Category Archives: Fostering Effective Relationships

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.)

3 Ways Social Media Can Improve School Culture

I was having a great conversation the other day with a good friend, and she was sharing how many boards aren’t really worried about “social media” because they are needing to actually focus on improving their culture first.  I thought a lot about what she said, and to be honest, if you cannot have conversations with people in your own organization, Twitter is going to be the last thing in your mind.  That being said, I have seen a lot of school organizations use social media to actually improve their culture significantly.  It is not the only way, but if used in powerful ways, it definitely can have an overall impact on your school or district.

Here are three ways that I have seen an impact (although I encourage you to look at some of the responses on this tweet when I asked the question).

1.  Increased Visibility

In large boards (especially), it is tough for directors, superintendents, principals, etc., to actually physically be in all places at all times.  Visibility is an important part of leadership, and I love when I see leaders in schools or in classrooms, but social media actually allows you to not only see leaders in a different light, but also see their thought process.  Through tweets, blog posts, and more(Superintendent Chris Smeaton is a great example of this, although I could have chosen from a large lists of administrators), you get to see visible thinking of leaders, but also other aspects of their lives that make them more “human”.  If you are a superintendent, and you walked into one of your schools, and many of your teachers had no idea who you are, isn’t that kind of a problem?  Social media, used effectively, can help increase this visibility.

2.  Increased Accessibility

Now being more connected can have both a positive and negative impact on a person.  If you are connected to your device 24/7, that might be great for your school, but bad for your personal life (and health).  We have to be able to shut off.  That being said, when teachers can tap into one another and learn from each other,it not only improves learning, but it also builds relationships.  I have watched in my own school division, the difference in the past few years with the increased use of social media, a greater connection between staff from different schools when seeing each other in person, because the accessibility to one another online doesn’t replace face-to-face interactions, but can enhance them.  Teachers that connected online, have ended up meeting face-to-face to plan EdCamps, Innovation Week, and talk about a whole host of other things to help improve learning.  The accessibility to not only ideas, but one another, improves learning and relationships.  They are not mutually exclusive.

3. A Flattened Organization

I really believe in the idea in schools that everyone’s a teacher and everyone’s a learner, and that these roles are interchangeable throughout any and all days.  Watching great schools, I have seen superintendents learn from teachers, teachers learn from parents, principals learn from students, and any other combination you can think of within a school community.  As Chris Anderson would call this “crowd-accelerated innovation”, and it is so important to embrace this notion of learning from anyone and everyone, if we are going to improve the culture of our school’s.  When you work for an organization and you know that no matter what role you play, that your voice is valued, don’t you think that would have a significant impact on culture?

Concluding Thoughts

If you are looking at improve school culture, open learning is essential to our environments.  I don’t want to only know what the decisions are that are made, but about the people who are making them, and their thoughts behind these decisions.  That openness is crucial.  Only in an organization where voices are not only heard, but also valued, will you ever see significant improvements in school culture, and with the tools that we are provided in our world today, that pace of culture change can be significantly faster than it was without this same technology.

3 Assumptions We Shouldn’t Make About Educators

I haven’t had my own classroom of students for a few years, but I always try to remember what it was like to be a teacher, and always try to start from that viewpoint.  It bothers me when I see posts or videos talking about how so many teachers are not willing to do something better for their kids, when every single person that has “embraced change” was at some point doing things previously that they would question now.

I talk a lot about the importance of using technology to enhance learning and relationships, but I didn’t always believe it was important.  It took a lot of suggestions and support from others before I started doing things differently in my practice; it did not happen overnight.  That being said, just like so many other educators, I still have a lot of room to grow in so many areas.  There are so many aspects of education that are important to the development of our kids, and teachers are juggling so many things that they have to do, many of which have little to do with teaching in a classroom, but are admin tasks.  Instead of wondering “why aren’t people moving faster?”, we have to take a step back and get rid of some of the assumptions that people make about educators.  Below are a few that stick out in my mind.

1. Educators are not willing to embrace change.

I think for many educational leaders, this is an easy way out.  It puts the blame others instead of looking at something internal.  Simply telling someone that they should change their practice, and it reminds me of how sometimes people are just bad at selling change in the first place.  I have seen a lot of people talk about the importance of change, but by the end of listening to them, you feel terrible about what you haven’t done as opposed to inspired to do something better.

\Making people feel like crap is not the key to getting them to do something different and will not lead to sustainable change.  What is important is that people experience something different themselves, but also that they are valued for what they do.  If an educator knows that the change is something that will be better for kids, they are more likely to start doing something different.

There are so many things that an educator has to do, so I think it is actually good that many of them are critical about what they put their efforts into.  Have you ever had an initiative in your school that has come and gone and shown no impact on students?  Not all change is good, but I believe if an educator can see the value in it for their students, they are more likely to embrace it.

2. Educators don’t want what is best for kids.

Educators know that they are going into a very giving profession, where the pay is traditionally not that great.  The majority of them want to make a difference.  It is cool when some students get opportunities like Innovation Week, but sometimes kids show up with no food in their stomachs, and making it through their day is a huge accomplishment.  Doing the “innovative ideas” might not be possible for that kid.  There are so many variables to our day as educators, and teachers are rarely ever just teachers.  They take care of kids in so many different ways because of they didn’t, there is no way some kids would be successful in any aspect of their lives.  If every classroom and group of students looked exactly the same, teaching would be easy, although in my opinion, not very rewarding.  The diversity is what makes education so great.  That being said, most educators are doing what they believe is best for their kids.  No one wakes up in the morning wanting to be terrible at their job.  We need to always remember that.

3. That all educators do is teach.

It disheartened me to see an educator friend, who is brilliant and I would want teaching my own children, talk about how they had to get another job to make ends meet.  I have heard this from several people.  To think that a person who would have to work two jobs (one of them serving children all day) would not only have the time or the energy to learn new things, is pretty presumptuous.  Just being a teacher, takes a lot out of you.  We can’t assume that all of our efforts go simply into teaching.  There are so many other aspects of our lives.

It is not only the cases where teachers are juggling another job, but also other aspects of their life.  Many people have so many things going on in their lives, yet we assume that so many should put all of their time and energy into becoming the greatest teacher of all time.  Some people are lucky if they can make it through the day because of whatever is going on in their lives.  This is not only in education, but in all professions.  We want to be great friends, partners, parents, siblings, or whatever, and sometimes teaching needs to take a little bit of a backseat to the other things in life.  Does this mean a teacher doesn’t care about what they do? Not at all.  But I am firm believer that I would rather have a teacher that is focused on being a whole person, than simply focusing on being a teacher.  Personally, some days it is/was hard for me to get up and do my job because of other things going on in my life.  We always have to remember that there is more to a teacher than being a teacher.

Do some teachers not fall in line with what I have shared? Absolutely.  There are bad people in every profession.  I guess my point is that when we make generalized assumptions about others in our profession we are already starting in a deficit.  Trusting someone is doing the best they can before they prove it to you, is an important part of leadership. We have to give trust before we earn trust in many cases.  Assuming the worst of others will not get us to grow as a profession.