Welcome To the 2012-2013 School Year!

Dear Colleagues,

I am pleased to take this opportunity to welcome you to the 2012-2013 school year.

 We have much to celebrate in our School District.  Almost 1200 employees, each with a role that provides invaluable support for our learners, bring extensive skills, knowledge, capacity, and work tirelessly each day in the service of our learners.  Together, we help each student become their best, and prepare them for life, work and further learning.  This is a privileged position in which to be; our community has entrusted us in this important work.

 The Board of Education has established a series of four Student Expectations as a framework for our work with Students:  Academic Success, Imagination and Creativity, Citizenship, Resiliency.  These domains are not new to us.  However, by framing these expectations in Policy, the Board has said these are important and has provided clarity for the direction of our District.  We are now seeing alignment.   We have made tremendous strides in the past two years to create a razor-sharp through-line from vision to practice – with a focus on the instructional core.

 Our students are exposed to an array of learning opportunities that transcend previous images many people have of schools and schooling.  Together, we need to continue in our  tenacious efforts to ensure that our students are engaged in authentic, relevant, challenging learning opportunities.  We need to continue to help them make choices about their learning – and provide avenues for them to pursue those choices.  Our students need to continue to stretch their imaginations and approach challenges creatively.  And, they need to be astute Digital Citizens, who participate seamlessly in a global community.

 Celebrating What is Right in our District is an important focus for this year.  Our efforts throughout the District are numerous, and often unheralded.  Some initiatives to help us share our great stories about learning include our Celebration of Learning publications (accessible in paper and digital format), our newly developed Virtual Learning Commons, and an updated Website (soon to be opened).  As well, we continue to send our good news stories to local media throughout our District.  School newsletters provide a glimpse into many of the learning opportunities which engage students.  And, student representation of their learning.   We want our community to see the outstanding work of our students, and the exceptional efforts of our employees.

 I invite you to share your good news stories with me – so that we can include them in our efforts to focus our conversation on the Celebration of What is Right in our District.  Please send your stories about professional breakthroughs, innovative learning opportunities for students, and successful practices that are helping to educate our students well.  An email address has been set up for this purpose:  newstoshare@sd8.bc.ca

 Thank you to all of you for your efforts on behalf of our students.  It is a privilege to be employed in this District, and to work with such a high caliber of outstanding employees in all roles.  I hope you each enjoy a terrific school year and that you experience a high degree of satisfaction in your work.

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Here Kitty Kitty?

Lured into Rescue

During my niece’s move to the area this summer, her cat found a way out of the new house and went missing for a few days.  Like many people would, I worried both about the cat – and my niece.  I had never met Macleod, the cat, and so I had not been lured by its charm.  However, I felt that I should do my share of looking and contribute to the rescue effort.

As I said, I had never met the cat, and so I did not know what it looked like.  “Black with some white on it” was the description with which this detective had to work.  So, off I went in search of Macleod.  I found a lovely little cat who matched the description as I understood it; black with some white on it.  It seemed rather frightened and timid, and looked to me like it may not have eaten for a day or two.  The cat I found was friendly enough – it stood quietly looking at me, its tail swaying ever so slightly.  I made all of the appropriate ‘cat come here’ noises and actions – and sure enough the frightened little creature made his way toward me.  I patted it and it seemed to like that, so I picked it up – ever so gingerly.  We seemed to bond.  This was going to be a nice friendship – or so I thought.

We began walking back to my niece’s new home when suddenly the cat became agitated.  Of course, I couldn’t let the poor, frightened, timid little cat get away.  If this was my niece’s cat – it needed to get home!  Well, it began to push against me, and unleashed a fierce growl.  Its strong arms gave tremendous leverage to its very sharp claws as it tore gashes into my arms and hands.  With the precision of a seamstress it tore a slice through my shirt.  It was a battle to behold!  

With blood gushing from me (I had obviously lost the physical battle with the cat), I heroically held the wriggling cat up to my niece’s mother who said, “Nope.  That’s not Macleod.”

I am telling this story to illustrate that sometimes we all attempt to rescue something that isn’t the right thing to rescue.  Our efforts are driven by incomplete information, incorrect information, and the questions we don’t ask.  Quite often emotion lures us into a rescue effort which, in retrospect, doesn’t make sense.  For many, the desire to delay change and progress invites us into a tangled web of rhetoric, misunderstandings and assumptions that aren’t necessarily based in fact.  Hanging on to the wrong thing can cause harm.  I also understand that letting go of the right thing can be detrimental too.  Deciding which is which is critical.

Macleod returned home on her own accord a day or so later; true to her personality she called the shots.  I wasn’t prepared to enjoy her – but on first meeting she made her way directly to me and settled in my lap.  Macleod, as it turns out is dark chocolate brown, with a teeny tiny patch of white on her neck.  The right cat felt right!

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No Student is Worth Less

I have decided to focus this entry on the topic of “Placement Prestige.”  If you haven’t heard of the term – don’t worry.  I think I made it up.  It refers to a disturbing cultural habit I have observed, that infers  there are some schools that are more prestigious; that some staffing appointments are more important than others because of the location – or even grade level –  of those appointments.

I would assert that in education,  staffing appointments and career trajectories that align with a concerted effort to organize and deploy talent, skill and background to meet the identified needs of students and school communities are the exception, rather than the rule. 

Administrators, support staff and teachers often aspire to work in schools that may be considered by the larger community as more prestigious – for a number of reasons.  The unintended consequence, of course, is that many schools become known as “starter” schools – places for those “in transit” to their other career aspirations – or, sadly,  as schools that are less desireable.

The notion of a career trajectory that includes promotion and validation of experience and excellence isn’t lost on me.  I understand that there is a balance of being employed in the service of our students, and the desire and hope to build a career.  My concern is that in the field of education we are using the wrong indicators and factors to determine promotion.  The focus on students becomes blurred.

 As an example, the size of a school is often considered by the larger community as a determinant of “promotion.”  When an administrative vacancy is created at a smaller school, it is very rare that experienced administrators from larger school communities would express interest in the opportunity.  A typical career trajectory would be to assume responsibilities at larger and larger schools.  When an administrator moves to a smaller school, it is often seen by the larger community as a demotion – rather than an acknowledgement of the significant skill and background an experienced administrator could take to a school community.  Congratulatory messages would be very rare in many Districts for administrators who move from a larger school – to a smaller one.  Unfortunately, in most districts, the community would wonder what that person had done wrong.  How shortsighted and discriminatory!

Some smaller school communities, then, never benefit from the opportunity of leadership by an individual with experience.  I am NOT saying that inexperienced administrators are ineffective.  I AM saying that some school communities would benefit at different times in their history from the confidence, skill and background of an experienced administrator with a specific skill set that aligns with the identified needs of the school and its students.  Placement Prestige, at least among administrators, is further propagated by ineffective pay grids that reward administrators financially for working in larger schools, rather than for successfully working with particular identified challenges and opportunities that have been identified for that school.  This, too, needs to change.

There is an underlying message – intentional or not – that some students are worth less to us; that they are not worth aspiring to support throughout our careers because they go to that school or because they attend a smaller school.

It is time we turned this notion around in education.  We need to be more conscientious in our staffing processes to ensure that we understand the needs of a school community – and the background, skills, knowledge and capacity of our staff members.  Our staff are hired as employees of a DISTRICT – not of a school.  With a great deal of thought and planning we can bring intentionality to our staffing processes by aligning the expertise of our staff members with the identified needs of our students and school communities.  Nobody is great at everything.  However we are all great at something.  We need to acknowledge the shifting needs of students in our schools, and align our human resources purposefully to meet those needs.  No Student is Worth Less.

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To Our Graduates

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Congratulations to all of our graduates!  As you celebrate the completion of your high school education, you join a unique and very fortunate minority; according to some sources only about 6% of the world population receive a high school diploma.  Your accomplishment is significant and we are very, very proud of you!

You have grown up so well.  In every conversation I have had with your generation I am consistently impressed with your knowledge, the perspective you have, and the hopes and dreams you have.  You are incredibly talented.  When you share your accomplishments with me, I am in awe at how wonderfully brilliant you are – every one of your, without exception – each in your own unique and special way.  I truly believe the world is a better place because each and every one of you is here.

To me, being an educated person is important because it is through education that you discover the freedom of choice.  We hope that your education has equipped you with the skills and knowledge you need to make good choices in life, work and further learning.

I know you each have dreams and life opportunities to which you aspire.  I encourage you to reach high, follow your dreams and enjoy the journey.  This doesn’t mean that your dreams can’t change; they can and many will.  Comedian Stephen Colbert said, “Thankfully dreams can change.  If we had all stuck with our first dreams the world would be overrun by cowboys and princesses.  So whatever your dream is right now, if you don’t achieve it you haven’t failed.”

Although today is an important celebration, it marks neither a beginning nor an ending.  Often people have to say they need to finish school and experience the real world.  I have news fro you, you have been living in the real world from the moment you were born.  This is it!  You’re already doing it!

The significance of this celebration is that you have proven yourselves.

As hard as you have worked in order to be at this juncture in your life, you need to know that your education has also been a gift to you.  It has been a gift from your parents, family members, our talented staff, and our community.  Many people have sacrificed and struggled and celebrated with you through the years.  I hope that you take opportunity to say thank you to them.  They have shared your laughter, your tears, your victories, your struggles and your successes.

What you do with this gift no is entirely up to you.  However I promise you, if you let it, your education will open doors to a future we cannot even yet imagine.

Today you have high hopes for a wonderful future.  I share these feelings.  I hope that your lives are filled with wonderful people, amazing experiences, lifelong learning – and all that you need in order to be happy, healthy, fulfilled adults.

“I hope that your dreams take you to the corner of your smiles, to the highest of your hopes, to the windows of your opportunities, and to the most special places your heart has ever known.”  (author unknown)

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In Celebration of our Youth

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The young do not know enough to be prudent,

and therefore they attempt the impossible —

and achieve it, generation after generation

(Pearl S. Buck)

Last week I observed student scholarship application presentations. This also allowed me the opportunity to visit with several students. Clearly I was in the presence of genius – young people who had found their passions and explored their talents – who had tasted the sweet fruit of instructive failure, and who had experienced successes that lifted them over thresholds to their futures.

I am very curious about what directions these young people will ultimately go in their lives. They are bright, talented, capable – and far more engaged with the world than I recall seeing in past generations. While school – the place – has played an important part in their lives – their learning and accomplishments seem to have occurred just as much (or more) out of the school environment as in. Quickly disappearing are the days when students enter school and travel a linear trajectory toward completion. Their learning occurs with mentors in the community, experts in their areas of passion, and other opportunities they actively seek such as Youtube and other online resources. For most of them, their trajectory isn’t happenstance; it is designed around their passions. They seem to know themselves well – and they care about who they are and the people around them. My observation is that our students will live their lives in very different ways than we have seen from previous generations.

As an example, one of the students who presented last week is a classical guitarist. He plans to pursue his music interests, and also a passion for law. He writes and produces his own music. He even has an album for sale on iTunes – an example of the entrepreneurial spirit of this generation. Another student spoke about the course she has set that will allow her to pursue multiple interests through university and beyond. She wasn’t willing to entertain the idea of a singular, linear pathway – recognizing that she wants to keep as many possibilities open as possible in a changing world. They seemed to know that the lives they would lead hadn’t yet been imagined.

I appreciated that each of these students recognized things may not go as they have planned. They demonstrated resilience, and the ability to “go to plan b.” They seemed willing and able to understand that they would change as the world changed – and more importantly that they would be the motivators of change.

I could continue. However – I need to get to my point – which is: With every generation we are observing a glimpse into our future. In celebration of our youth; the best is yet to come!

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International Day Against Homophobia

Harvey Milk – an American politician and gay rights activists once said, “all young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.”

Homophobia is all the negative attitudes that can lead to rejection and to direct or indirect discrimination towards gays, lesbians, and bisexual, transsexual or transgender people or toward anyone whose physical appearance or behaviour does not fit masculine or feminine stereotypes.

It saddens me on some level that a day like this even needs to be identified; that there are places in our community and our culture where anybody feels unsafe or unwelcome because of our orientation or identity – or for any reason.  We can do better than this – and we should. 

I believe that our humanity is at risk when we have lost our ability to care, when we can no longer nurture, love, accept and tolerate.  I don’t think it is asking too much for our schools, our workplaces and our homes to be places where we can all feel safe from the damaging and debilitating effects of harmful, negative language and behaviours that marginalize any of us.

There is presently a campaign called, “It Gets Better.”  Created by Dan Savage, the intent of the movement is to give hope to LGBT youth who are experiencing harrassment.  Although I could honestly look into the eyes of these young people and tell them I know from my own experience that it does get better – my heart tells me they shouldn’t be deprived of that “better” now.  Nobody has the right to damage the soul, and break the spirit of a human being.

And so – I hope we can all make a commitment right now – to make it get better NOW – make our schools and offices safe, supportive environments in which we can all achieve our full potential – no matter who we are – NOW.  Maybe we can create our own video series with the message “It’s Great – NOW”

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Toward a Preferred Future

Excerpts from a letter I wrote today:

There is no doubt that throughout the Province a demoralizing cloud of despair has settled upon Public Education.  I suspect that many people will look back on this experience with sincere regret; our legacy will be the fallout of an acrimonious debate that has done nothing to improve education – but that has contributed to severe and long lasting negative impact.  Rather than creating a space of enlightened, collaborative opportunity to work together for a preferred future, a space of heat that distracts from the heart of the matter has been established.

 I am an educator who since 1987 has taught hundreds of children, worked tirelessly in various school environments and who has sought to improve learning conditions by means of various administrative appointments I have held since 1998.  My path shares more similarities than differences with teachers and administrators throughout the province.  It is from this place of common interests and shared vision that I wish to move forward.

A question I am asked frequently is how I feel regarding Bill 22.  In my opinion the legislation opens more windows of opportunity for the future of public education than it closes.  Admittedly I harbor significant distaste for any legislated conclusion to a bargaining process and I have spoken publicly about that.  The inclusion of the Learning Improvement Fund to attend to the needs of “unidentified” or “grey area” students, and the requirement for whole school collaboration regarding organization for learning are important steps forward – valuing the voice, expertise and contributions of our Teachers.  These two aspects of the legislation move us away from a silo model of decision making and school organizational structures designed around students’ “codes” rather than students’ actual needs.  

I disagree with any legislation that directs class size.  In my opinion class size should  be neither legislated nor bargained; class size decisions should be data driven and made at each school.  We know, for example, that some classes can be bigger depending on the instructional style or content requirements, or needs of the students.  On the other hand, we know some classes should be smaller – depending on the same factors.  With regard to hiring practices, our District’s Collective Agreement already contemplates a process that honors suitability for a position, along with seniority, so I can support this part of the legislation.  Supervision and evaluation are a normal requirement for any profession – and, when approached from a perspective of growth and support – are a very helpful means of moving an organization forward. 

Collective Bargaining will continue, and hopefully at the end of it we will see a contract that will advance us forward.  You can already see that there will likely be parts of it with which I disagree – but I will work with it – hopefully in a space of enlightened, collaborative opportunity to work together for a preferred future – as I mentioned before.

I hesitate to express myself in writing in these tenuous times, because there is a chance that my words could be twisted and used to propagate an “us versus them” trajectory in the District.  In spite of my best efforts, this has happened before.  However,  I trust that my words will not be twisted into some sordid tale that I disrespect our Teachers or that I do not support our Teachers even though some of our colleagues are quite intent on chiseling deep crevices between Administration and our Teachers.  To me, this practice is distasteful and simply makes it more difficult to move forward together.

Although I disrespect some of the means that are being employed, I do value the right of every human being to express themselves and to protest where they feel they need to.  In the end, I hope that you will join me in a more productive conversation about how our District can work together – moving forward.

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Through The Looking Glass – Contemplating Transparency

Lately I have been spending quite a bit of my thinking time contemplating public engagement in the important work of educating our children and youth.  I have spent time trying to better understand how to bring people to a common starting place – and to seek a collective wisdom.

It seems to me that many processes and incredible opportunities for our students are compromised because we haven’t taken the time to build complete understanding, and to recognize the incremental steps that are required in change processes.

I have also contemplated how important community initiatives are set back because people aren’t understanding what we are trying to accomplish.   Processes and decisions are stalled; a black shadow of distrust lingers over incredible opportunities – and people express themselves by saying there was a “lack of transparency” in the process, the data and, ultimately, the outcome.   I recently googled “Lack of Transparency.”  There were 66,400,000 results.  So, what’s up with that?  Is the world really that closed?

In my opinion, there has been a misinterpretation and gross misunderstanding of the word Transparency and everything that it involves.  It seems that people are quite content to align the responsibility of being transparent with one party, avoid their own mutual accountabilities, and then play “monday morning quarterback” once a decision has been made.  It is a lot easier to make a decision about the play, once the game is done.  

Transparency isn’t the provision of a clear pane of glass through which we look into a problem or challenge.  It is more than that.  Transparency describes a relationship, and not a state of being.  All parties involved in any process, problem or challenge must accept responsibility and undersand the mutuality of the process.  Transparency, then, is a reciprocal relationship through which both parties have an accountability to establish understanding.

So – we need to look inward when we make a claim that there has been a lack of transparency.  We need to be committed to seeking and realize that information must be provided in an understandable way – AND we need to seek to learn how to understand the information that is provided.

 

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Who Gets To Write the Blog?

I am experiencing writer’s block.  So, I thought I would try an experiment with my blog this time around.  I heard that someone else did this with a degree of success so I am curious about what might happen.

I am looking to hear from you.  Hopefully lots of people will respond.

In the “leave a reply” box below, describe a learning activity or environment you have recently seen that has inspired you and the students to participate beyond anything you could have imagined.

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The Evidence of Passion

Some may argue that I should have saved this entry for a date closer to Valentine’s Day.  However, it is not my intention to write about the passion that describes romance or desire in a relationship.  Rather, I want to spend some time reflecting on passion and motivation.

For some time now I have been contemplating the notion of motivation – especially in the context of teaching and learning.  I was reminded of my quest yesterday when I visited an administrative team at one of our schools.

Our meeting went something like this.  Upon arrival at the school, I was greeted by cheerful, welcoming front office staff who appeared genuinely pleased to see me.  Then, the principal and vice principal emerged from the meeting they were in, welcomed me to the school – both of them quick to point out their “bright and attention-getting ties” (which were impossible to miss).  With a gust of energy I was ushered quickly into the library where the vice principal set up the Smart Board.  I thought the demonstration was for me to see.  In fact, this wasn’t the case.  Apparently the Smart Board presentation was part of their previous meeting.  Almost impervious to the fact that I was present, these two keen administrators engaged in a conversation about how the vice principal would be using the Smart Board to connect with his face-to-face students at the same time as connecting via video conference with students enrolled in his class but who live and attend school elsewhere in our District.  They spoke excitedly about this project which will join students from two schools together in a Math class for a semester.  Suddenly the conversation turned and they began brainstorming about how they might engage other staff members in the project and encourage, by example, the use of the technology.  As suddenly as the conversation started – it ended.  Both administrators looked at me and said that we could now move to the principal’s office to begin our meeting.

Once we were settled in the Principal’s office the next 1.5 hours of my visit flew by as this dynamic duo shared with me the initiatives that had been undertaken at their school:

  • A focus on relationships,
  • Flexible scheduling based on identified student need and interest,
  • Recognition of the skills, talents and backgrounds of a diverse staff – and capitalizing on this diversity to address student needs,
  • Involvement of the community to support student learning,
  • Flexibility for students between indpendent learning opportunities, and classroom based learning opportunities,
  • And the list goes on…

All the while – the mantra “we start with the students” resonated throughout the conversation.

So, back to the beginning.  What are the factors that have motivated this team of leaders?  How was their passion for student success, staff success and individual success for each of them awakened?

It reminded me of an Andrea Bocelli concert I watched over the Christmas Holiday.  This may seem like a stretch to some.  But it isnt, really.  Mr. Bocelli has worked for years to develop and master his talent.  Something touches his soul when he sings and, in turn, when he sings the souls of his audience are touched.  His passion for music is evident – with no glitz or distracting business on the stage, he simply stands humbly and sings the most beautiful music.

The passion of the two administrators I observed yesterday touches souls and changes lives. This passion is motivated from somewhere deep within their persons.  Nobody has given them more money.  They aren’t seeking the attention of others.  They are curious, keen and connected to the people in their work.  Humbly, they perform their craft – because they are passionate and motivated.

My question still isn’t answered.  My quest continues…

 

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