Putting Ourselves In the Position of Students

The post was originally published in my school’s blog, CambridgeLearns, on October 4, 2015.

Slide50This past Friday afternoon after a busy week at school, many Cambridge staff members participated in a few fun social events. First, we headed over to the Bose Corn Maze where we had a great time answering trivia questions and navigating our way through the corn in teams.

However, this learning story is much more about the second event – Curling. I’ve watched Curling many times on television, but never appreciated the amount of skill involved.  I very quickly found myself on my back after trying to actually curl my first stone. I wasn’t really embarrassed because I know that while everyone had a chuckle, no one was making fun of me. As I continued to try, and try really hard, I began to grow frustrated that I was struggling so much with a task that others made seem so easy. In fact, some teachers who had never curled before looked like experts right away! My struggles had nothing to do with the instruction either. Our teacher broke down the task into small parts, modelled these, and gave us ample time to practice. I just was not going to catch on to this activity without more time and practice.

IMG_2755In that moment, my mind immediately went to our students…your children…who are asked every day to put their learning out there, to risk-take, and to try things that are very difficult for them. I thought of the feeling many students have when they struggle to learn new things.

That’s why I think it’s always important for us all – principals, vice-principals, teachers, parents –  to be learners too. When we put ourselves in these positions – positions where we play the role of the learner – we are made conscious of what it feels like be a little afraid, to take risks, to struggle, and most importantly to persevere and see ourselves get better at something.

Despite the quality of our instruction, not all students will grasp concepts the first, second, or maybe even third time around. I think the most important lesson we can teach children is to always work hard and to keep on trying because with enough time and practice, any of us can be great at something.

So…

When is the last time you put your own learning out there?
Risked?
Failed?
Got up?
Tried again?
Refused to give up?

Layers

“Layers… Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers… 
You get it? We both have layers!”

-Shrek

IMG_7264I’m a lucky person!

I consider myself lucky for many reasons. Among these reasons are my health, the family I am part of, and the work I do in schools that allows me to make a positive difference every day. What more could I ask?

Most people who know me would also say that I am fairly laid back and that not too much bothers me. For the most part, I think that’s true.

I’ve been sitting on this blog topic for some time and it’s only until quite recently that my wonderful admin partner, Kelli Vogstad (@KelliVogstad), encouraged me to express my thoughts. So, here I go.

I sometimes feel misunderstood and it bothers me! There, I said it.

You see, I have been with the same school district for over 20 years and I have come to be quite “typecast” in that time. In case you didn’t know, many consider me to be a “techie”, as in I like to use computers, iPads, sound equipment, and so on. While I can’t argue this, it bothers me to be considered so one-dimensional. Don’t get me wrong, I think if leveraged properly and integrated thoughtfully, technology can most definitely have a positive impact on student learning.

But, here’s where I reveal a layer of myself most people wouldn’t expect…

I also believe that technology is not THE answer. Using technology to simply replicate what we’ve always done in classrooms, is a waste of valuable funding and doesn’t significantly move student learning forward. Technology cannot save bad teaching or poorly designed learning experiences!
IMG_7949
Obviously, issues in education have layers too!

The fact is, my love of technology is just one aspect of who I am. Like Ogres and everyone else in this world, I do have layers. That’s what makes us all special and unique.

As I write this, I wonder if we sometimes overlook the uniqueness of those we work and learn with everyday.  Do we look at people and issues through a narrow lens and generalize? Are we blind to the layers below the surface? What thoughts come to mind when you consider the following statements:

Male vs. Females students?

Primary vs. Intermediate teachers?

Novice vs. Experienced teachers?

Loud vs. Quiet classrooms?

Siblings of a student you’ve had in your class before?

A student’s socioeconomic background?

Appearance?

This list could go on and on. The point is, many of us have become so busy, we often don’t spend the time needed to do important things well. In schools, we feel pressure to “cover curriculum” so we hop from lesson to lesson and unit to unit without digging deep into meaningful learning.  In working with students, do we follow Dr. Gabor Mate’s advice and “collect” students before we direct them?

We can only do this if we are truly committed to teaching kids first… and subjects second!

How do we welcome students each day?

How do we welcome students who arrive late?

How much do we know about each of our students and do we care?

Do we work hard enough to uncover and appreciate the layers in those we work and learn with everyday?

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

img314_2
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.

IMG_3252

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?

Paying the Price

My last mylearn365 blog post was about committing time this summer to exercise and take care of myself.We all have different reasons for doing this. Some people exercise to lose weight or build muscle. Some people exercise to prepare for an upcoming athletic season. For me, it’s the upcoming school year that has me gearing up.

I think sometimes in the media, our work in schools as teachers and administrators is sometimes misunderstood. Too many times our work is defined by those on the outside by weekends off, holidays, summer vacations, and a supposed 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. day.

I am taking care of myself because I know the truth about working in schools. To me there is no work more fulfilling where you have not only a chance everyday to make a positive impact on the lives of others, but to change a life forever. This work challenges one emotionally, mentally, and physically. While I don’t often feel “stressed” at school, it is only because stress levels are so elevated most of the time, I don’t even notice. It’s only after a week or two off that I realize I’ve been in a chronic state of stress.

The teachers I know start well before 8:30 a.m. and stay well after 2:30 p.m. They love their students. They buy many of their own supplies. They use their own time to assess and plan. They take it personally when a child doesn’t do well and continually look for ways to reach students. And quite often, I see teachers come to school, day after day, worn down, but persevering because they don’t want to let their kids down.

Today, I think about the many friends and colleagues who pay a dear price every year – their own health and well-being – to make sure the important work in schools continues. I urge everyone to take care of themselves and find the balance in life that is so needed. If we can do this, we will all be better able to take on the upcoming challenges of a new school year.