This month I had the privilege of participating in a professional development opportunity with a coaching and leadership organization called The Roy Group (http://www.roygroup.net) Twenty-one participants, including teachers and administrators, from Handsworth and Carson Graham Secondary gathered over an immersive 3 days to engage an experience called The Leader’s Discipline. This work was facilitated by Roy Group founder, Ian Chisholm as well as Carson Graham Principal, Ian Kennedy. Much of what we were to discover later was shrouded in a bit of mystery, but a few instructions we did receive beforehand included to clear our calendar for the event, to plan to leave our cell phone off and emails unattended, and finally to make sure we came prepared to discuss a professional problem of practice. Oh, and to dress for activity!
We began with a Wednesday evening dinner that brought the groups from both schools to break bread and build relationships in anticipation of Thursday and Friday. Each participant introduced themselves and talked a little bit about their learning intentions for the experience. Ian Chisholm, or ‘Chis’ as we called him, spoke a bit about his professional journey as well, and how it brought him to work with us today. A few of the aforementioned instructions were provided and we all left looking forward to the next day.
On Thursday morning we met at the North Shore Tennis Club on Lloyd Ave in North Vancouver. Although having lived in North Van for most of my life, I’d never actually been inside the facility, so it was neat to see. To begin the day we were each given a notebook, pen, and a series of custom stickers that included quotes, concepts and key ideas we would be working with throughout the day.
The first idea we played with was what it means to be a ‘mentor’; that a mentor is name you don’t give yourself – it needs to be given to you. We also discovered that the word ‘mentor’ is actually the name of the person Odysseus left his son, Telemachus, with before leaving for the Trojan war.
Our first activity, without giving away the details, was designed to illustrate how being an engaged and attentive listener is such an important skill. And that way we conduct ourselves has real effect on those we interact with.
It was from this activity that I knew what we were learning was going to be absolutely applicable to my daily work. Much of my day is comprised of brief 5 minute interactions with colleagues, parents and students. And my ability to be ‘dialed-in’ for each of those conversations has a significant impact on my effectiveness as support in my school. How you conduct yourself is so important. We learned that ‘conduct’ is where everything inside of you, meets everything outside of you, and the way I conduct myself creates an ‘atmosphere’ in others.
With colleagues in the school, it’s important that the atmosphere I’m creating is one of safety… but not comfort. Particularly with all the changes happening in education, it’s more important than ever that educational leaders are encouraging movement from comfort through discomfort – but from a place of safety. High performance professionals who are heavily engaged in their work are not comfortable.
Through our second activity we started to explore what meaningful feedback looks like. We were partnered up to complete a task which involved tossing tennis balls from a seated position, and through multiple iterations discovered the relative value of encouragement versus detailed information as feedback. This is where we also began to examine coaching as a vehicle for feedback, mentorship and, ultimately, leadership.
In the afternoon this understanding was further refined as we hit the tennis court to start using a coaching model for providing feedback. Chis kicked off the session with an intro to tennis pro turned philosopher Tim Gallwey. Gallwey is the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, a psychological examination of sport performance phenomenon. In it, he describes two selves: Self 1, which is analytical, ego-driven and gets in the way of Self 2, which is more unconscious, intuitive and physical. When an athlete is ‘in the zone’, they are fully realizing their Self 2 potential. The secret to the Inner Game is really to find how to get Self 1 out of the way of Self 2.
For the purposes of this activity, we participants were arranged in trios, with a coachee (player), coach, and super coach who would provide feedback to the coach on their performance. Coaches used something called The Question Funnel with their players; a series of questions designed to increase awareness and focus attention. Meanwhile, the super coaches who were observing the work of the coaches with the coachees followed The Feedback Model. This model employs three simple, but powerful questions: 1. What went well? 2. What was tricky?, and 3. What would you do differently next time? Once the coach had the opportunity to provide reflections of their own, then the supercoach was able to offer their thoughts. The ideas we had established earlier about quality feedback needing to be more informative than encouraging were also reinforced through this activity. We each had an opportunity to try all 3 roles, and from this activity I learned that as a coach/mentor it’s important to be highly attentive, to allow the student to define their own goals, and to remember that learning is a reflective process that works best when people feel safe.
To wrap up a very full Thursday, Chis introduced us to ‘Henderson’s Disciplines’ – 4 ideas, that when combined together provide a powerful framework for decision making. They are: Reflect, Inquire, Pause and Act. Chis reminded us that reflection cannot be superficial – it must be rigorous to be useful. And that pausing really is important, despite how difficult many of us find it to do. And so for homework, we were challenged to carve out an authentic and meaningful pause; to take a break from the day, and to make a conscious effort to relax at some point between when we ended our Thursday and began our Friday. Unfortunately for the Handsworth participants this also happened to be our Parent-Teacher Interview evening. But needless to say, we did our best!
On Friday we moved locations from the tennis courts to a seminar room at a local rec centre. The focus for Friday was to take the theory and concepts we had learned, and bring them to bear on a real problem of practice we were dealing with. Essentially it was to bridge the theory with the real world and to make it explicitly applicable.
Our first activity was to form new trios of coachee, coach, and super-coach, but this time we weren’t refining tennis skills, but rather coaching our colleagues through real work issues. Ian and Chis provided us with an exemplar to start, and then we broke out in to different spaces to work. It was a wonderful opportunity to practice using these new tools we had just been equipped with, in a real world situation.
Another tool which was added to our belt to work through these issues was the GROW Model. GROW stands for Goal, Reality, Options and Will, and each category includes a series of questions to be used to drill down into a problem and help work towards a possible resolution.
As a coachee, it was insightful to have a coach who could take my issue in unanticipated directions with their questions. It forced me to examine it from a new perspective. I also noted that I didn’t need my coach to have all the answers – the coach is not going to be the source of the solution; they are just there to facilitate my own reflection and to take it in different directions.
Our culminating activity for the day was an outdoor competitive group challenge. We were divided into 4 teams, each with a coach to help guide using the Question Funnel, and supercoach to employ The Feedback Model with the coach. Our team challenge was a timed obstacle course, and brought together many of the concepts we had already learned, including having the coachees (the team) determine their own goals. We were encouraged to practice our questioning techniques, rather than telling people what to do, and were reminded that leaders are able to check their emotions by grasping themselves, grasping their team, and finally grasping the task at hand.
As we wound down the experience and debriefed some of our takeaways, we discussed how leaders don’t create followers, they create other leaders. And that good coaching is really having the right conversation before, and having the right conversation after.
We were challenged to identify 10 topics we hope to be coached on, and by whom, and to write them down. Lastly, we set some tangible goals for ourselves, moving forward, and committed to practicing our new coaching and leadership skills in some way. For me, I’m pleased to say I’ve already brought these lessons to bear on my own practice by using The Feedback Model in conducting performance reviews. I also feel better equipped than ever to navigate some of the complex relationships and difficult conversations I regularly encounter in my role.
This was a wonderful professional development experience, and I would highly recommend it for anyone in a position of leadership, or who works in a highly relational industry. It was great to have the chance to work with the team from Carson Graham as well. I’m looking forward to integrating these skills even more into my daily work, as I know they’ll serve me well. Thanks to Ian Chisholm, Ian Kennedy and the Handsworth and Carson Graham teams.
This month I had the privilege of attending the BCPVPA Short Course I, held at UBC from July 3 – 7. This week-long intensive course is designed to provide new and early-career school leaders with the opportunity to refine their leadership skills and connect and network with other like-minded professionals at similar stages in their profession. I’m sometimes asked by budding school leaders, or those who are in the role, but never took the opportunity what Short Course I is all about. So here it is.
For the 41st edition of Short Course I, we had assembled the largest group educational leaders ever to attend this program. This year’s theme was “Leading Learning: Thriving in a Time of Innovation and Change”. Each day, the course focused on a different domain from the Leadership Standards for Principals & Vice-Principals in British Columbia. In the following I break down just some of the highlights of what was covered each day.
Day 1 revolved around Moral Stewardship.
830AM We met in our pre-determined ‘family’ groups, each chaired by a veteran facilitator who had been to Short Course before. I was at table 16 and my facilitator, Anne Smith, was a Principal from Ecole Lac des Bois in Prince George. Anne had already played this role a number of time previously and I could tell from her enthusiasm and confidence that she was going to be a wonderful facilitator! Our team had to come up with a team name, and I whimsically suggested “Sweet 16” because Anne had brought a bunch of candy for our table, and it stuck. Team Sweet 16 was formed!
915AM After some table talk, we were given a formal welcome to UBC by Blye Frank, the Dean of Education. Mr. Frank reminded us that when doing traditional acknowledgements at our schools, that we are not in a position to welcome our staff and students to traditional territories, that was are only permitted to acknowledge where we work, play and live. An important distinction, to be sure.
Our Co-Directors for the conference, Liz Bell and Jessica Antosz, as well as Kim Maxwell, the BCPVPA Professional Learning Senior Assistant, were introduced. I was fortunate to already know Liz from her great work previously in the North Vancouver School District. They set us up with what the structure would be for the week, and discussed some of what we’d need to know – everything from the philosophy and vision of the short course to tech access and where our break out rooms would be located.
945AM The Superintendent of Schools in Vancouver, Suzanne Hoffman, spoke to us about Passion For Leadership. A few highlights I took from this talk revolved around modeling leadership – ‘show, don’t tell’, and to lead humbly which is something I try to emulate in servant leadership. One of her most quotable questions was about, “what is your flagship?”, meaning what is the one thing you’re known for around your school community. She gave the group a moment to reflect when asking if we could name off all of our students who are in care, or who are indigenous. And finally she reminded me of a book I’ve meaning to read – Carol Dwecks, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, where she discusses having a ‘growth mindset’.
11:20AM Our family groups engaged in a team building exercise called a ‘Goose Chase’. This was essentially a scavenger hunt around UBC where we had to take photos of our group doing funny poses in different areas after figuring out clues. Teams were finishing the challenges so quickly, that more had to be added while we were playing. Our team ended up finishing 3rd out of 25 teams! It was fun to see the other team’s photos posted on the activity feed in the app throughout. I’m contemplating doing it with our staff around Handsworth during the first week back in September.
12:00PM Lunch each day was provided by UBC catering and was outstanding!
12:45PM BC’s Assistant Deputy Minister of Education, Scott Macdonald, spoke with us about data driven decision making in BC’s education system. He highlighted that high performing schools have high performing administrators, but also recognized that energies are not limitless and when we’re considering where to apply them to think about some measurables like graduation rates. He also had some interesting statistical comments about students who are December babies, versus students who are January babies and what some strategies might be to mitigate the differences between birth months in the same grade.
1:30PM Liz Bell and Kevin Fadum facilitated a session on ‘Decision Making’, giving us a process by which we could reflect on how we make our decisions, and what values those decisions are grounded in. Kohlberg’s pyramid of stages was referenced in discussion what motivates people, particularly when interests are competing. We discussed values, morals and ethics and look at analyzing ‘Right VS Right’ dilemmas where clear-cut answers were not always obvious.
3:45PM Our afternoons were spent each day unpacking with our family groups reflections from the day. Around 4:30 we broke for the day, save for the large number of folks who stuck around for the evening Ignite session in the UBC Nest patio.
5:00PM In the evening, New Westminster Principal John Tyler organized an Ignite session. Ignite talks are similar to Ted Talks in that they are structured talks delivered by presenters with accompanying visuals. An Ignite, specifically, is exactly 5 minutes long consisting of 20 slides timed to run at 15 second each. I was one of 5 presenters to speak during the Ignite session, talking about my first year as a Vice Principal. Much of the content of what I spoke about was taken from my blog entry, ‘My First 100 Days’. A big thanks to my colleagues from North Van, Jeeniece, Jillian and Brigette, who were also at Short Course and stayed to support me.
Day 2’s theme was Instructional Leadership
9:00 Our first speaker of the day was the former Superintendent of Richmond Schools, Bruce Beairsto. His topic, broadly, was instructional leadership, but specifically how do we lead learning. His use of the male / female archetype when discussing leadership styles and the accompanying images of Napoleon and Mother Theresa gave the group pause for thought and fodder for discussion later in the day. Mr. Beairsto compared influence versus authority, commitment versus compliance and inspiration versus instruction when discussing influential leadership against management authority. He also defined professional autonomy for us, emphasizing what ‘professional’ really means – a voluntary adherence to a high ethical standard of expectations.
11:00 – 12:30 / 1:30 – 3:00 The majority of our day today was dominated by two different breakout sessions. Each session focused on a different aspect of Instructional Leadership. The intent was to have a different member from each family grouping attending a different session so that all would be covered and the learnings could be reported back to the group for mutual benefit. The only drawback to this was that I found myself in the same sessions as some of my North Vancouver colleagues, and we had intended on similarly distributing our time across the sessions for mutual benefit, but it didn’t end up working that way due to our family group obligations. We also didn’t get the chance to support our North Van colleague, Rob Smyth, at his session on Understanding the Why: Leading and Learning in Aboriginal Education.
The first session I attended in the morning was called Working in a Unionized Work Place and was led by Kevin Fadum, and Debbie Craig. After all the attendees introduced themselves and their work context, Kevin and Debbie walked us through understanding collective agreements – both provincial and local language. We talked about management rights and responsibilities. Unfortunately we ran out of time before getting through all the content that was prepared for us, but what we did cover was extremely informative.
The second session I attended in the afternoon was in the Kingsmill Forum, a fancy round seminar room that looked sort of like a city hall chamber. Here I listened to a panel of speakers talk about Leading the Redesigned Curriculum. After an overview discussion about how to effectively lead change, we delved deep into 4 different examples – 2 from elementary and 2 from secondary – of school leaders examples of employing new curriculum. The secondary examples, which were most relevant to me were 1) Aaron Davis, VSB Director of Instruction, speaking about Templeton’s STEM Program, and 2) Pedro Da Silva, also a VSB Director of Instruction, sharing the certificate program used at John Oliver Secondary. During this session I also had a great chat with one of my family group members, Mike Moloney, VP at Panorama Ridge Secondary, about using of course outlines as one way to gauge successful implementation of new curriculum. If teachers are successfully using the new curriculum, it should be evident in what they’re assessing, which would ideally also be described in their outlines.
Day 3 was all about Relational Leadership.
We began the day with a unique welcome from a Tibetan horn. One of the major pieces of today was all about First People’s perspectives – ways of knowing and learning. We were welcomed by Elder Roberta Price of the Coast Salish People, who shared some personal stories with us.
9:00 – 10:30 Our first session on Aboriginal Education was titled Understanding the Why: Leading and Learning in Aboriginal Education and was led by Brandon Curr, District Principal for Indigenous Education in Burnaby, and our own Rob Smyth, Norgate Elementary Principal, from North Vancouver. The speakers encouraged us, especially, to make sure we were connecting with our local aboriginal groups to ensure their voices were being heard. To describe our fluency, appreciation and use of First People’s principles in education, a metaphor of piloting a canoe was used. Some of us are just at the stage where we are carrying the canoe to water, while others are fully immersed, piloting in deep waters. Three questions that help guide our discussion included: 1. What are your experiences with aboriginal worldviews and experiences? 2. What reservations or doubts do you have about journeying into deeper waters with aboriginal worldviews and perspectives? 3. What commitment can you make to journey into deeper water with aboriginal worldviews and perspectives? During this session, there was also mention made of a North Van canoe and kayak tour operator named Takaya Tours. I know other schools in our district, as well as our school board, have taken staff on such an experience, and it occurred to me that this might be a great idea for our staff some time in the next year.
11:00 – 12:30 After break, Terry Beaudry, Deputy Superintendent of Schools in the Central Okanagan, facilitated a panel discussion on Our Calls to Action – Truth and Reconciliation. I really liked Rob Smyth’s open question, asking us to look beyond our professional work and to contemplate what is our personal call to action when it comes to reconciliation. As I’ve been working on our school plan the last couple of years, I was reflecting during this discussion about ways I could more meaningfully incorporate aboriginal perspectives into the plan. We’re also in the midst of planning a rebuild of Handsworth, and I like the idea that signage, such as bathrooms, could be posted in local aboriginal language. Our school theme for next year is going to be “Building Connections” and everything I heard during the panel discussion certainly spoke to that theme. The best quote to summarize the discussion would probably be, “Watch, listen, & show respect.”
1:15 – 2:45 In the afternoon, Maeve Buckley, a retired principal and leadership coach from the Central Okanagan, ran a session on leadership with us. She kicked off her session with an energic round of group sing to the song RESPECT, and carried this theme through her presentation as she used the same word, respect, as an acronym for leadership elements. We looked at different types of leadership styles, and watched an interesting clip on ‘Presence & The Drama Triangle’.
Maeve commented on the importance of self-awareness and self-reflection as a factor that predicates success as a leader, and it gave me a heightened appreciation for the reflective blogging I do! She also reminded us to speak positively, and that the absence of negative talk is only neutral, not positive. The main activity we participated in was a 4 corners activity where we were asked to consider which type of boat represented how was navigated change – a speed boat, sail boat, kayak or cruise ship. As we went around the room justifying our choices, there were some very interesting rationale; everything from how easy or difficult altering course was, to how many people could be brought along successfully with the change, or to what motivate or powered the boat’s change in direction. The boat was certainly an apt metaphor!
We wrapped the formal portion of the day a debrief with our family groups and facilitator before heading home or to our hotel to prep for the evening social. Today’s social was a wine and cheese event sponsored by the BCPVPA legal team and hosted by UBC / BCPVPA staff at Cecil Green House.
Day 4’s theme was Organizational Leadership and we began the day organized a little differently – this time in our ‘affinity groups’. These groups better represented the context we worked in – elementary or secondary, size of school, French immersion, alternate school, etc. The idea was to work today with folks who we were more likely to share a similar context with so we could, perhaps, relate better on the issues discussed throughout the day. During this morning, I got to meet another fellow VP from Sea to Sky, Jenelle Kresak.
Today was a lot of ‘legal stuff’ and understand roles, responsibilities, and what guides our practice as administrators. Our BCPVPA Legal and Contract services team was on hand to deliver a presentation, and supporting them was Allen Soltan of DLA Piper, LLP. Some of the topics covered included:
How the Law views the role of the Principal & Vice Principal
Guiding frameworks for practice (School Act, District Policy, TRB Standards, etc, etc)
Duties / Responsibilities of Principals & Vice Principals
Case Studies around social media use, duty to supervise
Use of force / restraint
Privacy / Access to Information
Workplace Bullying / Harassment & Discrimination
Elements of a personal services contract & benefits
Negotiation Agency of the BCPVPA
It was great to have bona fide legal advice on hand for the session to answer questions from our group. If I had a tip for next year’s group I’d say have all your burning legal questions ready to fire for this day.
Because we were organized in our Affinity Groups this day, we also had some great table talk with people in similar contexts. We also got a first peek at a phenomenal new resources for Principals and Vice Principals called the BCPVPA Start Smart Planning Guide.
While there’s no ‘how to’ manual for how to be an administrator, this new resource covers a lot of topics for new admin who may not even know what questions to ask or where to start. It’s being polished up and will be shared more widely soon, so keep your eyes out for it.
Friday, Day 4 was also the day of our evening banquet held at Sage Bistro. We had a few speeches from guests, spent time and took photos with our family groups and even had a dance competition. And despite a strong showing from Prince George, and an unnamed city who pre-emptively put their names on the trophy, it was Kelowna who ended up winning the dance competition by being the town with the last members standing on the dance floor at the end of the night. It was also nice during this evening to reconnect with my colleagues from North Van to check in and see how their experience at short course had been going so far.
To finish out the week, Saturday’s theme was “Inspiration to Lead”. We started a bit earlier as breakfast was provided this morning. Our family groups gathered once more to start to the day, and we began once more with reflections on yesterday’s learnings.
9:00 – 10:00 Our first speaker for Saturday was Pat Duncan, Superintendent of Learning with the Ministry of Education. Pat had given brief words of welcome at the previous night’s dinner, but today we really got to hear some detailed information from him on behalf of the ministry. He introduced himself first and foremost proudly as a teacher, and in doing so reminded us never to forget that’s what we are. His main purpose was to talk about the new BC curriculum and the WHY behind it all. He took us through the origins of its creation and some of the guiding questions that drove the process, including “What is worth learning?” He encouraged us to imagine teachers as coaches, mentors and activators, not the keepers of knowledge. And that being good at work sheets and memorization are not top skills for students entering the workforce. To demonstrate the difference between knowledge and understanding, Pat showed us a great clip about the Backwards Bicycle.
11:00 – 11:20 David DeRosa, the new President of the BCPVPA gave a brief talk on leadership, focusing on health, wellness and balance, giving a background of the BCPVPA and encouraging members to be involved in committees like chapter council and the issues forum. Something to consider in the future for sure!
11:20 – 11:40 Our final formal presentation of the week came from Kevin Reimer, our outgoing President of the BCPVPA as well as the incoming Executive Director. Kevin’s talk was titled ‘Learning, Leading and Laughing’, with the tongue-in-cheek subtitle ‘Learning from Kevin’s Many Leadership Mistakes’. He told us a wonderful story about a school he worked with in Comox who made their theme for the year “We Can”, and picked a theme song by a relatively unknown artist named Jesse Ruben. Jesse ended up coming to visit the school to shoot a music video with the school, and his work supporting students through the ‘We Can’ project spread from there! Kevin also talked about the importance of credibility, and the need to re-establish it at every new school you work at, and contrasted the difference between deep influential power versus authoritative, ‘cheap’ power. His final piece of inspiration was a quote he keeps on a post-it note on his computer monitor, to “Increase the Life Chances of Every Child” – and this should be our focus every day!
Short Course I was an inspiring, engaging (and exhausting!) full week experience of professional development. In the end, I would highly recommend it for any administrators who are early in their career. I think it was definitely valuable to have experiences to draw on, particularly during discussion times, so with that in mind I’d suggest that if you’ve never actually worked as a VP or P, it would be a conference better attended after you’ve spend a year in the role. The conference runs much longer than a typical day, so be prepared to spend your evenings out as well. I know many of the participants, particularly those from out of town, ended up staying at UBC in some of the rental housing, which is a great idea. Beyond the learnings and tools for the toolbelt, I just really enjoyed networking with a large group of people who were at a similar stage in their roles as administrators. You can never have a large enough support network for a role like this, and having people in other districts with a detached, informed and unique perspective on issues you may handle in the role is such an asset. A big thank you to organizers Liz, Jessica and Kim, and to our fabulous Group 16 facilitator, Anne! If you’ve attended a Short Course and have some perspective to add, please feel free to add your comments in the space below.
Fairness and equality are not the same thing, and at times really represent opposing value systems. I’ve found myself having often to weigh fairness and equality in the context of education, and in most instances fairness has won out. Allow me to provide three examples from athletics, student discipline and supporting complex student needs.
At Handsworth, our basketball program has tried to encourage as many students as possible to participate in grades 8 and 9. At the bantam level in particular, equality of opportunity is prized most, and is even included in the rules of play across the North Shore. During the first three quarters of games in grade 8, players are rotated in and out every 4 minutes. This gives every player an equal opportunity to participate during the first three quarters and to develop their skills in a game situation. Once players hit grade 10 our program focus moves from participation to competition. At the junior and senior levels we try and field the most competitive team possible. Playing time is no longer necessarily equitable, but rather determined by attendance & effort at practice, maintaining an acceptable academic standing, demonstrating sportsmanship, adherence to the student code of conduct and, ultimately, skill. Competitiveness and fairness for all become the modus operandi of the team. Students who do not attend practice regularly are not given the playing time that those who do attend are. That’s fair. Students who have dedicated more time and effort to developing themselves as players are given a greater opportunity to perform, because it’s fair. Students at any level who are unable to demonstrate good student citizenship may have their extra-curricular privileges curtailed, which is also fair.
A big part of being fair as a coach is providing transparency. There’s nothing more frustrating as a player than not being given an opportunity, but also not understanding why. Student – teacher, and coach – player relationships work best when there’s a mutual understanding of fairness. Providing clear instruction at the beginning of a season or school year about expectations can help provide a sense of fairness for all.
Student discipline has taken up a greater portion of my time than I had hoped or anticipated this year. And the conversation around discipline has, in many instances, turned to a conversation about what is perceived as fair or equitable. In almost every instance of student discipline I end up referring back to our school’s Student Code of Conduct. This is a document created and revised regularly with input from not only staff, but also parents and students themselves in order to enhance its quality of fairness. One section of the code that is particularly relevant for this discussion goes as follows:
“Disciplinary action, whenever possible, will be preventative and restorative, rather than merely punitive. The administration will take into account factors such as the severity and frequency of the offence(s), as well as the age, maturity, and ability of the student in question.”
By factoring in these variables, we can see that that spirit of the Student Code of Conduct is really to provide discipline that is fair before it is equal. Expectations for student behaviour and decorum increase as students (hopefully!) mature in the later grades. And students who repeatedly break the code of conduct should be dealt with using progressive discipline. A first time offender is typically not treated with the same level of discipline as someone who makes a habit of poor decision making.
We should always endeavour to treat students fairly, to support them, and assist them in making good decisions for themselves. A similar, yet different, system that comes to mind with thinking of equality vs fairness is the justice system. This system, despite providing progressive consequences for repeat offenders, I would argue, prizes equality before the law above fairness.
A final example of equality versus fairness in the education system is the way we support our complex learners. Many of our students have unique learning challenges that require additional support. If we were to prize equality for all, then the supports offered to all students would be the same. But this is not the case. The value we place on fairness is seen in the additional supports in terms of personnel, and adaptations or modifications provided to students that help them to find success at school. While not equal, this is certainly what is fair. In a just and democratic society, we should endeavour to see that all our students find success, not just some of them. Our communities will certainly be stronger for it. The support we offer our learners with unique challenges is a prime example of the education system demonstrating the value it places foremost on fairness.
Fairness and equality are two very different things. In education, I think fairness more accurately represents the value system we want to prize. Equality, while ostensibly a noble virtue, doesn’t always provide our students with the support they need to excel in extra-curricular areas, promote positive decision making, and support their academic success.
The winter break marks roughly the first 100 days in my role as Vice Principal at Handsworth. Without having any frame of reference from past years, I still think it’s safe to say it was a remarkably busy beginning to the school year. The learning curve for the position was described to me as ‘taking a sip from a firehose’, and I think after having experienced the first four months, that it’s an accurate description.
Preparations for the 2017/2018 school year had already began long before I took on my role. Building the school timetable, student course selections and preparations for school wide events for the year had already begun in earnest during the previous school year. One of the first challenges was to try and pick up work that had already began by others and to carry through and compliment it where possible. I spent part of July, and much of August making sure everything was in place for our massive 350 student Grade 8 Retreat. That event, combined with welcome preparations for our annual Japan Exchange, filled my plate with event planning.
The other major piece before the start of the school year was staffing. The restoration of class size and composition language in the BC teachers’ contract meant that more staff would need to be hired to start the year. That, combined with leaves and retirements, gave us about 20 new staff members to start the year. It took a few weeks in July, and every day leading up to the start of the school year before we were able to staff the school to meet the needs of our students. We were actually fortunate we were able to (almost) fill all of our positions before start-up. I know many other schools, especially in other districts, began the year severely short-staffed, and in some cases, still have positions unfilled.
The challenges to start the year were layered and varied. Operationally speaking we had staffing shortages, new orders for reporting on student learning, and the introduction of the new BC curriculum for grade 8 and 9. Decreasing class sizes necessitated recapturing teacher preparation areas from the school to convert them into instructional spaces. This meant some difficult conversations with people being displaced from areas of the school they were accustomed to working in, and having the unfortunate circumstance of some folks needing to work in upwards of 6 different spaces in the school. Certainly not ideal. Other school based challenges include ongoing student discipline, working to support our vibrant arts and athletics programs, and the continuing restructuring of spaces and supports to better accommodate the varied needs of our students, particularly our complex learners.
I’m very fortunate to be working this year with such a strong admin team. Our other VP was already working at Handsworth and provided some administrative continuity. And our new Principal has moved from the Vancouver School District to Handsworth and brings a wealth of experience and perspective that is refreshing. Plus, they’re just really great people! And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention how outstanding the ‘extended’ administrative team is. We work so closely with our front office staff, supervision, and counseling department on a daily basis, and their amazing work is so integral for us to be able to do our job well.
One of the great positives of my new role is that I now have a wider professional network in the district on which I can rely. All the administrators in our sister high-schools and family of elementary schools, as well as our directors and upper executive are always only a phone call away should we need their advice or assistance. Having a broader, district perspective is also important so I can stay in tune with the direction the district is moving when it comes to things like specialty district programs, aboriginal education and other emerging initiatives.
From my colleagues, I’ve learned not to get overwhelmed by the ‘tyranny of the urgent’. Some days I finish with more unread emails than I started the day with. And each and every person who comes through my office door throughout the day is there to share what their most pressing issue is at the moment. Providing an attentive and supportive ear is always needed. Admittedly, it can be difficult when conversation 1 is about a student in an emotional family crisis and, 5 minutes after, conversation 2 is with a staff member concerned their classroom is a bit too warm. Arguably the biggest part of the job is relationship building, and having people feel like they’re being heard, regardless of how big or small the issue is, is a huge part of that. One of the tools I’ve added to my belt is prioritizing responses. Emergent issues are classified in one of 4 ways: ‘urgent & important’, ‘not urgent, but important, ‘urgent, but not that important’, ‘not urgent & not important’. Clearly things that are ‘urgent & important’ are priority 1, and things that are ‘not urgent & not important’ can wait until later. This reduces the list of immediate ‘to-dos’ significantly during the work day.
Relational trust is, indeed, one of the most important aspects of any leadership position, and I’m very fortunate to get to still work at the school where I’ve established some great relationships with staff. But relationships are like a garden, and its takes continued time, care and attention to make sure they’re positive. Difficult conversations are certainly easier to have when you have an established positive, trusting rapport with a colleague. Having that relational piece already in place has allowed me to focus on learning more of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the job. To begin the year, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. As Donald Rumsfeld once said, there are such things as ‘unknown unknowns’. For example, having never taught a French Immersion class, I didn’t know how many FI credits students needed to get a dual dogwood. There were also ‘known unknowns’. I had also never built a school timetable, or used the administrator interface on MyEd. Relational trust has given me the space to focus on learning what I previously didn’t know.
My decade of work at Handsworth did, however, provide me with an existing understanding of how many of the programs at our school do work. Nowhere has this been more evident than in athletics, as I served previously for 4 years as our school’s Athletic Director. Disappointingly, this year also marks the first year I won’t be coaching basketball in 12 years. I do really miss coaching, and hope I can return to it once I’m better accustomed to the rhythm of the administrative calendar. I also miss my classroom and being able to teach about what I’m passionate about. I loved my business classes, and know I had many students who also found their passion in business by taking courses with me. My hope now is that in my new role that I can inspire more students and staff on a broader scale to engage in what they’re passionate about, and to take what excited me in the classroom about business and try to bring it out in other ways in the school.
Being a school-based administrator is an incredibly complex job. We have over 1600 people working in our building every day. In the business world, our school alone would be considered a ‘large’ business. There’s something new to deal with each day, whether its operational items like hiring and evaluations, organizing school wide events like Remembrance Day assemblies and parent teacher interviews, completing ministry requirements for tracking student data for school funding, overseeing school budgets, occupational health and safety, navigating the complex layers of managing a unionized work environment, supporting the social-emotional needs of students and staff, working with facilities on maintaining or transforming spaces, meeting with parents, covering classes for staff, or spearheading educational leadership initiatives. The list goes on! Amidst all the chaos of the day, it’s good to be constantly reminded that students need to be at the centre of all our decisions, and that if we’re framing all our choices by the greatest good for the greatest number of our kids, then we’re probably moving in the right direction.
I’ll end this post with a great resource for current or budding administrators. It’s been a wonderfully valuable reference point for me as I navigate this new professional journey. Here is a link to the Leadership Standards for BC Principal’s and Vice Principals. It was developed and revised by the BCPVPA Standards Committee in 2016 and provides some great insight into developing one’s capacity in educational leadership.
This past month I read George Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset. It was a book that came a good juncture in my professional growth as I move from teaching to administration. The book walked a nice line between both a teacher and administrator’s perspective on how to foster a culture of innovation in classrooms and a school as a whole. As with any book on education, I try to see if what I read simply reinforces my existing beliefs, or if it challenges me to see things differently. While much of what Couros writes was already in line with my beliefs, there was a lot of food for thought in the book and moments where I paused to reflect on my own experience and ways I could try to reframe some of the work we’re doing at Handsworth. I thought I might share a few notes and highlights from the book that really resonated with me.
This year our overarching goal at Handsworth has been deeper student engagement, inspired by our work the previous year with Design Thinking. In The Innovator’s Mindset, Couros says that engagement is good, but empowerment is better. I have had a confluence of inspirations between my experiences at High Tech High with exhibitions of student learning, the self-assessment piece coming with BCs New Curriculum and now reading Couros’ comments of moving beyond engagement. I’m excited to see how we can move towards real student empowerment next year. One idea we are working with is to possibly restructure our twice-yearly parent-teacher interviews to have them be, rather, led by students who will share what they’ve been learning, perhaps with a portfolio of work.
One of the quotes Couros cited early in the book was from American educator and author, Stephen Covey, who talks about the speed of trust. As someone who subscribes completely to the idea that any organization is only as strong as its people and the relationships between them I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that things just get done, and get done faster, where there is an established culture of trust. This culture is developed, as Couros says, “by the expectations, interactions, and, ultimately, the relationships of the entire learning community.” But, even more importantly, relationships are built first on a one-to-one basis. I like Couros’ suggestion that as an administrator it is important to work with smaller staff groups of 2 to 4 people to create an intimacy that is lacking with larger assembly style groups. I have been fortunate to work with some great district administrators in North Vancouver who have also worked hard to create relationships with other staff in those types of smaller working groups. Networking is so important, because, as is mentioned in the book, “alone we are smart, together we are brilliant.” Strong relationships create an environment for innovation.
I had to laugh when the example of Blockbuster was brought up when illustrating the notion that organizations must “innovate or die”. I actually worked for Blockbuster all through my high school and university years. I was an employee there in the year 2000 when a small, little known company named Netflix began its mail order DVD program.
In what is now a fairly well known monumental business blunder, Blockbuster’s CEO had the opportunity to buy Netflix but decided to pass on it because he considered video streaming to be a niche market. Education is also a “business” that is experiencing a rapid transformation. Our students, as “clients”, have higher expectations than ever for how they will be served. It’s on us, collectively, to make sure we aren’t delivering a VHS experience where a digital one is required.
So how do we foster this innovative change we are so earnestly pursuing? Couros says that to inspire change, we must make a connection to the heart first before making a connection to the mind. And again, this really speaks to the importance of relationships – both between staff, and also staff and students. Inspiration comes from embracing possibilities. And as an educational leader, it is going to be incumbent upon me to help create those conditions where creative risk taking and positive change is more likely to occur. A culture of compliance is anathema to fostering innovation. Moreover, it’s important to realize that the improvement of our practice will never really have a finish line. We’re in education after all. If, as a discipline, we’re not constantly adapting and improving, then we aren’t truly living what it means to embrace that culture of learning.
Today, more than ever before, there seems to be this pronounced push and pull between innovative, personalized, big idea learning practices, and the forces of testing, compliance and traditional learning. Thankfully it seems that new thinking is beginning to win the day. School shouldn’t be about “what’s on the test”. It should be a safe and welcoming place where students have permission to make mistakes; to fail quickly and fail often so they learn to find success, not just in the classroom, but also in life. In reading The Innovators Mindset I was reminded of a John Green quote I love. To paraphrase, it goes, “About the test… The test will measure whether you are an informed, engaged, and productive citizen of the world, and it will last your entire life, and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that, when taken together, will make your life yours. And everything, everything, will be on it.” Whether or not we prepare our students to be productive, happy and engaged citizen is the real measurement, I believe, of quality of the learning happening in our schools.
There was, however, one assertion Couros made that I wanted to challenge. He asks what is a student more likely to need to know how to write: an essay or a blog post, suggesting that the latter was more important. I understand the irony of questioning this within a blog post, but I have to say that any good piece of persuasive writing, be it an op-ed piece, a blog post or even an online review requires some understanding of ethos, pathos and logos – elements of persuasion that are the foundation of a good essay. This is in addition to understanding the importance of quality evidence and establishing a good structure. This is not to say the essay is the be all and end all, but it gives young writers a great foundation; a platform from which they can propel to all other forms of writing, including blog posts. But maybe that’s just the English teacher in me. Blogging is certainly important. Couros discusses what a fantastic professional development tool it can be, and I have to agree. While I know what I write is read by very few people, it encourages me to refine my thinking on topics in education – something I will increasingly be challenged to do as I navigate the world of administration.
As a budding administrator, Couros reminds me that the higher up any one person is in an organization, the more people they serve. I’m looking forward to serving more people than ever, and hopefully in the process being a force for innovation and change that can affect even more students. One of the most profound questions that came up frequently in The Innovators Mindset was, “Would I want to be a learner in my own classroom?” I will be serving many classrooms now; albeit in a different capacity, so I feel there is an enhanced responsibility to ensure that all classrooms in the school are safe and caring spaces for learning. But beyond that, I think for me, it’s also going to be important for me to ask, “Would I want to be a staff member in my own school?” The Innovator’s Mindset has given me some good inspiration in helping me make that a positive reality.
I’ve written previously on how important I think financial education is in schools, and so in the spirit of collegiality I’d like to share an example lesson I recently delivered in my class that illustrates well the kinds of activities a teacher who is looking to introduce business or personal finance might try.
This was taken from my business class’s unit on credit, and a lesson we were doing on credit cards. We’ll all likely need to access credit at some point during our lives, be it for a car loan, mortgage, student loan or even for consumer spending. My first message to the students when it comes to credit cards is that abstinence is best – but if we’re going to use them, we should be well-informed and responsible users.
By way of background, I use a course iBook with my students – a sort of custom digital course text I have developed for my class that contains all the content I plan to use throughout the year. Without going too deep into the details, it basically allows me the opportunity to employ a flipped-classroom instructional strategy, and keeps all of my traditional curricular content housed in one easy-to-access digital collection. My intent for this lesson was to create an activity based on student understandings of the different characteristics of credit cards. To that end, I have listed in the course iBook a series of definitions students need to have a handle on in order to make the activity a success. These definitions include things like ‘credit limit’, ‘cash advance fees’, ‘minimum payments’, and so on.
To begin the lesson I gave students a chance to refresh on those concepts so we could make sure everyone would be able to participate fully in the activity. I then assessed their prior understanding by distributing a handout with a set of Likert scale questions asking students how important they thought each of those features were when it came to selecting a personal credit card. Obviously having an understanding of what each of those terms meant would be a pre-requisite to evaluating their relative merit. My goal was also to see at the end of the lesson if the students still felt those were the most important characteristics after having completed the activity.
Once prior understanding had been assessed the fun could begin. Prior to class, I had created 60 laminated fake credit cards, enough for each student to have 2, and also created 20 different profiles of card based on 5 types of 4 different brands: MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Discover. I allowed each student to draw 2 cards and gave them an accompanying handout with 2 tables on which to record the specific features of their selected cards. On blue posters hung around the classroom were listed all the characteristics of the 20 different cards. All the students had to get up out of their chairs and circulate the room to the 10 different posters to find out what was ‘in their wallet’!
Once they had recorded the 10 different characteristics of their two cards, students returned to their seats to evaluate which of their two they felt was a ‘better’ card by drawing a star above that table.
Next, I asked everyone to get back up out of their seats for some real mayhem. Students were challenged to try and get the ‘best’ card possible by trading their cards with their classmates. There was a lot of wheeling and dealing during this period with students trying to convince each other to trade.
Students had to think critically about the different features of each card, what was important to them and how they could convince others of the qualities of their cards. This required a deep understanding of the characteristics of the cards and happened to be a lot of fun too. The students seemed to get a real kick out of trying to negotiate with each other for their laminated credit cards.
Once the trading started to slow I asked everyone to go back to their seats. I posed the question, “Who thinks they have the best card, and why?” Different tudents offered their opinions, and it was during this period that we really understood that what constitutes a ‘good’ card really depends on personal preference. Do you prioritize having a low or no fee card? Do you prefer having a particular rewards program associated with your card? Or maybe cash back? Is being able to perform a no fee balance transfer with an interest grace period important? The answer completely depends on the profile of the user.
I finished the lesson by going through, one last time, each of the 10 different features we highlighted reflected upon the merits of each as they pertained to particular user profiles. For example, foreign transaction fees would be more important to a user who travels often… making only minimum payments is a recipe for disaster for all credit card users… and we also had a rich discussion about what merchant fees are. We even tied in a current event where Walmart and Visa had a dispute over merchant fees.
In the end, the students came away with a much richer understanding of the complexity of credit and credit cards, and can now make a more informed decision when it comes to, first, whether to have a credit card or not and, secondly, which card features will be important to them if they do decide in the future to make use of one. And they were engaged and having fun along the way.
I’ve made free use of some of the resources I’ve developed for this lesson here on my blog. Feel free to use them or alter them as you see fit. If you have any suggestions as to how I might improve this activity, please leave me a message in the comments section below.
Last year I wrote a blog post on the indigenisation of education in BC and mentioned in it how I hoped to infuse more indigenous ways of learning into my practice. Having just returned from our annual Japan Exchange, I thought it was a good time now to update that previous post with some fresh perspective.
For the past 8 years I’ve led the our school’s Grade 9 Japan Exchange, welcoming students from Inage Secondary School in Chiba each October, and returning to Japan every April. This past year I endeavoured to add more curricular connections to the itinerary by revising our tour to go through Hokkaido, the ancestral home of Japan’s indigenous people, the Ainu. This was done with the express purpose of better aligning our cultural experiences in Japan with the indigenization of BC’s new curriculum. My intent was to have students think critically about the commonalities between the historical narrative of the Ainu as compared to our own BC Indigenous peoples.
The following are some of my observations from those experiences, but I should stress that my understanding of the Ainu is cursory at best.
Our trip took us to the town of Shiraoi in Hokkadio, home to Ainu Museum at Porotokotan. The word ‘Porotokotan’ is actually an Ainu word that means “village by the large lake”. In fact, many of the names around Hokkaido including Shiraoi and Sapporo come from the Ainu language. This is not unlike North Vancouver (and BC more broadly), where places names like Capilano and Klahanie draw their origins to the Squamish language.
And the comparisons only begin there. In visiting the Ainu museum, our group of 30 students and 4 teachers learned a great deal about this once vibrant culture. For example, traditionally, Ainu girls would get large tattoos around their mouth, the result of ash smeared in small cuts, to show their marriage eligibility. Because the tattoos were so elaborate and painful, they were completed slowly over time typically starting at age 7. This was just the first of many examples of practices outlawed by Japan’s government. The Meiji government, similar to the Canadian government, also outlawed the use of the Ainu language. The erosion of Ainu culture and language were, at the time, seen as modern cultural advances – not unlike the dogma prescribed to in Canadian residential schools. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the Japanese government started to recognize the uniqueness of Ainu culture. In 1997 the Ainu Cultural Promotions law finally recognized the need to preserve their culture. Unfortunately for all intents and purposes it was too little too late.
What is even more unfortunate is that today studying the Ainu is really a cautionary tale – they represent, in essence, a dead culture. You don’t go to museums to see living, vibrant examples of culture. You go to museums to see relics of the past, and that’s really what it felt like going through the Ainu Museum. It’s frightening to think how close we came to having the very same end to some of our local indigenous cultures in North Vancouver. According to Wikipedia there are as few as 10 people who can still speak Ainu. As far as I can tell, unless at least a small sub-community is conversing regularly with each other in a language, it is all but extinct. In Porotokotan we watched dance and musical perfomances in thatched-roof houses, smoked salmon hanging overhead. And although Hokkaido is almost 7,000 kilometers from Vancouver I strangely felt very close to home. Whether it was the song and dance, the hanging salmon, the carved dugout canoes outside or, sadly, the visibly devastating impact of colonialism on this community, it was clear to me that this culture had far more in common than not with Indigenious peoples of North Vancouver. It made me thankful, more than ever, that we are doing everything we can now to preserve and honour the Indigenous culture and heritage of Canada’s First Peoples, and not forgetting them in a dusty museum.