Category Archives: Developing and Facilitating Leadership

Principle Reflections – The Four C’s for Year One

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I have made it through year one as a Principal! (Ok, only eleven days left!)

I figured out a long time ago that the school year always passes quickly.  Maybe that’s a function of age.  However, this year seemed to pass at an even greater breakneck pace.  I think that was a function of the amount of learning I needed to do this time around.  July is coming and I’ll be able to breathe soon.

So how did the year go?  I would say pretty gosh darn good.  All the of the balls for big picture items are still up in the air and are being juggled reasonably well. There is no doubt that  a few smaller balls have been deferred or dropped.  I believe that the year can be characterized as a positive year for students, staff, and the admin team at both sites. And I am pretty proud of the role that I have played to support the work of our staff.

If I was to sum up this school year, I would want to talk about four areas. Two areas that I believe have come a long way in our schools this year are Collaboration and Culture of Learning. Two areas that I believe need continued growth are Communication and Community Involvement.

What was grown this year…

Collaboration – This is what I believe needs to be a foundational approach to the work that we do in education.  Our kids and society are too complex for any one educator to have all of the answers.  A lot teachers have figured this out and have created networks for themselves to access when they run into a situation for which they need help.  This year we have formalized that process and will continue to do so next year too.

Teachers were placed in more or less grade level teams called Collaborative Learning Teams (CLT).  On approximately a monthly basis, they met and were able to discuss students who posed some sort of an instructional challenge with their colleagues.  There were educational discussions related to learning disabilities, promoting reading, connecting kids to friends and school, managing behaviors, speech and language development, anxiety disorders, parenting support, and more. From each discussion, teachers were left with both short and long term strategies to try.  Students were then reviewed at each meeting to check progress and offer further suggestions if needed.  The discussions were inspiring at times!  There was always a culture of support but there was also a willingness to challenge ideas and assumptions.

This work will become the foundation to build a Collaborative Response Model based on Response to Intervention practices in the coming school year.  It is important to note, that because this work is so important, these discussions happened within the school day.  Teachers were  not expected to juggle their after school schedules to participate.

Culture of Learning – I would venture to say that there has been a different feel in the admin led staff development activities this year.  The staff has experienced a broad range of topics to illustrate the breadth of what is happening in our complex educational landscape.  At the beginning of March, I shared a video clip from 2008 which was at about the time when the “talk” of the need for significant educational reform was taking off.  By taking the key points from that clip and connecting them to current educational practice, The Schools We Need – Then And Now, teachers could see that, in those seven short years, there has been a significant response and shift in the work that we do and it will have lasting implications for educational practice.  From there we have engaged in sessions on Cross Curricular Competencies, The Learning Technology Policy Framework, and their relationship to the Ministerial Order on Student Learning and Inspiring Education.

Professional development has encompassed a broad range of topics.  Some of the highlights include a team of five teachers participating in The Daily 5, a team of seven participating in the Google Summit, a team of four participating in Response to Intervention, and five others participating in project based learning sessions. Teachers have participated in at least one PD session this year with many participating in several. Teachers are reporting on their PGP progress at year end. All of this has been culminated in a viewing of the Ted Talk by Andrew McAfee – What Will Future Jobs Look Like? amplifying the importance of the work we do as educators to prepare our students for the future.

I believe this will be a strong foundation upon which to build the Collaborative Response Model/RTI process which will, in turn, generate the continued learning for teachers as they identify the needs of their students and ensure they have the instructional repertoire to meet those needs.

What needs to grow next year…

Communication – This is communication in the larger sense of the school to the school community. This is most definitely an area of growth. While both Forest Green and Connections For Learning have met basic expectations of classroom newsletters and traditional monthly newsletters with the occasional newspaper visit, there is not a strong web presence for either site.  We need to do some examination of what makes the most sense for our school communities.  Most likely, we will build our communication toward accessibility on mobile devices. Will it be Facebook?  Will it be Google? What about Twitter? We also need to build processes to make it regular practice and allow for widespread participation to advertise and celebrate what we are doing.

Community Involvement – There is no doubt that there is already a vibrant feel with both of our sites.  However, the more we are able to tap into our community connections, the more needs we can meet for our students, the more our students will see themselves connected to their world. How can we reach out to support our community? How can we access resources to support our students?  While we have certainly accessed a variety of smaller scale opportunities, can we leverage these?  Can we obtain grants? Can we use technology to connect with others?  I’m sure there is opportunity out there, we just need to find it and access it. Our parent groups are an obvious starting point.  They are connected into the community and to the schools.

So what do I think at the end of year one?  Well first, I’d really like to come back for year two!  I really think that I have found my stride professionally.  I did jump in a bit early the first time around but now that I  have had more experiences, I am feeling pretty comfortable and confident. There is always more to learn and I will continue to do so!

Principle Reflections from a New Principal

Reflections Word Cloud - Nov 2014

Well to be honest I was a Principal previously about ten years ago.  There were definitely some good times while I was in that role and some tough times too.  But what I realized as my time back then drew to a close was that I didn’t have enough tools in my toolbox to do the job of principal to a level with which I could be happy.  So as I enter the role as Principal of Forest Green School and Connections For Learning, I do feel ready now and am calling myself a new Principal. At the very least I am a new Principal in Parkland School Division.

Being a reflective in one’s work is a foundational piece of effective practice. To that end, I have been asked, as I am sure every other principal across the province has, to submit my reflections on the Principal Quality Practice Guideline. I’ve turned my reflections into a word cloud which you see above.  Here we go…

1. Leadership Dimension – Fostering Effective Relationships
The principal builds trust and fosters positive working relationships, on the basis of appropriate values and ethical foundations, within the school community — students, teachers and other staff, parents, school council and others who have an interest in the school.

This has been my raison d’etre since I started in education as a special ed teacher, moved through many years in a counselling role and then into admin.  When I was working on my counselling masters, one of my mentors at the time was an administrator who was moving into counselling. He told me that the best thing I could do for my admin career (I wasn’t even thinking about it at that point – I guess he was a visionary.) was to complete my work in counselling before admin.

The communication and problem solving skills, flexibility in thinking, and empathic approach to in working with people which developed during my masters studies, of course, helped me through my counselling work but have proven just as beneficial in my early admin work. I have dealt with much more intense conflict and crisis situations as an administrator.  I have ended up counselling parents as they have worked through difficult times with their children. As well, there have been times when it was beneficial help colleagues examine their thinking on particular topics.

To even get to the point of these types of deep conversations and having everyone come out the other end with their dignity in tact, it really comes down to how I carry myself on a daily basis. I believe I am authentic; respectful and honest in pretty much every interaction that I have.  I try to deal with issues directly and be inclusive in working through things. And I try to be an optimist believing there is almost always a place for a good laugh and not to take things too seriously.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.  Relationship work takes time and given the demands of this role, time is the most precious resource I have.  I’m not always conscious of the amount of time things are taking as I work with people and sometimes create time crunches for myself and others.  And I worry that sometimes these time crunches cause me to move through subsequent situations too quickly and that maybe people aren’t properly heard.  Tackling performance concerns with colleagues has been a trouble spot in the past.  I have developed a tougher ‘admin skin’ over the years and added some tools to my toolbox that I believe have helped be more specific and forthright.  These continue to be areas of growth for me and will be an ongoing journey.

2. Leadership Dimension – Embodying Visionary Leadership
The principal collaboratively involves the school community in creating and sustaining shared school values, vision, mission and goals.

I have long been a believer in the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child.” I guess working with families and various support agencies through the years has allowed me to look through the window into what is needed and available for some children and families. And it doesn’t take long to realize that when things are working well and respectfully the outcomes for children and families are usually better when “the team” comes together.  A school community is a varied and complex and it’s important to welcome the village into school.

As a new Principal to Forest Green and a returning administrator to CFL, I have been pretty conscious of seeking first to understand.  Each school I have worked in over the years has had it’s own culture and points of pride.  As a newcomer, it is important to learn and honor those characteristics and accomplishments.  At the same time, schools must be places of continuous growth.   If that is what we expect from and for our students, then the staff must be continuous learners as well.  And it starts at the top!  The first place to look for learning is within.  As we celebrate the many good things we are doing, we also need to be honest and reflective about our areas of growth.  As we discover what needs work, that will drive our continued learning.

Compiling the Annual Education Results Review and Education Plan for 2014-2017 has certainly required me to delve into a variety of data sources to review student performance, student resiliency, and satisfaction levels of students, teachers, and parents.  Given the short timelines of producing such a comprehensive review, I am not satisfied that the planning process that followed the data analysis has been as collaborative as it should be.  The report has been provided and feedback requested but shared dialogue has not occurred. This is definitely an area of growth. That said, the document is a snapshot in time and the process will continue beyond the publication of the report and will be collaborative as the work rolls out.  While it may not be apparent on a daily basis in the operations of the school, part of my role is to ensure that both short and long-term decisions are supporting the directions for growth that have been identified.

3. Leadership Dimension – Leading a Learning Community
The principal nurtures and sustains a school culture that values and supports learning.

Teaching has become very complex over the years. Inclusive education has provided more and more opportunities for students which is an excellent thing!  Correspondingly this has created greater demands on teachers to respond to more student learning and health needs. Technology has both simplified some aspects of teaching but created additional skill prerequisites for effective instruction. Our understanding of brain development and function and the impact on learning has been tremendous in recent years. And the complex lives that students live with many dynamics coming into the school – family breakdown, immigration, mobility, poverty, etc. also impacts the work of teachers.  Teaching is no simple matter and I haven’t even mentioned curriculum yet!

I believe that teachers need to know the basics about all of these complexities and curricular initiatives and then choose, based upon their relevant factors, to dig more deeply into one or two.  We are all at our current point in our learning journey and by the end of each school year we should be a step or two ahead in each area and several steps forward in selected areas. I believe it is a requirement for teachers to continually reflect on their practice and identify where they need to personally develop their craft.  And I need to ensure that there are resources, both time and money, to support their individual growth.  As well, I believe that the staff needs to grow collectively and have always taken the view that the teachers are my group of learners and just like teachers develop annual plans for student learning, I develop an annual plan for staff learning.

The major change that I have introduced as a new Principal is to embed teacher professional learning time into their schedules through the implementation of Collaborative Learning Teams. I don’t believe it can get much more meaningful for teachers than to provide a venue for them to discuss the students who are struggling with their colleagues and use their collective wisdom to develop a plan forward.  I’ve also tied into the process an expectation for each grade level or program to team to pick a topic for deeper learning.  I have been so pleased to see topics like literacy across the curriculum, project based learning, response to intervention in math, emotional regulation, and  more be identified as current professional learning needs. Foundational topics like these will see the time well used!

4. Leadership Dimension – Providing Instructional Leadership
The principal ensures that all students have ongoing access to quality teaching and learning opportunities to meet the provincial goals of education.

When I decided I wasn’t ready to continue being a principal the first time around, this was the area in which I felt the most deficit. I’ve never been a regular classroom teacher!  How could I possibly advise a classroom teacher on their practice?  However, what I have come to realize over the past several years as I have endeavored to fill this section of my toolbox is that my background in working with diverse learners is probably a greater advantage as an administrator than a regular classroom background. Here’s why… There is a whole school full of experts on regular classroom instruction. Each classroom has one!

Yes, I have to be aware enough to recognize when there is a problem and to have a skill set to support new teachers as they enter the profession.  There is a team to draw upon to offer support, the learning coach, the inclusive education lead, Learning Services facilitators, and experienced teachers willing to take on a mentoring role.  By following the processes expected for teacher supervision or teacher evaluation, teacher practice will be reviewed and supported in either context.

That said, the one area that I do think administrators need to be expert  on is the area of assessment and evaluation.  This is area that I believes makes teachers truly a professional, making the judgement as to whether a student has learned or not and putting a process into place when the judgement is ‘not’.  And this needs to be a defensible process based upon sound practice related to curricular expectations and instructional practice.  Closely related to this is the reporting piece which brings parents into the process (Dimension 3).  Assessment is a very complex process and I continue on this learning journey.

My background in working with students who have been outside of the box of regular learning becomes beneficial to teachers when thinking about those few students for whom their usual instructional strategies are not making the difference for learning. For many teachers these students are the ones who keep them awake at night so to have a sounding board and person to go to who knows how to get the resources is a good thing.

5. Leadership Dimension – Developing and Facilitating Leadership
The principal promotes the development of leadership capacity within the school community –- students, teachers and other staff, parents, school council for the overall benefit of the school community and education system.

Oh my gosh, if I had to have my finger in all of the amazing work that is going on to create the positive environments that we have in our schools and create student learning opportunities, I would be more than dead dog tired!   We are a team; and a good team lets those with the right skills sets do the job as it is needed to be successful.  I have been blessed to have very strong teams on all three of our sites.  Most of the time I just need to get out of their way!

While I do have a role to be the cheerleader, I am also the little voice on the shoulder to offer suggestion and guidance. As well, I need to comfortable endorsing the quality of work that is going on. Often a big part of what I need to do is connect; connect people with people or people with resources. And sometimes simple ideas go a long way.  For example, while I was on bus supervision early in the year, I became concerned with traffic speed in the student drop off area.  This was echoed by parents at the School Council meeting.  Three phone calls and a trip to Tim Horton’s led to a successful positive traffic safety campaign.

It is also important to cultivate up and coming leaders into roles and on a path that makes sense for them.  Recognizing their strengths and capitalizing upon them is good for them and the profession. Leadership can be a tough business, so giving quality people a nudge to explore is a good thing.  That nudge can be to more formal leadership activities like attending the PSD session for Leadercast 2015 or PSD’s Exploring Leadership series.  But it can also occur in smaller ways like leading staff committees, organizing the student teachers for the school, student clubs, etc.

6. Leadership Dimension – Managing School Operations and Resources
The principal manages school operations and resources to ensure a safe and caring, and effective learning environment.

In my high school and university days I was a lifeguard and swim coach. Working in that high risk environment has certainly trained me with a predisposition toward ensuring safety.  And my counselling background covers the caring part.  But to really make education work, we have to cover all three dimensions, a safe and caring  and effective learning environment.

I am now in a position to allocate resources to create our safe and caring effective learning environment. I do believe that good people are the key to supporting our students and will continue to make decisions to put good people with kids.  Yes, the bills need to be paid and the stuff needs to be purchased, but caring, growth-oriented people with strong skill sets are what will really make the difference for our kids.

Given the limited resources that we have, I am constantly on the look out to find efficiencies and how to get the most out of our money, time and effort.  I have managed budgets before but don’t have a strong background in it.  Fortunately, we are provided with numerous tools and check-ins to help out. I  just need to keep us financially out of the red.

Related to this are the variety of legislative requirements that schools must adhere to; the School Act and Regulations, Occupational Health and Safety, PSD Administrative Procedures, PE Health and Safety Guidelines, the Guide to Education, the General Information Bulletins and probably more. I do know a fair amount given my number of years in admin so have a sense of when we should be investigating what our responsibilities are. At this point my strategy is to ask when I feel that I am treading into territory where I think there is a legislative consideration but am not sure.

7. Leadership Dimension – Understanding and Responding to the Larger Societal Context
The principal understands and responds appropriately to the political, social, economic, legal and cultural contexts impacting the school.

At this point, the context I am seeing for both Forest Green and Connections for Learning is very much the local context.  Both sites have unique characteristics that must be acknowledged and supported for that safe, caring and effective learning environment to be created. People before me have certainly acknowledged those characteristics and put many supports in place. Strengths like caring and compassion, flexibility, and supporting diverse learners continue to be built upon.  Concerns like poverty, academic readiness, disenfranchisement, and unique learning needs continue to need advocacy and support.

On a broader level, I have taken a recent interest in the Alberta teaching profession by being honored by the PSD ATA Local Council 10 and nominated to our local C2 Committee and then appointed as Key Leader.  C2 Committees were developed as part of the last Provincial Framework Agreement to examine the issue of teacher workload.  I am pleased and proud that our committee has taken a more expansive view to not just examine teacher workload but to add teacher efficacy to our scope to support all teachers in their confidence, individually and collectively, to influence student learning.

Another area where I continue to advocate at a community level is through the implementation of the Tri-Municipal Violence Threat Risk Assessment Project Committee.  This is a committee of approximately sixteen area educational and community support service agencies who came together in the spring of 2014 to sign a community protocol to ensure that there is a multi-agency response to threats or acts of youth violence in the community.  My role on the committee was as lead writer for the protocol.  I continue on the committee to advocate for the comprehensive response to youth violence.

So there they are.  My initial reflections on leadership as I re-enter the role of Principal.  No doubt some veterans will read these and “pshaw” some of my thinking.  I think I’m on a reasonable footing to start and have strong teams at both the school and division levels to support me in my growth.  Who knows what will happen or where I will be next year at this time when my formal reflection time is revisited? Whatever happens, I am sure it will be exciting!

The (Not So) Secret to Managing Students with Issues

The Angry Kid

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by noise64

In my new role this year, I am working as a Facilitator (Consultant) for Parkland School Division. While my portfolio of duties is quite varied, what has turned out to be a fairly major part of my role is to assist schools with students who are struggling with mental health and behavioral issues.  Sometimes I am helping a school in learning about a particular disorder or accessing a particular service.  But often they are seeking advice on how to make things work for a kid for who they have tried everything they can think of to make the behavior manageable. I’ve got one strategy to share. And with the exception of a couple of students over time who have had deeply organic mental health issues, it’s worked every time.  So here it is… love them and make everything they do a success experience.  And do it for as long as it takes.

A ten year old boy in a intensive combined residential and school behavioral program a couple of years ago is an easy example of how this works.  Initially when he arrived in the program, he responded to the structure and small environment and started to settle.  But in awhile the honeymoon was over and his severe ADHD and the effects of his trauma history was too much in his daily world to engage productively for more than fleeting moments here and there. And often he was just a hurt and angry little boy lashing out and damaging the learning environment. While the teacher and EA were patient as saints and experts in manipulating environment and routine to accommodate student needs, even they were at their wits end.  They sought advice. “Love him and make everything he does successful.”, I said.

There was a pause.  But it wasn’t a pause of skepticism, it was a pause to think how to make it work. And so we made a list.  It was a list of every positive interaction we had seen from him. And we analyzed the circumstances of those events to decipher the strength he demonstrated. We did the same to identify his challenges.  Then we created new routines for him to use his positive skills and attributes to replace his tasks that posed challenges.  We kept the parts of his curriculum  and routines where he was successful and changed the unsuccessful parts of it to project work that would capitalize on his abilities. The projects were structured (temporarily but with no specific end date) to be completed with the EA who’s sole job it was to extract every bit of positiveness out of him and point it out to him. The teacher joined in and flooded him with even more authentic praise. After just a few days of being wrapped up in that love and success, he started to come around.  Slowly the projects for the ‘love and success’ model were faded and his individual routine became part of the group routine again.  It was about a three week process for this little boy.

No one is foolish enough to believe that changed everything forever, but a negative cycle of interactions had to be shaken up for progress to begin.  Foundational to this was the change in relationship patterns that had developed. The teacher and EA looked at him through a lens of positivity which changed their perspective of him.  The boy started to see himself differently by being immersed in positive feedback.  And together there was a relationship forged on mutual respect between them all. Of note was the new found respect between the teacher and EA – what was good between them got better!

Professional Space – A New Definition

Meeting at a Meeting?

cc licensed (BY) flick photo 

Oh where does the time go!  I’ve had these thoughts rattling around in my head for a couple of weeks since our last Lead Team meeting but haven’t had a chance to get them down until now.

What got the ball rolling was a great conversation about implementing our Learning Coach initiative in Parkland School Division for next year.  We reviewed the general structure of how the coaches would be working in the schools and had some discussion around that.  Following this we read a great article by Joellen Killion, Are You Coaching Heavy or Light? and engaged in some further great conversation about the coaching process.

Further into the meeting, we also touched on the topic of the Special Ed. Key Contacts for each school and how that role is going to be changing to support students in an inclusive environment through offering some support to classroom teachers.  And then we spoke about wrapping up our Cycle 4 AISI project where PSD has been working to embed critical thinking skills in teaching and learning through the use of a lead teacher model.

The common thread through all of these conversations was the importance of teachers collaborating.  It’s just not optional any more. For the good of the students, teachers, and the profession, classrooms and offices can no longer be silos.

Back in the day, professional space was a term that was used to basically signify that people should back off and let the teacher use their professional judgement.  It gave teachers room to make decisions with a subtle (or not so subtle) implication that a teacher’s professional judgement should not be questioned.

Well folks, it’s a whole new world now!  And last week’s conversations sparked a whole new definition of professional space for me.  A teacher’s professional space is a learning space, a space to invite others in to share and experiment with the intention of elevating their practice.  It’s a much more public space now, a shared space where teachers are learners just as much as they are teachers.  This is the place where a good teacher makes him/herself a great teacher with the help of colleagues.  Each teacher has their own space and needs to use it strategically and purposefully and to make it an exciting space that moves them forward in their practice and their students forward in their learning.