Leading Our Way Forward Conference – Day 1

I have the great opportunity to work with 12 staff members at the Leading Our Way Forward Conference in Edmonton. Alberta.  I really believe in the power of school leadership teams going to professional development together to share best practices and how we can best implement them.  When I speak of “school leadership teams”, I believe that all staff can be leaders in areas that they are passionate about.  My team consists of teachers, educational assistants, a librarian, and school administration.  Working together and building from different viewpoints is something that is imperative to school success.

Here are some of the thoughts and questions that I have on different topics that have been discussed this morning.

Who is your customer?

This was an interesting question that was posed and ultimately I know the answer.  Students are always the customer in education.  Sometimes however, parents believe that they are the customer first.  I would not say that they are NOT the customer, but a school focus and a parent focus should always be the same.  What is best for kids?

My belief is that parents are partners in education and should always be listened to.  They have a say in the direction of the school but it is important that we help guide them to what students are wanting in their education.  Communication is key and letting them have a voice and understanding in the process is important to the success of the school community.

What will our school look like in 2020?

This is a question that often bothers me.  It immediately leads many people to the thoughts of the technology in the building.  This should not be the focus.  It should be on the environment that can be created to best engage kids in their own learning and have them as active participants in the classroom.  I have no idea what technology will be available nor do I care.  I do however care about how we can kids to connect locally and globally and be active learners.  Students who learn to learn is what I envision.  This can happen right now.  It does not have to wait ten years.

Helping kids to connect

As I have shared previously, the power of Twitter has helped me to connect with so many educators who share my viewpoints in the school.  I also think that students should have the opportunity to connect with others around the world to learn from different viewpoints and cultures.  This is something that is very powerful and beneficial to learning.  Doing this in a safe and effective way is what we need to work with kids on.  Digital Citizenship is something that all schools should be continuously working on and not just “throw” students into the fire without working with them on learning how to be safe.  I would never throw a student into the park without teaching them about safety, nor would I totally shut the park down because there could be some safety concerns.  We need to be the same way with technology.  Teach kids how to be safe in both the virtual and real worlds.

Great start to the conference and I am looking forward to more work with my team!

Making the Connection with Kids

Someone had recently commented to me that the word “connect” is used a lot in my blog and that should write my thoughts on it. The power to connect with the school community, especially the students, is one of the most important character traits a school leader can have.

My definition

Relationships are fundamental to the success of any school. The way you treat people and care for them can lead to either a positive or negative atmosphere in the school. Connecting with students means to me, how you take time and get to know them, but also how they get to know you. You need to be an open communicator with students and share parts of your life so that they feel you are willing to share with them the same things that you are asking them to share. The “two way” street is fundamental to building a connection.

How do I connect with students on a daily basis?

It is important that you work daily on building connections with your students, just as you do with on all of the relationships in your life.  Every morning that I am at school, I am one of the first people that the students see as I do outside supervision.  This is a HUGE way of building a relationship not only with the students, but also parents that are coming into the building.  Not only is it important that I am visual, but this is my opportunity to get to know the students on a personal basis.  It is important that when you are on supervision, that you take this time to engage with students.  It is great to walk around and talk to colleagues, but students are the main focus and should be during this time.  Yesterday on “casual Friday” I had the opportunity to play soccer with the students.  It was such a great opportunity to take part in the fun that was being shared, but it was also a way to show the students my interest in sports.  I have also been known to go on the playground and go down the slides.  This is great “water cooler” talk for the kids.

As the day goes, I take as many opportunities as I can to talk to kids and join the classroom.  I have never passed a student walking in the hallway without saying something.  I also try to comment on something that I notice about them.  Just yesterday, I stopped a student to comment on his shirt that I absolutely loved.  I asked the librarian to take a picture with the two of us.  It was a moment that student and I shared a laugh and now have built a memory upon.

Making school announcements every day is also a great way for the students to become familiar with you.  Often times I will make the odd bad joke or talk about my favourite teams, the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Los Angeles Lakers.  This is a way to start some conversations in the school with kids about how much they like/dislike your team.  Taking this opportunity to share your something about yourself with the whole school is a great way to connect.

As I deal with student discipline, I also use these opportunities to connect with kids.  I have pictures of my family, dogs, and of me as a youth in my office.  I have started a lot of conversations with, “When I was your age…”, and show them a picture of me at that time.  Kids understand that you have went through some of the things that they have also gone through.  I have also shared with them that although they have made a mistake, I have had made many in my life as well, especially at their age.  I then tell them that obviously I have learned from it, so they should be able to as well.  Taking away the perception kids have that the principal is sometimes infallible is a great way to ensure kids are more comfortable in their own skin when talking with you.

It is also important to connect with students that have had issues after the incident. Letting them know that they may have made a mistake but today is a new day is of importance.  Talking about something with them other than the incident will show that you respect them as people.

What are the outcomes of establishing a connection with students?

Spending this time with students is as much for my benefit as it is theirs.  Connecting with people gives a greater job satisfaction and brings purpose to my job as an educator. On top of that, when students feel that they are connected with you, they do not want to let you down.  They want to prove you right when you tell them that you believe in their abilities.

As a teacher in the classroom, making the connection with students made my job more enjoyable. Talking with them and learning more about their lives will lead to less behavioural issues in your classroom.  I once heard that with “problem” students, if you take two minutes a day for ten days straight to talk to them about their lives, their behaviour will improve dramatically.  I challenge you to prove this theory the next time you find a student to be challenging.

How can you begin establishing connections with students?

Talking to students, being visible, and sharing yourself are ways that you can make a better connection with kids.

Be yourself and share your passion.  This will in turn get them to share their passions with you.

Have a sense of humour.  Laugh with them and definitely be okay with them laughing at you.

Talk about your family and friends.

Share your interests.

Be visible.


Learning from the New

I had a great opportunity to talk to my brother’s class at the beginning of April and talk about my thoughts on leadership and what I look for in a teacher.  I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to share my thoughts with these educators.  They are excited about the path that lies ahead of them and are wanting to try different approaches in the classroom.  I have had the opportunity to follow their blogging throughout the semester and was so amazed by some of the work that they exhibited during their class.

Here is some of the interesting work that I have seen them do during their term in my brother’s class:

A great stop-motion video done by Morgan Bayda:

A creative way to share learning through a Jeopardy parody:

Or this very creative way to share learning through visuals and music:

These are all creative examples of learning that I have seen from these students. I am so glad that I was able to connect with them, as I have learned more from their collective knowledge then they would have ever learned from me. I am looking forward to see how this learning that has taken place will transfer to their students!

Encouraging Balance

I had the opportunity to discuss the Principal Quality Standard today at a session that I attended. I really believe that this is a great document for administrators to help ensure that they are being effective leaders. It also ensures that principals are effective at the “management” portions of their job (managing school operations and resources).  Although this is something that is specific to Alberta, the standards are applicable to all principals.

At today’s session, a comment threw me for a loop.  It was said that teachers coming into the profession today do not work the same as fifteen years ago.  It was said that they are a part of the “me” generation  and do not want to put in the long hours of work at night, and come in on the weekends.  What I insinuated from this comment was that teachers did not work the same because they were not as focused as their predecessors.

Later in the conversation, the question was asked why more and more teachers are leaving the profession early.  The same participant that made the earlier comment said that we have to go out as administrators and talk about how teaching is such a wonderful profession and so rewarding.  I thought long and hard about this statement and I agree with it.  I do however believe that teachers spending TOO much time at the school can lead to burn out, so why was the idea floated they should be at school longer.

We have to recognize that the teachers do wonderful things and care for the kids.  They need BALANCE in their lives and I encourage my staff to NOT be here until all hours of night, nor the weekends.  The most effective teachers are the ones that can connect with kids.  As we want students to be led to their passion, I also believe that staff need to do this as well.   Having outside interests makes a person well rounded, happier, and ultimately more effective with others.  If your life is all about school only, how does that relate to students?  I have always taken the opportunity to share my interests with students in the classroom because that is what humanizes me to them.  It also helps to build a strong connection in the classroom.  I do not want the “I am the teacher, and you are the student” mentality in the classroom.  I would much rather have this: “I am a person and you are a person.  Let’s work together.”

As a principal, I only want to work with staff that are passionate about working with kids.  Before that can happen though, they have to first be passionate about  their own lives and interests.  I encourage all administrators to work with their staff to ensure that they are having the opportunity to live a balanced,and passion filled life.  Your students will be better off because of it.

Finding My Sentence

In my writing, I talk a lot about the importance of passion.  Finding your passion is essential to feel satisfaction in what you do.  It is also gives you the opportunity to make positive contributions at your work place.

We must engage our students by helping them find their passions and not by simply giving rewards.  Joe Bower writes an excellent blog on effective assessment practices. We must do better for our students.  He and I agree that helping students find their passion and build a love of learning is the ultimate goal.

Recently I read the book “Drive” by Daniel Pink.  Pink talks about what motivates us.  He discusses how humans get the most out of whatever we do by being intrinsically motivated (e.g., learning for the love of learning). The author coined the phrase “finding your sentence” which serves as a guidepost to finding what motivates you.

My sentence is:  A leader who cares about kids and helps others find their passion.

Everyday I work hard to achieve that goal. Hopefully I can inspire others to find their own sentence; to find their passion.

What’s yours?

Encouraging Passion

Today I had the opportunity to talk to a wonderful student currently in Grade 12.  Jack is an amazing kid with a tremendous personality.  He makes you feel like you are worth millions when you speak to him.  Jack quickly made some “principal” jokes at me and we shared a good laugh.  This was one of the first times that Jack and I conversed.

Jack has a unique passion.  He loves to make things out of paper.  If you told me this, I would have not been able to visualize it.  Now that I have seen it; it is amazing.

When you see a student share his passion, whether it is school related or not, encourage them to follow it.  True fulfillment in life comes from finding your passion and pursuing it.  I have found mine and it looks like Jack found his!

Learning from Our Past; Digital Identity and Cyberbullying

Recently students at our school have started using Kidblog to start blogging about different things that are happening in around the school, as well as in their lives. This is something that is very exciting.  However, it is a new endeavour so there is uncertainty about the safety of putting information on the Internet.  Kidblog definitely has a great way to integrate kids on to the Internet by being able to have different security measures to ensure that information is being shown at a pace that staff, students, and parents are comfortable with.  Lee Kolbert writes a great blog post about using Kidblog so I encourage you to check it out if you want to learn more.

Digital and “real” identity; Make the connection

To ensure that students are being safe using these Web 2.0 Technologies, I worked with the students on a Cyberbullying and Web2.0 Presentation so they would ensure that they were being safe when using this new technology (to them).  What was an important part of this process was talking about how students want to present themselves in the “real world”.  Some of the concepts that were used were “friendly, respectful, intelligent, awesome, nice, pleasant, kind”. The next question that was asked was “Does this change when you are on the Internet?”  It was something that all of the students understood immediately.  It also seemed that some of the students rethought about some of the times that they did not present themselves on the Internet in the way they aspired to be presented in our school community.

I really appreciated the discussion that was had about bullying/cyberbullying and how it so negatively affected the school environment.  Discussion also followed on how quickly bullying spread using digital technologies.  Although they are quite funny, the LG Ads on cyberbullying are quite powerful.  I have also used the “Cry of the Dolphin” video to see the effects of cyberbullying on others.  Using this video also aided in our discussion. It shows the different mediums that students can use to bully and the affects it can have on the esteem of a child.

Connecting to my past

As a principal, it is often hard for students to realize that at one point I was actually a child in a school.  When I talk about school back in the “good old days”, students are interested in how things are different from then and now.  I always encourage other staff to try to connect with students on a level where kids will see them as “real people”.  Leading by example, and feeling the topic presented itself, I shared from my past.

As a younger child, I always had dealt with weight issues that had followed me up until my early adulthood.  It was only until recently that I have felt that I have become a healthier person, and my brother Dr. Alec Couros had wrote a blog post about how this had affected me and what I did to prevail. Although I feel I am very healthy now, I remember a distinct time where on a car ride home, I had felt that I was mercilessly teased about my weight.  I had played hockey for several years and this car ride home was from a town about an hour away from where I had lived.  To this day, I can still remember how I felt on that ride home and how it still gets me a little choked up.  Immediately after leaving the car to go into my house, I told my mother that I would never play hockey again.  After five years, that was the end of my career.  Although bullying had been done to me before that, it was the final straw and I did not want to return.

Students had known that it was something that had still bothered me when I spoke of it.  I discussed with them that almost 20 years later, I can still remember what happened that day and who was involved.  We also talked about how short moments, can affect someone’s life forever, as they did mine.

Connecting with students

There is power in sharing your own life with students. For my students to realize that I had gone through things similar to them is a great way for me to connect.
I have also had students who have had made mistakes in my office.  When they are upset I ask them this question: “Do you think that I ever made a mistake like that?”  They surprisingly say more often than not, no.  Any teacher that I had would know that I HAVE made many mistakes.  Humanizing these situations with students and sharing personal experiences with them is such a great way to connect.

As an educator, if you have these stories to share with the kids on how you have learned from your mistakes and/or past, I encourage you to share them.  They will not only see that you are a real person, but they can learn from your mistakes.  You will be surprised at how much they can and WANT to learn from your experience.

Do you have the best job ever?

Today was my birthday and as I grow older, I tend to want to keep it a low key affair and avoid the notion that I am growing older.  On this day my students would not let me forget the day at all, and made sure that I had a great celebration.

It started with walking into the school and seeing my office filled with balloons.  Now I am not sure who did this, but students were surrounding the windows in my office and were so excited about what they were seeing.  As the day continued, impromptu versions of “Happy Birthday” popped up every time I would walk into the classroom.  Hugs and kind words were in abundance  but I would have had it no other way.

As I decided that my office needed to have the balloons cleaned up, I asked classes one by one if they wanted to take a balloon.  Students had the chance to come into my office and pick a balloon.  The thing that I loved most about this, was seeing the excitement each student had to simply pick and have a balloon!  Their enthusiasm is contagious and I had a giant smile on my face the whole day.  One kindergarten student in particular gazed into my office as if she was about to enter Toys R’ Us!  It was a look that will be etched in my mind.

Knowing that I am surrounded by students who love so unconditionally and are so excited about so much definitely enthuses me about my job.  There is never a dull moment and I feel like no matter what birthday it is, the kids will always keep me feeling young.

Best job ever!

Changing Leadership Together

At Forest Green School, we believe building relationships is fundamental to student success.  Education is a powerful profession and has the capability to change definitions.

Evolution of Success

When I was a student, the term “success” meant that a student would graduate high school, go on to university, and have a good career in an academic field.  Education has helped to change success to go further than “the best” to “the best for us”.  We all know now that people do not need to go onto college be successful, but if they follow their passions and are happy, that is the ultimate success.  Many schools now believe (although branches of government have not come around to realize this) that leading students to find what they love, and helping them to pursue that, is how we can help students become successful.

Many students that I have had the joy of working with have gone on to work in fields that did not need a post secondary degree.  They are ultimately happier than other people who spent years in university, make excess amounts of money, but are miserable in their careers, which sometimes leads to misery in their personal lives.  I challenge you to say that the university student in that situation is the one that has achieved the greatest success.

Transformation of leadership

I have shared with staff my belief in distributed leadership and how that as a collective, we can achieve more than one person alone.  I want to continuously give staff the opportunity to have input on directions and decisions of the school, and am always able to go to other staff when I need help in areas that are not my strength.  I believe that one of the most powerful statements a formal leader can say to someone they work with is the term, “I don’t know”.  Saying that phrase alone is not powerful, but being able to lead someone to a person with further knowledge than myself on a topic is what a great leader will do.

As I started at a new school this year and shared my beliefs on distributed leadership, I wanted to ensure the culture of the school reflected that.  Coming in with a new set of eyes to the building, I noticed little subtleties that did not reflect the belief I was trying to share.  One thing that really stood out to me was the traditional principal portrait that was hanging in the front entrance of the school.  To me, this was a little detail, but still a detail that did not reflect the belief I was trying to foster in the school.  As I shared with staff that I believed they all needed to be leaders, the picture of myself would be shown in the front foyer.  I am happy to say that my picture never made it up.  Our school is about kids, not the principal, so although I value all of the work that the principals did before me to build a great school culture, I replaced their pictures with candid shots of students.  Not only did the school community appreciate seeing their children displayed as you walked into the school, it showed my belief that no one person is bigger than the school.  I challenge every administrator to look around the schools they work.  Do the “little things” reflect what you believe is the shared vision of the school?  If not, it is time to make some changes.

Transferring leadership to students

Distributed leadership is not something that is unique to my building, but it is something that is more prevalent in all facets of society.  Leadership is more about how we work and lead as a collective, as opposed to following the vision of one.  If these skills are relevant to the workplace, what are we doing as a school to advance this?  Schools should ensure that they are preparing students with skills so they can flourish long after they leave.  Building leadership skills in all students is something that we need to be doing as educators.

Being influenced by the book, “The Leader in Me”, I started to realize that this is something that is apparent at our school, without it ever being truly focused upon.  Students lead our assemblies, help to supervise and ensure the safety of others, while also having input in their own learning.  These are just a few things that I have seen our students do.  The key to this is that the staff has helped to nurture and grow this.  Now as a focus of our school, we try to give as many opportunities to students to become leaders and help in the direction of our school.  Not all students are going to be in positions of “traditional” leadership (principals, CEO’s, managers, etc.), but we want to ensure that they can become leaders in whatever they do.

If you believe that this is something that is not achievable by all students, or even your students who you know better, you may need to recheck your belief system.  If we limit our students, they sometimes achieve success in spite of us instead of because of us. What do you do as an educator to help your students become leaders?  What opportunities do you give students to lead in your school?  I have students in my school raise funds for Haiti, organize assemblies, help others that are in trouble, and create a healthy concession for others.  These were ALL student initiated.  Seeing these acts by students only solidifies my belief in leadership is something that is in all of us.

It is my belief that my job is ultimately easier because I have so many people that I can count on to take on different roles of leadership in my school.  This includes students.  If all of us work together as a school community where we all have the opportunity to share our strengths and become leaders, the limits of what was can do are endless.  In fact, together we can definitely change the traditional definition in society on what a true leader should be.