As the year has wrapped up for most North American schools, I look back at my year and realize how blessed I am to not only be able to travel the world and share my experience with others, but also the opportunity to still work with Parkland School Division on a part-time basis. I think that this allows me to still “do the work” in schools while also having the ability to share it with others as well. The balance that this has created to both see other organizations and share my work, and vice-versa, has been immeasurable for my learning.
From what I have learned about Parkland School Division, I believe it is a world-class organization, that is not just talking about newer opportunities for learning for our students, but is creating powerful learning environments for our entire community. We still teach the curriculum and we still have to “follow the rules”, but we try to be innovative within the parameters that are provided. The content that we have to teach is often decided for us, but the way that we teach, and more importantly our students learn, is where the magic truly happens.
So how did this happen? Well to be honest, we still have a lot of work to do, but that will always be the case. We are a “learning organization” which, by the nature of the term alone, means that we are focused on continuous growth as a district. It is not only that we have leaders that model themselves as learners, but it is done as at the organizational level as a whole. This growth as a group has led to the development of individuals.
Looking back, here are five things that have really stuck out to me this year and have helped us to grow.
1. Promotion and modelling of risk-taking.
The term “risk-taking” is one of those “buzzwords” that drives many people crazy. An “innovative environment” will always promote this, but it does not mean that it is happening. It is only when the leaders of organization model the risk-taking that they talk about, does it happen en masse in schools. I have watched our superintendent Tim Monds, try many different things in his own learning that have been displayed openly to others in Parkland School Division. It started with things such as using Twitter, more focus on cloud tools such as Evernote and Google Apps for Education, and more recently, sharing his monthly message through YouTube videos. His understanding and willingness to try different ways of learn and sharing has trickled down to others. You can see that more educators are trying different things, and then implementing their learning with their students.
It is not only that our leaders have jumped in and shared their learning, but they have flattened the organization and learned from others as well. I will see many of our superintendents attend events such as “Innovation Week” to see what is happening in our schools, so that they can either share their learning with others, or act as connectors. It would be easy to “lead from above”, but it is more important to get involved and “lead by example”. This is something I have seen often from our administrators at every level.
Collaboration is talked a lot about in schools as an “essential trait”, but there are many people that thrive off the notion of competition. To me, it is not one or the other, but a combination of both that really push our organization forward. “Competitive-Collaboration” is something that I believe will really push us to the next level.
For example, if we are looking at other school divisions around the world and we see some really amazing things going on, we want those same opportunities for our students. To build a “world-class organization”, you have to look at what is happening outside your organization, not just locally. Because of this drive, we have implemented a lot of what we have learned from others, and remixed it to make it applicable to our own students. The other element of this notion is that we are more than willing to share what we have learned with others as if our works helps kids, no matter where they live, that is to everyone’s benefit. The more we share, the more others become opening to sharing with us. The balance of being able to both push and help each other will get us to become a better organization a lot quicker.
3. Proud of where we are, but know we have a way to go.
Parkland School Division has been a place that has spent a lot of time recognizing what both are students and educators have done while giving them an opportunity to showcase this to others around the world (ie. 184 Days of Learning). With that being said, our schools continuously push to get to the next level. When you get to a point where you think you have arrived, that is usually when you become irrelevant, and become the school equivalent of “Blockbuster Video”.
Many organizations simply take the word “innovation” and used it to replace the word “technology” but innovation and technology are not necessarily synonymous. A telephone would be a technology yet would not be considered “innovative” as this point in time, yet at one point it was a great example. Innovation, in short, means “different and better”; it is not innovative if it does not have these two elements. The notion of “innovative thinking” is one that we have focused on, and I have seen that our teachers are continuously questioning their own practice and trying to do things both different and better.
We can always appreciate our growth as both individuals and an organization, but we cannot simply pat ourselves on the back and quit doing the work. When you serve kids, our focus needs to be to get better every day.
4. The focus on sharing.
One of my favourite videos is Dean Shareski’s “Moral Imperative”, where he talks about the need for teachers to share. This is a video that many of our staff have watched, and have learned a great deal from, and the willingness to share has helped ideas to go “viral”. Whether it is a focus on inclusion, health and wellness, technology, Identity Day, or almost anything, you will find it shared through blogs and twitter, so that these ideas are not kep in isolation within a classroom or a school, or even as a district.
Scott Johnston, a great friend, thinker, leader, and new Associate Superintendent, talked about the importance that we move to a place see themselves as not only part of a school, but that we are all a part of Parkland School Division. When we see every kid in every school as one of our own, “sharing” becomes vital to our success.
5. Relationships, relationships, relationships.
No matter what we have learned about, what new initiative or technology there is, a focus on relationships has been the cornerstone and foundation of what has happened in Parkland School Division. Without a strong focus on relationships first, nothing else happens. Our “bosses” have focused on this from day one, and it is rare that any conversation that we have not start off checking in on individuals “personally”. I have always been asked about my family, and I have always felt comfortable sharing because Parkland, in many aspects, has become like a family to me.
When I first came to the school division, this focus on relationships was something that was new to me and I didn’t really understand. Now I could not understand how we could get anything done without it. I am more apt to go the extra mile for someone when I know that my leaders care about me personally, then if they didn’t. When the top levels model this, it (again) trickles down to every level. The mind and body can not do much when the heart is not there. This focus on relationships has helped me to focus on always serving the “whole person” as opposed to just focusing on my “job”.
As people get some time to rest up and head into another school year, I look back and realize how proud I am to be part of an organization that is more than just about “school” but about growth and development of people. It is written in our “vision”:
Parkland School Division is a place where exploration, creativity and imagination make learning exciting and where all learners aspire to reach their dreams.
If you notice the term “learners” is in place of where many organizations use the term “students”. To me, this vision and focus on the notion of “learners” says that we are all in this together, and we get better as a whole when we do whatever we can help ourselves and each other grow as individuals.
As I was working out at gym, I watched a member go to the front desk and ask if they could cancel their membership. The person working the front desk, obviously instructed to do this, told the member that they would have to talk to a “sales specialist” before they could actually cancel their membership. This was obviously a last ditch opportunity to get as much money as they could from this person, and since no sales assistant was available, she had to come back another day to cancel her membership.
I thought about how terrible this process was and what it would mean long term for the company. Yes, they would probably squeeze another month out of the person and receive 60 dollars, but long term, she would probably complain to her friends about how poorly the company was run and how they were ultimately focused on the bottom line as opposed to people. Making a little money now might lead to a large loss later. Word of mouth is crucial to organizations.
Comparatively, I have seen this done with great teachers. I know of one who was in a situation where they received a new job only a few days after the division negotiated deadline to give notice for the next school year. Instead of letting the person take another job that they wanted, they really pushed the person to stay another year because they knew they had a skill set that would be hard to replace.
Does this make sense? Should you make a teacher stay in a position they want to leave and have them resentful for another year? Luckily for that teacher, they found a job the following year and they had a much better fit professionally and personally, but the damage was done on what they thought of the organization. Instead of pushing people to get better, it seemed they focused on holding them back.
My philosophy that I learned working with Parkland School Division is that you never hold a person back from their dreams. In fact, you encourage them to pursue them. In my first year as a teacher, I was offered a job as an assistant principal late into July, and although I could have technically been told that I was not able to break the contract, my principal encourage me to take the position and assured me that she would find someone great. This treatment of myself made me only speak highly of the organization and how they treated me and it was something that I focused on as an administrator. Sometimes you have to let your best people leave to encourage their dreams, but that treatment will only encourage more great people to want to be a part of your organization. I would much rather have an amazing educator in my school for two years than an average one for fifteen.
Below is the “vision” for Parkland School Division:
Parkland School Division is a place where exploration, creativity, and imagination make learning exciting and where all learners aspire to reach their dreams.
What I love about this vision is the use of the word, “learner” as opposed to “students”. WIthin my interpretation of this shared vision is that every person within this organization is empowered and expected to continuously grow. If that is the case, it also encourages all “learners” to “aspire to reach their dreams”. I remember seeing a district having an advertisement that it was a “great place to work”. So would you want to simply “work” or “aspire” to reach your dreams? I know what I would choose.
I saw a tweet sharing Krissy Venosdale’s picture below:
Interestingly enough, the tweet stated:
This should be every student’s commitment to education.
What I would challenge is that it shouldn’t only be a student’s commitment, but the commitment of all those involved in education to do those things.
If we are all learners, these actions would be the norm, not the exception.
I often have the honour of working with teachers on a 1-to-1 basis, doing professional development starting with the learner, as opposed to the teacher. I love it only because of the immediate effectiveness I feel it has on the teacher you work with. It also gives me a chance to build some powerful relationships with our staff, while also learning a great deal from them.
One of the people that I have the opportunity to work with Simone Bauer. As a music teacher in Parkland School Division, I have seen her put on amazing concerts with our students, and love it as I have always a strong love for music. What I love about Simone is that she is continuously looking for new ways to engage her students in ways that are relevant to them in music. She is always pushing the boundaries.
In a recent 184 post, I was blown away by what she shared. Using Noteflight (I had never heard of this software until Simone brought it up), she learned how to create musical compositions and post them online. Here is the sample:
Although it is obvious Simone is great with music, she used her talent and found software that helps meet kids where they are, while also being able to share with a mass audience. Her biography in the post is awesome:
Simone Bauer with a Master of Arts in piano performance, B Ed in music teaching, is an innovative music specialist at Blueberry School. She finds great fulfillment in developing aspiring musicians in choral work and instrumentation, as she seeks out new program applications to combine “hands on musicality” with technology. Her former students have gone on to become leaders in the high school musical programs in Parkland, as well as acceptance into professional musical groups in Alberta.
What if all educators saw themselves as “innovators” as Simone does? That thinking is so powerful in teaching and learning.
Now it is pretty impressive that Simone is figuring these things out herself, but the real power is when she transfers that learning to her students. As Simone learned it, she now is giving her students the opportunity to create and share their work with a large audience. This is one of the compositions that one of her students created.
Pretty powerful learning.
I am honoured to work in a division where we have so many teachers who see themselves as innovators, and create learning opportunities for themselves to enhance the learning opportunities for their students. Students will need to continuously change and adapt to keep up in a world that always changes. By having teachers model these skills, we are on a great path.
In my leadership role, I have started to do “1-on-1″ days with staff where they could ask questions on initiatives that they wanted to learn about. This has been the most effective way to do PD (in my opinion) and I learn a lot from their questions as well.
Although I have done this several times, I decided to try something different and summarize what I did with each teacher in a tweet. Why did I do this? Well, I wanted people to know in the school who was working on what, and to also make great learning viral. People probably would not ask about what others learned in their individual session unless they were exposed to it. This goes back to what I discussed in the post on the different roads to innovation. Both 1-on-1 time and mass sharing will get you places quicker if combined.
Below is a Storify that I put together to share what was learned by each staff member,
Here are some questions…
How do you share the work that you do during individual staff PD to ensure that great learning goes viral? I would love to see some other examples of how people are sharing.
Here are some simple questions that I think are important to ask students at the beginning of the year:
How do you learn best?
What is something that you are passionate about?
How can I best support you to be successful this year and beyond?
What are the qualities that you look for in a teacher?
If you started the year with asking questions to your students about how they learn, wouldn’t the year start off so much better for them? One of my thoughts about these questions is that you might have several students that have no idea how to answer them. My belief is that it would be a part of what we do as educators to help them understand and answer these questions. If you would have asked me, “How do you learn best?”, when I was in grade 12, I don’t think that I would have been able to answer.
Kids should know the answers to these questions and it should help guide the way we teach them individually.
What are some of the questions you ask your students to start the year?
“Innovation has an inherent distaste for best practices because it is about new solutions, not copying existing solutions.” Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant
Two years ago, I wrote a post as I attended the 2011 Canadian Association of School Administrators entitled, “This is not optional anymore”. In the post, I was quite concerned about what I was seeing many “leaders” model at the conference in the use of technology to improve learning through the effective use of technology and how they were pushing this notion forward:
Our educational administrators however really need to get going on this. Leaders right? If teachers in your school or division see that you are not moving forward with some conviction in this area, why would they believe that there is any sense of urgency? Why would teachers think this is important if our administrators aren’t modelling effective use? The teachers that are moving forward need you to understand this area and support them. They don’t need you to be at the same level, but they at least need to know you trust them and will put the systems in place for them and more importantly, their students, to be successful. Take some risks and model both in success and failure that you are a learner; this is what we expect from our students.
Now attending the same conference two years later, I was dismayed at the opening speaker really focusing on how we shouldn’t jump in and almost making technology seem like a fad. Maybe I have taken this the wrong way, but I felt he was saying that helping teachers use technology effectively is a lot of work and maybe we shouldn’t really put that much effort into the endeavour.
Not an inspiring way to start a conference where the focus is technology on improving learning.
In the talk, there was discussion of really sticking with “best practices” but when do we focus on “next practices”? We are asking our teachers to help our students to be creative and innovative but doing this in a way that promoted neither for their own practice. How can we teach something to our kids that we are not allowed to experience ourselves? I am not saying that we ignore “best practices”, but we also have to look at how we move our organizations forward before we become the “Blockbuster” of public institutions.
As I walked out of the keynote, I thought I was going to hear conversations such as “you can be an effective teacher without technology” from participants. I didn’t. I actually heard a lot of the same frustration that I had, while also seeing a huge commitment to moving schools forward to not only align with our world, but to really try to start leading it.
I laughed a bit when the hashtag shared for the conference was the longest conference hashtag I have ever seen Then I realized, they are using a hashtag for the conference this time and are trying and wanting to move forward. Administrators are really starting to get that this shift in our world needs to be mirrored in our schools. I am seeing that more “technology” conferences such as ISTE are not just filled with “techies”, but with classroom teachers and administrators. More conferences that focus on leadership and learning have technology embedded into the workshops and keynotes. Educators know this is important and are forging ahead.
While many continue to focus solely on the past to create the future, many educators are looking to create the future with their students. They are not accepting “what was” but are looking to create “what can be”.
“Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.” William Pollard
Many are saying no to the “status quo” and I feel a lot better about where we are today from where we were two years ago.
If you are wanting to read some great books on what schools could look like, I highly recommend “Why School” from Will Richardson (the best 2 dollars you will ever spend) and “World Class Learners” from Yong Zhao.
As I was moving offices within my building and had to pack up a few boxes (it is less every time I move with 99% of the things that I do being online and in the cloud), I found an old DVD that I created with a grade 6 class my first year with the division. In the project, the students were studying China so we decided to take each objective that we were supposed to learn, and a group of students made a 3-5 minute video using video and images to discuss and share what they learned on the project. As a classroom, we took each segment and made an hour long documentary on “China”, even using Chinese commercials for the breaks in between to make it look like an actual TV show. It was an awesome project but there were a lot of things that were put into place before something like that could happen.
All of that happened in my first year at Greystone Centennial Middle School as a Technology Integration Coordinator. When I was hired for the position, my very forward thinking principal was hiring for a “Middle Years Teacher”, not the position that it eventually became. As her admin team did interviews, they held conversations with each candidate to learn about them. As they learned about my skills and strengths, they saw something in me that could help fill some gaps within the school. They decided to hire me and created a position based on my strengths, not on simply a void that needed to be filled.
Instead of putting me into a place that I would feel comfortable, they did everything to ensure that I would be successful. That included taking my feedback on the schedule that was created for me to work with each classroom one block a week. I asked them if I could work with one class every two weeks and do project-based learning (I did not use the term at the time but that is what we did), giving students opportunity to create real meaningful learning and it really pushed my learning as well. I had a great year and because of that, I was hired by another school in the division as an Assistant Principal. In that role, my Principal asked me what I was strong at and we split the workload between my strengths and his strengths. I was really strong in working with students that had issues in the classroom, where I was weak with the documenting needed for developing individual program plans. It was not that I didn’t do things that I struggled with, but most of the job was tailored (again) to work to my strengths.
Currently, still with Parkland School Division as Division Principal, the job was tailored to my strengths and abilities. They looked at my resume and strengths and instead of trying to tailor me to the job, they tailored the job to me.
A couple of things that I have learned from this…It is always important to try to build upon the strengths of people and as Peter Drucker says, “It takes far less energy to move from first-rate performance to excellence than it does to move from incompetence to mediocrity.” The other thing that I have learned is that instead of always trying to focus on finding the right person for the job, it is much more important to try and find the “right person”. Being recognized for my strengths and having my bosses always trying to build upon them has taught me that I always have to try and do the same.