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.

The Role of the Administrator – Support your Teachers

Doug Peterson wrote a great post a few days ago comparing how adults are treated at conferences with the daily experience of students in high school. The post has attracted over 20 comments from readers so it definitely resonates with many people.

Doug makes this point at the end of the post:

“Why couldn’t school be like this” takes on importance.  We probably don’t want to encourage a society addicted to bacon and coffee but there were lots of great takeaways that could/should be implemented or have an impact on design.  The presenters and organizers had all kinds of insights about how to make things great for adult learners.

Are there not lessons there for the regular classroom and school day?

This led to a really interesting conversation on how an administrator can make a positive difference in a school especially if they have the welfare of students and teachers as their main focus. Aviva Dunsiger another great Ontario blogger commented:

What really got me on the first day of school this year, is that my new principal always pops in and says, “hello,” every morning. He checks in with all staff constantly. “How are you? What can I do to help?” Even when he’s busy and stressed, he’s still smiling, positive, and ALWAYS making time for the staff.

Doug’s two posts, IT DOESN’T ALWAYS COST MONEY and IN THEIR SHOES have garnered 27 comments already. Doug is right – the status quo is being challenged. I added my comment to his blog and it is included below. I am less familiar with high school structure as I have been in elementary for the past ten years. However, Doug and Aviva’s discussion on administrators really resonated so I had to add something about the role of the administrator. Is it changing? Are we getting this right?

The primary role of the principal should be to support staff, students, and parents. The teachers need to be allowed to teach and teaching is certainly the hardest job in education. My philosophy as principal was always ‘what can I do to make your job easier? I respect what you do, I know how hard it is, what needs to be done to make you more effective?’
I was never a fan of those who wanted to pressure teachers to do ‘more’ or to drive up the test scores – a ridiculous venture at the best of times.
There are lots of great administrators out there, but also lots who never seem to understand that they are really in the school to play a support or servant role. Maybe it has something to do with a mistaken understanding of what it truly means to be a leader in an educational community.
This is the one thing that I can add to this conversation. While it is essential that principals support their staff and see that as their primary responsibility, it also should go without saying that principals also need support from people at the district office. This, unfortunately, does not always happen, in fact in my experience, board officials often did not support our efforts to do the work we needed to do. I think this takes place because there are various opinions of what administrators are supposed to do. Many believe that principals are agents of the school board and must always put the interests of the board first.

There seems to be a disconnect between what is good for the school and what is good for the education corporation – the two do not always fall into alignment.

I have always tried to put the interests of the school first, which probably explains why I struggled to work with some of the officials at the school board level.
Whatever you believe, it should be children first. We should support what is good for our teachers because they know what is best for our kids.

Globalizing Teacher Education

working with Salvadoran teachers on Scratch

Educating the next generation of teachers is very serious business.

Teacher candidates now spend two years to get their degree, during that time, they are spending more hours in the classroom and more time volunteering – this is wonderful, anything that gets teacher candidates into the classroom should be encouraged.

I think there is another step that we have not yet taken that needs to be considered. Is there a place for students to spend time learning first hand about education in other countries? Do our students need to develop a global perspective as they prepare for a career in our schools?

Students at an elementary school – San Jose las Flores, El Salvador

I would argue that this is really important and we should look for ways to make this happen.  A bit biased, I have been bringing students and teachers to different Latin American countries for over 20 years.

I have learned a great deal on these trips. I think the one thing that really sticks with me is that for students in Latin America, education is the way out of a cycle of poverty that in some cases stretches back centuries.

Popular education tradition in El Salvador – teaching children during the civil war

It is also really instructive to speak with the students in the countries we visit. We have done this on many trips and we find that many have the same goals as our own students with the caveat that they are very committed to bringing about positive change for their families and their country.

walking home for lunch

I think it is really important for educators just starting out to get this perspective. Societies can move out of poverty and the catalyst for this transformation is education.

There are parallels in our own schools. The last school that I worked at was in a poor section of Ottawa. Most of these families are trying to do the same thing as people in Latin America – improve their lives by taking advantage of what the education system offers.

There is so much more to learn, but this is a central point that can influence a career for a lifetime. Education is the key for so many people and teachers can change lives, here and in places we can’t even imagine.

Let’s find a way to open the world up to our future educators.

 

A Key Element for Authentic Teacher Inquiry – Assessing and Learning from Student Work.

I am really enjoying the #notabookstudy quad blogging experience. What is really wonderful is that we are encouraged to blog and then to comment on other posts. It is great to see the conversation continue beyond the original post. The questions allow the writer to extend their thinking on the topic – something that is hard to do in a single post. Here are excerpts of some of the comments I am getting along with my responses – what a wonderful, meaningful dialogue! Thanks everyone. (my answers are in italics)

Do you think it’s more difficult to be introduced to a new idea, tool or strategy if teachers direct their own PD?

No, I don’t think it is hard to be introduced a new tool if PD is self-directed. Most of the useful things I have learned have been through self-direct PD. This should include conferences that I have chosen to go to and edcamps. There are a number of very effective ways to direct your own learning and I think we should always take advantage to these when they come up. I took part in MADPD last weekend. I thought this was a really good way to offer PD to teachers, I just wish there had been more participants. This is where conferences may still win out. You need to make a time and financial commitment when you go to a conference and therefore you tend to get more buy-in. Flipping from session to session on Youtube may not lead to any significant increase in the knowledge base of the participant.

 

As an addition to earlier thoughts in this blog, I add the following for contemplation – How can we support educators to examine student assessment data on an ongoing basis and to use that student data to drive their own professional learning and changes to classroom practice – which in essence, if research based, will lead to improved learning outcomes for students?

Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on the ideas in the blog and to contribute some thinking….I look forward to the continued conversation.

Thanks for your comments. This is a great question: “How can we support educators to examine student assessment data on an ongoing basis and to use that student data to drive their own professional learning and changes to classroom practice – which in essence, if research based, will lead to improved learning outcomes for students?”

There is always just so much you can get in one blog post. One point that I did not emphasize is teacher research. For really effective teacher inquiry to take place, teachers need to base their inquiry on what they see as the learning needs of their particular group of students. What I found while observing the teacher triads was that educators had a very good idea of the learning needs of their students. This may have happened simply through observation in combination with on-going assessment. The particular triad of teachers then agreed on what conclusions their observations were showing them. Then, and only then did they develop an inquiry question. For example, one group of junior math teachers decided, based on observations and data that their students had a poor understanding of the concept of zero. They then developed an inquiry to assist students to develop a better understanding of this concept. This process might seem pretty slow – the inquiry took several months to conclude, but it was certainly authentic and it had total teacher buy in as they had done the real work. I think we need to do more of this teacher-directed work and trust our teachers and administrators to come up with processes that puts educators in the driving seat when it comes to professional development.

Like you, I think the best PD for me has been the stuff that I have had a say in. When my colleagues and I can direct our learning, or when we arrive at a day without a written-in-stone agenda, I feel like I learn more!

Thanks for commenting Lisa. Very good to hear that your PD has been self-directed. I think you are very motivated and that is great to read about. I do think we need a cultural change where teachers are treated as real professionals and stay in control of their own learning. My experience as an administrator is that much of our PD is directed by others – we learn that this is the way and then we impose this on our teachers. That should not happen.

 

What Should Professional Learning for Educators Look Like?

Teachers are really busy people. I would say that 90% of their time if not more is taken up with teaching their students, duty, marking, reporting and following up with parents. Every teacher could add to this very basic list, but I would imagine that most would agree that they have very little spare time.

If you add to this the really important time teachers need to regenerate and connect with their families and the outside world, the amount of time teachers actually have to work on honing their professional skills is very low.

Still, teachers are very engaged in professional development and they are as a group, very motivated to learn new ways to engage and educate their students.

All this leads me to one important conclusion – how can we provide teachers with valuable PD. Teachers’ time is precious and we should never waste it with useless or irrelevant PD. Sadly, from what I have experienced, the sessions planned by education districts often fall into the category of irrelevant.

The reason for this is that there is little teacher choice involved in our PD models. Inevitably, consultants and other board officials make the decisions on what is essential for teachers to learn without asking the learners. When these decisions are made centrally, there is no teacher voice evident.

Within schools, teacher voice is still missing. Many principals seem to believe that they must be the arbiters of what is important for teachers to learn. The principal may not have taught in a classroom for years, but somehow they are experts on what a teacher needs to know.

This system needs to be turned on its head ie. teachers need to be asked what they need. Another thing we increasingly tell teachers is that to be a valued professional, they need to blog or tweet about what they do in their classroom. Again, another assumption made about time and individual preference. Not everyone needs to get on Twitter or start madly blogging. While this appeals to some educators, this needs to remain their choice. If it is imposed on them it falls into the same category as district-mandated professional training.

Choice needs to come first. Along with choice must come time. If we really believe that teachers are capable of making good decisions on what they need to learn, we must give them time during the school day to do this learning.

This can be done, but others have to become comfortable with giving up control. Once educators are given time and choice they make excellent decisions on what they need to focus on.

We have done this several times and the results have been great. Teachers are very happy to work with their colleagues and set their own professional agendas. Sadly, many say they have never been given the chance to do this before.

At one school, we ran a triad system where teachers from three schools worked together deciding who they were going to work with and what would be the focus of their study. As principals, we did ask them to have a plan and to report back to the group, but the rest was up to them. The results were wonderful. Teachers came up with their own inquiries and studied questions that we as principals would never have come up with.

Michael Fullan has done some work in this area, but it doesn’t seem to go far enough. In his video Learning is the Work below does mention that the ‘culture’ of learning has to change, but I never really saw this happen for teachers and I certainly never saw any change in how PD was delivered to principals.

The wonderful Ontario Capacity-Building Series has featured articles on choice in professional learning for years. In 2014, they published an article on principal collaborative inquiry. In 2010, they produced an excellent article on teacher collaborative inquiry that actually outlines the seven characteristics of effective teacher inquiry. Finally, again in 2014, an additional article was published on collaborative inquiry for educators. The article emphasized that everyone should be a learner and that the top-down model of PD was not effective.

CI (Collaborative Inquiry) requires a safe, inclusive environment built on trusting relationships. An open-to-learning stance is a condition of a collaborative learning environment. A culture of inclusivity must be part of the CI mindset when interpreting evidence and studying the student experience. CI promotes a democratic approach to shared leadership and joint responsibility (distributive leadership) for student learning.

To me, the key word here is democratic. This I don’t see. I do see teachers collaborating (not admin), but they still are not in charge of the inquiry – the focus is still carefully guarded by the district.

Both Fullan and the writers of the 2014 piece talk a lot about a change in culture. I agree that this is certainly needed in education. However, until there is true respect for the voice of the teacher in crafting professional development any talk of real cultural change is mute.

Teaching as Resisting

There once was a note
Pure and easy
Playing so free, like a breath rippling by

Pure and Easy, The Who

What’s wrong with this picture?

I saw this photo on Twitter today and it made me wonder – what has happened to the art and gift of teaching? When did we forget that one of the roles of the teacher should be to resist the dominant culture of the day?

I read Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity while I was in teacher’s college. There are all sorts of interpretations of this book, but one thing that I took away from this was that educators need to stand in resistance to the dominant ideology. At the very least, we should question the status quo.

Is this still true? Was this ever true? Are we instead here to support the dominant culture and as in the case above, support a political leader who has a very questionable opinion of public education (think Betsy DeVos).

Why are we now afraid to be critics of the system? I have read so often how teachers are satisfied to ‘innovate’ in their own classroom and leave the big questions to others.

Some may say – easy for you  – you are retired now, but there have been times when I questioned the status quo while being actively involved in the education system.

Many years ago, as head of student services at a suburban high school, I was quoted in the city newspaper saying that the schools were the source of drugs for teenagers. Everyone knew this was true, we even knew who the dealers were. I probably should have kept my mouth shut but as a counsellor I saw on a daily basis the negative impact drugs were having on our students. At the time, we as a school board were doing nothing to combat the problem.

The day the article came out the wrath of the school board descended on me. My superintendent was furious and demanded to know if I had been misquoted. I had to explain, no these were my exact words. This did not go over very well with anyone at the school board. The issue of the ravaging impact of drugs on our youth was not something that entered the conversation.

Years later, I was again admonished for being critical of the Canadian Catholic Bishops. I was actually agreeing with a letter that was critical of some stand they were taking (or more likely not taking).

My post had been found on a Facebook Page that had no connection to our school board. A very conservative pressure group found the post and was trying to use it to embarrass the Catholic school board. Again, and not for the last time, I found myself in huge trouble for speaking my mind. The issue of the Canadian Bishops’ lack of leadership in commenting on social injustice was again not part of the discussion.

I bring up these stories in this post not to brag about being a ‘resistor’ but to make the point that I believe it is the role of educators to speak the truth and that in doing so they should not find themselves in the institutional ‘doghouse’.

All educators know they need to keep their opinions to themselves. Resistance and even criticism can be seen as dangerous and even a career stopper.

Is it that we don’t want to offend? Is it that it is seen as our job not to criticize the system? Is it that we simply do not have political opinions?

I really don’t know. I do think we have relegated an important role to others in society.

I don’t think this is good for education and I am sure it is not a sign of a healthy democracy. All I can say now is that in retrospect I am glad I got in trouble and I  hope I would do it again.

Those in the upper echelons of the education system should take pause and consider the importance of resistance as a key role for the educator.

 

 

Innovation – the New Overused Word in Education

Last week I read a Twitter post from a  colleague who works for my former school board it read, ‘Education is the key to making innovation the new standard.’

First, how can innovation be the standard? Innovation should be on the outside edge – innovation should be challenging the norm and innovators by their very nature are critical of the status quo.

Yesterday, I took part in a good conversation on innovation during one of the #MADPD sessions – a really different way to deliver PD unfettered by the typical school board staff who usually are the deliverers of PD to our educators. We were all very good at congratulating each other on being ‘innovative’, but I think we were all missing the point.

Innovation within a system is almost impossible. What we call innovation is usually just cheerleading, especially what we see summarized in the 140 characters of Twitter. It’s a lot of ‘look at me’ and it’s really not very helpful.

I say this because true innovation unsettles the system. The primary goal of the system, or any large institution –  is to protect itself. Protection means maintaining the status quo. Innovation cannot be the ‘new standard’ because true innovation might very well call for the elimination of large education corporations like the one I worked for.

Let me be very clear. Being innovative in a system can cause a great deal of pain. The organization will do almost anything to protect itself. In my case, this resulted in a fair amount of what I call ‘institutionalized bullying’. I was seen as a pariah for some of the things I said and did and I actually retired early to avoid any further disciplinary action from my employers.

Without going into the grimy details of what happened to me, I was seen as a trouble maker because I refused to just be a cheerleader for the latest system-wide ‘innovation’.

Last year during a study on George Couros’ book, ‘The Innovator’s Mindset’ I took part in a great Voxer chat on topics connected to the book. At one point we got into a conversation on the consequences of being an innovator. I was really surprised by the number of educators who were able to admit that they too had been scapegoated by their board for working outside the norm. You could feel the hurt in their voices as they talked about what had happened to them and I realized my story was in no way unique.

So, when we have conversations about ‘jumping into the unknown’, we should really take a step back. It’s not fun to be an outrider when you work for an education corporation. You shouldn’t be congratulating yourself for being an innovator because no one really likes someone who truly thinks outside the box. If you do, you threaten the box.

So maybe we need more truth-telling on Twitter. Maybe less cheerleading and less ‘8 things you can do today to be an innovator’. Maybe we need more clear and honest criticism of a massive system that eats and spits out those who think differently.

 

Make a Difference PD #MADPD – something new for Personalized Learning

Something new is happening this Sunday (May 7th). People from all over will be presenting live using Youtube and Google Hangouts to deliver a full day of excellent PD.

You can see who is presenting and participating here on this Google Map.

You can add yourself to this map as a presenter or participant. You can also participate live by asking to be included in the Google Hangout. I will be presenting on 1:1 implementation in schools and my live link is here. The idea is that you can click on this link around 3:00 PM this Sunday and you can participate live in my session – how cool is that!

Make a Difference PD – MADPD is the wonderful brainchild of Peter Cameron and Derek Rhodenizer, two great Ontario educators who are making names for themselves as great connectors through blogging, podcasting, twitter and now MADPD.

The schedule for the day is really impressive. We start at 8:00 AM and presentations continue to 8:00 PM. There are now over 60 presenters that will be communicating to the world through Google Hangouts during the day. A full explanation of the day can be found on Peter’s latest blog post.

This is really new PD. No one is telling you to take these sessions and you don’t need to sit through another talking head session that is someone else’s idea of what you need to know about. These sessions are structured in a way that will allow for maximum participation for those who show up. Presenters will do a 15-minute summary of their topic and the rest is up to participants. This is very much like a digital edcamp and I can’t wait to participate!

I hope this is the way of the future. Personalized PD is so important. Educators need to take control of their own learning and push away from the traditional practices regularly imposed on them by their school boards.

So, I urge you all to take control, sign on to MADPD this Sunday!

What are the Key Arguments that keep Ontario Catholic Schools Going?

Are religion and politics really topics that lead to discord and bad blogging? That is hard to say, but it is interesting to read what people say about public schools in Ontario. These are not new arguments, but are these the key points in the debate? Can we take this to a higher level? I have been monitoring a healthy debate on my Facebook page and some key points are coming out. I won’t copy all the comments here, but some of what has been written illustrate some key points in the debate.
I will comment on most of these points, but I don’t profess to have any definitive answers. The debate is sure to continue.

The only way it could save money is to close one system and not educate the kids who are in that system. Funding is on a per pupil basis so the funding would remain the same. It would cost millions extra to do all the administrative changes. So spend millions to save nothing?

 I don’t think this should exclusively be a debate about dollars, but I believe there is a case for rationalizing systems. Here in Ottawa, we have already amalgamated our transportation system and we share resources when it comes to serving some of our neediest students along with the Children’s Hospital of Ontario and the public board. However, we operate parallel systems when it comes to upper management and trustees.
It’s not always about money. There is a message being sent that we are a society divided on religious differences. That message needs to end.
We have to see the truth in this statement. This is a secular society. We are trying to become a more inclusive society in a world that seems to be growing in intolerance for the other. How then can we justify funding a system that keeps us separate as a society?
And it can be about the money… let’s take Stratford as an example. There are 2 public high schools and one Catholic high school. The student population dictates the need for 2 schools. The public board cannot accommodate all its students in one school. If there was only 1 school board, money could be saved by closing one school.
Back to economics. Some schools could be closed if there was one public board. There are many examples now, especially in rural areas of the province where it is no longer feasible to fund schools for more than one system. In my neighbourhood, there are two schools both at 30% capacity – how can we justify this expense?
Parents want choice. Amalgamating boards panders to the lowest common denominator. In Ottawa the public school board has been mismanaged, schools are being closed, kids bused long distances to other schools… Poor management on the part of the public board.
This is the worst type of argument for Catholic schools, but I have heard this for years. There is an underlying bias within the Catholic school system that these schools are simply ‘better’. Somehow, the Catholic system was better managed. I don’t see this. I have been an administrator in the Catholic system and have seen many examples of very poor management. Both systems have their faults. To say that one is inherently better managed than the other shows an embarrassing bias and should not be part of this debate.
Catholic education is protected by the Constitution. We have fought for 150 years for the right to have our schools. We built our own schools, funded them, paid our own teachers, paid to have our students attend, and on top of that, paid public school taxes too. We are not better, just smarter, perhaps because Catholic education was just so important to us. 
The Constitution argument will also not hold water. You can go back to 1791 to find protections for Catholic minorities. Things change a great deal over 200 years. Policies enacted centuries ago do not necessarily have any bearing on what goes on in our society today. Special provisions protecting a Catholic system were designed to sustain minorities in pre-Confederation societies. If we follow along with this logic, we would need to protect a whole host of minorities that did not exist in 1791 or 1867.
Such an important issue to learn and talk about. It is time to look away from the past – what was owed/what used to happen – and look at our schools right now. There is no longer a need for any type of publicly-funded, denominational school. Catholics, formally named, are in decline; active, practicing Catholics even fewer. Our money and our energy should be directed at giving the best, equitable education to all children.
I think this comment speaks for itself.
The conversation is coming to an election soon….. as soon as a party sees it as a winning strategy, they will buy in. I teach in the Catholic system and it has been a positive part of my life for many years – but I have always feared that the end of the system would come from within and not from the outside. Building walls and presenting a message that is not inclusive and welcoming could spell the end….
This is an important point. Every year we witness another story where Catholic schools fail to be inclusive. The most recent example is happening right now in Niagara where Catholic schools are canceling a play designed for elementary students because it explores issues surrounding gender identity. (Niagara Catholic schools nixed play on gender for being ‘not age-appropriate’)

The Silent Topic: Time to Merge School Boards in Ontario?

I listened to a great noon-time discussion on CBC Radio Ottawa on the merger of school boards in Ontario.

Currently, in Ottawa we have four different, publically funded school boards. Two are Catholic, two are public. The origins of this system goes back to 1759 and 1867. The question was brought up during the program why we need to have a system that allows for a faith-based school system?

Originally in Ontario, all education was based on faith. There were Protestant and Catholic school systems. Over time, the Protestant system became public and non-denominational.  I would argue that the same process is happening in the Catholic system that is gradually losing its Catholic character.

Catholic schools now admit students of all faiths – something that I have seen as a very positive step. However, Catholic schools are still allowed to discriminate against teachers who must be Catholic to get a permanent job in this system.

David King, a former Alberta minister of education was the guest during the afternoon show. He made the strong argument that Catholic schools were no longer necessary as the Catholic minority is no longer in a position where their identity is threatened. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, decisions made in 1791, 1846 or 1967 should not guide policy in the 21st Century.

It was interesting to listen to some of the callers during the program. The argument was made by some that Catholics have a right to be taught in a Catholic atmosphere. I am not sure anymore why one group has a special right to an education based on their particular faith. In a secular society, we need to consider how we can combine the strengths of all systems to develop a unified strong public system that caters equally to all families.

In the last school I worked at as a principal, very few students were Catholic. We prided ourselves in being inclusive to all cultures and faiths. We worked hard to support families new to the country. At the same time, another school, also excellent in our neighbourhood supports the same population. Both schools are at approximately at 30% capacity. Why not bring the resources of both schools together to better serve the community?

I hope we in Ontario will have the courage to take on this debate. Public education dollars are scarce, and we have a responsibility to offer our children the best education possible. How are we doing this when so many services in education – especially at the management level are redundant?

Why does this remain – apart from the CBC – the silent topic in Ontario?