• The Rally Driving Principal

    I love the use of analogy. It causes the reader/listener to think and put the two pieces together, comparing and contrasting at the same time. So, at the risk of asking you to put a couple of things together, here we go. A good principal is like (or should be like) the co-driver in a […]

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  • Why do we have schools?

    At a recent conference I was challenged by the speakers in attendance (Prof. Sugata Mitra, Prof. Pasi Sahlberg, Dr. Tony Wagner, Dr Yong Zhao) to consider why we have schools. Here is my challenge…   I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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  • Struggle & Success

    As I was visiting classrooms last week, chatting with students about the work they were engaged in, one comment in particular left me thinking. I had asked the student what she was working on and she responded she was working on an assignment related to something she had recently read. When I asked what was […]

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  • Teaching is like cabinet-making!

    This tweet (see right) was waiting for me on Monday morning when I switched the computer on. Tom is a teacher and administrator in Ontario, Canada and is a regular contributor to Twitter. His tweet leads to a research paper focussing on (obviously!) 21st Century Teaching and Learning. I have not read the entire paper (in […]

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  • Twitter for unbeatable Professional Learning

    A couple of weeks ago I wrote about podcasts (and referenced the fantastic chat with Pernille Ripp) and how they can be a fantastic source of professional learning. Just listening to other professionals doing the same thing you do and hearing HOW they go about their job can be SO informative! This week I would like […]

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The Rally Driving Principal

I love the use of analogy. It causes the reader/listener to think and put the two pieces together, comparing and contrasting at the same time. So, at the risk of asking you to put a couple of things together, here we go.

A good principal is like (or should be like) the co-driver in a rally car.

Rally Driving is my favourite motor sport to watch. Not that I’m a big motor sports fan at all, but if I’m flicking through the TV and land on some rally driving, I’ll stop for a bit and watch. It’s fast, its dangerous, it’s exciting and there are two people in the car. The on-board-camera is the most interesting for me. You get to see the driver and the co-driver interacting. The driver has feet and hands going everywhere – brake pedals, accelerator, hand brake, gears, clutch, steering wheel. He’s flicking that car around like a rag doll, sliding in and out or corners, taking off over crests, hitting blind corners at amazing speeds. And the co-driver? He’s reading. Out loud!

If you have never watched a rally, then at this point you might be a little intrigued. Is he sitting there reciting Dan Brown, trying to untangle the DaVinci Code? Is it a map? Is he making sure they stay on the right track? Take a few minutes to watch this video.

He is reading race-notes. Race notes that he and the driver have written themselves a couple of days earlier. These notes are extremely precise. Distances. Turns. Speeds of turns. Road conditions. Inclines. Declines. Etc. These race-notes describe to the driver exactly what he will be facing next as he races along the track. The driver’s job is to listen to the co-driver and adjust accordingly. If “100 L2″ is the call, the driver has to slow down to 2nd gear for the left turn coming in 100 metres. Very precise, timely, informative information.

And now the Principal…

Schools are full of very smart people. Students, teachers, administrators. As the Principal, it is your job to presume this, to expect this, to create this. Of course there are some who are not. Presume anyway. And to this end, be precise with your race-notes.

Your race-notes are how you talk to people. Be precise with the language you use. Give your teachers, students, colleagues the information they need to be the best they can be. The precision of the language you use is extremely important, as it can influence the way things get done, now and in the future. Your choice of words can have a direct impact on how a teacher continues to grow and develop their teaching practices, and your choice of where you give those words can have just as much impact.

Consider this scenario…

The Principal is sitting in her office talking to the HS Social Studies teacher about a lesson she observed. The summative assessment was not good! She hands him an article to read saying, “Here’s some information on summative assessments I think would be helpful for you to read.” The teacher, listening, hears her say, “I think your summative assessments are poor and I need you to read this.”

Now, with a rally driving co-driver twist.

The Principal has entered the HS Social Studies teacher’s classroom and has asked where they should sit. They sit. The Principal passes over the article on summative assessment and says, “I saw the effort you had put into your summative assessment and it reminded me of one of the articles I have on summative assessment best practice. I thought you might like to add it to your assessment resources. It’s great to get new ideas to add to your own practice.” The teacher, listening, hears her say, “I saw your effort. I read a lot of articles. I presume you do to. Here’s how this one will be helpful.”

With this twist, the teacher is in the drivers seat (his classroom), the principal has shared that she does a lot of reading, the principal has shared she expects him to be building similar resources, and the principal has told the teacher how she expects him to use the information from the reading.

So, the analogy…

The principal should be the co-driver when working with teachers, just as teachers should be co-drivers when working with students. Both the principal and the teacher should be strapped in for the ride, committed to reaching the end and working together to get there. The principal should be very precise with his/her race-notes, which should give the teacher everything they need, and more, to make their own decisions about how to turn the corner. And if they crash, the co-driver should be there to help the driver get out of the car.

Perhaps, being a principal should be like being a rally co-driver.

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Why do we have schools?

At a recent conference I was challenged by the speakers in attendance (Prof. Sugata Mitra, Prof. Pasi Sahlberg, Dr. Tony Wagner, Dr Yong Zhao) to consider why we have schools. Here is my challenge…

Office vs School

 

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Struggle & Success

As I was visiting classrooms last week, chatting with students about the work they were engaged in, one comment in particular left me thinking. I had asked the student what she was working on and she responded she was working on an assignment related to something she had recently read. When I asked what was the most challenging element of the assignment, she responded immediately with, “Finding the evidence in the text.” And then she followed with, “If I had known I was going to get this assignment I would have highlighted more as I was reading.” When I asked if that would have made writing the assignment easier she nodded her head. “Yes. A lot easier” was her comment.
Finding that right balance as a teacher is always hard. How much do I foreshadow what is coming, and how much do I ask unannounced. We want our students to struggle – to some degree. But we also want our students to succeed. The balance point between the two is a hard one to find, and is different for every student. Differentiation, at it’s heart, is all about finding that balance for each student.

Setting the same homework for every student in the class may not strike the right balance for all. Some may find the struggle such that they find no success. Some may find too little struggle as they cruise through the task. For some, the set homework might be just the right balance between struggle and success.

So as you go about setting homework, designing tests/quizzes, creating an assignment, expecting notes to be taken in a certain manner, plan a lesson, etc… consider that balance. And then consider how you might be able to adjust something in the task for some of your students so that for them, there WILL be balance.
Reduce the scope of the homework, give the option of submitting the quiz verbally, let each student choose how they want to take their own notes, give students options for how they present an assignment.
You might be surprised at the level of learning students can show when they can work with the right balance between struggle and success.

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Teaching is like cabinet-making!

This tweet (see right) was waiting for me on Monday morning when I switched the computer on. Tom is a teacher and administrator in Ontario, Canada and is a regular contributor to Twitter. His tweet leads to a research paper focussing on (obviously!) 21st Century Teaching and Learning. I have not read the entire paper (in fact, only skimmed the Executive Summary) and probably won’t, but it started me thinking. It brought into mind a number of observations I made last week as I was visiting classrooms and wandering the halls and helped me tie them together.

Teaching, like cabinet-making, is a lot about tools and how well they are used.
As I have shared with some of you, when given the chance, I love building furniture. The smell of fresh wood shavings, the satisfaction of taking a number of flat bits of timber and turning them into something useful, the challenge of creating something aesthetically beautiful, the joy of getting lost in the creative process.
As you begin to get lost in this process you soon come to realise the importance of good tools. A sharp saw. Fresh sandpaper. A straight rule. A solid workbench. A good broom. And sometimes, there are times when the design of the furniture has to be adjusted, simply because the right tool is not available.
Teaching is very similar. As teachers we have all sorts of tools available to us as we consider the creative process of leading students through their learning.
Sometimes we don’t recognise some of the most impactful tools we have at our disposal. For example, the humble classroom desk. It is so much more than something just to sit at. Used effectively, the humble classroom desk can be used for behaviour management, social dynamics modification, assisting student focus, keeping students on task, etc. And when we consider that many of our students are using laptops, classroom desks and how they are arranged, become an even more powerful teaching/learning tool.
Laptops, textbooks, classroom desks, tone of voice, where we stand in the room when we speak, wall charts, music playing, images shown on the Smartboard, room temperature, what we wear, classroom routines, expectations we have of students, online classroom spaces – these are all TOOLS that we have at our disposal to influence the learning environment of our students.

One of the biggest challenges as a teacher is to know what tool to use, when to use it and then finally, how to use it most effectively. Not an easy task by any means! Professional Development for teachers, at it’s heart, should be about expanding a teacher’s repertoire of tools and then about refining that teacher’s ability to use the right tool, in the right way, at the right time.

The research paper on 21st Century Teaching and Learning (which prompted this short article) highlights the use of digital tools in teaching, and the importance of learning digital skills (which I wholeheartedly agree with). At the same time, if I want to help a child learn how to add three and five, or the effect of static electricity, or how to throw a pot… a digital tool is not what I will be reaching for.
Famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow had a couple of words to say about tools. “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

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Twitter for unbeatable Professional Learning

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about podcasts (and referenced the fantastic chat with Pernille Ripp) and how they can be a fantastic source of professional learning. Just listening to other professionals doing the same thing you do and hearing HOW they go about their job can be SO informative! This week I would like to draw your attention to Twitter!
For me, Twitter is hands down, without a doubt, the single BEST professional learning tool available! Why, I hear you ask? Well, here’s why…
Teaching, like a lot of other professions out there, is a job that REQUIRES us to be constantly learning because our job is so dynamic (in a changing-all-the-time sense). Teaching is also a profession where one of the best ways to get better is to watch/talk to/ask questions of a colleague. Some of us are lucky enough to have colleagues in the same building who we can do that with (as an aside, if you don’t, I would URGE you to start looking now!). Some of us may be the only teacher of that subject, or the only person in that role within the school, so making those connections is a little more difficult. So, enter Twitter.

Twitter is at it’s heart, a community notice board. You want to tell the world something? You compose a short (160 character) message and “tweet” it, or “post it” or “pin it onto the noticeboard”. You don’t get to choose who listens. You just put it out there. If that was all, then Twitter would be rather useless. But that is the less interesting part of it.

Twitter is all about LISTENING!
The REAL power of Twitter lies in your ability to choose who you listen to, or in Twitter parlance, who you choose to “follow“. At last estimate, there are around 288 million active Twitter users. That is one HUGE noticeboard! But you don’t have to listen to all of them. You get to choose. And here is where the professional learning begins to take shape.
Of that 288 million, there are a handful (probably in the thousands) of active twitter users who do exactly the same job as you. And they regularly “tell the world something” about their job. It might be a cool resource they have just found. Or it might be about something they tried in the classroom. Or it might be a question they have about the course they are teaching. Because you do the same job, those resources, ideas and questions might be useful to you. My experience has been (and continues to be) that these resources, ideas and questions are the most useful source of professional learning you can get your hands on.
So what is the catch I hear you asking? It can’t be that easy!

So OK, there is a catch. The “work” is in finding who is worth listening to. As you might guess, not everyone is “telling the world something” that is necessarily worth listening to. Do I care what Justin Bieber had for breakfast? Do I care who Miley Cyrus is saying happy birthday to?? NO! So I don’t “follow” them. I follow people who are doing the same thing as me, who “tell the world” interesting stuff about how they are doing their thing. And that took a little bit of time and trial and error.

So, now that I have convinced you of how fantastic Twitter is :-), here is my advice…
  • Download an app (Twitter, Tweetdeck, etc) and use Twitter through the app. The website is good, but an app makes it a little more deliberate.
  • Use Twitter to listen. Don’t feel you need to start posting anything.
  • Find one person worth following. Check out who they are following and then follow some of those people.
  • “Follow” no more than 30 people when you first start.
  • When you do start posting, consider replying to “tweets” from those you follow.
  • Share the love! If you find something really useful on Twitter, let your colleagues know about it (and that you found it through Twitter!)

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Building a bridge with care

Over the past few months I have had a real opportunity to learn about the culture of my new school. I have shared with a number of people that learning ones way through a culture is somewhat akin to tip-toeing through a field of land mines. It is not until you step on one that you find out it is there. Within the cultural context, it is not until you disturb a cultural norm that you being to understand how deeply that norm is felt.

What is obvious at my new school, is that everyone cares! Teachers care. Students care. Parents care. Finding out what each of these groups care about, and how deeply they care about it has been, and continues to be, the walk through the minefield, as these are the two variables so intimately connected to culture.

What we care about and the depth to which we care about it are extremely culturally connected, so much so that it is often difficult to articulate. It is not until those things we care about are brought under the microscope and become focussed topics of conversation that we begin to sense and understand the depth to which those things are cared about. Often it is a surprise. Sometimes it cannot be explained. We are all cultural beings.

A recent parent discussion I was a part of helped me understand in a very real sense the fact that sometimes we can care deeply about things that in the end are not helpful to solving problems or reaching resolution. When these pieces are deeply ingrained through our culture, the challenge to move beyond them is significant, and in all honesty, may seem to be impossible. Deep seated cultural “values” do not move easily, and sometimes, do not move at all.

The mission statement of my new school drives us to bridge the East and the West, which, from a cultural perspective is a significant challenge. While there are elements of East and West that are complimentary and even sometimes symbiotic, there are also elements that are oppositional, contradictory, and at times, adversarial. I deal on a daily basis with students and families for whom the world is framed through the cultural lens of the East. My school is bringing an educational philosophy and practice being framed through a Western lens, with Western voices. Moments of contradiction cannot be avoided.

It is these contradictory moments that should inform us most deliberately about how to build our bridge, because in it’s most real sense, a bridge links two different places. A bridge is a solution. A bridge allows movement from one point to another, most often over something that would normally prevent that movement. A river, a chasm, an ideal, a danger.
Bridging the differences between two cultures requires us to focus not on the differences, but the commonalities. By focussing on what is common to both cultures, a conversation can begin and work can start on building the bridge.

What is obvious at my new school is that everyone cares! It is obvious in the extra lengths that teachers take to know and support their students. It is obvious in the hours that teachers spend outside of their classrooms providing opportunities for students to be challenged in non-academic pursuits. It is obvious in the care and attention teachers give to providing feedback to students on their learning. It is obvious in the emails that teachers send to parents, eliciting support, sharing successes, requesting dialogue. It is obvious in the passionate advocacy parents show for their children. It is obvious in the conversations students have with their teachers about their learning. It is obvious in all that we do at this school.

And it strikes me, that as we go about building our bridge, we could not hope for a better foundation than “care”.

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A teacher’s most important job is to learn

It is not often I start a post with the title. Usually, I have an idea, spend a good amount of time thinking about it, sit down and let those rambling thoughts crystallise on the page, and then determine what the title of the post should be. This time, the idea and thinking have led me to a title first. So here come the rambling thoughts.

The best teachers start by learning.

And not their subject!

When meeting someone for the first time who is a teacher, I have begun the habit of asking them this question. “Who do you teach?” It is very interesting to see the responses. Some teachers come back straight away with, “I teach Social Studies and English”. I smile. I ask a clarifying question. “WHO do you teach?”. Often the response is a description including the name of the school or the grade level or a school division.

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 6.22.27 AMSome teachers, on facing my initial question, get this somewhat puzzled look on their face. Usually THEY ask the clarifying question. “WHO do I teach?” “Yes,” I reply. “Who?” They take a moment. Think. And then tell me school names, grade levels, school division descriptions.

I can only think of one or two teachers to whom I have put that question who have paused for a moment, smiled, and launched into a description of individual students. Students who frustrate them. Students who are amazing. Students who are taking 5 advanced level courses, running the school whatever-club, volunteering for the whatever-group. Students who came into their classroom not knowing how to do whatever and are now teaching other kids in the class the whatever. Students who have persisted with something they find really difficult. Students who stand at their desk every single morning and tell them about something they find totally amazing. Students who know when the teacher needs a handmade card to let them know they are appreciated.

When I listen to these teachers respond to my question, I wish I could contact their Principal and tell him/her how lucky they are to have this person working in their school (but then they probably already know that!). I also hand them my business card. These are the teachers I want working for me!

Because the most important job a teacher has is to LEARN. About the students they are going to attempt to teach.

Some famous gentlemen wrote about blank slates and empty jugs and urged teachers to fill them up, saying that is what teaching is. At the risk of being precocious I’m going to suggest they missed a really important part of the whole process. Close examination of the slate, the chalk, the jug, the liquid, etc, etc. You are not going to get much into the jug if the neck is an inch wide and you pour from a bucket! If that slate is wet, then your chalk is going to disappear real quick. If your chalk is too hard, you are just going to leave scratch marks on the slate that are no good to nobody! (I’m dating myself with this intimate knowledge of chalk!)

Know your students first. Learn everything you can about them. And then teach. And don’t stop learning.

Did that work? Did he respond to that? Did she understand that approach? Did they collaborate well in that setting? Was that assessment task interesting to those over there? Do they understand me when I speak? Do they think deeply when I pose questions in this manner? How can I reach that one kid over there who is dealing with some really heavy stuff?

Know. Your. Students!

Only when you REALLY know your students can you really begin to teach them.

Don’t be the teacher complaining that most of what you are pouring from the bucket isn’t going in. Learn all you can about the jug!

 

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10 lessons from the first 100 days

Today marked the 100th day of my first year as a principal. Twelve months ago I thought I was heading for the chair in the soon-to-be-empty Elementary Principal’s office, but as it turned out, that chair was rolled into the workshop. It was disassembled and combined with the Secondary Principal chair and rolled back into service for me as the the new K-12 Principal. Tonight, for the one hundredth time, I turned off the light, shut the door and left that chair in a darkened, wintery office illuminated only by the pulsating green light of the Nespresso machine waiting in the corner. It is starting to become a little more comfortable, but at times has been the last place I wanted to sit.

So 100 days in seemed like a poignant moment to take a rhetorical lean back in that chair and jot down some thoughts on what I have learned in those 100 days. I address you as if you are about to move into a Principal’s chair…

Restraint. This is the first big lesson of my 100 days.

Be restrained. Think carefully about everything you say. Think carefully about who you say the things you want to say to. Think carefully if “saying” is really what is needed. Spend twice as much time listening. Most people know what they need to hear. Let your speaking help them listen… to themselves!

Learn. This is the second big lesson of my 100 days.

A new leader in a new school has a LOT to learn. Tell others around you that you are in the PROCESS of learning. Let them know how they can help you learn. ASK for help. Be thankful when it is given. Apologise when you get it wrong (and never by email!).

Write with a pen. This is the third big lesson of my 100 days.

Thanks written in your hand with blue ink on a small piece of paper communicates a message that reading is not required for, that is remembered for a long time, that others mention. It takes time. It is time well spent!

Reflect. This is the fourth big lesson of my 100 days.

Mistakes will become more regular, more obvious and more impactful. Take time to notice them, ponder them and act on them. Find a person you can trust. Let them listen to your story. You know what you need to hear. Let them help you say it.

Hold on and breathe. This is the fifth big lesson of my 100 days.

There are no such things as slow days. There are fast days and there are are REALLY fast days. There are days when someone has broken their leg, the fire alarm goes off, a school bus crashes on the way to school, three students get caught smoking in class, a parent wants to know whey their child received a B+ and not an A (can he retest???) and a teacher decides today is her last day. These are every days. They don’t get any slower!

Spend a part of your day with students. This is the sixth big lesson of my 100 days.

Without fail… it will be the best part of your day!

Make teachers smile. This is the seventh big lesson of my 100 days.

Sometimes teaching is the toughest job in the world, so do all you can to make teachers smile. When teachers smile, they feel good. When teachers feel good, they teach well. When teachers teach well, students learn well. It’s not rocket science. Make teachers smile.

Grow a pair. This is the eighth big lesson of my 100 days.

If calling a meeting with a teacher who is not doing a good job is going to be tough for you, get some training on having hard conversations or rethink your movement into school administration. Bad teaching needs to be addressed. Address it. Or frame an apology to the class full of students (and their parents) who have been subjected to Mr I’m-doing-my-best-but-it-is-still-really-crap!

Love your work. This is the ninth big lesson of my 100 days.

If you don’t obviously love doing the job you are doing, students will notice. Teachers will notice. Parents will notice. And no words you say will dissuade those folks from believing what they think they have already noticed.

Get your calendaring system organised. This is the tenth big lesson of my 100 days.

You will begin to live by your calendar. If it is not set up properly and others cannot add appointments to your calendar for you, you will look stupid.

And that rounds out my Top Ten. Please take a moment comment and add anything you think I might have missed.

 

 

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Cause a smile!

BeckOn one of my many subway journeys of the weekend, I was standing, people watching, by myself with my headphones (providing a Beck – Morning Phase soundtrack) and I happened to notice a young couple. She was sitting, looking up at him. He was standing, looking down to her. They were laughing. Talking. Whispering. Giggling. Oblivious to those around them. Obviously very happy to be in each other’s company. As the train arrived at a stop it was clear he was about to leave. There was some close whispering, more laughter and big smiles. He stepped off. She watched him go. She looked at the floor and played with her scarf.

Then she turned to look for him through the train window but was blocked by the solid wall of the station doors. She returned to her scarf twisting.

Meanwhile, he had walked down to the next carriage door and peered in, searching for a final goodbye glance. Unfortunately there were too many commuters standing in the way and the doors closed on a disappointed smile. The train moved off.

I may have been the only person who noticed what had happened. They had both searched for that final goodbye glance but both missed. Neither of them knew. In that moment I wished I could tell them what had happened.

I watched her alight at the next station and noticed that her bright smile had faded. Just a little.

And this morning, I wondered if that’s not a little bit like parents sending their children off to school. We, as teachers, see their children doing amazing things. Little things. Big things. Things that don’t really matter. And things that really do. And too often we let those moments pass without letting anybody know. I am sure If I had stopped the young lady on the train and told her about how her friend had searched for her before he left, her smile would have lasted all day.

So, as you go about your important business this week of encouraging students to learn, and you have the privilege of witnessing little things, or big things, or things that really matter, please take a moment to share those moments. Share them with the student and then take a moment to send an email home sharing that little, big or important thing with parents.

Mother Theresa said it very well when she said, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

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Tear here to open…

ChocolateThere is something wrong when you find yourself twirling a block of chocolate in your hand and you notice a printed message and a perforated line indicating “Tear here to open.” I mean, when faced with a block of chocolate (72% cacao no less!), who is ever going to put the block down lamenting they don’t know how to open it? IT’S A BLOCK OF CHOCOLATE!!!

It made me think of how we sometimes teach our students.

We plan our lessons so that every step along the way is described, modelled, scaffolded and templated so that they encounter success and feel confident as they go about their learning. WRONG! We are writing “tear here to open” on the block of chocolate.

Learning is meant to be messy. Learning is meant to be a struggle. It requires failure, mistakes, errors and wrong turns. It should pose a challenge, demand problems to be solved, stretch young minds to consider new ways of doing things and it should be engaging.

Nobody needs to be told or shown how to open a block of chocolate – the motivation is there, the reward is obvious, a labour with immediate fruits!

As teachers, we should make sure our chocolate is the best chocolate in the world, wrap it up so that getting into it is a challenge and not even bother with instructions. That’s what I want my classroom to look like!