Category Archives: Fostering Effective Relationships

It’s About the Work

I sometimes struggle with the notion of publicly recognizing the work of teachers that publicly share their work on Twitter in our school district.  Although I do it anyway, I have always worried about the perception that some teachers might gauge others as “favourites”.

After bringing this notion up with Brian Woodland, Director of Communication for Peel School Board, he talked about the idea that it is not the teacher that you are necessarily sharing, but the work of the teacher.  As we went back and forth on this concept, we talked about the notion of making great learning viral and how this is really not much different than asking a teacher to share something at a staff meeting that has been done, it just has the potential to be spread to a much larger audience.

Chris Kennedy and I talked about this concept as well and his belief was that if someone was taking the time to share something great, one thing that he should try to do is acknowledge them on a wider basis.  When I asked him about teachers that might become jealous, he had told me that if any of them mentioned that if they thought it was unfair, to show him some great stuff that there were doing and he would gladly share it to a larger audience.

So what’s the difference between acknowledging a person through an email or through a social network and allowing the world to see.  Well if we focus that is not directly focusing on the teacher, but the impact that the teacher is making on the students that they work with, and that if it is shared to a larger audience, it will make a larger impact, then we are doing it for the right reasons.

When we get upset about this sharing, are we really focused on creating great learning opportunities for our students?

My suggestion if you are uneasy with this as an administrator?  Have a conversation with your staff and tell them that you are wanting to share great examples of learning as you see them by your staff as it makes us all better, and you will do your best to share the work of all those willing to post into a shared public space (for example Twitter, Google Plus, etc.).

If we want to make these great learning opportunities viral, we are going to have to share them.

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.

Taking Ownership

During the Super Bowl, this tweet from JC Penney went viral:

 

Which opened up some really hilarious responses, like this one from Kia Motors:

 

So what did JC Penney do? They didn’t quickly delete the tweet as there was nothing inappropriate about it, but instead offered a reason why the message had so many errors.

 

The ironic thing is why would JC Penney even delete the initial tweet? With over 23,000 Retweets and 10,000 Favourites, it probably was one of their most viral tweets they had ever shared from their account. It definitely brought attention to the company and made a “business” seem human (since a person runs an account) in the way that they admitted their mistake and poked fun at themselves.

The thing that I quickly related to in this post is the number of educators that ask the question, “What if I make a mistake and then it goes viral?”

Well what happens when you make a mistake in your school?  Do you do everything to hide it or do you take ownership and move forward?  There is a difference between making a mistake and being inappropriate and if it is a mistake, similar to the one that was made by JC Penney, taking ownership sometimes gives an educator more credibility than not making a mistake in the first place.  Showing the humility that we can all screw up and learn from it, says a lot.  Trying to cover up a mistake says something as well.

Something Every Teacher Needs

Listening to Erin Gruwell (of “Freedom Writers” fame) this morning at #NCTCA2014, it was inspirational to hear her share stories of her students, and how some of them came from some very horrific situations and went on to be successful.

Was it a specific teaching method that she used to help change their lives? Nope.

Was it some sort of new technology that inspired them to do some great? Nope.

What I saw and felt in her talk this morning was one word.

Belief.

I have always believed the importance of relationships and how they are foundation of a great school, classroom, or organization, but having “belief” in every student you interact with, no matter how hard it is and where they have come from, can make all of the difference.

If we don’t believe kids can change the world or even just make it a better place to live, they are already starting in deficit.

Embodying that one little word, can make a huge difference for a kid who needs you more than you will ever know.

Above and Beyond

While I was working on a presentation on the plane, and was extremely tired, a flight attendant came up to me and she said, “I saw your screen is really dirty so I went and found this screen cleaner for you.  We don’t want you to hurt your eyes.”  I watched her do these types of things not only for me, but for as many people as she could.  It wasn’t that she just gave me the screen cleaner, but the way she delivered it as it wasn’t her job, she was doing something extra for another person because she could.

So I hugged her when I got off the plane and told her she was awesome.  Anyone that makes you feel special, deserves a hug, right?

I thought about this in the context of schools and how as educators, we are often bombarded with so many requests, and sometimes those things that don’t really matter in the long term and can really suck the life out of a person.  Yet there are so many teachers that still go above and beyond.  They don’t only see things as supervision as part of their job, but as an opportunity to connect with kids.  I remember watching some teachers in my school just go and play basketball with kids, not because it was their “supervision” day, but because they loved it and they knew the kids loved it as well.  That extra 10 minutes that the teacher spent with those students, made a ton of difference long term.  Doing that little extra for each student for some people isn’t part of their job, but just who they are.

Often I hear people trying to break down what teachers get paid an hour, based on all of the “extras” they do (marking, coaching, supervision, etc.), but you can never distinguish a monetary value on the impact that those teachers that go above and beyond make on their students.  It is invaluable.

I have always said that if you only teach the curriculum to a child, you will have failed them.  There is so much more to teaching than “stuff”. The best teachers know this and go above and beyond each day, not because it is their job, but because they know that these little things can make a big difference today and tomorrow.

Trajectory

…if a child knows how to read, if a child knows how to search for information, how do we teach them how to believe. How early in a child’s life, can we put that in there.”  Sugatra Mitra

Since the beginning of 2014, the same word has been popping up in my head over and over again.  It is trajectory. One of the definitions of the word is, “a chosen or taken course”, and I think about the people in my life that have often inspired me to change my trajectory for the positive.  There are times, that my trajectory has changed for a positive in spite of people, and sometimes it has changed for a negative.  I am sure that I have impacted people in a negative way in the past, and I am trying to focus on helping others reach something that they didn’t think that they could possibly attain before.  Like most teachers, I want to make a difference.  Every action, interaction, and reaction you have with someone is an opportunity to change their path; I want them to move up because of me, not in spite of our interaction.

I asked the following questions yesterday:

“Did you have a teacher impact you? What did they do differently from others?”

Not one person responded about a science test (check out the hashtag #whatgreatteachersdo for responses) that inspired them, yet most of the answers talked about some personal connection and belief that a teacher had in them.  Although teachers have to deal with many students, the best ones make every student feel that they are special and cared for.  That is a great teacher’s gift.

As a principal, I waited outside in the morning for the students to get off the bus and tried to say hello and acknowledge every student as they arrived to school.  I did not do this because it was my job to do supervision, but because the opportunity to start off the morning feeling like you could make a child smile with a little acknowledgment, is a pretty amazing way to start the day.  Yet with hundreds of students in our school, there is no way that I could have seen every one.  My expectation, was that teachers would be waiting for their students outside of their doors and greeting them as they came in.  If you think about it, some of those students that you greet, is their first acknowledgment in the day.  Yes, they might be around people as they come to school, but it does not mean anyone has shown any interest.  I am not solely talking about students that come from families in poverty, as we should never make the assumption that a child coming from a family of means is one that is also feeling loved.  It is always the safe bet to show love and care for every student.

I have walked down the hallways of many schools, and I watch teachers and administrators walk by students and not even look at them.  It kills me.  A little acknowledgment to a student,  can be all they need for you to change their trajectory that day, and possibly beyond.  I have watched leaders like Jimmy Casas and Patrick Larkin, acknowledge every student and staff member that walks by them in a day.  If you watch people like these two, you will realize it is unnatural for them to not have those interactions.  They change trajectories every single day, because they know those kids and staff members do the same for them.

I also watch administrators stop their teachers dead in their tracks from trying something new to help kids.  Instead of saying, “How can I help you?”, they simply say “no”, just often in a more elaborate way.  If you want your teachers to have those interactions with students to show that they believe in them, we must model the same thing.  If I know a teacher cares for their students, and will do anything for them, as a leader, I exhibit that same behaviour.  Sometimes a simple “yes”, or “go for it”, is all that teacher needs to be great.  ”No” often ends that excitement and enthusiasm quickly.

So as I continue on in this year, I will continue to think of my words and interactions with others. I am someone who wants to leave a legacy, and in education, legacy is not defined by what you do, but by what the people you serve do.  Helping others to achieve greatness and changing their trajectory to do something that they might not have once believed possible, is our work.

Sometimes the only thing a person needs to change their path is to feel that someone believes in them.  Let’s remember that in everything we do.

The Pain of Silence

I saw this tweet from Chris Wejr yesterday:

As I read the article, I thought about my own experiences being in situations that I felt uncomfortable.  I don’t use the term “bully” often, but I do remember situations that were tough to deal with as a teacher.  I wish I could say that I have never done anything wrong, but I have tried my best to treat others with respect and kindness, so I just want to bring awareness of things that could be tough on teachers.

You see, in my first year as a teacher, I moved to a new place away from my home, and struggled with the isolation.  Luckily, I came to a warm and welcoming place and was treated amazing. People knew that I was on my own, so they went out of their way to make home cooked meals, bring me fresh bread, and introduce me to a ton of people.  To be honest, I was treated pretty amazing.

One night though, I went out with some of the people on staff, and they started poking fun at me.  Not in a mean-spirited way, but in jest.  I was okay with it.  As I walked out of the door, continuously being poked, I made a comment back that was taken a lot more serious then I had meant it.  I won’t go into details, but I had unknowingly offended people and it was due to something that I did not know about the people I was spending time with. I walked home that night thinking nothing of my comment.

After weeks and months of being treated amazing, I came to the school on Monday and when I walked into the staff room it was like a ghost town.  Seemingly no one wanted to be within a foot of me, and even though only a few staff members were there, word had spread on how I screwed up, and it was held against to me.  Not everyone was mad at me (although it did feel that way) because they knew the comment was made in jest and a way to be accepted, but a strong contingent of staff would not even acknowledge my existence.

So as a first year teacher, what did I do?  I spent a ton of time in my classroom always seemingly having to work on things, and spent most of my breaks playing basketball with kids because I felt I had no option.  The silent treatment was extremely hurtful and I would spend a ton of my time at home extremely upset, wondering if I had made the right choice to move to this new town.  After about a year of this, it finally seemed to simmer down but I had already decided that it was not the place that I wanted to be.  Through it, several teachers ensured that they took me in, and one in particular made me feel like I was a part of her family.  I am still friends with her today.

Fast forward to a few years later, I had an issue with a coaching schedule and I complained about the other teacher in the process.  He had found out, came up to me, and told me, “If you have a problem with me, you come talk to me.  Do not say things behind my back.”  Although he was upset at that moment, he said his peace, and it was never brought up again.  That was it.  I am still close friends with him today, and I learned a lot from that situation.

You see, sometimes the worst thing to say to someone is nothing at all.  I had no idea that I had screwed up until a lot later because no one would talk to me and I had no clue.  Silence, when made explicit, can be a killer.  Words are not the only things that can hurt someone, and though I learned a lot from that situation years ago, that silence in my memory is still deafening.

Want someone to see your viewpoint? Ask them their thoughts first.

When I believe in something,  I used to spend all of my time trying to “sell” that idea to others and trying to get them to embrace what I saw.  If people didn’t agree with me, or my viewpoint, I would often got extremely frustrated and get nowhere closer than where I was before.  I hear this same approach from so many other people who tell me about the countless hours they try to get people to “embrace change”, and what I have learned is to spend less time defending your position, and spend more time asking questions.

For example, start a conversation with, “You and I are here to do what is best for kids.  Why do you feel the way that you do about this?”  What is powerful in this type of question is you start with building a common goal and show someone that you believe they are doing what they feel is right for kids.  The other element is that you are asking their thoughts, as opposed to getting them to try to simply understand your viewpoint.  Once you learn about someone else, and try to build some empathy for their situation and mindset, it is much easier to help them move forward. Sometimes, you also might realize that you are closer to one another than you thought.

We have to realize that in many cases, the best solution is not one extreme or another, but somewhere in the middle. If you don’t listen and ask questions, it is much harder to get to that point.

A Closer View

I tweeted the following yesterday:

This was not directed to any specific leadership group, but to all levels of administration.  As I talked to someone involved in “decision making” as they shared their plan, I outright said teachers will hate the decision as they will feel handcuffed and suggested that she take some time in the classroom before any policy was created.

What I don’t get is how a decision that impacts teachers in their classrooms could be made by someone sitting from an office that doesn’t at least spend some time observing in a classroom.  I am not talking about a “walkthrough” or an evaluation, but actually just sitting in the classroom and getting a feel for how decisions impact students.  As an administrator, you want to become “invisible” in that environment so you can see what happens on a regular basis.  This only happens when a visit is not a “major” event.

A trustee from another school division said (paraphrased) that teachers wouldn’t necessarily want a board member in their classroom.  I know that not all teachers would be jumping on this opportunity, but in reality, not all teachers could have this due to time constraints.  That being said, I know many educators are welcoming to anyone that wants to see what they do on a day-to-day basis, especially when they know that it is about an opportunity to improve what happens with students.

For example, I have heard the argument on technology purchases that the current computers with all of their network protocols and security features, only take “two minutes” to logon.  The difference is they take “two minutes” for an adult, and usually one that is good with technology. Times that by 25 students, with one teacher in the room, and “two minutes” can become an eternity.  The question then would become, how do we keep these computers secure while also ensuring we are creating the most amount of instructional/learning time for our schools.  Sitting in another building and making these decisions, you often don’t see the impact, and that is where tension usually begins.

So as we head into 2014, if you are in the position to create policies, take some time just sitting in a classroom and see what a day looks like.  You might still have to make some type of policy or procedure that is not necessarily loved by all, but you will both build relationships in this process (strengthening trust), while also truly understanding differing perspectives.

If we are true leaders, we are looking to unleash talent, not control it, and we have to do what we can to take the handcuffs off the people that are working closest with kids.

The Value of Confidence

I recently shared this video on the importance of “confidence” for leadership and it is something that I have often thought about in our work as educators.

My experience as a referee taught me a lot about many aspects of leadership and teaching, but one of the things that it help to develop was my confidence. Often, I would be in a game where the majority of people in the stands could tell me how to do my job, yet the minority had ever done it. Most of your decisions were ones that 50% of people disagreed with, and you quickly develop a thick skin. If you don’t develop it, you cry or quit. You had to not only believe in your ability and understanding of the game, but you also had to be comfortable when you had make a mistake and owning it up to it. The best refs often a lot of confidence in their game, yet it was a dangerous line to flirt with. Arrogant refs who thought they knew more than others and were infallible often alienated themselves from coaches, players, and sometimes other referees.

Instead of googling the definitions of “confidence” and “arrogance”, I throw you my own simple thoughts. Confidence is when you believe in your own abilities yet still have humility. Arrogance is when you believe you are better than others.

This confidence I developed as a referee was something that I needed to carry over to when I became an administrator. Making tough decisions that would ultimately upset people every now and then was wearing, but if I could look back and say that I did what was best for kids, I could sleep at night. I would try my best to listen, value other people’s ideas, but sometimes I had to make the final call and it wasn’t something that all were okay with. That is part of the job.

On the other hand, this lack of confidence by educators can be detrimental to moving forward in our schools. Yong Zhao talks extensively about the correlation between “confidence” and “entrepreneurial spirit in his book “World Class Learners”:

There is no more important attribute of entrepreneurship than a sense of self-confidence, the belief in oneself and one’s own ideas. Entrepreneurs are agents of change, and change is usually resisted. Entrepreneurs will continually confront roadblocks and resistance from individuals who do not support or believe in their ideas…. To confront and overcome the resistance they will encounter, it is imperative that entrepreneurs have a sense of self-confidence. (Zhao)

So what happens when we lack confidence as educators?

Well often it impacts our relationships. Insecurity often leads to distrust and feelings of inadequacy. Similar to any relationship, these feelings often lead to negative actions that make an impact later. What I have tried to do is give trust before I am trusted, and I have been more often right than wrong in this practice. I also try to not take things personally when it comes to decisions within the school. I have often debated many people who disagree with some of my ideas, and previously, I would often be quite upset. Now, I (for the most part) realize that people can have different opinions and still have a negative relationship, as long as they have the ability to listen to each other.

A lack of confidence can lead to either being personally hurt, or a lack of listening. Neither of these outcomes, ultimately serve students. It is easy to label someone as “arrogant” when they don’t agree with our ideas, but sometimes this has to do more with ourselves, than it does in others. Is it their arrogance or our insecurity?

One of the things that I feel is so ironic about education is that we spend so much time talking to our kids, and telling them to be proud of who they are, share their voice, and to be confident, yet as adults we often call others that do the same as “arrogant”.  Is that more because of them or us?

I recently read a post from Krissy Venosdale and she referenced how tough it is when we attack each other’s passions:

In a truly collaborative atmosphere, everyone’s strengths are capitalized on, weaknesses embraced and supported, and passion? It’s accepted. It’s celebrated. It’s welcome. It’s what I expect of my students, always. It should be what we expect of ourselves as colleagues. But sometimes even colleagues let each other down.

When you pour you heart into something, it can truly break it when someone doesn’t “get” it. But we’re all different. The very best thing we can do for our students is to live out loud. Be ourselves. Let our passions shine through. Never shining so they will blind others, but so they will light up learning in our schools and for our kids.

We owe it to each and every child that crosses the doorway into our schools to be authentic and we owe it to each other as colleagues to support, build up, and celebrate each other’s chance to shine. Every single day.

As all people, I have my own insecurities, but I think growing as a person helps us to not only identify where we are weak, but sometimes even learn to accept and embrace those feelings. The thing I often wonder is that if we continuously question ourselves in a negative way and project our insecurities on others, what does this model for our students? Before we tackle the world, we often need to be able to tackle ourselves.

“We are all meant to shine, as children do… It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” ~ Marianne Williamson