The power of Yes

When my daughter was young, she would often spend weekends or holidays with her grandparents. One of Grandma Jan’s favourite sayings was, “this is a YES” house. That meant that both grandchild and grandparents shared responsibility for having a positive, enjoyable time together. “Hayley, time to get ready for bed!” “Yes, Grandma. And can I have an extra story?” “Yes!”

I have the same outlook on creating a positive school environment – one where there is shared responsibility among staff and students for making things possible. I have always preferred to give students opportunities to try showing me that they can do something, rather than saying they can’t. For instance, we have students who make our morning announcements each day. One day someone commented that it was sometimes difficult to hear the students if they talk quickly or hold the microphone too far away, and that it would be better for me to do them. Forever a teacher, however, I replied that we would just work on teaching the students to slow down and speak up. “Mrs. Davison, can we keep doing the announcements?” “YES! Can we listen to yesterday’s so that you can hear what you might need to improve?” “YES!”

There is research to support the relationship between positive interactions and personal effectiveness, and not just in schools:
(from Dewhirst and Davis, presentation to 2011 National PBIS Leadership Forum)

Business Teams: (Losada, 1999; Losada & Heaphy, 2004)

High Performance = 5.6 positives to 1 negative
Medium Performance = 1.9 positives to 1 negative
Low Performance = 1 positive to 2.7 negatives

Successful Marriages: (Gottoman, 1994)

5.1 positives to 1 negative (speech acts) and
4.7 positives to 1 negative (observed emotions)

Creating a “yes” environment in school also supports student and staff motivation. Daniel Pink tells us that a sense of autonomy is key to motivation, so when students have ideas for guiding their own learning or following an area of interest, we should be finding any way possible to say “yes”. The same goes for staff – teachers and other staff deserve to have a workplace where their ideas and creativity are supported whenever possible. The contribution to the life of the school and the energy that saying “yes” can create is undoubtedly beyond valuable.

So here’s the catch. Saying yes requires flexibility, in order to adapt to a new idea or path to follow. Saying yes requires selflessness to put someone else’s interest before your own. Saying yes also requires work (more often than not), but you’ve probably heard that “the things in life worth doing are hard”. So go for it. Say yes.

The Inquiry Bus

I’ve been using the most awkward of metaphors this year: the Inquiry Bus. In a new school this fall, one of my priorities is creating a culture of collaboration and inquiry with the staff. After reading

this summer, I thought I had a “road map” for this process. But as we actually start preparing for the trip I am realizing there’s a lot more to it than getting people on the bus and starting to drive.

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So far, I’ve been able to spend time with teachers to talk about what inquiry and collaboration are and what my vision is for the next 2-3 years for our school to learn and develop as professionals together. We’ve talked about the difference between formal action research and district-sponsored inquiry projects and informal yet purposeful collaboration such as book groups and personal inquiry in the classroom. I want teachers to know that their level of readiness is respected, but I’ve also been clear with my expectation that all teachers engage in professional learning in some form – stagnation is not an option. Most recently, I created a Google Doc survey to get a view schoolwide of teachers’ readiness, areas of interest, current professional learning activities, and interest in formal projects.

Using my awkward metaphor of “the inquiry bus”, this is where we are as a school: we have two formal inquiry projects getting underway with district-sponsored professional development and framework, one in early literacy and the other around engaging digital learners. There are six teachers involved in these projects. The you’ve got their tickets and are boarding the bus! We have five more teachers curious about formal projects but who want to “watch the bus” for a while before deciding if they want to travel along. There are three more who aren’t yet comfortable with joining a group but are willing to learn more. And three are currently engaged in their own professional growth programs (such as Master’s projects) and are “in a taxi”.

So where are we going now? I’m definitely not driving the bus! I see it more now like a Flintstones bus where we all have our feet on the ground below and are going to work together to propel the bus forward. I’m looking at the framework and inquiry cycle for

    Spirals

as the road map, so our first stop is going to be scanning to determine “what’s going on for our students?”

I’ll try to keep up my “travel journal” to reflect on the journey. If you have travelled this road before, or are somewhere on it now, I’d love to hear your story too!

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Great expectations

The start of a new school year for me has always been a time of great expectations.  As a teacher I had lots of positive energy and enthusiasm for building a community in my class that supported and encouraged one another, that was responsive to the needs of every student, that would, simply, be the best year ever.  As a principal that feeling has never left me.  The only difference is one of scale.  

This autumn I am experiencing this wonderful energy at a new school, and I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations.  Teachers are used to defining and clarifying their expectations for students at the beginning of a school year, and asking students to do the same with their expectations for their teachers.  It creates a sense of safety and confidence to know what is expected of you in a new situation.  We know that education is not a game of “guess what the teacher wants”, but rather a shared journey from where each student is in their learning towards a goal.  Shared expectations define the rules of the road.

I know that between the staff and myself this process is also necessary and, hopefully, valued as a big part of building effective and supportive relationships.  In his blog, Brian Reynolds, author of “What Do You Expect?” writes “The root of so many conflicts is the simple lack of understanding one another’s expectations.  So easy to assume they know what I expect, or I know what they expect.”  If there is a gap between two parties’ understanding of what is expected, confusion and conflict easily result.  As a school staff, we are all professionals working towards the common goal of moving learning forward.   It is important that we all know that there is no hidden agenda, that what we do is based on what we believe, and on what is best for students.  And just as each teacher may have slightly different expectations for their students, so each administrator may have for the staff.  By taking the time at the start to discuss what they are and why, we can build that safe, open, and encouraging climate for all of us to thrive as professionals.

I came across this powerful statement from Mike Myatt, CEO of N2Growth, a leadership development group.  Unequivocally, he says that “those… who fail to clearly communicate their expectations have no right to them.”  


Enough said.

Reflections on “Spirals of Inquiry”

My first professional summer read is “Spirals of Inquiry: for Equity and Quality” by Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert.  Published by the BCPVPA, this book has been distributed widely in Surrey schools and I am hoping to take the framework and concepts presented into my work starting in a new school this fall.  

My first reflections are on the first four chapters of the book.  These sections provide a foundation for practices that have been proven through experience and research to have a positive effect on student learning, including engagement,motivation, achievement and success.

One of the basic tenets of the book is that teaching and learning must weave three “ways”:

1.   Wise ways, based on Canadian Aboriginal worldview and learning principles

2.   Strong ways, based on research including John Hattie’s Visible Learning meta-analysis, formative assessment and feedback, reciprocal teaching and social-emotional learning

3.   New ways, which includes innovative practices, structures and settings that account for local context, student needs, resources and challenges.

This approach resonates with me.  There are many practices and approaches that educators have seen come and go with the swing of the pendulum.  Each individual teacher chooses those that make sense to them for their own personal reasons.  And just as many are ignored or quickly discarded as fads.  By acknowledging the value of practices from the past, present and future, we can take the best of each to develop a learning environment that mets the unique needs of each student and community. 

The authors of the book are very forthright in their belief that knowledge of effective or innovative practices is not enough – and that action is a professional responsibility of all educators.  As a teacher I was usually open and eager to integrate new and effective practices into my teaching, but as a principal I do not always know where, when or how to start those conversations with teachers who seem reluctant to adapt their classroom practices to better meet student needs.  In reading this book I felt a new moral imperative to make learning for both students, staff and myself an intentional priority.

So where will we start?  I am working on that.  A few thoughts so far are:

– staff meetings that focus on learning rather than organizational details

– an “inquiry team” of interested parties that will take on our first attempt at the spiral process ( more on that to come)

– talking about our big questions and encouraging curiosity about what is going on for our students, why that might be, and developing hunches about what might make a difference.

The experienced beginner

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In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
Shunryu Suzuki

I enjoy change. I like the feeling of starting something new, of starting a journey that has no defined destination. I like the feeling of “new”. When I was a classroom teacher, I had this feeling at least once a year, getting ready to start a new class each September, and often during the year as each term got started. It was a chance to start fresh, to correct the missteps of the past and take new risks and chances. This led me to new experiences within teaching, such as being a “beginner” in a new school, new province or even another country. Even as I gained experience, I saw each change as the chance to be a beginner and learn fresh once more. The same thing happened when I became a teacher-mentor, a vice-principal, and a principal. Experience led me to new beginnings.

I am getting ready for my next beginning. After three years as a “beginner” principal I am moving to a new school in September. I am energized by the opportunity to start my growth again, learning new skills, building new relationships, trying new things alongside new people. As I did with each previous change, I am going to take the time to reflect on my experience. It’s what has led me to this new place. I am going to open my mind to being a beginner, to find out what I do not know and set myself on the path to learning.

(One) ceases to be a beginner in any given science and becomes a master in that science when he has learned that he is going to be a beginner all his life.

Robin G. Collingwood

Energy Crisis

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I only took two periods of physics in high school before I changed my schedule to add drama instead (and that leads to a whole different story) but I do remember the basic principle that work requires energy. A the best of times, the work that is done in schools by educators at all levels and in all roles takes a lot of energy. My uneducated guess would be about the equivalent of a minor supernova.

The work that is happening now to transform education takes enormous energy to begin, maintain and see through to fruition. This winter I struggled to maintain the energy I needed to keep things moving, to keep encouraging the great things going on. I felt it in my daily life as well and I am sure my dogs would rat me out for missed walks in the park as a result.
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I have been thinking about why it seemed so much more difficult than before. It’s my third year as principal. A colleague suggested that it’s like a marriage. Maybe this is just the natural progression from honeymoon to long-term relationship. We all know that takes work and energy too.

I don’t know if there is one reason for my energy crisis. I do feel that with the return of spring I am committing to a few things that will hopefully keep my energy up so that I can be in good shape to provide my best support of learning in my school. I am not going to skip any more morning exercise sessions. I am going to make a real lunch at least once a week. And eat it. I am going to keep my iPad with me as I walk through classrooms so I have the evidence of good learning to celebrate with our community. I will smile even when I don’t particularly feel like it (proven to release happy chemicals in the brain).

I’ll let you know how it goes. Time to get to work.

Reflecting with purpose

20130127-102025.jpg “Being a reflective practitioner” – what does this mean? Donald Schon developed the phrase and framework in 1980s, essentially describing a process of inquiry into one’s own actions, through identifying a situation, floating hypotheses, testing them, and evaluating results. I believe I am reflective (and this blog is one of my outlets for reflection) but sometimes I feel stuck in a soup of thinking about a situation, my thoughts turning into worry or anxiety rather than assessing a way to move forward in acting to resolve a situation.

I need to reflect because I encounter problems and situations each day that are never exactly the same as previous ones. We all have a “solutions database” of answers to problems we’ve already solved (what Schon calls the “fix-it” or single-loop learning model), but I find that I can never just input a new problem and have an answer spit out at me because each situation is as unique and variable as the human beings (including myself!) that are involved. It takes time and reflection.

But wait, I sometimes say to myself, I don’t have time to think! This article by Joseph Raelin captures the high-paced trap too common in leadership and management in many sectors, including education. Our brains are capable of 50,000 – 60,000 thoughts in a day. How do we sift through and act in a way that is aligned with goals, purpose and philosophy?

Our district leadership has always been explicit that “there are very few true emergencies in education” and our site administrators are encouraged to take time to reflect. When a crying student, angry parent, or great teacher at the end of their rope with a challenging student are standing before me, however, it’s hard to slow things down.

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I’m working on learning explicitly how to focus my reflections in order to achieve my purpose – not just to solve problems as quickly as possible, but to validate and support the importance of every person with whom I work. (This purpose came out of my reading of “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek and led to one of my earlier blog posts.) Here are a few steps to help with that process and make the most of my reflective time:

1) Reflect on one thing at a time. This is difficult for me when I get in the soup of everything that happens in a day. But pick one. It may encompass several situations (ie How am I managing conflict with colleagues?) or single incident (student, parent, teacher concern).

2) Reflect externally. Enunciating thoughts helps to clarify and sort them. Journal, blog, talk to a partner, colleague, or friend. This process helps to get rid of irrelevant data and begin to focus on the relevant parts of the issue.

3) Run your “celery test” (Sinek). Even though I wrote about this earlier in the year, I sometimes have to force myself to back right up to this point to work out the knots of a situation.

4) Act, test, evaluate, repeat. The reflective process is ongoing.

Doing the right thing

I wish I always knew for certain what “the right thing to do” was. Or at least 95% certain. I wish I didn’t feel like I ought to be certain, and I wish I didn’t give myself a hard time for my uncertainty.

I have been a school principal, lead learner, instructional leader, and even mentor for three years now, and all I am certain about is that my idea of what is “the right thing to do” is continuously evolving. I always have as a foundation some things I know are “right” – things that shape the core of my beliefs and principles about children and the other human beings with whom I work and serve. But along comes a situation different in details, or context,or scope from anything in my experience, and I find myself struggling at times to know what the right thing to do is. I know I’m not alone but it’s not something people in roles of leadership talk a lot about.

I know that uncertainty is a characteristic of learners. Not being sure leads to questioning, testing, observing, evaluating. Learners accept mistakes part of the process. Can I accept making mistakes in my work, accepting my responsibility to repair and learn from them? Can I accept showing my uncertaintty to others? Can others have the patience to allow me to learn through my uncertainty?

20121205-194236.jpg“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
Anne Lamott

This quote from author Ann Lamott gave me some inspiration. I didn’t know much about Lamott until I read this article about her changing relationship with her teenaged son. It reminded me of the questioning, painful, and tumultuous uncertainty that comes with being human, with caring for others, and for wanting to do the right thing.

Balancing act

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I love my life. I was thinking about it today, wondering if some of the people closest to me in life feel the same way. At times it’s pretty darned invigorating being a school principal with all the opportunities for having a positive impact on learning and lives of so many amazing human beings rat different stages of life and learning. I feel like the collective energy of the work we do together, and the joy in my friends and family, lifts me up.

But just as with any complex system there are some times when those difficult moments that are a normal part of any life seem to clump together and weigh a little heavier. They can start to pull down on even the most positive person, especially when you throw some nasty cold virus into the mix! I’m just on my way out of one of those clumps and am working on getting things back into balance for the students, staff, parents, friends, family members, dogs 🙂 and self that rely on me.

There are little ups and downs that occur daily and I appreciate greatly the skills that I see in people all around me in weathering these storms, big and small, and supporting each other. Life really is a balancing act but the trick is not to always keep things in perfect balance. It’s to recognize the variations as just part of the ride, and riding it out with those who you care for, and who care for you.

Social Justice in Schools – Pt. 1

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Attending the Ontario Principals’ Council Leadership Summit on Social Justice was a great learning experience. It’s unfortunately rare that principals and vice-principals get a chance to talk with colleagues outside of their own district, let alone the province. This first of two posts about the round table discussions I participated in highlights issues related to expanding horizons for our First Nations students.

1) We need to make sure that the conversation around achievement of our First Nations students continues. In an era of political correctness it’s necessary to look critically at whether what we are doing is working or not, with regards to student achievement. In BC this is happening with Enhancement Agreements in districts setting and monitoring progress towards shared goals.

2) Changing the narrative – Interestingly, this echoed the discussion held at our Leading the Learning session in October in SD36. If we can move away from a deficit model to a strength, achievement, positive progress model then we can move forwards towards true equity for First Nations students.

3) Racism and stereotyping exist in a significant way in our schools still. We might wish it doesn’t, or try to ignore it, or want to deny it, but that isn’t the way forward. As hard as it is, we need to address and confront these when they happen. “Be relentlessly fearless.”

4) First Nations people have experienced about seven generations of colonization and generational trauma. How do we help our children and their families overcome the impact of this? Can we teach about the residential schools tragedy in our social studies and history classes? When is the right time, and who should tell this story?

Best practices, ideas, and supports from across the country:
Confront racism, assumptions and stereotypes. Don’t keep silent.
Ask questions to understand cultural nuances – we can’t be afraid to offend or be offended. The goal is just wanting to understand and combat ignorance.
Tap into student leadership – confront issues of equality that students are experiencing for a variety of reasons (Racism, homophobia, bullying, etc.)

One good resource that was shared is a youtube video – Justice for Aboriginal People – It’s Time. I would recommend it as a starting place for opening the conversation.