Response to: Five Ways to Damage a Good School

There are just some posts you have to read. Last week, I came upon this post by Greg Ashman, Five ways to damage a good school. As a former school principal, I am a sucker for lines like that.

His ‘five things’ were really interesting, and if I can, I will try to comment on some of these factors because, from my experience, he makes lots of good sense.

The first one is not something that you would think would make a top five list, but it is interesting.

Focus on the furniture

I admit that this is a bit of a pet peeve, but I think Greg is on to something here.

The most efficient physical arrangement is to have individual classrooms with tables that are laid out, or at least can be laid out, in rows, yet you will struggle to find a consultant or architect who will recommend this.

It might even be politically incorrect to agree with this point, but as a principal, I got so tired of ‘experts’ telling me how terrible it was that some teachers still had their students in rows. How terrible, how lacking in creativity how 1920’s!
To me, it was important to remember that this supposed expert had not taught in a regular classroom for at least a decade.

Another consultant whose feet were a bit more firmly planted in the classroom noted that rows were important for kids. Sometimes a student needed to know that they had their own safe space in the classroom, something they would be able to count on. This makes lots of sense and as a principal, I never told any teacher how to arrange their classroom and never made any judgement on the quality of instruction based on the design of the room.

Educational orthodoxy these days seems to be firmly planted in the ‘flexible seating’ mode. Take this article in Edutopia – Flexible Seating and Student-Centered Classroom Redesign by Kayla Delzer:

Our classroom environments should be conducive to open collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. This simply cannot be done when kids are sitting in rows of desks all day.

When I returned to the classroom a few years ago, I had rows. I was able to create this flexible seating arrangement simply by asking the kids to move their desks – they were quite capable of doing this, allowing for some increase in physical activity, another benefit of going to flexible seating.

Here’s the thing. Too often, educators get caught up in the latest fad – flexible seating and the expense that comes with this is one of the newest things. In schools with limited resources (I would say most schools in Canada), the purchase of new furniture means that something else will not be bought.

I one school that I had worked in, the new administration decided to purchase flexible seating rather than provide computers for kids. How can that be seen as a good thing? In many schools, the arrival of a new principal means that new office furniture is in order – how can we justify these expenses when we still rarely see 1:1 schools in Canada? Where are our priorities?

Thank-you Greg Ashman for making such an interesting observation. Let’s try to keep our focus on empowering our students, not the latest edufad.

 

New School Year? Why Not Start a School Blog?

I always loved the excitement that comes with this time of year. Getting ready for a new school year always presented new possibilities and projects. In the past few years, I really enjoyed setting up a new year of blogs – one for staff and one for the school community.

What I have found over the past few years is that as a school leader, one must do a very good job at telling the school’s story using every form of social media that works.

In my last school, I found that blogging weekly to the school community worked very well. I started using a school blog when I started at St. Anthony School. Communication here was a big challenge, especially in a community where English was not the first language at home for many families.

I chose to blog because it was the only format that could be translated into different languages using the handy translation tool. I also felt that the days of the paper newsletter were over and that the community had to move to a more flexible form of communication.

I love to blog and I had used a staff blog as a way of communicating with staff members for several years. The school blog was an attempt to introduce the great communication tool to parents and the wider community.

One of the wonderful surprises that occurred with the new school blog was the amazing staff participation in the creation of the weekly blog.

an excerpt from the kindergarten entry from one of our school blogs

Generally, almost all teachers contributed something for the upcoming school blog post. As time went on, many added photos from activities that had taken place during the week before.

This was terrific for the parents and I think really encouraged wide readership of the school blog. From a principal’s perspective, this was wonderful as I received a weekly rundown of what each teacher was planning for their students.

The blog was certainly an act of love, and it did take most of my Sunday to put it together. I really believe that it was well worth the time, especially when students asked me to make sure that photos from their class be included in the blog!

I used Edublogs both for the school and staff blogs. For around $8.00 a month, I subscribed to their ‘pro’ service which allowed me to access their excellent help desk. This was money really well spent as my questions on some of the technical fine points of blogging were always answered within hours of my initial query.

So, if you are looking for a good project for the upcoming school year, why not take up blogging for your school or for your classroom. The work you put into it is really worth the effort. You will be opening up your world to the parents you serve.

Good luck, any questions? Please let me know, very happy to help!

Next post – how to put together a staff blog.

Stifling Dissent Through Blocking?

Should politicians block citizens they don’t happen to agree with, or who are clearly partisan, from following them on social media such as Twitter and Facebook?

That’s a question being asked in Canada and the United States. The answer is simple: No.

Globe and MailPoliticians are wrong to block people on social media

Today the Globe and Mail came out with a great editorial on the ethics of blocking. This has become an issue of some concern as legitimate dissent has been stifled on politician’s social media feeds when people have been blocked on Twitter or Facebook.

The comments were really interesting too. One reader commented that they had actually been blocked by Elizabeth May when they were a Green Party supporter. The reader subsequently left the party and never voted for May again.

I was blocked by Elizabeth May some years ago when I actually held a Green Party membership.

I did not renew and did not vote for the Green party in the subsequent election.

Globe and Mail, August 7, 2017 Comment

Good for that reader -there are consequences for stifling dissent.

As a principal of a Catholic School in Ottawa, I did block people on Twitter – it was the wrong decision.

I blocked someone on the Catholic Right who was very critical of the Catholic School System. I had had enough of right-wing commentators so I blocked them from my Twitter account. I did this out of frustration and anger and while they were effectively silenced from my feed, my action showed my lack of tolerance for an opinion that was different from my own. It was certainly a weak decision.

Once I retired, I began to write a series of articles that were critical of my former employers. The Catholic Board in Ottawa is a public entity, supported entirely by the tax payers of Ontario. I have come to believe that we no longer need separate schools in our province and that we could do a better job for students if we had a single, strong system that caters to all students in the province.

This opinion was not popular with many of my former colleagues, and to their credit, many voiced their opinion on Facebook. I did not block them – they have the right to express their dissent.

To my surprise, a senior member of the school board blocked me on Twitter. This action was no doubt due to the series of articles that I had written.

How is this right? A superintendent is a public official, their salaries are paid out of the public purse. As public officials do they have the right to stifle legitimate dissent by blocking people on social media?

I would extend what the Globe has written to all public officials,

No MP, or even a cabinet minister, will be criticized for blocking anyone who posts hateful messages or engages in harassment.

But barring that, it’s wrong for elected officials to choose which Canadians can see what they think, and which ones can’t.

In an age where public comment is seen by the highest authorities as ‘fake news’, we need to have even greater respect for public opinion, not just those who happen to agree with a particular mindset.

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?

Linking Adventure to Support for Kids

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Coding Robot in Every School

Students should have access to free education

Coding and Robotics is a necessary 21st-century skill

If everyone does a little together we can have robots in every school

from CodeMyRobot.ca

 

Here is a really interesting initiative you certainly want to consider if you are interested in bringing coding to your school. A group of educators in the Ottawa area have come up with the idea of supplying every school in Canada with a robotics kit for students and teachers. There is no cost for the kit which is incredible when you consider how much it can cost to bring coding technology into your school.

To receive your kit, all you need to do is register on the website.

This project has the potential of opening up coding and robotics to students and communities throughout the country. Coding certainly qualifies as a true 21st-Century skill and all students can benefit from learning about and creating their own programmable robot.

The next big step in this project is getting the word out. If you are interested in getting kits for your schools, simply complete the registration form and your students can begin to learn about coding and robotics. After this, the sky is the limit!

http://codemyrobot.ca/

 

 

Customer Service Matters – Even in Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, dealerships 2, family 0.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does an Innovating Leader Look Like?

I was really curious to read Paul McGuire’s thoughts on this.  In his retirement, he’s known for making some brutally frank observations via his blog.

I would suspect that, if you ask any leader in education, that they would self-identify themselves as innovative.

It’s got to be a challenge; all of the administrative details could conceivably keep you nailed to a desk doing paperwork all day long.

Doug Peterson – This Week in Ontario Edublogs

It is always great to get writing prompts and Doug Peterson has just provided this one for me.

This is a good question – last week I wrote a post in response to  George Couros – Is Leadership an Innovative Endeavor?  In the post, I wrote the following:

My concern is that the urge to innovate seems to dissipate the higher people reach up the leadership ladder. There is certainly more pressure to follow the company line and as this pressure increases, the ability to innovate declines.

Yes, I agree with Doug, brutally frank. However, this is not good enough. I am trying to define what innovation in leadership is by writing about what is missing in contemporary education leadership. It is easier to write about what is lacking rather than taking on the challenge to define what innovation in leadership really is.

So, what does innovative leadership look like? First, I think innovative leaders need to be willing to rewrite the book on how to manage groups of people. They need to look at every situation and reflect on how could things be done differently and hopefully, more effectively.

This means a bunch of things. It means that education leaders need to hand power back to the teachers they work with. Allow staff members to set the agenda when it comes to professional development, meetings, scheduling and in general, the running of the school. The idea behind this is that principals need to empower their staff members. These are exceptionally creative people and they need to know that they have control over areas that have an impact on the daily running of the school.

Teachers should be in control of their own learning, just as students need to be in control. Educators need to know that their voice matters and that the running of the school is a collective endeavour.

That is only one element of what I think it means to be an innovative leader. Being innovative means being open to new opportunities. One very innovative leader, Derek Rhodenizer took the opportunity to be innovative last week – for his last staff meeting of the year, he took his teachers fishing! He related later that this was a great way to encourage creative conversations amongst staff members.

To be really innovative, you have to take risks. When you think out of the box, you are trying to do things in a way that has not been tried before. What you try will not necessarily be popular with your supervisors, but you have to be willing to take this risk. This will come with a personal cost – you have to be ready to accept this.

Being an innovative leader has to become the way you think about everything you do. George Couros writes about this really well in the Innovator’s Mindset.

You can’t be stuck in the way things have been done, you, as a leader, are called upon to do better than they way things have been done.

There is one important caveat to all of this. As education leaders, we are part of a bigger system. In Ontario, we are responsible for fulfilling the curriculum as outlined by the province. Being innovative means looking for opportunities for change without calling into question the curriculum we were hired to implement.

Donna Miller Fry, someone I consider a real innovative leader in Ontario and now Newfoundland makes this point very clearly.

If there has been no learning, there has been no teaching.

As educators, we work in service of student learning.

We ask where a learner is now (assessment), where a learner is going (curriculum learning expectations), how a learner will get there (strategies to ensure students construct that learning) and how we will know (monitoring through assessment).

Donna Miller Fry – If There Has Been No Learning

This is an important cautionary note – yes, we need to be innovative, but we also must respect the fact that we are responsible for the learning that goes on in our building. Our innovative practices cannot be mindless. We need to keep aware that we have a great responsibility to the learners in our school. George Couros makes this point in the Innovator’s Mindset – we need to be able to innovate within the system we are a part of.

Innovative leadership has to be a fine balance. It has a great deal to do with the vision we have as leaders in our schools and it has to support the learning that goes on in your building every day. In my opinion, we can’t do a good job at leadership unless we challenge ourselves to question our practices every day that we are on the job. As George Couros writes,

But when you see the challenges that are facing schools and organizations, if “leaders” are not also “innovators”, there is a danger of irrelevance.  As budgets are cut in many places, how leaders rethink how they spend money, rethink timetables and learning spaces, allocate resources, is part of the  “new and better” thinking that is needed.

George Couros – Is Leadership an Innovative Endeavour?

Have I defined what innovative leadership needs to be? I doubt it, but maybe this is at least a first attempt. Thanks Doug for the prompt. I hope this generates further discussion.

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Response to George Couros – Empowering or Stifling Voice?

As a blogger who tries to find something to post every week, I find lots of inspiration from the people I follow and read every day. I try to read something and comment when I can. George Couros is one of the best and I find I get lots of inspiration from his writing. Today’s post by George, Empowering or Stifling Voice? inspired me to make the comment below. If you read this post, please consider reading and commenting on what he has written – I think he really gets to the heart of the risks bloggers take when they go public with their ideas.

Thanks for this post George. I am sure I am one of those bloggers who makes errors each time I write. I find it a bit weird that people would make comments on a post that pick up on small errors – what is the point? Why try to bring someone down?
I remember meeting you at one of the BIT conferences in Niagara Falls. The encounter was so positive and friendly, you encouraged me as an educator and as a blogger. I really appreciated the positive nature of that encounter.
I think we always learn more from the positive encounters. The negative ones can be instructive, but criticism needs to be delivered with kindness for it to be effective.
I am now a retired educator which has allowed me to be more critical of established educational institutions than I could have been as a principal. I have received great support from people like Doug Peterson and Stephen Hurley, and this encouragement has propelled me to write more. I sometimes feel like I am writing for an audience of two or three, but at least there is some audience out there that reads and comments on my posts.
What I do find bizarre and rather hurtful are the people who disagree with what I write but who respond by actually blocking me on Twitter.
To my knowledge, this has only happened once, but I truly don’t understand this behaviour.
If something you read upsets you, how does it help to block out that voice? How can you continue a conversation when you turn off the speaker?
Blogging is a risk. Everytime you hit the publish button you really don’t know what will happen next. People may like your writing, some will ‘unfollow’ you and I guess in rare cases you might be blocked.
As a blogger, what I would rather see would be a response. If you disagree with what is written, write back. It may take more time, but it shows more respect for the writer.
All that being said, positive comments are appreciated too!
Thank-you for being the inspiration for this piece of writing!
I hope your day goes better.