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.

The End of my Kilimanjaro Journey

Last week, I finally reached the end of my 2016-2017 Mt. Kilimanjaro Journey. I had the chance (finally!) to go back to my former school – St. Anthony – to present on our great trip to Mount Kilimanjaro this past April.

I had the great honour to present to all the students from kindergarten to grade 6. Each presentation was different, aided by a Google Slides presentation and lots of equipment from the climb.

The kids asked great questions and we had a really great time talking about high altitude and how to walk on a mountain.

I had the chance to use the new Google Earth to show a 3-D model of the mountain which was a great teaching tool when overlaid with the track we followed up the mountain.

a 3-D display of our route up to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro using Google Earth and Inreach to track our group to the summit

Now I can finally say that my trip is over. The Kilimanjaro journey really started at St. Anthony when I decided to retire from the school so I could really train for the climb. We were able to raise almost $10,000 for Rec Link, a great organization that works with our families to provide recreation opportunities for our kids.

This was much more than a retirement adventure, it was a way to give back to these kids and this community.

Now that I have talked to the school community, I can move on to new challenges. Dream Mountains is getting ready for its next big venture – a trek to Mt. Everest Base Camp. I can’t sign up for this next climb until August, but I really hope I will be able to sign on. I love the idea of raising money for the community and I really want to challenge my body and mind again to take on a trek that is truly challenging.

Thanks to all the teachers and students of St. Anthony! Thanks to all those who supported me and helped raise an incredible amount of money for Rec Link and especially thanks to my family for being my great organizing committee.

We will soon see what comes up next.

Here’s hoping!!

Is leadership an innovative endeavour? – Response to George Couros

In January, George Couros asked this question and answered it with a definite “yes”.

I totally agree with his answer and his caveat that it should be an innovative endeavor.

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.

But when you see the challenges that are facing schools and organizations, if “leaders” are not also “innovators”, there is a danger of irrelevance.

George Couros

As George Couros writes, the inability to think outside the conventional ‘box’ can lead torganizations like school boards to become irrelevant.

Almost as a response to this challenge, Larry Ferlazzo has written a good series on leadership –  Response: Support Curriculum Innovations by ‘Failing Forward’

This three-part series offers a whole variety of ideas and suggestions from some of the top education leaders in the United Staes on how to support innovation in schools. One suggestion from Mark Estrada, principal of Lockhart Junior High School in Lockhart, Texas is very interesting.

School leaders and teachers must develop a growth mindset as Keith Heggart describes in a recent article.

  • Teachers and administrators must model a growth mindset

  • Create space and time for new idea development

  • Build time for self-reflection

  • Administrators must provide positive formative feedback

We are all familiar with the concept of ‘growth mindset’, and we want our students and teachers to embrace this idea. We don’t, however, insist that a growth mindset be adopted by school and district leadership. In my opinion, after working for years as an administrator in a large Ontario school board, a growth mindset amongst our leadership is sorely lacking.

I would argue that what we experience in many schools and certainly at the district level is a preservation mindset. Keep everything moving, nudge forward a little, pick up the newest fad in education, but basically keep things the way they are and celebrate compliance as the gold standard.

Those who do not accept this as the standard operating procedure are not welcome at the table.

So, while I applaud writers like George Couros, Larry Ferlazzo, and Mark Estrada who work hard to extend the reach of new ideas on leadership, I have to ask – who is reading these articles, and who is simply paying mouth service to ideas about innovation, change, and bold leadership?

If our education leaders are not overly concerned with real innovation, do they risk becoming irrelevant?

What you missed when you weren’t listening

One of the important attributes of a good leader is the ability to listen. I would add to that the ability to take constructive criticism without seeing this as an attack is equally important.

What I have found in my years as an educator, especially as an administrator has been the almost universal inability for senior school leaders to ask for, accept and work with constructive criticism. Generally, any sort of criticism is seen as an attack, and as a display of disloyalty.

There’s a problem with this. If you only listen to the voices who praise you and who tell you that you are on the right track, how do you expect to learn anything?

As a principal, I attended monthly meetings at our district office where we were talked to all day long. Administrators universally dreaded these meetings, but nothing ever changed because to criticize was seen as an act of disloyalty. To criticize meant that you were standing out just asking for trouble.

I have to ask, how is this a learning, growing system? If you only listen to those who agree with you, how do you expect to grow and change?

If children, teachers, parents, and schools are really important what happens to them when those at the top do not pay attention to their voices?

If you don’t grow you become irrelevant. Wouldn’t it just be easier to develop a bit of a thicker skin and begin to listen to those who might have something to say?

Just consider what could be learned?

 

From CBC’s The 180 – It’s Time to End Public Funding for Catholic Schools

This morning on CBC’s The 180, there was a great 7-minute feature on public funding of Catholic schools. You can listen to the piece here.

The piece is really interesting. Charles Pascal, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has been making the argument that Ontario should have one secular school system for some time.

The topic is re-emerging in Ontario since OPEN – One Public Education Now launched a court challenge stating that public funding of Catholic schools violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Two points struck me in this piece. First, politicians in Ontario are terribly risk-adverse and are not willing to challenge a political decision that was first taken back in the days of Egerton Ryerson to publicly fund Catholic schools. Pascal raises the question of why legislators are so afraid. Similar moves have been made in Newfoundland and Quebec in the past few years and the sky did not fall.

In Ontario, touching funding of Catholic schools is considered the ‘The Third Rail’ According to Wikipedia, the third rail of a nation’s politics is a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is “charged” and “untouchable” to the extent that any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically.

The second point that was very interesting had to do with public opinion about Catholic schools. According to Pascal, up to 70% of Ontario’s population is in favour of one public system, but the 30% in favour are powerful and as Pascal characterizes it ‘voracious’ in their support of the system.

I can understand this. Everytime I post on this topic, I get all sorts of negative comments and sometimes these attacks come from Catholic educators, some I worked with for years. I will get more negative comments after this post – mostly in the vein of not being ‘loyal’ or being naive about how the world works etc, etc. I will be unfollowed or blocked by more Catholic educators. So it goes.

To be clear, I worked in the Catholic system for 31 years the last six as a principal. Based on my experience, there is no logical reason for keeping this system in place. I was a committed Catholic educator for all these years, but to me fairness and equity are more important that propping up a system that is now an anachronism.

 

The Importance of Being Civil to Others Part II

Last week my post The Importance of Being Civil to Others was featured on Voice.ed Radio.  A great discussion and thanks to Doug Peterson and Steven Hurley for featuring this post. I think, and they agreed, the discussion needs to go further. In the original post, I mentioned specific situations where we are no longer as civil as we should be, especially in the field of education. I wasn’t writing as much about civility in general society where I agree with Steven, society in Canada is very civil and I appreciate my daily dealings with people.

People can be very civil when you do not upset the status quo when you do civility becomes strained.

I have to admit I like to push the envelope and write about controversial topics like Catholic Education in Ontario and the inability of school boards to bring about significant change. These are topics that need to be written about. At no time do I ever focus on individuals or write in any way that can be seen as disrespectful.

These are topics that seem to bring the knives out.

Several times, mainly on Facebook, I have been called naive and simplistic and people have expressed ‘surprise’ about my posts, especially regarding Catholic Education in Ontario. On Twitter, I have actually been blocked by a member of the senior administration from my former Catholic board.

The blocking might not mean that much, but to me, it is a sign of incivility. Usually, I block the Twitter accounts of trolls and those who do not follow the rules set out by Twitter for inappropriate content.

I never block people who I disagree with, I usually try to engage in positive conversation and if this is not possible, I simply unfollow them. Blocking someone you don’t agree with is cowardly behaviour and I would say lacks civility.

On Facebook, when the conversations threaten to get out of control I simply delete the entire conversation. Sadly, this seems to be the only way to stop people who quickly lose the ability to be polite on-line. The worst offenders tend to be Catholic educators, which I find troubling.

I hope this clarifies my position. Again, thank goodness for my very supportive on-line PLN – all are wonderful and always civil!

The Principal as Activist

A few days ago, I was part of a presentation in front of the Ottawa Community Housing Foundation. We were talking about the work that we had done to raise money for a community organization called Rec Link by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. We talked about the importance of developing community assets to assist schools in high poverty areas. Rec-LINK was one of these important community assets that continue to be a great help at my last school.

One board member asked if it was normal for principals to develop strong links with community agencies that make the lives of families in the community richer. I had to say that, no this is not common. I do know some great principals who have linked their school to community agencies, but unfortunately, in my opinion, this is rare.

We are not trained to develop our community assets and this made me reflect on why I had taken this approach at my last school.

I think a great deal has to do with what I have learned from a visionary principal, Nelson Rutilio Cartagena Orellana who administers an elementary school in San Jose las Flores in El Salvador.

Nelson has been principal and a prominent member of the community of San Jose las Flores for many years. Nelson is everywhere in the community. He sits on local and regional anti-mining committees, he is always looking for ways enrich his school community through the development of projects that include an extensive garden and livestock growing project, a breakfast program for all students and a new computer lab for the school. He does much of this through the partnerships he has encouraged with schools and communities in Canada, Spain and I am sure many other countries.

Nelson was actually voted principal by the teachers of his school – can you imagine if we did the same thing here?

Nelson grew up in and around San Jose las Flores and was a young victim of the Sumpul River Massacre.  His brother died trying to cross the river and Nelson still wonders what he would be like if he was alive today.

A depiction of the Sumpul River Massacre. It is estimated that over 600 people, mainly women, and children were killed trying to cross the river from El Salvador to Honduras.

Nelson’s commitment to his school and community is very special. He knows that the children at the school have the potential to prosper in the future – one no longer clouded by war and oppression.

To be an educator in San Jose las Flores means that you are committed to bringing about social change for the children of the community and that you must use every asset you can find to make sure they have a bright future.

Children getting a mid-morning meal at the school – this program is funded by one of the many school partners.

While our challenges in Canada are nothing like those in El Salvador, there is an important message to be learned here. It is simply not enough to administer your own school and shut the community out. The problems that exist in disadvantaged communities in Canadian cities are too great to be managed by the school alone. Schools must develop stronger ties to local community agencies like Rec-LINK in order to provide the well-rounded education our children need to prosper.

This may be done at some schools, but if it does it is because of one or two inspired leaders like Nelson – it certainly is not common. The need for better integration between school and community seems to be poorly understood here and this needs to change.

A principal needs to be an activist. If they are not comfortable with that role, probably best to move on to a less challenging school.

The elementary school in San Jose las Flores

 

The Importance of Being Civil to Others

I read a great post by Andrew Campbell this morning, Why Teaching Digital Citizenship Doesn’t Work.

He writes:

We need to stop teaching Digital Citizenship with long lists of rules and instead reinforce basic Citizenship. Provide students with a set of positively framed principles to apply to all situations, digital and analog. Students don’t need more rules; they just need to apply the ones they’ve already got. The same ones they learned in kindergarten.

While this post was written in 2013, it is just as relevant today. I would go even further, adults also need to learn to follow the rules of civility. Andrew reposted this blog as part of a larger conversation on civility and respect using digital media. Another participant,

Another participant, Rolland Chidiac made this important comment:

Rolland’s tweet makes a great point, but a sad one. People routinely treat people badly and feel that they can get away with it because they are distanced by the phone or digital media.

As educators, we should strive never to do this. We should be holding ourselves to a higher standard and we should be acting as an example to our students.

I am writing this to comment on a really good twitter discussion and because I witnessed an incredible lack of civility displayed by a fellow administrator today.

Following the rules of civility, I will not get into the details, apart from saying this administrator has done an excellent job at making sure I could not return to my former school to do a presentation on a fundraising climb I took part in to Mount Kilimanjaro earlier this year.

Some people just don’t understand what it means to be gracious and civil and I really believe people like this need reconsider why they are in education. In a world dominated by Donald Trump Tweets and bickering, we need to show more grace and compassion when we are dealing with others. Students, parents, and colleagues.

Following the guidelines set out in this morning’s tweets, I would be happy to confront this educator and explain this to them. Unfortunately, nothing would change and that is too bad.

In a world that is growing crueler and less civil, we really need to reflect on this. Our actions have consequences, our actions can really hurt other people – this is something we should never do.

Thanks to my wonderful twitter friends for a great discussion, very timely based on my experiences today.

 

Big News – Growing gap in fundraising between affluent and needy schools

download (1)

Today the Globe and Mail’s great education reporter Caroline Alphonso put out an important article about the dreadful disparity that continues to exist between Ontario’s rich and poor schools.

Schools in affluent neighbourhoods are fundraising almost $50 for every dollar raised by a needier school, new data show, raising concerns about a growing inequity in public education.

If you don’t know this already, you should. Growing up in Kanata or Manotick is not the same as going to school in Caldwell, Russel Heights or Dalhousie. When you administer a school in the richer parts of Ottawa, you have access to thousands of dollars that you can spend almost any way that you want. As the article states, provincial regulations disallow you from building a new school addition, but after that obvious limitation, the sky is the limit.

When I worked in Manotick, the school council briefly debated, then purchased a new school mascot – big enough for a good-sized grade six student to inhabit for school rallies and events. This cost thousands of dollars. At my last school, we had a slightly oversized teddy-bear as our mascot. The Manotick school had three – count them – three good sized play structures, the last one costing over $80,000.00

When the topic came up at school council that as Catholics, we should share some of our cash surplus with poorer schools, the motion was quickly defeated – this money was for our kids.

So why don’t we share our revenue? No idea –  you would think that in a Catholic Board this would at least be debated.

Next question – why don’t we help the poorer schools? Oh, we do! The poor schools in Ottawa usually get a one-time grant of around $3000.00 to make up the difference. These special grants are not enough, they usually go to pay for food and clothing for our kids. As Alphonso writes:

The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school district, provides special grants to schools in high-needs communities to help compensate for the fundraising differences. It can’t compete, though, with the hundreds of dollars raised by schools in the city’s richest neighbourhoods.

The disparity problem doesn’t seem to be understood by school officials. Years ago, we were told that a special emphasis on the poor was going to be the mandate of the newest director of our board.

I wonder how that was to be acted out? Was it a matter of highlighting how certain students had made it out of poverty because of an excellent education? Is that really enough?  Is that more than simple charity?

If we truly want to redistribute income throughout the schools in Ottawa there is so much that we could be doing. It is simply unfair that some schools have more of everything than others, especially in one of the richest cities in North America.

Don’t be shocked by headlines that write about the growing gap – don’t look to poor countries in the South – look to schools in your own city.

 

The Importance of the Community School

a mural painted at St. Anthony School to celebrate the Italian heritage that shaped the early history of the school

 

Community schools that are truly integrated as a partner into the wider neighbourhood are rare. However, they are increasingly important as more community agencies try to work together to solve complex social problems.
Education institutions stand apart from these cooperative efforts mainly because they still see themselves as silos or islands of instruction not to be sullied by outside influences.
It does not have to be this way, and it would be heartening to see a shift away from the silo approach to education in our society.
There is no question that the connection between a school and its surrounding community is vital. Really, the two should be inseparable, both working together to make a stronger union and a better community.
As a principal, I have always tried to do this, especially in the last school I worked in.
St. Anthony School in Little Italy serves a diverse population of new Canadians from countries around the world.
Our staff believes strongly that we need to reach out to our community so that we can do a better job of serving our families. Over time, we established strong ties with organizations like Somerset West Community Health Center,  Rec LINK, a wonderful small organization that links families up to recreation opportunities for their kids, and the Dalhousie Parents Day Care – a community organization that resides in the basement of the school and until recently, had office space in the school.
Dalhousie Parent Day Care
We also had strong ties with the local Italian community who raised thousands of dollars for playground renewal and other projects. We even had a great partnership with a local store called The Bike Dump. Dave, the owner of this store supplied cheap or free bikes to our kids every year and last year even found us a mechanic to fix all the bikes before we handed them out to our kids.
These are just a few of the many partnerships we worked on over the past years. We also tried to make the school as open as possible to all parents. This was really important as many parents come from countries where positive relationships between families and institutions were not encouraged.
Unfortunately, this can all change very quickly. In the past few months, community agencies have lost office space in the school. There is little communication between Somerset West Community Health Centre and the school. The doors of the school are locked, keeping the parents away from the building. The social media accounts – Twitter and Facebook have fallen silent. The school, in essence, is retreating in upon itself.
This is not what should be happening. Community schools should encourage partnerships with the agencies that support their families. Surplus space should be used to offer additional services to the community. There is space in the school for adult literacy classes, even space for a computer room for parents who do not have access to computers or wifi. These ideas have been discussed but were never implemented.
It is important to remember that all schools are ultimately the property of the Province of Ontario and they all need to be utilized to serve the community in the best way possible.
The current trend away from the community is distressing and it shows a complete misunderstanding of the role a school should play within its community.
This situation does not have to continue. Ultimately, the Ottawa Catholic School Board can push back against this trend and become more involved in making the local community its top priority. To ignore the importance of St. Anthony School to the surrounding community risks losing an important community asset.
Schools should be the heart of the community. It is sad when people ignore or just don’t understand the importance of this relationship. I hope this will change in the future and that new principals will be better trained to understand that schools do not and cannot exist in isolation.
To offer an excellent education for our students, we need to learn to be a part of the community. Are there ways that the community could reach out to bridge the current gap? Can the Catholic School Board begin to see itself as a vital partner in Dalhousie? Only time will tell.