Sunday, November 29, 2015

Leadership as Incubation

I believe that a learning disposition drives improvement and innovation.

A few years ago I may have said that "things" drive improvement.  You know....things like curriculum, the Internet, tablets, computers, reading programs, discipline programs.....

Now don't get me wrong, many of these "things" have brought great improvements and efficiency to the educational landscape. 

But programs are fleeting. Curriculum changes. And while technology is changing our lives and transforming the educational and learning landscape, it's effective adoption and implementation is, at its core, an iterative process. 

And while there is a place for leadership to introduce "things", real improvement, lasting transformation and innovation is about creating systems and conditions that promote continuous learning and improvement -for all learners.

I have come to realize that I am most effective when I promote the creation of systems and conditions that promote individual and collective improvement (& not necessarily programs).

This year we are embarking on a process of continuous school improvement that is less about initiating programs and more about creating the systems and conditions for the teachers to assess the needs of the students they serve and act accordingly (which can include introducing new programs, resources, etc). 

In a sense we are embarking on a process of creating a "learning incubator".

In the business world, an incubator is a place:
designed to accelerate growth and success..... through an array of (business) support resources and services that could include physical space, capital, coaching, common services, and networking connections .

We are striving to create the conditions and systems where the working professionals are given time, supports, resources and opportunities to reflect, act and network in order to provide for the further success of our students.  

Here are a few ways we are creating an incubator for learning:

A Visible and Connected Continuous School Improvement Plan

Pencil connecting the dots
Connecting the dots of learning...
Flowing from a comprehensive visioning process, we have now implemented a more formalized process whereby by faculty (and department teams) reflect and document their learning.  Learning goals and action plans are made visible by all in the school via our newly created "Dashboard" of  learning.  This Dashboard is publicly shared and posted for all in our community see in order that we make our learning visible, connected and networked.  We want people to "connect the dots" of learning.

Time for Learning
For the second year we are continuing with our school Learning Teams.  This year, we have added a learning innovation grant that teachers can access to further support their learning.  

Physical Space
We are currently in the process planning for renewed facilities for our students, faculty, and staff.  Some of the key design principles being implemented include: learning neighborhoods, learning commons, transparency and flexibility.

By creating some of these "conditions for incubation" we are already starting to see some new teacher driven initiatives.  For example:
  • Teachers are implementing online digital portfolios for students (e.g.  Freshgrade, Google Drive, etc.) 
  • New courses/programs have been created including a "Make It" class, a culinary class, technical theatre class, robotics club and the imminent launch of Google Apps for Education for students. 
  • The increasing dismantling of curricular silos and replaced by cross-curricular and cross grade connections. 
At the end of the day- this process is about creating a climate of continuous learning that empowers teachers so that they can, in turn, empower student learning. 

As usual, I am still figuring it out.........

Monday, September 21, 2015

The (Sometimes) Reluctant Principal

I have the best job in the world. Being around talented, passionate, inquisitive, creative, compassionate and fun people is inspiring.

Sometimes, however, I'd rather not be "the boss".  At times I'd rather not have the "buck" stop with me. Sometimes I'd rather not have the spotlight. Sometimes I'd rather not "skate into the puck". There are times that I'd rather not have to make difficult decisions. Many of these leadership competencies and responsibilities can be physically and emotionally draining- and sometimes take a personal toll.

There are times when I'd rather not be that person. There have been moments where I have felt like a reluctant leader.

However, these moments of reluctance are overwhelmingly overshadowed by a powerful internal force.  It's a force that comes for an internal restlessness to do what is right for those I serve.

It's a force that comes from a passion and a strong desire to do what is right for students. It is this restless passion that keeps me on this path despite my moments of reluctance. 

Some will read this and wonder...."isn't leadership about confidence and assertiveness?" Yes, I would argue that these are required leadership traits. Nonetheless my reluctance enables me to be more confident and assertive.

More than assertiveness and confidence, my reluctance fosters certain other dispositions and traits.

For example, being a reluctant leader allows me to be vulnerable. I am comfortable asking for help, admitting to my mistakes and letting people know that I don't have the answers.

My reluctance allows me to more reflective and less reflexive.

Being a reluctant leader allows for a natural inclination to include others in decisions - allowing for more collaboration and collegiality. 

My reluctance allows me to trust others. 

Being a reluctant leader forces me to be plugged in to my "why" - always reflecting on my own internal values and compass points.

My reluctance allows me to be a restless learner - always thirsting for opportunities to network, collaborate and learn from others. I'm always trying to figure things out - always wondering if there is a better way....

My moments of reluctance allow me to be humble and rooted in the those that I serve.

I feel blessed to have moments of reluctance because ultimately they make me a better person and a better leader. 

All of this ultimately leads to a fundamental question: What motivates you to lead?  The answer will ultimately define you as a leader. 

As usual, I am still figuring things out and would welcome any feedback...

Friday, July 10, 2015

From Future Possibilties to Priorities: Inspiring a Vision for Learning

This past school year marks the first for me as principal at my school.  One of the exciting opportunities that stand before us as a community is the renewal a large portion of our campus with newer, safer and more modern facilities.  

With the exciting prospect of building newer walls and spaces, comes a much more profoundly important prospect of examining and renewing the teaching and learning culture at the school.  

Typically, the idea of building walls gets people's attention.  Given that we have peoples', attention, this year we decided to ask one basic and fundamental question:  "What should teaching and learning look like at the school in its next century?"

We spent the the first five months of the year engaging faculty, staff, parents and students in answering this important question.

The process involved surveying and holding small and large group meetings with all stakeholders. Of particular interest was the process for engaging the faculty of the school in asking them important questions about teaching (pedagogy) and learning.  

The questions were clustered in three broad categories: Delivery, Curriculum & Assessment, and Facilities.  Teachers were asked to reflect on their practice and rate where they see themselves currently and where they might want to be in the future.  For each pedagogical practice, teachers were give a 5 point scale from "traditional to transformed".

For example, in the category of "Delivery" there was a question regarding "delivery modes". Teachers were given descriptors from 1 (traditional) to 5 (transformed) for this question.  At the more traditional end of the scale, delivery was described as predominantly teacher direct instruction with little student participation while at the transformed end of the scale you saw more project based, discussion based instruction with direct instruction only when needed (see below for a the sample questions and criteria.

The results were then collected and plotted on a spider graph. The intent was to see where staff saw there practice today and where they saw their practice in the future. The graphics below are a sample of a summary of results from a few different department groupings.  You will notice that red line indicates where faculty see their practice today and the blue line indicates their future goal.

The results of this process have proven to be extremely informative. On the whole most faculty members want to move their practice to a more "transformed" place (in a thoughtful and student centred manner).

As principal, the burning question for me is: how do we help staff bridge the gap between where they are now and where they want to go?

Over the next 12 months we will embark on a process of continuous school improvement. The intent is create a system where faculty and staff can come together in a strategic way to support each other in their desired future goals.  

An important take away in this continuous improvement plan is NOT to create goals for teachers.  Instead, we will create school wide priorities based on the feedback we received. 

Our priorities will be evidence based, inspiring, future orientated, challenging and inspiring action statements that will give direction to the entire school.  From these priorities, departments, sections and teachers will be asked to create goals that make sense for them in their practice and context.  

This process is not about micromanaging action.  

It is about taking the collective future possibilities and transforming them into strategic priorities.  

It is about inspiring and cultivating action that will best serve the learning needs of our students. 

It should be noted that to support teachers and their goals, we will continue with our Learning Teams initiative (I suspect these teams will become even more focussed and purposeful!).

This process has underscored a few important points for me, namely: 

  • It is a constant truth that teachers care deeply about their students and their learning needs.  
  • If you create a space that allows teachers to reflect and exercise their intelligence, they will, in the main, use it thoughtfully and effectively
  • When it comes to inspiring change, process is as important as product.

Still figuring it out.....

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When the "Media" takes a Back Seat to the "Social"

Regular readers of this blog will know that I decided to "all in" with social media about six years ago. I joined Twitter, started a blog and a variety of other social media platforms.

To this day, I tell everyone whose interested, that the decision to "connect" through social media has been the one of the best decisions of my professional career. My connections have put me in touch with some of the smartest, kindest and interesting people on the planet. 

Recently, however, my use of social media has dropped off significantly. While I'm not necessarily proud of this, I think it has become a necessary reality.

When I joined social media nearly six years ago, I was firmly embedded in relationships within my school community. This year, as I transplant myself into a new school community,  the "media" has taken a back seat to the "social".

My new beginning has come with an important opportunity to establish community, trust and leadership through relationships. 
But here's the thing about establishing new relationships - in the process one can easily take for granted the relationships that are already established. In this regard I am guilty as charged. 

There is no question that in my zeal to establish new relationships in community, I have let my established relationships (with those nearest and dearest and those on social media) take a back seat. 

I realize that some would argue that I am perpetuating the Digital Dualism argument (or even fallacy)  

The fact remains, I have been less connected in social media spaces because I have been more connected in "non-media" social spaces. 

In a sense, I think this a necessary reality when joining a new school community.

Truth be told, like anything in life, I probably need to strike a better balance.  

Nonetheless, I am still figuring out...

Friday, January 2, 2015

New School: A Principal's Mid-Year/New Year Reflection.

It's been just over 4 months since I've started as principal at Vancouver College.

In short, I've been finding my way. Some days have felt more comfortable than others. I have had purposeful moments with feelings of having taken "two steps forward". I have also had feelings of frustration - feeling as if I've taken no steps forward.

Some days I've felt that I'm "figuring it out" and other days, not so much.

But here's the thing- I love what I'm doing. And I'm grateful for the wonderful people that surround me.  I feel that I have the best job in the world!

So as I enter the second half of the school year, here's a little reflection and update on how things are going:

Relationship Building & Earning Trust
Like I've said before, relationships are at the heart of leadership and teaching. I would say that my first four months have been intensely focused on relationship building. Either directly or indirectly, whether in a meeting, in my office, at a retreat, at a game, in the hallways; talking with a parent, a student, a teacher or colleague - it's been about building relationships.
Ultimately this continues to be a process gaining trust. After all, trust is the currency of leadership.

I'm also keenly aware that, while the process of "relationship building" has been personally uplifting and incredibly supportive, it can also be taxing and impact those with whom I already have relationships. While not unique to me, I continue to be mindful of the professional/personal time commitment balancing act in my life.

Humbled by the gratitude, enthusiasm and work ethic
Being intensely focused on relationships has allowed me to see great professionals do great things in service of students. School life is a buzz with learning activities both inside and outside the classroom. I have felt myself humbled by the level of dedication that the faculty and staff have exhibited. I have been equally humbled by the level of gratitude students and parents express in response to this service.

The students at the school are a constant source of inspiration. Whether I'm in the Kindergarten class watching the boys play and learn (I have to admit, when I'm having a bad day, a short visit to K is the perfect remedy) or simply chatting with a senior student about their studies or their future plans - it is extremely inspiring to be around this group of students.

As an example, check out this student organized event where 1200 staff and students came together to support men's health by wearing fake mustaches

And the short, their support of students, staff and the school is equally inspiring and humbling.

A few new things
1. We've allocated contracted time for staff collaboration and created a rotation of staff meetings, department meetings, and learning team meetings. In an effort establish a collaborative and sharing culture, our staff meetings begin with a different learning team sharing an exciting practice or discovery. We have already heard from teachers share discoveries around "play based learning", fostering a growth mindset for students and formative assessments across the curriculum.

Not surprisingly, this new collaborative structure has not been perfect and we have had to make some early adjustments in response to some feedback from teachers. With time, I suspect we will continue to make more adjustments.

2. We are continuing to see more technology integration throughout the school. Early in the school year we asked teachers what types of technology they need to further empower student learning.  In response to their input, we will be increasing WiFi accessibility to students and will be seeing more students bring their own devices to school.

We have also ordered a few class sets Chromebooks and Android tablets for use throughout the middle and senior school. We are also seeing more requests personalized mobile technology - whether through various cloud based tools or hardware (e.g. more Google Apps, personalized fitness monitoring devices)

Of note, I am not a fan of a scripted "technology policy or strategy" per say. While there is a need to be strategic and forward thinking, when it comes to technology decisions, those decisions need to be derived from an appetite for technology from students and teachers.

As a school leader, I need to create the conditions for this appetite. For a variety of reasons, the appetite for technology is increasing and as a school we need to respond.

3. Advisory Groups. This is the first year of our cross grade advisory groups (Gr. 10-12). I am seeing great potential for these groups moving forward.

4. We have also started a gentle review of the schools education program. Our first step has been to ask teachers what they are passionate about and how that might leverage into new courses/assignments  they may want to teach or develop at the school. Some of the early feedback is exciting!

Exciting Near Future

Mapping our Pedagogy
We will be embarking on a process of campus renewal here at Vancouver College. However, rather than just building "more of the same", within the coming months we will be developing a "vision for learning" to help shape the design of the school. One of our first steps is to develop a "pedagogical map" of where our teachers see themselves now and where they want to go into the future in terms of their pedagogy. The "map" will chart teacher attitudes regarding all aspects of pedagogy - curriculum, assessment, and instruction- from "traditional to transformed". This will provide critical information for our design team and for our admin team as we support our teachers professional learning needs into the future. (There will be more news to come on this)

Continuous Improvement
We will also be developing/adopting some sort of continuous school improvement framework. I have been thinking a lot about this lately. I'm a firm believer that if everything is a priority than nothing is a priority.

Here's the thing- I've seen lots of nicely packaged (principal created) school growth plans that virtually no one in the school knows about (other than the admin team).

The challenge will be to empower and engage all the teachers in the process, to make the process relevant to their day to day teaching and learning needs, embed our values and to make it visible to parents and students. Interestingly enough, I've been looking into some cloud based tools to assist with this process. Again, more news to come.

Teaching Lab
As we enter the hiring season we are thinking about implementing a "teaching lab" element to our hiring process. I've always wondered why we don't ask teachers to teach a lesson as part of their interview process. This year we are thinking of giving this a shot. I'm sure we will learn a lot about this process moving forward.

The first 140 days have been exhilarating, exciting and humbling. The next 140 should be equally so, as I continue to figure it out.....