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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!

Alternative Ed – One Way, Many Ways

CFL Logo - ColorConnections For Learning (CFL) is the alternative education site for Parkland School Division offering programming in grades 1 – 12.  We have just launched an updated web site which provides a great opportunity to write this post and share our great ideas and model for alternative education. It’s important to note that while CFL is the only alternative program site, Parkland does offer a variety of unique programs within various school settings.

CFL is actually a collection of programs.  The Adapted Learning and Living Skills (ALLS), Brightbank Academy, and High School Outreach programs are ‘directed placement’ programs that provide specialized support for students with identified learning needs, both academic and social/emotional. The Elementary Parent Partnership, High School Parent Partnership, Stony Creek, and Traditional Home Education  programs are ‘programs of choice’ which allow parents to become directly involved in their children’s education through three different models of home based programming. At times, CFL has also created individualized 1:1 programs for students with highly unique needs or circumstances. Where there are good fits, student programs have been developed offering counselling support, literacy support, and student leadership opportunities across the different programs.  As we know, students need to be proficient in their use of technology and CFL offers opportunities for students to learn and develop their technology skills to support their learning.

The common thread through all of CFL’s programming is to provide flexible and individualized programs for all students. This occurs in a variety of ways.  Academically, several of the programs use modules-based learning, and we have amassed a collection of supplementary materials and strategies to assist with differentiation when needed. While the modules system does offer much flexibility and allows for independent completion, there are limitations with engagement and instructional variation. CFL also partners with the Alberta Distance Learning Center to contract courses, typically high school option courses, to broaden course offerings for students. In part-time programs, the academic component is directed by teachers who differentiate for students as needed given the nature of the students in the classroom.  And for home programs, parents are supported in tailoring their instruction to meet their children’s academic levels.

The individualization continues. CFL’s directed placement programs primarily serve students with behavioral concerns and the flexible and well supported classroom environments allow for the creation of routines and processes that address situations where students are behaving inappropriately.  Staff members respond positively and consistently to allow students to learn to shape their own behavior and at times provide direct instruction for students to reflect on their behavior and develop strategies for self-regulation.  Additionally, a number of families have elected to enroll their children in home school programs as a means of supporting their emotional or behavioral struggles, like anxiety or ADHD.  By providing a nurturing learning environment, where they are loved unconditionally, children are able to make great academic gains in their homes when they were struggling with the social and environmental pressures in the school setting.

One opportunity that home education provides is the freedom for differentiation in regard to values based instruction. CFL’s home education programs have different structures regarding which subjects parents instruct and how they are supported. In some programs parents have the freedom to select resources and learning activities that are outside of Alberta curriculum and are values based. In all of CFL’s home based programs parents deliver the health curriculum and are very involved in option programming. This provides a beautiful opportunity for families to spend time together discussing and learning what is truly important for them in regard to their worldview and values. Each family does it differently but it’s powerful learning for their children.  It is common for families to develop projects to teach the children about key family activities. As an example, an outfitter family created wildlife projects for their children. Other examples include using scripture verses for handwriting practice, Bible study, service projects – both locally and internationally, cultural activities, joining community activities (sports, theater, Scouts, etc.), church activities, travel, learning activities together (technology, photography, scrapbooking, etc.), family history projects, and more.

One of the elements that contributes significantly to the relaxed, casual, and welcoming environment at CFL is the actual building itself. The building originally housed a health club but has since been renovated. There are nine classrooms that are on either end of the building allowing for some separation between programs which works quite well as there are differences in operations and the nature of the students. The one ancillary classroom does not have a smartboard, but the other eight do.  One of the squash courts from the health club was saved to create a mini-gym which is handy for our small elementary classes and some small group activities for older students. A kitchen was built about a year ago which allows for some option programming and job/life skills development. The Outreach classroom is located where the locker rooms used to be so there are several small breakout rooms and a conference room which easily allow students to isolate themselves when they are out of sorts or provide a location for small group instruction.

Now I am sure that you realize that there are a pretty special group of people working at CFL. The CFL staff are experts at forming relationships with students and parents, even the most difficult ones.  Each of them has the ability to intuitively read their students to know when something is different and has a gentle and authentic way of interacting with students to get to the root of an issue. The nature of alternative ed. requires adaptability as the structure of most of the programming has a basis in flexible delivery. As well, the nature of alternative ed. families who are seeking something inherently different and at-risk students who’s stories can sometimes change on a daily basis need people who can be accommodating and inventive in their approach to education. The teachers in our home based programs have particular skill in relating with parents and usually play more of a coaching role when assisting parents in developing and delivering their children’s programs. Finally, organizational and data management skills are critical given the wide variety of small details that are different between student programs and the individualized pace at which students work. It’s a tracking nightmare sometimes.

Connections For Learning is also set up as a service provider to the rest of the schools in Parkland School Division.  When school personnel realize that they have a student who is unable to be successful in the school setting or can no longer be served within the building, an administrator will contact CFL to discuss programming options. Some examples of the students that have been served include students going on extended holidays, students struggling with health concerns and can no longer attend school, those suffering from toxic social relationships, etc. Some of the ways that CFL will support schools are to fully take over programming for the student and actually transfer registration, offering temporary programming for a portion of the school year, lending our modules materials for the school to use temporarily to cover a particular situation, or just brainstorming regarding possible solutions for the student. Other than the brainstorming option, CFL charges a fee to the sending school for any services provided after September 30 registrations are finalized. These ‘transfer of funds’ are determined on a pro-rated basis and then submitted to division office for the transfer to occur and are part of the budgeted money that keeps CFL operational.

While life at CFL is pretty darn good most of the time, it`s not always rainbows and roses.  There are challenges. One of the first is the inconsistency in budgeting which is directly tied to transiency in enrollment. Conservative budgeting is required, as with many alternative sites, but there is a strong commitment to the need for the existence of CFL by Parkland School Division which has subsidized particular programs or projects on occasion.  Along with transient enrollment sometimes comes skewed enrollment with some programs bursting some years and others being under subscribed. Several of our teachers are part-time teachers who will sometimes have their FTE increased during the year to support additional enrollment. Professional development is interesting in that CFL is expected to participate in all of the division initiatives, like AISI. As these initiatives are designed for the regular classroom, CFL staff members have become accustomed to having ‘the meeting after the meeting’ to discuss how the ideas presented at a PD session can be tailored for part-time and or modules-based programming. That said, there is plenty of specific PD out there to support alternative programs.  Engagement is an issue for the programs that rely on modules-based programming as it is dry and boring to say the least. Over the years we have added workshops to support students with some face to face assistance and learning activities. Currently, we are looking toward online resources as a means of engaging those who attend both on-site and off. It is also important that CFL operates as a respectful place across all of our programs because we have a great spectrum of families/students in our programs, from those with quite liberal values to those with very conservative values.  When there have been incidents where behaviors, values, and judgments have clashed, that foundation of respect for all has brought clarity to all involved.

So if you think your school community needs a version of CFL, here are some suggestions.  Try to gather together a combination of forward thinking leaders at the division level with grassroots people committed to alternative education. It’s important to have honest reflective conversations regarding the students who are not being well served, what they would need to be successful and how to tap into the unique talents that exist among your educators along with innovation opportunities. As well, there is a thriving network of home educators out there, both formal and informal, some of whom are fully committed to remaining apart from the school system and some of whom are looking for innovative partnerships. Tapping into this group of parent educators would be most helpful. Alberta Education is supportive of school choice and with some research and a willingness to be innovative and responsive, program development will happen. Both the Alternative Programs Handbook and Outreach Program Handbook contain checklists for decision making and program development which are great starting points. This is truly hopeful education and I wish you well on your journey should you choose to take it.

I’m Finally Here!

Sprout

cc licensed (BY) Flickr photo shared by dixieroadrash

Well it’s been a long time coming and it was by no means easy, but here I am.  I’ve known for almost a year now that I’ve needed to get this blog up and running.  First it was this not so subtle voice of my Principal, George Couros, asking me pretty much every week last year when was I going to get my blog started.  As he’s one of these fellows who follows a lot of technology trends (understatement) and I was still investigating this whole technology business, I heard him but reserved judgement.  I’m a busy gal and have to choose my priorities.

It didn’t take long, once I started actually following a few blogs, to realize that blogging myself would be an important part of elevating my own professional practice.  So step one, let’s get this set up and running!  Well, when I made the (deferred) decision to do this, I was living out the in the cyber-hinterlands of dial-up connectivity.  There was no way that I could do this when each page I wanted to open could take up to a minute to load.  I just tested at least a dozen themes setting this up tonight, that would have been a couple of days worth of time!!

Just a point to make here, for all of you ed-tech folks who are leaping and bounding upon all kinds of engaging tools that enhance your practice and instruction…  There are still some people who are well educated and interested and innovative who have issues with connectivity.  Sometimes it’s by conscious choice to make other things in life a priority.  In my case it was accidental. Our acreage was on a north facing hill requiring access to a south facing cell tower. Anyway, we’ve moved, for many reasons other than wi-fi (but that’s a whole ‘nother story) and now I actually have to tools to do this.

As a reflective person, I initially  took some time to think about what would I have to write about that others might want to read.  “Oh, pshaw!” I said to myself.  “Who would want to read what I write?”  Well, I think that I’ve come to realize that there’s a false assumption there.  I figure that I’ll probably have a pretty small number of people who actually read this.  Reader windows scroll by pretty quickly once you start following a few blogs, so I’ll just be rolling past most people who follow me, I’m sure.  There will be a few of my colleagues who will read pretty faithfully because it’s a good idea to keep an eye on what your supervisor is thinking about.  But in the end, George’s words come back.  Taking the time to formally reflect on your experience and practice does force you to define your thinking and become more intentional in your practice.

So here I am hoping to clarify my thinking on mostly educational issues/concerns that I am wrestling with at the moment.  As a wife and mom of three boys currently aged 3 to 13, I’m certain that I’ll be wrestling with managing my professional and personal balance.  Finally, as time goes on, and I keep my commitment to post here regularly, I’m hoping that anyone who chooses to read my posts will get a picture of my educational views and will share theirs with me.

Welcome to my blog!