Monday, September 12, 2011

Principles for principals

Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them.
Napoleon Bonaparte

Everyone has their own personal set of guiding principles. Those of us in the field of education often examine our principles, our values, our morals, as we are frequently teaching them explicitly to others. Our principles become especially important during times of stress or strife, particularly during  those times when we disagree with others.

Here are several ways I strive to put principles before personalities at school:
  • during my conversations remember that my focus needs to be on serving the needs of students
  • it is okay to disagree without being disagreeable
  • not everyone shares the same values as I do, but they are still deserving of respect and dignity
  • I am in a position of trust, and need to represent the interests of many diverse parties
  • most importantly, treat others how I would like to be treated
My list is not comprehensive, and there are many great resources for this sort of thing. I like to keep a few of these simple ideas on post-it notes on my bulletin board. It helps to keep me focused and serving the needs of students. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Think (and act) Positive

As I prepare for a new school year, and my first year as school principal, I've had several occasions to think about the power of positivity. I've enjoyed reading a couple posts by other administrators on this topic, in particular a post by @MrWejr on the Friday 5, and @L_Hilt on The Power of Positivity. Like these principals, I see so much energy around me, but much of it appears wasted on negative, draining pursuits.

Happiness is an attitude.
There is anxiety that comes with starting a new school year. Folks want to be ready, to have it all together, to feel organised. Adding to an already stressful situation for some, is the challenge of a labour dispute in our province. Without delving into that hot topic, it is safe to say that some people feel a little more anxiety than usual. My thoughts lately have strayed towards how I can influence the climate in our schools in a positive way. The primary way I see myself doing that is by being "solution oriented" -- thinking and acting in a positive way.

For me, being in the solution means considering the problem, but not getting weighed down by it. As @L_Hilt pointed out in her post, we are in the people business, and the business of serving students and families. I need to look at problems as challenges, or jigsaw puzzles. I often have some of the pieces but can't see the whole picture. It is part of my role as a leader to pop my head up and try to orient us in the bigger picture. Being forward thinking or solution oriented keeps me driving towards that purpose.

Another way I like to think of problems and solutions is using the analogy of a balance. When I am stuck in the problem, I am adding grains of sand to the problem side of the balance. If I am solution oriented I can tip the balance in the other direction. It is important for me to remember when I am in the thick of it that it only takes one grain of sand, one seemingly small action, to tip the scales in a new direction.

The upswing for me is that positivity is infectious, and the result is often happiness! Although it is sometimes hard work, as Seth Godin writes in his post "The problem with positive thinking", it is worth it. It is hard to be a downer around an enthusiastic, smiling and positive person. The effect on staff, and hence students and the learning environment, is magnificent. I owe it to myself to affect this change.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The First Two Days

photo by Ganymede, available on Flickr at

On my first day as a principal, I received a frantic email (cc'd to the superintendant, no less) from a teacher locked out of the school. This email was sent at 7 am on the 22nd of August, a full two weeks before school started! When I arrived, at a much more reasonable 8:45, I discovered that I had no computer or network access. I couldn't even put in a ticket to request a tech analyst help me with my problem, because I was locked out of any and all computers in the school. At least the phones worked. I spent much of the rest of the day searching for keys to cabinets, missing document cameras and projectors, vinegar for the moldy coffee maker (Starbucks is REALLY far away) and chatting with teachers (a much more fruitful and enjoyable task!). I can't wait to hire a secretary for this school!

On my second day, I arrived at my “other” school to discover that my office had been entirely deconstructed by the custodian over the summer. He did a bang up job of cleaning the carpets, but in the process hid my office furniture (and computer) in various parts of the school. As I searched throughout the school I discovered not one, but two, leaks from the previous day's thunderstorm. “No problem”, I said to myself. Once I get my office arranged and my computer set up, I'll put in a ticket to have the roofer or the plumber come have a look. However, I soon discovered that I did not have access to any computers at this school either! Didn't we solve this problem yesterday? Fortunately I soon had computer access and was able to write a newsletter, create a year-at-a-glance calendar, and take a big bite out of my staff handbook.

I share these adventures not as a discouragement, or by way of complaint, but to celebrate what wonderfully diverse jobs we have. The funny part is, I haven't even met any parents or students yet! It is bound to get only more exciting.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Volume and Complexity - Keeping it Simple

Be honest, never make a decision before you need to, read (and discuss) widely.

These are some gems of advice I've received recently, as I transition from vice-principal to principal over the summer. I've enjoyed reminiscing about the past few years and the experiences I've garnered as a new admin. It was fun and exciting being in the middle of such tumultuous change. I took on my first v.p. job part way through a school year, in the middle of a master's degree, and with a young family in tow. I learned some of the parts of my new role (data collection, supervision of instruction, building management) while also learning how to play ukulele and master various forms of puppetry (Fine Arts teacher). I took on the annual Christmas Concert, taught English as a Second Language/Dialect, led a book study, brewed coffee and shoveled walkways. I loved the "many hats" nature of my job and the ability to work with all students and staff in the school.

When I moved schools last September, the task was to help open a new school -- 700 students from three closing schools coming together into one dual track, K-7 elementary school. We offer a band program, choir, a variety of sports options, Hockey Academy, figure skating, wood shop, Fine Arts specialties and more. We are close to local downhill mountain biking trails and many field trips capitalise on this opportunity. We share our building with a daycare and preschool business, as well as a Strong Start facility. To say this last year was complex is the understatement of the year!

As I prepare for another move and the transition to my first principalship, I am feeling excited and not a little nervous. I will be in two schools, both small and rural. They are very well resourced and have excellent teaching and support staff. I think the piece that keeps gnawing at me is how to "keep it simple" in the face of such complexity. I will do my best to keep the simple goals in the forefront of my mind, and to make good use of my PLN. I'll continue reading the great blogs out there (thanks to @justintarte, @hatcherelli and @jvincentsen) and tackle a few more professional reads over the summer. Most of all, I'll be taking some time to reduce the volume, reduce the complexity, and enjoy some rest time. Sometimes the best preparation is taking time to relax!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Vision Reimagined

I will be a vice principal for a few more days. Then I will begin to wrap up this part of my career, and look forward to a new stage. I've spent so many days working on becoming an administrator, and a few years as a vice principal learning from my colleagues. It feels strange to be moving to a new school and taking on this new role.

I am keenly aware of the need to continue learning from the students and teachers I work most closely with, and to cultivate a growth mindset in my interactions with other colleagues. I think what is affecting me most profoundly is this fresh opportunity to recreate myself, to reinvest with purpose in my growth as a learner and a leader.

I am very excited to close out my school year with another visit to UBC to participate in the annual Short Course. I think it will be an excellent way to refuel after an exciting (but exhausting) school year. I look forward to making new connections and catching up with friends. I know I will come away with new eyes and fresh ideas.

I am interested to hear from others what works for them when they transition into new roles, as leaders and learners. I am eager to learn about the cultures at my new schools (2 rural schools), and find my niche with my new colleagues. If you have any suggestions or ideas, any and all feedback is welcome.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pay Yourself First

It's all about balance...

I've been reading Swiss Family Robinson to my kids before bedtimes, and every night we end up looking something up on Google. First it was the roast ortolan (check out this YouTube video, if you dare:, then the cat-like creature, and most recently manioc meal. My children are fascinated by the myriad ways the stranded adventurers met their most basic needs. The family in the story is necessarily consumed with providing for their food and shelter in an extreme situation. While my children might not be able to relate to the struggle for survival on a desert island, they are certainly aware of the pressures placed on caring for oneself in our modern Western society. Similarly, recent discussions with colleagues have highlighted for me the frequent struggle to maintain balance and the inclination to place many priorities ahead of one's own self care. I, for one, often struggle to maintain personal balance in the face of professional pressures and demands on my time.

Research tells us that it is when we are confronted by our most difficult or stressful situations that we must be most vigilant in maintaining balance in our lives. This necessitates making time in our lives for activities that are relaxing, bring pleasure and create a sense of purpose or accomplishment (see note 1).

So what can we do to take care of ourselves with such busy schedules? In “The ABCs of Managing Teacher Stress” Liza Nagel and Sheri Brown discuss several practical ideas (see note 2).
  • Acknowledge the source of stress and what exacerbates it
  • Exercise to reduce the secretion of stress hormones
  • Meditation and deep breathing can help create emotional balance
  • Collegial conversations encourage positive outlets and solutions
  • Adopt effective time management strategies

Stress-coping strategies should take into account a holistic approach that considers all aspects of a person's life. In addition, one must consider building resistance to stress, as it will not always be possible to negate the impact of it on our lives. (see note 3). Another way to think of this is to consider what are the characteristics of a healthy organisation, and then develop appropriate personal and organisational practices. Some characteristics of a healthy school could include:
  • consultative decision making
  • consensus based on shared values
  • clearly defined roles and expectations
  • positive feedback and praise
  • clearly defined policies and procedures
  • robust support for new colleagues (see note 3)

The challenge is to put all of this into practise. I've set aside regular time for reflection and writing, but an emergent situation always seems to arise. I do my best to keep up with professional reading, but there always seems to be another great novel on the top of my pile. I'm working at fostering outside interests and squeezing them into my schedule. Perhaps I need to adopt a policy of “no more buts”. I also think it would be advice well taken to remember the Wealthy Barber's mantra of “pay yourself first”. I'd be happy to hear how others are managing balance in their lives.

1. Brooks, Robert B.. The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence and Personal Strength in Your Life, McGraw-Hill, 2004.
2. Nagel, Liza and Brown, Sheri (2003) “The ABCs of Managing Teacher Stress,” The Clearing House, 76:5.
3. Kyriacou, Chris (2001) “Teacher Stress: Directions for Future Research,” Educational Review 53:1, 27-35.
4. Steyn, G.M. And Kamper, G.D. (2006) “Understanding Occupational Stress among educators: an overview,” Africa Education Review, 3:1, 113-133.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The World Peace Game

John Hunter works with 4th grade students on a project he calls The World Peace Game. Together, they solve the problems of the world. Sound incredible? Watch the TED talk to discover how these children engage in a truly remarkable process.

I'm grateful that this sort of innovative teaching is going on. John Hunter's out-of-the-box approach to teaching and learning is truly inspirational.

Friday, April 22, 2011

edcamp Prince George

I had this idea in the middle of the night that hosting an edcamp, like the one I've been hearing about in Vancouver recently, would be a great way to inspire local educators. I have been feeling disenchanted with the way pro-d and conferences are run – the “stand and deliver” model, or “sage on the stage” is not working for me lately! I realised that I need to learn more about what edcamp is: Is it offered in other cities? How would I get one organised for my city? Who are the “experts” that I might contact to inform/help me? Who could I contact locally that might buy in to the idea and help me “sell” it? How could I arrange it so it tapped into the local pro-d calendar, as well as nearby districts? How could I attract attendees from out of district? How can I get myself to an edcamp so I know a little more about them?

Here is some of what I've discovered so far:

While this list is not comprehensive, it is certainly fueling my enthusiasm and is somewhere to start. I've also thought to contact a couple folks with local connections to the teacher pro-d and admin pro-d committees. I'd like to tap into the folks who organised the Vancouver event, and will continue to follow the posts on Twitter with #edcamps.

Part of my inspiration is from the folks I follow and read about through Twitter and the blogosphere. How do I share the power of this with my local colleagues? Folks like Cale Birk, Justin Tarte, George Couros (and Connected Principals), Chris Kennedy, David Wees, Tim Winkleman, Tom Altpeter, Chris Wejr, Tom Whitby, Eric Sheninger, David Truss, Mary Beth Hertz, Kelly Tenkely, and so many more get me really jazzed about working in schools. I want to share the enthusiasm I feel from being connected with these people. I want to be one of the people who helps shape the culture of my district and our profession. I want to be an exceptional, influential educational leader, and not so I can stand at the front of a conference room like some kind of rock star, but to help lead my profession in new and innovative directions, to provide an exceptional learning environment for our students and my children and a rich and fulfilling working environment for educators.

One final note: I've been blogging for one month now, and I'm amazed by the rejuvenative effects I've felt. Reading, writing and thinking are restoring a balance that had been lost for me. Thanks to those who have helped me along thus far!

Monday, April 18, 2011

What's your sentence?

I was recently inspired by Daniel Pink's "What's Your Sentence?" project to try something similar with the staff at our school. We are a newly amalgamated elementary school, and were in need of a focus, a mission. I pitched the idea at a staff meeting, and while no one groaned outwardly or rolled their eyes, I could feel the temperature drop in the room. Over the next few days I heard through the grapevine about the grumbling, and started to wonder if this idea was going to bear any fruit. I'm happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised! At first bulleted lists started to arrive in my inbox, then paragraphs started to roll in, and gradually carefully refined sentences. Here are some of the responses:

The list:

  • Initiative, Flexibility, Proactive, team player
  • Striving for academic and social excellence in a community of respect and caring.
  • Our students should endeavor to become well-rounded people who take responsibility and ownership for their own learning and contribute positively to the greater community.
  • We are preparing students to be productive, responsible citizens.
  • All students are challenged to reach their maximum potential by becoming independent learners and thinkers who are accountable for their own actions and learning.
  • The student will enjoy life long learning.
  • Our students should learn respect for themselves and others and value inquiry with a critical eye.
  • Heather Park provides opportunities for students to achieve their personal best, become responsible and productive citizens, and embrace lifelong learning in a safe and positive environment.
  • Ecole Heather Park Elementary: a community where inspiration and caring fosters self discovery, self confidence and success.
  • Character (integrity, compassion, persistence), Critical Thinking (problem-solving), Creativity, Collaboration (teaming and leadership), and Communication (writing, public speaking, networking and technology).
  • Education is a means by which teachers inspire students to understand the value of learning and hard work, responsibility for one's own actions and thoughts, and developing a self-motivated enthusiasm for success.
  • Teachers ignite a passion within their students to be energetic and enthusiastic life-long learners.
  • The goal of education is to inspire students to be curious, cultivate tenacity and persistence, and develop an internal drive to value learning in all aspects of life.
  • Heather Park Elementary is a community of learners where students are encouraged to become independent critical thinkers who are expected to treat themselves and one another with respect and compassion.

I'm not sure if we're all that much closer to defining our one sentence, but I do feel like we've embarked upon a journey as a team, and that we are working together to identify values and beliefs that inform our work in public education. Our next step will be to sit down together and begin to refine our work, and try to come up with a single sentence.

I have several questions for you. Have you used an activity like this with staff? Did you find the naysayers took away from the discussion appreciably, or did they come around for the most part? Has anyone come up with a really great sentence?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Learning in Depth

Learning in Depth
In a recent post on cultureofyes, Chris Kennedy wrote about Kieran Egan's new book, Learning in Depth. The idea of studying an assigned topic throughout a child's elementary and secondary education is an appealing one for me. It is particularly resonant with me because it sounds like it has some similarities to aspects of a Montessori education (both my children attend our local Montessori program). In addition, I constantly hear teachers talk about the difficulties of addressing the minutae of hundreds of government mandated learning outcomes. So, what purpose does learning something in depth serve? Or in Egan's words, “what is the point of teaching a curriculum crammed with the wonders of human discoveries and inventions when we see most students come out of our schooling system recalling little of this knowledge and with virtually no sense of its wonder?”

In answer, here are 7 of the reasons he gives in support of what deep knowledge does for the mind:

  1. Having expertise in a topic and learning how knowledge works helps a student learn about how knowledge works in all areas.

  2. Learning, for its own sake, is pleasurable.

  3. Learning in depth stimulates the imagination; we cannot be imaginative about what we do not know.

  4. Project based learning engages a student in a purposeful social activity, enriching their experience and understanding of moral and deomocratic life.

  5. Deep learning gives one a greater insight into themselves, and concommitant wisdom.

  6. Learning in depth gives one a sense of how little they actually know, and “humility before the world of knowledge.”

  7. There is value to including strategies from both oral and literate cultures in our “cognitive tool kits.”

Learning is certainly a pleasurable pursuit for me: K-12 education; several university degrees; career as an educator; re-learning again through my own children's education. Furthermore, I am fired up by the exchanges I read on Twitter, my favourite blogs, and carry with me to work each day. The process of engaging in a Professional Learning Network (PLN) has revived my desire to engage with my colleagues and to broaden my horizons. Now, I am being prodded in a new direction, and challenged to “go deep with one thing”. (Thanks cultureofyes Chris!)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Attendance - Part I

Attendance – Part I

This school year I have withdrawn several students from our school for significant non-attendance. I am not happy with this “solution”, but it is part of the protocol in our district. I am still responsible to guide the students into the next appropriate option for them – some choose to access our Distance Ed model, some choose web-based options like EBUS, and some are supported in site based programs at our Centre for Learning Alternatives. These are all great programs with top notch educators supporting the students, but I still feel that I have somehow failed the student at the local community level. My feelings of uneasiness led me to do some research on attendance and absenteeism, and how others deal with it.

Here is some of what I found in my research:

  • when a student is away, a gap in learning is often created

  • troubled students tend to have multiple gaps spanning years

  • students often need help to advocate for their learning

  • classroom instruction and learning is often contextual and difficult to make up

  • students who are frequently absent may become disconnected from school and lack key relationships with teachers

  • it is difficult to replicate the experience of teacher and student engaging together in the classroom

Here is a clip I found on the web that was produced by the Wake County Public School System in Raleigh, North Carolina. I like how they focus on learning as the key issue, rather than absenteeism.

Our provincial laws and district policies:

  • the School Act states that “A parent of a student of school age attending a school is entitled to be informed ... of the student’s attendance, behaviour and progress in school...”

  • the local School Board developed an attendance policy in the spring of 1997, supporting the Academic Achievement Task Force report, and recommending that students attend classes daily

  • the School District Code of Conduct states that “each school, in consultation with parents, students and staff, will develop a school code of student conduct that will establish clear standards based on district expectations and mandate specific consequences for students in violation of the school’s code of student conduct”

  • The SD Code of Conduct also goes on to say that “students will participate to the best of their ability in their school’s program by ... attending school on a daily basis”

Part of the issue is that we are a new entity; in September we amalgamated three schools – a large dual track French Immersion and English program, a small rural school, and a middle school – into one building of 700 students. It is becoming increasingly clear that we need to formalise our code of conduct to address the attendance issue.

The bottom line for me is that every student should be learning whether they are in a “bricks and mortar” school or not. My quandary is how best to persoanlise the experience when they miss substantial days of school. I think our school can do a better job of addressing this concern.

I would like to know how other schools and districts approach this issue. In particular:

  • what sort of system does your school use? Is there a cut off after a set number of days?

  • does your school use a graduated system of interventions? (ie: first step = teacher phones home, second step = admin sends letter home)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

An Introduction

I've been inspired by reading several blogs recently. They have caused me to want to work a little harder at personal and professional improvement. To that end, I am going to work at posting here as often as possible, and share some of my process

Here is a graphic of some key words that have meaning for me:

I recently developed a 100 Day Plan (With thanks to the Mission School District, and the folks that put me onto this idea at the UBC Short Course, July 2010). I have continued to use it as a guiding document that helps keep me on track at school:

100 Day Leadership Plan

Principals’ leadership behaviours during the first 100 days of their tenure are critical to their success in moving the student learning agenda forward (Allison, 2008). Using what research tells us works in school leadership (Marzano, 2005), describe below three non-negotiable leadership strategies that you’ll employ during the first 100 days of the current school year to focus for your work with staff on the school growth plan. Examples of these strategies include daily classroom walkthroughs, double blocking for literacy, scheduled time for teacher collaboration, learning focussed staff meetings, etc.