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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!

This Is Why

PLACE Grads 2013

Photos printed with permission of the graduate’s parents. 

In June I had the privilege of attending the year end celebration for the PLACE (Practical Living and Community Education) students at Memorial Composite.  I get the pleasure of attending special events like these by playing a supporting role for several schools in Parkland.  This was my first time attending a PLACE Grad.  I didn’t know what to expect but thought it would be a very scaled back version of a typical graduation ceremony to celebrate the achievements of some of the special students in our school community in a way that would be appropriate, not too loud and active, but happy and fun.  And for the most part, that’s exactly what it was.  There were parents and decorations and laughter and certificates. However, this celebration also contained one of the most moving moments of my 20+ years working with diverse learners.

Things started slowly.  It’s an exercise in logistics for the PLACE class to move within the school as a large group.  Gradually, the EA’s brought the students with wheelchairs into the music room and parked them in the front row.  Other students trickled into the room with varying degrees of assistance.  Jeanette, the PLACE teacher, MC’ed the ceremony starting with the usual pleasantries welcoming parents and acknowledging guests.  And she shed a few tears of both pride and sadness at the thought of some of her students moving on.

We (the audience) were pleased as we discovered that we were going to be treated to a musical performance. Once again, we waited for a moment while most of the students were positioned up front where they waited patiently to begin their performance. Just as they were about to begin, on cue, about fifteen staff members who work throughout MCHS joined around the students to begin singing We Shall Overcome. Oh, that was a treat!  The PLACE students were so proud to be up front performing. Many of them knew the words. Those students who were non-verbal were keeping the beat, mostly. And all of them had eyes that were sparkling with joy.  By the way, several of the teachers had sparkling eyes too and were singing through their tears.  This is why.

Now just when you think that this little tale is a story of how teachers do love their special students, there was a bridge in the song as the chorus of We Shall Overcome ended and segued to Lean on Me.  It was at that moment that about thirty or forty students from the Memorial Choir poured out of a side door of the classroom and surrounded the PLACE students and staff members.  It was an awesome sight!

They rocked it out!  The PLACE students were absolutely beaming at being part of a choir and they knew their stuff.  They had stage presence, most knew some or all of the words, and most could clap on beat.  The MCHS Choir students just love to sing and were sharing their gift of music with their peers.  And to add a little context, this was the last day of classes.  There had been a carnival in the school that morning, students were receiving their timetables for next year, and it was just a little chaotic to say the least.  But these students showed up and were committed to their school mates!  This is why.

I tell you there was not a dry eye in the house.  Parents were overjoyed with the performance.  Three boxes of tissue were being passed around the audience.  This was such a big deal for them too!  Their kids have not usually been the ones at center stage.  Of course there was a standing O! This is why.

There has been much debate over Inclusive Education in Alberta since it was formally adopted in 2010. Let’s be real. It is not appropriate for the PLACE students to be enrolled in a high school math, social studies, PE class, etc.  It is not designed for them and would not provide them with the education that they need.  Nor is it appropriate to only have our PLACE students learn entirely in a segregated classroom.  However, there are ways, as so beautifully demonstrated by the staff and students at MCHS where our diverse learners can be fully included.  They are members of our community and because of that should be part of our public education system. This is why!

If the measure of a society is by how they treat their weakest members (quoted by many – Churchill, Pope John Paul II, and more), then the community of Memorial Composite is a great place to be! And Alberta Education is firmly planted on the right track for all of our citizens.

I came to realize, after the fact, that the performance at the PLACE Grad was actually a reprise from a performance earlier in the month where the PLACE students joined the Memorial Choir for their year end performance at the Arden Theater.  Please enjoy.

This is why!