A leap of faith

Coming back to a new school year after a long and difficult teachers’ strike, I was wary of launching the plans I’d formulated to try a new learner Support Team (LST) model in the school. I was worried that the teachers, having been through so much emotional turmoil for so many weeks, might be looking for familiarity and a comfort zone on their return. At the same time I worried about the danger of losing another year of opportunity to provide more timely and targeted interventions for our students. If we didn’t start the year under the new model, it would be darn near impossible to change later. I needed to take a leap of faith in the idea and in my teachers’ resilience.

With the help of the dream LST team at the school, we assessed our new and at-risk students from the spring. Using the data we created targeted, skill and strategy based groups of students from across classes and grades. We delayed building our prep and gym schedules until we got the LST schedule in place to protect the intervention time. And we talked with the classroom teachers to clarify the philosophy behind and anticipated outcomes of the new model.

The teachers have taken a leap of faith in me. Having been principal of the school for one year, I am so appreciative of their trust to undertake a pretty massive shift in our system at a difficult time. I know that there will be bugs to iron out, but I am very eager to see the progress our students have made at our first checkpoint in 8-9 weeks. We will reassess the students and change the groupings and focus as needed.

Change is never easy for everyone, but as the saying goes,

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I am not a teacher

A few days ago it hit me like a 100 watt lightbulb going on.  I am not a teacher.  

Since the age of about 6 this is all I have ever seen myself being.  OK, maybe there were those few months in the late 80s that I thought I could be a lawyer.  But I didn’t.  I became a teacher.  I became a damn good teacher.

I started rough like most of us, fumbling my way through the first couple of years, learning about the difference between teacher education and really teaching.  I made mistakes, I learned, I developed, I grew. I started to mentor.

I moved to a new country and felt like I was starting learning all over again.  Everything was new, but I was a good teacher so I kept on growing, and learning, and trying new things and stopping old things and getting better. I blended what I knew and did before with this new knowledge and experience. I still made mistakes and worked from there.  I mentored some more.  I took a Master’s degree in administration.

I moved back to Canada and became a VP.  I still had a classroom, still made mistakes in both jobs, but I kept on learning about a new province, new students and their needs, new communities, new curriculum, new strategies, new best practices.  I felt like the strongest teacher I’d ever been.  I felt inspired by the leadership role that I’d added to being a teacher.

I became a principal.  I still took opportunities to get in classrooms and teach “guest units”, do projects, model, demonstrate, do my thing.  Show that I was good at my thing.  At the same time I was adapting to the role of principal, figuring out (like a new teacher) the difference between administrator education and the real job.  There were great, invigorating challenges and heartbreaks.  There were uplifting successes and frustrations.  There was still a lot of growth and still a good deal of failure.  I could see where I needed to develop skills as a leader.  I could see areas where my teachers could learn, grow and develop and I continued to learn as much as I could.

But last week it hit me.  I am not a teacher anymore.  I am a principal.  One of the roles of a principal is to be an instructional leader, and I thought for a long time that meant continuing to be a master teacher.  But it doesn’t.  It means helping others to be their best, not being the best.  Light goes on.

It’s just like a great hockey player who becomes a coach.  That player could be the best on the ice, but once they move into the coaching role, it’s not their job to be the best player on the ice anymore. Any great coach is obviously still invested in the success of the team and their players’ growth. They will get to know their players, study strategy and new techniques not only in their sport but in leadership, and coaching.  They will work hard to bring out the best in others.

So am I no less committed to learning all that I can about research into how kids learn as I was when I was a teacher.  But now I get to dig more into how adults learn, how change occurs, how to bring out the best in staff and students.  But I don’t need to KNOW it all or DO it all in a classroom.  I will support, motivate, encourage, point in the right direction, connect, provide perspective, ask questions, listen, resource, advocate, facilitate and participate.  I will ask those I work with for feedback and and listen to them so that I can keep on learning and growing.

I am not the best teacher.  But I will continue learning to be the best principal I can be.

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