Category Archives: Embodying Visionary Leadership

Principle Reflections – The Four C’s for Year One

afd-695

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!

Advertisements

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!

Parents as Partners. No Really… Parents as Partners

family-76781_640

Much of what I am doing in my current role at the school division level is supporting families that are working through a difficult situation involving their child’s behavior at school. Sometimes it’s a specific incident that has led to a violence/threat risk assessment or it might be helping to place a student in a different program more suited to accommodate his/her current behavioral/learning needs. The ease that parents move through these events has a tremendous amount to do with the relationship that has been developed with the teachers and administrators at  the child’s school before it gets to the division level. The more collaborative and honest the relationship is, the better the outcome is for all involved, particularly the student. It’s great to see parents, teachers, and administrators working alongside each other with open hearts and minds to come up with ideas and strategies to meet student needs and create success.

Working with parents, just like students, is all about relationship.  However, working with parents regarding their children has the potential to feel more ‘high stakes’ given that most parents are highly invested in their children and bring the adult perspective of advocate.  In these circumstances, it more important than ever to create a welcoming environment that encourages meaningful participation for the parents in their child’s education.  Parents are going to ask hard questions and expect high levels of service and it’s important to be as honest and forthright as possible while maintaining a positive perspective. It’s a tough place to be when you realize that your child is in the position of requiring a significant degree of intervention. It’s important to “walk a mile in the parent’s moccasins.”  And when taking their perspective, it’s important to not make assumptions or judgments, particularly when there might be issues within a family.

Here are some considerations that have served me well working effectively with parents in these challenging situations.

What’s Your Story?  – The one thing that you bring to each parent and student interaction is you. Human nature and our upbringing will cause us all to have personal bias. We need to be careful that we are not making decisions or projecting concerns from our own experience into the situation. Consider your own history.  Do you have expectations, opinions, personal hurt, or personal joy that might influence how you respond in certain situations? Consider the students that you have worked with over time.  Have the experiences of those students and their families added to your personal bias?  What are your thoughts about families in regard to addiction, poverty/wealth, education levels, personality traits, wellness, culture, actual personal history with a parent, etc.? We spend much time learning about policy, instructional strategies, medical disorders, etc. to prepare for parent meetings and student programming, we need to be equally aware of ourselves and how our biases and interpretations could potentially affect our interactions and outcomes with a family.

Declaring Intention – It is important that as you begin working with a family that you clarify the relationship and set a strong foundation. You can never be too explicit and it is worth stating that we are all here to work for the best possible outcomes for their child. It is important to validate the role of each parent to advocate for their child and to teach and advise the school team about their son/daughter. Following this ‘big picture’ declaration, each subsequent meeting should start with the intent of the ‘smaller picture’ interaction. Start each meeting with a stated objective and the intended positive outcome.

Family Voice and Choice – I’m stealing this directly from Alberta Education’s Approach to Collaborative Practices… Based on Wraparound Principles. “Family voice and choice ensures child or youth and family perspectives are intentionally elicited, prioritized and actioned as part of a collaborative wraparound practice. Planning is grounded in family membersʼ perspectives. The individuals involved in the process strive to provide options and choices that reflect the family values and preferences.”

Accuracy Is the Best Policy – It is important that parents have a clear understanding of how their child is behaving at school so they can participate as full team members with the same understanding as the rest of the team.  Avoid euphemisms. A mom won’t know the extent of the concern if she is advised that her child used a bad word.  That could be the f-word or that could be stupidhead.  Both are bad words.  Do your data collection. Stating that a child is difficult to manage is much less understandable than specific descriptions of the frequency and intensity of behaviors over a specified period of time. The spirit of accuracy is to bring the parent onto the team as a fully informed member, not to paint their child in a negative light.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know – One of the difficulties in managing students who are demonstrating difficult behaviors is to pin down the specifics of what makes the child tick. What are the triggers? What are the most effective de-escalation strategies? How does the student develop strategies self-regulation? Is mental illness setting in and if so, what does this mean? In these situations there is a tremendous role for parents. If you don’t know the way forward with a child, be up front with the parents and say that. Then immediately follow up with, “We need your help to understand your daughter, so that we can get her on a path to success.  Tell us about what works for you at home.” This sets the stage for authentic relationships and collaborative problem solving.

The Mistake Multiplier – It’s the nature of working with people. Sometimes mistakes are made, the wrong decision is implemented or you just don’t know what  you don’t know (and then you find out). Courtesy, ethics, and integrity tell us that these situations need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Take people’s dignity into account as you move forward, take ownership, be up front, and do your best to make amends. Avoiding these situations often will make the situation worse as people are left thinking they’ve been wronged and sharing their thoughts with others.

The Needs of the Many and The Needs of the Few – Another thing that we bring to our work with parents and their children is context. As the people who work within the school we are very well aware of things like class composition, limited resources, teacher experience levels, etc. While these are certainly considerations for the educators involved in managing the larger classroom or school environment, these types of limitations are not necessarily of prime concern to parents.  In fact, it’s not appropriate to get into those details anyway. Parents will just expect schools to work around them and provide a quality experience for their child.

Keep On Keepin’ On – You might find yourself walking a fine line in terms of being open in the relationship and protecting privacy. In these situations, it pays to be as honest as possible, “I can’t get into specifics due to FOIP requirements, but these are the things I can tell you.” Some parents might see that as stonewalling and you need to continue walking the fine line to earn their trust. Share as much information as you can that is relevant to their child. Things may seem off to parents if in a previous grade a teacher’s capacity or the classroom environment was more conducive to addressing their child’s needs. In these situations, it will likely be necessary to provide additional supports like mentoring, creative scheduling, PD, specialist expertise or more. Parents will usually keep working with you if  you show that you are making appropriate decisions and taking  concrete actions to benefit their child while keeping the lines of communication open.

Education About School – Sometimes parents cannot understand why their child who is happy and manageable at home struggles at school. It is important to paint a realistic picture for parents about the different expectations at school.  Help parents see through their child’s eyes. School is a much more complex place than home that can be very difficult to navigate from a child’s perspective. There are different skills required to be part of a school community working with peers, routines, and different adults and their child is likely having difficulty acquiring these skills. All of this can become even harder for a child who struggles with learning and isn’t feeling good about their place in school. Following this conversation, be prepared to outline what the school is doing to help and how the school-parent team need to work together to support the child.

Talking About the Elephants – There are times when what is happening in the family is negatively impacting a child’s learning. Divorce, death, moves, addiction, poverty and much more are struggles for children that come through the school door with them. Talking about issues like this is delicate territory. However, strengthening a child’s family is in the best interest of the child and is likely to improve learning. This is certainly an example of a courageous conversation. Conversations like this should be planned. Who is the best person to broach the subject? When and how? What words are most impactful and least threatening? What’s the plan for parents who want to address family concerns? What’s the plan if parents become adversarial? Remember though, relationship is key for both the student and for parents. This is not a reason to duck the conversation, this is your guiding principle as you plan how to approach these personal issues. 

Support With Real Support – When you encounter a family who is struggling with significant issues and is willing to seek help, you need to break down as many barriers as possible.  You can’t do it for them, but do make it as easy as possible. Strong inter-agency connections are important.  If you can provide the name of a contact person who is expecting their phone call rather than just a number, that paves the way and makes it easier. Free up a staff member to support them as they make the phone call.  That can be a tough emotional experience and doing it alone can be a very demoralizing and lonely experience. I have seen great benefit for families when a school support person actually attends agency appointments with the family to advocate and bridge communication gaps. Sometimes the school staff member needs to encourage a parent to commit to specific assistance at specific times and follow through with specific tasks. Monitoring and follow up is essential for some families.

Documentation Is Multi-Purpose – Documentation is not just for accountability – to prove something happened or to meet system requirements. Keeping and copying meeting notes to all participants serves as reminders for who has agreed to do what.  Documentation is an organizer. Anecdotal notes are useful for parents and other professionals to more fully understand the child at school.  Documentation is a window into the school life of a child. Expect that anecdotal notes will be copied and shared as you write them. 

Working with parents is important as they are key in maintaining students’ relationships with their teachers and the school. If parents are only paying lip service to the teacher or school, kids will know it.  This will make it much more difficult to be able to reach and teach our students.  Kids know when their parents truly back the school and are working together and it will more often than not cause children to feel more comfortable in the school and try harder to do well.

Parent relationships can be hard work. If there are situations of conflict, this can also cause educators to be emotional as they usually care a great deal about the child and the school.  Be sure to engage with your school team through these situations.  No educator is expected go it alone any longer.  Seek support, work together, and support each other. 

Resiliency = Relationships

parent and teen team building

cc licensed by Flickr photo shared by mighty mighty big mac

Since my last post, my students have continued with their struggles.  While, thankfully, a number of students continue on at a steady pace, I had to call Children and Family Services twice last week. And I’ve come to the sad realization that despite much bravado and attempts at disguise from our high school outreach students, they have a basic inability to look into their future and envision goals for themselves.  So I made a promise in my last post, which obviously remains timely, to look into the notion of resiliency… here is some information and some thoughts.

Resiliency is the ability to recover readily from adversity.  Students that have the potential for low levels of resiliency in general terms are those with a trauma and/or abuse history, those from homes that struggle with addiction or mental health issues, those who have had multiple moves in their history, those in foster care. and those who have low self-esteem.  Adolescence is the time when many lifelong attitudes are developed, so helping these students form a basis of resiliency from which to work will serve them well throughout their lives.

That last insight about my students is particularly alarming as some of the articles that I’ve read recently indicate that the ability to set goals for oneself is a key factor in recognizing resiliency in youth. Feeling safe at school was another significant factor.  As well, liking school and having a caring adult in the family were other identified important factors that contribute to youth resiliency.  In one study I read, Building Resilience In Vulnerable Youth, school connectedness was the top factor that best protects vulnerable youth in 9 of 12 areas investigated to either reduce risk or increase positive behaviors related to resiliency.  All of these factors are related to students having the circumstances to be able to find relationships where they can seek support when they need it and have the opportunity to form positive relationships with their peers.

Initially I was a bit surprised that school connectedness was so significant.  With a little thought, though, it makes good sense for a couple of reasons.  Students at risk for lower levels of resiliency are quite likely to come from homes that don’t have a strong degree of support as families struggle with their own adversity, so the school needs to fill the gaps for support when families can’t.  Also, adolescents are at a place developmentally where they are attempting to find their independence in the world so may not seek out family members in times of trouble, but look toward peers whom they most often find at school.

So what is it about school connectedness?  For me the ‘safe at school’ thought was critical. Students need to feel safe with their teachers and other staff members so they can have the comfort to risk self-disclosure and seek support from a trusted adult when faced with difficulties.  Students need to feel safe in their school environment knowing that they will be treated with respect and keep their dignity in tact when dealing with both adults and their peers.  Navigating through the world of relationships is difficult for adolescents so having a safe environment to experience success and to bounce back from messed up attempts at forming and maintaining relationships is critical.  Teens need feel that they are in a place where they can pick themselves up, get a little guidance, and keep trying to connect to others in their lives. School connectedness also relates to students liking school which happens much more readily when students are feeling successful in their work and see relevance in what they are doing at school as it relates to their own lives.

This is a tall order, but I’m convinced even more now that for schools to be effective in fostering resiliency in students, we need to provide the whole package for them.

  • We must make sure that each and every student has a positive relationship with at least one adult in the building because we often don’t truly know the resiliency levels of our students and someday even the most cool, calm, and collected student may need someone to lean on.
  • We must make sure that our school environment is safe for students to interact with their peers to form relationships.  When things go well, the positive relationships that have developed should be nurtured.  And when students struggle with relationships, supports need to be in place to help them along.
  • We must educate and encourage our students to think critically about risky behaviors so that they are equipped to make positive choices in the moment and avoid personal hazards which will chip away at the resiliency they do have.
  • We must pay attention to pedagogy and practice to ensure our students are learning and feel successful and competent as they complete curricular activities.
  • Similarly we must help students to find their place in the school on a social level by creating opportunities for them to get involved and create positive relationships with peers and adults.
  • We must look through the eyes of our students to ensure that the curriculum we provide is meaningful to them so that they will feel like they have the tools they need, both academically and personally, to move successfully through school and beyond.
  • We must help families when we become aware of a need for support by helping connect them to the appropriate services.  Parenting is a hard business at the best of times nowadays.
  • Using a strength based approach in implementing all of these strategies will go a long way toward helping students and families feel that the experiences provided are a good fit with who they are and where they are at as well as fostering sustainability for them as they will already have existing personal resources that should be tailored to the experiences provided.

I found a handout contrasting strength based vs deficit based concepts from the Alberta Mentoring Partnership awhile ago that really helped me solidify in my mind what the strength based approach involves.

I am confident that we are doing many things at CFL to contribute positively to student resiliency, but given recent developments with several of our students, it’s a topic worth re-examination.  Having identified the area of student goal development, we have discussed the need to show the students that they have the foundation to work from to develop goals.  Students need to have self-esteem to be able to look forward and take the risk to create goals, so that’s what we’re working on both and instructional and personal level.  This will be followed up next year with the implementation of the Leader In Me program with some adaptations for older students.  We’ve recently completed a review of all of our students and have set up parent meetings that will be the start of bi-monthly case conference meetings where we will work with families to ensure that the students and parents have needed support services among other things.  With Christmas and exams, we haven’t had any spirit activities recently, so we need to have some fun again.  A fund raising opportunity has landed on our doorstep so we will create leadership opportunities for students to offer activities for the students to engage with each other.

It’s a start.  We need to remain focused keeping resiliency in the forefront.  This means giving students authentic opportunities to successfully access and create positive relationships.

Epic Fail

street • kid

cc licenced (BY) Flickr photo shared by origamidon

I just hate it when I get bad news about my students.  Before Christmas break and even now, I’m working with one of my students who is transitioning from home to the Youth Emergency Shelter and upon returning to school after break found out that a former student has been arrested for armed robbery and a host of related charges.  Epic fail.

News like this just leads me to a mind full of turmoil and a whole bunch of questions.  What exactly happened that led up to this?  Why didn’t someone intervene before it came to this point?  How could have I intervened?  How come these families didn’t seek out help for their kids?  How did the system fail them?  How did I fail them?  How did my school fail them?  What’s going to happen to them now?

And then there’s the tendency to rationalize.  Both of these boys came from very difficult situations in their families.  They both have a trauma history.  Both of them were quite resistant to help.  They have behavioral concerns in a school setting and were engaging in high risk behaviors outside of school.

So now what?  What do you do?

I’m going  to feel guilty for awhile on purpose.  This is just to remind myself to follow up on those little niggles that sometimes pass through my mind, take them seriously and not pass over them because I’m in a comfort zone with a student that I’ve known for some time.  I need to ask the courageous questions.  And it’s also to remind me to press issues more.  Maybe it’s not enough to only draw a parent’s attention to an issue, provide information regarding the concern, provide information on how to access support services, and to offer to help them as much as they wish through the process of accessing ‘the system’.  I wonder if I have expressed my concerns strongly enough regarding the magnitude of the issues and, as illustrated in both of these situations, that the parents need to get help themselves. I need to make the courageous statements.

And after the guilt?  Well, I’m going to have to move forward.  I’ve still got plenty of years left in the business and there are going to be plenty more students to come.  I’ve got to pull something positive from this to keep myself going and to improve my practice for future students.  So, I guess what I’m doing is accessing my resiliency to pick myself up, dust myself off, and figure out what to do next.  I seem to remember that resiliency has been a pretty hot topic at teachers convention and on the PD circuit in the not too distant past.  I’ve been on a tech journey over the past few years (future blog topics!), so have not delved much into the topic of resiliency, but obviously now would be a good time.

So I’ll start with a google “youth resiliency” search and check on PD opportunities to see what I find.  I would certainly welcome any recommended resources from any of you folks out in the blogosphere!  And then… share what I find.  For those of you who are reading this and identify with this topic, check back and maybe we’ll be lucky enough to get some resource recommendations.  But primarily I’m concerned with my staff members.  I’m not the only one who had relationships with these boys and is thinking and feeling like this.  I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to find for resources or learn about fostering resiliency but whatever happens, I do need to share it with staff members.  That will help us all heal from the loss we are feeling and improve our collective practice.

It’s the first steps on a blog post that I’d like to write someday called Epic Success.

Why I Love Alternate Ed.

HOPE

cc licensed (BY) Flickr shared by loop_oh

For me, alternate ed. is an encompassing term that includes specialized programs, outreach education, alternative programs, home education and individualized programming.  Almost all of my teaching experience has been outside of the regular classroom, so alternate ed. is the heart of what I do.  So what has kept me on the fringes of the education system?

It was/is just in my nature to be a helper for those who needed an extra boost.  I remember visiting my grandparents farm as a little girl in the summers and I would always ‘adopt’ a brood hen chick that had a damaged wing or a hobbled leg and feed it and look after it.  In grade three, I remember Gary R. punched out Bobby G. when the teacher was out of the room and Bobby’s nose bled like a faucet.  I commanded Gary to sit on a chair, sent one of my friends to go get the teacher, told Bobby to stop crying and started piling kleenex on his face.  Kirby D. was my partner in grades four and five.  He was visually impaired and he sat with me so I could narrate for him. And it continued in various ways over the years.

In my early years of teaching, I taught an off-campus behavior program and a junior high special ed classroom in a small town.  For the most part the kids had social/emotional concerns of one form or another. Their heads were wrapped up in a lot of trauma and/or disappointment.  Their self-esteem was in the tank.  These kids seemed to do a lot of dumb things that alienated themselves from their peers and other teachers.  At the same time, they had some sorts of goals of what they wanted out of life and concerns for family, getting a job, and pursuing their interests even if their dreams were a little off the beaten path.  Being in these specialized classrooms gave the students the support they needed during the times when they were a little ‘off’ and helped them each develop skills as they were ready.  Each student’s educational journey is unique and it’s important to empower students so that they can achieve what they want for themselves.

In my 30’s I started to gain a broader perspective of life as I got married, started a family, started to think about  where my tax money went wanting a sound society for my kids to grow up in, and, in general, became more observant of what was going on outside my own little world.  At the same time, having more experience in teaching gave me the opportunity to see how the education system responded to students requiring a little more from ‘the system’ given their unique or unusual situations.  By this time, I was a high school counselor and was helping to program for these students. Elite athletes needed time away from school for competition. Sick kids needed time to regain their health.  Top end academic students needed opportunities to nurture their talents and flourish in their academic life.  And there are plenty more examples.  I have come to deeply believe that public education has an obligation to educate all students and this sometimes means unique programming is needed to meet the needs of students who are in unusual circumstances.

Most recently I have had the tremendous opportunity to become familiar with several models of home education.  Families have stepped up to create a lifestyle for themselves that embraces the education of their children.  For some families this is the means by which they are ensuring that their children are immersed in their family values.  For travelling families portable programming allows them to educate their children both at home and away as our mobile society sees more people having the opportunity to travel for both work and pleasure.  Some families have children with learning issues and are willing to adjust their whole family structure to support the child in a 1:1 setting that is rarely seen in the school system today.  In all of these scenarios parents are able to create learning experiences tailored specifically to their children and their families.  It’s a deeply personal experience for them. Personalizing  education has the capability of providing a deeply meaningful experience that nurtures the interests and priorities of students and sometimes their families.

All of these priorities really come to the forefront for me on almost every intake that I do.  Most of the time families come to an alternative school because they at the very least know they need something different than regular education and at the very worst have had a bad experience.  I can’t tell you the number of times that parents have shared their relief in discovering that there is a viable educational option for their child/family.  Education should be a hopeful endeavor.