What you missed when you weren’t listening

One of the important attributes of a good leader is the ability to listen. I would add to that the ability to take constructive criticism without seeing this as an attack is equally important.

What I have found in my years as an educator, especially as an administrator has been the almost universal inability for senior school leaders to ask for, accept and work with constructive criticism. Generally, any sort of criticism is seen as an attack, and as a display of disloyalty.

There’s a problem with this. If you only listen to the voices who praise you and who tell you that you are on the right track, how do you expect to learn anything?

As a principal, I attended monthly meetings at our district office where we were talked to all day long. Administrators universally dreaded these meetings, but nothing ever changed because to criticize was seen as an act of disloyalty. To criticize meant that you were standing out just asking for trouble.

I have to ask, how is this a learning, growing system? If you only listen to those who agree with you, how do you expect to grow and change?

If children, teachers, parents, and schools are really important what happens to them when those at the top do not pay attention to their voices?

If you don’t grow you become irrelevant. Wouldn’t it just be easier to develop a bit of a thicker skin and begin to listen to those who might have something to say?

Just consider what could be learned?

 

From CBC’s The 180 – It’s Time to End Public Funding for Catholic Schools

This morning on CBC’s The 180, there was a great 7-minute feature on public funding of Catholic schools. You can listen to the piece here.

The piece is really interesting. Charles Pascal, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has been making the argument that Ontario should have one secular school system for some time.

The topic is re-emerging in Ontario since OPEN – One Public Education Now launched a court challenge stating that public funding of Catholic schools violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Two points struck me in this piece. First, politicians in Ontario are terribly risk-adverse and are not willing to challenge a political decision that was first taken back in the days of Egerton Ryerson to publicly fund Catholic schools. Pascal raises the question of why legislators are so afraid. Similar moves have been made in Newfoundland and Quebec in the past few years and the sky did not fall.

In Ontario, touching funding of Catholic schools is considered the ‘The Third Rail’ According to Wikipedia, the third rail of a nation’s politics is a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is “charged” and “untouchable” to the extent that any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically.

The second point that was very interesting had to do with public opinion about Catholic schools. According to Pascal, up to 70% of Ontario’s population is in favour of one public system, but the 30% in favour are powerful and as Pascal characterizes it ‘voracious’ in their support of the system.

I can understand this. Everytime I post on this topic, I get all sorts of negative comments and sometimes these attacks come from Catholic educators, some I worked with for years. I will get more negative comments after this post – mostly in the vein of not being ‘loyal’ or being naive about how the world works etc, etc. I will be unfollowed or blocked by more Catholic educators. So it goes.

To be clear, I worked in the Catholic system for 31 years the last six as a principal. Based on my experience, there is no logical reason for keeping this system in place. I was a committed Catholic educator for all these years, but to me fairness and equity are more important that propping up a system that is now an anachronism.

 

The Importance of Being Civil to Others Part II

Last week my post The Importance of Being Civil to Others was featured on Voice.ed Radio.  A great discussion and thanks to Doug Peterson and Steven Hurley for featuring this post. I think, and they agreed, the discussion needs to go further. In the original post, I mentioned specific situations where we are no longer as civil as we should be, especially in the field of education. I wasn’t writing as much about civility in general society where I agree with Steven, society in Canada is very civil and I appreciate my daily dealings with people.

People can be very civil when you do not upset the status quo when you do civility becomes strained.

I have to admit I like to push the envelope and write about controversial topics like Catholic Education in Ontario and the inability of school boards to bring about significant change. These are topics that need to be written about. At no time do I ever focus on individuals or write in any way that can be seen as disrespectful.

These are topics that seem to bring the knives out.

Several times, mainly on Facebook, I have been called naive and simplistic and people have expressed ‘surprise’ about my posts, especially regarding Catholic Education in Ontario. On Twitter, I have actually been blocked by a member of the senior administration from my former Catholic board.

The blocking might not mean that much, but to me, it is a sign of incivility. Usually, I block the Twitter accounts of trolls and those who do not follow the rules set out by Twitter for inappropriate content.

I never block people who I disagree with, I usually try to engage in positive conversation and if this is not possible, I simply unfollow them. Blocking someone you don’t agree with is cowardly behaviour and I would say lacks civility.

On Facebook, when the conversations threaten to get out of control I simply delete the entire conversation. Sadly, this seems to be the only way to stop people who quickly lose the ability to be polite on-line. The worst offenders tend to be Catholic educators, which I find troubling.

I hope this clarifies my position. Again, thank goodness for my very supportive on-line PLN – all are wonderful and always civil!

The Principal as Activist

A few days ago, I was part of a presentation in front of the Ottawa Community Housing Foundation. We were talking about the work that we had done to raise money for a community organization called Rec Link by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. We talked about the importance of developing community assets to assist schools in high poverty areas. Rec-LINK was one of these important community assets that continue to be a great help at my last school.

One board member asked if it was normal for principals to develop strong links with community agencies that make the lives of families in the community richer. I had to say that, no this is not common. I do know some great principals who have linked their school to community agencies, but unfortunately, in my opinion, this is rare.

We are not trained to develop our community assets and this made me reflect on why I had taken this approach at my last school.

I think a great deal has to do with what I have learned from a visionary principal, Nelson Rutilio Cartagena Orellana who administers an elementary school in San Jose las Flores in El Salvador.

Nelson has been principal and a prominent member of the community of San Jose las Flores for many years. Nelson is everywhere in the community. He sits on local and regional anti-mining committees, he is always looking for ways enrich his school community through the development of projects that include an extensive garden and livestock growing project, a breakfast program for all students and a new computer lab for the school. He does much of this through the partnerships he has encouraged with schools and communities in Canada, Spain and I am sure many other countries.

Nelson was actually voted principal by the teachers of his school – can you imagine if we did the same thing here?

Nelson grew up in and around San Jose las Flores and was a young victim of the Sumpul River Massacre.  His brother died trying to cross the river and Nelson still wonders what he would be like if he was alive today.

A depiction of the Sumpul River Massacre. It is estimated that over 600 people, mainly women, and children were killed trying to cross the river from El Salvador to Honduras.

Nelson’s commitment to his school and community is very special. He knows that the children at the school have the potential to prosper in the future – one no longer clouded by war and oppression.

To be an educator in San Jose las Flores means that you are committed to bringing about social change for the children of the community and that you must use every asset you can find to make sure they have a bright future.

Children getting a mid-morning meal at the school – this program is funded by one of the many school partners.

While our challenges in Canada are nothing like those in El Salvador, there is an important message to be learned here. It is simply not enough to administer your own school and shut the community out. The problems that exist in disadvantaged communities in Canadian cities are too great to be managed by the school alone. Schools must develop stronger ties to local community agencies like Rec-LINK in order to provide the well-rounded education our children need to prosper.

This may be done at some schools, but if it does it is because of one or two inspired leaders like Nelson – it certainly is not common. The need for better integration between school and community seems to be poorly understood here and this needs to change.

A principal needs to be an activist. If they are not comfortable with that role, probably best to move on to a less challenging school.

The elementary school in San Jose las Flores

 

The Importance of Being Civil to Others

I read a great post by Andrew Campbell this morning, Why Teaching Digital Citizenship Doesn’t Work.

He writes:

We need to stop teaching Digital Citizenship with long lists of rules and instead reinforce basic Citizenship. Provide students with a set of positively framed principles to apply to all situations, digital and analog. Students don’t need more rules; they just need to apply the ones they’ve already got. The same ones they learned in kindergarten.

While this post was written in 2013, it is just as relevant today. I would go even further, adults also need to learn to follow the rules of civility. Andrew reposted this blog as part of a larger conversation on civility and respect using digital media. Another participant,

Another participant, Rolland Chidiac made this important comment:

Rolland’s tweet makes a great point, but a sad one. People routinely treat people badly and feel that they can get away with it because they are distanced by the phone or digital media.

As educators, we should strive never to do this. We should be holding ourselves to a higher standard and we should be acting as an example to our students.

I am writing this to comment on a really good twitter discussion and because I witnessed an incredible lack of civility displayed by a fellow administrator today.

Following the rules of civility, I will not get into the details, apart from saying this administrator has done an excellent job at making sure I could not return to my former school to do a presentation on a fundraising climb I took part in to Mount Kilimanjaro earlier this year.

Some people just don’t understand what it means to be gracious and civil and I really believe people like this need reconsider why they are in education. In a world dominated by Donald Trump Tweets and bickering, we need to show more grace and compassion when we are dealing with others. Students, parents, and colleagues.

Following the guidelines set out in this morning’s tweets, I would be happy to confront this educator and explain this to them. Unfortunately, nothing would change and that is too bad.

In a world that is growing crueler and less civil, we really need to reflect on this. Our actions have consequences, our actions can really hurt other people – this is something we should never do.

Thanks to my wonderful twitter friends for a great discussion, very timely based on my experiences today.

 

Big News – Growing gap in fundraising between affluent and needy schools

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Today the Globe and Mail’s great education reporter Caroline Alphonso put out an important article about the dreadful disparity that continues to exist between Ontario’s rich and poor schools.

Schools in affluent neighbourhoods are fundraising almost $50 for every dollar raised by a needier school, new data show, raising concerns about a growing inequity in public education.

If you don’t know this already, you should. Growing up in Kanata or Manotick is not the same as going to school in Caldwell, Russel Heights or Dalhousie. When you administer a school in the richer parts of Ottawa, you have access to thousands of dollars that you can spend almost any way that you want. As the article states, provincial regulations disallow you from building a new school addition, but after that obvious limitation, the sky is the limit.

When I worked in Manotick, the school council briefly debated, then purchased a new school mascot – big enough for a good-sized grade six student to inhabit for school rallies and events. This cost thousands of dollars. At my last school, we had a slightly oversized teddy-bear as our mascot. The Manotick school had three – count them – three good sized play structures, the last one costing over $80,000.00

When the topic came up at school council that as Catholics, we should share some of our cash surplus with poorer schools, the motion was quickly defeated – this money was for our kids.

So why don’t we share our revenue? No idea –  you would think that in a Catholic Board this would at least be debated.

Next question – why don’t we help the poorer schools? Oh, we do! The poor schools in Ottawa usually get a one-time grant of around $3000.00 to make up the difference. These special grants are not enough, they usually go to pay for food and clothing for our kids. As Alphonso writes:

The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school district, provides special grants to schools in high-needs communities to help compensate for the fundraising differences. It can’t compete, though, with the hundreds of dollars raised by schools in the city’s richest neighbourhoods.

The disparity problem doesn’t seem to be understood by school officials. Years ago, we were told that a special emphasis on the poor was going to be the mandate of the newest director of our board.

I wonder how that was to be acted out? Was it a matter of highlighting how certain students had made it out of poverty because of an excellent education? Is that really enough?  Is that more than simple charity?

If we truly want to redistribute income throughout the schools in Ottawa there is so much that we could be doing. It is simply unfair that some schools have more of everything than others, especially in one of the richest cities in North America.

Don’t be shocked by headlines that write about the growing gap – don’t look to poor countries in the South – look to schools in your own city.

 

The Importance of the Community School

a mural painted at St. Anthony School to celebrate the Italian heritage that shaped the early history of the school

 

Community schools that are truly integrated as a partner into the wider neighbourhood are rare. However, they are increasingly important as more community agencies try to work together to solve complex social problems.
Education institutions stand apart from these cooperative efforts mainly because they still see themselves as silos or islands of instruction not to be sullied by outside influences.
It does not have to be this way, and it would be heartening to see a shift away from the silo approach to education in our society.
There is no question that the connection between a school and its surrounding community is vital. Really, the two should be inseparable, both working together to make a stronger union and a better community.
As a principal, I have always tried to do this, especially in the last school I worked in.
St. Anthony School in Little Italy serves a diverse population of new Canadians from countries around the world.
Our staff believes strongly that we need to reach out to our community so that we can do a better job of serving our families. Over time, we established strong ties with organizations like Somerset West Community Health Center,  Rec LINK, a wonderful small organization that links families up to recreation opportunities for their kids, and the Dalhousie Parents Day Care – a community organization that resides in the basement of the school and until recently, had office space in the school.
Dalhousie Parent Day Care
We also had strong ties with the local Italian community who raised thousands of dollars for playground renewal and other projects. We even had a great partnership with a local store called The Bike Dump. Dave, the owner of this store supplied cheap or free bikes to our kids every year and last year even found us a mechanic to fix all the bikes before we handed them out to our kids.
These are just a few of the many partnerships we worked on over the past years. We also tried to make the school as open as possible to all parents. This was really important as many parents come from countries where positive relationships between families and institutions were not encouraged.
Unfortunately, this can all change very quickly. In the past few months, community agencies have lost office space in the school. There is little communication between Somerset West Community Health Centre and the school. The doors of the school are locked, keeping the parents away from the building. The social media accounts – Twitter and Facebook have fallen silent. The school, in essence, is retreating in upon itself.
This is not what should be happening. Community schools should encourage partnerships with the agencies that support their families. Surplus space should be used to offer additional services to the community. There is space in the school for adult literacy classes, even space for a computer room for parents who do not have access to computers or wifi. These ideas have been discussed but were never implemented.
It is important to remember that all schools are ultimately the property of the Province of Ontario and they all need to be utilized to serve the community in the best way possible.
The current trend away from the community is distressing and it shows a complete misunderstanding of the role a school should play within its community.
This situation does not have to continue. Ultimately, the Ottawa Catholic School Board can push back against this trend and become more involved in making the local community its top priority. To ignore the importance of St. Anthony School to the surrounding community risks losing an important community asset.
Schools should be the heart of the community. It is sad when people ignore or just don’t understand the importance of this relationship. I hope this will change in the future and that new principals will be better trained to understand that schools do not and cannot exist in isolation.
To offer an excellent education for our students, we need to learn to be a part of the community. Are there ways that the community could reach out to bridge the current gap? Can the Catholic School Board begin to see itself as a vital partner in Dalhousie? Only time will tell.

Showing Gratitude

Today I am thinking a lot about showing gratitude. I think this is something that is truly underrated in our modern society and maybe we can work on this.

To be positive, there are many people and organizations who are wonderful at showing gratitude and as a consequence, I am very loyal to these people. I would like to show my gratitude by mentioning a few.

First, for me, there is Discovery Education. There is no question that they offer excellent digital learning tools like their Science Techbook, virtual field trips, and great streaming services.

I love all of their material, it is all really well done.

What I love most about Discovery is that they really appreciate educators. They maintain the Discovery Educators Network (DEN), easily the best educator support network I know.

Discovery Education’s Spotlight on Strategies (SOS) series – strategies developed by teachers for teachers

I try to do a lot of work for Discovery, mainly because of their very positive attitude and the gratitude they show towards educators. This is a really wonderful motivator to all educators connected to Discovery Education. To be honest, this level of positive support is not something I am used to as a former administrator.

One person who routinely shows gratitude for the work of others is Doug Peterson (@dougpete). Doug is a retired educator and very active blogger and leader in the area of educational technology. Every Friday, Doug acknowledges the work of many Ontario educators in his #FollowFriday tweets and his Best of Ontario-Educator series

The work that Doug does is really important. Educators do need positive support and acknowledgment. This is not why people blog or tweet out their work – most I believe, blog and tweet as part of their own reflective learning process. Doug shines a bit of a spotlight on these dedicated educators and this is very important.

I could easily go on, there are so many great educators in Ontario and around the world who spend a good amount of time supporting their colleagues.

Twitter is a wonderful platform for recognizing the work of others and public recognition for educators is, in my opinion, is really important.

I think it is unfortunate that many educators have to go outside their own boards to receive this recognition, but this is a reality. I have talked to many educators who have been marginalized for speaking out or for going outside the narrow confines of the district ‘norm’.

For example, I was once chastised by a superintendent for blogging too much – really??  I am not interested in focusing on this and other situations, I only mention this because I believe that many educators do not receive the recognition they deserve if they innovate and experiment.

While this is unfortunate, there are so many excellent sources of encouragement out there like Discovery and Doug Peterson.

Thank-you to all those who support educators – this is really important and your encouragement is really appreciated. Districts could learn a thing or two from those who show gratitude on a daily basis.

Building Stronger Communities – School Boards Should be More Involved

Last week there was a great announcement in our school neighbourhood. The City of Ottawa, Ottawa Community Housing and surprisingly, the French Public School Board of Eastern Ontario have joined together to develop a 7-acre piece of land right in the heart of Ottawa. The project will include affordable housing, a new French public school, single-family homes, and businesses to support the new community. The development has the potential to stretch into a 15-acre project if an additional piece of land adjacent to this section can be brought in.

The new development is called Gladstone Village and it has the potential to transform this neighbourhood in some really important ways. In my opinion, the most significant aspect will be the addition of good, affordable housing for families that live in this community.

I have worked in this community for three years as a principal of a local school and now as a community volunteer.

One of the saddest parts of my job as a principal was to say goodbye to families who could no longer afford to live in this wonderful community. Housing prices have been going up steadily in the area, forcing lower income families to move to other parts of the city that generally are not as well set up to offer important social services to these families.

Hopefully, with the building of Gladstone Villiage, this trend can be reversed.

What is especially gratifying is to see a public school board take an active role in the partnership that will construct the new village. This is unusual. School boards traditionally do not get overly involved in community development. As traditional institutions, they see their primary role as educators of children, not community developers.

The French Public Board is showing that things can change and school boards can take an active role in developing and enriching the communities that surround them. What school boards will find once they start looking to get more involved is that there are lots of organizations out there that would love to work with them.

While I was principal of St. Anthony School – close to the new village – we developed some incredible partnerships with organizations like the Aviva Community Fund, TD Friends of the Environment, (@TDFEF), Evergreen Canada, the City of Ottawa and the wonderful local Italian community. Together, these groups helped us to raise over $165,000.00 in less than two years to transform our dilapidated school yard.

the new yard – the shrubs, fencing, grass and stone paving are all part of the renovation 

Evergreen consulted all the students and developed the first plan for the yard. The Italian community got interested and held a huge fundraising dinner for the school – over 400 people attended and we made over $20,000 in one night. We entered the Aviva Community Fund competition and with the help of a huge on-line community, won $100,000. The Ottawa Community Foundation also made a very significant contribution allowing us to complete the renovation of the yard.

Along with Gladstone Village, this is a great example of partners coming together to reshape and build a new community.

Education institutions like our school and the Eastern Ontario French Public Board illustrate the importance of reaching out into the community to create something better for our families.

It is no longer acceptable to sit back and wait for the students to show up. This passive approach misses many opportunities to engage actively in the community.

We could have done more. We could have opened adult literacy classes for parents at night or during the day so that they could stay close to their children. We could have constructed a computer room with free wifi so that parents could access the internet – something many of them could not do from their homes. We could have offered space in our building for community agencies to connect more readily with the families they served.

All of these ideas were discussed and unfortunately, none were ever implemented.

That is too bad. This has to change.

School Boards need to start to realize that their buildings do not belong to them, they are community assets that need to be shared. The community can not be blocked out of these spaces, they need to be welcomed in. Education really needs to become public in a much wider sense. To ignore our larger public responsibility is to retreat back into the 19th century – we simply can’t do that.

Congratulations to the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario.

 

Teachers Make the Big Difference

The best teachers I worked with at all levels were always very concerned about the curriculum and what the students were learning. These were not teachers who ever got any attention for the great work they were doing, but these are the ones who ocontinue to make the big difference. I would like to find a way to feature what they do – they are generally too busy to do that themselves. These people deserve a voice, although this is probably the last thing on their minds.

I am sure there could be a good series of posts on this topic. As a principal, I wanted teachers to be engaging and innovative, but I also wanted to make sure they were teaching the curriculum. Last year, we did a workshop on makerspaces and we made sure that we could align the new work we were doing to curriculum standards – we knew that no one would pay any attention to this work unless we could link it to the curriculum. I believe we deserved to be ignored unless we could show that we were credible by following established curriculum guidelines.

The ‘star teacher’ syndrome makes me very nervous even though I no longer have responsibility for a school. We need to focus instead on good teachers doing great work teaching the curriculum to their students. I know of so many good teachers out there that do this every day, but no one other than their students and parents will ever know this.

Many of these teachers have no time to post. Who speaks for this teacher and the wonderful ones I worked with at my last school? As I mentioned in an earlier post – where is the teacher voice?

Teachers should be connected – I agree with what George Couros has written on this subject. Maybe some of us can begin to focus on these silent heroes and bring their great work into the light.