When Taking Risks – Do You Stand at the Top or the Bottom of the Stairs?

These days, I have lots of time for reflection. This really helps with my writing and new ideas are coming all the time. Today, I found myself with my bike at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the top of Parliament Hill. The pathway is blocked due to construction so it was either up or back the way I came.

I never like going back so up I went, 286 stairs. The view looking up was a bit daunting, the view from the top was beautiful.

I thought maybe this would work as a metaphor for how to deal with the risks one takes throughout life. Here, I am talking more about professional risks. Sometimes these risks leave you looking up wondering what went wrong and other times you can survey success from the top of the hill.

What are some of the factors that determine success and failure?

Sometimes I think it has everything to do with the people you find yourself working with. One project that I had been working on for the past few months collapsed entirely yesterday. I wrote about the venture here. The project had real potential, but I lacked partners who shared a similar view of the potential of this program. I do blame myself for this. I should have seen the signs – lacklustre response to the proposal, e-mails seldom returned, long bureaucratic notes on why certain things couldn’t happen – the list goes on. It’s a pretty standard list.

Why didn’t I just cut and run, I have seen all these signs before – I have been in education systems for over 31 years!

So, this is the bottom of the stairs looking up. These things happen, if you are not willing to take some risks you will never have the chance to get to the top of the stairs. You need to be at the bottom sometimes so you can savour the top!

There is so much to celebrate when you do get to the top of the hill. I think as you gain experience you get a little bit better at finding projects that bring out the best in everyone involved.

I put voicEd Radio in this category.

It is so wonderful to work with people who encourage and empower you! My wife and I both work on a show for voicED and we have received nothing but enthusiastic encouragement from Stephen Hurley, the creator of this great project.

Here a risk paid off. We had never done a radio show before, now we have a bunch of broadcasts – including a half-hour live show – that we did as part of an amazing full-day live broadcast featuring most of voicEd Radio’s regulars.

My point is, you have to keep taking risks, even when your plans fall completely flat. Over time, the failures are no longer very important and you learn to move away and take whatever lessons you can. Then you find some real pearls like voicEd Radio where you meet great, positive educators and you take your learning to a whole new level.

So keep climbing, don’t look back, move away from the negative nellies and get to the top of the hill!

My Trek Through the First Day of School

As a principal, I really liked the first day of school. I got to see families and kids once again and I was always excited about all the great stuff that was planned for the new school year.

This year has been a little different. For the first time in 31 years, I am not in a school. I retired last December, so being away from school is not new to me. But, the first day of school is special.

So today, I needed to do something to mark this occasion. I was up almost at the same time – my wife is still teaching – and I drove her to school. I then got my trekking gear on and headed to the Gatineau, the beautiful hills just north of Ottawa.

I hike a good deal these days, especially the Wolf Trail in the Gatineau. Almost always I trek with friends or family, today I went by myself.

I wanted to have a day of quiet reflection, a day to note a new turn in my education career. I say a new turn because I am still an educator. I still work hard at connecting with other educators through Twitter, blogging and most recently, VoiceEd Radio.

I see myself now as an educator who is not tied to any school board or any official position. This is allowing me to write with more honesty about what I think about a whole host of education issues and topics. It allows me to take part in great projects like the Dream Mountains Kilimanjaro trek last year and this year a climb in Peru for Christie Lake Kids and hopefully a three-week trip to El Salvador with University of Ottawa students.

I think as educators we need to constantly evolve and grow. When we are fortunate enough to be able to retire, I think it is something to seriously consider. One can continue doing what they are doing, but I think with diminishing returns.

We always remain educators however, we just move to other stages.

Today was a wonderful day of hiking and reflection. I treasure the past and look forward to new vistas as an educator. The challenge remains the same  – to seek out the new opportunities to grow and contribute.

The summit of Wolf Trail – a great place for reflection

 

 

Community Response to Five Ways to Damage a Good School

A week ago, after Doug Peterson’s suggestion, I came up with a brief survey to see if I could gain any more insight into actions that might damage a good school. No survey on Twitter is going to elicit much response. Even so, I have received 10 responses to my survey. The results are summarized here.

To be honest, I don’t know if we moved the discussion much beyond Greg Ashman’s original post. He is provocative and he comes up with excellent points to ponder on a regular basis. He has another post on education and non-conformity and I really want to read this and look for more writing prompts based on his thoughts!

There were a few suggestions that are certainly worth mentioning here from the survey. The one comment that dominates has to do with developing positive relations with staff, students and parents.

Build a community & relationships. If you don’t have positive relationships with your students, then nothing you do in class really matters. The same applies to admin. If you don’t take the time to build relationships with your staff, then it will be difficult to get staff buy in for positive changes.

I agree with this comment. If you do not engender positive relationships with the people you serve and work with, no infusion of educational technology or educational theory will make a wit of difference in your school.

In education, we all seem to love the newest fad or upcoming idea, whether it be social-emotional development, deeper learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning – the list goes on and on.

We often fail to see the enduring importance of developing and maintaining a respectful relationship with all the people in our buildings. It is almost as if developing a community of respect and caring is a second-tier idea that should be seen as a given and not worthy of discussion.

I don’t think this is the case and I do believe we need to reexamine how we treat the people we work with.

I have come to a number of schools where administrators didn’t seem to have a clue how to work in a constructive manner with their staff. This lack of ability needs to be addressed because failing to deal with an uncaring attitude can really damage staff members. I have often worked with gifted administrators who truly understood the importance of empowerment and I really think their contributions need to be recognized and celebrated.

I think one reason why the work of George Couros gets so much attention is that he really gets this. Throughout his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, George continually focusses on the importance of developing positive relationships with the people you work with. This is such an essential point it can’t be overemphasized. Everything needs to start with the promise that the administrator will honour and respect the people they work with. If this is the starting point, all manner of innovative and wonderful things can happen at a school.

As we enter another school year, let’s try to remain positive and keep in mind what truly makes for a wonderful school – a group of people who strive to respect, honour and empower every person in their building.

Opening the Doors of Teacher Education – Learning in the Global South

I really enjoy working with the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. They are open to all sorts of new ideas and are always looking for opportunities to deepen the learning experience of their students.

This year, we are going to offer a unique volunteer opportunity for teacher candidates who will be completing their second year at the Faculty of Education.

All students have to complete a three-week volunteer placement before they finish their program. It is up to them to decide what they will do for their placement and students are offered a variety of opportunities to consider at the beginning of their second year.

This year we are offering students a placement in El Salvador where they will be able to learn something about what it is like to work as an educator  in the Global South. We have done these kinds of trips in the past for teachers, but what a wonderful opportunity to take part in a trip like this as part of the formative teacher education experience.

We can learn a great deal by talking to teachers in other countries. While the circumstances of teachers in El Salvador can be drastically different from what teachers experience in Canada, there are remarkable similarities as well. Teachers in both countries have to surmount the challenges of working in low-income areas and we all aspire to offer a holistic education for our students to prepare them for the world they will live in.

Having an opportunity to talk with teachers and students from the Global South can add a rich element to the teacher training we provide our teacher candidates with. Learning what it is like to live and struggle in a poor Southern country can add valuable life experience for teacher candidates preparing for a very challenging career.

We will be working with CIS –  Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (Center for Exchange and Solidarity) in El Salvador.

CIS aims to strengthen people-to-people solidarity and contribute to the construction of a new El Salvador. They have a great deal of experience working with delegations from the United States and Canada. They have put together a program that will be presented to students in September. Here are some of the highlights:

Proposed Objectives:

  •    Learn about the history of the El Salvador, and the root causes of war, migration and violence.
  •    Exchange ideas about the educational system and teaching methodology in El Salvador and Canada with Salvadoran teachers and students of education.
  •    Promote a culture of solidarity, of mutual support and global connections for social and economic justice.

Possible activities:

  •    Testimony – History of the War and El Salvador.
  •    Hike ecological forest which was a guerrilla encampment during the war in Cinquera Cabañas.  Learn about History and the Environment.
Church in Cinquera, El Salvador
  •    Visit site of Guadalupe and Tenango massacre in the Department of Cuscatlán-Cabañas and learn how survivors have overcome
  •    Visit public school and exchange with students and teachers
  •    Exchange with CIS scholarship students studying education
  •    Visit historical sites in San Salvador:  The home of  Oscar Romero’s home and the chapel where he gave his life
view of the chapel where Oscar Romero was killed

 

  •    Visit the Jesuit University and site where 6 Priests and 2 women workers were massacred in 1989.
  •    Stay in a rural community:   visit homes, visit a school, do some exchanges with the community and /or school teachers; meet with women’s businesses, make tortillas.
  •    Stay in Urban Community:   Meet with teachers about special challenges of gangs in schools; understand the displacement of communities during the war and earthquakes and shanty town settlements; exchange with CIS art therapy course, and human rights committee.
  •    Workshops:  Participants will be asked to develop a workshop  or a series of workshops on one theme to share in the community depending on their skill set and interest – Some examples, that the community request  include education methodology,  different arts, marketing, computers, English,  gender, human rights, environment, culture of peace, communication, environment.
  •    Indigo – history, culture, cultivation and processing of dye and dying clothes by women’s groups.
Salvadorian Enterprises for Women collective in Suchitoto (an hour from San Salvador) where they raise, dye and make clothes from indigo.
  •    Exchange with CIS English and Spanish Teachers and popular education and language instruction.
  •    Spanish classes are available online or at CIS in El Salvador. www.cis-elsalvador.org.

For the sake of brevity, I have only included some of the objectives and activities that could be included as part of the three-week program.

This is a very rich and varied schedule and I know that teacher candidates taking part in this trip will learn lots.

Now it is really up to the students to decide if they will make this their volunteer option for 2018. I hope some of them do, it promises to be a rich learning experience.

with students from the school in San Jose las Flores

 

 

Linking Adventure to Support for Kids

 

I am using this post as a brainstorming exercise. Hopefully, as ideas and suggestions come in I can change the post to reflect your ideas.

I have learned that to raise money for any project or cause, you need to have an idea that really captures people’s imagination. It is a very competitive market out there and your idea really needs to stand out if you are going to attract funding.

You also need a great cause that people can get behind. In the past, I have looked for projects and organizations that had the potential to change the lives of children so they could live a rich and rewarding life. This seems like a big goal, but there are all sorts of organizations out there that are bringing about real social change by enriching the lives of children and their families.

Last year, I raised money for Rec Link, a great community organization that focuses on providing recreational opportunities for low-income families in Ottawa. The fundraising worked very well because it was attached to a great idea, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

This year I would like to develop the idea further by planning a trekking expedition that raises money for another Ottawa organization, Christie Lake Kids and a similar organization from the country we will be climbing in.

It would be wonderful to find a way to have participants from both camps as part of the expedition. Not only could we be raising money to send kids to camp, but we could also raise awareness on the good work these organizations are doing.

The inclusion of an organization from the host country is really important to me – awareness raising needs to include a focus on the country we would be travelling to.

So, this is the concept. I would love to hear any ideas that you may have on ways to move this forward. It is exciting to plan something new and even better to hear how a concept can be improved over time.

 

Customer Service Matters – Even in Education

Over the past few days we have been in the market for a new car – always a joy in the middle of the summer!

We actually enjoyed the first part of the experience. We met a great salesperson who talked to us, found out who we were, listened to our concerns and then took us for a really fun test drive.

Everything was going beautifully and for a moment I thought this might not be a terrible experience. We agreed on a price, I had my card out ready to pay the deposit then things went south. Our salesperson called over his manager to confirm the deal. He took one look at the paperwork and quickly bumped up the price by an additional $10.00 a month.

We were stunned – not so much by the added price, but by the way the manager totally disregarded his salesman and decided on his own that he could squeeze another $10.00 a month out of us.

Of course, we left. But the money was not the issue. It was the total disregard the manager showed to his potential customers and his staff. They tried to get us back in later in the day, but the total lack of customer service and common decency was enough for us.

On to the next dealer. In this case, I had been in correspondence with the saleswomen for two days. We had texted about price, model all of that sort of stuff. We went in to meet with her to start coming up with a final price. She then excused herself and the manager returned. He took her seat – she wasn’t even allowed to sit down – and quoted us a price that was way beyond what we had discussed with our salesperson.

Again we left, the woman looked apologetic about the total brush off we had received from her boss.

So, dealerships 2, family 0.

But was that really the case? We had spent the better part of the day talking in good faith with dealerships and had encountered people who didn’t have a clue how to treat employees or customers.

It made me think that actually, maybe things are not so bad in education. I have seen so many teachers become administrators and turn into multi-headed monsters, showing little regard for their staff and the parents they serve. I assumed in the business world things would be better, but I don’t think that is the case.

It seems to me that our modern society has lost a certain amount of civility. How you treat the people you work with and your clientele doesn’t seem to count for much these days. I know of instances where the principal had no problem disregarding the interests of their parents because they were certain they knew the best way to get things done. Such leaders pass this arrogance on to their staff creating a toxic atmosphere in the school.

This should never happen and these leaders need to be called to account if they don’t know how to manage people.

In the case of the dealerships, I had calls apologizing for the poor behaviour of their managers. In each case, they wished us well and there were no hard feelings. What would happen in education if we treated our parents with this level of care and respect when a manager missteps?

Customer service is everything. I have written about this before, and there are excellent examples of organizations with great customer service out there and they need to be celebrated. For years, I have worked and volunteered for Discovery Education mainly because they never miss an opportunity to thank those who work with them. It almost seems a little countercultural, but they always act with grace and do their utmost to make sure their clients are receiving the service they deserve. We need more Discovery Education these days.

By the way, we did find a car – excellent customer service!

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?

 

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.