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.....