Personalized Learning

One goal that I have been focusing on lately is the types of professional development opportunities that are being offered to staff members. To be blunt, my methods need an overhaul, so I have been reading, researching, discussing with colleagues and implementing new ideas often. Some work well, some are a complete and utter bust and most are middle of the road. The one missing piece is a lack of personalized learning for teachers that makes sense for them and that meets our needs as a learning community.

Traditionally, teachers in our division complete an online Professional Growth form, indicating their goals, the strategies that they will put in place to achieve their goals and the resources necessary to do so for that school year. Generally, the individual goals align with the school plan to some degree, although they tend to be generic. In most cases, these forms are reviewed with an administrator (that being me)…and then shelved for the remainder of the school year as another task to be checked off the ‘to-do’ list. I have even had one teacher submit exactly the same professional growth plan as she had two years earlier, as she thought that by recycling her ideas, there was a good chance that I wouldn’t notice that there really wasn’t much growth going on!

This process of determining our pathway annually for professional development isn’t achieving what it had been intended to do, as the accountability piece isn’t there nor is there much opportunity for reflection nor coaching. So moving forward, I would rethink this process and my role in it as well.

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Although I thought that I offered voice and choice when it came to personal learning paths, I can be doing a much better job of this. To get there, Katie’s Personalized Professional Learning Cycle makes sense to me. I have been having conversations recently about the first step in the cycle, Vision, and although I know what my vision is for my staff, as I mentioned in my last blog, I can’t say that my staff can say the same. Yes, we have collaborated to develop a school plan with goals, which in hindsight seem to be more of a philosophy than actual goals. And yes, teachers then develop their professional goals based on our school goals. But at no time are these tied to our vision (or lack thereof).

Vision. So, my first step would be to review the vision that has been in place for what seems like a century to determine whether this still fits our school community. This is a step that I have missed, as we have traditionally moved straight into developing our goals each year for our school plan. As such, there isn’t much alignment going on, and although my intentions have been good, I might have missed the mark…which is frustrating!

Goal Setting. The next step would be to determine our school learning goals, both for the school community and individually. What I like about what is being done currently in our school division is that class and school profiles are developed, using a strength-based UDL model. This makes it easier to determine where our areas of focus need to be in order to support all students. In our case, literacy, social-emotional learning and engagement remain our focus, and although I love the direction that we’re taking, we need to ensure that emphasis on these areas aligns with our vision. Once we do that, we can develop school goals that are right for our community, which in turn will support our teachers as they develop their goals based on their students’ needs and their interests.

Professional Learning Design. Although I’ve tried to offer a variety of professional development opportunities for my colleagues, I think that coming up with ideas to support them would make much more sense if we’re personalizing them based on their own learning goals. We have offered copious workshops, unconferences and opportunities for collaboration based on school goals, which have worked for the most part. But one step that is missing is their relevance to the teachers, based on their learning styles and interests. Discussions with the team prior to developing these experiences would be more helpful.

Lesson Design and Models of Practice. We have done alot to provide teachers with opportunities to see lessons in action. Our professional development budget is spent allowing teachers to observe their colleagues in action, within our school division and elsewhere. Most recently, teachers have experienced the Optimal Learning Model, STEAM rooms, project-based and passion-based learning, socratic seminars and student-led classrooms by observing their colleagues. They are also given time to collaborate with each other to develop their ideas, which is also covered by our PD budget. At the same time, we have started Pineapple Charts, which need room to grow and become part of our learning culture. And they are all part of a Professional Learning Network, based on their interests and focus for the year. I think that for the most part, I’m doing this step in the cycle very well.

Safe Practice. I think that by collaborating in their PLNs, taking part in the Pineapple Chart and being given the opportunities to observe their colleagues in their classrooms and then reflecting on their learning is allowing our colleagues the space that they need to take risks and feel comfortable in their growth as teachers. At the same time, when I am open about my own mistakes, they tend to be less threatened, particularly when they understand that I am not looking for perfection…just an openness to getting better at what we do.

Coaching and Feedback. I need to work on this. In the past, I have met with teachers to review their growth plan in the Fall, and have offered my assistance to help them meet their goals. Then we go about our business until closer to the end of the year, when I meet with them again to review their progress. Instead, I need to be setting regular meetings with them to support them and to discuss their learning. This could be a meeting, observations, collaboration with experts…there are many possibilities. But it should be ongoing, rather than leaving it until the end of the school year ony to check something off on the to-do list.

Reflection and Revision. If I’m doing my job as a coach, there should be time for teachers to reflect on their practice and to look at ways to improve their practice. They are more likely to be open to this if I have created a safe place for them to do so. But it should definitely be a part of the work that they do to improve their practice. So, I’ll need to work on my role as a coach to ensure that this happens for them.

Analyze the Impact and Develop Next Steps. When developing school goals, we should also be indicating what tools we will be using to determine our progress. These indicators will help us to decide if we are on the right track, and when we need to revise and iterate an idea. This will also provide a clearer path as to next steps. I need to be more diligent in ensuring that we are in fact making use of the tools that act as our indicators for progress, rather than simply filling in the blanks on the online form.

Share and Celebrate Growth. Having revamped our monthly staff meetings, teachers are given a chance to share their learning with their colleagues. Teachers also write articles for our webpage to celebrate their students’ progress and we tweet out at every possible moment what is happening in our classrooms. At the same time, at each Parent Advisory Committee meeting, there is at least one staff member who is sharing what is happening in their classroom or in the school. We also have gallery walks where students present their work to the community. Last year, students were involved in presenting a Museum of Caring, and a celebration of Canada’s 150th Anniversary as it pertained to reconciliation and Treaty Education. Powerful stuff! Tomorrow night, students are presenting a fashion show, ‘a la recycled runway’, with clothing designed from recycled materials as part of their sustainability school-wide project. So this, I think we do well!

I’ve got some work to do, but I have a great team and together, I know we’ll get there!

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Learning to Lead Like a Pirate

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One of my first reads this summer, Lead Like a Pirate (Shelley Burgess & Beth Houf), gave way to all kinds of notes and questions. A work in progress, I am constantly learning and wanting to do better, so the opportunity to learn from these authors, either by reading their book, or following along on their Twitter feeds, has been uplifting to say the least. I loved the directness of this book, the examples of ‘how-to’s’ as well as the ‘what-not-to-do’s’ and the ‘what-to-avoids’. As administrators, we need to hear it all, the great…the not-so-great…and everything else in between, so that we can learn from each other and become our best possible versions of team players and leaders.

In going over my notes, I particularly appreciated challenges that were added throughout the chapters. In their book, Burgess and Houf give us a starting point to begin putting these ideas into practice. Even better is that these challenges are scaffolded so that the readers can implement them in stages, which helps to minimize that overwhelming sense that we are taking on too much. I know that on a personal level, I have a tendancy to read books whose messages I can really connect with on some level. Yet, I am often guilty of not taking the next step to put these ideas into practice, because something needs doing or ‘an emergency’ comes up. Having a specific challenge within a given time frame allows me to try the ideas out, discuss them with my colleagues and then revamp as necessary. So that I stay focused on these goals, I have already put each challenge that I am going to focus on into my calendar…this plan isn’t foolproof, but it at least ensures that I have scheduled these blocks of time to work on implementing these practices. This will hold me accountable so that I am more likely to do what I say I’m going to do. Then, taking the time for personal reflection, and discussions with my colleagues who I know to be excellent instructional coaches will help me to understand where to improve my techniques and collaborative practices. And they will hold me to the task of carrying out the challenges as planned.

Burgess and Houf also speak about our role in ‘supporting teachers in creating phenomenal classrooms’ (p. 141). I am extremely fortunate to work with a team of teachers who are committed to creating those extraordinary experiences for their students. One way that I support this team is by connecting them with others who can help them to implement an idea or develop a project. Having said that, I need to focus on becoming a much better coach so that I can support my team with their learning in ways that are not viewed as evaluative or punitive. This will take a committed effort on my part. One way to do this will involve learning to engage in ANCHOR conversations (see Section II), rather than dialogue that is evaluative in nature.

As I work on my coaching skills, I have begun our first week of school in classrooms, focusing on the first challenge of an ANCHOR conversation, Appreciation. Sharing compliments with my colleagues comes easily, whether it be a note, an email or a handwritten card. This is part and parcel of building relationships with my team and is an important part of my role as an administrator. However, for myself, the key with this challenge is to be mindful about what I am observing and/or looking for and then purposeful when I share my appreciation with a particular staff member as I make connections to our school plan. This will take a concentrated effort on my part.

Throughout the next while, I will work on these challenges, particularly with respect to ‘noticing the impact’ and ‘collaborative conversations’ challenges. I will need to be deliberate in my approach when ‘noticing the impact’ that an activity has on the students so that I can reinforce our school plan/goals. This means having a better understanding of what is going on in our classrooms, which in turn means more visibility on my part throughout the school. Once again, a work in progress, which will involve practice…practice…practice. Here’s to another year of learning and growing!!!

My Roadtrip with PBL (Part 3)

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So a lot has happened since my last Project-Based Learning (PBL) post. Our teams have implemented and completed their first PBL units and we’ve had some time to reflect on our journey so far. I’m proud of their first attempts at this initiative. It took courage and alot of teamwork to put this into place. Was it a seamless first round, though? Not at all. To say that we’ve already learned a great deal would be a slight understatement…and by ‘we’, I particularly mean ‘I’.

Since my last post, we’ve done some more work around preparing for and developing our ideas with the help of our divisional instructional coordinators. This was an interesting process, in part because we have very different personalities working with each other, and also because this type of learning requires a different mindset, a philosophy that takes some getting used to. It is one thing to set up a PBL culture with teachers who have bought into the process from Day 1. It is a completely different experience when you have to bring teachers along on the ride at various stages, especially when they aren’t sure about getting on to the bus in the first place!

This is our latest experience with PBL.

One group has implemented their first unit, working around a theme of archaeology, using the BIE Gold Standards PBL Template to plan. Their driving questions: ‘What can we learn from what others have left behind?’ and then ‘What will others learn from what we leave behind?’ The hands-on work was engaging and students really got into demonstrating their learning. Presenting their learning in small groups to their peers was interesting and challenging for them, pushing a few groups to enhance and present their work again when they felt they could do better. Where we fell short was in the development of those soft-skill lessons (there weren’t any) and the research and lessons that would support the work done to demonstrate their learning (far too traditional and less likely to meet the students’ learning styles). This was evident in both the teachers’ and the students’ feedback. Good to know and something that this team worked on to enhance for Round 2.

With our second team, we agreed that it would be a good idea to start slowly before kicking it into high gear, as some were struggling with the entire process. To help out, our Teacher Librarian developed a shorter PBL to answer the question, ‘Who Am I?’ The idea was to help the students get to know each other in a multi-age class. It went well for the students, but took far longer than previously expected. The other issue was that this was not an idea developed by the team, so the teachers weren’t as invested in it as they would have been had they actually spent the time putting it together themselves. Lesson learned!

Something else to think about is that we have very different personalities working together on an initiative that is really new for most of them, just like you would see in your classroom. And with these unique characteristics comes challenges at times, a possibility that I didn’t necessarily take into consideration. Okay, I completely missed the bus on this one! I thought that by offering PD support, engaging the team in work with instructional coordinators, providing learning experiences along the way and supplying them with the necessary resources, that all would be good in Meyerland. Ha! Like any classroom, when there are very real differences in learning styles, approaches and personalities (and even when there are not), there might be blow ups, frazzled nerves and misunderstandings. I did not see this happening, because well, we’re adults, and because I was too caught up in the possibilities of this initiative, forgetting about the need to attend to the day-to-day stuff. I was wrong…very, very wrong! And so I continue to learn so that I can do better.

So, with new learning comes (I hope) better understanding and support for my teams. To help with PBL planning to better weave learning experiences into the process, we brought in a former Propel teacher who shared her tricks of the trade with our team. Our team left the session with ample ideas to help them develop necessary soft skills, like time management. Every team member expressed how helpful this would have been back in June. Another lesson learned! The upside is that they are using this information to improve their second round of PBL.

Having an instructional coordinator to support their learning doesn’t hurt either! I requested that two of my team members take part in the Personalized Learning Initiative through the LRSD, as it pertains to PBL. In turn, they share their learning with their colleagues after each session where they continue to develop ideas for each round. What I particularly appreciate is that the coordinator keeps bringing them back to the ‘Why’ behind these learning experiences so that they are not adding in activities simply for the ‘Wow’ factor, but to ensure that the students are actually getting valuable lessons from them. Something that I need to remember myself when planning for my team!

The biggest learning for me this time around is the need for checkpoints with staff, something that can support teams with their own challenges as part of a very diverse group. Just because I am seriously enthusiastic about this initiative does not mean that everybody else is going to be on the same page. And because not everybody is feeling the same enthusiasm for something new, I need checkpoints. Although I would expect them to do this with a PBL class, I neglected to put any into place for the first round. Yes, I asked how things were going, and I popped in regularly to their classrooms during PBL periods. However, by not having specific checkpoints built into the process, I missed what would likely have been obvious signs of challenges that the teams were experiencing, and by extension, opportunities to help them work through these situations in constructive ways. And so for Round 2, I have to set up regular checkpoints with them to determine how they are progressing with their work, and how they are feeling about their contributions to the process.

This is definitely a work in progress, and despite a few hiccups, I continue to learn and I’m loving it! Stay tuned for more about our road trip as students ponder, ‘Is illness necessary?’ and ‘How can we tell stories that create change in the world?

A Letter to a First-Year Teacher

Slide1The first few years of teaching can be overwhelming, particularly the first ten months when everything is new. Having been in this role for a minute or two, I can say that I have had a box of Kleenex at the ready more times than I can count for staff members who are having their own moment because of something that has happened in their class or because of a parent. And sometimes these Kleenex were for me! So here is my advice. Don’t sweat it! Don’t lose sleep over a lesson gone bad…an idea that tanked…an irate parent…or a student who is driving you crazy. Will you heed this advice? Probably not. But here’s your reality for the next 25 years. It will happen again, so make the most of these challenges!

The best thing that you can do for yourself is to learn from those mistakes or challenges and get better at it. If you are doing it right, your lessons may still tank from time to time. All this proves is that you are willing to take risks, willing to challenge yourself for the sake of your students. I’d say that’s winning right there! So don’t feel badly about not blowing it out of the park each time you’re up to bat. Get feedback, collaborate with your team, ask questions, and iterate that lesson…or toss it. Being perfect isn’t the end goal here. It’s all about the process and the learning, for yourself, just as much as it is for the students.

Facing difficulties is inevitable. Learning from them is optional.

You will also come across a few parents during your career who are overly anxious or concerned, helicopter Moms and lawnmower Dads, jerks and bullies. Believe me when I say that for the most part, they are sincerely invested in their child’s well-being and only want what’s best. Learn to listen to what they have to say, with the understanding that they are advocating for their children, because you may learn a thing or two along the way. The fact that they are perhaps doing so in a way that will make you want to rip your hair out is another matter. Just go to your happy place to find your inner peace while smoke is blowing out your ears so that you don’t take home all that frustration with you. And if this doesn’t work, find something or someone that will allow you to vent your frustrations and talk you away from the ledge. Tears, cursing, kickboxing or meditative yoga…find your jam and benefit from it. And then use the frustrating interaction with that parent as a constructive stepping stone to either hone your pedagogical practice or develop your skills in dealing with the crazy.

As for your students, they’ll continue to come to you from all walks of life and experiences. Some will definitely be more challenging than others and will make you question your decision to become a teacher. Your words and actions will have an impact on them, some noticeably, and others, not so much. But, an impact you will have. So find it in your deepest recesses to love these ones the most. Find your team in these tough moments…ask more questions, and develop or try new strategies to support that child. It’ll pay off in dividends! And when the going gets tough, find your happy place…or hole up in somebody’s office to vent away your frustrations. It’ll make those challenging moments a little easier to deal with.

Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand. ~ Oprah Winfrey

Trust me when I say that, in all my years of experience, my most difficult students, obsessed parents and bombed lessons were hands down my best teachers. So, use these challenges to get better at what you do and be the best possible version of yourself. And when those challenges are slightly overwhelming hiccups in life…breathe! Tomorrow will be a better day!

On Becoming Ourselves

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Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it. ― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles

This quote hit home…in a big way! I am a ‘do-er’ by nature and learning is part and parcel of who I am. Without it, I know that I would be lost. That said, being true to myself is something of a fairly new concept to me, a philosophy that I needed to figure up as a seriously grown-up adult. Coming from a certain background as a child, conforming was the expectation, so there weren’t many opportunities to understand or to learn about who I really was. I tried to emulate my peers with my lack of fashion sense. I refused certain outings because they weren’t ‘cool’ enough. I stayed away from certain peer groups to avoid social suicide. I didn’t share a lot about my personal life so that nobody had an opportunity to mock me. I didn’t put myself out there so that I wouldn’t be judged. I made ridiculously inappropriate choices in life to fit in. This lifestyle followed me throughout my adolescence and most of my adult life, until I decided that this was not who I was, nor whom I chose to be. A rather liberating feeling!

I have learned that making mistakes is a part of growing up…of learning…and of becoming the best version of myself. I have learned that it is okay to head out the door, decked out in a milk costume and a tutu for a great cause…simply because it’s for a great cause. If the neighbors are questioning my fashion sense, so be it. I have learned that I do not have to be liked by everybody…but I do have to like myself. I have learned that pushing myself outside my comfort zone allows me to grow, and if I look ridiculous in the process, that’s okay. I’m getting better every time I do so. I have learned that taking the time to be grateful for all the awesomeness in my life makes the little things all the sweeter, the big moments extraordinary and the painful ones easier to swallow. I know this because I am getting better at being human.

Yet, I also realize that life hasn’t really changed all that much since my childhood. There are still children who will continue to make ridiculous decisions that impact their lives because they want to fit in, even though what they are doing goes against every fiber of their being deep down. There are still children who work so hard to impress everyone around them, forgetting that the first person that they need to answer to is themselves. This misguided perspective leads to crazy levels of anxiety, depression and such deep-seeded sadness in many of our students at such young ages, that it boggles the mind.

How do we help students understand who they really are so that they can continue on a path to becoming their truest version of themselves? There is no magic bullet, or cure-all for students. But as educators, we can make the effort to practice what we preach. And we need to be doing this when they are little people, so that they have a chance to let the message sink in…I mean really sink in…so that they can walk the talk, and allow themselves to be just that…themselves…despite the pressures around them.

What does that mean for the adults in the building? What can we be doing so that our students not only hear what we are saying, but are learning from what we are doing?

Celebrate your failures.

Be okay with making mistakes. Celebrate your failures as stepping stones to your success. Laugh about them. Do not hide behind them or pretend that they didn’t happen. Those errors can bring hilarity to your world, a starter for a great story or an extraordinary memory. They can also make your future successes all the more exhilarating because reaching your goal hasn’t been all that easy.

What does this look like in a classroom? By modeling a writing assignment à la Optimal Learning Model, students see you crossing out your initial ideas to develop something better. The perfectionists in the room learn that there is no shame in striking out words, taking out ideas and adding something new in the editing process… this just makes the writing stronger. When you have a less than fantastic day, own it and admit to your students that you weren’t being your best self. Students will learn that we are human, that we make mistakes, that we recognize them and that we can learn from them to be better at what we are doing. When a lesson tanks, share your learning process with your students and then demonstrate what you will iterate to make it a better learning experience for them. The list of what you can do to celebrate those failures is long, but opportunities exist every day to show them that there is a strength to be had in doing so.

Better an ‘oops’ than a ‘what if’.

 Take risks.

Don’t worry about what your neighbors think or how your peers perceive you. If you want to try something, do it. Try it. Learn from it. I have a bucket list that I started 20 years ago. Much of what is on this list are activities and learning experiences that take me out of my comfort zones. My attempt at cake decorating for a friend’s sister’s wedding was a colossal failure of the Leaning Tower of Pisa variety, but I learned from it (and laughed a whole lot in the process). Rock-climbing lead to many scrapes, bruises, calluses, and backslides, but it also gave me some of the most extraordinary views and amazing friendships. Writing my first blog terrified the hell out of me, but I love writing, so it’s become my thing, despite the fact that very few see what I put out there.

As educators, we need to be sharing these learning experiences with our students, giving them the opportunity to take risks with their learning and being more than okay with the bumps along the way. How do we do this? Genius Hour projects are great opportunities for students to explore their ideas and passions. This process allows them to develop their own self-expression, to learn more about themselves and to iterate when the end product isn’t what they were hoping for. Either way, we are inviting them to take risks with their learning and celebrating the fact that they are doing so.

Educators can also give students multiple opportunities to iterate their ideas, to try something new or to tackle a problem from a different vantage point, whether this is while solving a math problem, finding a solution to a driving question or inventing something. These learning experiences push them to take risks with their learning, and to grow as a result.

Take the time to breathe.

Showing yourself some self-love is a crucial part to your mental health, as is taking time to breathe, but it seems that this is often the last thing that we pay attention to. As adults, we are constantly running to and from activities, obligations and deadlines. This is no different for our students. With multiple activities, a social life, homework and family obligations, there is little to no downtime for children these days. So if we want them to have healthy adult lives, with insight into what makes them tick, and what they need to do to be self-aware and completely in love with themselves, we need to help them develop strategies to do so. These include mindfulness techniques that can be incorporated into daily activities. Doing so a few minutes each day can teach students to remain centered, even when the going gets tough. Giving them some downtime to be still and to do something that doesn’t require assessment also provides an opportunity to breathe. This can be as simple as offering time for reading for pleasure or tackling an element of their Genius Hour project.

Use your words.

At the same time, our self-talk has a way of deciding our fate. Sometimes, the negativity takes precedence over anything else in our minds, and so we don’t push ourselves to take those risks for fear of failure…of being laughed at…of not being perfect. It stands to reason then that the words that we use in a classroom can also go a long way to supporting a child’s image of themselves. In A.J. Juliani’s recent blog, How To Win Friends and Influence Students, he spoke about 19 words that have a tremendous impact on a child’s engagement in class. According to study done by psychologists from Stanford, Yale, Columbia and elsewhere, these words make a difference in whether students will actively participate in revising their work or not, words that support creating a sense of belonging and community, and of believing in them.

‘I am giving you these comments because I have very high expectations                       and I know that you can reach them.’

 At the same time, modeling how we talk about ourselves gives students an opportunity to see it in action. Something along the lines of, ‘I wasn’t satisfied with the way that this lesson went, so this is an opportunity to make it better. This is what I’d like to try…’ goes alot further than, ‘I wasn’t satisfied with this lesson, so I’m getting rid of it.’ One demonstrates an openness to iteration and learning from something that didn’t work. The other emphasizes that we can’t use what doesn’t work. I prefer Option A.

There are many opportunities in a day to help our students develop into their best selves. We just have to be concious of our efforts in doing so. In that way, everybody wins!

Making Room for the What If’s

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Last month, Katie Martin came to town to work with educators from nine different schools in the Louis Riel School Division. To say that I was really thrilled to be able to work with her is an understatement. She challenged us to explore our ‘What ifs’ in education and to discover our ‘Whys’, so that what we are creating has purpose.

When you know your ‘why’, your ‘what’ has more impact,

because you are walking into your ‘what’ with purpose.

Following her keynote address, teachers then came together to collaborate, design and explore, and began feeding off of each other as they shared their plans. It was particularly exciting for me as my own team came away with new ideas, wanting more time to work together to explore them. As I circulated through the crowd, I was energized by their conversations, thinking about my own ‘What ifs’ that have lead me on my journey with project-based learning. ‘What if…learning was student-centered? What if…learning was passion-driven? What if…teachers were as excited to be in their classroom as I hoped that our students would be? What if…our opportunities were limitless when it came to planning, collaborating and implementing our ideas? Moving through the room, I kept coming back to my ‘What ifs’ as I focused on what they were sharing with me, and it seemed that this was definitely an opportunity in the right direction for them. So awesome!!!

But with any ‘what ifs’, there also tend to be the ‘Yeah, buts’ in the crowd. And I heard a few, albeit just a few. I get it…there is a need for a reality check from time to time to keep us grounded, or to give us a different perspective when considering potential obstacles that might hinder progress. I just tend to have a general problem with this line of thinking when it becomes all-consuming, so much so that there is no possibility of thinking outside the box…or looking around a different corner…or even peeking out a new window…to shift our thinking and come up with different options. So when a staff members says, ‘Yeah, but…’ to me, my initial reaction is to go on a solution-finding line of attack, to demonstrate to the naysayer that there are other options available. The only problem with this tactic is that I am the one doing the legwork to find the solution, or the answer to a problem. And so, I am also the one doing the learning.

Then, Jimmy Casas tweeted something out this weekend that resonated with me and spoke to this challenge that we sometimes face as educators. He said ‘It’s a disservice to our teachers when we say they don’t like change or they fear change. What they fear is that we don’t give them the support, resources and TIME to change. Provide these things and watch them flourish.’ (Culturize: Every Student, Everey Day. Whatever It Takes.) This is soooooo true!

It’s a disservice to our teachers when we say they don’t like change or they fear change. What they fear is that we don’t give them the support, resources and TIME to change. Provide these things and watch them flourish.

As an administrator, my job is to ensure that this doesn’t become a thing in my world. And that the naysayers are the ones who become more adept at opening themselves up to possibilities. In our case, our team has been putting in alot of effort to move to a project-based learning model with our Grades 5 to 8 students. It has not been easy…this journey involves alot of work, a great deal of trial and error and some intense reflection. And yet, our team is engaged and thriving with the possibilities! That said, there are those who question the feasibility of launching into a project-based, learner-centered model, when so much of the work that they do is geared towards provincial exams. This brought me to my ‘What if…’ while working with Katie last month. ‘What if staff were given the freedom to implement their ideas so that the ‘Yeah, buts’ don’t take up permanent residence? ‘What if…’yeah buts’ wasn’t a thing, and instead, was replaced by ‘How can I’?

If I want this to happen, I need to support them in this shift so that they explore these solutions on their own, in their own way. These are a few things that can help make that transition easier for them.

What’s Your Why?

Support teachers in figuring out their ‘why’! By focussing on professional learning plans that speak to their ‘why’ with actionable goals, teachers can see the progress that they are making. Then, it is much easier to fall into the ‘How can I…?’ mode when you see that the work that you are doing is supporting your purpose. Without a clear sense of where you are headed…your ‘why’…those ‘Yeah, buts’ can become all-consuming, particularly when you see no way out of whatever rut you feel that you are in professionally. Making this happen involves regular check-ins with the administrator, discussions and collaboration with colleagues, and a professional growth plan that makes sense to the teacher.

Find Time To Collaborate

How do you go about providing ample time for your team to collaborate and generate ideas?

Scheduling Common Prep Periods. All of our teams have at least one, if not two common blocks of prep time per cycle scheduled into their timetable so that they can come together to share ideas and move forward with a plan. It is an expectation that they do so on a regular basis, in ways that work for their team.

PD Budget. Use it. If a team member comes forward asking for time for their group to continue planning and developing an idea, sub costs can come out of that budget. In return, you have a happier team who has worked together to develop something that they are really excited about…and they did it together.

Professional Learning Networks. The Louis Riel School Division supports this…and it is an amazing opportunity for staff to come together to grow an idea and learn from each other. Every member of our team is expected to take full advantage of this opportunity and collaborate with their colleagues at school, as well as others divisionally to advance their learning goals. And sub costs are covered by the school division for either two full days or four half-days, which makes it a win-win for everybody.

Create Opportunities.

When a team member mentions that he/she would like to learn more about (insert idea here), and it is outside the scope of what our team is working on at the moment, I send out the all-call to my colleagues to see if there is anybody on their team who might be interested in collaborating/chatting/sharing with one of mine. This has worked beautifully to allow my colleagues to engage in professional conversations outside our school walls that helps them develop different perspectives and ideas.

At the same time, if you want to embark on a new path, make sure that you provide opportunities for your team to see it in action elsewhere and to talk to the educators that are making it work in their world. Before we started our PBL implementation, our team had the opportunity to observe different educators in action with their own versions of PBL, including our experience at Nelson McIntyre Collegiate, a high school in the LRSD who is all in with PBL and passion-based learning! Hello, ‘How can we…?’

Listen! Seriously…just listen!

Sometimes, a colleague just needs to vent…and to be heard. And when that happens, they feel validated and are more apt to make a shift in their thinking. I still need work on this, because I’m more of the ‘Let’s get this done yesterday’ kinda person, but when I am truly engaged in that conversation, keeping my mouth shut when necessary, guiding them when appropriate, often teachers come up with their own solutions to whatever problem is blocking their progress.

Let Them Know That They Are Valued

Above all, let them know that they are valued and that you appreciate the work that they are doing. Asking them to think outside the box, or to push themselves outside their comfort zones can be challenging. But if they feel that they are making a difference, and that their efforts are being noticed, this will go along way to making those ‘How can I…?’ moments become their way of thinking. Goodbye ‘Yeah, buts’!

These strategies don’t guarantee that the naysayers in the crowd will vanish and that everything will be rainbows and sunshine. But by giving them opportunities to experience different perspectives, learn from their colleagues and know that you appreciate their efforts, you make it easier for them to make that shift.

A Lesson Learned

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I have 425 amazing young souls in my care every day. Their uniqueness and quirkiness is what makes my job as interesting and as entertaining as it is. These students have their own personalities…their own interests…and their own needs. Ours is not a perfect world, but rather a unique blend of awesomeness. That said, there are times when I’m not really feeling the awesomeness, as a student (or two…or three) needs a bit of redirection on that path of « What were you thinking exactly when (insert whatever they happened to be doing that caused them to be sitting in my office)? Now this doesn’t happen every second of every day that I’m at work, nor do I remember every incident that has ever occurred in my tenure as an administrator. To be honest, unless the student had me laughing (albeit as discreetly as possible), the chances are pretty good that I will not remember why I had to ‘discuss different options’ with that student in the first place. In my world, these events were and still are simply life lessons for those students, so that as they mature and learn from those hiccups in life, they will make better choices. And more often than not, these same students have provided me with much needed lessons as well, so that I become better at what I do.

A while back, I ran into a former parent, whose children had been my students back in the day. During our conversation, she brought up a time when her son had been sent to the office…in 1994. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, because let’s face it, it’s been a minute! That said, this episode in her child’s life had been humiliating to her because she prided herself on having raised children who are well-behaved and respectful. I needed to emphasize that she was right on the money…her child was then and I imagine still is respectful. He just happened to take a slight detour one day, one that wasn’t repeated. What surprised me is the realization that these episodes can be somewhat traumatic for these parents, as they tend to remember every little detail that warranted the « call home », even when this incident occurred years ago. For some, a trip to the office insinuates that they have done something wrong as parents, and is a direct reflection on their parenting skills or lack thereof. Leaving her at the cashier’s counter, I walked away having learned two important lessons.

The first is that these calls home can be very upsetting for parents, memories that they carry with them for a long time. I knew then that I needed to be doing something a tad different in my practice. This does not mean that I will never make those calls home. Openness in my communication with families is important, particularly because I believe in a teamwork approach. That said, it is even more important to let these families know when their children are making progress…are having an awesome day…have done something to shine…and are making themselves proud. So, I began doing that. I refer to them as my «Sunshine Calls», and on a regular basis, I either call a parent or write them a note or send a card by mail to thank them for sharing their child with us and allowing us to be involved in their lives because Johnny has (insert whatever makes you smile). The benefits to this are twofold…you make somebody’s day and you continue to build community, because who doesn’t want to be a part of that awesomeness. This also allows you to put a little extra in your bank that you might have to withdraw on when you do need to make ‘the call’ home.

The second lesson came at a more personal level, because I had to remind myself that I, too, have also had issues with mistakes made. Mom to three daughters, I have been a parent for close to 27 years, and have spent years taking countless parenting classes, and reading and listening to my peers so that I could do this parenting thing to the best of my ability. If I’m being truthful, I wanted to blow it out of the park and be awesome at it…to shine in my daughters’ amazing talents and personalities. But here’s a news flash for you…I’m human, which means I’ve made a mistake or two over the years. This also means that I am not perfect, and by extension, neither are my children. As a result, we’ve all made mistakes, and have learned from them.

Now, each of my children is unique…and quirky…and free-spirited…and intelligent, both emotionally and intellectually. They are a mix of part comedic relief, seriousness, thoughtfulness and frustration! As I like to say, they dance to the beat of their own drums (and sometimes orchestras). They are firm in their beliefs and are not afraid to express them, which I marvel at on a fairly consistent basis. Does this mean that I understand where they are coming from each and every time or that I agree with everything that they say? That would be a solid no! There have definitely been moments when I’ve wanted to give my head a shake (or theirs) or find the nearest wall against which I could repeatedly bang mine! I would also be lying if I said that I haven’t wanted to hide a time or two based on their choice of outfit (have I mentioned that they are slightly boho, slightly hippyish, slightly ‘I don’t know what’ in their personal style?), or their decisions about lifestyle choices that are important to them (Really? You’re throwing out the razors?). And at times, it can be an Olympic event trying to decipher their moods (not that this is a regular occurrence, because for the most part, they’re pretty easy going…but when those moods strike, sweet Mother!).

There have also been moments when their choices in life have been downright humiliating, and it was in these moments that I became my most enraged. Why? Because at the time, deep down, just like the mother in the grocery store, I felt that their decisions were a direct reflection on my ability to parent. And I too remember those events like they happened yesterday, although I can guarantee you that, for the most part, my peers do not, just like I didn’t remember what this mother was referring to. A bit of a double standard, I think!

I was lucky to run into that mother that day. My chance encounter with her reminded me that those ‘outlier’ behaviors that pop up from time to time and make us cringe as parents do not define us in our roles, any more than they define our children. This was also a reminder to me that if I don’t seek perfection in my students, a quality that is not only unattainable, but boring beyond words, I should not be secretly craving it in myself, nor my children. These episodes are just simply slight detours on their path, and provide (I hope) guidance and life lessons so that we all get better at being human. To that mother, I say thank you…this was definitely a lesson needed!