Sunday, November 29, 2015

Leadership as Incubation

I believe that a learning disposition drives improvement and innovation.

A few years ago I may have said that "things" drive improvement.  You know....things like curriculum, the Internet, tablets, computers, reading programs, discipline programs.....

Now don't get me wrong, many of these "things" have brought great improvements and efficiency to the educational landscape. 

But programs are fleeting. Curriculum changes. And while technology is changing our lives and transforming the educational and learning landscape, it's effective adoption and implementation is, at its core, an iterative process. 

And while there is a place for leadership to introduce "things", real improvement, lasting transformation and innovation is about creating systems and conditions that promote continuous learning and improvement -for all learners.

I have come to realize that I am most effective when I promote the creation of systems and conditions that promote individual and collective improvement (& not necessarily programs).

This year we are embarking on a process of continuous school improvement that is less about initiating programs and more about creating the systems and conditions for the teachers to assess the needs of the students they serve and act accordingly (which can include introducing new programs, resources, etc). 

In a sense we are embarking on a process of creating a "learning incubator".

In the business world, an incubator is a place:
designed to accelerate growth and success..... through an array of (business) support resources and services that could include physical space, capital, coaching, common services, and networking connections .

We are striving to create the conditions and systems where the working professionals are given time, supports, resources and opportunities to reflect, act and network in order to provide for the further success of our students.  

Here are a few ways we are creating an incubator for learning:

A Visible and Connected Continuous School Improvement Plan

Pencil connecting the dots
Connecting the dots of learning...
Flowing from a comprehensive visioning process, we have now implemented a more formalized process whereby by faculty (and department teams) reflect and document their learning.  Learning goals and action plans are made visible by all in the school via our newly created "Dashboard" of  learning.  This Dashboard is publicly shared and posted for all in our community see in order that we make our learning visible, connected and networked.  We want people to "connect the dots" of learning.

Time for Learning
For the second year we are continuing with our school Learning Teams.  This year, we have added a learning innovation grant that teachers can access to further support their learning.  

Physical Space
We are currently in the process planning for renewed facilities for our students, faculty, and staff.  Some of the key design principles being implemented include: learning neighborhoods, learning commons, transparency and flexibility.

By creating some of these "conditions for incubation" we are already starting to see some new teacher driven initiatives.  For example:
  • Teachers are implementing online digital portfolios for students (e.g.  Freshgrade, Google Drive, etc.) 
  • New courses/programs have been created including a "Make It" class, a culinary class, technical theatre class, robotics club and the imminent launch of Google Apps for Education for students. 
  • The increasing dismantling of curricular silos and replaced by cross-curricular and cross grade connections. 
At the end of the day- this process is about creating a climate of continuous learning that empowers teachers so that they can, in turn, empower student learning. 

As usual, I am still figuring it out.........

Monday, September 21, 2015

The (Sometimes) Reluctant Principal

I have the best job in the world. Being around talented, passionate, inquisitive, creative, compassionate and fun people is inspiring.

Sometimes, however, I'd rather not be "the boss".  At times I'd rather not have the "buck" stop with me. Sometimes I'd rather not have the spotlight. Sometimes I'd rather not "skate into the puck". There are times that I'd rather not have to make difficult decisions. Many of these leadership competencies and responsibilities can be physically and emotionally draining- and sometimes take a personal toll.

There are times when I'd rather not be that person. There have been moments where I have felt like a reluctant leader.

However, these moments of reluctance are overwhelmingly overshadowed by a powerful internal force.  It's a force that comes for an internal restlessness to do what is right for those I serve.

It's a force that comes from a passion and a strong desire to do what is right for students. It is this restless passion that keeps me on this path despite my moments of reluctance. 

Some will read this and wonder...."isn't leadership about confidence and assertiveness?" Yes, I would argue that these are required leadership traits. Nonetheless my reluctance enables me to be more confident and assertive.

More than assertiveness and confidence, my reluctance fosters certain other dispositions and traits.

For example, being a reluctant leader allows me to be vulnerable. I am comfortable asking for help, admitting to my mistakes and letting people know that I don't have the answers.

My reluctance allows me to more reflective and less reflexive.

Being a reluctant leader allows for a natural inclination to include others in decisions - allowing for more collaboration and collegiality. 

My reluctance allows me to trust others. 

Being a reluctant leader forces me to be plugged in to my "why" - always reflecting on my own internal values and compass points.

My reluctance allows me to be a restless learner - always thirsting for opportunities to network, collaborate and learn from others. I'm always trying to figure things out - always wondering if there is a better way....

My moments of reluctance allow me to be humble and rooted in the those that I serve.

I feel blessed to have moments of reluctance because ultimately they make me a better person and a better leader. 

All of this ultimately leads to a fundamental question: What motivates you to lead?  The answer will ultimately define you as a leader. 

As usual, I am still figuring things out and would welcome any feedback...

Friday, July 10, 2015

From Future Possibilties to Priorities: Inspiring a Vision for Learning

This past school year marks the first for me as principal at my school.  One of the exciting opportunities that stand before us as a community is the renewal a large portion of our campus with newer, safer and more modern facilities.  

With the exciting prospect of building newer walls and spaces, comes a much more profoundly important prospect of examining and renewing the teaching and learning culture at the school.  

Typically, the idea of building walls gets people's attention.  Given that we have peoples', attention, this year we decided to ask one basic and fundamental question:  "What should teaching and learning look like at the school in its next century?"

We spent the the first five months of the year engaging faculty, staff, parents and students in answering this important question.

The process involved surveying and holding small and large group meetings with all stakeholders. Of particular interest was the process for engaging the faculty of the school in asking them important questions about teaching (pedagogy) and learning.  

The questions were clustered in three broad categories: Delivery, Curriculum & Assessment, and Facilities.  Teachers were asked to reflect on their practice and rate where they see themselves currently and where they might want to be in the future.  For each pedagogical practice, teachers were give a 5 point scale from "traditional to transformed".

For example, in the category of "Delivery" there was a question regarding "delivery modes". Teachers were given descriptors from 1 (traditional) to 5 (transformed) for this question.  At the more traditional end of the scale, delivery was described as predominantly teacher direct instruction with little student participation while at the transformed end of the scale you saw more project based, discussion based instruction with direct instruction only when needed (see below for a the sample questions and criteria.

The results were then collected and plotted on a spider graph. The intent was to see where staff saw there practice today and where they saw their practice in the future. The graphics below are a sample of a summary of results from a few different department groupings.  You will notice that red line indicates where faculty see their practice today and the blue line indicates their future goal.

The results of this process have proven to be extremely informative. On the whole most faculty members want to move their practice to a more "transformed" place (in a thoughtful and student centred manner).

As principal, the burning question for me is: how do we help staff bridge the gap between where they are now and where they want to go?

Over the next 12 months we will embark on a process of continuous school improvement. The intent is create a system where faculty and staff can come together in a strategic way to support each other in their desired future goals.  

An important take away in this continuous improvement plan is NOT to create goals for teachers.  Instead, we will create school wide priorities based on the feedback we received. 

Our priorities will be evidence based, inspiring, future orientated, challenging and inspiring action statements that will give direction to the entire school.  From these priorities, departments, sections and teachers will be asked to create goals that make sense for them in their practice and context.  

This process is not about micromanaging action.  

It is about taking the collective future possibilities and transforming them into strategic priorities.  

It is about inspiring and cultivating action that will best serve the learning needs of our students. 

It should be noted that to support teachers and their goals, we will continue with our Learning Teams initiative (I suspect these teams will become even more focussed and purposeful!).

This process has underscored a few important points for me, namely: 

  • It is a constant truth that teachers care deeply about their students and their learning needs.  
  • If you create a space that allows teachers to reflect and exercise their intelligence, they will, in the main, use it thoughtfully and effectively
  • When it comes to inspiring change, process is as important as product.

Still figuring it out.....

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When the "Media" takes a Back Seat to the "Social"

Regular readers of this blog will know that I decided to "all in" with social media about six years ago. I joined Twitter, started a blog and a variety of other social media platforms.

To this day, I tell everyone whose interested, that the decision to "connect" through social media has been the one of the best decisions of my professional career. My connections have put me in touch with some of the smartest, kindest and interesting people on the planet. 

Recently, however, my use of social media has dropped off significantly. While I'm not necessarily proud of this, I think it has become a necessary reality.

When I joined social media nearly six years ago, I was firmly embedded in relationships within my school community. This year, as I transplant myself into a new school community,  the "media" has taken a back seat to the "social".

My new beginning has come with an important opportunity to establish community, trust and leadership through relationships. 
But here's the thing about establishing new relationships - in the process one can easily take for granted the relationships that are already established. In this regard I am guilty as charged. 

There is no question that in my zeal to establish new relationships in community, I have let my established relationships (with those nearest and dearest and those on social media) take a back seat. 

I realize that some would argue that I am perpetuating the Digital Dualism argument (or even fallacy)  

The fact remains, I have been less connected in social media spaces because I have been more connected in "non-media" social spaces. 

In a sense, I think this a necessary reality when joining a new school community.

Truth be told, like anything in life, I probably need to strike a better balance.  

Nonetheless, I am still figuring out...

Friday, January 2, 2015

New School: A Principal's Mid-Year/New Year Reflection.

It's been just over 4 months since I've started as principal at Vancouver College.

In short, I've been finding my way. Some days have felt more comfortable than others. I have had purposeful moments with feelings of having taken "two steps forward". I have also had feelings of frustration - feeling as if I've taken no steps forward.

Some days I've felt that I'm "figuring it out" and other days, not so much.

But here's the thing- I love what I'm doing. And I'm grateful for the wonderful people that surround me.  I feel that I have the best job in the world!

So as I enter the second half of the school year, here's a little reflection and update on how things are going:

Relationship Building & Earning Trust
Like I've said before, relationships are at the heart of leadership and teaching. I would say that my first four months have been intensely focused on relationship building. Either directly or indirectly, whether in a meeting, in my office, at a retreat, at a game, in the hallways; talking with a parent, a student, a teacher or colleague - it's been about building relationships.
Ultimately this continues to be a process gaining trust. After all, trust is the currency of leadership.

I'm also keenly aware that, while the process of "relationship building" has been personally uplifting and incredibly supportive, it can also be taxing and impact those with whom I already have relationships. While not unique to me, I continue to be mindful of the professional/personal time commitment balancing act in my life.

Humbled by the gratitude, enthusiasm and work ethic
Being intensely focused on relationships has allowed me to see great professionals do great things in service of students. School life is a buzz with learning activities both inside and outside the classroom. I have felt myself humbled by the level of dedication that the faculty and staff have exhibited. I have been equally humbled by the level of gratitude students and parents express in response to this service.

The students at the school are a constant source of inspiration. Whether I'm in the Kindergarten class watching the boys play and learn (I have to admit, when I'm having a bad day, a short visit to K is the perfect remedy) or simply chatting with a senior student about their studies or their future plans - it is extremely inspiring to be around this group of students.

As an example, check out this student organized event where 1200 staff and students came together to support men's health by wearing fake mustaches

And the short, their support of students, staff and the school is equally inspiring and humbling.

A few new things
1. We've allocated contracted time for staff collaboration and created a rotation of staff meetings, department meetings, and learning team meetings. In an effort establish a collaborative and sharing culture, our staff meetings begin with a different learning team sharing an exciting practice or discovery. We have already heard from teachers share discoveries around "play based learning", fostering a growth mindset for students and formative assessments across the curriculum.

Not surprisingly, this new collaborative structure has not been perfect and we have had to make some early adjustments in response to some feedback from teachers. With time, I suspect we will continue to make more adjustments.

2. We are continuing to see more technology integration throughout the school. Early in the school year we asked teachers what types of technology they need to further empower student learning.  In response to their input, we will be increasing WiFi accessibility to students and will be seeing more students bring their own devices to school.

We have also ordered a few class sets Chromebooks and Android tablets for use throughout the middle and senior school. We are also seeing more requests personalized mobile technology - whether through various cloud based tools or hardware (e.g. more Google Apps, personalized fitness monitoring devices)

Of note, I am not a fan of a scripted "technology policy or strategy" per say. While there is a need to be strategic and forward thinking, when it comes to technology decisions, those decisions need to be derived from an appetite for technology from students and teachers.

As a school leader, I need to create the conditions for this appetite. For a variety of reasons, the appetite for technology is increasing and as a school we need to respond.

3. Advisory Groups. This is the first year of our cross grade advisory groups (Gr. 10-12). I am seeing great potential for these groups moving forward.

4. We have also started a gentle review of the schools education program. Our first step has been to ask teachers what they are passionate about and how that might leverage into new courses/assignments  they may want to teach or develop at the school. Some of the early feedback is exciting!

Exciting Near Future

Mapping our Pedagogy
We will be embarking on a process of campus renewal here at Vancouver College. However, rather than just building "more of the same", within the coming months we will be developing a "vision for learning" to help shape the design of the school. One of our first steps is to develop a "pedagogical map" of where our teachers see themselves now and where they want to go into the future in terms of their pedagogy. The "map" will chart teacher attitudes regarding all aspects of pedagogy - curriculum, assessment, and instruction- from "traditional to transformed". This will provide critical information for our design team and for our admin team as we support our teachers professional learning needs into the future. (There will be more news to come on this)

Continuous Improvement
We will also be developing/adopting some sort of continuous school improvement framework. I have been thinking a lot about this lately. I'm a firm believer that if everything is a priority than nothing is a priority.

Here's the thing- I've seen lots of nicely packaged (principal created) school growth plans that virtually no one in the school knows about (other than the admin team).

The challenge will be to empower and engage all the teachers in the process, to make the process relevant to their day to day teaching and learning needs, embed our values and to make it visible to parents and students. Interestingly enough, I've been looking into some cloud based tools to assist with this process. Again, more news to come.

Teaching Lab
As we enter the hiring season we are thinking about implementing a "teaching lab" element to our hiring process. I've always wondered why we don't ask teachers to teach a lesson as part of their interview process. This year we are thinking of giving this a shot. I'm sure we will learn a lot about this process moving forward.

The first 140 days have been exhilarating, exciting and humbling. The next 140 should be equally so, as I continue to figure it out.....

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kids These Days...

I recently came across an article entitled: Teaching Generation Me.

The article, written for faculty members in medical schools, describes today's students as "Generation Me" and gives some practical advice for teaching today's cohort of medical students.  The article's abstract sums up the research results and the author's inference's this way:

Today’s students (Generation Me) score higher on assertiveness, self-liking, narcissistic traits, high expectations, and some measures of stress, anxiety and poor mental health, and lower on self-reliance. Most of these changes are linear; thus the year in which someone was born is more relevant than a broad generational label. Moreover, these findings represent average changes and exceptions certainly occur. 
These characteristics suggest that Generation Me would benefit from a more structured but also more interactive learning experience, and that the overconfidence of this group may need to be tempered. Faculty and staff should give very specific instructions and frequent feedback, and should explain the relevance of the material. Rules should be strictly followed to prevent entitled students from unfairly working the system. Generation Me students have high IQs, but little desire to read long texts. Instruction may need to be delivered in shorter segments and perhaps incorporate more material delivered in media such as videos and an interactive format. Given their heightened desire for leisure, today’s students may grow into professionals who demand lighter work schedules, thereby creating conflict within the profession.
In short, the author asserts that today's youth know what they want, are self centered, smart, place high expectations on themselves, have inflated egos, don't want to work as hard and, in return, are increasingly stressed out and rely on others (primary their parents) to help them out.

The article is an interesting read and makes some provocative assertions. For example, the author claims that students are more entitled and want higher grades for less output. As proof that students today are more entitled, she states:

Those in high school in the 2000s, who will be the medical students of the 2010s, feel entitled for another reason: they were given better grades for doing less work. A total of 20% fewer high school students did 15 or more hours of homework per week in 2006 than in 1976, and more did no homework at all. Yet the number of A-grade students has nearly doubled over the same period: whereas only 18% of students said they earned an A or A-average in 1976, 33% said they were A students in 2006, representing a whopping 83% increase in self-reported A-grade students. Generation Me has come to expect an easy ride, courtesy of their high school education.
I could spend the entire post reacting to this statement. Suffice to say, that pinning the "grade inflation" issue on hours of homework completed is a "red herring". The grade inflation issue has little to do with the number of minutes a learner spends doing homework and everything to with the assessment and evaluation practices of teachers. In fact, I would argue that the practice of linking effort to grades is one of the causes of grade inflation! Spending more time on work should not inform a student's grade, but rather, a student's demonstrated understanding,  relative the learning outcomes, is what should be graded. 

The article also gives some advice to professors and instructors.  The advice is actually good advice.  But here I would argue the advice has little to do with the year the learner was born, and more to do with....well, good teaching.

Making learning relevant, providing specific feedback and not droning for a 60 or 90 minute lecture are as important today as they were 50 years ago.  

The article, although interesting and somewhat insightful, triggers some discomfort for me.  I have always been uneasy with the labeling of groups of students.

I have been part of conversations where adults are quick to label a certain grade level of kids in a school.

"This group of kids is (fill in the blank - smart, leaders, challenging, etc.)"  

We need to be careful not to label or stereotype groups of students.  The danger, as I see it, is that our stereotypes have the potential to negatively impact that critical relationships between teachers and learners.  It is this relationship, rooted in trust, expertise, and high expectations, that allows teachers to meet the individual needs of students.

Are today's student's more "entitled? Are parents more involved in their children's lives for longer?  Are students expecting more for less? Are they more stressed? (I think they are: Relax: It's only high school)  


But before we label this generation, I think we need to ask ourselves "why"?  What is driving this behaviours?  What role do we -  the educators and creators of the current academic systems -  have in encouraging the very behaviours we are seeing (and complaining about) in our current students?

It was Peter Senge who wrote: "Today's problems are a consequence of yesterday's solutions"

Students today are living and learning in a  different world than their parents and teachers grew up in. It's true that our teaching and learning needs to constantly evolve to deal with today's realities. 

I would also argue that there are some pedagogical constants that we can still hold on to - not because students were were born in a certain decade but because they are good for kids.

I also know that I continue to work with this generation of students because their passion, intelligence, commitment and sense of service to others continues to inspire me.

I think this video clip entitled "Lost Generation" illustrates this nicely:

Kids these days.....what an inspiration!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Learning Teams Launched

Each school year presents new and exciting opportunities for learning and growth - certainly for students - but equally important for faculty and staff. To that end, this year we have launched the Vancouver College Learning Teams.

This is an opportunity for the adults at the school to come together on a regular basis to “exercise their intelligence” in the service of the students.

Already, teams have come together to explore topics such as:
  • Learning Empowered by Technology using specific apps (e.g. Notability, Google Apps, Board Maker) 
  • Differentiated Instruction & Technology
  • Technology & Science in the Kindergarten Classroom
  • Faith Formation across the curriculum
  • Problem Based Learning
  • School Advisory Program 
  • Assessment for Learning
  • Olweus anti-bullying program
  • Growth Mindset book study
  • Teaching Games
  • “Make to Learn”
In an effort to maximize the potential for these teams to have complete success we put in place a few parameters and "environmental" considerations, namely:

1. We created time in the day for teachers to meet. Every Wednesday afternoon is dedicated to teacher collaboration. These Learning Teams will operate during this time.

2. We asked staff to come up with Collaboration Commitments. These are the commitments team members make to each other before, during and after collaboration time.

3. We are asking teams to report out on their learning during full staff meetings - thus allowing for a cross pollination of ideas across the entire campus. This also shifts the focus of staff meetings from "information sharing" to a "learning and sharing"

4. We created a collaboration schedule that removed the Elementary School, Middle School, Senior School silos - thus allowing teachers from across the K-12 spectrum to join common teams. As a K-12 campus, it will be exceedingly important that we continue to overcome the tendency to silo and instead take full advantage of the  K-12 learning spectrum. 

5.Each teams will be provided resources, upon request, to deepen their learning experience.

Already, teachers are acting on their learning team initiatives. For example, some teachers are asking for increased student use of technology in classroom (from specific apps to increased access to devices). Other teachers are starting to incorporate Growth Mindset teaching in their classes and still others are reexamining their assessment and grading practices.

All of this is part of a continuing plan to make teaching and learning more engaging, enriching and empowered for our students and teachers.

My early sense is that these learning teams will be a great source of innovation and improvement for our learning community.

Still Figuring It Out.....