Talking Nationally About Violence in the Schools and Looking for Solutions

Cross-country Checkup is a good way to measure what issues are of interest to Canadians every week. This CBC show has been on for many years and it has always been a good barometer of public opinion. This week, the topic is violence in the schools and the danger staff face on a regular basis.

This became a public issue last week when an Ottawa teacher went public with a violent incident that ended his teaching career.

One issue that is being brought up this afternoon is the very dangerous situation educational assistants (EAs) find themselves every day. While I don’t know many teachers who have been injured on the job, I regularly witnessed EAs being injured. They were also verbally abused by students and parents and were seldom able to seek any recourse for what happened to them.

Is this a systemic problem? Why are we hearing so much about this now that a floodgate has been opened?

I think it comes down to an overemphasis on individual rights over collective rights. When I suspended students, it was to protect the collective. The individual had lost the right to be part of the school community, therefore they were suspended. I used this line with parents and it (of course) was not appreciated. However, suspension, especially starting in grade 7 was an effective tool and I hope high school vice principals are still able to use it. Our job was to protect staff and students. 

On the other hand, you could say that ejecting a student doesn’t solve anything. Suspension is a necessary sanction, but what is happening that leads to behaviours that lead to a suspension?

Education is an incredibly labour-intensive field. Typically, when governments want to save money on education there is only one way to do this, staff gets cut or the necessary staff are not hired.

From my perspective as an administrator, the best way to assist children, especially those with emotional or mental health issues is to have enough staff in the building to care for these students. This means more EAs, more social workers, and more in-school therapists.

The conversation continued long after the show and it included tweets like this:

Obviously, we didn’t reach any conclusions, but it is an important discussion.

I let this post sit for a few days. It is a sad topic and it is really hard to find the positives. Then last night, I attended the information meeting for a new fundraising program we are starting – Christie Lake Climb for Kids! I have written about this before on this blog. It’s an exciting opportunity and I hope we get 16 participants for this first expedition.

a reason for hope – our Christie Lake Kids meeting last night

What was really refreshing for me last night was the presentation on Christie Lake Kids. This program offers a wide variety of recreational services for low-income kids. They run a terrific summer camp along with programming throughout the year including cooking classes, a fully funded hockey team and a whole variety of after-school programs in some of the most challenging neighbourhoods here in Ottawa.

I think I needed to be reminded that while we have some really challenging problems in our schools, there are some really forward-thinking organizations like Christie Lake that are offering solutions.

More suspensions and more blame will not ease the problems of violence in our schools. Progressive recreational programming like Christie Lake will offer solutions that at least will address some of the challenges we are facing in our schools.

It has been an interesting week. Lots of discussion on how we are facing a crisis in our schools and one really positive way to find a solution that really helps kids.

For my part, I want to focus on some progressive solutions. I hope others do too!

Should You Have Challenging Conversations?

I saw today that there was a workshop on challenging or ‘fierce’ conversations at my former district.

This always makes me smile or more accurately, grimace.

I guess the idea behind challenging conversations is that we need to have them, we need to be honest and we need to get at the root of the issue. All great ideas, but what is probably never addressed at these workshops are the consequences of having these conversations.

Yes, you can have these conversations and as an administrator, I have had my fair share. I once had one of these conversations with an irate mother who was upset because I disciplined her son for being abusive to one of our educational assistants. At one point, I had to say to her that I was surprised that while she could easily see how her son might have been upset about my actions, she couldn’t understand how his actions had affected one of our staff members.

This is what happens with ‘fierce’ conversations. If the other party doesn’t like how things are going, there is always another authority they can go to. In this case, the parent went to my superintendent with a letter asking for my removal from the school.

The superintendent’s only response was ‘what did you do to create this situation?’

Not very helpful. This all led to another conversation where I – on my own – met again with the parents who in the interim had discovered that their child actually liked me and was not at all upset about the incident. I am not sure how the staff member felt.

This is the big thing about doing a presentation on courageous conversations. The presenters seldom have to do these. Also, the question never comes up – what if people go over your head at the end of the conversation?

If they do, what happens to your ability to have further conversations?

A few years later, in a different school, I had another one of these conversations. This time it was with a member of the office staff who had put out a note to teaching staff which was inappropriate.

Again, the conversation went well over my head. The disgruntled staff member went to her union, to the head of human resources and eventually to the superintendent of human resources. The staff member developed a whole case against me.

Administrators in Ontario do not have unions. People can make baseless accusations against them and there is really no defence against these. In my case, the school board decided that they needed to investigate all these claims and I was suspended with pay for three weeks while the investigation continued.

There was never a formal end to the investigation. I was told that everything was OK and I could go back to work (right after the Christmas break). The office staff member was removed to another school. She never missed a day of work. While all the accusations remained unproven and certainly unfounded, I never received an apology for how I was treated by a school board I had worked with for over 20 years.

All to say, let’s be a little more honest or “courageous” when we pronounce about difficult, courageous or even fierce conversations. Who believes in you and has your back when your position requires that you have these conversations?

When you call for courage, first model courage.

 

The Dying of the Day

I am reflecting on what it is like to watch a dearly loved parent slowly die.It really puts things into perspective. It is interesting when it only catches the conversation of friends for a few moments. Sad to say, we are not a society that understands the passing of life very well. A good lesson for me.

I am trying to keep things together here. Conferences I should attend, meetings I should go to. It is hard to tell people, I just don’t want to do any of these things, I am waiting on my father.

No one seems to get this.

I am the first to admit I haven’t been as good, nearly as good as I should have been in the past when friends of mine have gone through the loss of a loved one. Maybe now I will be better. Maybe now I will understand things better.

Life goes on through social media and more pictures of hikes, climbs, and runs. I just want to take a minute to stop and honour someone who I have loved so dearly.

Dad, we love you.

 

Freeing the Minds of School Administrators

OK, today I admit I am entering the world of fantasy posts, but I am still going to give this a try.

We have seen lots of Twitter traffic and great blog posts in the last two weeks about how educators are stifled in what they can write on social media by school boards who do not want to read dissenting opinions from their employees.

The best posts are coming from Andrew Campbell. This post is great

So, we know what the problem is – the overarching authority of school board bureaucrats and senior admin to stifle all thoughtful opinion but their own. But is there a solution?

Only if you live in the world of fantasy!

I think this is really an issue of governance. Education in Ontario is really controlled by a small number of senior administrators who are in no way overseen by anyone else in the province. Yes, there are lots of ministry directives, but there is no oversight on the overbearing behavior of board admin.

I write board admin because I don’t mean school administrators – principals and vice-principals.

These are the people who have trained for years to become administrators and put everything on the line every day to keep things going in their schools. It is a tough job and there is little or no support for the hard work that they do. There is also little protection given to them in they run into conflict with parents and even worse, board officials.

Many believe that they are agents of their school board first and that the decisions made by the board, decisions they have no say in, must be supported without question.

This is the incredible thing. School administrators are seldom asked for their opinion about how things should be done at a district level. These decisions are made by superintendents and program coordinators who have little connection to the schools they oversee.

School administrators need to have a voice. They need to be consulted in a meaningful way and they need to know that if they speak out they will be protected by a higher authority than their own school board.

If this were to happen we might actually read some interesting and useful comments on how schools can become more effective. Right now, the best we can expect from a school administrator on Twitter is cheerleading – the useless tweets that are designed to make the school look good without conveying any useful information.

So, again firmly in fantasy land, this is my solution. Free up school administrators from the heavy drag of district officials. Let them speak on the record so we can hear from a very effective group of front-line workers who may actually have some ideas on how to bring about effective change to our schools.

This shouldn’t be a fantasy.

 

 

Social Media and Educators – When Will We Grow Up?

Doug Peterson has written a number of great posts over the past few days based on a wide-ranging Twitter conversation we had on the weekend.

Doug has summarized the conversation really well in the following posts:

Yeah, it can happen – Oct 11
The right to tweet – Oct 10
The “P” in PLN – Oct 9

This is a hard conversation to summarize as it went on for three days and had participation from at least ten different participants. The conversation is collected here in case you want to see it.

I also tried to summarize things in this blog post: Twitter, Educators, and Dissent – October 8

As the conversation evolved, we got closer to talking about free speech, social media and working for an institution. I don’t think anything was resolved, but it was very interesting and more than a little sad to read what people had to say.

To me, it shows that our ideas on social media are still evolving. It indicates that institutions have an incredible fear of social media and see it still as a threat. It also reminds me of the incredible power of institutions to suppress the actions of its members even if these actions are not clearly critical of the institution.

To be honest, it is amazing that we had any sort of conversation as some of the participants are still working for districts and these individuals clearly took a risk by getting involved. I totally understand why others decided to stay clear.

I wrote one comment on Doug’s post and I think this would be a good conversation to have openly on voicED Radio.

In preparing to write the comment, I took a look at an old disciplinary letter that I received. It had a chilling effect. It brought back all the old, bad emotions that swirled around during the last year and a half of employment for that district. Truly, writing about this stuff is more difficult than what I have written in the past about my mental health journey.

Still, this needs to be written about. Institutions should not be allowed to operate with impunity, nor should they be motivated by fear or the desire to sanction employees who challenge their way of thinking.

I hope these posts, discussions, and comments can open this conversation a little bit. It is way past time that we matured in our views regarding social media.

Here is my comment:

Hi Doug. Thanks for your posts over the past few days. Very interesting discussion. Reading the comments and your post again I think it is important to point out that disciplinary action is not a black and white thing. I think we are all looking for the smoking gun – the obvious tweet that is clearly over the line. It is not as simple as that and not everything can be resolved through a face to face conversation either.
When it comes to a violation of board policy leading to disciplinary action, it is the school board that defines what is appropriate and what is not. They are the ones holding all the cards and they determine what is appropriate. They issue the letter and add in that any further ‘violation’ will lead to further action including suspension without pay.
These are extremely effective actions because they do not need to define what a violation really is.
When you don’t have to clearly define the policy or the violation almost anything can be considered a violation. This effectively shuts down the person who receives the letter.
School Boards are well within their rights to do this and in Ontario at least, nothing can be done about this, especially if you are an administrator.
You do not have to say or tweet something critical of the board, you just have to do something they disagree with. None of this is obvious and none of this falls within the easily defined lines you mention above.
What is the result of all this? Basically, silence.

Twitter, Educators and Dissent

So, this is my third rewrite of this post. You wouldn’t think this would be so difficult, but this is a complex subject with many points of view.

There is no question that Twitter is a vital tool for personalized PD amongst teachers. How they see Twitter is varied and nuanced.

 

 

In my first draft, I was pretty cynical about the apparent lack of critical commentary on our current education system on Twitter. When I turned to members of my own PLN, I found that the conversation turned towards the real difficulty educators face when attempting to adopt a critical stance regarding the system.

To me, this is a really interesting point. Social media has given educators a wonderful platform for sharing ideas and for expressing opinion. Unfortunately, supervisors have also learned that social media is a great way to monitor dissenting opinion. Those who criticise the system can be sanctioned. All you have to do is monitor their Twitter feed.

This is not where I expected to go with this post, but I have to pause and take note of what people wrote today. Many of the writers mentioned that they had been called into their administrator’s office because of something they had written on social media. I certainly have.

I think this shows a fundamental abuse of social media. Professionals should be allowed to express themselves without fear of punishment. We are losing out on a critical debate by shutting down the very people we need to hear from.

This is a shame because the education system needs critics. While teaching is a very creative endeavor, education administration is not. Senior administrators are valued best when they are successful at protecting a narrow set of beliefs that never really challenges their own positions of privilege and authority.

 

There is no question that the education system needs to be excellent. It needs positive supporters and intelligent critics to achieve real excellence. We are missing out.

Without constructive criticism, Twitter devolves into a senseless cheerleading platform, a thoughtless flag waving standard for the politically correct.

Andrew Campbell has written an excellent article on this whole topic. Here is a quote:

A teacher explained to me that they’d been called into a meeting with supervisory staff and asked to defend a tweet they’d made about a board policy, which was taken out of context. Teachers have taken down tweets after meetings with supervisory officers who didn’t like what they were posting, and they’re strongly encouraged to ensure that their tweets reflect favourably on the school or the school board.
How School Leaders Are Changing EduTwitter - Andrew Campbell

I had lots to write about educator’s ability to write thoughtful content on Twitter. It’s not all about dissent.

I started with this:

This to me content creation is where the best contributions on Twitter reside. Stephen Hurley had a good thought on this:

I like Twitter (more than other social media) because it helps me “test” ideas. And tested ideas become stronger, or altered.
Stephen Hurley

 

Most of my active PLN is made up of content creators – Stephen Hurley, Donna Miller Fry, Derek Rhodenizer, Julie Boulton, Carol Salva, Sarah Ann Lalonde and a great many more fall into this category – I learn from this group constantly as they put out questions and share ideas on a daily basis.

Now at this point, I was drying up, so I put a question out to my PLN. The response was astounding and I have created a Storify of the two-day conversation. I really suggest you take a look at this – pretty amazing stuff!

What does Twitter do for educators? Content creation? Constructive feedback? Displaying work? Ideas?

Thanks so much to my PLN, you wrote the bulk of this article. There is a whole lot more to write about educator and Twitter, but for today let’s focus on the current state of debate on the state of education and maybe how we can free educators up to express their really important opinions.

Response to George Couros: 4 Ways To Not Let Others Dim Your Light

One of the great things about walking all day is that you have lots of time to think. This latest post has been on my mind and I think after walking such a great distance, it is a good idea to put this out there.

Again, George Couros is an inspiration, but this is something that was on my mind throughout our West Highland Way trek. I would encourage you to read his entire post. He makes a great deal of sense and I just wish more people in senior administration would do more than just retweet his work and ponder what he is saying.

I hope that what George writes and what I am writing here will help people who are going through similar experiences. If this is you, read carefully what George writes and don’t let anyone ever dim your light!

The reality of our world is that people get threatened when other people shine their light on the world.  This bothers me even more so when it is educators doing it to educators, as our jobs are to empower those we serve, not try to bring them down.  If you are doing this to a colleague or peer, would you do it to a student? Would you do it to my daughter if she was in your classroom?  In education, this is unacceptable.

Here is my response to the post.

Thanks George, a very good post and excellent advice. There does come a time however when you need to consider leaving the system when those in positions of higher authority have made the decision to block you any way they can. I guess this come under #3 ‘move on and ignore’.

You are right to point out that it is strange that educators can treat other educators poorly, but my experience tells me that with a few notable exceptions, educators forget who they are (or were) the higher up the corporate eduladder they climb.

They can be very cruel and unforgiving to the point where on my case, they suspended me for three weeks without cause. While I was later vindicated and invited back into the professional fold, they never apologized which to me is inexcusable.

A year after my suspension, I retired from my board and I am much more at peace. I still have a great community of positive fellow educators that I work and correspond with, but I no longer have to suffer the negative soul destroying authoritarians who made my life so difficult.

Coming on to two years now after the suspension, it still rankles and this is something that could still be solved with a simple ‘sorry’.

How can we expect to make real progress in our education systems when the people at the top expect blind compliance. To forge a different path means that you could be punished with impunity.

That was the end of my comment today.

I don’t expect ever to hear from my former employers. It would be good if they took responsibility for their actions. It was shameful, but I have certainly moved on.

I have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, I have had the privilege of assisting my partner through major surgery and I have trekked more than 100 km through the Western Highlands with my daughter.

I have left the past behind and I love the exciting challenges that the future presents.

Thanks George and the West Highland Way for getting this post written – finally! Now on to more great positive adventures in the future.

Fostering a ‘why not’ Mindset: Dr. Jacqueline Landrum Sanderlin

Dr. Jacqueline Landrum Sanderlin
WE Day Conference speaker, New York Wednesday, September 20

You often speak about adopting a “why not” mindset. Can you explain what that means?

The “why not” mindset is a mindset of possibilities for almost anything, for community partnerships, for the ability to do more than what we are expected to do. As a principal, I was tired of just getting things that we needed. I wanted to have things that our scholars – I refer to our students as scholars – wanted, and also that they deserved. In other words, why should not we deserve the best? That type of thinking changed our attitude of what we deserved. My perspective is for us not to just think big, but to think even bigger.

My partner Heather read this quote to me yesterday and it has stuck. I am always trying to figure out what really good leadership is all about and why it is such a rare commodity. Rare at least in my definition.

I think it has something to do with courageously adopting a ‘why not’ mindset. I have seen these type of leaders in the past, people like Carol Hunter a now-retired principal in the Ottawa Public Board and Lorne Howcroft, my first principal in the Dufferin-Peel Board. Both of these individuals were striking in the sense that they had a real vision of what was possible and neither felt confined by the narrow strictures of the district bureaucracy.

This type of leader is an inspiration. They have real courage and do not define themselves by the current mandarin mantra.

The important line in the quote is ‘why should not we deserve the best’. Getting the best for your students will mean working outside the confines that your school board wants to put around you. How many leaders are comfortable with doing that?

Most school leaders believe in alignment – the idea that the main ideas that govern the school are seamless with what the school board and by extension what the ministry believes in.

No really strong leader was ever praised for doing alignment really well. To do the best for your staff and students, especially in hard to serve areas you need to be an unconventional thinker and look outside your district for partners that share your vision. School board administrators want you to support their vision – I don’t think you can do both. To really serve your community you have to find a new way.

Most school leaders will not accept these ideas and I have had discussions with administrators who certainly not hold these views and who actually judge my thinking on non-alignment to be disloyal.

My question is, who are we supposed to be loyal to? Why were we hired to lead if not to think on our own and advocate always for our students? If we have the courage to do this we must accept the enmity of those who believe our actions must always align with those of our district.

The school leaders I have the most respect for all had difficult relationships with their district supervisors. To me, that is a sign they were on the right path. I am sure it has been the same for Dr  Sanderlin.

We don’t need to be proponents for the district mantra. We need to say ‘why not’ and act for our communities. If we don’t, who will?

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