Taking off the Training Wheels – Lessons from my First Week

http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=2280

My first week as Assistant Principal has wrapped up and looking back, there are many lessons that I have learned. The past few days have been both busy and exciting. It felt a little like I was in Grade 1 again. Administration Kindergarten was the many days of being “Teacher in Charge” and taking part in committees. But now I was ready for the real program, it was time to take the training wheels off.  Some of the lessons here are new, but most were ideas that I thought were true and have now been reinforced by my experience.

Administrators wear many hats

Everyone said it, but now I know it to be true. When something needs to be done right away, the administration tries to make sure it happens. Some of the roles I have filled-in for this week are: caterer, custodian, building inspector, furniture mover, dishwasher, playground supervisor, lunch monitor, community outreach worker, barista, IT technician, not to mention teacher. The amount of activity that goes on in a school is astoundin and the different professionals who work with and for students are diverse.

Students are the reason we are here

Though it has been a busy week, students are the priority. I was happy to hear the number of times the question “would that be best for kids?” was used by staff. This shows that even though it might get hectic, the team sees the ultimate reason we are here.

You can’t do everything

There were times this week when I wanted to solve every problem myself. I was lucky enough to have some incredible mentors around me who encouraged me to let others try to deal with some problems first. I guess I just want to help, but I now see that helping sometimes means taking a step back and letting people work things out themselves. This is also about learning what to deal with immediately and what to let others do.

Balance is important

Again, I was lucky to have a great mentor who encouraged me to take time to be with my wife and for myself. I was able to leave at a decent hour this week and have supper with my wife (before getting some work done in the late evening). I was also able to take some time to process the week and the events that took place (which include this blog post). I could have worked until 10:00pm every night, but the school year is a marathon, not a sprint.

Good relationships make the job easier

I spent a lot of time getting to know people and discussing education this week. I have already seen the benefit of developing the relationship with the members of our school community. This is not a chore; I am truly excited to know and to work with the incredible team of educational professionals in our building. I also see how the relationships started this week are going to help us achieve our goal of providing the highest quality education to our students.

I know there are many lessons to come on my journey as a new administrator, but right now I feel very supported and confident for the year ahead.

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Being Process-Oriented

In addition to the education/leadership specific books that I read this summer, there was one non-educational book that provoked me to think about education in new ways. The book is called 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick. I talks mostly about design from the perspective of an Architect and a university professor of the subject. While many of the lessons on perspective and drawing were interesting, there were some that I found directly applied to education. At times, all that was needed was to change the words design, building or scale to teaching, lessons, and outcomes. Here is one “thing learned in Architecture school” that I have adapted for the teacher (it was lesson 29). Nothing here is new, but I find that Frederick invited me to think about the subject in a way that was perhaps different than I am used to:

Being process-oriented, not product-driven, is the most important and difficult skill for a teacher to develop.

Being process-oriented means:

  1. seeking to understand an educational problem or a student before chasing the solution;
  2. not force-fitting solutions to old problems onto new problems;
  3. removing yourself from prideful investment in your lessons and being slow to fall in love with your ideas;
  4. making educational investigations and decisions holistically (that address several aspects of a learning problem at once) rather than sequentially (that finalize one aspect of a solution before investigating the next);
  5. making educational decisions conditionally – that is, with the awareness that they may or may not work out as you continue toward a final solution;
  6. knowing when to change and when to stick with previous decisions;
  7. accepting as normal the anxiety that comes from not knowing what to do;
  8. working fluidly between specific learning outcomes and general learning outcomes to see how each informs the other;
  9. always asking “What if…?” regardless of how satisfied you are with the solution.

You can probably think of other aspects where these rules might also apply, for instance in leadership or relationships. Please leave your comments on what you thought. If you would like to pick up the book, it is published by The MIT Press.

Thinking inside/outside the box

Boxes at my house.

I am currently moving and therefore have to choose what I put into storage for an undetermined amount of time. I am finding it very difficult to decide what are the most important things that I am going to need over the next 3 or more months. I am asking myself repeatedly: Do I want to keep this outside of the box?

Although this situation is difficult, it made me think of teaching. Many people I read and listen to ask the same type of question about education. What are the most important “things” that your want to teach in your class? What are the “go to” pieces, that when all else is stripped away, are most important? What do you want to keep outside of the box?

I have my own answers, but I find the question intriguing. Say you had two days to teach. What are the most important concepts that your students can focus on? Are they curricular? Are they related to social responsibility? How do you define these concepts?

The other aspect that enters my mind is how to present these ideas? Do I present them in an interesting way? It is what is most important…  Will it be boring? I know that my next few months are going to be stimulating and interesting because I will be personally engaged, on a high level, with my surroundings. Will the students say the same about my classes? Will the methods I use be in or outside the box?

These are the ideas that need to be the focus of the entire course or class. These are the ideas that need addressing each day so that they become the “most important” ideas in the minds of students. These are the ideas that should guide our teaching and direct our days.

What are the ideas the you want to keep out of the box?

Finding Flow

The concept of Flow was developed by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try saying it three times fast). It is a mental state where people are happy and find a balance between difficulty and interest. I was introduced to this concept by two people.  The first was Robert (Bob) Kull during a conference and in his book “Solitude”. The second was Dr. Keven Elder, Superintendent of BC School District 63.

Since first hearing about it, I have been intrigued with it as a way of thinking about engagement in students. We often look for this “sweet spot” when teaching where students are challenged just enough and they are learning something new at a rate where they are comfortable. This becomes difficult because it is different for each student.

A visual representation of "Flow"

One solution that I believe helps teachers to guide students into a state of Flow is technology. Using different tools, students can search for their own information, they can organize their own ideas, they are in control of the rate of information and then show their learning in a way where they feel comfortable. The teacher is there as a guide to help create the state of Flow.

I am also convinced that we need to be flexible in our instruction and in what we ask from our students. Is this state easy to attain when we are asking all students to work at the same rate? When they are all doing worksheets and studying for a standardized test?

When planning, we can ask ourselves how we are going to help students find the right individual balance between these factors (differentiated instruction)? We can also ask how we are going to know that the material is at an appropriate level of skill and challenge (assessment for learning)? Are we allowing our students to work at their own rate and share their knowledge with others in way they choose?

If you are interested in this idea, you can watch this TED Talk from 2004:

http://ted.com/talks/view/id/366

Reflections on Start Right 2011

Here are some of my reflections on ideas that were presented at the CASS Start Right Conference I attend this past week in Olds, Alberta.
1. Relationships, relationships, relationships – It was interesting to hear over half the presenters say this same phrase. They all stressed the importance of developing and maintaining good relationships. I can see how this goes a long way. I also relate this idea to Covey’s Emotional Bank. When you have a good relationship, you can depend on others to help you.
2. Front Load – It is always easier to have clear expectations and conversations about difficult topics before a crisis takes place. Front loading, in this sense, therefore means to have the difficult conversation in an atmosphere the is calm before the difficult situation makes this impossible.
3. Be visible – Again, an idea that was put forward by multiple presenters. By being visible in the hallways, in the school yard, in the community, at events and in classrooms they suggest an administrator can know the school, build relationships  and be aware of the issues that are developing.
4. Know your values – By “your” they refer to both personal and school values. One presenter said that in times of crisis it is most important to go back to your core beliefs and values. This removes some of the emotional component and allows your to make a decision that you are less likely to regret later.
5. Plan – If you don’t plan something, you probably won’t do it. What you choose to do is how you show what you think is important. This was the message presented a few times. I see this as another way to ensure that we are working in Covey’s Quadrant 2. Plan to do what is important when you are not forced to do it.
6. Follow-up – If you start something, finish it. Close the loops that you open. This will show that you care and that you mean the things you say. One presenter said: “The certainty of consequences is more important than the severity of consequences.” No empty threats. If you say you will do something, do it.

There were so many good ideas and presenters that I came away feeling a little overloaded (especially right after the end of the school year), but I know that this conference will be valuable as I move into my first year in administration. Thanks to all the presenters. For more info on this conference and to see the presenters please visit the website at http://www.cass.ab.ca/start_right_program_

A Vision of a High-Performing School

I am currently taking part in the Start Right conference put on be the College of Alberta School Superintendents in Olds, Alberta. Yesterday, we were presented with a document called A Vision of a High-Performing School by Lyle Lorenz. He presented these attributes as fundamental to a successful school. I found that this series of attributes helped me to define my vision for schools. I don’t think it is complete, but it is a good starting point from which to start a formal discussion. Here are the attributes that Lyle presented and my reflections on them:

1. Staff efficacy

I relate this attribute to a sense of empowerment. The teachers in a school are conscious of the effect that they can have and feel like their work makes a difference. They positively and consciously affect the lives of children on a daily basis.
2. Commitment to Excellence in Learning

Here the staff commit to helping all students learn to their greatest potential. This learning takes place in many different subjects (many of which are not in the curriculum).
3. Commitment to Exemplary Teaching

As educators we set our sights high, and we generally hit what we aim for. I have had the pleasure of working with teachers who provide excellent teaching on a daily basis. Students deserve better that average instruction; they deserve excellent instruction.
4. Commitment to Outstanding Leadership

Teachers are leaders in many aspects of their work: with students, with other teachers, in the community, in their division. Is the leadership we are providing helping our goals in education?
5. Interdependence

Teachers working together do better than working alone. I have lived this experience many times, yet there are moments when it can be difficult to get out and work with our colleagues if we do not make the time.
6. Safe, Caring, Respectful and Orderly School Environment

The relationships we create and nurture go a long way to ensure a great learning environment. Having conversations around the school we want to create and the attributes we want to see in members of our community helps with creating this environment.
7. Value-Added Attributes

What more are we contributing to the school outside the minimum? I know that some of the greatest relationships that I have developed with students were in the moments outside of the classroom. The teams, the clubs, the trips all create an environment where students want to be and perform.
8. Connectedness

Communicating as a staff is becoming easier as teachers grow more comfortable with technology. I hope that the use of communication tools make shared vision more common in schools.

I take these values as a starting point of a conversation and I look forward to having these conversations with staff.

If you are looking to connect with Lyle Lorenz you can contact him at lclorenz@telusplanet.net