GRIT over GIVEN

Wow! Is anyone else having trouble believing that it is the end of 2017? With busy lives time sure flies! What did I do this year for fun and adventure? Who did I spend my time with and what did I learn? New Year’s always seems to bring cause for reflection. I am often asked what keeps me on the road. Why do I still want to do this work?  Why all the flights and hotels? The answer is quite simple- the people I meet.

Every single day, I learn from someone.  Sometimes, the lessons come from airplane conversations, for example, the young student from Italy who was coming to North America to find her birth mother and the young man with four children who showed me a hundred pictures of his children if he showed me one!   They were both so passionate and happy to chat. And, of course, “people-watching” in airports can be interesting.  The acts of kindness (and the not so kind things that happen).   I remember driving to the Fort Benning military gate by mistake instead of the exit in to the school I was going to.  It was a good thing that I had my passport with me because the soldier at the gate wasn’t too convinced that I had actually made a mistake. (For my friends back home, you are not likely surprised that I have car stories!)

But, mostly I learn in my schools. From the adults and the students.  As I reflect on the year, I had my share of challenges balanced with lots of laughs with caring educators. I met students who will always be in my hearts.  My little friend Sabrina who gave me a knee hug every time she saw me in her school.  And of course, Willie.  He sure liked to talk when we had the chance.   In this fourth blog in my school improvement series, I want to share a couple of my favorite memories.  Some memories are blurry but some stand out  as “my lessons learned”. Here are a couple…

Picture2 For over three years, I had the pleasure of working at East Gresham Elementary School in Portland, Oregon.  As in all schools that I have worked in, so much of the heavy lifting had to start with the school culture, developing a growth mindset and raising expectations.  Over time, the school developed a theme of “GRIT”… no exceptions no excuses. During my visits there, I watched teachers move from wanting to believe that they could create the right opportunities for students to truly doing it.  They learned to work together and their confidence grew as professionals.  Despite the challenges of working in a high poverty, low performing school, they successfully turned a corner to improvement.

Picture1The highlight of my visits at East Gresham came in January of this year.  I arrived at the school only to learn that they had many snow days. ( I know, snow in Portland? Right?? I could almost swear I was back in NB, Canada!)  They had been closed for about 6 days when I arrived and the teachers and principal, Kimberly Miles were having a conversation about what to expect that morning when the student arrived.  Initially, the teachers were worried about how to catch up. What lessons would the eliminate? How much would the students have forgotten? Where would they need to start?  But, the conversation soon took a different twist. In what condition would we find our students? You see, the homeless rate at that school was close to 30% and the staff recognized right away that many of the students would have been without shelter or food during the time away from school. The school community does an amazing job of providing food to students and families but this support was not available while the school was closed.

16422846_1779622425692765_5013937122723251846_oWithin a few minutes, the teachers made a plan to line up in the front hallway and ” clap every single student in.” Mrs. Miles led the way by going outside and greeting every student as they came to the door (well, in fact, she does this every day). Once inside the door, the students were greeted by all of the teachers lining both sides of the hallway clapping and cheering for them.  The beautiful little faces moved from looks of fear and sadness to smiles and tears.   It was a moment that I will never forget. A culture of relationships while at the same time recognizing that hard work and high expectations would be necessary to move that school is what East is all about.

The Toronto Raptors basketball team have aMNess_BLKT_Grit theme this season, “The North over Everything”. Now, I like that theme (and the team!) but what I really appreciate is that they also have a logo that reads, “GRIT over Given”.  That says it all about my friends at East Gresham. Nothing comes easy but the students and staff have developed a positive hard-working mindset that embraces a very strong collaborative culture of learning. Lesson #1 in 2017- As important as curriculum and our great lesson plans are, let’s make sure we get the relationships right in the first place. And, relationships are not a given.

IMG_8246My last 2017 memory that I want to share with you comes from Morrilton Intermediate School in Morrilton, Arkansas.  I found myself there on Friday, November 10, the day before Veteran’s Day or as we call it in Canada, Remembrance Day.  All of that week, I wore my poppy as I would have had I been working in Canada. When we were almost finished for the day, Principal Tapley asked me if I was going to stay for their Veteran’s Day assembly.  I was so pleased to be asked.  You see, as a Canadian superintendent for 9 years, I attended many Remembrance Day assemblies but I had never experienced a Veteran’s Day assembly.  As we headed to the auditorium, the first thing I saw was a wall of poppies and a copy of  Canadian John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields”IMG_8446

The students created a very respectful and thoughtful assembly honoring many veterans who attended.  The songs they sung, the stories and poems that they read and told and the very careful demonstration and explanation of how to fold a flag was appreciated by everyone.   And, for the lone Canadian in the room, I felt very much at home.  Despite our two countries’ unique qualities and characteristics, we really have a great deal in common. On November 10, I learned so much  from the students at MIS. They care about the right things.  They are our future.  Lesson #2 in 2017- schools are about students and when given the chance, they can and want to lead.

So, as we begin 2018 together, I wish  you a year of peaceful reflection and renewal.  Embrace every learning opportunity that comes before you.  For the next several weeks, Willie and his school will be how I reflect as I write to you about their experiences as a school that is not settling for “given”. If you are reading the blog, I would love to hear from you and welcome any feedback. Happy New Year and I look forward to our continued journey together in 2018. See you next Saturday.

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