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.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What Should Professional Learning for Educators Look Like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching as Resisting

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

Pure and Easy, The Who

What’s wrong with this picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Innovation – the New Overused Word in Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School Boards in Ontario – Rethinking Governance in Education

Egerton Ryerson, education reformer from Ontario’s past

I think there is lots to write about on the topic of governance in education in Ontario. Recently, the Globe and Mail has tackled this topic, questioning the need for elected boards. It is a really good read and asks important questions on how we organize education in Canada.

The topic has been covered several times by Sheila Stewart in her blog. Her posts are very thought provoking and are important to read if we are interested in this topic. She rightly notes that this is a complex issue with no easy solutions:

There has been a fair bit of discussion about the role and relevancy of education trustees in Ontario lately.  There are many questions, if not confusion, about their role and purpose.  The topic can get quite complex and it is not an easy discussion.  I suspect there is something unique about the culture of every single board of trustees that is in place at each of Ontario’s 72 school boards.  I don’t know the answers regarding what they should be doing, or if they should exist or not.  How can an unbiased discussion about alternatives occur? How can the discussion be kept to be about the role, and not personalities and politics?

The trustee – parent connection in #onted

 

I think we all should be interested in how our education system is organized. We have a system that has been in place going back to the 19th century. Local control of education was established as far back as 1816. Much of our current governance structure hails from this time. The 1816 legislation was, at the time a boon to a growing community. It provided for local control and the appointment of trustees:

The law provided that the people of any village, town, or township might meet together and arrange to establish one or more schools, at each of which the attendance must be not less than twenty. Three suitable trustees were to be chosen to conduct the school, appoint teachers, and select textbooks from a list prescribed by a District Board of Education.

Egerton Ryerson and Education in Upper Canada, Putman, John Harold (1866-1940)

If you follow the story of education in Ontario the name Egerton Ryerson will come up. In 1846, he reorganized the system of education in Ontario, establishing District Superintendents, Normal Schools (later teacher colleges), property taxes for the support of schools, standards for texts and a whole host of regulations establishing a system of education in the new province.

The last review of education governance took place in 2009. It’s a little shocking when you look at the people who were responsible for this review. All were trustees, former school board directors or university professors. From what I can see, this was a group very interested in maintaining the status quo in Ontario. The recommendations from the review do not upset the apple cart, but strongly support the structure first envisioned back in 1846.

Calls for education reform in Ontario and other jurisdictions rarely call for an overall review of governance. Instead, we focus on adjusting teaching methods, exhorting educators to become more ‘connected’ or more innovative within the current box that exists and improving our EQAO scores.

It seems like the greatest call for education reform, especially in Ontario comes in the form of opposition to EQAO. Peter Cameron writes in his post Test Time…stress time?

Perhaps it’s not that teachers need to change; in fact I’d argue that we are always innovating and evolving for the good of our students. Perhaps it’s EQAO that needs to be innovative in how they assess our kids . WHAT IF students could submit ePortfolios, podcasts, videos and screencasts to demonstrate their learning? Better yet, WHAT IF EQAO could send PEOPLE to our schools, to spend time, sitting and listening to our students?

Writing like this is so important – we need educators to challenge a system that seems to have lost its ability to be self critical. I agree with Peter, what would happen, for example, if superintendents became primarily responsible for the success of a small collection of schools and their current ‘busy’ portfolios like ‘student success’ and ‘safe schools’ be turned over to education officials actually trained to deal with these portfolios?

We do not write about what trustees do in the current system apart from vague declarations that education must remain ‘in public hands’. What does that actually mean? Education is highly technical these days. It is unlikely that most trustees even understand what is going on in education. This means they are totally at the mercy of board officials – superintendents and directors that really are not accountable to anyone. These officials have the real power in the system, they can be very good and use their authority responsibly, but there are others who abuse this power and do little to improve the system for our students.

One observation – we have an excellent medical system here in Ontario and no equivalent of local elected boards. How does a system, rooted in reforms over 150 years old actually serve the children in our province? Governance is a topic long overdue for discussion in Ontario.

Should we still have School Boards? A Public Challenge

In today’s education system, in which budgets, curriculum and teaching credentials are handled at the provincial level, school boards are an an anachronism and have few substantive responsibilities. Most of what they do could be transferred to individual school principals, parents’ committees or the province.

Konrad Yakabuski, Globe and Mail, Monday, April 24. The Jig is up for Canada’s school boards

Truer words could not be spoken when it comes to the archaic governance system that controls education in Ontario and I would guess, the rest of the country.

I have worked in the Catholic School system in Ontario as a teacher and administrator for 31 years. I have learned a great deal over these years, but one thing I am now clear on is that we need to totally rework  the governance of schools in Ontario.

The system we have now have is governed by trustees who have little public accountability and in the Catholic system, church leaders who have absolutely no role to play in our children’s education.

Let me be very clear. I worked in this system for 31 years. I also worked at a management level at a Catholic development agency for 6 years. I understand what it is like to work inside Catholic institutions. I understand how they are not agents for innovation and change and should therefore  play no role in the education system.

Yakabuski does not address the urgent need to get rid of the  Catholic School Boards of Ontario. He rightfully goes further and calls for the abolishment of all boards. I believe that one of the greatest impediments to quality education in this province is the needless splitting up of resources between Catholic and Public Boards. This is certainly a taboo subject in Ontario, incredibly taboo, but it must be addressed in a very public forum.

We have schools in the Ottawa area that are at 30% capacity. The two lowest capacity schools are located within 2 kilometres from each other. How is this useful, how does this serve the public?

I have lots of friends in the Catholic system, it has been my home for 31 years. But if we believe in true excellence and the best for our children we really do have to sweep away some of the debilitating bureaucracy that gets in the way. There are other sacred cows that also must fall in Ontario, but better to go one at a time.

 

 

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.