Spirits Of A Silent School

Silent_School_01This is the text of my address to the graduating class of 2016.

Every year, I prepare a graduation speech, and every year I face the same challenge.  I want to say something appropriate to the occasion of course, but I want it to be memorable, relevant and ideally strike an emotional chord with the listener.  My greatest hope is that when I have concluded, people might pause for a moment and think: ”That was nice. He spoke some good words there”.

I was looking for inspiration and I found it the other day when I was walking through the empty hallway of the school. The 3:30 bell had rung long before and everyone had gone home for the day.  In fact I may have been alone in the building at the time, as the only sounds to be heard were my steps on the crisp clean tiles.

A silent school is a very unusual thing.  Typically a hub of activity, one of the first things you notice when you are standing there alone, is that a school echoes in a funny way.   Walk down that hallway when classes are in session and you will hear students talking and laughing; you will hear abbreviated choruses of harmony emanating from the music room, the crisp crack of floor hockey sticks off of the gym floor, the squeak of a locker door followed by the deep thud of books being tossed inside – a humming microwave over here, a churning photocopier over there.  Above it all you will hear elevated “teaching voices” which inexplicably rise above everything else as they challenge students to solve an equation or respond to a short story.

And the smell…the smell of a busy school – that is hard to describe.  Imagine a mixture that included scented hair mousse, day old lunches, the sharp smell of washroom deodorizers, and the musty odor of sweaty gym class t-shirts.   At one end of the school, exhaust fumes from idling school busses seep through the cracks in the window casing, while at the other, some delightful cooking project in the home ec room fills the air with the aroma of fresh pizza dough or the sweet scent of cinnamon.

But in an empty school, it all changes.  It is silent.  No sights, sounds or smells compete for your attention.

Standing there in that empty hallway I paused, closed my eyes, and let my imagination re-create all the activity that occurred there.  I pictured the hundreds of people who walked those halls over the 55 years that building has been in existence and I swear that just for a moment, I felt myself standing there amongst every single one of them.

When you think back to your high school days, I suspect that what you immediately recall is not the ceremony, like this one, that marks the end of a your high school education.  I believe that most people think about those times that were largely unremarkable.  I believe they recall the sights and sounds of those busy school days that formed their routine, and where they were surrounded by the people they grew up with in the town they called home.

That is the school experience you carry with you.  But schools and communities evolve and ours are much different than they were 10 or 20 years ago.  They will be at least that much different 10 or 20 years from now.

However, just as I could sense the presence of those who at one time graced that empty hallway over the last 55 years, if you listen, you too can hear their echo.  It will ring in  your head and in your heart, as your experiences during these formative years  are reflected in your values, in your attitudes and in your actions.

I urge you graduates to take a moment at some point during the evening to step back and purposefully survey the people here in the room.  The group here on this stage is not likely to again be together in the same place at the same time.  With that in mind, take in everything you can to fuel fond memories upon which you may someday call when you are sitting in a quiet room and the excitement and emotion associated with high school graduation has faded.

You will soon have your diplomas in hand, and with that, you are leaving your grade school years behind you.  For some of you that might also mean leaving this little town as you move to your next stage in life.

But there is one thing I can tell you for certain:  Your school and your home town will never leave you.

Show What You Know: When tests and assignments don’t work

OneSizeI am principal of a combined middle / high school.  This configuration results in an odd combination of reporting periods that sees us generate reports at one level or another at six different times of the year.  That makes for a lot of report cards for a principal to approve, but I intentionally make time to review every one.  I look for patterns, anomalies, and use the reports as one of the many data sources to track school progress.

     Report cards comments can provide important insight into a student’s learning, provided that teachers use that limited space to concisely capture some key observations.  As a principal, it is my job to work with teachers to develop their skills in this area.

     Some comments are utterly useless.  “Good work” or “this student is a pleasure to have in class” provide no insight into learning.  Fortunately, I do not normally observe that sort of commentary on the reports.  However, I have most definitely seen a shift in the types of things that have been written over the last few years.

     I was particularly inspired when I read one particular comment on the recent reports.  I know what you’re thinking:  Who but a school principal could possibly ever be inspired by a report card comment?  But here is what it said:

“In collaboration with his teacher (name of student) needs to seek out opportunities where he can verbally explain his thinking to meet outcomes and show evidence of his learning.”

     What struck me was how this reflected a particular segment of our teaching and learning journey; the shift from compliance to learning.

     It was not all that long ago that marks were largely influenced by how many assignments students completed, whether they showed up to class on time, and the degree to which they did precisely what they were told to do.  Without diminishing the importance of demonstrating responsible behaviour, those things did not necessarily indicate the degree to which a student met the outcomes of the course.

I am satisfied that we as a school have long moved away from compliance to a focus on learning outcomes.  But the teacher’s comment provides an indication that we are progressing even further in that direction.  Not everyone is best able to demonstrate their learning through writing.  For those, pencil and paper tests are the wrong vehicle.  If a student is able to fully accomplish via speaking the same thing that another student is able to accomplish through writing, why would we withhold recognition of that learning? 

     Yes, students need to know how to write, but we ignore the diversity of our learners if we only accept limited ways of showing knowledge of learning outcomes.  Inviting a student to verbalize his understanding of the course outcomes, and accepting that as evidence of learning in the same way we would accept a test score demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of assessment and respect for each unique learner.

     Our journey will continue, but I am encouraged by the progressive thinking of educators who acknowledge and respond to diverse learning styles and invite students to travel meaningful paths to “show what they know”.



6000 Days of Teaching

GeeseI am approaching the end of my 30th year as an educator.  Let us assume that a school year is composed of 200 teaching days.  Granted, those in the profession know that does not reflect the reality, as a teacher’s school year always starts well before the first day of classes and includes significant commitment outside of the regular school calendar.  However, for the sake of keeping the Math simple, let’s consider it in this way: 200 school days per year x  30 years =  6000 days.

My 6000th day is on the horizon, and it will be my last.

It all comes down to this:

A reflection on such a journey could focus on changes that have occurred over time or enumerate the host of lessons learned.  But memory lane is a meandering path and there is little to be gained from traveling that road for very long.

I have of course given great consideration as to “what comes next”.  There is no reason to expect that the characteristics by which one was defined during the course of one’s career will suddenly change when that career comes to an end.  That indicates to me that life after day 6000 is likely to largely resemble life before day 6000.  I will remain an enthusiastic learner and continue to seize opportunities to build capacity in those around me.

And as I leave it is my hope that at least to some extent, those characteristics will have imprinted on others so that what remains is an enduring and mutually supportive learning community.

Therefore, it is with a high degree of confidence that I can honestly say that 6000 days have taught me that public education really does boil down to those simple words: enduring, mutually supportive learning.

What matters, and what doesn’t:

Shifting demands placed upon our public institutions have the potential to cause strain to the breaking point.  The above phrase can serve as an effective filter when faced with the flood of initiatives, programs and processes that attempt to find their way into schools.  That which stands up to scrutiny is worthy of inclusion in public education.  That which fails to pass the test must not impose upon the critically important work we do.

The key word of course is “learning”.  What else should schools possibly be about?  Under no circumstances should that be limited to teachers teaching students.  Terms such as “learning community” imply that we are all learning from each other. Certainly, teachers facilitate the learning of their students, but example is the best precept;  every individual concerned with public education must be grounded in a mindset that continually prompts consideration of the question:  What will I learn today?

It is imperative that no one person, group, or ideal exerts so much influence that direction is lost in their absence.  Public education must continually move forward, building on individual contributions and enthusiastically embracing new opportunities.

To that end, I hope I have contributed to creating the architecture within which people are inspired to embrace and share learning and that I have somehow impacted upon the interia that will keep it all moving forward.

If that is all that I have been able to accomplish, I consider my 6000 days well spent.

Education is not Classic Rock

rockThere are a lot of radio stations that play classic rock.  Catering to a demographic that grew up with that music, their popularity indicates that the target population continues to strongly support that format.  I am not sure to what degree those same listeners are hip to what is trending on DJ Booth or the content of Billboard’s Hot 100, but I suspect that the typical classic rock fan makes only the occasional foray outside of his or her musical comfort zone.

The same applies to technology.  Most people enjoy a comfort zone largely established during what I refer to as their technological formative years.  This time period varies from person to person but can typically include anything between adolescence and adult mid-career.

As adults become established in the workforce they tend to become proficient with the technology they need to carry out their jobs and build on that only when required to do so.  Outside of work, people will only adopt new technologies when there is a clear, immediate, and meaningful rationale.

Some of us have had the experience of attempting to introduce cell phones to elderly parents.  One does not have to ask too many people about this before encountering a story steeped in frustration.  Some seniors simply do not have a personal connection with such technology and as a result often resist efforts to help them adopt it.

Macintosh_Classic_2Likewise, mid career Gen X’ers and mid to late career baby boomers became adept at common technologies of the day, and are generally skilled at e-mail, texting, and recreational social networking.  But in many cases, emerging information and communication technologies have the potential to create anxiety and meet with resistance.  Unless a meaningful connection is made, this group is less likely than subsequent generations to be enthusiastic users of virtual meeting software or to actively engage in professional social networking.

In nearly all cases, there should be no pressure for people to step outside their comfort zone and engage in emerging technologies unless they realize some personal gain from doing so.  However, there is one field in which resistance to emerging technologies is completely unacceptable: education.

As educators, our chief responsibility is to build capacity, both in our students and in those around us. As learning leaders, we need to model lifelong learning. As teachers, we must prepare our students for a rapidly changing world.  We are not likely to inspire our students to engage with new technologies unless we ourselves set the example.

monitorWhile there are some self-motivated individuals who will find ways to consistently integrate current ICT into their learning, we do a disservice to students when we allow ourselves to be satisfied with our existing skill set.  We cannot require anything more from our students than what we ourselves possess. As educators, we must remain progressive, forward thinking, and never be satisfied with the status quo.  Contemporary, forward thinking educators do not consider technology in isolation from good pedagogy.

Education leaders at all levels must realize that they have an obligation to build capacity in their colleagues with the intent to driving growth at the classroom level.  They must commit to using their influence to continually move the school system forward, adopting and exploiting new information and communication technologies to benefit student learning.  Those who are not willing to make this commitment need to reconsider their role in education.

Classic rock has its appeal, but educators cannot remain rooted in classic practice.

The Inseparable Nature of Pedagogy & Technology

innovateI am a member of a disappearing group of teachers. Our numbers are dwindling and we will never be seen in the school system again. What makes this group unique? We began our teaching careers in the pre-internet age.

For those whose journey has not paralleled mine, it is difficult to truly understand just how technology has revolutionized education over that period of time. We know that teachers have shifted from being those who impart knowledge to those who facilitate the acquisition of knowledge. We know that schools look nothing like they did even a few short years ago. But it is hard to fathom the degree that technology innovation has impacted upon not only pedagogy, but upon every aspect of schools and education.

PossessBuilding Capacity

It is critically important to embrace the use of technology to accelerate learning for students and staff alike. We cannot underestimate the importance of building capacity in staff so that they can, by extension, build capacity in their students. As Michael Fullan stated in “Coherence”: We cannot give to others what we do not possess ourselves”. To that end, I have been very deliberate in maintaining a contemporary skill set and fostering the professional growth of those around me.

By way of example, we maintain a school blog at our school website. Every teacher is invited to make at least a single annual contribution. The intent is not to force teachers to write a blog – certainly, there is nothing to be gained from that in itself – but simply to give them the opportunity to take part in this experience and gain an understanding of how this tool can be leveraged to enhance the learning experiences they design for their own students.

As with any initiative, there is a varying level of uptake. However, it is encouraging that this initiative is now part of our professional school based conversation. It is on the table, so to speak, and ideally is something that teachers will increasingly consider as a tool in support of student learning as well as for their own professional growth.

Technological / Pedagogical Evolution

Remarkable changes have occurred in schools over the years. Classroom space was given over to computer labs that have since become obsolete. There has been a transition from desktop computers to laptops to hand held devices that were unimaginable just a few short years ago. Textbooks and binders are giving way to e-readers and OneNote. All through this, I have forced myself to get on board with those innovations that appeared to have the potential to impact on student learning. Just as importantly, I also gained a clear understanding of my obligation to foster the growth of the teachers with whom I work as well as my colleagues in educational leadership.

I understand that this is not an easy road for some. However, even when that is the case, at least some measure of forward progress must be evident. We do a disservice to our students when we fail to push our own boundaries or rely on what may be comfortable and familiar instead of keeping abreast of latest practice.

We do not live in isolation, and students everywhere are benefiting from innovation in technology implemented within the context of sound pedagogy. Who will foster this growth in your own students, if not you?

Thank you, John Dewey.

Ripple_HallwayPutting Assessment in Context

It is at the conclusion of the semester that teachers are asked to make some of their most important decisions of the year. After months of creating engaging learning activities and working with students to provide them with opportunities to demonstrate knowledge of the learning outcomes, teachers must determine not only if the student has been successful in that regard, but also identify a grade which represents their level of achievement.

In most cases, it is a matter of identifying an accurate (albeit subjective) number that reflects where students stand relative to their peers. In others it involves a failing grade and accompanying commentary to justify that assessment. The world of assessment is far from black and white, and teachers often engage in an internal dialogue about what counts and what doesn’t, and wrestle with the how their assessment of the students’ abilities truly reflects what that student is able to do.

In some instances, the stakes are higher. A failing grade in a particular course can put a students’ graduation at risk. Rightly or wrongly, entrance into some post-secondary institutions is screened on the basis of high school marks.   The assessments that teachers make and the grades they assign can cause ripples well beyond the classroom.

The Big Question:

Some jurisdictions recognize a final mark must reflect teachers’ informed professional judgement. Where that is the case, there will be those occasions where one faces a dilemma, best captured in this question:

  • Has this student demonstrated a satisfactory understanding of the learning outcomes?

When I pose that question, I prefer to qualify two key elements:

  • Has this student demonstrated a satisfactory understanding of the learning outcomes?

Assessment must be considered on a case by case basis. We need personalize student achievement by looking closely at the student whom we are assessing, and putting the learning outcomes in context.


Inspiration from the Past

When confronted with such a task, I take my inspiration from a trusted source. In “How We Think”, John Dewey articulated a number of concepts that resonate across the years. These ideals continue to have relevance and certainly have influenced my own responses.

Dewey writes about context: how a poor performing student may, when confronted with a different set of circumstances may achieve quite well. The point is that our assessment of a student is only relevant within the context of that particular learning environment. It is imperative that this reality is reflected in our assessment. We must know “this student” for this to occur.

Dewey also warns us about preoccupation with external standards. It is paramount that we help students learn how to think. Process, not product, should be our focus. In that sense, our evaluation should reflect more upon the journey toward achieving the “learning outcomes” rather than on whether or not the student ultimately reached the destination.

Teachers have the difficult task of determining pass or fail, or identifying a letter or number that somehow reflects a student’s level of achievement. This can only occur when they have a sound knowledge of the student as a learner and can exercise their professional judgement in assessing achievement of outcomes.

The evaluation of student achievement is an imperfect process and the grades we assign have implications well beyond our schools and classrooms.

Our assessments of students must consider these realities.

The Underestimated Power of Reflection

jenue_filleUntil schools moved toward a more sophisticated approach to learning the “3 R’s” of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic served as an apt descriptor of school based learning.   The original triumvirate is generally considered to be outdated, if not irrelevant in this day and age.  Yet the urge persists to retain a modified and modernized version of the “3 R’s”.

One suggestion is that rigor, relevance and relationships effectively capture the essence of the 21st century schools movement.  “Renew, Refocus, and Rebuild” describes the process of redefining the focus of public education. An activity in which most school districts appear to be engaged to one degree or another, these words are less descriptive of daily learning and more about the preliminary steps of contemplating just what public education should look like in the first place.  Or perhaps the new “3 R’s” are resiliencey, renewal, and reflection.  While these are meant to be examined in the context of educator wellness, there are system wide lessons to be learned as well. What students would not reap benefits from a learning organization that built its foundation on such principles?

The most important “R” of all:

Is there any single “R” that is most important – one that without exception must be included in any summary of the essential components of education?  I maintain that there is: reflection.

We live in a connected world. Advancements in communication technology have resulted in corresponding expectations for us to operate immediate-response mode. Contrast reflection with reactivity. How often has it occurred that someone has thoughtlessly, with subsequent regret, reacted to an email message or social media post in an inappropriate way?  Social media outlets recognize this trend.  Perhaps in response to the impetuous nature of a significant portion of its clientele, Facebook is now experimenting with ways to provide a wider range of reactive responses  for its users.

In the face of all this, we must not lose sight of the importance of reflection and thoughtful response. A recent movement to promote mindfulness is both timely and encouraging.  It is also a hardly surprising and perhaps predictable response to the expectation for 24/7 connectedness.

thinking1Learning to reflect, reflecting to learn:

Some individuals are naturally reflective, others less so.  The ability to engage in purposeful reflection can be taught however.  It is a meta skill that involves elements of critical thinking, active listening, empathy and self awareness.  While schools focus on the development of these skills in varying contexts, rarely are they intentionally merged  with a view to developing the capacity to know how and when to stop, think, and decide.

It is doubtful that there is anyone that would fail to benefit from purposeful reflection. Sadly, organizations focused on growth, results and achievement typically only engage in such activities in a largely superficial fashion.   Until pausing to think is equated with moving forward, we face the enduring perception that progress only occurs when we are on board with the latest “big thing”, and will continue to feel obliged to react accordingly.

Time for reflection is far from time spent idle.


The INFJ Principal

INFJprincipalIdealistic. Insightful. Organized. Compassionate. These sound like the characteristics of an effective school principal.  On the surface that may very well be true. However, to what extent to the qualities typically associated with an “INFJ” person translate to successful school leadership?

Readers are no doubt familiar with the Myers-Briggs Personality Types Index, which characterizes people according to 16 categories on the basis on where they fall on these continua:

  • Introversion (I) vs Extraversion (E)
  • Intuition (N) vs. Sensing (S)
  • Feeling (F) vs. Thinking (T)
  • Perceiving (P) vs Judging (J)

Some combinations are more common than others. The least common is INFJ, representing about 1% of the population.

Literature related to the Myers-Briggs Personality Types frequently makes connections to the careers most likely to appeal to each personality type. Recommendations for INFJs tend to be concentrated in two general areas:  service oriented and artistic.

While it is not out of the question for “School Principal” to appear on the list, there are certain aspects of this role that are at odds with the INFJ’s personality.

Research on school leadership typically cites a broad range of qualities that characterize a successful school principal. While such lists tend to be very general, they largely align with INFJ traits. In fact, many common INFJ qualities can make these people well suited for such a position. As in any situation however, there are components of the role that INFJs will find challenging. These can include things such as:

  • Collaboration
  • Team Building
  • Community Relations

To the principal’s advantage, he or she has a degree of influence over how these things occur and can carry out activities in a fashion that aligns with his or her preferences.

However, there are times when that is neither practical nor possible.  Fortunately, one typical INFJ trait is the ability to build capacity in others.  The INFJ principal will characteristically have had the foresight to build a school team composed of people who possess the very traits he or she lacks.  Where a tainfj_mugsk calls for a skill set outside his or her comfort zone, there will be no hesitation on the principal’s part to expend some social capital and support others as they take the lead in that area.

One unavoidable task for any administrator is attendance and participation at a variety of meetings. From district planning sessions and administrative meetings to site based team meetings, this is simply an accepted part of the role.  INFJs will make their greatest contribution where meetings involve only small sub groups of individuals. In larger district-wide meetings, INFJs are likely to remain largely silent or offer a perspective only upon reflection. This can be problematic if the topic at hand requires an immediate decision by the group.

Effective school leaders are visionary, develop leadership capacity in others, are good listeners, and able to clearly articulate goals and expectations. These qualities are also descriptive of the INFJ personality type.  Positions that provide the opportunity to leverage these qualities toward the advancement of a good cause are sure to resonate with the INFJ leader.

As such, it may be no surprise to encounter them – quietly engaged – in roles related to educational leadership.

The Simple Key to Self Renewal

lake2Years ago, in an uncharacteristically profound moment of reflection, I discovered the key to self-renewal. I resolved that every year of my life, I would take it upon myself to learn something new. I was not 20 years old when made that pledge. That winter I embarked on my first endeavour by purchasing a set of cross country skis and teaching myself how to use them.

In subsequent years, I dabbled in diverse activities ranging from orienteering to oil painting, from carpentry to canoeing.

I pursued an interest in languages, learning a little Ukrainian, a lot of French and  a relatively new language called “HTML”.

Those classic pieces of literature and philosophy that “everyone talks about but nobody reads”?  I set out to read them, and I did.

One year I even taught myself how to do traditional embroidery and made a tablecloth for my mother’s Christmas present.  It was a gift that brought tears to her eyes – in a good way.

I tackled the violin (least successful venture) and classic auto restoration (most expensive). My most impactful pursuit involved a return to university to learn about learning, effectively launching my career in education.

Early on in this life initiative, I was very deliberate about selecting a new learning target every year. My only guiding principle was that I had to find it interesting.

As the years went by and life got busier, family, work, and other commitments pushed aside my annual search for a new learning challenge. By then however, I found that it really did not matter. I realized that the will to learn something new was ingrained into my being. What had started out as deliberate and had become second nature.

I know now that the best way to make something habitual is through consistent conscientious engagement. That applies to behaviour, attitude, and disposition.

Would I have been this path had I not made that resolution so many years ago? Perhaps, but there is no doubt that pledge gave me an early start on a journey of lifelong learning.

It is a path I hope I can inspire others to follow.

3 Reasons I Don’t Follow You on Twitter

twitterfollowicons1Having been “on Twitter” for quite some time now, I feel I have developed a good understanding of the benefits and limitations of this tool.

In a recent post, I questioned why anyone in the educational system would not actively leverage the professional networking power of Twitter to build upon their skill set. Properly used, this tool can be a game changer in terms of professional networking and collaboration.

It takes time to build a meaningful network of associates. This can happen in a number of ways, but the end result is a cadre of colleagues with whom one can exchange ideas and seek support.

Having said all of the above, I do find that there are occasions where I have elected not to follow a particular colleague, or simply dropped someone from the list of people I follow. While I truly do want to know what people have to say, there are a few practices which will discourage me from following some individuals.

The line between personal and professional is blurred

I don’t like to “unfollow” anyone, but if my professional twitter feed is peppered with comments from someone about their personal life I tend to end that particular social media connection. Tweets about hobbies, pets, or random observations should be confined to one’s personal account.

It is important to delineate between the personal and the professional. I use my professional account to connect with colleagues in the field. My personal account is used to follow and comment on topics related to local news and personal interests. Those that try to do both from a single account may find followers within the profession driven away by tweets that are primarily personal in nature and that do not advance the professional conversation.

It is not difficult to toggle between two accounts or more if necessary. Tweetdeck allows one to manage multiple accounts. Those interested in both your personal and professional life may elect to follow both accounts.

You re-tweet too much

Selectivity is important. It is not necessary to retweet everything that one find useful. Give careful consideration to what is shared. If it enriches the ongoing professional conversation, then by all means, share what has been discovered. I find however that I do tend to reconsider following those whom I find are making a disproportionate contribution to my twitter feed.

You don’t post original tweets

I am very interested in what is on the minds of the people I follow. At the outset, retweeting may be how many people participate the conversation. However, we all have our own thoughts and opinions. I want people to weigh in on current topics. The information they share can enrich and inform our professional dialogue. Everyone’s opinion matters, and social media sites are the ideal places to make statements, solicit responses, and engage colleagues in meaningful dialogue on current issues.

I consistently promote the power of social media and seek new ways to leverage this resource for professional growth. As it rapidly becomes common professional networking practice, it is important for all of us to avoid practices that may detract from our voices being heard as they should.