often comes with mistakes, so which one is it?  Saying something once in awhile is sometimes not as powerful as words on the wall that are there all of the time.

Do the words on the walls encourage a welcoming environment, a sense of community, and  opportunities for innovation? Or do they create a cold environment, that sometimes could pressure a fear of making mistakes, or sometimes even for one’s safety?  Ask your students, ask your community, and ask yourself.  What do the words on the walls tell you about the environment that you are trying to create?

P.S. If the words on the walls create a warm and welcoming environment, but your actions don’t, those words don’t matter either.  It is important to align the two.

Have a bad boss? Ask them for their advice.

I received an interesting question in a workshop the other day that I have heard before, but had never written down.  The question was based on working with an administrator that maybe isn’t the strongest, and how you work with them from a position lower on a traditional hierarchy.  I will have to admit that this isn’t the first time that I have heard this question, and I gave them the best advice I could.  Ask them for help.

So why would you want to ask someone who may be weak at their job or struggle for their advice?

For the same reason that many of us thrive under; the notion of being valued.  Asking someone for their advice in a situation or their help, suggests that you actually value what they have to say and are willing to take the time to listen to them.  This is something that is important and a way that most of us should feel, especially in a culture where we suggest that everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a learner.

Having spent time being a principal myself, I will openly admit that I had some really tough days on the job, and it is a lot harder to be in that position when you don’t feel valued.  But to me, the need of feeling valued is something that we should try to instil in people, no matter their position or authority.  One of the best things that I see in great leaders (from any position), is that when you see them talking to anyone, no matter if they are “above” or “below” them in the hierarchy of an organization, is that they treat everyone with respect and care.  Bosses need this as well, and when they frustrate us, it is easy to lose perspective.  Everyone wants to be acknowledged and seen for their strengths; that never changes no matter what position you may have.

There are a lot of bad bosses who know they are not doing the best job possible, and sometimes showing that value in them could be the push in the right direction that they need.  It may not always work, but I know that showing that you value someone is usually a safe bet.

 

The People You See Every Single Day

It is easy to connect with people on Twitter.  Many of them people that I have made connections with share a lot of the stuff that I love, and really push my thinking.  There is a real power in that.

And then you go back to your school and sometimes you might feel like no one gets you or wants the same things that you want in education or think differently about the notion of “what’s best for kids.”

But are we sometimes the cause for the disconnect?

It is easy to connect with people on Twitter that you don’t talk to and see everyday.  The relationships in your school though take a lot more work, as does any relationship that you see people every single day. We have to keep asking questions and engaging in conversations.  The worst thing we can do is just say the people we work with don’t get it and give up.  If we are not willing to do it, “they” are not the problem.

I saw something once that said the word “love” is not a noun, but a verb.  It is an action and it takes work to make happen in our world.  It is not just something that exists because we say or hope it does.

The Opportunity To Further Bring Parents Into the Learning

My friend, Mark Renaud, took this short video of me speaking about the opportunity that social media has given to us to change the conversation at home between child and parent.

If social media is used in a thoughtful way to make learning visible, the hope is to change the conversation from “What did you learn today””, followed by the usual “nothing”, to something much more powerful.

Thanks to Mark for sharing this!

3 Things That Have Slowed the Change Process Down in Education (And What We Can Do About It)

There has been a lot of talk on the idea that education as a whole takes a long time to change.  As an educator, this is a challenging notion, since we are seeing many people doing some amazing things that did not exist when I was a student.  Change is happening but sometimes it is hard to see when you are in the middle of the process.

Some things are out of the hands of schools. Budgets and government decisions can make creating new and better learning environments for students tough, but not impossible.  Educators are not powerless, and in some cases, more powerful that ever.  The story of education can not only be told from the perspective of educators, but also from the students that are currently in the system.  Although there is still a lot of work to do (as there always will be in organizations that focus on continuous learning and have an emphasis on becoming “innovative”), there are also opportunities in education, now more than ever, that we will need to take advantage of and create a different path.

Here are some of the challenges we have had in the past and how we can tackle them

1. Isolation is the enemy of innovation. 

Education has traditionally been an isolating profession where we get some time together, but not nearly enough.  Even if we wanted to change this significantly, in most cases, the current physical structures do not allow us to work with other educators.  Some administrators have been very innovative in their planning of teacher prep time and have embedded collaboration time into the regular school day, but it is not necessarily enough to make a significant impact.

How so many educators have shifted this “norm” is by using social media spaces to connect and learn from educators all over the world, and making a significant difference in their own classrooms, and creating much more engaging and empowering learning spaces.  Isolation is now a choice educators make. Where the shift really has to happen is using things like Twitter is for educators to connect and share learning that is happening with educators in their own school.  I challenged people to do the following (as shared in this visual from Meredith Johnson);

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 11.50.26 AM

We need to make this happen and create transparency in our own classrooms.

How does a song like “Gangnam Style” go so viral that most people around the world not only know the words but the dance moves?  Social media.  If a song can spread so quickly, so can great learning.

Make it go viral.

2. A continuous focus on what is wrong, as opposed to what is right.

Think about the traditional practice of what school has done with many of our students.  If they struggle with the subject of math, we often send the more math homework to do at home.  Does this really make sense?  If they are struggling at school, making them struggle at home with the same content is often counterintuitive.  It is not that we shouldn’t struggle, but it is important that we are very thoughtful of how we spend our energy.

The shift that has happened with not only our students, but also our schools, is focusing upon building upon strengths as opposed to focusing solely on weaknesses.  This is imperative as building upon strengths often helps us to not only build competence, but also confidence which leads us to the mindset that we are more open to tackle our other challenges along the way.

I love this quote from Forbes on putting people in the right positions to be successful:

Leadership is a privilege, not a right, and we need to treat it as such. Leadership means encouraging people to live up to their fullest potential and find the path they love. That, and only that, will create a strong culture and sustainable levels of innovation.

Many organizations outside of education are hiring not on need, but finding the best people and empowering them based upon their strengths.  Schools should try to do their best to follow suit and put people to be in the best situations to not only do well, but to lead.

3.  Experience is a very powerful teacher.

I remember sitting and listening to Bruce Dixon at a conference and something he said has always stuck out to me:

In no other profession in the world do you sit and watch someone else do your job for 16 years before you go and do it yourself.

Wow.  That is a powerful message and shows why so many new teachers aren’t coming into school with all of these “innovative ideas” and changing our school system like so many people predicted.  Many educators simply replicate their experience as a student. If you think about it, at least one-third of many teachers educational experience is as a student, not a teacher.  That is a tough thing to overcome, but not impossible.

Innovation has no age barrier, and if we can tweak the experience for educators in their professional learning, they are more likely to change the experience for their students.  Writing ideas about “21st century classrooms” on gigantic pieces of paper with a felt marker is not going to create cultural shifts; changing experiences will.

People are starting to look differently at professional learning, and create experiences that are much different from what I first experienced as a teacher.  I think a major reason for this shift (going back to point 1) is that educators are seeing the shift in practices in so many other organizations, and are trying to create a different practice where more educators are not really focused on teaching as much as they are about learning.  This empathy is crucial since to become a master teacher, you must become a master learner.  

Changing experiences to shift the focus on the learner from the teacher helps to disrupt routine.  If you would want to create an environment where students would want to be a part of your classroom, we have to experience what learning could look like for ourselves and start from a point of empathy.

One shift that was not mentioned was the mindset of looking at obstacles as opportunities. As mentioned earlier, not everything is in our control, but as educators know, they can make an impact every single day.  It is not always easy, and teaching can be a very daunting and tiring job, but I believe that every day we can make a difference if we choose.  Having that mindset is the only way that we will ever truly be able to make a powerful change for ourselves and our students.

“More than better students…better people.”

One of my favourite videos on the power of education, especially in our world today, is the “Speaking Exchange”, which has students from Brazil learning how to speak english from seniors at a retirement home in Chicago. It is a powerful reminder of how we should not only invite “experts” into our schools, but that sharing our expertise with the world also has a tremendous impact on others as well.  I am not only talking about teachers, but students. Their words and actions can make an impact on others if we give them the opportunity.

The words at the end of the video are perfect and encapsulate so much of what I believe about our goals for school.  The video ends with, “More than better students…better people.” Schools need to go beyond and be a part of developing good people alongside our communities to make a difference in our world.  This is paramount.

I was reminded of these words again when I saw this video of the power of team sports and caring for other human beings.  Please take a few minutes to watch, but have some kleenex ready:

This video goes beyond sports and the quote, “We all need someone who knows our mistakes, and loves us anyway” resonated with me deeply.  None of us are perfect but we all deserve to be loved.

I hope you enjoy watching that story as much as I did.

(Thanks to Sarah Garr, here is a version that works in Canada.)

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.