Recently I've been reading A Beautiful Constraint, by Morgan & Barden, and have found myself reflecting on things I have perceived as barriers to truly reaching each and every child that I taught. Now that I am a principal, my current situation sees me out of the role as classroom teacher. I am hopeful that in the future I will be able to timetable myself back into the classroom for some teaching time, but as of right now, that's not the case. When I think about my time in the classroom, however, I can honestly point to moments when I used constraints as an excuse, as a crutch. I think about some students who I just could not reach, and realize at some point, I stopped trying. That's not easy to admit, because it's something we are never supposed to do, but I did. I still delivered the curriculum, I still treated those students with the same love and respect I showed the others, however I did not go that extra mile that I needed to make sure that 100% of my students were engaged in meaningful, rigorous work on a daily basis.
I'd invite you to think about all of those students you will be working with next week (or next year if you stumble across this in July or August), and think about their engagement level. Do you know that 100% of your students are engaged? If so, how? If not, how can you find out? When you think about your classes, think about the feeling you get when everyone is "on", when everyone is turned on to learning. Does it feel like that every day? Shouldn't it? If you can think of a student, or a group of students who you are not reaching, and they are beginning to fall through the cracks, imagine the following scenario.
You have a student in your class who is not buying into what it is you are doing in class, they just are not engaged, and their marks are reflecting this. To your surprise, you have been invited to this student's house for dinner, and when you show up their entire family is there, even many from the extended family. Small talk turns to school talk, and you are asked how the student is doing in class. After explaining that the student is struggling, you are asked, "what are you doing to get them excited about learning?"
As you sit with this students' family, what will you say? Many of you reading this will have answers, because many of you do go above and beyond for all of your students. Some of you may struggle with that scenario, and may feel like saying, "well, what about the kid? What are they bringing to the table?" This is one of the greatest constraints I feel we face in education, our own belief that kids these days just don't want to learn. I don't believe that, and it makes me think of two great quotes I have heard from two different colleagues:
If they could, they would.
If students can't learn they way I teach, I need to change how I teach.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you are reaching 100% of your kids on a daily basis.
Thanks for reading.
I had a chance to visit with a relative who is busy preparing for the arrival of their first child which is due in early July. She talked about planning the baby’s room, picking the perfect crib, getting those just right shelves, and of course selecting the best color scheme. It reminded me of the work that went into getting things ready for our kids, the paint, the crib, the shelves, the picture frames, etc. As we were discussing this, I could not help but think about the way we set up our classrooms and the way we are intentional in using the environment as the third teacher. Later this month, a teacher in our school (#WaldheimSchool) is working with two colleagues to look at her learning environment, taking time to reflect on the year and then plan for the future. As an administrator, I’m excited by this, but just a tiny bit nervous when I also consider the budget, but as a fellow administrator once said, “if you want to know what a school values, follow the money”.
Margie Carter wrote a great article on the learning environments we set up in our buildings, and in it there are several great quotes. What do these statements cause you to think about:
"More than the physical space, (the environment) includes the way time is structured and the roles we are expected to play. It conditions how we feel, think, and behave; and it dramatically affects the quality of our lives" Jim Greenman.
"Our thoughts as reflected in our designs, in turn shape children's beliefs about themselves and life" Anita Olds.
"The environment is the most visible aspect of the work done in the schools by all the protagonists. It conveys the message this is a place where adults have thought about the quality and instructive power of space" Lella Gandini.
"Every person needs a place that is furnished with hope”, Maya Angelou.
When you go back to your school, I’d invite you to take a second look at your environment and think about ways you have been intentional in your design. If you can make the time, take a walking tour of the classrooms, and ask your peers why they have gone the route they have. Think about ways you can make your physical environment the third teacher in your room.
As usual, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
How often do you tell your school's story to other people? How often have you thought about what your school's story is? Last week I had an opportunity to take part in a walk-and-talk with a new board member who came to visit our school (#WaldheimSchool). We had a brief conversation, introducing ourselves to each other, and sharing some of our background, all the while I could tell she really wanted to get around to the tour, as did I.
As we began walking the halls I started talking about the learning that was occurring and the hard work that had lead up to this point where we feel all of our students have a voice and are feeling challenged in their studies and valued as individuals. One of the great things of this visit was that it forced me to stop and engage with things I might otherwise walk right by on a daily basis. Things like the lay out of the library, which was front and center in my thinking at the start of the year and is now on track to reflect the vision we have for it. Things like the way our teachers are adopting flexible environments, something I was so focused on, but is now "just how we do things". Things like our ever-evolving PAA programs where students are not only allowed, but encouraged to pursue their passions when creating projects. These things are now part of the normal day to day at #WaldheimSchool, but this visit was a great reminder of the amazing things that happen at on a daily basis.
I have always believed that at the core of any great school are great people, and it is my duty to remind these people that what they are doing does make a difference. That their endless dedication to our school is having an impact. This learning walk reminded me I need to do that. Today! As you walk your halls next week, take a moment to notice those things you've walked by on a regular basis, and just think about it's importance in your school's story. If someone needs to be reminded they are doing a great job, do it! If someone needs a pat on the back, give it! If someone needs to be asked a question, ask it! We have the power as leaders to impact so many, sometimes it's just a matter of remembering that.
Thanks for reading!
I'm so fortunate to work at a school with so many master teachers, from the amazing Kindergarten teachers to a senior shop teacher who has his students creating projects that are so unique he is known across Canada in certain circles. From primary specialists to spec ed teachers that amaze me everyday, it's like I've won the principal's lottery! As an administrator I'm able to reap the rewards of these amazing professionals as many of my conversations with parents and community members revolve around the great things going on at #WaldheimSchool. The very best part of my job is the time I get to spend in classrooms with students and teachers, learning along side them, often times being stumped as I was today. In the senior physics class the students were discussing why sunlight does not appear to be refracted by the atmosphere as it arrives to the earth. As they were discussing Snell's law in their small groups I was struck by the realization that I had never thought about this before, and I consider myself a pretty curious guy.
One of the things I pride myself on as a learning leader in our building is spending so much time in the halls and in the classrooms. I really believe that an effective principal must be a visible, curious principal. That being said, one thing I must confess is that I do find myself intimidated by the thought of having to ask reflective questions to those master teachers. As a new principal I want to be sure I'm helping all teachers move forward with their learning, not just a few. A situation like this presented itself this week as I had an opportunity to be part of a group of administrators to visit a master grade one teacher in Rosthern and observe her working with her students during their reader's workshop. While I was blown away with her lesson and the seamless way she weaved curricular outcomes with rigorous, relevant work, I struggled as I thought about what I could offer her as an administrator. As we spoke later I thanked her for allowing me to be a part of the learning opportunity and asked her a couple of questions about her planning and about her growth as a teacher. Unsure if this was really as helpful as I wanted, I asked her, "as a master teacher, what would you like from your administrator?" She responded politely, letting me know that what she really wanted was for administrators to support teachers who are taking risks, to be curious, to be in the room, and to ask them what they need.
Her advice reminded me of an article by Ben Johnson titled, A Teacher Perspective: Advice for Principals. His article is full of great advice for administrators, however what I found as the over-arching theme was the need for clear, honest communication. This experience has reminded me how important it is to be out and about in my school, and as I continue to visit classrooms I'll keep pushing myself to have those conversations with our master teachers, not to tell them what they don't know, but to ask them what they need. I'll visit, not because I know what would make their lessons better, but because I'm curious about what they have done to make their lessons better than the last one. And I'll visit, not because it's easy, but because it's the important work.
If you have any advice for a new principal who still struggles with feeling comfortable with learning conversations with master teachers, please share it below. If you have felt like this too, please share advice as well.
Thanks for reading!
In an interview (view here), Jerry Seinfeld, one of my all time favorites, talked about how he crafts a joke, and the importance of figuring out what is going to get his top two laughs. He talked about starting with his second best bit and finishing with his very best, obviously he wanted his audience to walk out of his performance energized and talking about how great the show was, all in an effort to get them back into seats in the future. When I think about how quickly our school year is coming to a close, I wonder how we are going to end, and how our audience, the students, will walk out of school. I know how strong we started this year, I was amazed at the work that was going on in your rooms in September in an effort to get the students on board with the learning. I knew early on that Waldheim School was going to be a great fit and that I was going to really enjoy working with everyone.
Fast forward to today, the day before returning to work after our Easter break. I have no doubt we are all tired and can all see the finish line. The days are getting longer and surely I’m not the only one whose thoughts are turning towards those favorite summer pastimes. So how do you finish strong? What do you do in May and June that leaves the students thinking, “I never want to leave this class!”? I have been thinking about this from the perspective of the office. What do I do in May and June that leaves the staff feeling, “I can’t believe how much I’ve grown as an adult learner this year! I can’t wait for September to start putting this to use!”?
Something that we have discussed this year is how to shift how we teach our math classes to a more student-centered approach. I know I say this all the time, but I think the best examples of how to teach in a student-centered environment occur in the industrial arts shop and in the home ec lab. This does not mean that what is happening in other rooms is not student-centered, far from it in fact, rather it is a reflection of the area of study and the beliefs that Glen, Marla, and Krisinda have towards student learning. I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I’ve seen kids sitting and taking notes in either lab, it is very rare (not a cooking pun). Rather, what I see are groups of kids working together to create things like sushi, soft pretzels, designer cakes, blankets, tote bags, guitars, skate boards, crokinole tables, running engines, jewelry, and many, many other cool things. When I used to teach senior math I recall feeling so sorry for the students as they politely worked their way through my boring lessons. I was teaching the way I was taught, and I thought it was the only way. I’ve included a learning link today that talks about 3 things you can do right away in your math class to help foster engagement, maybe this is the thing that gets kids saying, “I never want to leave this class!” I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
Today was one of my favorite days of the year as athletes from the over 40 schools in our division completed in the annual track and field championships. The University of Saskatchewan was the venue as students from grade 7 to 12 gathered to try and best their best in running, throwing and jumping events. The activities had me thinking about academics and the disconnect we seem to have when it comes to assessing students' learning. Indulge me, and imagine the following scenario:
A grade 10 student has decided he wants to continue his involvement with track and field, and signs up for the 110 m hurdles event. This student has committed to the team, and the coach has developed a plan to help the student do the absolute best he can. For weeks the student, his teammates and his coach spend time together practicing, critiquing, refining, and celebrating. The coach even invites experts to come to some practices to guarantee the student is learning the correct skills and the coach is looking for the right things to offer feedback on. The day of the big meet draws closer, and the athlete has seen growth in his ability and feels he is ready for the big race. The night before the race the boy gets a good night sleep and then proceeds to start the day of the meet with a healthy breakfast. On the way to the venue the athlete spends time visualizing what the race will be like, the sound of the gun, the steps to the first hurdle, the feeling of launching himself over each hurdle, hitting his stride just right each time. He knows he is ready, and he trusts his practice will serve him well.
This is where the surprise occurs. As the boys shows up at the track he notices something is not right. Why are the hurdles set at different heights? During practice they were always the same. Why are the distances between the hurdles not consistent? During practice he learned how many steps he needed to take until it was automatic. Why is not 110 meters, but 145 meters? This is not what he was expecting.
Being who he is, the boy lines up at the start line and runs the race to the best of his ability, but he is no where close to matching or beating his personal best.
Would we tolerate this if it actually happened at a track event? I can say with almost 100% certainty we would not.
So my question to you is this. Why do we tolerate this in our classrooms? Why do we ask children to practice in one way and then have them write tests that look and "feel" totally different? Why do we ask kids to write tests completely unassisted when during all of their practice time they have always been assisted by the teacher? Is this the absolute best way to determine what it is our students know, or is it the most convenient method that meets the needs of the teacher? In my grade 11 math class I am very intentional with what I do with my assessments. Here are a few things I believe:
I'd love to hear your thoughts.
On Thursday, May 12th, I took my son to one of his regular appointments with the child psychiatrist in Saskatoon as a follow up meeting to discuss how a change in his medication has been working. You see, my oldest boy has ADHD and what the doctor feels are some struggles with anxiety. This does not really surprise me because, as the saying goes, "the nut does not fall far from the tree". All my life I've struggled with anxiety, however during my teens and early 20's I did not know that, I just felt like there was something wrong with me. Unfortunately I decided to self medicate myself through alcohol, which as everyone knows is not the best medicine for someone's ailments! As the doctor and I talked, I found myself sharing some of my worries for my son about moving into a new class next year, he is going from grade 3 to 4. As I was talking I realized that everything I was saying had to do with my anxiety, not my son's. During this entire conversation my boy was sitting and listening, and after I caught myself, I thought, no wonder he's anxious, look at how I'm feeding it!
This caused me to reflect on how we feed our students or staff without even realizing it. Do you think your class or staff take on your persona to some extent? If you are a "control freak" how does that effect your staff's autonomy? If you are always anxious, does this have a residual effect on your teachers or students? If you are "happy-go-lucky" does this impact your school culture?
I'd have to argue that who you are has a great impact on your surroundings.
I've come to terms with my anxiety, and in fact I now am able to channel my feelings of worry and trepidation into actions. I have realized that my anxiety can and has made me a better educator and leader because I want to do what's right, and sometimes I worry that if I'm not thorough enough I will upset people. Of course, every sword has two edges (I think, I'm not a sword guy, I just like the saying) and I need to be aware that I cannot let my anxiety stand in my way or cause me physical harm.
I'm excited for a new opportunity that is coming my way as I finally will get to "take the training wheels off" as a person I admire once told me. I am going to be making the move from vice principal to principal and of course with that move comes my trusted friend anxiety. I can either let it stand in my way or feed my passion to be better at what I do. Today I choose to let it feed my ability and desire.
As always, comments are welcome.
On a cold and rainy Saskatchewan spring day, I was once again reminded of why, rain or shine, I have the best job in the world! As an in-school administrator, one of the perks of my job is the opportunity to hang out in a variety of classrooms and be part of the students' learning. Today I was busy meeting teachers and students at the school I am transferring to next year when my phone buzzed in my pocket. Reminder: Grade 4 playground proposals today. The grade 4's have been busy learning about formal and informal writing and as a part of this, the teacher wanted them to practice formal presentations. The students have decided that they want to get a couple of new pieces of equipment for the playground, so the teacher, being as "on the ball" as she always is, decided this was a perfect opportunity to have them write and speak about something they are passionate about.
So there I stood at their classroom door, waiting as they prepped their room for the presentation. When I was invited into the room, I was met with smiling students, a comfy chair with my name on it, a mug of hot chocolate and two chocolate chip cookies (the kids know how to get to my heart). The presentations were terrific, and even though the structures they want to buy are close to $20,000, they had taken an important first step, and put the wheels of change in motion.
As administrators, I think it is so critical to make the time to be with the students as often as possible, this has to be our focus. In addition to being in the room, we need to be a part of the learning, and today was an example of why this is so important. The students have seen me in their room countless times, and they know I am always keenly interested in what they are working on. To receive this invitation told me that the fact I take this time matters to them, and as I told the kids, if it's important to you it's important to me.
When I visit a classroom I always try to follow a similar format:
To my fellow administrators, what are some of the things you look or listen for in a room during a visit? To my fellow teachers, what are some things you would love your administrators to notice when they are in your room?
As always, comments are welcome.
For those of you who know me, you already are aware that I'm the father of 4 kids (9, 5, 2 yr old twins) and know that balancing life and work is always tricky. Last night, my 5 year old daughter, Eva, and my wife went to see the live performance of Mary Poppins. The two of them were accompanied by my mom, my two sisters and my two nieces for what they called their girls night out. The performance ended close to 10:00 pm, so by the time they arrived back home, I was already sound asleep. This morning, my daughter came bouncing out of her bedroom, eager to tell me all about the "flying lady" and the "amazing songs". She talked about the performance with smiling eyes, and summed it all up by saying, "after all, anything is possible dad, if you let it!"
Such prophetic words. Anything is possible...if you let it.
I started thinking about how we approach learning, both adult learning and student learning. Do you believe that anything is possible? When you look at all your students, do you believe all of them can achieve at a high level? When you think about yourself, do you set limits on what you think you can do? If so, where did these limits come from? What evidence do you have that you cannot learn to really high levels?
Here is a task you might want to undertake in private, for I doubt you would ever tell anyone how you "rank" your students, even if it is done though instinct or what others call their gut feelings. The task is to think about the students currently in your class, and think about how you have ranked them based on your belief of how deeply each of them can learn. Likely many of you reading this will say you do not rank your students in this manner, which is great, however it has been my experience that many teachers do, and this evidence often reveals itself through subtle comments, usually in the staff room or in my office. That being said, we all have students who are achieving at different levels in our classrooms, and what I'd ask you do is only focus on what you are:
a. doing to help close the achievement gap for the students who come out on the low end of your unofficial scale
b. not doing to help close the achievement gap for the students who come out on the low end of your unofficial scale
After you have done that, simply ask yourself why. Why are you doing what you are doing, and why are you not doing some things that might help.
I get it, we are all busy, and all the students in our class need help at some point. But, if we are creating excuses for why we are not closing the gap for these struggling students, then I think we need to evaluate what we are doing in our room and how we can change our approach to learning. Sometimes all we need to do is ask for help, we cannot pretend to know the answer to every question, nor the solution to every problem.
Larry Leverett_ writes, "it is time to reject the myths that provide excuses for action. It's time to stop blaming the victims, relying on non-school factors to excuse our performance in schools, and accepting the poppycock that closing the achievement gap is a problem without a solution."
After all, like a 5 year old said, anything is possible dad...if you let it!
As always, comments are welcome.
On my way to a presentation this morning I drove down a familiar road, one that I've traveled countless times and one that offers great scenery to enjoy. As I drew closer to my destination I noticed some large machinery near a gas station that had recently relocated to a different part of town. The station had sat empty for a while in the hopes that someone would take it over, but alas, that did not come to pass. The gas station was not that outdated, but customers were demanding the latest innovations in the world of petroleum and convenience goods.
This started me thinking about how we respond to our customers, our students. As May unfolds it is the time of year when we walk with our feet in two different worlds; reflecting on the past year, while starting to look ahead. Many teachers decide to tweak certain things from the past in an effort to improve their art, and I think it's important to be ever-evolving in the world of education. But when is it time to tear it all down and start from scratch? This does not mean abandoning the goal of student learning, just like the gas station did not abandon their goal of providing the best customer service they can in a timely manner. But when are tweaks not enough? Tearing it all down can be a scary proposition, and sometimes the fear of the new can stop us from letting go of the familiar.
How do you know if it's time to make some big changes in how you teach? I think it is safe to say there will be different indicators for different people, but here are a few questions I ask myself each year:
As always, comments are welcome.