Category Archives: Strength Based Model

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!

Strength-Based Practice

Strong Kids

cc licensed (BY) Flickr photo shared by Mr Phil Price

Eureka!  In my last post, Resiliency = Relationships, I posted a link to a handout from the Alberta Mentoring Partnership illustrating strength-based vs. deficit-based concepts .  Timing is an interesting thing sometimes.  In my email last week, I received the February 2012 issue of In The Loop, a newsletter from Alberta Education.  It was highlighting a new resource Strength Based Classrooms and Schools, also produced by the Alberta Mentoring Partnership.  This little 24 page document is a must read for all educators!

This is a clear concise resource that gets to the heart of what education should be about, developing young people in a positive way that empowers them to use their gifts in ways that are meaningful to them.  Here is a shift in thinking away from fixing problems to discovering talents, from curing vulnerabilities to maximizing personal resources.  The principles of strength-based practice are discussed leading to an examination of how this will impact school culture and the importance of a holistic view of students.  There are also strategies for building staff capacity included.  This document is great to share with educators who might need a nudge to regain their student-centered focus.  And it’s equally good for those who are ‘already there’ as it brings coherence to many of the positive things that educators are already doing to build relationships with kids.  It’s short and sweet and an easy read for all.

I have always believed that teachers do not become teachers unless they have a deep personal belief that they wish to positively impact their students.  Lord knows we don’t get into this business for the money and the easy ride!  Strength-based practice is a framework for thinking that can reach into a teacher’s belief that they can make a difference for each student.  It’s simple… look for the positive in each student and make that the starting point to address learning. Match those positives to the topic of the day, the issue to be addressed, and/or the classroom context with which you are working and you’ll create the circumstances to develop stronger relationships with students and have a greater influence on their learning and personal growth. At the same time, the student is gaining a repertoire of skills and developing character traits which are a natural fit with who they already are.

Reviewing this document again today reminded me of a young lad that was posing some issues in one of our behavior programs last year.  This boy had a tough life, to say the least, leading him to the point where he was  in the permanent care of Children & Family Services.  The staff was at their wits end.  I offered some ideas and strategies that didn’t go anywhere.  He just was not engaged, his learning was regressing, he was negatively impacting his peers, and seemed to be actively sabotaging the support strategies we were putting in place.  Our collective bag of tricks was empty. I dug deep and remembered being in this position before and that there was a way to reach the seemingly unreachable kid.

I advised the teacher and the EA to set this boy up for success in everything.  For the next week until we met again, he was to be successful in every lesson, to be put in group situations where he would be successful each time which meant carefully selecting the peers and the activities and closely supervising so adult intervention was just seconds away, and he was to be praised and encouraged every step of the way.  As well, I needed them observe his responses and take note of his positives.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived the following week was that the relationship had deepened in both directions, the school staff had renewed their commitment to this boy and he was now viewed from a positive perspective rather than the child that they were failing.  And for the boy, who had a litany of failed relationships in his life, he had found positive connections based upon his authentic positive contributions to the classroom and he knew it.  Following that, the staff continually shared with that boy the specific instances of positive learning and behavior that he had demonstrated to help him see his strengths and personal resources. To finish the story, the boy did a fairly quick turnaround due to the team approach from home and school and was placed in less intensive environment in a matter of months and from what we hear is continuing to be positive and successful.

So what’s my lesson?  Strength-based practice!  It’s about seeing the students for who they are and building upon what they have already brought to the table.  My professional work is not about me digging into my education and my experience to use my judgement to come up with my plan.  My professional work is to see students’ strengths and potential and figure out a way to add to that in meaningful and relevant ways so they develop greater competency academically and personally. Sometimes, in extreme cases, you have to engineer the opportunity to see the positive.  But finding the student’s positive should be the starting point.

On a related note, it’s been interesting to watch how special education has been morphing in Alberta over the past several years.  What initially started as a review of special education, Setting The Direction, became the Action On Inclusion project which has now been dropped as a project to just become the work that we do as educators in Alberta.  We are now focusing on inclusion with the broader view of supporting all forms of diversity as an inclusive education system.  So it’s no surprise that Alberta Education would be advising us about strength-based practice as pedagogical tool that would support all students.