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!


All About Me – My Completed Homework

I was given an assignment to complete by friend and colleague, Tia Henriksen, who in turn was challenged by really cool guy Dean Shareski. Read Tia and Dean’s posts here!

First,  thanks for this homework Tia. I have absolutely nothing else to do tonight 🙂

Second, here are 11 random facts about me:

  1. My parents are both Italian immigrants – and I am VERY proud of them!
  2. I have 4 sisters and no brothers.
  3. I went to art school out of high school.
  4. I once owned a Triumph TR7 – yes…life is about making mistakes.
  5. I met Canadian Prime Minister Jean Cretien and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk on the same day.
  6. I drove 14,500 kilometres across Canada and back with my family in 2007.
  7. I love dogs.
  8. I never planned to be a teacher. When I was a teacher, I never planned to be an administrator.
  9. I camped overnight at the peak of Golden Ears Mountain last summer with my son, Sam.
  10. When I was in grade 3, my school burned down with me and all my sisters in it.
  11. Some might consider me a picky eater.

Next up, I am to answer the following questions from Tia:

  1. What are your favourite and least favourite colours? My favourite is BLUE and my least favourite is TURQUOISE.
  2. What was your favourite subject / least favourite subject in school? My favourite subject in school was MATH and my least favourite was READING (Sorry – I have to be honest 🙂
  3. Where were you born? Vancouver.
  4. What was your lowest grade in your post-secondary classes? In what class? I got a PASS in some computer programming course that made absolutely NO SENSE to me! I think I got the pass so the teacher could get rid of me!
  5. What is the best characteristic you received from your mom? Compassion and patience.
  6. What is your favourite childhood memory? Summers on our farm and playing soccer on the grass.
  7. How old were you when you learned to swim? I was a young adult…but still not great in the water, though I LOVE to snorkel.
  8. Is Disneyland really the Happiest Place on Earth? I don’t think so. Have you ever seen the faces of the exhausted people leaving Disneyland at closing???
  9. What’s your favourite video you’ve watched recently on social media? Just watched WHAT IS BEING CREATIVE and THE ENCOUNTER COLLECTION on Vimeo. Awesome!!!
  10. If you could plan it, what would your last meal consist of? Anything my mom made…hopefully her lasagna!
  11. What makes you happiest? Being with my family, not rushing around, and even happier if it’s warm and sunny outside!

Now it’s YOUR turn!

Come have some fun and accept this invitation to allow others to get to know you a bit better.  Not sure if all these great people are bloggers, but if they aren’t, maybe we can get them to be:

Francoise Rempel

Jodi Pulvers

Anna Crosland

Sheila Dhaliwal

Brad Issel

Solomon Lee

Victoria Olson

Lynne Porpaczy

Sundeep Chohan

Elsie Bertholm

John Horstead

Don Chila

Questions for You:

1. Favourite place you have visited?

2. Favourite sports team?

3. Five songs on your device/CD in my car…

4. Biggest surprise of your life?

5. What would your best friend say they like MOST about you?

6. Nickname? Current or past.

7. Favourite number?  Why is that number significant?

8. What drives you crazy?

9. Biggest fear?

10. Favourite movie?

11. If you could do anything other than what you are currently doing career-wise, what would it be?

Here’s how it works:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

Post back here with a link after you write this. Go on, you have homework to do.

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

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.


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?

Doing Work That Matters

“Deprived of meaningful work,
men and women lose their reason for existence;
they go stark, raving mad.”

-Fyodor Dostoevsky

I hear it all the time…We could focus on the stuff that REALLY matters if it wasn’t for all the small, menial, (and yes sometimes bureaucratic) tasks that sometime seem to dominate our time. The more time I spend in schools and with my own growing children, the more I believe that kids feel the exact same way adults do about the importance of our time. Specifically, they not only want to do work that matters, but they also have the need to know why they are doing the work. The more I look around, the more examples of this I see.

photo-75My oldest son Jake is in Grade 11. He’s a good kid, does well in school, but nothing in school has ever really interested or motivated him. But recently, I’ve noticed a change – a good change. He has combined his passions of soccer and technology and has started to write a blog about one of his favourite teams; the Vancouver Whitecaps. His blog isn’t something that he just throws together, but rather something he devotes a great deal of time and care to. In fact, for the first time I can recall, he spends the time to make his blog “just right” instead of “just good enough”. He contributes to other blogs and has bloggers write for his. I was most impressed when, before our last Whitecaps game, Jake told me that he didn’t need his ticket because he had been given press credentials and would spend the game watching the game from the press box with the media. A few days later, he met with the editor of a local newspaper to discuss the possibility of doing an internship. Yes…Jake working for free in order to learn! To him, this is work that really matters!

Another great example of students embracing work that matters is the recent 30-Hour Famine that took place at Georges Vanier Elementary. I’ve always loved working with our senior students, but being a few months away from moving on to high school, some can have the attitude that they no longer need to buy into any school events. Teachers at the school promoted ownership by introducing the idea of doing a 30-Hour Famine and allowing students to discuss charities they were interested in supporting. Together, students and teachers agreed on dividing the money three ways between Kiva, BCSPCA, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. There was something about helping people, children, and animals in need that struck a chord with the 54 students who decided to participate. When the event had concluded, over $3900 was raised. Who said you can’t get Grade 7 students to care?

Finally, many teachers at Georges Vanier Elementary have introduced their students to Genius Hour, a time weekly when students not only get to learn what they want, they get to decide how they will share their learning with others. How do I know this approach is making a difference? It is obvious when you walk into a class during Genius Hour that students genuinely care about what they are learning because the learning is meaningful to them. Initially, some students find it difficult to come up with topics because they’ve rarely been asked what interests them or what they would like to learn more about. With time, the process becomes natural and topic selection easier.

Do we give students enough opportunity to consistently do work that really matters to them? Probably not, but the work I see currently being done throughout Georges Vanier and many other schools gives me hope that the shift towards passion-based, student-centered learning, has not only started, but is beginning to grow. After all, we all deserve and yearn to do work that is personally fulfilling and meaningful!

I’d love to hear about strategies and projects you implement to make learning meaningful for your students!

People At My School

I’ve been sharing thoughts about the many inspirational visitors we have had visit Surrey School and share their stories. Each evening, I leave with much to ponder and question. We recently had the pleasure of having Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann) in our District. He spoke about many things, but one thing that resonated with me was his call for schools to be places where students feel cared for. At about that time in his presentation, I zipped over to my Twitter feed to check trending topics.  After all, our very own #sd36learn hashtag was trending during our last gathering. What I saw shocked me.  The following topics were trending:  #PeopleAtMySchool #WhatIHateAboutSchool and I was saddened by what I read.




And here’s the bad news…these tweets were the nice ones! I scoured the feed looking for something positive and I kept thinking to myself,

If members of my school community could all tweet using the hashtag above, what would they say?

Are we doing the necessary work to not only address student learning, but create an environment where children, staff, and parents genuinely feel safe and cared for? I think I know the answer to this question, but I can’t help but wonder.

How do you know how students feel about being at your school?

What structures do you have in place that help you create a sense of belonging for children?


Ready to Learn?

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Listening to some music on my computer this morning, I came across a song from Pink titled, “Family Portrait” – a song written from a child’s perspective about a family being torn apart by divorce. As I often do with songs that have meaningful lyrics, I searched for the video on YouTube. I was amazed to discover that the video has 15,000,000+ views and 11,000+ comments. As I read the touching comments left behind by many children, some of which are shared below, I thought of the many students we work with at school who just aren’t ready to learn because of all the sadness, fear, and uncertainty swirling in their minds. I also thought back to a talk I attended a few years back given by Dr. Gabor Maté. The most important thing he said of children that night was that as teachers and parents, we need to “Collect them before [we] direct them.” By collecting, Gabor Maté was talking about taking the time to make meaningful connections with our students and children, before ‘getting on with business’. How can we get on with learning in classrooms when children are dealing with real-life trauma such as parents divorcing, hunger, neglect, or abuse?

Yes, our work in schools is about promoting wonder, awe, discovery, and a love of learning. More importantly, I believe that our work in schools calls us to build positive and meaningful relationships with students within a safe, caring environment. Only then can we get children to a place where they are ready to move forward and get on with learning.

“It hurts too much to listen to this song when it’s like someone is telling your sad story. I’m sorry Pink you had to go through that. I’m sorry I’m going through it. Glad you made it out…hopefully I can too.”

“I just had my parents arguing. They have been fighting for over a month and I finally snapped and started crying telling them to stop and ran out the house crying…I have an 8 year old brother to watch out for and I’m only 13.”

“I have split holidays, I have 2 addresses, I have 2 step sisters, 2 half brothers, my mum and dad never got married but it was a huge mistake to leave each other. And this happened when I was 8 and now I am 14. Not the best feeling having your family torn apart.”

“This is the story of my life!”

What Matters

“Life is full of give and take. Give thanks and take nothing for granted.” –Unknown

Today I received the call that all parents fear – the call from school saying that your child has been hurt. Recently, my mind has been swamped with a myriad of thoughts and concerns about everything from school to family to world issues. I’m not the only one this happens to. But today as I rushed away from work to be with my son who had fallen, hit his head, and was being transported to hospital via ambulance, all those thoughts and concerns melted away. It is difficult to see your child in trouble or in pain, but there was no place I would have rather been. As I comforted him, I was reminded that in reality, there are few things in life that are truly important. Our biggest challenge in life it to maintain perspective and balance, appreciate what we have, and to filter the ‘noise’.

Little things can make all the difference.

20121011-184041.jpgA teacher today received the sort of letter that all teachers dream about – a letter stating that they had made a difference in a child’s life. When this teacher found out that her new student who had just come to Canada, was a talented pianist, but no longer had a piano to play, she asked what we could do. The answer? We rolled a piano to her room so she could play regularly for her classmates. Sometimes, little things can make all the difference.

The letter from the child’s mother is shared with permission below.

Dear Teacher,

I do not know English very well. I feel the need to write to you about my daughter. She is a very emotional child. She is usually happy and chatty. It is a difficult time for her. When she came to Canada she left her friends, house, piano, cat and her father in Turkey. We are very happy to have you as her teacher. She can play the piano now and [she is] very happy. Thank you very much for your help. I can not visit the school too often because I go to school myself. If there is any problem, please write back to me. Thank you again.

Killing Creativity?

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Dean Shareski (@shareski) as part of Surrey School’s Engaging the Digital Learner series. Dean spoke about the importance of story-telling, creating and sharing. I left thinking about Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk about how schools kill creativity in students. I also left inspired. There are few opportunities to attend an event and leave with simple, tangible ideas you can go back to school and use right away. One idea in particular was that of the one-minute video – a 60 second video comprised of 1 second clips – that tells some sort of story. Dean shared this beautiful example:

Then opportunity presented itself. @gallit_z and @hughtheteacher were off to daycamp with all of our grade seven students, leaving me our grade six learners. I decided our day together would be a day of creation and that we would produce our own videos around the theme of life at school. I would first put together my own to share and hopefully inspire them with:

With the sharing of this video, our work began. We discussed purpose (to tell the story of what life in school is like), what a good video would look like (criteria), how to use iMovie on the iPad, and expectations. Students were also told that there was a deadline (the end of the day) and that their videos would be screened then uploaded to YouTube. Motivated? Definitely!

What struck me was the focus students demonstrated. There are inherent risks in unleashing 50 students with ipads on a school with minimal supervision, but how can we know what students are capable of if we don’t take the risks? Our students did not disappoint.

The learning was incredible! I saw students plan, collaborate, discuss, problem-solve, and make critical decisions. In other words, I saw evidence of skills that are highly valued in today’s world.

And as we sat, tired, at the end of the day screening the videos, I thought to myself that perhaps schools aren’t killing creativity after all.

Why all the work is worth it!

“In teaching you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work.

It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.”

~Jacques Barzun

A letter from student to coach…

“Thank you for a lovely season. Thanks to your hard work and your commitment to this team, we came in first place. Also, you never gave up on our team especially when we had the ‘drama’. Thank you for teaching me how to play basketball at the position of left wing and point guard. Furthermore, thank you for putting me in 4 shifts. Because of you believing in me, supporting me and encouraging me, I became a better player, friend and person. You have the qualities that every coach needs which are hard work, commitment, and good leadership. I just can’t wait for next year in basketball. I’ve been practicing my shots and doing everything else just like you told me. All I have to say is that you’re the best coach I have ever had. On behalf of the team I want to say thank you so much and that you’re the best.”

Coaches, teachers, mentors, parents…never underestimate the effect your work and care has on a child.