Thursday, April 28, 2011

Message in Bottle - a lesson learned

Susie's bottle, with message inside, sits on my desk.  

I continue to learn valuable lessons from students on a regular basis.  In my career there are a few incidents that stand out more than others.  One particular incident occurred in 1993.  Let me set the scene:

I was involved in the planning and supervision of a Gr. 12, over-night (2 nights with 130 students) leadership retreat.   The retreat itself went smoothly.  We were heading home from, what I thought was, a successful retreat.  The commute involved a ferry ride.  

Feeling exhausted and a bit frayed (being “on duty” for over 48 hours was weighing on me) I was taking a few moments to enjoy the scenic west coast.
While enjoying the beautiful scenes of the coast line, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a student ready to launch a pop bottle over the edge of the boat.
SUSIE!!! (fictitious name)  WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?! 
My holler was quickly followed by a stern lecture about leading by example, the environmental impact of littering, etc.  Throughout my litany I sensed that the student really wanted to say something.
 “But Mr. B….….But…… But……..”
Finally, after I finished, she chimed in and explained herself:
“Mr. B, I put a message in the bottle.  I was so inspired by the retreat that I wanted to share my inspiration.” 
While she explained herself she opened the bottle and pulled out the note and handed it to me. It read:
“To whoever finds this note – call (school name and phone number) and we will say a special prayer for you – should you need it.”  
I felt like an idiot.

On that day I learned some valuable lessons about my interactions and relationships with students.
What you see is not always what you get.
Susie’s actions, on the outside, seemed destructive and selfish.  Upon further investigation, her intentions were, in fact, altruistic.

Listen first than talk
Had I taken this advice, I would have saved Susie (and me) the embarrassment and humiliation of a stern lecture.

Don’t label students
Susie had developed a bit of a reputation at the school for being apathetic and a bit of a rebel.  My reaction to her imminent action of throwing the bottle was compounded by this unfair label.  I don’t label students anymore.

Always give students the benefit of the doubt.
The young adults that I have had the privilege of teaching and learning with, when given the opportunity, rarely disappoint.     I have a fundamental belief that our world is in good hands with future generations. 

Today, I still have the Susie’s bottle, with her inspiring message inside, on my desk.  It serves as a constant reminder of the “lessons learned” and the profound obligation I have to find out what’s inside each and every “bottle” I have the privilege of encountering.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Changing the Rules of the Game?

Understanding and managing change is both an art and a science. It usually involves a blend of honouring the past, explaining the future and creating a path to get there. Change agents have to engage the hearts and the minds of their constituents. Leaders who embark on a change initiative also need the courage to move people away from the comfort of the familiar.

One of my favourite stories to illustrate this courageous mindset is the story of Australian potato farmer Cliff Young.

In 1983, the 61-year-old potato farmer arrived at the start line of the Westfield to Melboune Ultra Marathon wearing rubber boots and overalls. The race itself is a gruelling test of endurance - spanning – a mere 875 kilometres/544 miles). A virtual unknown and probably mocked at the outset - Cliff Young won the race!

How did the 61 year old farmer, wearing rubber boots, competing against some of the finest runners, win the race?

The answer is simple yet profound.

Prior to Cliff Young running the race, ultra marathon “experts” and practioners had preconceived ideas of the most efficient manner to run the race – a combination of running, eating and sleeping.

Cliff Young never read the “expert’s” memo.

No one told Cliff that he had to sleep. He just ran! By denying himself sleep and running while the others slept, he won the race by landslide, breaking the previous record by two days!

Cliff’s courage to change the “rules” of what a ultra marathon runner should do, not only caused him to win the race, but also impact every Ultra Marathon since!

The Cliff Young story inspires us to move away from traditional practice and call into question our “it’s the way it has always been done” attitudes. He was courageous enough not to let conventional thinking stop him.

Here in BC there is a growing call to reform our education system. There has been a plea for urgency from various stakeholders in the system (teaching professionals, parents and students).

As we embark on this process I feel a tension. Any change to the system needs to embrace the well researched change management strategies that engage all stakeholders. Indeed, failure to manage this change properly will be disastrous (I am thinking about the Graduation Portfolio fiasco!)

However, as I commented in a recent post by Chris Kennedy (@chrkennedy), there comes a time in a change initiative that requires courageous decisions by those that can make the biggest impact on the system. At the school & district level I am witnessing (and reading) many positive changes and shifts. 

My sense is that the time is coming for the next tier to, like Cliff Young, change the rules of the game!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Great things happen when.....

Last night I attended our school’s production of The Liar.  The moment I walked into the theatre I was humbled and inspired. 

Take a look at this incredible video preview of our play - produced and edited by our students: 

From the photo displays, poster design, program, set design and production, wardrobe, video production, sound, lights, stage management, script adaptation and of the acting – I couldn’t help but think about talent, commitment and dedication of all involved.  

At the end of the show, the students and staff were appropriately recognised for this remarkable achievement.

The teacher-director of the play closed the night by reminding everyone that the production drew on the remarkable talents & efforts of our entire community – parents, students, alumni and staff. 

For me it has proved to be yet another inspiring reminder that great things happen when a community comes together!  

To everyone involved I say BRAVO!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Feel Free to Disagree

I may have found a flaw in my use of social media as a professional learning tool.

I recently asked a colleague who has signed up for Twitter why he is not a more active user. His response intrigued me:

“It seems to me that Twitter is a mutual admiration society.”
Let me declare up front that I am now in my 7th month using Twitter and the Blogosphere. The journey has been nothing short of invigorating and eye opening. I have learned more, shared more and reflected more because of my immersion in social media.

Nonetheless, my colleague’s comment has left me unsettled.

I must make the following confession:

1. There are some Twitter users that I interact with more than others.

2. I do tend to “agree” more than “disagree” with those I follow using social media.

3. I tend to following like minded professionals on Twitter

4. It feels good to receive affirming comments on my blog posts

Should this be a big surprise?

Surely not! Like in face to face interactions, we tend to associate and interact with those that we have the most in common with and with those that affirm us. Conversely, we tend to shy away from those that challenge us or are different from us. 

Does social media exacerbate this dynamic?

Wanting to test the “mutual admiration” theory about Twitter even further, I sent out a one question (very unscientific) survey using Google Forms (via Twitter) and asked the following question:

When interacting using social media (Twitter, Blogs, etc.) do you tend to agree or disagree with the author's ideas or reflections?

  • 94% of respondents indicated that they generally agree with the author (44 out of 47 respondents)

Again, given the nature of social media, the results come as no real surprise. The pitfall, however, is that social media (e.g. Twitter), as learning tool, runs the risk of becoming an exercise in Groupthink.

Groupthink is a type of thought within a deeply cohesive in-group whose members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas....

Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group. During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. (Wikipedia)

This definition resonates with me. As a learner and leader, I want my ideas and thoughts to be challenged. I do not want to fall victim to Groupthink.

An excellent example of the benefits of being “critically tested” is seen in Swissair’s “Muser” policy of “encouraging a healthy dose of disagreement in the cockpit” to ensure the highest level of safety (Hugo Muser, as cited in Kouzes & Pozner, Leadership Challenge).

It has been determined that by talking back and questioning the captain’s decisions in the cockpit provides the highest of safety levels.

As learner I want my learning space to be like a Swissair cockpit. Twitter, as a learning space, needs to be a place of respectful candour.

Therefore as I move forward with Twitter as a learning space I pledge to:

  • Follow professionals on Twitter from diverse backgrounds and experiences 
  • Read (& reply to) tweets and posts from a variety of people 
  • Use my blog to stretch my thinking and the thinking of those that read it 
  • Be respectfully candid when I “disagree” with someone 
And finally....

I give you (my fellow social media confreres) permission to disagree with me!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Little Stones of Community

As a principal I am always mindful and conscious of the notion of "school as community". I like the metaphor that compares a community to a mosaic comprised of thousands of stones, each beautiful on their own but when put together they reveal a glorious and impressive picture. 

Another powerful example of community is retold by Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Outliers, when he documents the amazing story of the small town of Roseto, Pennsylvania. The town was established, at the turn of the 20th century, by a wave of Italian immigrants.

It the 1950’s, one of the town’s doctors noticed that very few of his patients, under the age of 65 suffered from heart disease. In fact, the heart attack rate for those under 65 was half the national average and the overall death rate in Roseto was 35% lower than rest of country. In addition, crime rates and drug addiction rates were almost non-existent!
In a search for answers, researchers studied the dietary and exercise habits of the locals. To their surprise they discovered that the people paid little attention to nutrition, often eating rich and fatty foods! As for their exercise habits - they were as active as the rest of country. The researchers even looked at environmental factors (water, air quality, etc.) and discovered that this, also, was not a factor in understanding what was happening in the town.

Continuing with their search for answers, anthropologists were brought in to study how the townspeople lived out their daily lives. They walked around the town, met with the people and discovered that the secret to their longevity was rooted in the quality of the interactions and relationships they had with each other.

In their findings the researchers noted that: 

  • It was common for the townspeople to cook for each other and share meals together.
  • It was common to have three generations of the same family living in one house.
  • Everyone in the town gathered on Sunday – where they discovered the calming effect of faith in community.
  • As a general rule, people treated each other equally, regardless of wealth or status – no one was seen as superior
  • The townspeople had a deep commitment to helping each other in service.
In the end the researchers found that the people of Roseto were living longer and healthier because they had created a culture rooted in a caring and supportive community.

As a self-described caring community, I recent asked members of my school community (students, teachers, staff and parents) to reflect on the following questions:

  • Are you inclusive of others? 
  • Do you serve others? 
  • Do you come together with an open and peaceful heart? 
  • Are you treating others with respect and equality? 
Like the early founders of Roseto understood, authentic community is rooted in equality, service, goodwill and love.  When put together they reveal a beautiful and diverse mosaic.....

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Together We Joined Our Hands

Recently a group of students and teachers traveled to Guadalajara Mexico on a service learning trip and pilgrimage. 

All involved have come back transformed by their experiences.  Here is a sample of some student reflections:

Enthusiastic, exciting, worth-while, exhausting, hot, extremely diverse, spiritual, "an emotional roller-coaster", "a whole new world" and full of fun….The people of Mexico welcomed us with warm, open arms. At the end of every single day, we discovered a new message to take with us and place in our daily lives.

I found peace in the heart of service, all of my being put to use in order to serve those who so faithfully serve God. At the feet of those who welcomed us into their home, I saw from a new perspective, and through these changed eyes, I now look ahead to my future. With the light of a newly understood Christ in my heart, the smile of the dusty eyes reflected upon my face and the outlook of the humble servant in my mind, my foot seeks out the next step, and I continue along my journey.
This whole trip was a huge eye opener to me. It helped me discover a new beginning in my life.
The last experience that stood out to me the most was visiting the sick. Just being able to go into the homes of the ill to talk and pray with them was a very powerful and humbling experience. To realize how fortunate we are, and to see how much these people treasured their families and God over material possession was very humbling to me.
 As I read and reflect on their experiences I am reminded of the trans-formative power of learning experiences that extend beyond the regular classroom. 

Of all the student reflections, the following thoughts from Kim touched me the most when she writes:

Witnessing the face of faith in Mexico sprung forth both peace and compassion in all of us. In our service journey to Jesus Maria, a rural faith-filled community eight hours away from Guadalajara, we were called to visit the homes of the sick. For forty minutes, a small group of us travelled along a desolate dirt road, venturing into enclosed neighborhoods of forlorn brick shelters. We entered into the residence of one in particular that had a tarp for a roof, and a thin sheet of aluminum metal for a door. Inside, its darkly-lit walls were decorated with pictures of Jesus. There was a small bucket of water and an uncovered mattress for furniture. To the corner, there stood a petite elderly woman in her 90s with the most remarkable blue eyes framed by soft wrinkles. She lived by herself. Together, we joined our young, un-cracked hands with her tiny, tanned ones to collectively murmur in the serenity of silent prayer. It was truly the most humbling experience for the heart. The Guadalajara pilgrims of 2011 will remain forever changed, and forever inspired by the inconceivable spirit of these beautiful people. 
 By joining hands with their sick and lonely brothers and sisters in Mexico they have made the world a better place – and isn’t that a beautiful thing!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

10 Picture Tour

In response to the challenge from Cale Birk's (@birklearns) 10 Picture Tour,  I thought I'd share some photos of my school.  Enjoy!

We have a road as our main hall!.  We are located in the city of Vancouver.  Our campus has two main buildings separated by a road.  We used the road for an Olympic & school spirit project! (I couldn't resist including this picture!)
Dealing with the road and cars on a daily basis!  
A view from the street corner

Celtic Hall - Our gallery of graduates

The first graduating class from 1929-1930
We are a Catholic school.  Our school chapel.

Getting ready for PE class

Student art

Students collaborating on a Google Doc in History class today.

Our Grade 10 students on retreat today.  Group discussions.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Embedded Principal

Recently I was channel surfing and came across the television program “Undercover Boss”.  The premise is simple: the CEO of an organisation goes undercover to discover the challenges and triumphs of his or her employees with the hope that better decisions will made at the “top” of the organisation. 

While not a fan of the show (I don’t consider myself a CEO or going “undercover”), it did get me reflecting about my role as a principal.   

My situation allows me to be a teaching principal (I teach Law 12 - see the student moderated class blog here).  I do so for the following reasons:

It’s my "time out" or safe haven
I look forward to taking a “time out” from the day to day administration of running a school.  It also gets me away from the adults and with students in an authentic and exciting way.

Authentic relationships with my students
As a principal I value my relationships with all my students.  Developing authentic relationships can be more challenging outside of a teacher/learner setting.

I can walk my talk
We spend much time and energy planning, creating and implementing our School Growth Plan.  Teaching allows me tremendous insight and credibility with my colleagues when it comes to the implementation of our Growth Plan. Having a tough time with our Assessment and Grading Guide, Pyramid of Intervention, Literacy across the Curriculum or Technology Integration?  My ongoing experience in the class allows me to offer a more genuine and empathetic ear.  It also allows me to share my current struggles and successes as a teacher!

Rooted in the “why”
Teaching provides me a constant reminder as to why I decided to join the profession in the first place.   This anchors me as an instructional leader.

Keeps me relevant
Being an active practitioner in the classroom gives me another, often more pressing reason to be relevant and “up to date”.  I owe it to my students! 

Of course, I realize that every local situation is different.  I would, however, recommend that all administrators find time and a place to embed themselves as teaching professionals.

In the end it helps me be “up to my neck“in teaching and learning at my school.