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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Learning Skills Through CGE: The Board with a Difference

There has been a lot of talk about the current structure of publicly funded boards of education in Ontario recently. I have no energy to go over the troubles that trustees in my board and the TDSB have been involved with recently and the challenge that their roles have faced. I have no energy to address the debate that wages about super boards or smaller boards, or pre or post amalgamation. I know the question about publicly funded Catholic school boards is always a sensitive one and I know that there are a lot of stats and arguments on both sides of that debate, that all make sense to some people. The question I have wrestled with is not what’s the difference in the Catholic boards: I know lots of those. I have spent a lot of time over the past few years looking at how we can use what is different about our schools to make a positive learning experience for our students.

I have been working through this and it really took me looking at something that has been around since the beginning of this century to get a clear answer. The Catholic Graduate Expectations  are truly superior when it comes to this question. They serve as amazing guidelines for not only a strong Catholic upbringing but sincerely a fine 21C education. These goals are an amazing articulation of what any 21C School should be looking to do. As Catholic schools, we are able to draw on our faith and Gospel lessons to add a foundation to our education. That foundation is articulated in the Catholic Graduate Expectations. I encourage any teacher, (Catholic or otherwise) to look to these expectations and see the value that is contained within them. They are by no means soft or ambiguous, which is what many people associate with faith conversations. They are consistent and the part that I like most is that they are ACTIVE. They do not ask for blind faith or to have someone wait patiently for a better world to be delivered to them.

Consider a reflection on the Collaborative Contributor:

Or possibly the Responsible Citizen:

These are only 2 of the 7 CGEs (video reflections for the rest are found at the bottom of this post), but they speak to the active and participatory nature of these amazing expectations. We are blessed in Catholic education to have these as an integral part of our learning but also to have the context in which to deliver them. Do I think our system is better than the other public board? No. Do I think our system works to serve Catholics and (in a secondary setting) non Catholics alike? Absolutely! And perhaps that is the best way to answer critics who say that it is high time to get rid of publicly funded Catholic education. I mean, I can go into great detail about the educational gains or our learning and the success of our schools in comparison to provincial standards, but I think the best argument is to say, if this is working, then why take it away. I mean all the people that are currently being served by the publicly funded school boards across the province will still need an education, so why change it up just to achieve a level of standardization?

Different models work for all different people and this is another option. I would welcome discussions that look to explore different ways of organizing schools and more importantly, different ways to approach learning, but it is far too simple to say that as long as it is the same for everyone, it is better. In fact, if a 17 year teaching career has taught me anything, it is that same very rarely means better; it just means same.

Let’s not try to make our schools worse in an effort to make them standard. Let’s instead look at amazing things like the Catholic Graduate Expectations as models for more to adopt.

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Knowing vs. Knowing How

This was one of those great days at school. It was a Professional Development day for us, which was to centre around working on our Student Success Plan. It is actually the only PD day that we have to work on local needs and so I wanted to make sure that we used it to focus our year a bit.

Our board has been trying to find an in to the 21C Learning ideals and it looks like the best way is to rethink and start to talk much more openly and purposely about Learning Skills. I love this move in thought and I think that it is high time that we started this talk. I think it is a long time coming that people in education start to consider what we are actually doing and if we are on the right track. I remember, as a student, wondering what these lessons and facts would have to do with the rest of my life. I was never all that comfortable with math or science, (still I did well, but there was not the same level of comfort), and I could not see a future for myself that would require me knowing much about Finite Mathematics or Genetic Code. I could not see the relevance of the content, but I studied anyway because I trusted in the system and thought that if the system said I needed to know, then I should know. I have yet to come upon a situation where those lessons would be important to me and I can pretty much guarantee with the internet, I won’t ever find that situation.

I trusted the system but the truth was that the system did not know what was best for me. In fact, the truth is that the system was never designed to give me what was best for me. That content driven system was designed to teach me a skill: the ability to listen to, retain and repeat information. That system was designed to deliver as much info to me as possible, understanding that I would only retain about 10% of it, and then my passion or interest would determine what 10% that was. Imagine that: a system that accepts a 10% success rate! And I was a straight A student!

But this is simply not good enough any more and the hope is that Content become nothing more than a context for the development and exercise of skills. We can find out info, or learn how to do just about anything with the power and reach of the internet and social media, but what these tools cannot teach our children is how to think and behave collaboratively, creatively, critically and then share that with others. This is what school has to become. As Will Richardson says in one of the videos we watched at our session today, we have to do schools different, not better. We have to consider what our end goal is and it cannot be a test score.

There was great discussion about this including staff working on defining the different learning skills so that we could have a common language to share as well as actually assessing the learning skills of the administration for a bit of a light hearted break. Easily the best part of the plenary session though was a letter that my VP Bernie Burns read from a frustrated teacher. Below is a video presentation of that letter by the teacher but I truly think that my Bernie read it better.

The letter talks about the “main event” of school being the challenges that all of us face and then actually facing them. It is about learning the best ways to handle yourself and to above all, never quit. It talks tough at times, but the overall sentiment is one of caring and love. Very powerful and when Bernie read it to me a couple of days ago, I knew it would work, but what he didn’t tell me was that we was going to also read something that he wrote in response to the letter. I have no video of this and perhaps that is best as it will forever be something that was just for our staff, but it was without a doubt the most powerful bit of verse that I have heard at a staff event. Not often can an administrator completely capture the total attention of 100+ staff and then get an ovation for the effort afterwards! It was great because it was personal, courageous and honest. It was exactly what the staff needed and I know it lead to a great afternoon of departmental sharing and collaboration.

It lead one teacher to voice an idea of having a platform for teachers to write about themselves so that the staff could better know their peers and their colleagues. I am going to consider what the best venue for this is and perhaps bend the ear of some of my staff, but I saw today what true leadership is all about. I had a full day of work and discussion planned out but I know that Bernie’s willingness to be vulnerable and honest was the catalyst for the day and I can only hope that the reaction leads to a continued discussion about learning skills and the best way to “do school different”.

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Talent Looks a lot like work!

I had a great day of learning today and it was well outside of my comfort area…in one sense. I attended a Math teachers inservice that was hosted at my school and it was great. I say out of my comfort zone because I am an English teacher and most if not all the math that they were talking about meant very little to me. That being said, I was not there to hear about the math, but to hear from Michael Belcastro. You can check out all his videos on his YOU TUBE channel and that is pretty impressive in itself. I think he has created over 2000 videos that deal with all sorts of Ontario Math curriculum.

Mike is a teacher I have wanted to meet for awhile. I guess we have met a couple of times at different things but I have never really had a chance to talk with him or to hear him go over his approach to teaching. It was a great session for me because I got to see someone who had actually taken the chance to try it a different way. He actually has the courage and the work ethic to really go in a different direction. This was a great experience for me because he embodies a lot of what I see needing in schools.

He is actively engaged in a pretty advanced version of a Flipped Classroom which utilizes self made You Tube videos and D2L. Essentially in Mike’s class, a student is assigned the lesson for homework which consists of a number of videos outlining a concept and then an assessment quiz that the students take on D2L and have to achieve a mastery of 70% to move on. All of this is done BEFORE they even walk into class. The class time then is spent working on larger and much more interesting projects that allows Mike to work in smaller numbers with the kids.

I love this idea but the best part of the day was to see all the teachers, and especially my teachers trying to wrap their collective heads around the idea and then getting excited about the possibilities that could be on the doorstep for them. They got into it but I know that this will not bring about changes right away. It will take some time but I think that the more that we hear from these amazing people, the more we can see ourselves do it.

I had a good talk with Mike later in the day and the one thing that I wanted to impress upon him, (and any teacher that I encounter who is trying something different), is to keep going. I have used this analogy before, but I love the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan to prove a point:

I like this scene because it proves a point: “The first guy over the wall, is going to get bloody!” I see people like Mike as those guys who had to take fire as they hit Omaha Beach. The mission depended on these men, knowing that they were going to get the worst of it, standing up and doing what needed to be done. I have no doubt that Mike has had his fair share of doubters and he even mentioned that colleagues, parents and students have resisted his ideas. He could have easily folded to the pressure and just given in. God knows that I have seen this in my career and have even felt the temptation myself. When you spend your time hitting your head against the wall of resistance, eventually you get one hell of a headache! The best part of today was that Mike still has great passion for his profession and believes in his vision. He knows that the audience has people rolling their eyes while hugging their textbooks, but it has not deterred him. That was great to see.

Like I said before, it was also great to see my teachers getting into the possibility that there may be another way to approach their work. It is a struggle I know, especially to maintain momentum but that is where I come in. I have to find ways to support those teachers that want to try new things. I may even go so far as to say that I even need to push at times. Don’t get me wrong, I will not spend any energy trying to get someone to do something that they don’t want to do, but I do see the need to give a supportive nudge to someone that is waiting anxiously at the edge of the pool, just testing the temperature with their big toe. Okay, here is another movie image that I love to use when talking about educational change and reform.

In this scene, Bruce Wayne understands that the security of the rope is holding him back from his goal because he is not embracing his fear of death. The same can be said of teachers. too often I see teachers who know that things need to change, but hold back in some way. They cling to the security of “what everyone else is doing” and never really change their teaching style. The problem with this is that sooner or later, they revert back totally and it is hard to see any remnants of a difference. Mike and I talked about the need to just go for it and to really “go all in” when you feel something is worthwhile.

This is where I have to offer the most support to my teachers that are looking to change things up. I have to support them financially because if the only thing keeping them from a new look, is money, then that is just not good enough. I need to support them with PD and when it comes to scheduling. I have to be willing to look at the daunting task of scheduling and do away with the strive for a good percentage (number of kids with a perfect schedule), and see that work behind the scenes is often the most important.

I also have to be supportive and protective of the influence that these teachers have. To borrow from the Private Ryan motif, it can be all too easy to get picked off by the sniper fire of traditionalism and the machine gun like repetition of “this is how we have always done it”. I have to insulate from those influences but also look for ways to expose them to the good ones. This was a great exposure today for my teachers and I now need to expose them to more of people like Mike Belcastro. The good news is that while Mike is still in the minority, there are more like him coming!

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Let’s Be Clear: This is Child Abuse!

My wish for the above picture of Adrian Peterson is that it could have been a mug shot taken as he was arrested and locked up for child abuse. For those unaware, the All Pro running back for the Minnesota Vikings is involved in allegations of child abuse as pictures of his 4 year old son were released showing the aftermath of a discipline session in which Peterson whipped his son with a branch or “switch” so severely that he left open soars and bruises all over his body. The following pictures are graphic and I only include them to give context to my emotions on this subject.

I wish this narrative was rare or even surprising but as we have seen in the news recently, especially with the Ray Rice issue, all too often professional athletes engage in behaviour that is wrong. The surprise we have about these occurrences I suppose says more about the fact that we tend to equate athletic ability with some sort of moral compass. These incidents should remind us that this is a dangerous mistake to make, especially when we tend to espouse athletes and celebrities as role models for our children.

My disgust and sheer head scratching astonishment this week though is not reserved for Adrian Peterson. It is reserved for the reaction that this incident has had about the situation. I regularly listen to sports radio in the car, most specifically the FAN 590 and Monday morning I actually found myself yelling at the radio listening to this segment of the Brady and Walker show. The segment is long but if you skip ahead to around the 19 minute mark you will hear Andrew Walker saying that he has a hard time comparing Adrian Peterson to Ray Rice because the “line is blurred about how to discipline your kids” but not so much with spousal abuse. This is easily the stupidest thing I have heard on the subject and the focus of my anger in the car the other morning.

Why are the lines blurred and why can we not make a direct comparison between Rice and Peterson. In fact I would say that Peterson is much worse than Rice. Rice hitting his fiance was disgusting and cowardly but that woman could have left that situation possibly. She could have made different choices about the type of man she decided to be with. Peterson’s son could not make any of those choices. Let me remind everyone that this child was 4 YEARS OLD!!! My youngest is 7 and I don’t allow myself to consider what I would feel like if I found him with those marks. I guess in a way I agree with the radio host when he says that he has a hard time comparing Rice and Peterson, because I think that Peterson is so much worse.

Then I hear Charles Barkley talking about his upbringing and how the lines are blurred for him as well.

I have heard this garbage a lot as well lately, saying that we cannot impose our ideas about child rearing on others and that we have to look at the cultural context of Peterson to understand his motivations for whipping his 4 year old. NO I DON’T!!! I don’t have to understand his context because he whipped his son!! He abused him and should be put in jail for that action. There is no context here. The argument about spanking is one thing and I will be the first to admit that I was spanked as a child but it was not this! It was a pat on the bum that really didn’t hurt as much as it scared me into understanding the seriousness of my parents’ message. This is not a case of going too far. This amount of abuse which shows evidence all over his body including upper and inner thigh, back, arms and hands involves anger and aggression. I get chills when I think about the crying and pleading that this 4 year old must have done while this torture was going on. This was not going over too far; this was sadistic and cruel.

Here is the thing about parenting as I see it. I knew, as I grew up that there were some pretty dangerous and awful things that could happen to me out in the world. As I grew aware of my surroundings I understood that not everyone was looking out for my best interests. But I also knew, without a sliver of doubt that when I came home, those fears were left at the door. I knew I had nothing to fear in my home because my parents had created this home for me. I respected my parents, but I never feared them and I am tired of this idea that the two are synonymous. I knew that they offered me unconditional love and a safe place to get away from the increasingly threatening world and if I did not have that place, I don’t know how I could have got through growing up.

This leads me back to our job in education. My disappointment when it comes to reaction of some people about Adrian Peterson has really caused me to pause and consider the role of school to our kids. If people are still “confused” about the line between child abuse and child rearing, then we have a lot of work to do in society but it means that our call to create safe and inclusive schools is all the more important. Our school theme this year is PEACE and I think it is all the more powerful this year because of what we have seen in the sports arena. I cannot imagine a single teacher I have ever met, (and there are some that I don’t have much professional respect for), seeing those pictures of this 4 year old victim and saying that they are fine with that. I guess the job comes with this very sensitive gag reflex when it comes to the safety of kids. We need to be vigilant about the communities that we create and as the principal of the school, I have to constantly strive to maintain a safe school at all costs. I have to do this because the public reaction to this situation shows me that perhaps school is the only place that these kids can feel safe.

This has been a sad and emotional start to the week for me, but I only hope I can use it to keep me focussed on my job.

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