Innovation is Relative

IMG_2574The work of a school principal is challenging, but also highly rewarding. Each day brings something new and that’s exciting to me. As I think back on this work that I love, I recall the wise words of a former principal…

“It’s incredible how quickly you can lose touch with what’s happening.”

For all of us, regardless of our work, we must continue to learn and evolve in order to stay current and relevant. Nowhere is this truer than in education. While some things remain constant, like the power of relationships, and the importance of doing interesting, personalized, and meaningful work, almost everything else continues to change around us. Here in Surrey and around the province of British Columbia, we are now working with a new curriculum, grounded in the development of important core competencies we know our students will need to possess in order to thrive in our ever-changing world.

Thank you Rosemary Heights teacher, Kristin Visscher (@mommavisscher) for these images!

Evolution is key! Recently, I heard someone say something and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. They said,  “Innovation depends on your context.” Think about that comment for a moment and then think about how much the term “innovation” is used. I consider innovation to being something that isn’t just new, but better than what came before it! Therefore, what one person might consider innovative, another might consider dated practice. But, what’s most important is to simply take a small step and try to do what you do, better.

This concept is best understood when we reflect on our own learning and growth.

When I first became a principal, much of what I did was based on what I saw other principals do. One of these things was how schools communicate with parents. Traditionally, this was done through newsletters. So, once a month I would do what I thought I was supposed to do – I would brainstorm all the things I thought I should include in the newsletter such as a message from me, important dates, celebrations of past events, bell times, reminders…all very important information for parents to have. I would neatly put all this information together, have it proofread, printed, copied, and sent home.

It was good … I thought.

But, as time passed, the way I communicated seemed to become more and more disconnected, both in time and content, from the rich learning taking place. In the background, how teachers were communicating student learning began to transform as well. Gone were the days of reports cards three times per year, replaced by ongoing, responsive, and descriptive feedback through digital portfolios. Teachers were clearly in an innovative space with their communication, evolving, risk-taking, being vulnerable with their ideas and practice. How was I to work alongside my teachers and help them lead this shift if my practice did not model what I expected from them? So I went “electronic” sending the same newsletter in PDF form via email.

This too was good … I thought.

At the time, this was relatively innovative, because I could now add more visual content which was more effective in sharing what was happening. Even though my communication evolved to a weekly blog instead of a newsletter in 2012, my thinking around communicating student learning didn’t really change until 2014 when I moved to my most recent school and I pondered for some time what the title of the school blog would be. I had used the word “NEWS” in my previous school blog. And while it’s important for us to communicate the news and events of schools to parents, schools are about learning. So, the simple gesture of adding the word “LEARNS” to a blog title forced us to make a commitment to a certain type of communication – the language of learning.

Suddenly, everything happening at school looked different to me. During my travels into classes, through the hallways, even outside before or after school, at recess or lunch, every photo, video, or conversation was focused on one central question – “Where is the learning?” What I discovered is that once you start to view behaviour that way – through a lens of learning – you realize that school is not about isolated events, but rather that learning takes place all the time, in all situations, most of the time without the learners even realizing it. If our intent as school leaders is to foster a culture of meaningful learning, then what we decide to notice and communicate to our community is of significant importance. If schools are all about learning, how is this learning continuously captured and shared? Sometimes learning can be shared in a quick tweet, or a captioned image, or a gallery of images. Other times, the learning is so rich it is deserving of being communicated through a learning story. Yes, creating learning stories takes patience and time, but when the stories emerge, they communicate powerfully. Some of my favourite learning stories are about…

Fortunately, the myriad of tools at hand today make this process much easier than it used to be. Some strategies I found successful in telling the stories of learning:

  • I always take my phone with me and document continuously by collecting images and videos.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. Find a colleague who you can lean on. Ask questions. Risk-take. Start small or start big … but start! Be creative. Have fun!
  • Focus on the learning by always looking through the lens that makes you ask the question, “Where is the learning?”
  • Take some time to reflect on what happens in your busy day and your interactions with students, teachers, and parents. Write a narrative about what you notice. Tell the story of what your school is about, or what you want your school to be about.
  • I started a free blog on WordPress. There are many platforms you can use. I paid extra to have a shorter domain name (cambridgelearns.com) and that allow me to upload and embed video directly into posts.
  • I created a Facebook page because my community was already immersed in Facebook use. I had to go where my families were.
  • I created a Twitter account to be able to quickly post links to the blog and information. You can connect your Twitter account to most other applications so that your tweets show up automatically on your school blog and website.
  • I connected my social media accounts together using Hootsuite, which allows you to post to multiple accounts at once.
  • I used a free app called Chirbit (there are many others) to record and publish our morning announcements each morning. Parents can hear exactly what their children hear. Teachers can hear announcements again with their class if they missed something. In schools with many families speaking a different language, we did a second set of announcements in another language. In this case, it was Punjabi and it was totally led by students.

We ask our students and teachers daily to risk-take, experiment, and personally grow. What a powerful message we send when we say we are willing to publicly do the same. Your “innovative” doesn’t need to be relative to others, only relative to yourself.

So, how will you get started? What will be your next step?

#corecompetencies      #communication      #creativity

Silly rabbit…Core competencies are for everyone!

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 9.25.20 PMThe world doesn’t necessarily need students who know ‘lots of stuff’, but rather learners who truly know themselves, what they are (and are not) good at, superior communicators, thinkers, and critical and creative thinking contributors to groups, communities, and the world. In other words, the world needs more possessors of essential communication, thinking, personal, and social competencies.

The most successful people among us have not only been able to learn, they’ve maintained the mindset that has allowed them to “unlearn” many of things we once thought to be true.

Heck, when I look at myself, I am constantly made aware of all the things I don’t know or need to get better at. It’s at these times, when I think about my own learning, that I think about all times I have leaned on my competencies –  the very competencies that are expressed and emphasized in our new curriculum – in order to KNOW, DO, and UNDERSTAND new things. Can you see in the following examples how the core competencies found expression?

If you take a moment to reflect on your own life, you’ll quickly start to see how the core competencies find expression in what you do!

So while we are all in a rush to help our students understand and internalize the language of the core competencies so that they can engage in the process of self-assessment, I actually think that it begins with us…yes, the adults. The way I see, you can’t help others see the core competencies in themselves unless you can see them, in some way, in yourself. So here goes a personal learning story…

I have chosen to reflect on an activity I do to help myself stay healthy and to reduce stress. It’s an activity that helps me feel better about myself by accomplishing goals, and gives me time to think about creative ways to solve problems in my work and life.  I started running about 5 years ago when, because of my work and simply getting older, I wasn’t in the type of good physical condition I once was.  I started running slowly, running 2, 3, then 4 kilometers at a time. Then one day, I dropped my son off for his soccer game and decided to go on a run before the game started. After some time, I realized I had run 7 kilometres already and my mind turned to a thought … you are only 3 kilometres from 10!  This was exciting because I had never run that far before – ever. But on this day, I did!!!

Fast forward to this year, I set a goal to run 1000 kilometres in one year. After a couple of months, I realized I was running 100 kilometres per month and that if I continued on this pace, I would make it to 1200 kilometres in one year.  I used an app on my iPhone to help me stay on track.  Then came December…and SNOW, SNOW, and more SNOW. Days passed and it was getting harder and harder to complete my runs. There was ice and snow on sidewalks and it seemed that each day, nature was handing me an excuse to not run. But, I persevered, even when I felt like quitting. Even on snowy days, I would hit the trails and I would keep going.

With 2 days left in the year, on December 30, I was left with some basic math:  2 days, 25 kilometres and a SNOWSTORM ON THE WAY!  I had to get the 25 kilometres in on December 30 because heavy snow would make it impossible to run on December 31. I had NEVER run that far before, but I did it. On the way, as if to be rewarded by nature, I saw the most beautiful sight – two curious deer on the side of the road watching me – encouraging me perhaps.  It was a magical moment I was able to add to my gallery of images on Instagram, continuing to capture the beauty I see around me.

I am proud that I set and accomplished my running goal for 2016. Now, I want to go further so I have set a new goal of 1300 total kilometres for 2017. So far, so good. As of this writing on March 6, I have run 232 kilometres and I am on track, with ongoing encouragement from my iPhone app and a little inner determination. Choose to challenge yourself with difficult things. It is only by doing this that your reveal your inner strength to yourself!

Some time back, I invited anyone on Twitter to take the #corecompetencies challenge. It was simple: find a picture on your camera roll, describe how it demonstrates the activation of one or more of the core competencies, then hashtag it and tweet it. The best way I can describe the uptake would be “slow”. That’s not to say some didn’t take the challenge, but evidently doing what we expect students to do is actually quite challenging.

If our aim is to “notice, name, and nurture” then surely there must be a shift in how we view the learning taking place in our schools. This shift will not only provide a new lens through which we can understand what we see in others, but also a new lens through which we can understand ourselves as learners.

So … I challenge you to allow yourself to not only be vulnerable in reflecting on your own journey as a learner through the lens of the core competencies, but to also make that learning visible to others.

#corecompetencies

Winning Back Our Students

Originally published June 5, 2016 on CambridgeLearns.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 10.36.57 AMI had the honour of attending a keynote presented by Dr. Gordon Neufeld a few weeks back. Dr. Neufeld’s work focusses on “attachment” and the power of relationships in the development of a child. We know intuitively that when a child has a strong bond with a parent, a teacher, or another trusted adult, they will do almost anything for that person. We also know that when that attachment is not present, children can be defiant, do the opposite of what is requested, and start to orient themselves towards their peers. One of the most profound statements Dr. Neufeld made during his keynote was, “We have to win our students back!” This statement resonates for me because I increasingly see students that schools have clearly lost. There are a few reasons why I think this is so.

In these times of increased accountability in education and with teachers saddled with the overwhelming pressure to “cover the curriculum” and prepare for standardized tests, school has become irrelevant to many students and disconnected from their reality. For these students, school is tolerated, school is something that is done to them, and school is something they try to survive. In fact, as a teacher reflected back on his schooling experience during a recent conversation I had with him, he said, “I didn’t really enjoy elementary or high school, and when I got out…” His words struck me. He was talking about his schooling experience as if he had just finished a prison sentence. He then went on to share that his educational experience changed after high school because then, he actually had some input regarding his learning. We clearly need to do a better job of incorporating student passions into the work we do in schools. Students do a great deal of incredible learning on their own, but because it doesn’t take place between 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. at school, we don’t seem to value it. Learning that takes place at school represents only a small part of the total learning a child does.

This phenomenon was illustrated in a recent fine arts performance at Cambridge Elementary titled, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. The play was about a magician and his assistant. Several times, the magician would send his assistant off with a task, such as preparing props, or finding items. Each time, the assistant would get side-tracked practicing and learning magic tricks because in reality, the assistant really wanted to be a great magician as well. The assistant learned so much each time she was sent off to do a task, but inevitably, the magician would return and become very upset because the tasks were never completed and because the assistant appeared to be doing nothing. I couldn’t help but feel that schools are very much like the magician in this play. We seem to think the learning opportunities we provide are the only ones that are valuable. The good news is that at the conclusion of the play, the Sorcerer acknowledges all the learning the apprentice had done and agreed to include one of her magic tricks in his performance. We need to make sure learning is relevant to students, places value on student passions, and that students are given the opportunity to learn through play.

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Another reason “we have to win our students back” is that in our frenzy to “cover the curriculum”, “teach content”, and be accountable, we have lost sight of the fact that children need to be connected to people who care about them. Dr. Neufeld stated, “humans don’t do separation.” If a child comes from a busy home with working parents, has no other adult to attach to, and is surrounded by teachers who only focus on delivering content, that child will quickly seek help from people who are unable to really provide that support – peers. Dr. Neufeld shared that all children need to have a “home-base” at school –  a caring and trusted adult.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 11.37.07 AM

CC Image courtesy of Bill Ferriter on Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/e6Wh1K

Thankfully, all hope is not lost! I believe that schools are beginning to understand the important messages communicated by Dr. Neufeld. Some say that there is too much change in education. But really, can we afford to not change? Can we continue to live with the fact that almost half of high school students wait to “get out” of school so that the real learning can start? We are starting to see curriculum reform that focuses on the development of key competencies such as communication, creativity, problem solving and critical thinking, rather than a curriculum that is inundated with content that overwhelms students and teachers alike. Teachers are hearing the message that part of the important work they do in schools is connecting with students before directing them. And most important, those who work in schools are beginning to value and tap into the wide range of skills, talents, and passions that learners bring with them. Clearly, there is much more work to be done, but thankfully schools have started to fight the important battle to win back our children!

Where Is The Learning?

Originally published April 24, 2016 on CambridgeLearns.

img_5149Cambridge Elementary is two years into a journey of documenting and sharing student learning electronically through digital portfolios. One very important thing that this process has done is essentially reflect back to the viewer a clear picture of the learning that is (and sometimes isn’t) taking place. The documentation forces one to ask the very important question, “Where is the learning?”

In the work I do daily, I have the opportunity to visit many classrooms. These visits allow me to not only connect with and support students and staff, they give me the opportunity to have a strong sense of the learning taking place. Like when I visit digital portfolios, my class visits always take me to the same question, “Where is the learning?” And when I talk about learning, it’s important to know that I don’t just look at specific curriculum connections, but also the development of core competencies and “soft” skills.

A phenomenon that has stormed into Cambridge and many other schools throughout SurreySchools this year is 3-D design and printing. Everyone seems interested in the possibilities of this new technology and students are spending hours of their own time at home designing and testing items. As students become more proficient with their design, we gradually grow closer to the point where they begin to think of how they can harness the power of 3-D design and printing to actually solve real-world problems. We know students everywhere are doing this already! A great example of this is a wonderful project completed by outstanding local Teacher-Librarian Anna Crosland and the students over at my previous school, Georges Vanier, who used 3-D design to create and print braille tags for doors to help a visually impaired student navigate safely from place to place within the school. Read more about this work here!

One teacher in particular at Cambridge Elementary, Peter Beale, has demonstrated a genuine passion for learning about 3-D design and printing and has opened up this new world of learning to his students. Recently, they were given the opportunity to reflect back on their 3-D experiences and they were encouraged to go back to the all important question, “Where is the learning?” Sure we knew students were engaged and had a great time designing and printing their objects, but could they articulate their learning?

Kiera, a Grade 6 student shared:

3D objects designed and printed by a Cambridge learner
3D objects designed and printed by a Cambridge learner

“I created a 3D model of the Eiffel Tower. Later on I added two more towers like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Seattle Space Needle. You might be wondering how I made the Seattle Space Needle, Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Eiffel Tower. Well, I searched up tinkercad models of these towers to try and find the right shapes. Somehow I was able to create these towers. I was pretty impressed myself.

Creating the Eiffel Tower wasn’t easy. I really didn’t know what shape to use for the base, until I started experimenting till I finally found it. I really only needed to use 3 shapes. Pyramids, Cubes, and the shape called a Round Roof. Once I was done, I thought it turned out pretty good but I thought I needed more things. You’ve probably noticed that I didn’t add the criss cross like the real Eiffel Tower in Paris. I tried making it but it was complicated. Some things would pop out and it just looked like a big mess.

Now the Space Needle was a different story. It was the hardest one. It took me days just to find the right shapes. I had to combine shapes just to have the right shape. I also searched up a model of the Space Needle and tried to make my Space Needle like theirs. The base wasn’t that hard until I got to the point where there were details that were almost impossible to figure out how to make. In the end, I was able to make it and I was proud of my self.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was probably the easiest one to make. I didn’t really need to search up a model of it from tinkercad cause somehow I was able to just experiment with a bunch of shapes and create the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I duplicated a lot of things and didn’t add much detail as the real one does. I was really happy on how it turned out.

Notice the powerful language…

  • I created
  • I searched
  • I really didn’t know
  • I started experimenting
  • I thought I needed more things
  • I had to combine shapes

mistakesThis learning story talks about critical thinking and problem-solving, not knowing and searching, trying again in the face of failure, and most importantly that mistakes help us learn. The student above communicates clearly where the learning is!

So if you were wondering if students actually learn anything in the process of 3-D design and printing, this student helps us respond to this question with a resounding “Yes.”

The Power of Relationships

Originally published April 10, 2016 on CambridgeLearns.com

I am fascinated by schools and school culture, and by the question, “What makes a school great?” I’ve written about this topic before, and a couple of events from the past week prompt me to dig into this topic again.

The first event was the yearly publication of BC Schools Ranking by the Fraser Institute. While I maintain that this sort of ranking based on one standardized test is superficial, my curious nature forced me to have a look at the publication. I was happy to see that the students at our school did well on the Foundation Skills Assessment, which provides a snapshot in time of a student’s ability in reading, writing, and numeracy. But, it continues to disappoint me that this data is used to rank schools. It makes me wonder if parents think private schools are “better” because of these rankings, or that children receive a more rich learning experience at a private school because of these rankings.

Anyone who spends a reasonable amount of time in a school knows that these places are vibrant, alive, and complex in nature and can’t be reduced to a single number. I believe the purpose for all schools is to build the human capacity of all community members – students, parents, and staff members. This doesn’t just mean reading, writing, and numeracy, but includes:

  • physical and mental wellness
  • developing perseverance, work ethic, and a growth mindset
  • confidence
  • superior communication skills
  • competencies of creativity, critical thinking, problem solving
  • caring for others with a “servant heart”
  • fine arts skills

Schools build this capacity through exemplary teaching and learning, and meaningful collaboration. However, none of this capacity building takes place in the absence of meaningful relationships. This brings me to the second event. Late Friday afternoon as teachers were saying their good-byes and heading home for the weekend, I asked one teacher about her weekend plans. She mentioned that she was off to take her son to a baseball game. When I asked her where he was playing, she said, “Walnut Grove” which happens to be where I live. I don’t necessarily believe in “signs”, but I took this conversation to mean that I should probably go catch part of the game. Shortly after, off I went to head home, get changed, and walk over to the baseball diamond. I found out four of my students were on the team and that two of the coaches were parents at our school. Siblings, parents, and grandparents were in the stands and needless to say, the players were a surprised to see me in the stands.

I mention this event because I think in order for us to expect students to take a genuine interest in school, the people who work in schools need to take a genuine interest in students, their passions, and their world outside of school. When schools do this, the important message, “YOU MATTER” is communicated to students.

Relationships are the foundation of all work done in schools, and is one very important part of helping a school be great!

How is the power of relationships reflected daily at your school or workplace?

What Makes A School “Great”?

“And then parents, you’d walk into the front office and the people
don’t even look up at them, let alone see them as who we’re serving.”

Steve Barr, Green Dot Charter School Network

Source: Fraser Institute
Source: Fraser Institute
This past week, I had an interesting chat with a parent. Her family had just moved into the area and she wanted an opportunity to speak with me about the school and to have a look around. She also said something that really interested me. She shared that according to the Fraser Institute, our’s was a “good” school and was trending in a positive direction. While I am obviously pleased that public perception of our school is good and that this parent was doing the leg work to gather information about our school,  I am disappointed that the Fraser Institute’s Report Card on British Columbia’s Elementary Schools is one of the few tools parents have to determine the quality of a school. Even more, when parents realize that the Fraser Institute’s Report is based almost completely on a standardized text taken once per year by Grade 4 and 7 students, they realize that this is one very narrow measure of school quality.

Formula used to determine overall school rating. Source: Fraser Institute
Formula used to determine overall school rating. Source: Fraser Institute

But, schools are like organisms and are therefore complex in nature. Schools are alive and dynamic and can’t be reduced to a mathematical formula or a letter grade, as some jurisdictions are now doing. In the video below, Steve Barr of the Green Dot Charter School Network talks about his view of what makes a great school. Qualities he includes are:

  • Quality teachers
  • A welcoming environment
  • Students are treated with care and respect
  • Teachers are empowered
  • High expectations exist for all
  • There is a sense of family
  • Quality resources are available for teachers and students
  • Parents are viewed as partners
  • Schools are accountable to parents
  • There is a belief that all kids are worth it and that they can all learn

So much of what Barr talks about is relationship-based. Relationships are central to the work we do in schools. Students not only need see the value in the work they do at school, they need to feel a sense of care, inclusion, and safety. This is essential work that forms the foundation of quality learning.  Teachers also need to be able to engage learners. With all the competition that exists (peers, television, social media), this is no easy task. But from my experience, kids are like adults and therefore thrive on doing work that is interesting and meaningful. I am proud of the many examples of such efforts from staff at our school:  Innovation Week, technology integration, the WikiSeat project,  30-Hour Famine, Genius Hour, KIVA, and promoting creativity. I am further buoyed when I see that our efforts are not isolated, but are evident throughout Surrey Schools and beyond.

So, what would you add to this list of qualities that makes  a great school?

Do you think your school is great?  How do you know?

Innovation Week – Unchartered Territory

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gvInnovationWeekTo me, being innovative doesn’t just mean making things different, but making things better! Given this,  I think our first Innovation Week at Georges Vanier Elementary would meet the criteria for being innovative. Our Innovation Week took place from December 9 – 13, 2013, and was inspired first by witnessing Genius Hour in many classrooms in our school, then by hearing about Jesse McLean‘s experience with his own Innovation Week at Greystone Centennial Middle School in Parkland School Division in Spruce Grove, Alberta. What prompted us further was hearing about Innovation Week over at Fraser Heights Secondary in Surrey.

Discussions started with staff members who embraced the idea, then we began to advertise to students. I have to say that as much as we tried to explain what Innovation Week was (though not really being too sure ourselves), I’m not certain students actually understood what they were signing up for or what they were missing. Some took their application, filled it out as best as they could, while others opted out and decided to wait and see what Innovation Week would look like.

We had a total of 75 students from Grade 3-7 participate. I was neither surprised or disappointed by that number as I didn’t really know how the event would evolve. What I do know is that since there were not enough students participating to collapse other classes to thereby free up teachers, I was alone with the group much of the time. Special thanks for our EA staff who came in to assist and to the many teachers who stopped in to look and ask questions, all on their free time. I even had a teacher who retired last year, Liane Jagger, come and assist for three days. What a great help!

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Innovation Week projects included:

  • Developing an app.
  • Website development.
  • Remote control car modification.
  • Creating a document camera.
  • Building a Minecraft server.
  • A jewelry holder.
  • Christmas crafts.
  • A new and improved chair.
  • A rolling storage container with built-in iPod charger.
  • Modifying a Snickers Bar.
  • A new breakfast cereal.
  • (Just to name a few).

So how was learning improved? Over the course of the week, students:

  • Were engaged in personally relevant learning.
  • Adjusted their initial plans based on the challenges they were having.
  • Became increasingly independent.
  • Confirmed that they made good choices regarding learning partners or realized that the choices they made regarding partners did not help them in their learning.
  • Reflected on the competencies they were developing and demonstrating.
  • Were inspired daily by videos about creativity and innovation. One favourite was Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From below.
  • Were on-task and continued to work without direct adult supervision.
  • Developed ideas for future Innovation Week Events.
  • Were extremely proud on of their learning on presentation day, sharing their projects with peers, teachers, and parents.

Most impressive to me was the curiosity of students who chose not to participate in our initial Innovation Week. These students were often out in the hallway, peering inquisitively at the work begin done inside the gym, asking to come in and see what was happening. But most rewarding to me was the response I received when I asked the group involved in Innovation Week, “Would you participate again?” They emphatically said, “YES!”

As an aside, other innovative ideas that were popping up around the school while Innovation Week took place in the gym.  In Ashley Henderson and Matt White’s classes, students participated in Learn a New Skill week and, like the students participating in Innovation Week, were initially taken aback when given the opportunity to make their own decisions about their learning, but later embraced the freedom of the experience. Skills students decided to focus on included:  juggling, learning card, magic and coin tricks, stop motion animation, duct tape purses, and optical illusions. While in Francoise Rempel and Hugh McDonald‘s classes, students spent time everyday working to create Rube-Goldberg Machines.  I had the chance to visit on the last day and were students ever challenged and engaged!

2013 ended in a very positive way at our school and I look forward to working with our wonderful staff  and community to further explore ways to innovate in order to further engage our learners and bring genuine enthusiasm to the work they do.

What innovative ideas are swirling around in your head?  Are you ready to share them and put them into action?

When Building The Team Is Not Enough

“Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success.”

-Henry Ford

Photo: A. Vendramin
Photo: A. Vendramin

Almost eight years into my school administration journey, I continue to understand that the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. This realization was no more profound than one day in early May 2013, while I listened to a keynote address by Elise Foster, co-author with Liz Wiseman and Lois Allen, of a wonderful book called The Multiplier Effect. To summarize, Elise’s keynote was about ways in which leaders can bring the best (and most) out of those around them. She also shared that sometimes, leaders can intentionally or accidentally do the opposite and shut down the genius in their organizations in various ways, including:

  • Ruling by fear.
  • Not having trust in those they work with.
  • Needing to feel they have all the answers.
  • Making rapid or unilateral decisions.
  • Micromanaging.

She called such leaders, Diminishers. As I listened, I realized that in taking pride in my own work ethic and feeling the need to lead and be involved in every initiative, I was being an accidental diminisher and in doing so was communicating something very clearly to those around me: to get things done, I had to get them done myself.  While my admin partners and I have been working extremely hard for many years to build the hardest working, talented, and caring team possible (which for the record I think we have done at Georges Vanier Elementary), my over-involvement, though well-intentioned, has held back these skilled people.   I’m embarrassed to say this because this isn’t really how I feel. I DO have confidence in the team I work with: confidence to plan and carry out initiatives and confidence to make morally sound decisions. My actions however, were contradicting my beliefs!

As Wiseman, Allen, and Foster state:

“Becoming a Multiplier often starts with becoming less of a Diminisher. And this often means doing less: less talking, less responding, less convincing, and less rescuing of others who need to struggle and learn for themselves. By doing less, we can become more of a Multiplier.”

So what’s changed?

Most importantly, since hearing Elise’s keynote, I have been conscious and intentional about not only identifying genius at our school, but utilizing it. Mostly, this has looked like me “tapping the shoulder” of the right people to lead initiatives and playing more of a support role. But transformation does not occur in isolation.  Trust, fostered through strong relationships, must exist. A culture of innovation and risk-taking must also be present. I believe that people are willing to take on challenges and operate outside their comfort zone when they feel that taking risks is celebrated and encouraged, and that their experimentation will be supported.

The changes I have seen since this personal shift in thinking has been dramatic! I am so impressed by the initiative and leadership so many staff members have shown, from coaching to committee work to organizing school events. And all of this because I finally realized that building the team is not enough – you need to not only get out of the way and let great people do great work, but trust the team you have put together.

Effective leaders bring the best out of their team by working in the background, continuing to uncover and utilize people’s native genius, asking provocative questions, laying down challenges, building community, and providing ongoing support and guidance.

Glad I finally came to realize this!

#betterlatethannever

Dear Students…I’m Sorry

“Never let the competition define you.
Instead, you have to define yourself based
on a point of view you care deeply about.”

-Tom Chappel

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Me with my four sisters. I’m the one sharply dressed in blue!

Before becoming a Vice-Principal then Principal, I had the honour and pleasure to teach for 12 years. I loved my work in the classroom and was always guided but what I thought was best for students at the time. But, it’s true what they say about time and how it has a way of making you look at things from a different perspective.

We are in an exciting time in Surrey Schools because much of what we have held to be true for so long is now open for discussion and improvement. Of particular interest to me are the changes to B.C.’s Curriculum and the discussion around how we can better communicate student learning to parents.

I believe we need to question everything we currently do around how we inform parents about their child’s progress and how we invite parents to be partners in this process.

For a recent community forum at our school, I prepared a presentation and in it, I used images of my own report card from my Grade 7 year. Doing so awakened many emotions that had been dormant for so many years – emotions that I still work to deal with and overcome today.

IMG_3250I realize now that my teachers viewed me as a pleasant, average, boy. My parents considered me lazy and not as “smart” as my three older sisters, based completely on the letter grades I brought home. You see, those letter grades – those symbols meant to communicate my strengths as a learner – defined me. When you are defined in a certain way for long enough, you begin to define yourself in the same way. And so, because I was always compared to others based on grades and the notion that better grades meant you were smarter and worked harder, I began to doubt myself and my worth.

IMG_3251I struggled with this for years, and realize that still today, some of this same thinking creeps into my consciousness.  When I am asked to present, or be part of a team, or lead an initiative, there are still times I doubt myself. I need to convince myself that I have many strengths and gifts and that I CAN accomplish anything if I work hard enough!

This defining runs deep, even in those that love you. I will never forget the day of my university convocation as I stood with my mom, waiting for a photo to be taken, when she quietly turned to me and with wonderment, looked at me and said, “I never thought it would be you.” That might sound cruel to say, but my mom honestly meant it and I don’t blame her. School defined me for her – that’s all she knew.

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So having gone through this, you’d think that I would be more sensitive as a classroom teacher. Hopefully I was, but I now realize that each time I gave out a C-, C, C+, and even a B for some students, I was essentially defining them, whether I liked it or not. I cringe when I think how many students I had a hand in defining in this negative way.

Often, students who received these grades were the hardest working students in class, but found the work challenging. Some of these students were also immensely gifted in areas we didn’t measure with letter grades, or at all for that matter.

To all my students…I’m sorry.

For those students who said “thank you for the A” when you got your report card, I apologize if I sent the message that you’d made it, you were done, you had reached the top. My message should have been, “where can you go now?” or “how else could you do this?”

And for that student who at the beginning of one year shared that her goal was to win the academic award, I apologize for not spending more time helping you focus on the joys of learning, creativity, and sharing your wonderful ideas with others.

To all my students again…I’m sorry.

This understanding drives me in the work I do today. I work with students each day who have a myriad of hidden strengths and abilities. I am committed to uncovering these treasures and encouraging others I work and learn with to do the same.

I continue to work with my colleagues to explore new and innovative ways of inviting parents to this conversation about their child’s learning, to break down traditional barriers to authentic home-school communication, and to provide them a “window” into the classroom.

Mostly, I am dedicated to ensuring that students have a say in how they define themselves and that I help them to do so in the most holistic, honest, and positive way possible.

What will you do today to uncover the many hidden abilities your students possess?

What will you do with this information?

How will you share this information with parents?