Lessons from the Road

As the school year comes to a close, I think about what I have learned this year in my travels.  From amazing people come lessons, with experiences I gain wisdom and from the places I visit, I grow as a person.  This twenty-five blog will be my last for a few weeks as I take a bit of a break for family and friends and a beautiful summer in eastern Canada.  So, for now… here are a few lessons from the school improvement road.

Lesson #1: When schools struggle to be successful with students, no one is happy- especially not the teachers or administrators.  If for one minute you think that they don’t really care, in other words, this is just a job to them, think again.  I was reminded over and over again this year that educators go to work every day wanting the very best for their students.  They just might not have all of the resources, expertise and know how of what to do next but, for the most part, they sure want to do better. They might be overwhelmed by the needs of the students and the work to be done but don’t take that as not wanting to be successful. If the will is there let’s work on the skill. With will and skill we can move mountains.

Lesson #2: Students can get really, really excited when they become better students.  I have told you about Willy and some of my other friends in schools who want to talk to me and share their love for learning.  You just have to understand how really awesome it  is when the students understand that they are responsible for their learning and share in the “what to do next”, the enthusiasm is contagious! The best part of my work is seeing this through the eyes of the students. It doesn’t get any better!

Lesson #3: I still have lots to learn.  In this 38th year as an educator (gasp…did I really type that??), I am learning in my schools every single day.  Some times the lessons are reminders of things I know but I am not applying anymore and sometimes, it is new learning. I still have to read, study and write to stay current in research and best practices and I know that this journey, for me, is not over.  The needs are real and I feel so blessed to be able to help.  I just know that I can not get stagnant in my own thinking and look for solutions to make a difference with each and every school.  If I can continue to work with integrity and honor the expertise in the schools, I know that I will have an impact.

Lesson #4:  It is fun, challenging, tough, exhausting, exciting, hard, interesting and crazy being a road warrior!  Staying in hotels every night, living out of a suitcase, flying on tons of flights, doing your shopping in airports and trying to find your way around new places in a rental car over and over again… well, it isn’t all glamorous.  I am learning, every year, to make the very best of every adventure.suitcases The highlights for me are the little things, the violin that I listened to in the Minneapolis airport one day that brought me to tears because the music was so beautiful and it reminded me of my family when I was growing up, running in to my dear friend Terri Klemm in Starbucks in South Dakota, seeing the exhausted Delta staff after Atlanta airport was basically shut down doing all they could for all of us with smiles on their faces, knowing actually where to buy fun souvenirs in the Detroit airport, having one meal this year with Lissa (maybe it was two, Lissa but I think we only saw each other once, sadly!), sharing crawfish with educators in Lafayette, Louisanna, seeing the Carole King musical, “Beautiful” with my good friend Jeanne in Fresno, California and keeping my head up and eyes wide open in airports in case I would run in to another road warrior (right Angela? It happened in the Little Rock airport!!!) Mostly, it was about meeting people who I can continue to learn from (Kathy, you taught me a ton about literacy) and just being with people who energize me.

So, in the wise (but maybe a little over used) words of Dr. Seuss, from “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”: “All Alone! Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot. And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on. But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl. On you will go though the Hakken-Kraks howl. Onward un many frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. On and on you will hike. And I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are.”

I am not sure if Dr. Seuss was writing about school improvement and the journey of continuous hard work that it takes to stay focused but I can say this… the educators who I work with hike on and on and face the problems head on. This is the way to stay true to improving schools and it has been an honor to be on the road with you this year.  And to my friends, the other road warriors, I think Dr. Seuss knew about us too when he wrote this!  See you all in August!

 

Graduation

In most of the schools and districts that I work in, this is graduation week.  In fact, several of the ceremonies are today!  A time for so many mixed emotions… celebrations, anxiety about next steps, good-byes, goals attained and for some families and students, it is a disappointing time. High school teachers and administrators are also feeling the emotions… pride fills the auditoriums as students cross the stage. Sadness is the reality for the students who were not able to be there with them. What really influences the student’s ability to get to this finish line?  Who has the impact?

At a recent elementary school visit, I had the opportunity to see the graduating seniors come back to their home school to be honored.  The high school marching band led the seniors through the hallways of the elementary school and the young students and their teachers were out in the hallways ready to clap and cheer on the seniors.  Some of the elementary teachers recognized seniors that they had taught and the energy and enthusiasm in the air was contagious! It was a celebration of reaching the ultimate goal of high school graduation. For many of these seniors, they were the first graduates in their families.  They are role models for both their family and others and this was truly obvious to me as the observer that morning.  I heard young students exclaim, “Look, JD is graduating!”, “There is my neighbor, I didn’t know that she was a graduate!”. And, as the teachers reminded me, this was a high school that has worked very hard to increase their graduate rate by diligently working to meet the needs of students and ensuring success. I learned that the high school has a motto, “whatever it takes”.  I like this focus.

I really appreciate that the high school is celebrating graduation with their neighboring schools. Besides providing an opportunity for the seniors to feel celebrated and honored, it is a real teachable moment for the elementary children.  In school improvement, we talk all the time about students owning their learning, setting goals and knowing what they have to do to achieve their goals.  And, in many high poverty neighborhoods, graduation is truly a difficult goal. graduation-hat Besides the obvious academic struggles, life happens. Staying focused on the goal of completing school is a challenge for many.  Seeing what can happen if you stay with it is an amazing visual for the younger students.

I was moved by the conversations that the elementary teachers were having. They were really sharing ownership of the students who they had taught. They were reminiscing about some events that were remembered and genuinely surprised to see some of the students who they knew had struggled.  There was disappointment when they recognized that some students were missing. It really struck me that, despite not being the high school teachers who had the pleasure of teaching these students the past few years, they still felt responsible for them.

Isn’t this what school improvement is really about?  Understanding that, beginning in early years and moving all the way up to the 12th grade, we are all responsible? That there are learning progressions, in other words, if kindergarten teachers are not prepared to ensure their students leave mastering what is required by the end of kindergarten then students go in to first grade with a deficit.  (I know the kindergarten teachers I work with and who are reading this are maybe a little tired of me telling them how important that they are to the big picture… but they sure are). That it isn’t just about the high school getting students to graduation, it is a community of educators, coaches, schools and families that get them there. It’s about shared responsibility for students all the way through, not just when they sit in front of us in class.

How do we create systems of ownership of all?  What should be the expectations of K-12, creating cultures of coherence?  In my experience, it takes strong leadership (district and school level) based on deep understanding that all grades impact the end goal; not just the state or provincial tested years.  That having high expectations for all students to leave a grade proficient in essential learnings, in other words, what really is expected at that grade level has to be the system norm.  For example, that writing in fifth grade shouldn’t look like writing in second grade and we definitely should not be ok with that. And, mostly, that students and teachers are well supported in meeting these grade level targets.

As we close another school year (and I know my friends in the northern states and Canada are not quite here yet), what have you done to contribute to a student’s success this year?  Do you know the impact that you have had? Have you stopped and celebrated your small wins and the bigger wins as well?  Can you see the need for all of us in education to share the ownership?  Is it fair for high school teachers to feel the overwhelming responsibility to have students graduate?  I know these questions might seem rhetorical to you, but please consider your contributions.  Next time, I will write my twenty-fifth blog on improving schools. It will be my last for a couple of months as a take a summer break with you.  Thank you for staying with me on this journey. I have loved your feedback and comments. See you next Saturday.

 

Holding the Pom Poms

What happens when teachers and school leaders believe in students?  When the students  are told over and over again, how valued they are and how important it is that they do their very best? When they know that we, the adults, really care about their success?  And how this unfolds when they have a cheerleader who leads the positive energy and enthusiasm?  And when this person is your principal?

Meet Dr. Sonya Coley, principal at Riley Elementary School in Macon, Georgia. Dr. C took on Riley this year and, I have to tell you, she cares. fullsizeoutput_a54 She can write the book on being a student’s biggest cheerleader and that is how she started the year off…with her pom poms and her t-shirt that says believe in the blue and gold… she really does!
I have visited the school several times this year and during every visit, at least once, a student has stopped  Dr. Coley to tell her about their work… how they are improving, what they are working on and how many books they are now reading.  Now, to many of you, this might not sound like a big deal but for those of you who work in low performing schools and if you have followed this blog for a while, you have to be seeing the continuous pattern of school improvement. It has to start with relationships and building a community of learners.

There is a down side to caring so much and having high expectations. Sometimes we are disappointed.  That is what I saw this week.  Despite Dr. Coley’s focus on the right work and her teachers consistent practices to close the achievement gap at the school, when they received preliminary state assessment data, they still had many, many students not working at grade level.  And, as Dr. Coley said, it feels like they failed.  She told me about teachers crying when they saw the scores and she teared up with me as we talked about it.

As her school improvement coach, it was time for me to help her look at the entire year-answering questions about where they started, what they focused on and finally, what the data was saying about growth.  The thing is, when students are many grade levels behind, one year of growth is not good enough. To get this to double and triple and so on… it really does take an intensive focus on being sure we are meeting  needs -student by student/skill by skill. Through reflection, Dr. C recognized the work that she and her staff have done to create a safe and positive school learning culture. She talked to me about the students who show pride in meeting their goals and that she sees so many positive adult and student relationships in the building.  She also knows that they have positive growth towards academic goals even if it isn’t quite where she wants it yet. She has led professional learning and collaboration with her teachers and instructional practices are improving.  I am proud of her.  The students and teachers need her at that school.

Across town at MLK Jr., I also had a funny reminder of this same theme- how important it is to get students excited about their learning.. you know really excited.  What does it look like when you see it and hear it? Out of the mouth of babes… let me tell you a little more about it.

How do we collect evidence on student ownership of their learning?  How do we know an academic culture is moving forward? Could it be as simple as being in the bus yard as they are getting on or off the bus?  Letting the students do the talking?  I think this is the best “soft data” that we can collect.  When the students are running up to their administrators and teachers, truly excited and wanting to talk (maybe all at once) about how well they did on something that they have been assessed on?  Would this be reliable data?  How about when a little boy is truly excited, I mean really excited to tell us all… “I growed, I growed!!!”. Ok, he may not have the vocabulary correct (yet) and there is obviously more work to do but it really did my heart good (and the teachers) to hear and see this student so excited about his progress.  As one administrator said to me this week, “It makes me feel so good to know the students care.”

Building this learning culture of pride in the school and academics is a winning first step in improving your school. I have seen, time and time again, students will rise to the occasion when they know what is expected.  Let’s face it, we all go to work (and school) wanting to do our best.  We just don’t always know how to do it or if it really matters to someone!   Once we know and apply ourselves, we too can say “we growed!” See you next Saturday.

 

Commitments

What does it mean to make a personal commitment?  To say, out loud, to others, or reflectively to ourselves,  what we are going to do… to honor others with our promise, our integrity, to live by our vision and values. In both personal and professional lives, we make promises to ourselves and to others. And, as we all know, a commitment is just that until we match our actions, on a consistent basis, with what we declared.  We get in to patterns, good or bad.  Habits, or as I often hear in schools, “it is just the way it is here”, are tough cycles to break.  And, that is what school improvement is about…not accepting the status quo and making commitments to change what is needed for students.  In this twenty-second blog I want to take you on the road with me to two schools that I visited this week. Both are led by principals who truly understand the need to personally commit to leading change. And… I will tell you a story about how hard it was to get a staff to buy in to living by their personal commitments and what happened when they didn’t…

Let’s start with Fox Elementary School in Columbus, Georgia.  You may remember this school from a December blog when I wrote about their fun holiday activity, “An Island of Misfits”.  The school is led by Dr. Yvette Scarborough and this year ends her third year as principal and my fourth year supporting this school. On Tuesday, I had one of the best days I have had as a school improvement consultant.  With Dr. Yvette and others, we spent the entire day reflecting on progress and determining the current reality of the school. They faced the facts of where they were with student achievement, with instructional practices, how the teachers were developing their skills collaboratively,  what gains had been made in improving the overall learning culture of the school and what parent and community partnerships were developing. We used a rubric to evaluate all aspects of their work and compared this to what we had determined to be the current reality a year ago.

Now, as we all know, when we make commitments (even just to ourselves), following through can be difficult.  Taking time to reflect and actually see where you are can led to a tough reality- facing the brutal facts.  It isn’t the easiest thing to admit to ourselves and others that we didn’t do what we said we would do.  The good news at Fox this past week was that we had so much evidence of follow through and actions that matched the commitments made a year ago. And, what really is worth writing about is the fact that in the areas that we did not see growth, Dr. Yvette and her team admitted what they did or didn’t do and what had to happen next. There was no blame or defensiveness, it was just honest reflection and, in my opinion, continuous improvement doesn’t get much better than this.

Unfortunately, commitments do not always lead to appropriate actions.  A staff I worked with at one time did not believe in the students or the collaborative work that had to be done.  They were not interested in truly determining what was essential for students to know and be able to do and they sure did not want to work together to evaluate students or decide next steps to meet the student needs.  They met as teams when I was on site out of compliance for what we were doing but they were not committed.  commitment (1)At one point, I had a break through with them (well, I thought I did!).  I had presented them with the results of a comprehensive needs assessment and we had a frank conversation about the needs of the students.  We talked a long time about how important their role was and what could be done to support the students.  We ended the day with each of them making personal commitment statements of what they would do. Here are a few of the things that they said:

  • I will work harder to be more optimistic and positive
  • I will provide more engaging lessons for my students
  • I will push my students to work at their level and challenge them
  • I plan to work on academic rigor to teach the standards
  • I will use more formative practices in my classroom
  • I will celebrate student progress- no matter how small

These statements (and others) gave me hope that this staff could work together to improve their school and make things better for their students.  But, I was wrong.  Over time, they did not follow through on their personal commitment statements and they did not change their actions.  When I was on site, they continued to blame the students for the lack of improvement. (I remember, at one point, being a little frustrated with them and wanting to tell them that the parents were not keeping the smart children home under the bed… these students are the ones that we have to work with and deserve our best efforts.) In the end, most of these teachers moved on to other schools and the current staff at this school is now more comfortable with the necessary work and their belief in the ability of the students.

Lastly, I want to tell you about my visit with Principal Amy Wohler at Jordan High School. Ms. Wohler became principal of this school in 2016 and immediately made a personal commitment to build trusting, respectful relationships so that students and staff  would feel valued. She felt that this was her leadership strength and as a new administrator, she wanted to work from her strengths.  We also spent a day this week reflecting on the progress and the current reality of the school and really looked back on the needs we had identified and the goals that we had set together. Principal Amy is the first to admit that the instruction and collaborative practices are not as strong yet as she had hoped that they would be but she does feel that she has led and contributed to a stronger, more positive learning environment for students.  She believes that both adults and students know that they are valued and that there is a stronger sense of belief in the strengths of the students and what they can achieve.  For me, this was a day with mixed emotions… a strong foundation is built and there is still so much to do at this school.  However, Ms. Wohler is moving out-of-state for personal reasons and will no longer be leading the school.  Her ability to lead with personal integrity and pride will be missed.  Her understanding of what it takes to build trust and hope in others is still needed at the school.  She has led by example and this will be her legacy.  The staff and students, hopefully, can follow in her lead. The will need to personally commit to maintaining what areas that they have improved on and being prepared to focus on the next steps for growth.

As I leave you this week I ask you to reflect on your own personal and professional commitments. What have you said that you were going to do? What actually are you doing? Is there alignment or is this a good time to reconsider, make adjustments and move forward? Thanks for being here. See you next Saturday.

“How Goes the Principal Goes the School”

It has to start with the principal. Let me be very frank.  If the principal does not understand the work and be willing to lead it, it is almost impossible for a school to improve.  In the past five years, I have worked in forty schools.  Some I have visited once, others I am fortunate enough to spend one or two days every month in and many  I have been blessed to be with for three years or so.  What determines if the work will continue?  What will give a school improvement project continuous growth?  Who truly determines if it works?

It doesn’t take long for me to know if I am going to have a good opportunity to positively impact a school. A conversation and some time spent with the principal observing how he or she interacts with people, what kinds of questions they ask and what they value provides evidence of whether they will accept coaching support and trust me to work with them in the school.  Of course, the relationship that I need to build with the principal takes time and it doesn’t always work out that we are a good fit for each other.  The most important piece, however, is if the principal is willing to dig deep, to learn about the change process and to accept that the status quo is not what moves a school. There can be no excuses and the principal has to play many roles.

In my good friend, Cathy Lassiter’s book, Everyday Courage for School Leaders (2017) she writes about courage and its value in the work of a principal. She is correct. The courage to build relationships and trust even when people are questioning, arguing (even yelling at you), the courage to ask others to change practices, their beliefs and try new things (despite years of experience behind them) and the courage and patience to have very exhausting, confusing and difficult days only to go back to work and start over each and every morning; one conversation at a time, one priority at a time and all the time building your own confidence. As one principal recently said to me, “I am responsible for everything in this building$_35 and I don’t have the confidence yet in all of my decisions. How do I get there? What do I do first?”

A few weeks  ago, you met Jan. She is a young principal like the one described above and she is Willie’s principal (you met him in the second blog post). She is courageous and recognizes that she doesn’t know everything about all she has responsibility for but she is a superhero when it comes to relationships.  Whenever I am in her school, I watch in awe as she has conversation after conversation with students, staff and parents and there is no question in anyone’s mind, they know they come first to her over paperwork, reports, maintenance issues, etc.  She has a way of putting people first that is authentic and inspiring.

The culture that Jan is working so hard to create leans more towards understanding and building trusting relationships first with staff and students and then taking care of the business of improving student achievement.  And this is taking her a long way in the initial stages of continuous school improvement.  She knows that the real work around curriculum, assessments, student data and what to do to meet the needs of all the students is the work she has to get at with her staff but first, she needed the relationships. Jan also understands that you can not work on culture (relationships) and leave out the classroom instructional focus. It isn’t one or the other.  Both have to happen and she is balancing these two balls with great finesse.

To all of the teachers reading this blog, please do not think for a minute that I am disregarding the importance that you play, every single day, in the lives of your students. Without your ability to develop engaging classrooms that encourage students to be self learners; thinking for themselves in create and safe environments, principals would have little influence.  Their leadership role is only impactful when you, the teachers follow the lead.  They can not be a team of “one”; it takes a shared leadership model, a collaborative effort on the part of everyone to improve a school.  I love this quote from Ken Williams, “Leaders strike the match for school wide cultural changes; staff fan the flames.”

So, this week’s blog (21st in the series) is dedicated to the principals that I am currently working with in the spirit of improving schools. They are courageous, tireless men and women who want the best for their students and staff. They are willing to learn and willing to admit when they do not know what to do next.  It warms my heart when, between visits, one of them calls because they are not sure what to do.  This tells me that we will get there.  School improvement happens in small steps and feels messy. It isn’t about straight roads with smooth pavement but more like a hilly, bumpy road.  Just when you think you have everything worked out a new hill and valley appear on the horizon and you are on the learning path again. The journey continues. See you next Saturday.

 

Lessons

Lessons we learn come from many places.  Both professionally and personally, they appear when we least expect them. For the most part, my lessons seem to take hold when I am really present; when I am truly paying attention to what is happening around me. I am sure that I have missed many of the “lessons” in my life by just not noticing.  Thankfully, I have learned to be more aware and to recognize that I can learn from so many people in many situations.  This past week, I had one of those moments. In a single conversation, I had a valuable lesson about the work that I do in school improvement. I think it was one that I knew before but it became crystal clear to me this week.   It created a spark and inspired me to tell you about it.  So, this twentieth school improvement blog is dedicated to Julie Ortego and the lesson she taught me this week…

1989… that is the year my youngest daughter was born.  Why am I telling you this?  Because that is also the year that Ms. Ortego was born. IMG_9177 I am amazed by this generation.  They are willing to work and willing to learn. And, willing to teach others as young as her students and as old as me.  She was my teacher this week…

Julie is a second year teacher at Northside High School in Lafayette, Louisiana.  Northside is a high needs school and both students and staff are working hard to improve the current reality.  Julie teachs biology and other sciences and she works with other teachers as part of a collaborative team. But, that is not what I want to write to you about. What I really appreciate about Julie is her willingness to learn and improve as a teacher.  She would be the first to tell you that she struggled her first year; to the point of wanting to resign on several occasions (and just for a minute I flashed back to my first years of teaching when I carried around a letter of resignation for weeks).  She even admits that she still thinks about it and considers other professions.  And, Julie is not alone.

We know that there is a very high number of beginning teachers who leave the profession, year one and two especially, but as high as in their fifth year.  We also know that ninety percent of teacher demand is not because of increased student enrollment, it is because of teachers quitting. Yes, some retire but mostly teachers leave because they are dissatisfied with their work. Every principal reading this knows how hard it is to staff a school over and over again with teachers who are highly effective in the classroom. And this pattern of over and over again happens more in high poverty areas where students need consistent effective instruction. In fact, students in high needs schools are four times more likely to be taught by uncertified teachers.  So, how do we keep the Julies in these schools?

Well, first of all, they have to be willing to do the work.  Anyone who has taught in a school with extremely high needs knows that it takes a great deal of commitment and dedication to meet the needs of the students.  So, a work ethic is job one in my opinion.  Now, if the will is there, how do we improve the skill?  That is exactly what Julie figured out in year two.  She was more than willing to do the work and learn and she readily admitted that she needed to be a more effective teacher.

In year one, Julie started out with high expectations but soon fell in to a common pattern…lowering her expectations because it didn’t seem like the students could do the work. This is a common pattern that I see in low performing schools.  In conversation with Julie, she admits that the lowering of her expectations last year led to a struggle with classroom management.  The students were bored,  not engaged and started to show this in very negative ways. The job became more difficult and she did not feel that she was able to meet the needs of her students. It was overwhelming.

Over the summer, Julie had an opportunity to observe a leader who had very effective skills with students.  She noticed that the students responded to high expectations as long as the leader was taking the time to get to know the students and build relationships.  Julie went back to the drawing board for this year and started over.  She worked hard to build trusting, respectful relationships with her students and she maintained high expectations for them.  She worked with an instructional facilitator, accepted feedback from her administration and was willing to try new strategies.  When I talked to her this week she was full of enthusiasm for how far she has grown in her profession.  I asked her what her evidence was that she was being more effective and she replied,  “her students are more successful academically, they are asking more questions, they want to learn and they even stay for tutoring!” Oh, and the big aha moment we had… they are no longer skipping her classes!

Julie also benefits from working with a caring, committed school administration and has the support of a collaborative team.  All of this is important to a beginning teacher. It removes the feeling of isolation… of having to figure things out by themselves.  Teaching is a very challenging profession and the last thing we want in our schools is for teachers to fall through the cracks when support, learning and encouragement is needed.  Dylan William is one of my favorite education experts. In his book, Leadership for Teacher Learning (1916) he states, “improving the quality of teachers can be done in two ways: by replacement and by improvement.  We can replace existing teachers with better ones and we can improve the teachers who are already working in our schools.”  If the will is there and the work ethic, I say we support learning and improvement with the teachers, like Julie, already in our schools.  Northside students deserve and need Julie and others like her.

Julie’s lesson with me this week was about this… improvement is improvement. Julie might not be completely happy with her classroom management and lesson designs yet but she sure knows that she is more effective in meeting the needs of her students this year then last year.  So, we celebrate…celebrate the small wins… recognize that fewer students skipping  class is a really good thing.  Celebrate when five more students are able to master a skill or concept than the last time you checked.  Be really happy with growth… it may not be the final outcome we have but it is where we have to start. In every school there is a Julie.  A teacher who goes to work each and every day wanting to do their best.  How do we, collectively, take care of the Julies? What does it take to ensure success?  Keeping these young teachers in our profession matters. Helping them improve has to be a priority.  Thank you Julie.  I appreciate you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Community

This one is difficult to write.  As the title suggests, it is about community. The building of community – how by connecting with one another, relying on one another and supporting one another, we  create interdependency. We depend on each other, learn from each other and work together.   As Peter Block describes in his book, Community:  The Structure of Belonging, “We are a community of possibilities, not a community of problems.  Community exists for the sake of belonging and takes its identity from the gifts, generosity, and accountability of its citizens. It is not defined by its fears, its isolation, or its penchant for retribution.” I think when I was growing up, I only understood community to be where I lived… the north side of the river in Fredericton, New Brunswick- the community called Devon.  Through many experiences in the past several years, I have learned the true meaning of community. The coming together of people to create support, problem solve and often, as Block’s quote states, to create possibilities for others- maybe the “possibility of hope”, of better days to come. This is what we have experienced this past week as we learned about the devastating accident involving the Humboldt Broncos.

The Humboldt Broncos play as part of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (a league for players under the age of 20 years old) in Canada. On their way to play a game last Friday night, their bus collided with a transport truck and sixteen people have died. Humboldt is a small community (population 5800) and obviously, the news of this accident has devastated this town.

As we have seen over the past several years, when tragedy strikes cities the size of Las Vegas and Boston or even as small as Humboldt, a community of support builds. I know that the families of the deceased and the town of Humboldt are experiencing a sense that they are not alone in their grief.  A vigil was held in the town last Sunday night with thousands attending including Prime Minister Trudeau. A GoFundMe campaign set up to benefit the players and families reached its goal of $4 million in two days  and as of Friday night  has totaled over $11 million from more than 126,000 donors. The National Hockey League sent Humboldt Bronco decals to all their teams to consider wearing on their helmets for their playoff games. The Pittsburgh Penguins were the first to state that they would definitely be wearing them and Sidney Crosby signed messages sent to all of the survivors. Many of the NHL teams honored the team in some way during their games last weekend. The New England Patriots sent flowers to a family of a victim when they heard he had been a Patriot fan.  There are many, many other examples of overwhelming support and the one that really touches my heart is the “put your sticks out” campaign.

It all started with one person posting a picture of his porch light on and his hockey stick by the door. His posting said… “leaving it out on the porch tonight… the boys might need it.” During the past few days, hockey sticks have been seen all over Canada and United States, on snow-covered porches with candles, on balconies of high-rise buildings in sunny, warm states, in the poorest of neighborhoods and on wealthy estates. 30594584_1894145210604954_8916195151211134976_o Olympic champions put their very special “winning” sticks out… no one seemed to care what might happen to them. It was all about being part of a community of support.  The true meaning of community is alive and well in the most horrific of circumstances.

So, what does this have to do with school improvement, which is what this nineteenth blog is supposed to be about? When I work in schools, one of the most important roles that I have is to support the work of professional learning communities; teachers collaborating to create the highest levels of learning for students.  Sometimes we have to stop and think about what the three words mean… professional, learning and community.  A group of professionals working and learning together to positively impact student success.  They put their heads together to understand what students need to know and be able to do, how they will know with quality common assessments, what the evidence of learning is from the assessments and most importantly, what they will do next for the students to support learning.

Sometimes, it feels that teachers are working through these steps out of compliance of having to work together and it often just takes time (well, and a lot of work) to get to the real sense of community that will authentically create the best possibilities for the students.  The collective wisdom of the educators is needed at all steps of this process and then the benefits of community are realized. It doesn’t matter if the school is big or small or the number of teachers working together,  it is about interdependence. Each person brings unique qualities, experiences and wisdom to their work and even though they can work independently with students, they are stronger as a collective community in meeting the needs of students. One hockey stick on the porch was impactful but a wave of support was created by  “community” when many others did the same. Educators have this opportunity every day.

I started this blog by saying it is a difficult one for me to write. This is true for many reasons including the obvious overwhelming sadness felt for the families of the victims.   This accident also brought back a wave of emotions for me and sent me right back to the school year 2007-2008 when, as a superintendent, I went to nineteen student funerals.  The school year started off with a tragic accident involving  four boys from one of the high schools in my district. I went to three of their funerals in one day.  I remember thinking that no where in my education training did I learn how to do that.  In January, a high school basketball team from another district (Bathurst High School, the Boys in Red, as they were so lovingly remembered) crashed after they had played a game in our district. Seven players and the wife of the coach were killed in that accident. And, just like Humboldt, “community” prevailed. Sadness, grief, loss and a desperate need to make sense of it all become part of our life but knowing others are with us can make a significant difference to those suffering.

I have learned many lessons over the years and the one that continues to amaze me is this notion of community… it might be where we live but it really is about collective hope and support and figuring things out together. Isn’t that what school improvement should be about? Educators working together to inspire and impact the lives of our students?  Giving hope to one another when we are not sure what to do and supporting students on their learning journey? Of course, in schools, it doesn’t take a tragedy for us to work together. We can create “community” every day.  Thanks for being here with me.  See you next Saturday.