Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The "Cost" of Reflection

          "Reflection is a fundamental tenet of learning, and therefore a fundamental part of teaching." (Terry Heick, "Reflecting on Reflection: A Habit of Mind" http://www.edutopia.org/blog/reflecting-on-reflection-habit-of-mind-terry-heick).
          Recently I've had an opportunity to share some of my most formative experiences as a teacher leader. As part of this process, I've taken the time to read back through several of my previous posts, as my blog is an invaluable component of my reflective practice, functioning both as a digital artifact of my professional growth and development, as well as an active and living document. As I noted in a previous post, I quite often actively "write my way into understanding". So while my blog is an opportunity for me to collaborate and share some of my formative experiences with others, perhaps more importantly, it also allows me to make sense of those same experiences. In this way, my blog functions as both a private and a public platform. 
          And so if reflection is such an essential or fundamental element of professional learning and growth, shouldn't we be providing educators with the time to reflect, in the same way that many schools now provide time for educators to collaborate? In the midst of increasingly demanding schedules, filled with seemingly endless and varied tasks, is it realistic to ask that educators now somehow also find the time to incorporate daily reflection into their busy days?
          As department leader of Learning Partners, a program that facilitates and supports peer-mentoring, collaboration and teacher inquiry, I've been privileged to experience first hand the numerous benefits of providing teachers with that most valuable of commodities, time. I am also mindful that the existence of programs such as Learning Partners relies heavily on the support of both school and district leaders. And let's be honest, financial support. The reality is that providing teachers with the time that is so essential for collaboration and reflection is a significant financial investment. Release time is expensive, and justifying that expense can be a challenge. I would argue that the difficulty lies in the intangible nature of "reflection". What does "reflection" look like? How long does it take? Where can it happen? And should there always be the expectation that there will be a concrete or tangible product as a result of that reflection? 
          Ultimately, when many district are challenged with budget cuts and stretched resources, is it realistic to ask our school leaders to invest in providing educators with the time to reflect? But in the same way, with teachers struggling to keep pace with innovative instructional and assessment practices to effectively support student learning and achievement, can we really "afford" not to?

         

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Writing My Way Into Understanding

         Relationships. Connections. Trust. Resilience. Risk. 
          As I reflect back on my recent posts, these seem to be the reoccurring themes. It strikes me that in many ways I have been trying to write my way into understanding. I have been striving to make the intangible, tangible. And so what I have I discovered? That the most essential, impactful elements of a thriving school community are also those elements that in many instances are the most difficult to articulate. And so I thought I would share an experience that is "evidence" of what I believe is the most essential of these intangible elements. 

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          Several years ago "Discovery Time" was implemented at Sullivan Heights. The primary goal was to provide the essential time that is needed for teachers to establish and build trusting, impactful relationships with students. The original intent was that teachers would retain the same group of students over the course of several years. Once a week teachers would meet with students for 20 minutes. As part of this initiative, there was a conscious effort to keep this time free from the administrative tasks that are commonly associated with a more traditional homeroom model. Teachers were also given the autonomy to determine how they wanted to structure their time with their group of students. 
          I was fortunate enough to be paired with a group of grade 8 students. I love grade 8s. I was able to explore a wide range of topics with this amazingly energetic and diverse group of students. Some weeks consisted of more structured mini lessons, while other weeks we simply sat and talked, typically as we munched on a selection of Timbits. I watched these students grow and transform over the course of the school year, with all of the various growing pains that are commonly associated with the first year of high school. I kept track of their marks, their report card comments, took note of changing hair and fashion styles and relationship status'. We had our share of laughs, of conflicts and even the occasional tears. My once timid and uncertain "little" grade 8s evolved into more confident, even slightly cocky grade 9s. 
          The following year, however, as a result of various unforeseen circumstances, our school transitioned back into a more traditional homeroom model. While I retained the same group of students, I saw them less frequently, perhaps a total of five or six times throughout the school year, to hand out report cards and letters home. However, the relationships that we formed as a result of our weekly sessions during the previous year continued to thrive. My "Discovery kids" would often drop by to visit, and I continued to check in on "my kids" periodically throughout the year. I would stop and chat with them in the hallways, comment on a new hair cut or a growth spurt, and kept up the supply of Timbits. 
          This year, due to the demands of an increasingly challenging time table, I wasn't able to retain the same group of students. My homeroom is now my period 3 class. As such, it became more of a challenge to maintain the relationships with my now grade 10, "Discovery kids". In a school of over 1400 students the likelihood of running into any of my original students is significantly decreased. It made me a little sad. I was concerned that the foundational relationships that I had established with these students would weaken and dissipate. And yet...   
          ...Last week as I was walking through the office, I noticed one of "my kids" sitting in the conference room. At my school, that is the universal symbol for "I've gotten myself into a spot of trouble". And so as I often do in similar circumstances, I took the opportunity to wander in to have a little chat. It was pretty obvious that he was embarrassed that I had come across him in the midst of what was clearly a disciplinary issue. And it was also obvious to me that he was desperate to talk. After a minute or so of general chit chat, I asked him, "Are you feeling like you want to share with me why you're here?" His response was "Yes." and he proceeded to do so. In great detail. And not without an element of shame. He knew that what he had done was wrong, and he was worried that I would be disappointed in him. But to be honest, in that moment, I couldn't really care less what series of events had brought him to that point in time. Well, of course I cared, but what mattered more to me was that this boy, this young man, who I hadn't seen more than a handful of times in the past year and a half, still trusted me. He still saw me as someone who cared and who would listen. 
He was still "my kid". 




Monday, 27 October 2014

It's the Little Things...

          This past Friday I attended the "Connecting Leaders Symposium on Mental Health" which was jointly sponsored by the BC School Centred Mental Health Coalition (BCSCMHC) http://www.schoolmentalhealth.ca and the BC Principals and Vice-Principals Association (BCPVPA). The opening keynote by Dr. Connie Coniglio provided some eye opening statistics about the prevalence of mental health disorders amongst children and youth. As well, Bill Naughton, the Associate Deputy Representative for Children and Youth, outlined the enormously vulnerable status of children in care, and specifically some of our aboriginal youth. What became increasingly apparent as the day progressed, is the integral role that school communities play in supporting children and families who are coping with mental health issues.
          Regardless of the individual session or speaker, the essential message remained the same:
The more connected a child feels to their school, the better they do. 
In addition to larger scale provincial and district initiatives and programs, it became clear that in many cases it's the "little things" that can also make a significant difference in the life of a child. As essential as these larger initiatives are, it's the individual, personal relationships and connections that are formed with teachers, administrators, coaches, counsellors, janitorial and support staff that provide our most vulnerable students with the guidance, stability and support needed to overcome some of the obstacles that can be associated with mental illness. The culmination of numerous positive interactions with a caring adult can sometimes be far more impactful than a more formal program or workshop. As well, symposium presenters emphasized the need to foster resiliency and mental health in youth by taking an "asset based" approach that focuses on inner strengths rather than on apparent deficiencies.
          So while we have a responsibility to provide focussed, targeted programs to support children and youth who are struggling with mental health issues, educators can also provide invaluable support by consciously nurturing the numerous impactful relationships that are so essential in a vibrant and welcoming school community.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Exceeding Our Capacity

          I love the complexity of the English language, that a single word can have numerous connotations and nuances. "Capacity" is one such word. The dictionary provides several definitions for capacity, including:
  1. The maximum amount that something can contain.
  2. The amount that something can produce. 
  3. The innate potential for growth, development, or accomplishment.  
          With an ever expanding student population, it can certainly be argued that Sullivan Heights Secondary has reached its capacity. As a 'bricks and mortar' institution, there is quite literally no more room. Ever classroom, every common area, every portable and prep area is filled to the brim. Filled to capacity. And beyond. So that's definition #1 taken care of. 
          But here's the remarkable part. As we have reached the limits of the physical capacity of our building, the capacity of our staff has expanded exponentially. In the past several years, Sullivan Heights has undergone significant growth and transition. In an earlier blog post "Transforming Challenge into Innovation", I reflected on the remarkable resiliency of our school community to adapt and thrive despite challenging circumstances.  http://teachergarr.blogspot.ca/2014/04/transforming-challenge-into-innovation.html
          This year, with a student population of over 1400, our teaching staff has grown significantly as well. Fortunately, with the continued support of our administration, our Learning Partners department, which facilitates peer-mentoring, collaboration and teacher inquiry has also expanded this year. I am pleased to say that our team now consists of eighteen members, from ten different departments. Some of our members are veteran educators, moving through their last few years before retirement, whereas others are new to the profession, embarking on their first year of teaching. Our team also reflects an impressive range of skills sets and interests. And it is within this context that the last two definitions of capacity are key. Because our additional students require additional support. And in order to meet the diverse and complex social, emotional and educational needs of our students, our teachers also need support. 
          And so, despite reaching, even exceeding, the physical capacity of our building, the capacity of our teaching staff to support one another is seemingly limitless. Even with an enormously challenging start to the school year, these eighteen individuals have volunteered to make themselves available to their colleagues as mentors, collaborators and facilitators of teacher inquiry. I feel remarkably privileged to work alongside educational professionals who are dedicated to supporting their fellow teachers as they rise to the challenge of meeting the diverse educational needs of our ever expanding student population. 
          Without a doubt, Sullivan Heights has reached, even exceeded, its physical capacity. We are a school community that is experiencing tremendous growth, with all of its associated challenges: burgeoning classrooms, crowded hallways and stretched resources. But with the continued, combined support of our teachers, administrators, support staff, students, parents and community partners, I would argue that in fact the "capacity" of our school may indeed be, limitless. 


          

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Rethinking Education at TEDxWestVancouverED


How do we prepare our students for a future that is largely unimaginable? What essential qualities will they need in order to propel our society forward? What do educators require in order to be able to take up the challenge put forth by grade 7 student Gia Da Roza, to provide an "extraordinary education"? Well, when it comes to "Rethinking Education" what I discovered is that there are more questions than answers. But here's the good news. That's ok. Because what I also discovered is that as educators, we don't need to have all of the answers. And I must admit, that's a bit of a relief.

In the same way that Australian educator Kath Murdoch encourages us to create a classroom climate in which students are "comfortable with uncertainty", as educators, we must also learn to become comfortable with uncertainty. And that is a challenge. Because you see, many of us grew up in a traditionally structured educational system, where not knowing the answer was a bad thing. And questioning our teachers was viewed as disrespectful and disruptive. 
Gia challenges educators to provide an "extraordinary education" for our students. No pressure there!

But here's more good news. We're not in this thing alone. We have partners. Because "Rethinking Education" requires a shift that propels learning out from behind the desk, and into the world beyond the classroom. It requires input from community leaders and entrepreneurs, from doctors and authors, from athletes and scientists, from politicians and parents. And it requires input from our students. As Adora Svitak emphasized in her TED talk, "learning between between grown ups and kids should be reciprocal". Who better to help us chart a path towards a future that is largely unimaginable than the individuals who will be an integral part of that future?

"Rethinking Education" requires us to continue to move away from an educational system that valued facts over creativity, and obedience over innovation. We need to continue to value the voices of our students. We need to encourage questioning and wonder. And then, we need to listen. Because if we listen, our students might just tell us what they need. And they don't need us to have all of the answers. As TEDx speaker, Silken Laumann so insightfully stated, our students don't care about what we know, they care that we care.  And after listening to the powerful, inspiring and passionate speakers at TEDxWestVancouverED today, and having an opportunity to speak with many of the equally passionate educators who attended, without a doubt, we do.
       
          


Sunday, 21 September 2014

Just Breathe

       
Prana. Life Force.

          Breathe. But don't just breathe, breathe deeply. This was my homework for today. My yoga teacher told us to tell someone to breathe today. Inwardly, I cringed. Moving through my day telling people to "breathe" most likely wouldn't be received with the warmest of receptions, and so I thought perhaps I should provide some context.
          In yoga, breathing is everything. In Sanskrit, it's called prana, the word for life force. But even though our breathe is a life sustaining force, we generally pay very little attention to it. Often, individuals who are under stress, feeling anxious, and/or experiencing trauma tend to take shallow, quick breathes. But breathing deeply releases tension, detoxifies our body, relieves pain, and supplies much needed oxygen to our cells. During cold and flu season, breathing deeply also helps to increase circulation of lymphatic fluid, which is an important component of our immune system.
          On the wall of my yoga studio is the word "Breathe". I even have several articles of clothing with this same message. Because even after practising yoga for several years, I still need this daily reminder. Just breathe.
I need a daily reminder- breathe.

          Tomorrow we are all going "back to school" in BC. Already on Friday I had a grade 12 student come to me, anxious that they are already "behind" before we have even started. Grade 8s are anxious to get themselves situated in a large school with many new faces. Teachers are anxious to set up classrooms, plan lessons and prepare for an influx of students. Administrators are anxious to ease the transition for staff and students back into school and re-establish routines. We are all excited, and eager to finally be able to catapult ourselves into a new school year. But we are all also just a bit anxious.
          So, at the risk of being met with some eye rolling and snorts of disbelief, take a moment this week to remind yourselves, to remind your students, to breathe. We will all get where we need to be, by the time we need to be there. All we can do is our best. Just breathe.
       

Monday, 8 September 2014

What if the Answer Was Always, "Yes"?

          What if every time a student, parent or staff member had a suggestion, the answer was always a resounding "yes"? That is the "default answer" that principal Peter Hutton of Templestowe College in Australia gives when he is approached by members of his school community.
          Last week, I came across a tweet posted by Kath Murdoch (@kjinquiry), a teacher, author, educational consultant and university lecturer from Australia who works in the field of inquiry based learning and integrative curriculum. She is also one of the featured speakers at the upcoming #TedxWestVancouverEd conference on September 27th. http://www.tedxwestvancouvered.com
Murdoch's tweet referenced an article showcasing some of the innovations that are occurring at Templestowe College, in Australia. 


          What initially piqued my interest, was a reference to "multi-aged" learning. Recently, I participated in an impromptu Twitter discussion between myself and several colleagues, sparked by Jim Lamond (JLamond36) and Bal Ranu (@BalRanu), administrators in the Surrey school district, who were exploring the topic of differentiated instruction. As often occurs during these impromptu discussions, our conversation evolved, and at one point, the concept of multi-aged instruction was introduced. At Templestowe College, in addition to encouraging students to develop and personalize their own curriculum, students are grouped not by age level, but by interest and ability. In the article, Hutton notes that by next year, "the college will abolish year levels. From the end of their first year at the school students will study at whatever level is appropriate for them. There are no compulsory subjects after year 7, and students choose their course from more than 120 elective subjects." Additionally, in his "Principal's Message", Hutton comments that the school has "deliberately removed many of the restrictions that 'traditional' schools place on students, such as year level structures, single age classes and authoritarian hierarchy structures".  http://www.templestowec.vic.edu.au/default.aspx Interestingly, Templestowe does have a uniform policy. I'm also wondering how the "appropriate" level for students is determined.
          But what ultimately struck me was this concept of "yes" as the "default answer". Hutton does qualify his "yes rule" somewhat by noting that there may be exceptions if a suggestion might "take too much time, too much money or negatively impact someone else". But with over 120 elective courses offered, and an opportunity for students to "make up their own subject", I get the sense that this is a relatively rare occurrence.
         Is this what is ultimately necessary for true innovation to occur in our schools? What if all of our district and school leaders adopted a "yes as the default answer" approach?


       

       
       



Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Learning Their Stories

       
A sea of unfamiliar faces, each with their own "story".
          Typically, today I would be standing in front of a sea of slightly groggy faces. Some familiar, but likely a good portion of unfamiliar ones as well. After 17 years as an educator, this moment still fills me with some anxiety. Not because I'm not thrilled to start a new school year, but because I know that each and every one of those unfamiliar faces has a "story" behind it, and that the longer it takes me to learn that story, the less effective I will be as an educator. At the high school level, that could mean roughly 100 "stories" to learn, as quickly and as effectively as I can. No small task.
          Each of us, adult or child, comes with a story or context that informs our behaviour and our actions. Unfortunately, given the hectic pace of daily life, we are often too busy, or sometimes unavoidably immersed in our own stories to have the time, that most valuable of commodities, to look beyond the surface. Recently a friend of mine had a bit of a run in with another driver. With her children in the car, my friend was angry that this "reckless, irresponsible" driver (my words- she used slightly different ones) would endanger her children. Completely understandable. Like so often happens in this digital age, my friend happened to vent her frustration in a semi-public forum, and through this it was discovered that the "reckless" driver had in fact just lost a treasured family pet that morning, and was having a very difficult day. This was her story, her context. I'm not suggesting that my friend could have taken the time in that moment to discover this, and regardless, her children's safety was her utmost concern. What I am suggesting is that we approach every individual that we come across in our day, adult or child, with the understanding that they each have a story, and that on any given day this context may inform their seemingly inexplicable behaviour or actions. 
          With my students, it takes time, and a great deal of concerted effort to learn their stories. And each member of our school community might be privileged to learn different aspects of this story- counselors, administrators, clerical and janitorial staff, support staff... and the list goes on. Together, we comprise a community of caring, supportive adults that are all working to do the best that we can for our students. (See "The Heart of a School" http://www.teachergarr.blogspot.ca/2014/04/the-heart-of-school.html) This is exactly why open and effective communication in a school community is so essential. Yes, our students trust that some of the information that they share with us will be kept confidential, and we are governed by a professional code of conduct, but in other instances, it is vital that we are able to rely on our colleagues to help us learn each of our students' stories. Our job is not simply to fill empty vessels with facts and figures, but to recognize that they are entering our schools already "filled" with unique, and sometimes, unfortunately, very difficult stories. 
          My most treasured time of the school year is that moment when I feel like I can finally look out at that sea of faces, and they are no longer unfamiliar. They are faces that have been shaped by countless unique and diverse experiences. They are faces that will be further shaped by their experiences in their classrooms, and in their school community. 
What a responsibility. What a privilege. 

Monday, 25 August 2014

Here's To a "Sweet" Year

          My new year doesn't begin on January 1st. I'm not really one to make New Year's resolutions and as an early riser, staying up until midnight is pretty much a Herculean task. For me, my new year has always started in September. Amidst the deluge of "back to school" commercials, as the days begin to shorten, and the evenings become crisper, it is during this time that I typically set my intentions and goals for the coming "year". And it's not only as an educator that I associate September with new beginnings. Rosh Hashanah, commonly referred to as Jewish New Years, also occurs in September. Growing up with an Irish Catholic mother, and a Jewish father, I've been fortunate to experience a wide range of holidays and traditions. I don't think I'll offend either branch of the family when I say that at their core, they both incorporate the same essential elements: food, family, and of course, a healthy dose of guilt!
          For me, Rosh Hashanah is primarily a time of reflection. It is an opportunity to examine past *mistakes, to make amends, and to learn and grow from these mistakes in order to do better in the coming year. To ensure a "sweet" new year, we eat apples dipped in honey (fortunately, amongst his many other professions, my dad is also a beekeeper), and challah, a braided sweet bread that on Rosh Hashanah is rolled into a circular shape to symbolize the cycle of the year. In my family, after we eat, we take turns going around the table, sharing something from the previous year that we are thankful for. To be honest, some years this is more difficult than others. But ultimately, whether it is a new job, renewed health, or a new bicycle, we each take a moment to express our gratitude. 
A variety of honey to choose from. Courtesy of Allen Garr apiaries!
          Fortunately, my blog serves as a helpful reminder of the past year. As I have commented in previous posts, it was one of challenges and opportunities. For me, the two typically go hand in hand. This year, my professional and personal goals are intermixed:
- To listen more and speak less.
- To move through each day with patience and gratitude.
- To recognize and support the emerging talents and skills of those around me.

          And so, with September only a week away, I wish everyone a happy new year! May it be one that is filled with much sweetness and joy. 

*For an interesting perspective, check out the NPR Ted Radio program- Making Mistakes
                    

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Going It Alone

          So, I have a confession to make. I'm a bit of a loner. I like to hike alone, I like to bike alone, and I like to spend a great deal of time, on my own. And so why is this a bit of a confession? Because I am also a passionate proponent of collaboration and connectivity. As department leader of Learning Partners, a program that facilitates and supports peer-mentoring, inter-departmental collaboration and teacher inquiry, I have experienced first hand the amazingly powerful impact that connecting to, and being supported by ones peers and extending professional learning outside of the classroom can have on growth and innovation. As an educator, I truly believe that our greatest resource is each other.  And so how do I reconcile my personal preference for solitary pursuits with what I also know to be true-- that amazing learning and growth often results from collaborative endeavours.
View from the handle bars!

          I've spent some time reflecting on why it is that I prefer to hike on my own. I'll begin by saying that many of my family and friends are a bit horrified by my weekly solo treks into the woods, especially when I return with a few scrapes and bruises resulting from a rapid descent. Logically, I know that it is safer to hike with others, and so why is it that I continue to take the risk of these solitary excursions? Simply put, it's easier. I can decide when and where I go, I can set my own pace without worrying about hastening or slowing my steps to accommodate anyone else, and I can decide how much time I want to spend at the top of whatever peak I have reached, enjoying the view. I know what you're thinking- control freak. And yes, absolutely, to some extent that's true. It's been an ongoing challenge of mine, both personally and professionally, to learn to relinquish some control to others. Hiking with others, and collaborating with others, can be hard. It requires trust, open and honest communication, and oftentimes, compromise. 
          And so given the "challenge" of hiking with another individual, why would I ever even consider this as an option? Because the reality is, that if I only ever hike exclusively on my own, at some point I will stop progressing. I will have learned all that I can on my own, and my growth will stop. As well, without the healthy competition of hiking with someone who is more physically fit than myself, it's likely that I'm not actually pushing myself as much as I could, resulting in slower growth. 
          Recently, I was descending from one of my favourite spots, peak 2 of the Stawamus Chief in Squamish. It had been raining a bit. For those of you who are familiar with this hike, there is one particularly challenging section where a chain is required to lower yourself down between two large boulders. As a "height challenged" individual, with the resulting slippery rocks and chains, it took some concerted effort, and a few attempts to safely lower myself down this section. In the midst of this, I realized that if I'd had someone with me, we would have been able to help each other through this challenge. If I was hiking with someone who was more experienced, they would have been able to provide some useful tips and strategies.
A challenging section of peak 2 of the Chief.
          Next summer, my goal is to summit Mt. Baker in Washington. A friend of mine, after offering some words of encouragement and knowing my love of solo excursions, immediately cautioned that I can't do this alone! As a novice alpine climber I will need to rely heavily on the expertise and support of experienced and trained guides, as well as the strength and endurance of fellow climbers to ascend the 10, 781 feet up the Colemen Deming glacier to the summit. This will require trust, open and honest communication and yes, compromise. 
          And so as August slowly winds to a close, my solitary summer excursions will help to inform and clarify my goals for the approaching school year. As a bit of a "loner" and someone who sometimes struggles to compromise and relinquish control, it better equips me to recognize some of the challenges that are inherent to collaboration. I still think that sometimes, it's ok, even preferable, to "go it alone". But ultimately, for real growth and innovation to occur, we need to extend our own learning by connecting to those whose knowledge and expertise helps us to reach further, to progress more quickly, and to perhaps move beyond what we are capable of achieving on our own. 
Top of Peak 2. Photo courtesy of accommodating stranger.

       
       

           

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Gift of Perspective

          In a previous post, "Through A Parent's Eyes" I reflected on how profoundly my son has impacted my educational philosophy. Ultimately, I view my students not through the eyes of an educator, but through the eyes of a parent. http://www.teachergarr.blogspot.ca/2013/11/through-parents-eyes.html This perspective continues to inform not only my teaching practice, but functioned as a valuable foundation during my temporary role as Acting Vice Principal this past year. With this in mind, my intention is always to interact with students in a manner that is transparent, respectful and caring, regardless of the situation or context. Foremost in my mind is always, how would I want my son to be treated in this situation?
          This past Friday, I was once again reminded of the power that a change in perspective can provide. I had the opportunity to share at the SFU Education Summer Institute on Professional Learning Communities.
http://www.sfu.ca/education/gs/current-students/conf-events/summer-institute.html My session, "Creating a Culture of Collaboration" focusses on the issue of teacher isolation as a barrier to collaboration, and suggests various platforms to facilitate both global and local connections, allowing educators to move beyond the confines of their classrooms. http://www.slideshare.net/teachergarr/creating-a-culture-of-collaboration-sfu-summer-institute-2014
          Amongst other topics, I discuss the impact that Twitter and Blogging has had on my own professional learning and growth. I was also able to share some of the innovative initiatives that I have been privileged to participate in, such as iTunes U course development and the Sullivan Heights Learning Partners program. My session was attended by a diverse range of individuals, including teachers from several districts, SFU Education students, school board members, administrators and university faculty.
          For the past several years, I've had the opportunity to happily immerse myself in these professional passions, and have spent innumerable hours exploring and investigating the topics that I discussed with session participants, and as such, I felt relatively competent, and comfortable, sharing my learning and professional experiences with others. And yet, it is exactly in this "comfortable" spot that I would suggest our growth and learning tends to stagnate. However, it is through the reciprocal, interactive process of sharing with others, that we can extend and deepen our own learning and understanding.
          By responding to the thought provoking questions and comments of session participants, I was able to add their unique and diverse perspectives to my own, to view topics that I have become somewhat familiar with, through a fresh perspective. It is akin to a kind of double vision, suddenly being able to view familiar content through multiple new lenses. By the end of the session, as various participants approached me with additional comments and questions, I came once again to this understanding: The transformative impact of collaboration is not just as a result of shared content and skills, it is as a result of the layering of additional perspectives onto our own, the blending and extending of others' views with our own.
          And so as I reflect on this past year, one filled with challenges and opportunities, my most profound and impactful "learning" has not been as a result of a particular session that I've attended, or an article that I've read, it has resulted from remarkable individuals gifting me with own unique and diverse perspectives, or lenses, allowing me to extend and expand my own "vision".

A new perspective, a new lens, a new understanding.




Sunday, 8 June 2014

My Students Are Watching Me

         
          Typically, June is a time of reflection and celebration: reflection on a year of growth and learning both for myself and for my students, and celebration of the numerous milestones that traditionally mark the end of the school year.
          This June is a little different. Regardless of where you place yourself on the vast spectrum of BC politics, there is no denying that the escalating labour dispute between the BCTF and BCPSEA has impacted our schools. On a minute by minute basis, I am bombarded with updates and alerts by phone, through email, as well as through mainstream and social media. The issues are complex, multi-layered and emotionally charged. Many times within the past several weeks, I have come home exhausted and discouraged. As well, many times within the past several weeks, I have become acutely aware that my students are watching me. And they aren't just watching me, they are watching all of us. They are looking to the adults in their lives to see how they cope during uncertain and undeniably stressful times. This increased scrutiny has served to ignite in me a heightened sense of responsibility towards my students. Regardless of my personal political views, it is my responsibly to model a professional, positive, and caring attitude towards my students, my colleagues, and the larger community. It is my responsibility to maintain a sense of normalcy and consistency in my classroom. It is my responsibility to reassure my students that the adults in their lives will do their best to sort these complex, multi-layered and emotionally charged issues. And it is my responsibility to assure them that these are not their problems to solve. Because my students are watching me, and they are learning. More than ever, I need to be mindful of what I am teaching them.
          And so, I have resolved that this next week will still be a time of reflection and celebration for myself and for my students. Because we have accomplished some amazing things this year, things worthy of celebration. And I would argue that is especially during times of uncertainty and stress, that it becomes even more important to recognize and celebrate amazing things. This is my responsibility to my students.
       
       

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The People Behind the Program

          It's not about the program, it's about the people. Trust, open communication and consummate professionalism. These are all attributes exemplified by my fellow Learning Partners. I am fortunate to work alongside colleagues who have volunteered, in the midst of often incredibly busy and demanding schedules, to offer support to their fellow teachers.

          Learning Partners currently consists of nine teachers, representing eight different departments. In addition to volunteering their time as Learning Partners, they are department leaders, coaches, committee members, and club sponsors. Oh, and they are also all full time teachers who are supporting students, planning, marking, meeting with parents, engaging in ongoing professional development and carefully balancing numerous other roles and responsibilities. And I know many of them will be quietly, and politely, horrified that I am writing this blog. Because they are also incredibly humble. 
          In the midst of writing the final report for a district action research inquiry that explores the impact of increased teacher engagement in peer-mentoring and collaborative opportunities, I have had the chance to reflect on the successes and the challenges of our Learning Partners program as it continues to evolve. And as with any new initiative, we have had our share of both. But at the very core, or more appropriately, the heart of this program, is the people- remarkably resilient, caring and resourceful people who have openly and honestly shared suggestions, concerns and questions over this past year. 
          I am pleased to share that with the ongoing commitment and dedication of each of the Learning Partners, as well as with the continued support of our colleagues and administration, Learning Partners is planning to expand in the 2014-15 school year as we move to integrate teacher inquiry into our current peer-mentoring and collaborative model. As well, we will be looking to add additional members to our team. I am excited to see what this next year will bring as we continue on our journey to support a culture of collaboration and trust at Sullivan Heights.




Friday, 2 May 2014

Taking the Lead

          We encourage our students to take risks every day. Raise their hand, ask the question, choose a more challenging book, take the extra lap, complete the bonus question, stand up in front of the class. But how can we ask our students to take these risks if we are not willing to step outside of our own comfort zones? At the presentation that I attended today, "The Teachability Factor: Harnessing Natural Context for Learning", Dr. Deborah MacNamara (http://www.macnamara.ca), argued that our students "need the adults in their life to be in the lead". If this is the case, then that means that teachers already need to be where they want their students to go.

       Many of my colleagues at Sullivan Heights Secondary have taken the lead where risk taking and innovation is concerned. On April 30th, our Learning Partners program had over 30 teachers from 9 different departments participate in our second "Teacher Drop in Day", an initiative that was developed to allow teachers the rare opportunity to visit their colleagues classrooms as a method to discover and share teaching resources and strategies. For both beginner and experienced teachers, inviting another adult into your classroom can be a nerve wracking experience. And yet, what better way to share the amazing things that are happening in our classes than by allowing fellow teachers to witness them first hand? Similar to our first "Teacher Drop in Day", the initial feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. In addition to more "measurable" data, the smiles and laughter that I witnessed at our "Thank You" lunch the following day was evidence enough of the positive impact that collaborative opportunities can have.
Just a few of the amazing teachers who took part in Learning Partners "Teacher Drop in Day".
         Most rewarding was to hear from some of our more experienced teachers who had taken the risk of participating in "Teacher Drop in Day" for the first time. Several told me that they were thrilled to have the opportunity, and most especially the time, to visit colleagues' classrooms. They spoke with energy and enthusiasm about the various actives and lessons that they were able to see throughout the day. I was also enormously proud of the confidence and trust demonstrated by our beginner teachers who participated.
         

"Host" Poster up & ready for "Visitors"!
Visiting a Drama 11/12 class as student prepare for upcoming production.
Visiting an English 10 class as students present poetry definitions.
       
One teacher, who is new to Sullivan Heights this year, summed up their "Teacher Drop in Day" experience in the following email:

   "I just really wanted to thank you for planning such a cool day. Today was literally the first time I have ever seen the dance studio and probably the second or third time I have been upstairs in the school. Just seeing students in a different light, or the things that are going on in other subjects is really cool. When else would I get the chance to see Chemistry jeopardy?"

          These teachers are "taking the lead". They are modelling for their students a willingness to trust, take risks, and step outside the safe confines of their classrooms to extend their own learning. As Learning Partners continues to expand and explore new methods to encourage greater collaborative engagement at Sullivan Heights, it is these teachers who I know will continue to inspire others to open their doors and share their challenges, their successes, and their ongoing learning with their colleagues.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Heart of a School

          Today was my last day as Acting Vice Principal at Sullivan Heights Secondary. It is difficult to put into words all that I have learned in this past month and half. It has been an amazingly rewarding and enlightening experience. I was privileged to have the opportunity to work alongside two dedicated and caring Vice Principals, Bob Whitham and Sue Beyer, whose unending hard work and consummate professionalism sustained our school during a challenging transitional period. But ultimately, in addition to my admiration for our administration team during this time, what was most enlightening was the confirmation of what I had only a glimpse of as a classroom teacher; that behind the scenes of a thriving school community there is a whole army of staff that is ultimately quietly responsible for much of the success of a school.
         This "army" rarely gets the recognition that they so truly deserve. They are the clerical and janitorial staff, the safe school liaisons and the youth care workers who so diligently and efficiently  work together as a team to ensure that teachers, counsellors and administrators have everything that they need to do their best work. They expertly support our students, answer our unending questions, maintain our over taxed facilities, listen to our endless complaints, organize our numerous events, schedule and reschedule our meetings and maintain our security, on top of numerous other responsibilities. At Sullivan Heights, this team is a family. They are the heart of our school. And for the past month and half, they welcomed me into their family and have given me their full support as I transitioned from classroom teacher to Acting Vice Principal. By doing what they do best, in addition to the support of my school and district colleagues, it made it possible for me to do my best. And for that, I am thankful.

       

     

Friday, 4 April 2014

Sullivan Heights- Transforming Challenge into Innovation



          I recently had the opportunity, along with several of my Sullivan Heights Secondary colleagues, to attend the second session of the Surrey school district's "Continuing the Conversation". The theme of each session revolves around nurturing and celebrating a positive school culture, as well as examining the attributes of resilient schools and leaders. In discussion with my colleagues, we were asked by session leaders to identify some of the strengths, as well as some of the challenges, that our school is currently facing. 
          Without question, we have our challenges. We are currently in transition, recently welcoming our new principal, Raj Puri to our Sullivan Heights family. As well, our ever increasing student population initiated a move to an extended day schedule within the last few years.  And yet, what we discovered during our discussion at "Continuing the Conversation", is that it is partly due to these challenges that Sullivan Heights has evolved into a dynamic and innovative place of learning. We have had to explore new methods to communicate effectively with our students, our staff and our community, such as Twitter, and Blogging. Our Technology and Pro D committees have worked to support teachers as they integrate digital learning into their instruction. Shared teaching and prep areas have created opportunities for increased collaboration and collegiality, leading to impromptu discussions around assessment and student achievement. Our Learning Partners program further facilitates and supports this collaboration by providing release time and creating initiatives such as our "Teacher Drop in Day". An expanding student population has provided a wealth of student leaders, resulting in the addition of our Junior Leadership group this year. 
          And so interestingly, the very elements that poise the greatest challenges at Sullivan Heights, have also inspired some of the most innovative and exciting initiatives. Would it have been preferable to arrive where we are today without these various challenges? Of course. But we because we have faced these challenges together, as a school community, we have become stronger, and ultimately, more resilient. 


          


Saturday, 8 March 2014

Transforming Learning for 2030

          What fundamental changes in the educational system are needed to transform learning and allow the graduates of 2030 to reach their full potential in life? This is the question that was asked at the WGSI Learning 2030 Workshop that I recently attended at the UBC Faculty of Education. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together educators, school administrators, academics and students to explore Learning 2030's vision of high school and to examine the implications for classrooms, schools, school boards, and the larger community. http://wgsi.org/equinox-summit/equinox-summit-learning-2030
          Workshop participants had the opportunity to share information about successful educational programs and initiatives that are currently in place in our schools, and to brainstorm possible obstacles that may prevent the growth and sustainability of these innovations. Essentially, it was an opportunity to brag about the many amazing things that are happening in our schools, and think of ways to support and expand them.
          I was one of four educators invited from the Surrey School District and my group consisted of fellow #sd36learn colleague Jessica Pelat (@JessPelat) from Fraser Heights Secondary, Summit curator Dr. Michael Brooks (@DrMichaelBrooks) http:www.michaelbrooks.org, a Vice-Principal from the West Vancouver School District, and a teacher from the Burnaby school district. In addition to hearing about some amazing initiatives that are occurring at Fraser Heights, I had an opportunity to share information about Sullivan Heights Learning Partners program, a program that facilitates and supports inter departmental mentoring and collaboration for both new and experienced teachers. From here, conversations ranged from examining University entrance requirements and application processes, to teacher training, to facilitating increased engagement of the larger school community.
          Among numerous other findings, ultimately our group concluded that it is essential that educators and schools are clearly communicating our vision with the larger community, and that collaboration time, transparency, and trust are vital components as we move towards creating an educational system that not only supports our current learners, but will meet the needs of learners in 2030 and beyond.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

A Delicate Balance

          Life is a delicate balancing act, a constant state of negotiating varied demands and desires. Teaching is no different. This past week as we transitioned into a new semester, I had the opportunity to touch base with several teachers who are in the beginning stages of their career. These are passionate, energetic, resourceful and caring individuals who are striving to provide the best possible educational experience for their students. And as a result, many of them are shouldering a great deal of stress and anxiety.
           These beginning teachers came to me primarily for resources, but ultimately, what I found that they were more in need of was some emotional support and encouragement. And is it any wonder? The expectations that we place on some our beginner teachers are enough to challenge and tax even the most resilient of individuals.
           At a recent department head meeting, my vice-principal, Bob Whitham, raised a similar concern, in regard to room allocation for semester 2. Sullivan Heights is bulging at the seams. Already on an extended day, finding available rooms to accommodate teachers and students is a Herculean task. Bob's concern was that on top of the challenge faced by some our newer staff, teaching a wide range of subjects and grades, and perhaps having limited access to resources and knowledge of our school, they were also being asked to move from class to class several times during the course of the day.
          At many schools, "tradition" dictates that more experienced or senior teachers are assigned "permanent" rooms. These are generally individuals with 10+ years of teaching experience, who have reached the stage of their careers where they feel somewhat proficient in their subject area, and are better able to navigate the challenges of a typical teaching day. "Tradition" dictates this, but as Bob asked us, does this make it right?
           Like many of us, one beginner teacher that I met with last week was consumed with anxiety the night before the start of the new semester. Part of her anxiety was a feeling that she needed to "do it all". After downloading my iTunes U English 8 course and reading through my blog, she asked me, how do you find time to do everything you do? My response? When I was a beginner teacher, I didn't. Taking on additional roles and responsibilities has been a gradual, ongoing process, made possible through the support of my colleges and my administration.
           After 16 years of teaching, I am now in the fortunate position to be able to explore new opportunities and take part in several innovative and exciting initiatives. But as I emphasized to my new colleague, beginner teachers, and even more experienced teachers, shouldn't feel pressured to "do it all". There is no prize for throwing yourself into the deep end of the pool when you should begin by dipping your toe in the water.
           My advice? Pick one thing, start small, ask for help, get ready to "fail" and then try it again. Isn't this exactly the advice that we give to our students? It seems to me like we should be modelling the same for our beginner teachers as they enter into this amazingly rewarding, yet often challenging profession.
A Delicate Balance

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Symbiosis: Schools as Living Organisms

       


          This past week I was helping my son, who is grade six, study for a science test. One of the terms that he was reviewing was symbiosis: the interaction between two or more different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.
          It struck me that this concept perfectly exemplifies the numerous, complex, inter-dependant relationships that form the essential foundation of our schools. To continue the analogy, (and my apologies to my science colleagues for my rudimentary understanding of these terms) our classrooms function as microcosms of the larger school community. Schools are not simply static institutions, but fluid, vital, living organisms that are highly dependant upon the energy and sustenance provided by these impactful symbiotic relationships. 
         In this way, the relationships that I carefully and consciously nurture with my students and by extension, their parents, are as essential as those that are formed between myself and my colleagues, and between my administration and district leaders. The complex web of symbiotic relationships within the larger organism of a school are too numerous to list and I believe that if any of these reciprocal relationships are neglected, or undervalued, then the larger school community is impacted.  
          I think it is important then to be mindful of the essential role that each of us plays in sustaining the health and vitality of our school. Rather than being overwhelmed or intimidated by this responsibility, the idea that as a teacher leader, I can have a significant impact not only on the learning and well being of my students, but on the larger school community, is an empowering and invigorating notion. Regardless of our role then, we each share the responsibility, and consequent rewards, of contributing to the growth and success of our school.