Category Archives: Personal Learning

The Biggest Barrier to Innovation

“Being realistic is the most commonly travelled road to mediocrity.” Will Smith

Maybe it’s because I have been listening to “motivational speeches” on 8Tracks, or maybe because I have been emotionally touched by so many tributes to all of the moms out there in the world, but I have been thinking a lot about our mindset towards innovation and the barriers that we need to overcome to create better learning opportunities in our schools.  This post is a tribute to my mom who is my hero for more reasons than I could ever count.

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 7.47.18 PM

I saw the above picture a few months ago, and it is one that has resonated with me.  When we talk about “change”, it is often something we think about when talking about others, and rarely in connection with ourselves.  It is easy to want others to change, but it always starts with “us” and our attitudes to change.  Constantly looking at the life of my parents, I learned from them that change is an opportunity to do something amazing, and that when we embrace new opportunities, even when they seem like obstacles, we can create something much better than what currently exists.  Change is scary and we often stay with a “known bad” than take the chance on the possibility of a “great” new opportunity.  Fear can stop us or make us reluctant, but it doesn’t have to defeat us.

My mom has proven this to me over and over again throughout her life.  Having a grade six education in Greece, and nearly dying from meningitis as a young child, she decided one day to come over to Canada to create a better life.  If you think about the time that she came over, she probably had no idea whether she would see her family again.  Yet she worked hard, and with my dad, created a life for themselves and for my siblings that had more opportunities for us than what they had as children. I remember her taking lessons to read in her 50’s and 60’s because she knew that being able to read and write would create opportunities, even though learning it would be an obstacle. To this day, at almost 80 years old, she constantly sends me emails and it is amazing how she gets better with every single one.  I save each email that she sends to me in a folder, and it is like my mom’s own learning portfolio. I cherish each one.

In the last few years, I have watched her deal with so much adversity and come out strong, although not without her struggles.  My dad passed away two years ago, and her only brother passed away a few months ago.  The older we get, the more we seem to lose, yet my mom still goes out of her way to show me love and connect with me and give me advice.  With such a little amount of formal education, she is wise in so many areas that I need her to be.  This wisdom comes from her attitude to the world more than anything.  She sees light in not only situations, but people, when it would be really easy to see dark.  If I could be one-tenth the person my mom is, I would be happy.  Although I am all about embracing change, I don’t know if I could have done what she has done in her lifetime.

In relation to this attitude, I have been thinking about the challenges that we face with school.  Budget restrictions, policies that don’t make much sense, and curriculums that are way too static for a world that is constantly changing, we could just throw in the towel and be okay with the notion of school in the past.  But like my mom who wanted better for her kids than what she had, I am hoping we can create something better for our students than what we grew up with.  When we know better, we should do better.  People challenge others to think “outside of the box”, when really we need to think how do we become innovative inside of the box.  When Vine came out, many people asked “what in the world could you possibly do with six seconds?”, when others said, “I wonder what I could do with six seconds?”  While some looked at the constraints as a barrier, others looked at the constraints as an opportunity.  It is your perspective.  One of the questions above is not a question, but an excuse.  Are you asking questions to stay still or to move forward?

Often, the biggest barrier to innovation is our own way of thinking.

It is not the policies, it is not the curriculum, it is us. I hear things like, “Well we can’t possibly do that because of our (parents, students, teachers, principal, lack of resources, government, etc.)”, yet someone somewhere has done whatever you might be trying to do facing the same adversity you face.

In fact, the story is better because of the adversity.

Do you know why people love reading comics or watching movies about super heroes?  It is not only because they often go beyond our imagination, but more importantly, they do it while overcoming adversity.  The story becomes so much more compelling when it is not easy.  Have you seen those shirts that say, “I teach…what’s your superpower”?  Just being a teacher is not a superpower; the way we teach is. That can help change the world.  Just showing up each day is a start, but it’s not enough.

I thought of this when I recently heard the quote, “be the hero in your own story,”  I think of my mom who taught me to always look in the light when all you can see is dark, and who has overcome so much adversity to give everything she has to her kids, to create something better, while showing love and kindness to everyone she encountered.  She’s the hero in her story because she focused not on what she didn’t have, but on what she did have and what she could do with it.  This (her) mindset is crucial to the innovative educator.

If the adversity wasn’t there, would the story even be that interesting?  How will you become the hero in your own story?

I am thankful for my mom, who constantly teaches me to see the light in the dark, who treats every person with nothing but love, and through adversity, not only has created opportunity, but does it with a smile, laughter, and joy, when it would be easy to choose a different way.

A Simple Hug

It is almost two years ago that my dad passed away.

I still struggle writing and seeing those words.  Sometimes I find myself laughing thinking about stuff that he did, or crying because he is not seeing things happen in my life right now.  Although we tended to argue about certain aspects of my life, I know and always knew he was trying to look out for me.  Every person needs someone in their life that whether you like what they say or not, you know that they are there for you.  That was my dad.

As I received the news of my dad passing through a google chat message from my brother because I had shut off my phone prior to a presentation, I can still that little pop up window that rocked my world.  I saw it, closed my computer, and immediately informed the group that I would have to leave.

As I arranged plans to fly home to be with my family, I remember sitting in the Denver airport in a little restaurant off to the side, where I wrote about my dad passing away and what he meant to me.  Writing was seemingly the only way that I could hold things together.  Today, as I flew to Detroit from the Denver airport, I passed that restaurant again and I was reminded of a special moment.  As I wrote about my dad, with tears in my eyes, the server had brought me food that I ordered that I had not planned on eating.  I was the only one in the restaurant at the airport at the time, and although the restaurant was not busy, she kept asking me if I needed anything, with service more attentive than I had been used to.  All of a sudden, the server came up to me, and she said, “I am really sorry, but I saw what you are writing over your shoulder, and I am incredibly sorry for your loss. Would you mind if I gave you a hug?”  Needing that more than anything, I stood up, and cried uncontrollably as a stranger cried along with me.  I remember that she had hugged me until I let go, and I was incredibly grateful.

Walking by that little spot in the Denver airport always makes me pause, but today, almost two years later, it really hit me.  It also reminded me that although it can be really easy to get caught up in all the bad in the world, total strangers sometimes do the kindest things, and people sometimes show up unexpectedly when you need them the most.  I was also reminded of hearing someone say that when a kid in school comes up to hug you, never let go first.  They will hold on until they get what they need.

That is what that kind stranger did for me that day, and I am forever grateful.

School Culture and Mental Health #BellLetsTalk

The #BellLetsTalk hashtag has been a great initiative to not only raise money for mental health initiatives in Canada, but to promote conversations about the topic amongst individuals.  Our understanding of mental health has come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

Today, I am working with a group on how we can help improve mental health of our world through our schools.  My caution to the group is that we have to be really weary of creating another initiative that eventually causes more work and anxiety for teachers, but to think about how to do things differently.  It is not about doing more, but doing things different and better.

Simply though. school culture is huge in mental wellness and there are a lot of things school can do that are not “programs” but just become a part of our every day world in schools.

Here are some ideas that I think are crucial to not only improving mental health, but to also promoting creativity and innovation in schools.  The more comfortable I feel in my environment, the better I will do.

  • If you are a principal, start every morning welcoming kids at the front of the school.  If you are a teacher, welcome kids when they come to their class.
  • Never pass a student or an adult in a hallway without acknowledging them in some way.  Every person in that school is important and should be treated accordingly.
  • See supervision as not “more work”, but an opportunity to get to know students that aren’t in your classroom.  We need “school teachers” not “classroom teachers”.
  • Invest time in conversations with kids that have nothing to do with school.  10 minutes showing you care about another human being will often lead to them moving mountains.
  • Focus on strengths, not weaknesses.  People will always get better when they know they are valued first.
  • If a student is having an issue, sending them to another adult tells them that a) you don’t value them enough to spend the time with them or b) you are not able to deal with it.  Severing this relationship has a long term impact.
  • Laugh and have fun.  It is contagious.

Think about this practice…if your boss walks into your classroom, do you get out of your desk to greet them? If you do, is it because you consider them important?  We should treat kids with the same response.  Every person that walks into a school should feel that they are highly valued.

If we are wanting to improve mental health in schools, we can make a huge impact by treating school as a place of, as Dean Shareski would say, a place of joy.  If people want to be there and are happy, comfortable, and feel safe, schools will move a lot further than if these things were absent.

As Rita Pierson stated, “every kid needs a champion.” So does every adult.

The Worksheet Conversation

I was having a conversation with a teacher the other day, that does some very innovative things in the classrooms and is a master of relationships with students. She does amazing things, and by the end of the year, kids are better for having her as their teacher.

One comment she made to me, really made me think about some of the things that we say in education. She had said that sometimes she will give students a worksheet, because sometimes that is what works for students. Although she does this, she feels guilty because so many people talk about how you should never use “worksheets” with a student, but sometimes in her class, she feels that is what is sometimes needed.

Personally, I have talked about worksheets in the classroom, and I would say that I used to speak in absolutes, but now I say that once in awhile, if a teacher deems that it is beneficial, there is nothing wrong with a worksheet. If using worksheets is a consistent practice though, that is an entirely different story. I have actually had some parents say to me that it this practice is sometimes beneficial to their child because of the structure that it provides.  Their voice matters.

If you think about it, how many amazing teachers do you know that have used worksheets in their practice? I know many. My fear is that when we make statements that are absolutes, we marginalize a lot of great teachers in the process. It is important that we always question our practice, but it is also important to understand that if a teacher is really great, they should know their students better than anyone, and that based on those relationships, they make decisions on how to best serve those students.

There is not one thing that works for every community and for every child. Even a totally “innovative” practice that becomes “standardized” for every student, all of the time, does not serve all students. Standardization is standardization. Choice and variety is essential. Some things that work for us, might not work for our students, and vice versa. Although we need to challenge what school looks like, we also have to trust that there are many teachers that are doing a variety of things to ensure that students are successful.

Could that sometimes be in the form of a worksheet?

What’s your one word?

I was reading my friend Tony Sinanis’ blog and his post on “Dear Sucky Teacher”, which was preceded by “Dear Sucky Administrator“.  I have had a lot of conversations with Tony, and I can tell you that he is one of the kindest and most supportive people I know, but I will admit, the title threw me off.  I have said before that nobody gets up in the morning wanting to be terrible, and although there are teachers out there that don’t love their job, there is always more to a story than we know.  In no way is this meant to be a challenge on Tony’s post, but it just made me think and connect to my own learning.

One of the comments that I made about the post would be on changing the title to, “Dear Struggling Teacher”.  What would that say?  I know some amazing teachers who have not lived up to their own standards themselves, and have had tough years.  I know that I have had my own tough times and I have not lived up to my own standards whether it be personally or professionally.  Some people actually excel in their jobs when things are bad in other areas. It is often how they are wired, sometimes it is the superior ability to compartmentalize, and sometimes it’s avoidance.  As someone who wears their heart on their sleeve, you can see when I am having a bad day from a mile away, and I know it can affect what I do.

So in light of Tony’s post and people sharing their “word” for 2015, I have thought about a word that has kept popping up into my head over and over again; empathy.  I have especially thought about it a lot in a world where technology so dominates us, that we often forget that there is a human being on the other side of that connection.  It has made me step back and really think about how it is so easy to go online and complain about a bad customer interaction, not really knowing more to the story. I know that I have been prone to push in person and online, so I have tried to step back and ask more questions than anything, and as Stephen Covey would say, “seeking to understand”.

Empathy is crucial to innovation and design thinking, and that is being mentioned quite a bit, but it is also crucial to every interaction that we have. So personally and professionally, So in 2015, I am going to focus more on asking questions and trying to understand, as opposed to being stuck to an opinion.  Hopefully this goes way beyond this year.

What’s your word?

Love and Innovation

Maybe it is because it is close to Christmas, and maybe it is because my dad has been on my mind so much lately, but I just needed to write the reflection below.

I love the “30 for 30″ series on ESPN, because they share powerful sport stories that go way beyond a game, and really touch the heart.  I don’t know if it was from “The Guru of Go” about Paul Westhead and the death of Hank Gathers, or if it was “Survive and Advance” about Jim Valvano, his NC State team, and ultimately his battle with cancer, but I heard about the importance of “love” in bringing people together and overcoming so many obstacles.  It made me think a lot about the term “love” and it’s role in schools and “innovation”.  Not “love” in the terms of relationships with a spouse, but that feeling of being truly cared for and caring for others.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the battle people are going through in their own lives, and how that impacts their work.  I love this quote attributed to Will Smith on the subject:

“Never underestimate the pain of a person, because in all honesty, everyone is struggling. Some people are better at hiding it than others.”

There are people that show up every single day, with a smile on their face and not only do great things, but lift others up as well.  This year I have seen one friend openly share their battle with depression, and another friend share that their spouse may have cancer, yet in both cases, not only did they both seemingly have a smile on their face, but they also lifted others up to become better.  Sometimes when people face the most adversity, the easier it is for them to show love to others.

I have also seen others openly struggle and show up every day.  I remember one teacher going through a very tough personal time, and although they did everything they could for their students, you could see the hurt in their heart.  The pain was there, but it was not enough to keep her away from helping others.  Maybe it was part of their calling, but maybe it is often the unconditional love from her students that kept her going each day.

I have been known to have my heart on my sleeve, and I remember when I lost my dog Shaq this year, having to speak to a large group of teachers the next day.  As tough as it was to talk to a large audience, I was honest with them, shared my loss, and when I was finished, I not only received a warm applause (that is the best way I can describe it) from them, but so many hugs from strangers.  It might not be “love” in the sense that we know it, but it was “love” in the way I felt it.  It not only made my work easier that day, but it pushed me to be better.  In a time when educators are asked to do so much every single day, and in many cases so much “extra” stuff that we never planned, feeling and giving love is crucial.

I was reminded of this quote today:

“Every single employee is someone’s son or daughter. Like a parent, a leader of a company is responsible for their precious lives.” Simon Sinek

Maybe I am being overly sentimental because of the time of the year, and maybe I am just exhausted (I am), but when people know they are cared and loved, they are going to go so much further and push themselves to do better things for kids.  That feeling of safety and belonging is crucial for innovation. Maybe I am way off base on my use of the term.

But then I see this…

Then I think of my good friend Tony who not only loves his job, but loves his school and his community, and from what I can tell, loves his students. Then you see what they share in return.

Maybe “love” is the wrong word.  Maybe it is something else. But in a time that educators are so often asked to go above and beyond what they are expected to do, especially in a job that can be so emotionally wearing, I think of the word “love” and the place it has in schools.  For our students, for our colleagues, and for ourselves.

In a profession that is so inherently human, there has to be something more than showing up and  “learning” every day.

To inspire meaningful change, you have to make a connection to the heart, before you make a connection to the mind.

Sometimes it’s you…

Change is hard.

There is a lot going on not only in education, but the world, that can wear down on people. Doing the things we want to do and the things we actually do can be far apart.  Sometimes people can wear on us because they don’t agree with the direction we are going and can be easy to blame others.

But sometimes we need to step back and realize that a lot of times, it’s not them, it’s us. More specifically, it is me.  Life can be tough and it is easy to get worn down, and I have noticed that sometimes it is easy to sit back and focus on what others are doing that isn’t quite making the grade, but many of us tend to look at how we have been “wronged” as opposed to what we can do better ourselves.

This quote cannot be shared enough:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

When it is shared though, we often think about it in the context of others, not ourselves.  If we to look deeper into the quote, we often our fighting our own battles and have to not be so hard on ourselves, but also realize that we all have room to grow.

As this time of year can be so busy and overwhelming, so it is important to not be so tough on everyone else, but to also take care ourselves.

The Life You Make

I shared two tweets last night that both show optimism and growth, but at different points in life.  The first is the following video of this 114 year old still learning and growing, signing up for Facebook and connecting with people.  I love that she had to actually lie about her age since Facebook only allows those up to 99 to sign up.

This shows you that age is no barrier to trying something new.

The second tweet was about this 17 year old in a hospital, talking about all of the awesome things that she gets to do while she is in the hospital:

Her optimism is contagious and she makes the best out of what many would consider a bad situation.

It is easy to focus on all of the negatives in the world (there are a lot if you look for them), but videos like these two remind me that whatever you are looking for, whether it is the positive or the negative, you will eventually find. This reminded me to keep looking for the positive even in bad situations and reminded me why I love the ability we have to share our own stories of humanity.

I am reminded of someone once saying, “it is not the date on the tombstone of when you were born or when you die that matters, it is the dash in the middle.”  It is important to keep making the best out of every single day we have.

Reminders from the #GAFESummit

I had the great honour of keynoting the largest #GAFESummit to date in Ottawa this past weekend.  It was a great experience, and I loved meeting so many amazing educators. Not only was it a massive conference, but it was also the first English and French Google Summit.  When I was first asked to speak, I was told that I would have to do some of the keynote in French.  Since I do not speak the language, I was extremely hesitant.  But as I thought about it, I said to myself, “If I am constantly asking people to push themselves out of their comfort zones, I need to model this myself”, and then I agreed.  Although I was all for it, I was extremely nervous to not only do this, but in front of so many people (over 1200).

With the amazing support of Lise Galuga, we created my presentation together.  I took all of the text on my slides and translated it to French.  Although I used Google Translate to help me at first, I soon realized that it was not accurate at all.  Lise went through every slide and did the proper translations.  We then created a google document that I had my main points of each slide, and she prepared a corresponding French tweet for all of it so that it could be “live tweeted” in both languages.

The final part (and the hardest for me) was to learn how to open the conference in French.

I wrote down what I wanted to say, and also added a joke that Lise suggested (which got huge applause!).  So Lise took what I wanted to say, and translated it properly for me.  Here is the translation:

“Bienvenue au premier Sommet bilingue de l’équipe EdTechTeam. Bien que je ne parle pas souvent le français, je tenais à accueillir les francophones – en français!

Un des objectifs que je souligne souvent est celui d’être un apprenant la vie durant, et je tiens à modéliser cet idéal moi-même. Entre vous et moi, si Stephen Harper est capable, alors j’ai pensé que je devrais l’essayer moi aussi.”

Since I had taken French up until grade 12 (I don’t want to tell you how many years ago that was), I recognized some of the words.  Yet listening to Google Translate did not help.  So Lise and I connected the night before over a Google Hangout, and she listened to me speak, and spelled things phonetically for me.  Here is the text spelled phonetically that helped me say it in front of the audience:

“Bienvenue o prumyay Sommeh bee-lang de l’équipe EdTechTeam. Bien que je ne parle pas souvent le français, je teneh a adressay la paroll o frawn-co-fun preyzawn aujourd’hui!

Uh day zobjectif que je suelinge souvent eh suhlwee (celui) d’être uh napprenant la vee durant, ay je teneh a modaylizay set e-day-al (ideal) moi-maym. Entre vou zay moi, si Stephen Harper eh cap-pab-bla (capable), alors j’ai pensay que je devreh less-say-ay (l’essayer) moi aussi.”

Not all of it is phonetic, only the parts I struggled with.  Lise tailored the learning to me so that I was successful, but she did it with me on Google Hangouts.

Then the day arrives, and I am extremely nervous. I am introduced, go onto the stage, and say the first sentence. HUGE APPLAUSE!  That I was willing to try and do something that was meaningful to the audience meant everything!

Second sentence. HUGE APPLAUSE!

Third sentence. HUGE APPLAUSE!

Fourth sentence. Huge laughter?

I told a joke and they loved it!  I successfully told a joke in a second language.  I was buzzing the rest of the talk and I was humbled by receiving a standing ovation from the audience.  What an amazing feeling.

So from this experience, I either learned or relearned some important lessons.

1. Educators are extremely receptive to others learning. For those that are so nervous to try something new and “put themselves out there”, what I have learned over and over again, is that educators will support someone is going outside of their comfort zone.  Maybe that it is because they do this every day with their students, or that they empathize that they have felt that way themselves, educators are extremely understanding of someone trying something new.  I know my French was not perfect, but wow, did that audience make me feel like it was.

2. What is now easy for us, might be tough for others. Twitter, blogging, google docs, and other technologies are second nature for me, just like speaking French is for others.  I can easily get frustrated by someone who doesn’t get it, but I was reminded that I was once at the point where I didn’t understand any of these things.  All people arrive at different places at different times, so always show patience and gratitude for the effort.

3. The biggest power of technology is not the technology, but it is the people. I used Google Translate for everything and I thought it was awesome, only because I didn’t know any better.  When I connected with Lise through Google Docs, Hangouts, email, etc., she helped me more than any technology I could use, but it was through technology that I could get that help in the first place.  She spent hours helping me and we only met the day of the summit.  As many times as these things happen, it is always mind blowing.

4. When you find someone that believes in you, you start to believe in yourself. The first night I had a Google Hangout with Lise, I tried my French, and it was terrible. I knew it, and I said, “maybe you should get someone else.”. She said, “No, you are going to be amazing. Trust me.” I did. That made me go on and keep working and after the talk yesterday, I was buzzing. I would not have got there if she wouldn’t have shown that she believed in me. We (educators) need this as much as our students.

I just want to thank everyone in Ottawa for being so warm to someone who was nowhere near perfect, but tried.  It was an amazing feeling.  I especially want to thank Lise Galuga for reminding me how teachers, no matter who the student is, can always make a huge impact on the lives of others.

Moments

I jumped into a cab to get to the Sydney airport and my driver looked very familiar. As I sat in the car, his phone rang and he started to talk to his son in Greek. Scattered in English and Greek, I listened to him give advice to son, talking about not frivolously spending money, and then asking about his grandkids. I could not help but to start crying in the back because it was like listening to my own dad. When he got off the phone, I asked him where he grew up, and he told me he was from Tripoli which is very close to where my parents grew up and in the same area. I showed him pictures of my dad and he was so moved by what I shared.

I miss my dad so much every day but for a moment I could hear his voice and it was so comforting. I will miss all of the advice he gave me, even though I know I should have listened a lot more.

I saw this cartoon on Imgur the other day and it really hit home so I just wanted to share it.

dad