Sunday, September 29, 2013

Parents: To Inform or Consult?

I recently attended a seminar dealing with how schools should interact with parents.  The seminar, hosted by lawyers, highlighted some recent examples of case law where interactions between schools and parents broke down in relation to children with special needs. 

The salient point of the seminar was that schools and parents should enter into "meaningful consultation" with each other and how that consultation should look like.  

It was noted that consultation is not the same as merely informing.  Giving options, both parties willing to listen to each other, "give and take", getting to a "win-win" and "having an open mind" were some the terms used to describe "meaningful consultation".  

It was also noted that schools should not develop a plan of action in isolation and merely ask for parental support.  Schools should, for example,  include parents in developing a plan of action.

Of course all consultation should be conducted from a student centered perspective and should vary in form and type according to the specific needs of the child.

One of questions that came was "who has the final decision making authority"?  Legalistically speaking, it was stated that schools have authority over the final decision related to the school based educational program  but only after "meaningful consultation".

That last question unsettled me a little only because I realized situations where we rely on "the authority to make the final decision" are precipitated, usually, by a breakdown in trust and healthy dialogue.

Interestingly enough, shortly after attending this seminars, I came across a blog post where one educator states, in relation to curriculum and testing: 
Parents do not have a right to tell the school what their children will and will not be taught and as public school administrators and teachers we cannot follow parent directives.
I can appreciate this comment, perhaps from a legalistic perspective  - but it does unsettle me as an educator.

One of the values we espouse in our Catholic school system is that parents are the "primary educators of their children".  I hold that value close to my heart and mind whenever I speak with parents.

I am always struck by the inherent (and required) trust parents place in me.  This trust is one of the foundations that make our schools safe and caring communities of learning. 

I am, for example, still asking myself about my own approach to communicating with parents - Do I tend to inform or consult?  I suppose that best answer I can offer is that "it depends" on the matter at hand.  

But what comes up for me over and over again is that whether informing or consulting with parents - regardless of the subject matter - I always see parents as the primary educators who are doing there best, often sacrificing so much to provide for and raise their child.

In my interactions with parents, this mindset has allowed me to sort through challenging issues in a respectful way.  It has helped me deliver good news in a joyful manner and, perhaps most importantly, it has allowed me to apologize in a vulnerable way when I've made mistakes.

Still figuring it out....

Friday, September 27, 2013

My Latest Teaching Assignment

This year, like last, I am teaching a course (hybrid - on-line and face to face) at St. Mark's College on the campus of the University of British Columbia in the Masters of Educational Leadership Program.

I am two weeks into teaching my latest course: Curriculum and Instructional Leadership.  Here is a summary of the course taken from the syllabus I developed:

Learners will examine the rationale and context for the current trends in curriculum transformation both globally and within the British Columbia K-12 education sector. Learners will explore the potential pedagogical implications of these shifts on student achievement and school leadership. Learners will also review the latest research related to curriculum and pedagogy and how both impact student achievement. It is within this context that learners will be asked to develop their own vision, skills and working knowledge to serve as instructional leaders.

To further develop their skills related to instructional leadership, learners will to explore problem-solving opportunities related to curriculum, pedagogy, student achievement and overall school growth.

Learners will critically examine the rationale and themes for current trends in curriculum reform initiatives globally and within in BC. Learners will be asked to examine and refine their own “pedagogical creed” (Dewey) in light of both curricular trends and the latest research on teacher pedagogy.

Students will be asked to examine and reflect on such questions as:
  • What are the ideas, themes and values ideas behind “21st Century Education”?
  • What is the purpose of schools and the curriculum taught within them? 
  • In an information “rich” world, brought on by the proliferation of the web-enabled and mobile technologies, what is worth “knowing”?
  • What are some the implications for Catholic Education in light of some the current trends in curriculum reform? 

Learners will also be asked to examine the impact the current curricular trends are having on teacher pedagogy. Learners will also examine the latest research on the impact various pedagogical approaches have on student achievement. Within this context, learners will develop a better understanding of the impact instructional leadership has on student learning.

Learners will be asked to examine and reflect issues such as:

  • Role and impact of technology on student learning (blended learning, flipped classroom, etc.)
  • The impact of assessment and grading practices in the learning process and further explore such ideas as. Assessment For Learning, standards based grading, the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset (Dweck)
  • Understand the constructivist versus didactic approach to pedagogy and the possible limitations to each approach 
Finally, learners will have an opportunity to develop their own vision for what it means to be an instructional leader in today’s schools. Learners will be asked to examine and reflect on such questions and ideas such as:
  • How can school leaders be supervisors of instruction for learning?
  • How can instructional leaders create positive and effective learning conditions for both students and teachers? (e.g. professional learning, teacher isolation, collaboration, learning communities)
  • What are the conditions for “learning for all” in a school (for students and teachers)
  • What is school culture and climate? How can leaders shape school culture and climate to enhance student learning?
  • How can/does a leader motivate learning for all? 
Already the learners are pushing my own thinking on many of these issues.  

Of course, any insights or suggestions are most welcome....

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Undermining Student Improvement

Have I missed the mark re: student improvement?

I am beginning to wonder if, in my earnest desire to to do what what's best for kids and their learning, I have inadvertently enabled complacency and undermined improvement.

Let me explain.

Recently I have immersed myself in John Hattie's book Visible Learning Visible Learning - a book, I believe, every educator, at all levels, must read.

The book is a culmination of years of research and analysis of what has the greatest positive impact on student achievement.

So let's cut to the chase. Hattie identifies a number influences on student performance and ranks them in order of positive impact.

In summary, the most positive  influences on student achievement put the individual teacher at the centre of the improvement. Whether it's providing quality feedback, understanding how different students think (meta cognition), how open a teacher is to the evidence of their impact on student learning and how they respond to this evidence or how a teacher enables students to become their own teachers - all of these "impacts" place the teacher and their actions at the centre of improvement.

On the flip side, some of the lesser "impacts" on achievement include those that I would label as "external" (to the teacher) changes and  include such things as: ability grouping, class size, problem based learning, inquiry learning, homework, school scheduling, web based learning and various other school based "programs" (Hattie, 2012).

So getting back to my point....

As a teacher and administrator I feel passionate about doing what best for students and their learning. I often talk about changing the system . As a school administrator I often meet other team members to solve various problems. I've looked at change timetables and calendars, lower class sizes, change teacher schedules etc.

As administrators we talk about the importance of school growth plans, literacy and numeracy programs, we develop assessment and grading protocols and implement technology based programs in schools.  

I am the first one to speak about the need for curriculum reform in our post industrial, Internet driven world.  

I like system improvements.  They make me feel good.  They give me a sense of satisfaction.  They give me something to report out - "look at what we are doing now",  "look at how innovative we are"!

But what is the true impact of these system and "external" reforms on student learning and engagement?

I surmise that Hattie would argue that these "external" reforms and interventions are needed and they do assist many students both in achievement and engagement. 

BUT, by placing the focus on various "externally" driven initiatives, have I inadvertently, caused teachers to shift their focus away from their own practice?

In so doing, have I unwittingly undermined student improvement by not explicitly placing enough focusing on teacher level improvements related to formative assessment, the teacher as learner and the meta-cognition of each student?

Moving forward, in my desire to help students and as I consider school wide or system wide improvements, I need to ask myself this these important questions:
  • How is this initiative (school goal, program, initiative, intervention, etc.) empowering teachers to be at the centre of their own learning?  
  • How is this learning requiring teachers to be reflective and critically open about their own students' performance? 
  • How is this learning related to providing quality feedback to students and  knowing and understanding students as thinkers?

Still figuring it out.....

Sunday, September 1, 2013

What do I Amplify?

As a principal I spent a fair bit of time reflecting on ways I could support and empower teachers at the school. By supporting and empowering teachers, I felt, would go a long way in creating a culture of support and empowerment in the classroom - a sort of "trickle down effect" - ultimately benefiting the students.

As a principal, I always felt a tension in deciding on WHAT to amplify.  There was no shortage of information.  

As a school level administrator, I sometimes felt the crush of the "management" side of the job. Finances, funding, budgets, fundraising, government mandates, policies, daily schedules, etc.

It could, at times, consume me.

Yet I made the conscious decision, on most occasions, to deal with those issues "quietly". I rarely made those management issues staff wide agenda items. Instead choosing to amplify and make a lot noise about teaching and learning.

In many ways I saw my role as principal as mitigating the impact of "administrivia" on teacher so that they could focus on the teaching and learning. 

This is one significant way I supported teachers.

Two weeks into my new role, I realize that perhaps I need to support and empower principals in the same way.

I am not dismissing the "management" side of school administration. If not done well and efficiently, it could undermine a principalship and/or a school.

With principals, like with teachers, I need to find that sweet spot in communicating some of important management details of the job, while consistently and "loudly" finding time to amplify the instructional leadership part of the job.

If we empower and support principals in this way it might create more a than "trickle" down effect but rather a "tidal wave" of support and learning for teachers and students.