Tag Archives: Educational Leadership

Do we let “school” get in the way of learning?

I had some great conversations today in Queensland, Australia about some of the ways we need to change our mindsets about teaching and learning.  A big one that I kept reiterating was how we hold our students to a different standard than we often hold ourselves.  When I brought up that some kids are simply bored with what they are doing in class, it was brought up that some of them should just have to stick with it and that this was teaching them “manners”.  Instead of arguing I asked this question to participants; “how many have you checked your email during the time I was presenting?”  About half the hands had raised.  I don’t think that it was because they were terribly bored with what they had heard, but at times they need to check out and take a break.  I do this with email. I do this with YouTube. But I used to do this with drawing.  I  also remember constantly being told to “stop daydreaming and pay attention”, when there is actually a belief that this is not a good thing to do to people.

As adults we believe that some things are urgent.  Principals sometimes think that they have to be connected to their schools at all times in case of an emergency, but in reality, if you are a great principal, the school will be in a position to survive a day or two without you.  Yes adults have developed a higher level of maturity than our kids, but the argument of “urgency” is often overused.  “Urgency” is often personal and a matter of what YOU deem important.  Things happening at work could be considered urgent by an adult, but as a kid, I remember getting a note from a girl I had a huge crush on in high school.  That seemed pretty urgent to me and you would have been pretty hard pressed to have convinced me otherwise.

The reality is that there is no clear cut answer on anything.  I am not saying, “if adults can do it, so can kids”, but I do think we need to think about what we ask of kids and what we model to them.  Have you ever been in a session where you felt the person acted as if they were better than you? Acting as if you are superior to someone else and that affords you certain privileges that others shouldn’t have bodes just as poorly with kids as it does adults.  I think that these conversations are crucial to have for promoting a more “balanced” look at how we use and promote the use of technology in our schools.

One of the conversations that I found fascinating was surrounding the idea of mobile devices as “distractions” from learning.  The one comment  (paraphrased) I heard today was that it is disheartening when we are trying to go really deep into something and the device takes away from some really powerful learning that can be happening with the student.  I had to think about it and I wondered aloud that sometimes when we ask a student to put away their device, it is something we do because we believe it will promote learning, but sometimes it is the exact opposite.  Sometimes a student might be so deep into something that they are interested in learning about on their device.  We have sometimes stopped them from learning about something they are passionate about, and replaced with something we might be passionate about, or even worse, some content we “just have to get through”.

Again, this is not a black and white scenario, but it contains a lot of grey.  There are times when we do have to get through something, but there are sometimes that we have actually stopped the important process of learning about something that really matters.  Scott McLeod recently shared a post titled, “Reader interest trumps passage readability?”, which he quotes Alfie Kohn stating,

“how interested the students were in the passage was thirty times more important than how ‘readable’ the passage was.”

A student who is interested in what they are learning, is honestly going to become a better learner than someone who doesn’t care about the content that we are trying to get through.  This stuff matters.

Sometimes what we see as a “start” to learning,  is actually an abrupt “stop”.  I am not here to give you solutions on this because every teacher that builds great relationships with students will be able to understand when we need to refocus their students, and sometimes let them continue on with something else.  But when we have a vast ocean of information at our fingertips, some people are going to want to explore

Are there kids who use their devices to play Angry Birds in class? Yup.  That is actually my “get away” when my brain is full as an adult. I need to zone out and slingshot some birds into pigs.

But there are also kids that are exploring things that are really important to them, that they’re passionate about, and sometimes we let “school” get in the way of learning. 

This can lead to the growth of a “hatred for school”, while distinguishing a “love of learning”.  That’s kind of the opposite of what we are trying to do, isn’t it?

What if I give you a good answer?

 

You probably have either seen it, been a part of it, or done it.

The time that someone asks the question with a negative connotation that basically is giving them the out of doing whatever it is that you are saying.

It will usually start off with something like, “I really like all of the stuff that you said there…but”

The “but” in many cases is the exact reason that they are going to cite why they are not going to try it later.

“But what about cyberbullying? But what about creepy people? But what about our kids not exercising enough? But what about time? But what about balance? But what about the tests that we have to teach?”

These are all logical questions for a lot of the stuff that I talk about, and like many people that I work with, I also see these as concerns.  In my mind they are not reasons to NOT do things, but they are reasons that we need to be proactive.  Ignoring a problem will not make it go away.

So when I am about to give my answer to the “ya but” questions that I will inevitably hear, I might have a question back before my answer.

“What if I have a good answer?  What will you do then? WIll you consider changing the way you do things or will you stay on the same path?”

I don’t think you should ask this in a condescending way, but in a way to open up and have someone think about what they are going to do if they are provided new information.

The idea of a “fixed” and “growth” mindset is fantastic, but I believe that you can actually have both.  Many people that you see that are really “open to change”, are the same people that will not go out and try new restaurants, new experiences, or are set in their ways in other parts of their life.  On the notion of schooling, I have a “growth mindset”; on the idea of bungee jumping, I would say that I am pretty set in my ways.  You do not have one or the other, but probably a combination of both.

But maybe sometimes, we should help people identify where they are at when they ask a question.  Do they really want to hear the answer or is their question just a way of digging their feet in without them even knowing it?

Can we promote a “growth mindset” in subtle ways in the people that we work with?  I hope so.

4 Ideas To Have A Successful First Year as Principal

I am so intrigued with the number of people that are jumping into principal positions as I think it is truly one of the best jobs in the world.  It is also one of the toughest.  Isolation within a school (even though that is a choice that we now make ourselves) has been kind of a norm in past years, so to have a shared focus as a school is foreign territory for many (including principals).  Yet with a constant focus on “change”, many principals bring people together, but often for the wrong reasons.  If you move to fast, that can often lead to strained relationships within a school and resentment towards the new “leader”.  As much as principals want to make it “our school”, many admin really try to make it “their school”, or at least, that is the picture that they paint to their staff.  Sometimes you need to move slow to go fast.

Here are some things that I have learned from my time in both success and failures.

1. Build strong relationships first.  If you did a “Wordle” on my blog, I am guessing the term “relationships” would be the word that is in the top five for being most used.  Although this may seem redundant, to emphasize the importance of this over and over again, is something that cannot be understated.  The investment you make in your staff, students, and community will come back tenfold, but it takes time to build trust.  I have watched administrators like Patrick Larkin, Kathy MeltonJason Markey, Amber Teamann, and Jimmy Casas show and share the significance that they put into people.  This is not just your teachers either.

Every single person on your staff is an important part of the team and should be treated in that same manner.  Make sure that you connect with every person on that staff and know something that goes beyond the building.

One of my favourite things to do with the community was to wait for the busses and talk to kids and parents as they arrived to school.  Talking to kids is huge and a great proactive way to avoid issues later, while also being visible to the community.  It also builds credibility with staff.  Relationships, relationships, relationships.  Trust me, it is the most important part of the job and the foundation that all great schools are built upon.

2. Find the value of every staff member.  I tweeted the following yesterday:

Principals often want to make a splash with staff and bring in “gurus” to move them ahead, but I truly believe that most schools have everything they need within the building, we just have to find a way to bring it all together.  It is not that you shouldn’t look for outside help ever, as a differing perspective helps sometimes, but you should also balance that with having your own staff deliver professional development as well.  This builds capacity and relationships (see number one) within your building.

Every person in your organization has something to offer.  What is it? This is fundamental to “strengths based leadership” and people that know they are valued will go above and beyond. There is a difference between “developing” and “unleashing” talent; a great principal does both.

Great leaders develop great leaders.

3.  Show instructional leadership. There used to be a belief that “those who can’t teach, become principals”.  This drives me crazy.  The other idea is that the principal should be the best teacher in the school.  That is also a fallacy.  Some teachers are absolutely amazing and have no interest in becoming principals; there is nothing wrong with that.  You do however, need to show credibility in your role as principal.  This could be in delivering professional development to your staff or teaching a class, or even a combination of both.  Teachers connect well with teachers, and when they see that their principal, no matter the position, is still a teacher, it shines a different light on them.  When you teach, it also reminds you that the “change” that we try to implement is not as easy as it sounds with 25 kids in a classroom.  It is possible, but it takes time and this perspective that you gain by staying current in your own teaching practices is important.

4.  Don’t focus on “change” as much as you focus on “growth”.  Change and growth are often synonymous but the words sometimes the words evoke different emotions.  If you walk into a school and constantly talk about “change” or how you are going to create the “best school yet”, you are disrespecting the work that has been done prior by the same staff that you are now serving.  I agree that there are lots of things that need to “change” about schools, but I also know there are lots of great things that have already happened in many organizations.  Growth is different.  We expect it from kids and we should expect it from ourselves.  You may have seen the light and changed your teaching practice, but my guess is that you didn’t change every aspect of what you used to do.  You probably got better.  And when you ask for “growth”, make sure you model how you are growing as an administrator as well.  Say when you screw up, admit mistakes, apologize, learn openly, and do things that show you want to get better in your role to model what you want from your staff.  Modelling growth moves from saying, “do this”, to “let’s do this together”.  Very different ideas with the latter being much more effective.

Everyone wants to make a big splash when they are starting a new job, and administrators are no different.  Yet sustainable growth takes time and as Covey states, it is important as a leader to show “character and credibility”.  Both of these things take time.  You may have a vision of where you want school to go but the best leaders hold that vision and break it down in smaller steps so that people can gain confidence and competence in the process.  If you want to create something great, it will take time and will only come from the people that are a part of your learning community.  Honour and tap into them and you will move further than you could have ever imagined.

Connecting Your Own Dots for Leadership

As I looked into moving into “leadership positions” within my own district, I believed that I did not have the experience to get into a role that I had wanted.  The tricky thing is that if you don’t have the experience, how do you get the job?

“Leadership” is not about title, but often influence and the ability to help others.  There are many administrators who aren’t necessarily leaders, and there are many teachers who exemplify the definition.  Yet for many, the idea of moving into “leadership” without the experience, seems insurmountable.  The reality is, the experience is already there within your current role, you sometimes have to just connect the dots for others, and more importantly, yourself.

So how do you do this?  As I applied for administrative positions within my school district one of the best pieces of advice that I received was to look at Alberta’s “Principal Quality Standard”, which is the evaluation tool for administrators within the province.  Most provinces or states will have something very similar.  After looking at the seven standards, I was given the task to look at what I was currently doing in my role as a teacher, and how I was already meeting the standards.

For example, the first “quality” for leadership was regarding “Fostering Effective Relationships”.  This standard is not exclusive to school administrators, and the best teachers do this in an abundance.  To be able to make this connection on a resume and a portfolio is a great reflection for yourself, while also being able to showcase this to others.

Another “quality” is on “providing instructional leadership”.  I have watched many teachers share ideas from their own classroom, and make an impact on not only other teachers, but students in the school (sometimes outside the school as well) that they do not teach. Again, this is not a quality that is exclusive to an administrator.  In fact, a great administrator will not only be an instructional leader, they will develop others with these qualities as well.

There is a saying to “dress to the job you want, not the job you have”, but if you look closely enough, you might realize that you have already been playing the part. You sometimes just need to connect the dots.

New to admin? Here is the best way to connect with your staff.

With many people jumping into administrator roles that will be starting in the 2014-2015 school year, I am often asked, “What is the best way to connect with staff?”

My answer to this?  Connect with kids.

Many administrators that are new want to implement changes or try some bold ideas, and with a lack of experience, it can often come off to their staff as arrogant.  Even with a ton of experience, it can replicate that same feeling.  A lack of experience, or even a lack of experience in a school community, can sometimes be seen as a fault.

But what most teachers care about universally is the students.  That is why they do what they do.  So if they know that you, as the new “leader” of the school care about the kids just as much as they do, and show it openly, it will not only buy you a lot of time as you are learning your new role, it will also help you build credibility.

So go out at recess with the kids, spend time in the hallway with them, and go visit their classrooms to not observe the teacher, but to connect with the students.

If your staff see these interactions (and they will), they are likely to see that you are there for the same reasons they are.  To do what is best for kids.

And if you can’t show that, maybe you are in the wrong place.

4 Types of Leaders You Shouldn’t Be

First of all, I am going to challenge my own title in this writing as the qualities that I am about to list are not usually people with influence, but people with titles and authority.  Leadership and administration are sometimes not synonymous and if an administrator does not make those around them better, they are not leaders, they are bosses.

Working with many different organizations, I have heard either the frustration from educators within the organization that feel like they are running on the spot, while also working with administrators that are more focused on holding down the fort as opposed leading with vision.

Here are some styles you should avoid being or working for if you want to really move forward.

1.  The “Blame Everyone Else” Leader

Ever tried to do something that is new to an organization only to be stopped by an administrator saying that “others” are holding things back?  Often times, they will say things like, “if it were up to me, I would love for this to happen”, or even act as if they are a martyr and trying to save you from getting in trouble from others.  Whatever the case, if someone is blaming others in the organization for not “allowing” you to move forward, trust will be at a minimum.  Most administrators are part of a team and although they might not always agree with one another, they will never blame others for a lack of opportunities for educators.

If you think about if, if  they are going to throw someone else under the bus, including someone on their own administration team, what do you think that they do when you are not around?

2. The “Driven by Policy” Leader 

Policies are often put into place to ensure that students and teachers are safe, yet the process to create them is often long and arduous.  With education moving so quickly, some policies are simply outdated and they are not in the best interest of organizations, and more importantly, students.  Sometimes policy interferes with doing what is right, but sometimes, doing what is right is hard.  It is easy to hide behind policy in this case.

Sometimes obviously we have to stick with policies to ensure safety and I am not saying that we throw them all out the window, but when policy trumps common sense, there are issues.

3.  The “Dead-End” Leader

You come up with a great idea that is new to an organization that you are willing to put in the work and effort.  You approach your boss and share it with you and they tell you why it probably won’t work.  You wait for suggestions.

Waiting…waiting…waiting…

Nothing.

There is nothing that can kill enthusiasm for someone at work when they are simply told “no”.  Great leaders want people to take risks, and although they are trying to protect others, a simple “no” can have harsh repercussions on an individual and ultimately school culture.

This does not mean you need to say yes to everything.  But you should ask for further explanations and help people look for ideas, alternatives, or give them the opportunity to take risks.  A yes rarely needs an explanation, but in my opinion, “no” always does.  But even with the explanation, it is still important that we try to create opportunities to keep that creative flame burning in others and getting involved with an idea or project, or at least offering guidance, says much more than “no”.

4.  The “Lack of Knowledge is Power” Leader

With all of the changes in our world, society, and culture, schools need to change.  With many administrators, this change leads to not only differences in the classroom, but in their own practice.  If administrators do not continuously learn and grow, students lose out.

Yet learning and growth take time and effort, and for some, doing what is comfortable is an easy option.  Some of my best administrators were not people that believed they knew everything, but those that actually showed vulnerability and that they actually didn’t know.

Yet when we admit that we don’t know everything, that means we have to trust others and give our “power and authority” away.  This model of distributed leadership is very tough on some and they end up hiring great people only to micromanage them.  A person that pretends that they know something is much more dangerous than those who can fully admit that they don’t.

So instead of showing humility and a willingness to learn, they often pretend they have an understanding of things that they don’t, which often leads to poor decisions that impact many.  The interesting thing is that those that are willing to get into the trenches and admit that they don’t know always have more credibility than those that pretend they do.

Weakness is not knowing, it is not being able to admit it.

I am sure that everyone of us (including myself) that is in a position of authority has done this.  No one is perfect.  But when these things become the norm, any one of them can be highly detrimental to the culture of a school.  It may not impact students directly, but long term, they will lose out the most.

 

3 Things That Should Never Change in Schools

Although I often speak about the things that we need to do to develop and further the way we teach and learn in schools, I would still consider myself a little “old school”.  Brought up by very traditional parents and being a part of a community that I loved, there are things that I believe should never change in the school environment and will be vital to educational institutions in the future, although they are rooted in the past.

1. The Focus on Relationships 

My best teachers during my time in school, are people that I still hold dear to my heart to this very day.  Was it because they inspired me by a test that I had to write in the classroom? Never.  What I appreciated was how they made me feel valued as a person, and not simply a student.

I had a science teacher when I was young, and since I struggled with the subject, I was quite a handful in the class.  The next year when we had a different teacher lead the course, the connection that I had with the teacher was different and I put much more effort into the course and my work.  I still never did truly well in the subject, but I cared a lot more, because I was cared for as a person.

As the old adage goes, students will never care to know, until they know you care.

In 100, 200, 300 years, relationships will always be the foundation of a good school.  Without that focus, schools would surely become irrelevant.

2. Opportunities Outside of the Classroom 

As schools continue to cut budgets, often programming outside of the classrooms tend to be one of the first things to go (unfortunately, mostly in the fine arts).  This is not a good thing for our students.

In my own experience, the opportunity to play sports in school led me to develop leadership skills, as well as understanding the importance of being on a team and working together.  The opportunity to take part in the drama program, gave me the confidence to speak in front of others.  Both of these programs have had more impact in what I do today than anything else than I have ever done in school.

It is great to see districts like Chris Kennedy’s in West Vancouver not only promote these opportunities, but give kids different opportunities that are new to school.  If schools are to develop well rounded individuals, there is a huge importance in offering different programs to our students outside of the classroom.

(By the way…many teachers around the world provide these opportunities on a volunteer basis!)

3. Learning in a Respectful Environment 

I have to admit that I have walked into schools and have cringed at some of the words that I have read on clothing.  Surprisingly, it was not only by students but sometimes even staff.  It is important that as an educator or student you feel comfortable, not only physically but mentally as well.  I believe in the importance of relationships (as outlined in this post), but also of being able to work in an environment where people’s differences are respected and free from derogatory remarks.

Schools should be a “safe” place, and safety also deals with the notion of being comfortable to share ideas and be respected by one another, no matter who you are.

The idea that we need to continuously prepare kids for their future is something that always sits in the back of my mind.  Pedagogy often needs to change as we continue to see different ways of learning and understand how the brain works.  That being said, there are some fundamentals they should never go away and will make schools a place that students want to be.

Some ideas will never get old.

Taking Ownership

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Forced Learning?

I shared an article that I wrote about things that we should do in professional development, and many educators either loved or hated the idea of having reflection built into the day.  My belief is that if you believe it is important as an administrator, you make time for it.

One comment was one that I found interesting in the discussion:

So if we ask kids to reflect in class, does it not fit into the “restricted time frame” category?  Many would suggest that kids should “reflect” at home, but we make some very strong assumptions about their lives when we leave things for them to do after or before school.

I thought about these questions:

Do we “force” kids to learn like this all of the time? If it isn’t effective for us, why is it effective for them?  

So do all teachers take the time to reflect about their learning? I had one educator outright say in a workshop, “I know that reflection is valuable for learning but who has time for it?”  If we are to model the idea of being “lifelong learners”, should reflection (and I am not simply talking about writing, but any type of open reflection) be a part of the work that we do?  This does not have to be about what we learn in a PD day, but it could also be about any learning that an educator has done.

If the teachers feel “forced” to reflect and learn things that they might now want to do in restricted time frames, I wonder how the kids feel.  Are we hoping they just don’t know any better?  I hope not.

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.