It has been awhile since my last post and the reason I have been absent is simply because I have been so busy. This is the toughest time of year because you are deep into things, the days are shorter, the weather is getting tougher but there is still much to do. It is tough at the most normal times, but recently there has not been much “normal” about my time recently.

Nothing too serious just a bunch of stuff going on and a whole lot of people who seem dead set on questioning everything I do. I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way (okay some of it is negative), but there is just so many things to do and so many ideas about how to do it.

You know me though, I am not a huge fan of people who complain a lot so that is not what this is about; I knew what the job entailed when I took it. This is about the amount of things that HAVE TO get done and simply not enough time to do it; and add to that a lack of understanding about that. I was at a principals meeting today and there was just so much that is expected of us now and so we hear about being instructional leaders (“dirty-footed leaders” is what they call it), in that we are supposed to be in the classroom learning with the teachers and being a part of the process. This is great but we are also supposed to be the chair of meetings about our spec ed students and even sit in on meetings for other schools.

On top of that we also have to make sure that we are always at the school because our first responsibility is to make sure that the school is safe at all times. This means that we have to handle all the discipline issues that come through, (because no one else is willing to take the responsibility that comes with these decisions).  They are more than willing though to criticize you when you make the decisions and to challenge whatever it is you end on.

Then add to that the endless number of reports, surveys and lists that you have to fill out for the board, the unions, the students etc. and there is literally no time to be everything to everyone. Truly though, this week I am finding it hard to be anything to anyone.

I am failing this week; straight up, no doubt about it.

The question is am I failing because of a lack of effort, effectiveness or is it something else.

I sure hope it is not effort because I just can’t give more than I am right now. There simply is not enough time to try more so I have to take that option off the list (for my own sanity).

I like to think I am effective at the job, even though that confidence can waiver at times. I think though that I can do it and I listen to my colleagues and see that they are experiencing many of the same things and I KNOW they are gifted educators.

So I guess it must be something else. That is where the title of this comes in. PERSPECTIVE. This is the key to so many things in life and as usual, to this job as well. I think my thoughts about failing has to be with what I (and I think most principals) can get caught in… THE WEEDS.

This is the danger when you are so busy. You end up spending so much time dealing with things and not with people. You can get weighed down by the critics, by the reports, the demands, the suspensions, the complaints that you lose sight of the job. My job is to serve the school community and in the end, to make good decisions for the kids. PERIOD.

I need these dark moments to give me a perspective re-set. If I spend my time and energy worrying about the stuff instead of the bigger picture, I cannot possibly succeed. There is simply too much to do and with all that can come the trees. Wait a sec I just went sideways on you. The trees makes reference to that old saying; “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” The trees are the details that have their place in the school, but they are not the school. The school is bigger than these things and I have to keep that in mind. I have to not because it is a healthy outlook but because I simply won’t survive if I don’t. This is not a hyperbole; I worry about my health at times and that is why this is so important. I have to keep the forest in perspective and not fixate on the trees.

Now here is the tough part: how do I do that?!?! How do I allow myself to push away from the reports, the complaints, the grievances and the expectations? How to I tend to the forest while understanding that the trees need trimming at times too? How do I do this?

The honest truth is that I have no idea. This is not one of those inspirational AH HAW moments when I gain that ever needed perspective. This is something much different. I seriously have no idea how I can do it. I guess this is why I had a raging head ache all evening since I got back from my meeting. I honestly am struggling with all the expectations (actually increased today at our meeting), and worry about how this will impact me.

But the good news is that I have my blog. Honestly this exercise really helps me because it allows me to get some of it out. The rest is just trying to work through what I can. I guess that’s what life is really like. I guess there are just not that many AH HAW moments really. I guess life is just a series of struggles and then coping and reaching out for help. I guess life is sitting back once in awhile and reflecting on perspective in the hopes of gaining some. I suppose life is working through the trees and but not forgetting to find a hill somewhere that can get you the vantage point to also keep an eye on the forest.

That is it for now, hopefully we will talk again soon, when I need some perspective.





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The Learning Plan

Just a quick one to try and get back into the practice of writing down my ideas.

We are at the start of the year and this time always has the requisite paperwork including the creation of Annual Learning Plans. This year it looks like our board is going to be a bit more strict about making sure that all teachers create a plan. While I applaud the idea of having expectations for employees, I do wonder a bit about a mandated plan.

I mean what is the point of forcing a person to make a plan if they are not professional enough to want to make one. I know that sounds drastic but it is absolutely true. We have to stop saying that we are professionals without actually looking at what the word means. To be a professional is to be reflective, discerning, self critical and to be constantly looking to improve. This should be the essence of every plan that we have for our learning and by default, for the learning of our students.

Now some will roll their eyes and talk about the format of the plan, or the idea of having to report on your own plan, or the most misplaced statement of all time: teacher autonomy. Who ever said that a teacher (in a publicly funded school system) has autonomy! And why on Earth would you want autonomy. That word has always meant to me that you are on your own. I don’t want my profession to be autonomous at all. It has to depend on all parties in the school and the board working together and being dependent on each other. The stakes are too important to leave it to individuals. We have the toughest job and I feel the most important job on the planet and to do it right, we need all hands on deck!1

Now I can hear the critics formulating their responses right now. “I don’t need some career hungry principal wasting my time with forms and reports.” “My professional judgement should be honoured at all costs.” Both statements are true and ridiculous at the same time. In regards to the “career hungry principal” you are right and I detest nothing more than paperwork or reports for the sake of reports. When I do Teacher Performance Appraisals I make one things clear: don’t do anything for me that you wouldn’t normally do. I hate it when I get a three page, perfectly typed, formal lesson plan from a teacher and I know that they spent hours putting this together just for me. That means that they spent less time on the kids and more on the report. Waste of time! But the act of taking some time to reflect on your  learning goals and making a plan to achieve them has great value and worth.

And about the “professional judgement” thing: I agree that ALL educators professional judgement should be honoured but I never agreed to give mine up when I became a principal! I like to think that my professional outlook could help to compliment that of my teachers. This is why it is important to share your professional learning plan. Don’t just write it down and seal it in an envelope. Share it with colleagues and others that can add to it and possibly help you to realize it. Who knows, it may even evolve and become something more than you could have ever come up with on your own.

I guess that was not too short, but it feels good to be writing again. More to come soon I hope.

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Student Voice: The Sweetest Sound

This week was a big one for student voice at JPII. We hosted our second round of Student Town Halls for all our grades and tried to focus the conversation around student opinion about their own learning. I think as educators it is just a good idea to hear about what ideas and practices are working and possibly those that are not. The video above is an example of the talk (that we also live streamed using Google Hangouts so that others could watch), and while there was lots of talk about technology and improved resources it seems that the most important resource is still an engaging and caring teacher. This is what students said made the difference for them. The one thing I did see lacking was that students could not reflect on too many things that they study that they can see directly impacting them. This will be the topic for my next post and more specifically the fact that students did not even think that school SHOULD be useful for their present lives. Lots of meat on that bone…

Also this week a group of our students were preparing to talk about Student Voice at JPII in a presentation done to the ministry of education at the beginning of June. They are a bit nervous but I know they will do incredibly well as they simply talk about everything they have done so far this year.

The other major event this week was a proposed change to the student government at our school. We have long been known as the school with a million councils because we have so many students that are looking for leadership opportunities that there have been a number of councils formed. There are three main leadership groups including the Executive Student Council, the Executive Leadership Council and the Panther’s Athletic Council. The proposal is to have these groups dissolve and then form one group that is more representative of the student population through a mix of elected and appointed positions. to say the least, this was a contentious issue with a lot of emotions. Most of the interested parties are grade 11 students, that have worked hard on council for a few years and were looking forward to having their own leadership position ready for next year. This plan will slightly change that, but many feel it is in the best interest of the school.

I am only the principal and since I am only a steward meant to do the best I can for the school in the limited time I have (our board does not allow a principal to stay in a school for longer than 7 years), I really should not have too much of  a say in this decision. This is their voice and their activism and so should be their decision (along with their teacher moderators). Because of that, I was at a meeting on Friday night as more of an observer and possibly an informed voice of advice if needed.

What I witnessed on that night was exactly what every educational leader should look for in their school. There was an honest and critical conversation between students and teachers about a topic that was important to both of them. There were emotions for sure, but these emotions did not get in the way of good debate and sharing. One could even see that there was a good deal of self interest on both sides of the debate, but these interests never trumped the needs of the school. I genuinely wish I saw more of this from adults when they are trying to come to a decision. Often self interest and agendas get in the way of real progress and certainly emotions often cloud the subject as people take criticism or alternative points of view personally. This did not happen at this meeting. Everyone intently listened to the other side and compromises were explored and discussed. A final decision will come Tuesday and I won’t be there to see it, but it was great to be able to attend this meeting.

There will certainly be those that are disappointed by the decision and some that feel very passionate about opposing it, but I can guarantee that all learned and grown from this experience. Both staff and students in attendance saw what it was like to have a passionate yet productive discussion. They all were able to hear, internalize and then explore the ideas of the other and there is truly nothing more that you can hope for in a discussion like this. As I said earlier, any adult committee or organization could learn a lot from the amazing people that were present at this meeting. They could learn what REAL collaboration looks like and my hope is that everyone will see how the fruits of this work will improve an already pretty incredible school.

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Be a Bull Fighter!

I was lucky enough to attend a Student Success Conference yesterday. Among other things was the keynote speaker Ron Berger who talked about the schools he works in and how they centre around Expeditionary Learning. This is the concept of creating a system where students take ownership of their own learning through Learning Expeditions and a more flexible school structure. Ron shared some inspiring stories and incredible student work that gave context to some of the things they do in the schools he works with. He also shared some interesting and to some, controversial comments. This included the idea that he works with some principals to find ways to get certain “toxic” teachers out of schools for the good of the entire program. I am really not sure why people got so upset by this, but it drew some extra attention.

The day also involved teachers sharing some of their best practices and ideas that could help their colleagues to improve student learning in their schools. The best of these sessions was easily watching my students and one fantastic teacher talk about our efforts around Student Voice. They showed off how we use social media, town hall meetings and even a Talking Locker to solicit and respond to student voice. While they were amazing (even being recruited to represent our board when they meet with the ministry in a couple of months), there was a bigger picture for me.

The bigger picture is about the role of leadership within a school. This includes both administration and teachers alike. This includes how best to get the most of the people that you work with. This involves possibly the most important decision that a leader has to make: when to do more and when to do less. If you know me then you know that I love coming up with analogies. Possibly has something to do with my background as an English teacher but more likely because analogies make it easier for me to make sense of some of the mixed up ideas in my head. That being said, here’s my analogy:

A good educational leader should aspire to be a bullfighter. 

Okay there needs to be a disclaimer here. I spent a bit of time tonight looking to see if I could locate a video that talked about the strategy of bullfighting so that I could draw a few more parallels but I ended up having to watch some brutal and inhumane videos. I thinkg some people don’t realize that the end result of a successful bull fight is the slow and painful death of the bull. Not something I would pay to watch and certainly not something that I will put on my blog, BUT I still think there is a decent parallel here.

A bull fighter basically uses his cape (usually read but not always), to attract the attention and in a way inspire the bull. I think that educational leadership is a lot like this. In my case, a principal need to wave a flag at his teachers from time to time. It is my job to get the blood flowing and to inspire or at least activate the passion of my teachers.

The bull fighter also uses the cape to direct the movement of the bull. I think there is something to this as well for educational leadership. An administrator should do this as well. I mean imagine a school where there are 90 different teachers all going in their own direction and doing their own thing. They may all have the best of intentions and even some great ideas, but without some sort of coordination, there will be overlap or even conflicting practices and in the end, the students will suffer.

The other main element of this bull fighting analogy though is what a matador does when he has the bull’s attention and it starts to charge. In short the bullfighter has to know the exact moment to GET OUT OF THE WAY. This is so key to leadership as well. I need to know when teachers need me to support, when to step in and when to take off. I have to understand the temporal nature of my position. At best (and hopefully), I will be at my current school for 7 years, while many of these teachers will be here for their entire careers. If ANY movement or practice depends on my participation then I have failed as a leader. I have to work to make myself unnecessary! I have to accept that I will eventually have to get out of the way. This is a tough one for me admittedly. I love being hands on with things and have to consciously force myself to allow others to take the reigns on projects. This was truly apparent as I watched 4 amazing students inspire and impress my colleagues and the only direction I gave them was that people wanted to hear about what we were doing. They were professional, engaging and so passionate about what they have been a part of. I see this all the time with staff as I walk through the halls (when I have the chance to do that!) or into their classes (even more rare unfortunately!). The key is knowing when my presence adds nothing to a situation and could possibly ruin it.

I think that Ron taught the crowd of mostly teachers a lesson in bull fighting himself though. He makes a great point for teachers also getting out of the way. To be like the bull fighter that guides, inspires, maybe even agitates their students and then, in an artistic move, get out of the way. I think this is where the traditional system fails students. There have always been inspiring teachers but I don’t know if I ever had one that really knew how to get out of the way. The traditional structure just wont allow it. The teacher is the head and the centre of the class so they feel like they cannot give up that role. This is the best challenge that Ron laid at our feet. He and others have figured out how to do this in over 160 different schools all across the US and so the question we should have, (and the one I had for my teachers who attended), needs to be: Why not us?

The more I think about it I really like the image of a bullfighter in education. While I detest the brutality of the “sport” I can appreciate the grace and courage that it must take to stand in and trust the craft and your own movements. Educational leaders, both admin and teachers alike, have to trust this skill. They need to trust the skill found within themselves as well as that which exists in their students.

I think I will write more about this idea and take a look at some things that could change as I head into the end of my second year as a principal. I think I need to ask the “Why not us?” question a bit more. I think I need to ask the “Do I really need to be here?” question more as well.

P.S. I think it is important to note that as I watched the bullfighting videos and was almost sick as I watched one fighter kill a bull slowly, I did take a bit of guilty pleasure as one bull got the best of his rival, and re-affirmed the lesson: “If you mess with the bull, you get the horns!”

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The In-Between Leader

I was lucky enough to attend a PD session on leadership at our board’s recent Lead Your Own Learning PD day and this video was shared. I must say that I loved it instantly and was able to relate in so many ways.

The basic premise it illustrates about leadership is the importance of the first and second followers in getting a movement started. I could go on and on about that and talk about the struggles with getting a movement together, or about the different techniques used for motivation but I think for this post I will go in a different direction.

I see the real challenge of being a principal in being the “in-between leader”. What I mean by this is that there are times that you feel like the lone crazy guy dancing on the hill, but the truth is that if you are that too much then people will grow tired of that quite quickly. While I think a staff is engaged and inspired by innovation and new ideas, they also look to their principal for stability and reassurance. This means that I cannot always be the guy just trying new stuff. I cannot be so outside the box that my staff feels disconnected from me. This is a real danger I think and a line that I dance regularly.

Now I would not describe myself as an outside the box thinker. In fact I would say that I struggle often to see or understand the abstract. This is probably why I marvel so much at truly creative people. To be able to envision something that does not and perhaps has never existed, is incredible to me. No, when it comes to my educational views, I would say that I am not outside the box; I just think we need a whole new box! We need to completely overhaul what we think is important and at the essence of what we do. We have to, in Will Richardson’s words “Rethink school”.

While this may be what I believe should happen, and hope to one day realize, I have to understand that I still have a school to run. There are a lot of people, with different versions of school in their minds that need a sense of continuity and stability in their building, and often look toward my office for that. I cannot be the lone guy on the hill all the time because not everyone is ready to join in. They are at different points in their journey and to isolate everyone who “isn’t ready to dance” would be foolish and frankly cruel. I need to be there for the everyday as well, to support and assist as needed in what my staff and students are doing. That requires inside the box thinking at times and I don’t think that should be seen as a bad thing.

Now that being said, I think a good or even great leader has to be “willing to dance” as well. It is a tempting trap to become the manager of the school. To fill in all the reports and handle the books and see yourself as nothing more than a facilitator. In fact this will cause the fewest waves and have often created some of the most “popular” leaders. The people that some will look back on and say how much they loved that person because they were quiet and did not rock the boat too much. They were always there for us and did not push us too much. This may lead to popularity and will certainly decrease the number of ulcers, but I don’t really see that as a leader. Like I said earlier, that is a manager or a valet. A leader I think needs to challenge the status quo and cause the people they lead to look at things in a different way. An educational leader needs to do this especially because the educational landscape has remained so disturbingly unchanged for so long, that leadership is, by definition, an office of change. Without that, you are just managing a truly outdated factory.

This balance or “in-between” model is the dilemma I often find myself in and I would predict that it will be what I strive for, for the rest of my career.

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Sometimes..If it Ain’t Broke, Break It!

As we finish up another semester of school I just wanted to spend a bit of time highlighting an amazing project done in one of our English classes. I wanted to highlight it as much for myself as for the amazing kids who worked on it. I say for myself because I just really like talking to teachers about their classes and about teaching and learning. I spend a lot of my day talking about a lot of things that have very little to do with learning. Things like Collective Agreements, supervision schedules, maintenance reports and progressive discipline take up most of my days, so when a teacher walks into my office and says that they just have to tell me about something their students did, I am all ears.

Ms. MacLean is a great young teacher at our school and is someone that is totally open to new ideas and to looking at how best to reach her kids. She is incredibly busy as she coaches a bunch of sports and is even one of the Athletic Directors for the entire school. Lots of balls in the air but she still looks for ways to improve her craft. She is truly fine teacher.

I think it is her openness to new ideas and innovation that allowed her students to come up with what you see here. Instead of the traditional essay comparing the male protagonists of The Great Gatsby and Slumdog Millionaire, they mimic the format of the latter and created an amazing video. This project could be easily dismissed by plenty of critics, (you know what I think of critics), but a little more thought and analysis tells the real story of this work.

If you could see the subject line under the video on YouTube you would see the following thesis paragraph:

The period between one’s birth and ones death is known as life. In the novels The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Slumdog Millionaire by Vikes Swamp, Jay Gatsby and Ram Mohammed Thomas must decide whether they follow an individualistic path or one that is afflicted by societal influences. Ram and Gatsby do not let the influences of society triumph their own moral worth. By examining the effects of isolation, the characters’ drive, and the individualistic aspects of love, it will be clear that the individual ultimately has a larger impact on their future than societal influences.

This is a fine thesis and then the amazing video that they created basically acts as the essay  that will advance this thesis. There are direct quotations from the novels and the character’s interaction and dialogue go into even more depth. There is real substance to this video and I think it shows real thought about the novels. Sure, there could be other angles explored and perhaps some of the quotations could be a bit more on point, but I think that the core of the piece is great.

Now I was an English teacher when in the classroom and so I have a special place in my heart for literary analysis. While I grew tired of the traditional essay format, (I mean how many times can you read people talk about the elements of a tragic hero?), I still do see the value of a well constructed argument. I just think that there are so many different ways to present that argument. This is where people will have a problem with this assignment (cause it’s just not an essay!), but also why it is so powerful.

What these students did, or more accurately, were allowed to do, was to take a medium that they have an obvious passion and talent for and use that to truly get into the text. I guarantee that these students worked harder on this project and thus thought more about the texts, than they ever would have in a traditional paper. They had to consider how to weave the two characters and stories together. They had to not only explicitly state their argument, (which is the attractive part of an essay), they had to be more subtle and creative. They had to tackle a rather large script (which they deliver very well), and then also deal with the technical aspects of green screens, editing, graphics and lighting. They had to collaborate to get all their ideas together and then come up with a way to work in the necessary elements of a literary paper, without actually using paper. They had to do all of this and they totally nailed it!

Here is the key to it all though. They did all this, and learned so much more and I guarantee that they actually enjoyed the process! Imagine that; enjoying the process! This is only possible because the teacher allowed students to go with their ideas and explore a medium that they had a passion for. The teacher fought against the temptation and possibly pressure, to adhere to the norm and just go with the same old essay format. I wrote lots of essays through my high school and university years and I honestly cannot remember too many of them. I remember dreading the process at times, and really wondering about the applicable skills I was gaining, but I don’t truly remember too many of my arguments.

I can hear the critics talk about how this is not what we are used to seeing and how they are missing out on some skills and the truth is that maybe they are but isn’t that what real learning is? Isn’t it about choosing? About taking a look at a problem and while understanding that there are a number of ways to solve it, also choosing the way that best suits your interests and passions? About picking your path and hopefully it is more often than not, the one less travelled by? (I think I wrote an essay about that line once!)

Now a lot of people will look at the technical skills that must have been at play to make this video and think that they could never have that in their class because they don’t have the technical skills to support students trying it. That is the best part about this; this teacher doesn’t either! She is more than comfortable with technology but does not spend a lot of time with  green screens. That does not matter though, simply because this teacher took herself out of the equation. By doing this, she allows her kids to do amazing things that they will remember and they can be proud of. This is easily the toughest thing for a teacher to do: to relinquish control and to allow students to blaze their own paths. It makes creating a rubric tougher but makes the product so much more meaningful.

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A Recipe for Failure

I heard a saying that talked about a recipe for success and failure when it comes to leadership. It reminded me of a saying by Abraham Lincoln: “You can please some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but never all of the people all of the time.” This is pretty famous and the one I heard on the radio changed it up slightly:

   ” I have no recipe for success but one that will insure failure: Try to be all things to all people”

This really struck me when I heard it on the radio and seems to speak to some of the struggles that I have with my leadership approach. The temptation is to try to be all things to all people. The talk about leadership is relationships as the centre, and I totally agree with that. The problem is that one can be tempted to try to fit everyone’s wishes and opinions into every decision you make. This is tempting but something that will lead to absolute inertia. There will be no movement if you wait for total acceptance and support for everything. I think all leaders know this and can easily identify those people that will always be in opposition and those that will offer support. Because these people are easy to spot, I don’t see this approach too much.

I think the bigger problem is when a leader tries to be “All things to SOME people”. I have to confess that I find myself falling into this trap from time to time. The temptation is to work with people or to support those that you feel connected to and in sync with professionally. This is a temptation because the job can be very difficult, so you look for allies when you have the chance to. This is ripe with danger though and something that I am going to consciously keep in mind for the new year. When you go down this road you bring two elements of peril into play.

The first is that you can obviously alienate other staff as they feel left out and not a part of the process. The problem with this is that any initiative or change you try to put into play, needs more than the few to make it work. In other words you need the whole congregation singing, not just the choir! Even if you hand pick a few people to drive the conversation (that you know will support the change), the inclusion of many different voices can make for a better conclusion and certainly one that is more likely to be supported school wide.

The other problem with being “all things to SOME people”, is that you can lose the proper distance that allows you to critically think and comment on the ideas of all staff. I need to have as many people in the conversation as possible so that I can stay where I need to be to make sure that not just a small sample of the staff is satisfied.

So as I consider the new year and what I can work on to improve my leadership style, I think about being something to everyone. I need to listen to every voice and then move forward with things in an inclusive and collaborative way. There are still going to be those that choose to be contrary no matter what the situation. They are the prototypical critics and there is not much to do about that. I still need to hear their voices and have the confidence to move through it. In fact, you can say that if certain people disagree with me, then I know I am on the right path. Not that there is anything wrong with their ideas, but they are not in line with my philosophy. Some times a leader just has to be true to their ideas and some times consider the opposition to temper their thoughts. Still I have to be able to question and consider the views of the people that share my philosophy. I need to be able to see all sides and then move with what best serves the school.

I love the saying and I think that Abraham Lincoln should be someone to defer to when it comes to leadership. After all he had to deal with a civil war and so I think we can all learn from his example of measured leadership and support.



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