Category Archives: Personal Learning

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

The Importance of Emotional Leadership

In about my sixth year of teaching, I remember sharing a story about my dogs with my grade 9 students.  As I was on my own in a small town where I didn’t know many people, the dogs were a HUGE part of my life and this wasn’t the first or last time I would talk about them.  They were and are like family to me.  When I was really getting into the story, one of my students shouted out in the middle of the class and said, “We don’t want to hear another story about your stupid dog.”

Years prior, I probably would have asked her to leave, got frustrated at the comment, and would have shown anger before anything.  This time I didn’t.  Instead, I said to her, “Those dogs are a huge part of my life and when you say something like that it really hurts me.”  Her facial expression and demeanour changed quickly, as did several of others in the class.  I was no longer simply a “teacher”, but a person, with real feelings and emotions.  After that moment, I felt a real change in how I was treated by students and, in all honesty, how I treated them.  It changed a lot for me.

As a principal, it would have been easy to fake emotions and represent that nothing had bothered or stressed me out, but in reality, I was never like that.  When Kobe (my first dog) had died, I struggled at school.  I spent a lot of time in my office and would often cry to my staff when they shared their condolences.  To many, this would be sign of a weakness, but in reality, I would say the exact opposite.  To be able to show who you are and share emotion is strength. Denying it and pretending I was feeling something else would not be true to myself.  We show our true strength when we accept that that we are vulnerable.

As a speaker, it is not easy to cry in front of people, but sometimes by showing emotion, I feel it is what makes me relatable.  Although I talk a lot about education, it is often the stories of my dad passing away, moments with my family, and my dogs that I often hear resonated most with others.  Every single person you have met has dealt with hardships in their life, and when they see someone being able to talk about similar experiences and share what they have learned from them, that is often what sticks with them.

This is not to say you need to share every part of your life, as I, like many educators, value my privacy as well.  But there are parts of YOUR story that will make an impact, and showing that you are having a rough day is showing that you are a person.  I spoke the following week after my dad died, and the day after I lost Shaq.  I cried profusely in front of people as I shared those stories with them.  The hugs that I received after both of those talks went WAY beyond people learning “stuff”, but went into deeper connections, for the audience and most definitely myself.  Think about it…if you were going to be vulnerable in front of any profession in a world, wouldn’t the best group to do that in front of be a group of educators where being loving and caring is an unwritten part of their job?

Yet I have seen many people walk into new roles and put on a tough demeanour and move away from who they truly are.  They implement the “don’t smile until December” rule and stick with it.  They constantly put people at arm’s length as they act as if showing emotion would be a sign of weakness.  Ironically with many, their emotion, their passion, and their story, which they have shared with me, is the exact reason that I have connected with them in the first place.  I talked to one new principal this week and he said his main focus for the beginning of his time at a new school was not about implementing a bunch of different things, but connecting and learning about his new staff while they learn about him. That focus on “connecting” was perfect and why I know that he is going to be successful.  Life is often a roller coaster ride with many ups and downs that we are all experiencing and asking for help is showing much more strength than simply giving up.

So as many people go into new roles next year, and try different things, my advice would be to show and be true to yourself.  Emotional leadership, showing humility, and being genuine, are not only sharing pieces of who you are, but they also show confidence, which is vital to successful leadership.  You and your colleagues will have ups and downs, as will your students.  Getting back up only happens when we fall down in the first place; they are both important parts to the story..  When we are in a field that is focus on developing people, no matter what your role is, showing your “human side” is vital.

Telling stories is often the best way for people to move forward, but don’t forget to put YOU into that narrative.  That is often the most important part.

As I wrote this on the plane, when I landed I read this post by Nicholas Provenzano, this one from Leah Whitfordand this one by Amber Teamann that are powerful examples of what I tried to articulate in this post.

The Vulnerability of the Web

I am probably babbling but here goes…

This week has been tough.

Travel is always wearing on a person, but having to make an impromptu trip home to say goodbye to a long time friend (my dog Shaq), has worn on me.  I miss her a great deal and am going to have a hard time going home this weekend and not see her waiting at the door for me, wagging her tail.

The documentation of my life, the ups and downs, in an open space, has been some of the most powerful learning that I have done.  Reflection has been extremely therapeutic in dealing with some tough times, but the love of people from around the world that genuinely care and try to make things better for others, has been overwhelming.  As I shared one of my last pictures of my sweet girl and I on Instagram, many people sent their condolences and love my way.  The “virtual hug”, as always, was greatly appreciated.

Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 1.56.42 PM

From my sharing of this picture, I received several messages from dog lovers who may have given their own pup a little more love, an extra treat, or just spent some great time with them.  That loss of life may have reminded others that life is short and fragile, and we need to appreciate all that we have as much as we can.  I know that every time I see something similar to what I have shared, it brings me closer to the loved ones in my life.

Sitting in my hotel room alone and trying to deal with a range of emotions that I was going through, from sadness of losing my baby girl, and relief that I had made it home to say goodbye, I casually and almost lifelessly looked through Facebook and twitter to try and pass the time.  In a short 24 hours, I saw so much from people that way past “education”, but deeper into humanity.

My good friend Chris Wejr, who is a big of a dog person as I am, really struggled with the idea of bringing another dog home after the loss of his beloved Ozzy.  We had several conversations about getting another dog, and I was at the vet saying goodbye to Shaq, Chris was bringing a new dog home to his family.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 2.04.44 PM

 

The hurt of saying goodbye and then the power of saying hello. Sharing death and sharing renewed life.  In my loss and grieving, I smiled at my friend who loves dogs, giving one a new home.  I was so happy for him and his family.

Then I received a message from Paige that my niece Bea had sent her condolences through a video message to her and I.  It stopped me in my tracks.

So much love coming from such a place of sadness that was so powerful. Even though she is so far away, I felt her love and caring, and social media and the literacy of creating a video allowed me to FEEL that.

I woke up the next day wondering how I would make it through an emotional day of speaking to educators.  If there is a place that I would feel safe, it with individuals that are in the “people business”, where nurturing and caring is part of what they do.  When I had shared what I had went to, they grieved with me, whether they knew me from Twitter or my blog or whatever.  Seeing others struggle often brings out the best in others to step up and help, and I knew that I could be vulnerable around them.

But about 15 minutes after I was done speaking, I received a text message from my 9 year old niece, who sent me a picture of her new baby brother.  Remembering when she was born and now seeing her send me the news through a text message was a pretty amazing reminder of how time flies by so quickly, and how a mobile phone has allowed us to connect so much more now from when it had existed before.  I quickly checked Twitter and Facebook, and saw my brother share the following picture and realized that I had a beautiful new nephew:

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 2.04.23 PM

Death, life, sadness, and happiness.

All  of this was shared in 24 hours from people that are close to me emotionally, yet far in terms of proximity.  The humanity that is shared from those simple “tweets” is what brings me so much closer to them, and them to me.  The “learning” through social media is great, but the human aspect is why I stay.  The willingness to share ourselves is something that is very powerful, yet makes us very vulnerable. I have tried to embrace that vulnerability although sometimes it can be extremely tough.

What I was reminded of in this short amount of time, while I still try to deal with something very tough, is that there is more good than bad out there, and every little share we make can bring us closer together.  We have to remember the impact we can make on others, both positive and negative.   I am also reminded of how social media can truly “humanize” us, when we deal with the great moments and also the tough ones. That “humanity” can bring us closer together as people than we have ever been before.  I was also reminded of the following quote:

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

Every action can make an impact; I am going to try every day to make it a positive one.