Tag Archives: education

Understanding and Removing Barriers

Grant Wiggins, a visionary education reformer who has made a tremendous impact now and will continue to do so even after his recent passing, and was one of the developers of “Understanding by Design” (with Jay McTighe), shared a powerful “guest” blog post of a learning coach mirroring two students for a day each in her school (it was later acknowledged to be written by Alexis Wiggins).  Here was the initial plan for the process from Alexis:

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

The post was telling as it shared how much Alexis struggled through the process of “being a student”, and it led her to the following three key takeaways:

    1. Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
    2. High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.
    3. You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

Now the point of sharing this is not to challenge the ideas that she shared (as this is from the perspective of her school at the time), but to think about the process.  This is not the norm for many students in schools around the world, but as leaders, how do we know this?  Do we often make assumptions in what is happening in our school, or do we actually experience something different?  One of the toughest groups to teach in the world is other teachers, and to go from that viewpoint, some of the expectations we have on our students, is not something we could handle for an hour, let alone, a full day.  The one quote from the blog post that really resonated for me, was when the student was asked about her perspective in class:

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, and how little of their learning they are directing or choosing.

Can you imagine going to a place every day where you felt your voice didn’t matter?  That part shook me.

The power of this post was not only in what was written by the author, but also the comments (there were 285 as of the time that I referenced this article and probably they will continue to receive more), that came from a variety of people, including students and educators.  The comments had a range of stories shared from personal experiences as a student, and struggles to accommodate something different as a teacher.  The reality of the learning environments that happen in our classrooms, are that they are not only created by the teacher, but the entire school.  If this is what school looks like for our students, what are we doing as leaders to help support to create something new?

The Impact of Our Decisions

One of my own thoughts as a central office administrator, was to be in our schools as much as often, to support our educators.  If you really love education, this can never happen enough, but I saw this as crucial to the work I was doing.  If my decisions had an impact on classrooms, then I better experience and see the impact of those decisions.

What I would often do is take my laptop and sit in a classroom in a school for anywhere between three to six hours, where I would get to the point that the teachers and students did not even notice I was there.  That way I could really see what their experiences looked like.  What I struggle with in our mobile world, is how reluctant we are to take our computers as leaders and do some of the administrative work in our classrooms?  I could answer my email a lot faster in my quiet office, but there are so many reasons why I would rather do it in the classroom.

What needs to be clear in this process is that I was not there to evaluate the teachers.  In fact, it was more to evaluate the environment that was created by the school district.  What I had noticed is how much “other stuff” teachers had to do, to make things work.  Whether it was going through an arduous logon process with students, or constant issues with WiFi, they looked less like teachers, and more like magicians.  From an IT department perspective, Internet is often “fast” and the logon process is quick, but times that by 20-30 students in a classroom (if you are lucky), and you have many frustrated educators that go above and beyond to create powerful learning opportunities for our students.

If we want “innovation” to happen in our schools, we have to be willing to sit in the environments where it is going to happen, and be able to not only discuss teaching and learning, but also do everything in our power to remove barriers from those that we serve.  One of the things that I have noticed in education is that we do not need “managers”, but we need “leaders”.

The truth is we need both.

We need leaders to have a vision of where we can go in our schools, but the “management” part is about making sure we have what we need to get there.  Stephen Covey (paraphrased) said that we manage things, but we lead people.  The educators that we serve, need the “things” to work if we truly want to create a “culture of innovation”, and support in creating an environment that we would truly want to be in as a learner ourselves.

Competition Is Great Depending on Who Wins

“Collaboration” is one of the words that is often discussed in what is crucial for our students today.  There are so many variations and quotes surrounding the idea that we are better together, and with that, I would totally agree.  The problem sometimes with this is that collaboration is often seen as the opposite of competition. In reality, the two should actually support one another.

Here is when competition is bad…

School “A” is competing with school “B” for students.  Because of that, they are not willing to share the things that they are doing with other schools because these are now “trade secrets”, and giving them away to the “competition”, might actually reduce enrolment.  Although the idea of not sharing your stuff to gain a competitive advantage, is sometimes a fallacy (if no one knows you are doing anything great, why would they come?), this mindset is not about helping kids, but helping ourselves.

And here is where competition is great…

I was having a conversation with a district level coordinator that told me about two high schools using the same hashtag to share amongst their schools for the same subject.  The collaboration between the schools was beneficial to not only the teachers, but more importantly the students.  The competition came in when one of the schools did an activity that the other school was not doing and the kids thought it was amazing.  Not wanting to be outdone, the other school quickly had their own similar activity, with some tweaks to make it better.  Both of these schools are more than willing to help one another, yet not wanting to be outdone.  Who is the ultimate winner of this competition? The kids.

I don’t know one teacher that wants to have the classroom that kids don’t want to go to, yet I have seen a lot of teachers that are reluctant to share. When we see “sharing” as something that both supports and pushes us to be better, the big winner will always be our students.

Competition is only a bad word in education if our students are the ones losing out.

When we see sharing as something that

The Impact of a Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Words on the Walls

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

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

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

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

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

The Game of School

I have a minor in English yet I never had the interest to write consistently until about five years ago when I started blogging.  What it took for me to really start wanting to write was the opportunity to write about things that I cared about and have the ability to share it with others.  Unfortunately, I never really knew I had the opportunity to do that until after I was done my “education”.

But here is my confession…Although I have a minor in English I have never read a novel from end-to-end.

Gasp!

Here was the problem for me…Fiction has never really been appealing to me in book form.  I love watching movies and hearing a great story, but I much prefer hearing and seeing that story, than reading it.

So how would I get a minor in English when I had no interest in reading fiction, when the majority of the reading that we did in those classes was from novels?  I learned the “game of school” and applied it to my work.  I knew that I could read a bit of the beginning of the novel, part of the middle, and read the end (where I would usually start), and then write an essay to connect these things to my life in somehow or something going on in the world.  This wouldn’t necessarily get me a grade in the 90’s, but I did know I could consistently pull off something in between 70 and 80.  That was all I needed to move onto the next level, and that next level, ended up being my degree in university.

Some people will say to me when I am tell them this that I miss so much because I don’t read novels and it is such a shame.  There is probably some truth to this, but people missed out in school because they didn’t play sports, write for the school newspaper, or act in plays.  We miss out any time we choose not to do something, and unfortunately, it is impossible to do everything.

This wasn’t to say that I didn’t love reading.  I actually love reading and did it all of the time in school.  Anytime I would have a free period, I would go to the library and read the latest Sports Illustrated and even though I would read all of it, I would go directly to the back page and read the article from Rick Reilly.  I loved his sharing of inspirational stories and was saddened when another author took that page.  I also loved reading non-fiction and still do to this day.  True stories are appealing to me, as are books on leadership, teaching, and learning.  Those books still inspire me, yet I don’t know if any of my teachers knew this, cared about it, or had the opportunity to care because of the system that they were working in.  Tapping into what I loved seemed secondary to teaching the curriculum.  It was only until I started exploring my passions that I really felt that I was actually learning.

Don’t get me wrong…There are many things that I learned in school during my time that are beneficial to me today and gave me the tools to learn.  But more of that was from teachers who cared about me as a person, than focused on their teaching.  That is something that will never change.  I have said in the past, that if we only teach students the curriculum we have failed them.  There is so much more to our world than what is written in the static pages of a curriculum.

We need to ask questions and challenge the things that we do that have become so commonplace and “normal” in our everyday.  For example, does a rubrics set up expectations for students or limitations?  Or does having five classes a day in five different subjects make you become more curious or simply exhausted and confused?  Is school getting in the way of learning or enhancing it?

So are our students learning at school, or learning to play the game of the school?  If the system doesn’t serve our students to follow their passions and go deep into learning, then they’ll either leave or learn to play the game. Do we really want either?

Innovation has no age barrier.

Recently, I was blown away by this TedX Talk from Kate Simonds, talking about the importance of tapping into student voice.  Her talk was so simple yet so powerful, and as a speaker, I was so impressed by her talk.

Kate discussed not only celebrating the students that blow you away with incredible projects or inventions, but tapping into all students.  She goes beyond “hearing” their voice, but actually tapping into the wisdom of our students.  She implores the audience to tap into youth who may have a different way of looking into a problem.  She also challenges the audience to really think of what we want from students, and what our system promotes:

“As students we have no say in what we learn, or how we learn it, yet we are expected to absorb it all, take it all in, and be expected to run the world some day.  We are expected to raise our hands to use the restroom, then three months later, be ready to go to college, or have a full time job, support ourselves, and live on our own. It’s not logical.”

Powerful stuff.  Are we listening?  Even if we are, are we doing anything about it?

She also referenced a quote from her teacher that was quite sarcastic, but seemingly true:

Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 1.28.23 PM

The problems that we currently have in education, were made by the same people now trying to solve them.  She has a very valid point.

Kate’s approach and belief of tapping into students is powerful, and I have seen areas tap into this.  Ontario currently has a “student trustee” on every board in the province, that has a voice in the organization, yet this is one province that I know of, with a minimal percentage of the board represented by a student.  This needs to be expanded.

Way too often, “leadership” taps into a very small amount of people to generate ideas.  The smaller group, the more limited we are in hearing different ideas. Once you decide the group that you listen to, you limit yourself to the ideas from those voices.  This is why it is so important to open up communication and garner those ideas from anywhere.  Innovation best flourishes in a flattened organization.

One of the things that happens in Parkland School Division is that we have a student committee that looks at what is happening in our schools, and encourages them to discuss and share ideas.  Recently, the students were encouraged to take a visual created based on my work to start a conversation with the teachers at their school (shared below).

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If this is their education, it is important that they have the opportunity to discuss it, but also help guide the direction and help come up with new ideas.  I would love to see more schools encourage students to sit on leadership teams, professional learning opportunities, and whatever other opportunities we have so that we can learn from each other.  We often forget to tap into the best resource we have in our schools; our students.

The conference I attended this past week (MACUL in Detroit, Michigan), had a student showcase right outside the main hall.  Students were not only discussing their learning, but were empowered to teach adults as well.  This should be the standard, not the exception.

I am proud to say that in my TedX Talk a couple of years ago, I wanted to tap into “our voice”, which was not limited to educators, but was really about also empowering the voice of our students.  Kate reminds me deeply why this is important.

Whether you are 5, 50, or 100, you can have a great ideas, and we need to recognize that we are lucky enough to have curious and creative minds in education at all ages.

Innovation has no age barrier.

(Please take time to watch the TedX Talk below from Kate Simonds. Share it, discuss it with your staff and watch it with your students.  I would love to hear the thoughts of others on this brilliant talk.)

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?

The Global Teacher

Screen Shot 2014-02-07 at 11.20.08 AMI have talked about the notion of “classroom teacher” vs. “school teacher” in posts before, and have begun to rethink this notion.

Simply put, a “classroom teacher” is someone that focuses on their classroom and students only.  Although there can be a huge benefit to their own students, this often leads to weaker relationships with other students.  They often see other kids as someone else’s issue and will avoid dealing with them.  They also keep their practices to themselves and have their classroom door closed, sometimes literally, but most often figuratively.

Then you have the “school teacher“.  This to me was the ideal as this teacher connected with every student in their classroom, as well as students and educators around the school.  They see supervision as an opportunity to connect with others and build relationships with kids.  They share their practices openly with others because their focus is always on “what is best for kids“.  If they can share something, and you can take it, remix it, and use it for your students, they make everyone better.  They think of the school as a village and their expertise and experience is shared exponentially not to only help their kids, but all kids in their school.

So now I have started to think about the “global teacher“.  The global teacher has the best elements of the classroom and school teacher, but their focus is on “what is best for kids”, no matter if is their own kids, kids in the school across the street, or across the ocean.  They got into teaching because they love students and want to help every single one of them, no matter their situation or location.  They care for the kids in their classroom, they share openly with others in their school and connect with kids, but want to make things better past their own situation.  They inspire change whether it is with one classroom in another school, or thousands.  They also tap into others and bring the best to their students. The more we look at what others are doing, the better we can become for the students closest to us.

Global teachers (should) care about education as a whole, as well as their school and their classroom.  I just want to iterate that if the person only looks at sharing and learning globally, but cannot connect with those in their classroom or school, I would not consider them a “global teacher”.  They just know that we are better when we work together, not just taking, but contributing.  They know what they share makes a difference for others, as well as knowing what they learn from others makes a difference for their school and students.

So where are you on the spectrum, and what type of teacher would you want in your school?

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.