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.

Response to George Couros – 3 Ideas For When You Outgrow Leadership

So what do you do if you feel you have outgrown your leadership to ensure that your own growth doesn’t stagnate?

George Couros – 3 Ideas For When You Outgrow Leadership

A terrific question and not an easy one to answer.

I find I get my best prompts from George Couros’ posts and this is a really good one. One pause first- it is really important when considering an answer to this question not to think that you are better than the leadership you need to get away from. I believe you have to do all three things that are mentioned in George’s post –  find mentorship outside your organization. (online and offline), disrupt your routine, and certainly, leave. I have done all three and have been very critical of my former employers since I have left working for a school board. While they have reacted poorly to my posts, I think it is important to understand their point of view.

It is extremely difficult, maybe impossible to be innovative when you represent a large district. Their role is to preserve and to protect – how can you be expected to be innovative and creative at the same time? Is this even possible? Maybe it isn’t and my criticism, therefore, has not been completely fair. So, maybe the best response is as George writes in this post – look elsewhere for your inspiration, disrupt the routine that is holding you down and most certainly leave and start over.

This can allow for an outpouring of creativity and I have found this to be the case. I believe I have continued to grow as an educator and especially as a blogger since I have left my district. I am no longer held down by institutional leadership and this has freed me up to question some of the practices we take for granted.

To allow yourself to become overly frustrated by a leadership structure that is no longer growing is not useful for anyone. The beauty of developing your own personal learning network is that you can free yourself up from institutional thinking and find inspiration from leaders and writers who are moving in a new direction.

Eventually, this may not be enough and you may leave a structure that is holding you down. This is not easy for educators to do, but it is important to consider if you are being stifled by leadership that is no longer growing.

You may also need to ask yourself – what will be the consequence for staying put?

 

 

A School Essential for the New Year? Create a Vision

On Satchat this past Saturday, the first question for us was ‘What is a CLASSROOM essential you must have to start school year?’ The question was the first of three focusing on education essentials for the upcoming school year. It was a great conversation, it always is, and it got me thinking, is there something that is a classroom or in the case of the administrator, a school essential for the beginning of the new year?

For me, there is one essential that you need to start with – what is your vision for your school for the year ahead?

Vision gets overlooked in the rush to get the school year going. Vision, however, is essential and when it is lacking it can colour the entire school year. If the vision for the upcoming year is something that all staff members can agree with, a well-articulated vision can be the start of a wonderful school year.

So, what goes into creating this vision? First, comes a conversation with staff – what is it that we need to achieve this year? What do our students, our parents and the wider community need from our school over the next ten months?

I really think vision should not be as pedestrian as increasing math scores or some other mundane goal. We are all in the business of teaching a set curriculum to our students. It’s what we are paid for. Of course, we want higher scores, a culture of high expectations leads to better student performance. That’s not vision, it’s common sense.

Vision should be something beyond what we are expected to do by our district or school board. Vision should bring everyone together and it should be clearly understood and articulated by everyone in the school community.

What could that vision be? It may involve developing a stronger presence in the community. It could be developing a strong environmental awareness amongst the school community. Maybe it is the collective decision to advance the digital literacy of staff, students and parents.

Whatever it is, make it big. Make it something that staff members can get behind. Make it something everyone can be proud of. Make it something that looks to the bigger picture and does not get caught up in the minutiae of the education machine.

So, there is still time, what vision would you like to introduce to your school community as the next year starts up?

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.

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.

 

Obstacles to Innovation in Education – reflection on George Couros

 

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This morning I read a great post by George Couros: Flipping the Script; 3 Obstacles to Innovation Viewed Differently.

It ended with this statement:

If we start looking at the challenges as a great way to get people to think differently about the “why, what, and how” of education, we are in a good spot. If we ignore these statements and running away from the challenges, we are actively doing what we don’t want to happen in our schools.

We need to start looking at the challenges as opportunities to create something new and vital in education.

I have always heard the traditional reasons for not making radical change – ‘we don’t have the time, we don’t have the money, we are not sure this will work.’

George does a great job at debunking these obstacles.  I would add one other great obstacle that is really stifling innovation – the impact our practices will have on test scores.

We are really afraid of making radical change because of these obstacles and I think test scores create the greatest barrier to change.  It works a little like this – ‘If we just keep doing what we are doing but we tweak just a few things, we will finally get the results we have to get.’

One big question – even if we get these ‘results’ how do we really know that we are providing an education for our students that will help them to be the innovative and independent thinkers that our society really needs right now.  I can’t help but think that we are really missing the big picture here.

Why not risk?  Why not innovate?

For example, what if we tried some of these ideas?

  • allow schools to develop local partnerships to fund initiatives in their schools
  • put professional development in the hands of individual schools, principals and teachers
  • do away with any meeting that does not allow for active participation and learning for those involved
  • invite the community into our schools and allow them to offer their expertise to our staff and students
  • finally get over the textbook and the ‘5 computers per class’ model.  Provide every student with a good computer and make sure it goes home every night.
  • ask people what they think and what they want – students, teachers, parents, school administrators – stop telling everyone what is ‘good’ for all of us

This is a provocative list and readers may immediately respond with the time, money, results, will it work paradigm.

We need the collective courage to start over and ask very challenging questions on what innovation should look like – the compliance model simply doesn’t work and begs to be thrown out.

Thanks to George Couros for asking these tough questions.

Compliance vs.Engagement – A response to George Couros: Creativity, Daydreaming, and Cat Videos

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The purpose of this post is to just make people think about the changing expectations that we have for ourselves in our changing world, and the often stagnant expectations that we have for our students.  If our focus is truly on quality learning, creativity, innovation, we have to understand that a culture of compliance does not foster this for adults, nor our students.

Creativity, Daydreaming, and Cat Videos – George Couros

So much is at stake these days in education.  We want to develop innovative thinkers and to do this we need to open our eyes and learn to innovate on a system-wide basis.  In my experience, this is very hard to achieve.

As an administrator, I found that many colleagues would be on their e-mail or social media while at meetings at the district office.

The reason for this was pretty simple. These meetings were all about compliance and rarely about engagement or empowerment.  There was little interest in engaging us as learners or even asking what we thought about the policies and practices we were being presented with.

The overall mood at these meetings was that compliance is king and we will innovate for you.  As a result, many educators turned off and buried themselves in their computers.

Many of these administrators then returned to their schools and did the same thing to their staffs.

This is the plan and we all have to follow the plan.

How can we expect our teachers or students to engage when the model we experience as administrators is one based on blind compliance? How do we learn to innovate when we are not encouraged to become engaged in true decision-making about how to become innovative as a district?

When your opinion is not valued and when you are expected to comply with someone else’s ideas there is a serious disconnect.

It is possible to innovate as a system and George Couros argues that this is essential for systems to succeed.  While I always see ‘islands of innovation’, I do not see districts adopting innovation as the standard and the challenge.

Can this change?  Of course it can, once we engage educators in the discussion.

Response to The Fear of Sharing

I just finished reading George Couros’ post The Fear of Sharing.  It is a great article.  I really wish I had a chance to work with George before I decided to leave the profession.  He is a real leader in education and is always empowering and positive – that is where the real growth and learning takes place.

I am borrowing a visual from another positive educator Amber Teamann.

the-fear-of-sharing-immooc-the-principal-of-change-clipular

What would it be like to work with positive educators like this?  I can only imagine.

Sharing makes us all better. Really liked Amber’s line: “If someone feels uncomfortable because you are doing good work, you are not the problem.”

I agree, but I can also remember being reprimanded for ‘sharing’ too much on my blog. Fortunately, this did not hold me back but pushed me to create more and be more critical of the people I worked for.

There is a certain amount of courage that comes with sharing – it is easy to be snubbed withing the small professional community you work in for really trying to connect with other educators. This does not bother me at all – I get so much more positive feedback from my PLN and the professional groups I work with outside the narrow group that used to employ me.

It is important to remember that sharing and creating and sometimes criticizing is what we should be doing.  You will rarely be rewarded or recognized by your own district – to criticize is often seen as being negative, not being a member of the ‘team’.  This doesn’t matter, if we are motivated by receiving the praise of others we will never get anything done.