Who Leads in our Schools?

I saw this quote this morning. It is not a new idea, but it is certainly worth a discussion. As I continue to look for topics to write about, I continue to come back to leadership issues.

There are lots of people writing about leadership – there always has been. Sometimes I wonder how much experience these writers actually have working in a school dealing with the day to day difficulties that come with running an education institution. These days to get good ideas I usually go to my PLN on Twitter. There is a great deal of collective wisdom out there.

I put out this prompt to my PLN this morning.

I would like this to become another rolling blog, written by the members of my PLN. It worked once, and I hope there is some interest in discussing leadership as it happens in our schools. Is it simply the ‘frightening conclusion’ reached above by Jennifer Gonzalez?

I hope not. For me the best leaders are those who are almost invisible, silently encouraging others to have a voice.

Is this a difficult topic to talk about? I don’t know that many active administrators on Twitter, so it is hard to get their perspective. One very active member of my PLN  writes:

The collective whole sets the mood, culture and tone of a school. There are many leaders within any school. When teachers start seeing themselves as leaders in education and admin empowers such leadership that’s when education will change

Great to see this contribution, it makes me feel more positive about things. I truly worry when I hear that a school is defined by its traditional leader. I could write more about this, but I would love to see if others will add to this comment.

The contribution above also speaks to the need for change. Maybe if we can move away from the top down system we have now we can see the sparks of innovation really begin to light a flame.

Later in the day, Derek Rhodenizer sent me a note about a podcast conversation he had with Debbie Donsky on education leadership. This is one of the great things about developing a PLN on Twitter. You ask questions and great people get back to you with interesting content.

This is a really interesting conversation and worth listening to. Debbie Donsky makes some good points about taking a more collaborative approach as a leader in the school. Change should be able to take place in a school as a collective experience that reflects the needs of a wider community. This is harder to do, but this is an important element of effective leadership.

This is one of the great things about podcasts. In 40 minutes Debbie and Derek covered so much about how to be a different leader, one who is not the leader on the hill. Their podcast would be great for teachers interested in becoming an administrator. I can think of many administrators who would also benefit from this conversation. There is no way I can do justification to it here, but it is a rich conversation and really worth listening to.

It is great to hear from my PLN as I work through some of these questions on leadership. I hope for more to come!

 

What Do We Really Value in Education?

Sometimes the hardest questions in education get danced around and never answered.

Like all institutions, the education system is imperfect and the biggest problems never really get looked at. Right now in Ontario, there is a very worthwhile consultation taking place on assessment. Voiced Radio and other commentators are doing an excellent job at promoting and participating in this on-going discussion. This is really good news.

We look at portions of the system because we can’t look at the whole thing.

Recently I have listened to former colleagues talk about the situations in their schools. These conversations are not uncommon and they make up the ‘war stories’ that all educators share.

While we despair when we hear about poor and sometimes unethical management in our schools, nothing is ever done about these situations. We never ask the question – what do we really value in education? If we really asked this uncomfortable question would we continue to protect adults who clearly have no idea how to manage schools and the people in them?

There are a whole set of rules, conventions and practices that exist to protect individuals, especially those in privileged positions of power in the education system. A huge amount of energy is put into sustaining these rules and conventions.

Not everyone deserves this type of misguided practice. When we protect these people, we certainly put students, staff and parents in the back seat.

Our lack of action displays a lack of concern for the people we are supposed to serve. Maybe we think incompetence is OK, or maybe it is just too hard to swim against the bureaucratic tide that protects those who are simply not up to the job.

The best we can say is ‘wait them out’. But what does this do to the mental strain staff members have to put up with every day? If we really want to take mental health seriously in our schools we really need to get our own house in order and call to task those individuals who are really not up to the responsibility of properly managing a school.

I write out of anger and frustration about what I hear. It is very frustrating that some school administrators are allowed to act with impunity, secure in the knowledge that their authority will not be questioned and that they will always be supported by school board staff who really do not want to rock the boat.

Our students, staff and parents deserve better. We will never have an excellent system while we continue to look the other way and support poor governance of some of our schools.

Good for Ontario to take on the EQAO while elephant, but let’s broaden our scope and take a really serious look at how our schools are managed.

How do We Respond to Violence in our Schools?

This morning I listened to a very disturbing interview on CBC Ottawa. A local Ottawa teacher was being interviewed about a violent incident that ended his teaching career. You can read an article about the incident here.

This is a very brave teacher. He is speaking out about violence in schools, a topic that does not get enough public discussion.

It is hard to read this article. In cases like this, the rights of staff to remain safe in their workplace are not being considered. When a student is suspended, their right to privacy trump the rights of staff to work in a safe environment. Merely moving a violent student to another school does nothing to solve the problem, it simply moves it along to another school where teachers are equally in the dark about the presence of a violent offender in their midst.

The CBC asked teachers to speak out about violence in their school and I hope they respond. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) commissioned a study that reported 60 percent of teachers surveyed have personally experienced violence in the school.

I think the actual percentage is much higher than this. I have heard of incidents this year where students have actually tried to break into classes to get at students. Schools seem to be helpless when it comes to dealing with these incidents.

I remember being in a situation where we actually had to physically restrain a student who wanted to get at another pupil who was locked in my office for his own protection. As the incident played out, students in the school had to be rerouted to other parts of the school to keep them safe. While we were able to keep the violent student restrained, the incident was never debriefed and the only feedback we received from our school board was criticism on the methods we used to restrain the student.

These incidents happen every day in our schools. In many cases, educational assistants are the ones who are being injured. While some of these staff members have training working with violent students, teachers and administrators seldom receive this type of training.

The system is skewed in favor of the student and their need for privacy. When a student receives a suspension or some other consequence staff members are rarely informed. There is no procedure to keep staff members safe from a violent offender and their right to privacy comes before the right of school staff to remain safe.

I am not surprised to read that violence is increasing in the schools. Whatever is happening in society is reflected in the school. Andrew Campbell wrote an excellent article on the lack of mental health services in our schools – The Hypocrisy of Student Well-being. In his article Andrew points out that very little is currently being done to provide schools with the resources they need to deal with a growing mental health crisis in the schools.

So during a time of crisis, as students are suffering and educators are getting hurt, the ministry’s new well-being program is more focussed on funding active transportation and breakfast programs than providing front line support to children with mental health needs. In fact the major initiative to address student mental health is a provincial support team that doesn’t work directly with students. Unacceptable.

I hope that this excellent article will get more attention. It is hard to hear about a teacher suffering a career-ending injury and it is troubling to know that these incidents will continue to happen until we begin to take a serious look at the growing mental health crisis that is making our schools an increasingly hazardous place to work.

Move Like a Cat: Challenging the System Every Day.

from George Couros – Only Schools Can End Schools

There are some education writers who always catch my attention. They are provocative and they give me ideas on what I can write about.

Two of these educators are George Couros and Greg Ashman.

In a recent post, George Couros wrote about institutional change and the school. He featured a quote that mentioned businesses like Netflix, Uber, and Airbnb and how these innovators have challenged or replaced institutions that believed they were secure in supporting the status quo.

Greg Ashman seems to come up with something challenging almost daily. Recently he wrote a biting critique of the 6C fad, 21st-century skills and the current belief that teaching collaboration beats out traditional content. I love the title – Can we add ‘move like a cat’ to the list of 21st century skills?

There may not be too much in common in the two articles, but both challenge complacency and that is a really important service that all educators need. Greg Ashman’s article, in particular, would be a wonderful opener at a principal’s meeting at my former school board! Greg, I would have added this video.

Funny, but are there ever workshops at education conferences on reforming the system? Is this a topic that is just a little too uncomfortable?

While these ideas are important for our growth as a profession, George Couros makes the point that the people who really need to hear this message are not even listening.

They are not listening to Greg Ashman’s challenge of the sacred cow that is the 6C’s – maybe better called the silly C’s?

My point is that these and other writers need to hold a central place in our discussions on how the education system needs to evolve. There should be a place for these discussions at education conferences and we need to realize we can do better and we need to challenge more.

We do not have to be slaves to alignment. Maybe we need to move a little like a cat!

The education hierarchy may not be interested in such talk, but neither were the owners of Block Buster.

So, let’s move.

What can we change in education?

I am trying something new today. I have put out a prompt – you will see it below – and I am trying to write a post as the conversation evolves. I love blogs because it can be updated as new ideas come out.

Let’s see what happens.

To me, the big questions are the interesting ones, but I wonder how often these get asked. I put this question out today on Twitter:

What needs to change in how education is organized? Roles of admin? Trustees? Community? #educationforward #educationreform

I put this out on Sunday morning and tagged a number of educators to the question. Twitter is really good at provoking discussion. Will this question get responses? We will see.

The conversation started with a reference by Chris Cluff to an article, ‘10 Disruptions That Will Revolutionize Education’

Much of schooling is constructed around conformity and standardization, but digital natives will force educators to break out of that box.

This is very heartening, one of the big problems right now in education is the need for alignment – conformity is king! This really stifles creativity and innovation in education.

This is another key idea in the article that Chris Cluff and Roland Chidiac discuss in this great Youtube broadcast

7. School leaders will give up their desks.

The next generation of school leaders will be less wedded to traditional practices. Students will need autonomy and freedom to customize their own education, so top-down leadership will be replaced by student agency in a culture of mutual respect.

I am still listening to Chris and Roland as they dissect this really interesting article – much more to the discussion!

Update – as the conversation continues, Roland and Chris discuss the idea of administrators get away from their desks. The mention Derek Rhodenizer and challenge him to get away from his desk. I don’t think that is a big deal for Derek, I am sure he does that anyhow. Let’s go further – why not challenge a superintendent to get away from their desk for a week – what would that be like?

So, I put out this additional prompt

This is an interesting turn, we talked about this yesterday in a conversation while we hiked – how would education be transformed if senior administrators were cut off from the board office?

The conversation continues. Derek does weigh in through a series of tweets. No surprise, he is all over the idea of a mobile administrator. Interestingly, today it seems difficult to get others to weigh in on this topic. Too general? Too big, or as we observed a few weeks ago, it is difficult and dangerous to tackle topics like this in the world of education.

screenshotAtUploadCC_1509298463794

Or, maybe the conversation needs to move on. Peter Cameron added this comment which really gets to the heart of the issue of admin in the classroom.

peter

This prompt was added by Derek Rhodenizer. It will be interesting to see if any administrators offer comments.

derek

More people have joined the conversation – Julie Bolton and Matthew Oldridge.

Important ideas added here. The need to focus on relationships and keeping them positive. The struggle to remain relevant when you are no longer in the classroom. Also, by Peter Cameron, the challenge of making sure that teachers make sure administrators are welcome in the classroom. Good point here – respect must always be a two-way street.

These are really important ideas and they are not necessarily taught as part of the Principal Qualification Program. I have talked to many educators who struggle in their schools just because they have an administrator who doesn’t seem to get these simple lessons. What can we do when a situation like this arises? Generally nothing – teachers usually leave or wait out the administrator.

This might be at the heart of this conversation. We work in a system that is so dependant on leadership from the top – is this a good thing? What do we do when leadership breaks down? Is this an essential problem in our current system?

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.

 

4 Questions for Administrators to Promote a Culture of Innovation: A Response to George Couros

1. Are your professional learning opportunities mirroring what you want to see in the classroom?

2. Are your policies and procedures inhibiting innovative practices?

3. Is there transparency in your practice and learning? 

4. Is collaboration an ongoing norm or do individuals and teams work in silos?

George Couros 4 Questions for Administrators to Promote a Culture of Innovation

Wouldn’t it be great to be in a principal’s meeting where everyone, including the superintendents, were asked these four questions? What a rich conversation this would be!

School Boards love to be seen as being innovative. Mostly this is because while they truly value innovation, it is almost impossible to achieve.

In my last school board, we all had to have a school innovation plan. It used to be a school improvement plan, but innovation sounded so much better. Basically, we were all going to be innovative and we were going to make sure we were being innovative by June 1st at the latest.

It sounds silly and it certainly was. I think large organizations really value compliance over innovation any day because innovation is messy and is hard to regulate. Large school boards are not good at messy.

Compliance, however, means that there is alignment from the top to the bottom (school) of the organization. We are all moving in the same direction and that direction is very innovative.

George’s questions are great and we should be asking our school boards and school administrators these questions. They are really hard questions. Take the first one – does our professional development mirror what we want to see in the classroom? Maybe, but then principals would have to have autonomy over what professional learning is in the schools and that seldom happens. More often, the professional development plan is directed by the school board and the plan has to align with the greater goals of that board. Not a recipe for innovative practice.

One more question – are your policies and procedures inhibiting innovative practice? To examine this, we would need to look at a school board’s policies and procedures and see who they actually serve. Do they work to develop a more compliant culture or do they truly allow educators to innovate and take chances – another tough question.

I responded briefly to George’s post below. If you are an administrator, how would you do with these questions?

My response:

Really thoughtful post thanks for this. School boards love the idea of innovation, but it is really hard for them to practice this. By their very nature, they attempt to preserve what they have. This does not lead to innovative practices, but no school board will ever say they are not innovative. They may have ‘school innovation plans’ but they are hard-pressed to actually do very much that is innovative. I don’t think this is really the fault of the school board – how can a large organization or corporation really be innovative? This is a really big challenge

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.