Back to School

This time of the year brings back a flood of memories of so many “first days” of school for me. As an educator, the excitement and nervousness of the new year was symbolized by the new freshly sharpened pencils, clean, crisp notebooks and the wonder of who would be in my class. In fact, I can still remember my first day of school as a teacher in 1980. I remember what I wore that day and the moment that I met my class for the first time at Riverview Junior High. Last week, I walked in to a store with a smaller than usual display of school supplies. colored-pencils-686679__340The aisle looked sad rather than enticing and quickly reminded me that the start of 2020-2021 is different. Yes, school is starting however, for many, feelings of anxiety and fear have replaced the excitement and wonder that this time of the year traditionally brings.

One principal recently told me that she is frustrated by the many posts and reminders to “be prepared”.  In fact, she asked me, “How do you prepare for something that we have never faced before and never had the experience to overcome?” In our conversation, however, it was clear to me that she had spent the past several weeks doing all she could to be just that- as prepared as possible for whatever this fall brings. What I mostly love about her direction is her focus on her students. In every decision that she is making, she is putting the care and attention of her students first. And, as long as she keeps this at the forefront of all of her actions, she will be ok this year.

As a leadership coach, I have to pay attention when leaders lose their focus. It is easy to have great plans and intentions as school begins, but distractors can quickly creep in and take time and attention off the real work. Minimizing priorities so what you determine to be essential has always been important to leaders and I believe, more than ever, this year has to be about only the essentials. Consider making time for yourself to reflect  with these questions-  What is absolutely essential to spend my time doing? What is absolutely the most important learning for our students this year?  What can I do to ensure my staff, students and parents understand our “why” and see it in how I make decisions and communicate? What are the essential needs of the adults who I work with and how do I support these needs? How can I lead from a place of confidence and support rather than fear and anxiety?

Through the weeks of COVID -19 challenges, educators adjusted quickly to virtual platforms and now as school has started or will start for you, more changes are needed. In some places, school and district leaders are being told what the current reality will be and in other places, these very difficult and important decisions are left to them.  And, we know that that even more adjustments might need to be made in the coming weeks. Over the summer months, conversations with school and district leaders have reminded me of the value of relationships and humility in our work. Putting people first, having empathy and creating every opportunity to share leadership with others goes a very long way in building respect as a leader. Couple this with a focus on the student and this year will not seem quite so daunting.

I have always found that creating time and space to reflect and focus on my own leadership skills helped me be energized and ready for the next challenge. This year is a “whatever it takes year” and it is ok to lean on others for support. Take a breath and recharge when you can and know that an intentional focus will help you in so many ways. It is ok to be distracted…just recognize when you are and do what you can to return to what you know to be essential. This will help you lead with confidence and a sense of purpose- something I know to make a huge difference in how I lead.

Over the past three weeks, I have had the great fun of being part of a book study focused on leading with intention. Tuesday, August 25 is our last session and it is all about communicating and building relationships. School and district leaders, give yourself the gift of 45 minutes of professional and personal development and join us  (complimentary) by registering at https://solutiontree.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_V6GAnQv7STeMR0MyA9GD5A.

Thanks for reading, leading, teaching. I appreciate you.

Calming the waters…

Calm waters, beautiful sunsets. Taking my evening walks on the quiet beach in eastern Canada allows me an escape from the current reality.   I feel blessed to have this opportunity each and every day and I try hard to never take it for granted. On March 11, I finished my coaching day and left a school; little did I know that I would spend the next twenty weeks (and more to come) virtually meeting educators and coaching from home. Instead of wondering if flights will be delayed or canceled and how my visits will be received at schools and in districts, I am losing sleep over the enormous decisions that face the district and school leaders I am working with and the teachers who are entering a school year full of unknowns. School is starting very soon in many places that I work. Here is what I learned this week…

Resiliency: Working as a teacher, administrator and consultant since 1980, I have witnessed incredible acts of resiliency by educators over the years but never has this been so apparent as it is right now. Since March, teachers and leaders in districts and schools have stepped up, figured out, adjusted, tried again and now they are building the plane as they are flying it- responding to government requests or suggestions, school board decisions and others weighing in on how or how not to open schools this fall.  Classrooms are being set up for physical distancing, virtual learning platforms are being developed and teachers are being trained and retrained while trying to stay healthy and safe. They know their number one job is to educate and ensure each and every student receives an education and despite the numerous distractions, I am confident they will figure out how to stay focused as this school year begins.

Empathy: I am proud, honored and amazed (not surprised) to witness the empathy being shown by district leaders as they work with their principals.  Building professional development sessions that include self-care, social and emotional support for school leaders is the new norm as they understand the need to share ownership and build human capacity within their systems. They are exhausted, confused, and also building the plane as they fly it; knowing that each and every decision taken right now will be met with question.  They can not make every person happy  (parents, community, staff)  and it feels like a no-win situation. Their focus has to be on the education and well being of students and at the same time, do their very best to take care of the adults in their system.

Excitement: Over the past few weeks, I have had the absolute pleasure to work with brand new principals! Their excitement explodes through the computer screen, creating synergy that is often difficult to find in a virtual coaching model. Despite the world as we know it today, they are ready to take it on! As one of my dear friends, educator Lissa Pijjanowski said in an instagram post this week, “Educators, you’ve got this!!”.  In fact, principals, seasoned or our newbies are up to the challenge! They are working collaboratively to determine best next steps and create solid action plans that will be safe and healthy for students and staff. They are also modeling empathy and understanding and we need to hold them close to our hearts as they never signed up for leadership this difficult.

So, on that note, if you are a leader reading this, I would love you to join our virtual, complimentary book study beginning August 4.  My co-author, Jeanne Spiller and I will be working through Leading with Intention as we desperately want to help you recharge your battery and tackle this school year with confidence and focus. It will also be recorded so if you can not attend one of the four sessions, register regardless so you can access the recordings. Here is the link for the complimentary registration- https://www.solutiontree.com/ca/leading-with-intention-book-study.html. Jeanne is a practicing assistant superintendent, dealing with the same difficult decisions that you are and I am working through so many leadership coaching conversations that I feel we have lots to offer you right now through this book study.  We sure would love to “see” you there!

The year 2020 will long be remembered in world history. For educators, it will be one that has most definitely impacted how you teach and lead. There have been and will continue to be lessons learned of how the sails can be adjusted when the waters are not calm, mCR3MigYTp6REfkRdnn+Jgwhen the tides can turn at a moments notice and we have to respond accordingly, and how the trust and relationships that we have with parents, students and other coworkers create a network of care and support we all needed when we were confused, sad and frustrated. Emotional, social, mental and intellectual needs of ourselves and others have been challenged in ways we never knew possible.

The year is not over and care must still be taken as we plan and adapt for the start of the school year.   We know students will return to us with learning gaps and in whatever format learning has to take this year- within the walls of a building or in front of a computer screen, the needs of students will be the focus. This is the truth about why we are educators.  No matter what. I believe in you and will be here to support you. You’ve got this.

Dear School Principal…

Dear School Principal,

What will you remember about the 2019-2020 school year? Is it a struggle to think past March and even remember any or all the events and decisions  made prior to COVID 19? I am confident that the past weeks have pushed aside your thoughts of other work that was done. How did you start the year? What did you do to build culture, create learning opportunities for staff and students, what amazing events did you host for family and community and what actions were you continuously taking to ensure success for your students?  You worked on the right work and, for many, it felt that the fruits of labor did not come to be.  Not true… I say. In fact, because you built a collaborative culture, focused on student learning and because you were intentionally paying attention to results as the year progressed, you were able to be successful even during the COVID shutdown.  So, it is time to find those memories and celebrate your work this entire school year.

As I sit home, still unable to travel for my leadership coaching work, I am in awe of the recent graduation events planned for local high schools. In the school district that I worked my entire life, I see pictures and posts of very thoughtful and carefully planned ways to celebrate the 2020 graduates. Students have their own time with the principal and teachers with family in attendance, photographs with social distancing arranged and mostly, a focus squarely on the graduating student as they turn the next page in their life. They have their diplomas from a year no one will easily forget. For some graduates, this diploma might be the only one that they ever receive and for others, it is a key to continuous learning, anytime in their lives. They just have to pull it out and see what door it will open.

Strong, successful schools have courageous, focused leaders. Getting students to graduation is a learning progression; starting in Pre K or Kindergarten, numerous teachers and school leaders impact the progression. High school principals have the privilege of being there for the end, primary principals begin the journey. The decisions made at every level determine the experience for each and every student. In the end, the relationships and equitable decisions built through trust and respect are what matter the most. Of course there are the curriculum decisions, the need for quality instruction, the important times when we intervene to ensure learning, however, the culture built in a school by a principal determines how goes the school.

Reflecting on this school year, how have you addressed culture? What did you do to make your school a success? We know that changing culture is more difficult than addressing organizational changes; like the duty schedule or assignment of classrooms. We know that a healthy school culture is built from collective responsibility for all students and that teachers worked collaboratively to address the needs of students. And, it takes tons of trust and respect for each and every person, no matter what. How did that go for you this year?fullsizeoutput_17b3 What did you do, for example, last August or September, to ensure that this was the culture that you were building? How did you intentionally address expectations? What steps did you take to continuously build common understanding and support the work of your teachers? Where did you spend your time? Were you with students in the cafeteria? On the playground? At the door greeting them in the morning? How did you get to know your teachers?  And, how did you know that your culture was healthy? Undoubtedly, when COVID closed your school it became apparent; you had a healthy culture in your toolkit and was able to make good use of it to continue the amazing work of your teachers, students and families.

In my coaching sessions, I like to remind principals that when the going gets tough, culture will get them through. Trust, respect and collaborative relationships  focused on tight expectations provide a foundation for difficult decisions in messy times. I am fairly certain that you felt this tested this spring.  I truly hope that your toolkit was so full of a healthy culture that collaboration, results and learning continued- yes, how this had to happen had to be adjusted but it almost felt seamless as teachers stepped up and rallied behind a common goal; reaching, supporting and teaching students and families in a very stressful time. And this did seem seamless to many schools, thankfully with leaders who had spent time building a collaborative, healthy culture.

So, dear principals, take the time to reflect on the entire past school year. Consider what truly worked and CELEBRATE you!  Then, and only then, turn to your areas of growth. Plan for 2002-2021 with enthusiasm and courage to develop the healthiest, equitable, respectful school culture that you can imagine. There is always room for improvement and you are the one to have the greatest impact on how people (staff, students and parents) behave in your school. You can not do it all but you can find a few things to focus on and work deeply at ensuring that these priorities are moving your school forward.  Plan now to do that. Spend some time this summer considering policies and practices that must change. Understand your people; build relationships and get to really know your communities. Then you can focus on curriculum and instruction. It isn’t this or that; but without a healthy culture, the learning will be stuck.

Have a great summer. Thank you for all that you do to lead. And, if you are a school principal and as a gift to you, if you have read this far and you are interested… leave a comment here and we can arrange a complimentary coaching session at your convenience!

All the best!
Karen

 

 

Just What I Needed

Inspired. Peaceful. Insightful. These are the three words that represent the book that I just finished reading. Do not be fooled by the title; yes if you are a teacher or school leader you will be interested and feel empowered about the profession that you have chosen. And, if you are a lover of amazing stories of life journeys and decisions then this book is a great choice to curl up and read. 71qY6z0GWbL._AC_UY436_QL65_Teaching at the Top of the World is written by a fellow New Brunswick educator, Odette Barr, as she shares her experience as a teacher and principal traveling to live and work in Grise Fiord, the most isolated community in the Canadian Arctic.

Odette’s writing makes me feel proud to be an educator, envious of the experience that she had by moving to the north for an entire decade, gasping at the struggles that surely were more demanding than her strong personality allowed them to be, smiling at the visuals of students and families waiting every year at the air strip to greet the teachers when they arrived at the end of the summer and in amazement of what beautiful appreciation to nature and the world around creates when you notice. I can feel the joy of the lengthening of the days as the sun finally appears for a few minutes longer in the winter months; taking the community from darkness to, as Odette describes, the days of endless sunlight- months and months of one very long day. (p. 68)

As I write this blog, we are still in challenging days- COVID-19 is still with us and many, many cities and towns across North America and beyond are feeling the impact of protests supporting Black Lives Matter.  I am thinking about the lessons that I have learned or I have been reminded of in this book and how they are relevant to the current realities of our world.  Using quotes from Teaching at the Top of the World, here are a few of the “lessons learned” from the top of the world:

Lesson #1

“Energy is not wasted on idle chatter. Most Inuit respect people who can quietly observe and take in their surroundings without talking all the time.” (p. 26 and 31)

Question:  Isn’t this exactly what our world needs right now?  To be listened to? To be heard? To be understood and not through idle chatter?

Lesson #2 

“Culturally relevant teaching empowers students by using cultural examples to impact knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” (p. 114)

Question: How will we culturally respond so all lives matter? How will we show our students, no matter what the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their income, where they live or who their parents are- that they matter. Their culture matters, their lives matter.

Lesson #3

“Although effective communication in itself is difficult to achieve, it is not enough to simply communicate well – a reciprocal relationship of mutual appreciation and understanding needs to be established so the relationship benefits both sides.” (p. 148)

Question: Need we say more about this one? In order to have impact and live and work in a trusting world (school or anywhere), we need a reciprocal relationship of mutual respect and appreciation.

Lesson #4

“It seems to me that a large part of effective teaching anywhere involves attention to small but important details like learning how to pronounce new names quickly.” (p. 32)

Question: Do we take the time to get to know one another? How many times do you walk away and know that you have forgotten someone’s name? How can we improve our relationships (in school or anywhere) with more respect for the small (and very large details)?

Thank you, Odette, for allowing me to escape our realities right now and live through your experiences. Thank you for the reminders that community building, connections and authentic attention to respectful relationships matter.  Odette’s lessons from the wonderful Inuit people are our lessons. What they need, we need. What they want, we want. Please find time to enjoy this book. You will be so glad that you did.  It is published and available through http://www.PottersfieldPress.com. and I am sure will be available through multiple online sources soon.

 

Less is More

Faced with challenging times, educators adjust. Parent adjust. Learners adjust. On a zoom meeting with a colleague this week I heard her say to her “students”, “Just a second… my daughter’s school day is starting in the other room and I want to make sure that she is all set.” She is the teacher and the parent at the same time.  A reflective question to consider; “Are we working from home or at home working?”. It feels like a bit of both for most of us.  For me, the past two weeks have been founded in learning as much as teaching.  Yes, I am still the teacher but, wow, did I learn a great deal.  We are definitely adjusting the sails as we go and I am so thankful for my “teachers”.

The most important lesson for me was definitely the continuous need for less is more.  Teachers continue to consider what is best and the most impactful with the least amount of stress for parents and students when they assign or suggest “home” work.fullsizeoutput_17a0  Less work but more energy being spent on connecting and continuing relationships is working for the teachers that I had the great pleasure to work with over the past ten days.

The less is more concept also applies to planning for next year; which, for most of my schools and districts, that is where time is now being spent.  Focused discussions on the essential learnings that must occur next year and how a year-long curriculum plan and master schedule might be tweaked to address the start of a very different year.  I plan to participate in this free webinar to help me think through next steps- http://solutiontree.com/MindtheGaps.   It begins with expert, Mike Mattos laying the foundation as we think about using time and interventions to take care of student needs.

Honestly, the best we can do right now for our students is to engage in professional conversations about the work that we did accomplish this year and what we need to do to get ready for next fall. We have data and the evidence of student knowledge and skills, found within that data, is an important place to start.  We know that, with six to seven months out of school, students will be coming to us with more needs, academically, socially, mentally. We also know that we have an opportune time, right now, to consider and plan for the 2020-2021 school year.  And, I firmly believe that less will be the new more.

We have to decide on essential learning outcomes; the boulders as my friend, Maria Nelson states in all of her presentations. We can consider the rocks ( the nice to knows but not essential)  and butterflies (the learnings that we touch on)  but we have to clarify and agree on what we must have mastery of.  This is the answer to the first professional learning community  process question- What is it we want our students to know and be able to do?  Authors DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many and Mattos (2016) explain in Learning by Doing, that, to answer this question, we have to “identify the essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions each student is to acquire as a result of each unit of instruction.” (https://www.solutiontree.com/learning-by-doing-third-edition.html)  Never has this been a more crucial conversation for collaborative teams then right now.

I read an article this week by  educator, best selling author and one of my personal heroes, Dylan Wiliam.  (https://www.tes.com/news/dylan-wiliam-immoral-teach-too-full-curriculum). He reminds us that, even before COVID-19 and so much missed time in school, teachers face massive quantities of content that they try to “cover”.  He articulates it this way:

“There is no doubt that there’s far too much stuff in our curriculum – I’ve wondered about why this is, and my conclusion is that curriculum developers cannot bear the thought that any children might have spare time on their hands.

“So they actually make sure there’s enough stuff in the curriculum for the fastest-learning students to be occupied all year. And so there’s far too much for most students, and so teachers have to make sure of this, and some teachers just teach the curriculum, they meter it out and they go from beginning to end, and 20 per cent of the kids get it and the rest don’t – I think that’s logically consistent but immoral.”

For years, Wiliam’s expertise has guided many of us to understand the use of formative assessment and feedback in increasing student success in our classrooms.  He states in the article that when we have too much curriculum, we leave little time for knowing where students are on their learning journey and most importantly, providing them feedback so they know this as well.

As the conversations evolved during the past few days, I am beginning to fully understand that the roadmap that we create for next year must have check for understanding and built in time for intensive interventions. Yes, this is always part of our school improvement work however, for next year, in my opinion, teachers and students will need to be confident of the essential expectations of learning and time will need to be there for all students to learn.  Differentiating instruction, providing quality Tier 1, 2 and 3 interventions and understanding that time is a variable, not a fixed asset, has to be part of our planning- right now- for next year. Mastery of less rather than “covering” more will help build the best journey for our learners. It is time to build the road map, identifying what we know to be essential for student to know and to create master schedules to ensure enough time is there so all students can be successful attaining the essentials.

I am excited and so encouraged as I listen, coach and support teachers and leaders during our new normal. I heard many examples of thinking outside the box so that we can use time effectively, creating stronger teams of teachers to ensure the foundational skill will be addressed and taking the time to really identify students who will need more time to learn. Amazing “aha” moments are alive and well with collaborative teams rising to the challenge and having authentic discussions about what they know are the most important things that their students must know.

Thank you to my “teachers’ these past weeks; educators, leaders colleagues; it was a pleasure to be with you as we continue to build the plane as we are flying it.

 

Where Do We Begin?

In August or September, hopefully, schools will be reopening across North America and perhaps earlier, in other parts of the world.  Hallways and cafeterias will be filled with the sounds of children’s voices and “seeing” one another, teachers and students, will take on a great new meaning. Undoubtedly, there will be tears of happiness shed as classroom doors are open and students are welcomed back in to the arms of their teachers.  (I suspect that there will be tears of happiness as parents say good bye to students that first morning as well!)  Right now, however, teachers  are still wondering what will be the new normal for this return? And, from my coaching calls this week, I would say that the question keeping most educators awake at night, right now is “How will students have faired, mentally, socially, physically and academically over this extended time away from school? ”

In its report this past week, the Northwest Evaluation Association’s (NWEA) Collaborative for Student Growth Research Center  predicts that students will return to school with approximately only 70% of the learning retained from this school year and, unfortunately, for mathematics, the prediction is closer to only 50%. In some grades and with some students, the learning can be as much as a full year behind. (https://www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/04/KAP5122-Collaborative-Brief_Covid19-Slide-APR20_FW.pdf).

I am going to go out on a limb and say that planning for school re-opening needs careful attention to a few important areas. This shouldn’t be complicated but thoughtfully organized with a focus on a few important details:

  1. Gather information of what teachers currently know was learned this school year and what they can predict to be the skills/knowledge that students will be missing as they leave their grade. Working collaboratively, right now, as a grade level or content level team to have discussions about what they accomplished this year and can confidently tell the next grade will be a learning gap is a helpful first step. These vertical discussions are always a great practice and are more important, right now, then ever before. The information collected can help the teachers build a plan for the first four weeks of school that can include what the previous grade level teachers identified as possible learning gaps.
  2. Create a transition plan for the beginning of the school year that provides both physical transition and closure for this school year as an academic transition. For example, one school that I am working with is planning a first day back that allows for students to visit with their previous teacher and classmates prior to being ‘walked” to their next teacher. One school is considering a “cross the bridge” theme to provide a way to honor the end of the school year and start a fresh new one. There are delayed celebrations and graduations being planned and all of these efforts will be important to students.  Academic transitions can include at least a  four week plan to provide time for teaching and interventions as well as immediate diagnostic assessments (especially at the early grades) to determine foundational academic needs (especially in reading and math). On-going interventions  are always necessary and the 2020-2021 year will require leaders to understand and implement effective interventions that are continuously monitored and adjusted.   Timely and immediate response will be critically necessary and this should be planned now to ensure that no time is wasted once school reopens.
  3. Consider staffing for next year, especially for the first four to six weeks of school.  Plan a hands- on – deck approach to put every available adult in front of students who will need intervention and support as they come back to school.  Create a plan to put the most skilled and highly effective teachers in front of the students who need it most. Small group instruction with intentionally focused expectations on specific skills for specific students will never be more important then the opening of this school year. Master schedules need to be carefully thought out as well as who we hire and this is the time to do that thinking. Everything next year is about student learning and this plan should be ready to go when school opens without delay.
  4. Elementary schools will have a special challenge with kindergarten students heading off to first grade.  So much of the reading and writing that is accomplished in kindergarten truly grows and springs to life in the last half of the school year.  First grade teachers will face more non-readers and students who have been without structures and routines for several months. It will be very important for these students and teachers to be well supported and have a great transition plan for the first few months. What foundational skills and learning will need to be the focus?

I know that physical distancing, working from home, business closures and our ever-changing knowledge of COVID-19 has added stress and challenges, in different ways, for different people.  I know that it might be hard to do planning now for months away, however, it seems like a good time to put our energy and resources towards the way we want school to be when we re-open.

Controlling what we can control is what this is about. As district and school leaders, and of course, classroom teachers, we can control what we plan and implement for when we finally see our students again.  Educators around the world have been showing love to students in so many ways this past month; delivering meals with their lessons, staying in touch with them on a daily basis, sending them letters through the mail, holding car parades, supporting their parents, day and night, and most importantly, working to keep learners engaged through a very difficult time.

The next big challenge is how we start up again.  The true test of our collaborative efforts will be how well prepared we are to meet the needs of our students. Doing something feels great… let’s not just talk about this… we can be well prepared for 2020-2021! colored-pencils-686679__340Thanks for reading. Have a great week and stay safe and healthy.

Angels

“I have cried almost every day this week…either from exhaustion, being overwhelmed or just from seeing so many people step up and support one another”- these are the words of a district administrator as this very long week comes to an end.  As educators in North America adjust to the new normal; working from home to continue to support students and their families, trying to find the best ways to bringing learning in to millions of homes, discovering new ways to connect with families… and at the same time… being responsible for their own personal safety and the welfare of their loved ones.

There is pressure being felt by teachers and leaders at all levels to supply both online learning opportunities and to ensure that, for families without internet access, there are paper copies. An overload of messages, suggestions, expectations and virtual meetings are causing a tiredness that feels nothing like being in a classroom full of students each and every day.

The hardest part seems to be the grief being felt by teachers and school principals everywhere.  Students went home and then schools were closed… indefinitely or with a definite no return date at this point.  Teachers had no time to say good bye to the students that are such a part of their lives. The usual end of year events and celebrations that bring closure and provide opportunities to share gratitude and love will not exist this year or at the very best, be in a format that we have never experienced before. The school “family” is now separated in isolated bubbles; everyone is doing their part right now to ensure the health and safety of their communities and this means that any physical support and connection is lost.

Yes, we are all finding ways to stay connected and as I knew would happen, educators at all levels are rising to the occasion and doing their best in a very sad time.  Teachers are learning how to respond to parent and student needs from the comfort of their home, principals are figuring out how to set agendas and norms for meetings that have to be held virtually to maintain a sense of normalcy in the new school day.  In all of my coaching calls this week, the themes that bubbled up were around building connections, relationships, checking in with people and at the same time, trying to provide some structure and expectations for how this work is different.

In one call, a very wise principal stated that “we are not providing distance education or on-line learning but we are trying to have some teaching and learning during COVID-19“. I like this statement.  It is just that… we are trying to do our best to provide what we can at this difficult time.  It is not about grading papers or state or provincial assessments anymore…it is about seeing what we can collaboratively accomplish so students can continue to learn. It isn’t about how much they learn right now but perhaps that they also have some sense of normalcy, routine and feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

And through all of this, it is taking a minute to find the balance. Sitting outside in the sun, going for a walk if you are able, sharing a home-cooked meal with your family, playing a game, watching a movie, laughing at nothing or… making a snow angel. IMG_2123 Returning home to eastern Canada to snow on the ground was an adjustment. Working mostly in the southern states means that I miss most of winter.  But, a nice sunny day gave me an opportunity to appreciate my home, my family, my health.  My new “normal” is an adjustment as I learn how to meet the needs of my schools and districts without being there to wrap my arms around them.

As sheltering, physical distancing and the lack of in person connection continues to be our world, stay strong and positive.  Reach out to others when you need them or they need you -or just because it feels like the right thing to do. Schools provide much more than paper and pencil tests and learning. They provide a sense of community. This has never been more needed or evident then right now.

To my principals, district leaders and teachers reading this- THANK YOU for stepping up and constantly adjusting. My heart has been so touched by the stories of teacher “drive by” parades in student neighborhoods, the constant delivery of food to families, the online “read alouds” at bedtime and so much more. This is above and beyond the “packets” of learning being prepared and sent home.  This is all about life lessons. Our students will never forget these acts of kindness and connection during their isolated time at home.  You are making a difference.

 

Doing the Right Thing

Two weeks ago, when I wrote my last blog about integrity, I was just finishing an amazing week of school improvement coaching and had spent the weekend traveling to visit my oldest daughter and my sister.  I had returned to work only to have the week cut short as COVID-19 continued its march in to North America. Little did I know, when I left the school that day, that it would be highly unlikely that I would see the teachers and school leaders any time soon.

Over the past two weeks, I struggled to make the changes that are needed so quickly. What routines were normal are now missing in my day; friends and family who I had plans to see and spend time with are now virtual connections only; worrying about loved ones is a constant and knowing that the schools and districts that I support are full of questions and unknowns, makes me sad.  Despite this, we have to look for the silver linings and I want to tell you about principals that I talked with this week who are bound and determined to continue to make a difference… here they are…

The first principal I want to re-introduce you to is Sarah Stobaugh at Morrilton Intermediate School. You may remember a blog that I wrote about the incredible shared leadership model that Sarah had created with her teachers. This week, I want to give her and her community (South Conway County School District in Arkansas) a shout out for the time and attention that they are spending making sure families have food (and teaching is continuing).  image1That’s Sarah in the picture with her own bus -driving dad, delivering food to families.  With Sarah’s permission, I am sharing what she wrote about her school community this week on Facebook:

“Let me tell you what happened today. Our district prepared over 1,100 meals for our community. Teachers took time from answering questions for kids and parents online (as they try to find the best ways to serve our students through a completely different platform other than the classroom) and jumped on a bus to go deliver lunches. When they had meals left over they asked their bus driver to drive around to find more kids in other neighborhoods. They asked to go to houses of specific kids just to lay eyes on them and make sure they were ok. They looked for bikes or kids’ toys in the yard and knocked on doors to see if there were more kids inside that needed food. They weren’t satisfied until they thought they had fed all they could find. Then they went home and answered more questions and recorded more instructional videos for their students to stay engaged as we deal with these uncertain times. Tonight I know they will send up some prayers for their kids before they fall asleep. And they will wake up tomorrow and do it all over again. Our teachers are incredible, selfless people that get things done no matter the circumstance.”

The second principal I want you to meet is Meg Boyd, Principal of Edgewood Elementary School in Greenfield, Wisconsin.  I had a great conversation with her and despite the conditions that have been presented to her, she told me in, her calm and organized way, about the “virtual social” that she held with her staff on Friday afternoon. slideshow60_1She felt so positive about the chance for her staff to still feel connected and the opportunity that she had to really help create a sense of normalcy during this very challenging time.

We talked about all of the multi-tasking that has taken place this week; doing her job from home, making decisions about the direction for the school year, supporting her staff, families and students, attending virtual meetings and at the same time, trying to home school her own children.  In all of this, her biggest concern is equity; are all of her students going to have the same experiences with distance education, support etc. while they are home? She has students who need translation, interventions and she knows that many of her families are struggling. On Monday evening, Meg started a virtual story time through Facebook. She read a story to her students and teachers are now volunteering to help out and they hope to be able to do this five nights a week. Libraries are closed and she is concerned for students who do not have many books at home. I am sure her families loved her virtual story time! She also told me about a teacher who had had a “virtual conference” with four of her students just to check in with them and how she was thinking about different ways that relationships with families and students could continue.

Meg also knows how easy it would be for her teachers to work all the time while at home and that definitely is not her expectation. How does she balance the reality that there is still teaching and learning to take place with her staff’s needs to look after themselves and their families?  And lastly, she reminded me that while the situation is one we have never experienced before, student behaviors are now not getting in the way of instruction and she is confident that she could have even stronger relationships with her parents and community when this ends.

There are so many stories that I could tell you in this first week of our new way of living- people doing the right things to keep themselves and communities healthy, caring, connecting and showing that relationships truly matter. To my readers who are health care workers and others providing essential services- thank you for the tireless efforts being made. To my principals and teachers, I am thinking about you and will stay in touch as we continue to find ways to help each and every student be successful.

I appreciated every check in with me this week, every coaching conversation that happened on the phone or virtually and all of the times that some one demonstrated the absolute finest ways that we can create loving opportunities for others. Have a healthy and safe week.

 

Integrity

Writing a blog means one of two things- I am either well organized and get my writing together well ahead of my own mandated deadline or I wait for a “sign” of a topic that I might want to write about.  I find that I write more from the heart and perhaps provide more relevancy for reflection when I respond to an experience or an adventure rather than just writing to write. This week, for whatever reason, integrity seemed to be the word swirling around in my head.

What does the word integrity mean to you?  When you hear or see the word, what is it to you? It’s a personality trait that we admire and in my opinion, it is an important value for leaders to possess. It represents honesty, being reliable and always doing the right thing.  It symbolizes a moral compass that doesn’t waver.  hand-3585349_640People who model integrity in their words and actions are people that we know we can depend on; they will come through for us and they will always do what they have said that they will do.

I watched some education leaders that I worked with this week struggle with difficult decisions.  Their hearts and heads were at odds on what was best to do. They worried about causing other people hurt or grief, knowing that the honest, right decision was going to be hard for others to understand. I knew that, as they thought out loud with me, that because they are people of integrity, they would recognize the right thing to do and that is how their decisions would be made in the end.  It wasn’t easy for them at first because it was uncomfortable to do the right thing.  Leading with integrity doesn’t always mean that you are popular or even feel great about a decision; but being true to your own values and your moral compass means that you strive to honestly live by your values. In the case of my leaders, they knew what was best for their schools and students and at the same time, recognized that not all of the adults would understand their decisions.  There would have to be thoughtful conversations to deepen the understanding because not every one was going to see the decisions in a positive light.

One thing that I have learned working in schools and districts (for way too many years!), is this… educators go to work every day to do their very best. They set out with the best intentions and they want success for their students.  And, when integrity shows up as a leading character trait, great things happen in districts and schools.  Honest efforts are put forth in the service of students.  Making difficult calls to parents are appreciated because that is the right thing to do.  Asking a peer to comply with school policies and expectations models what integrity looks like to others.  And, giving one hundred percent, no matter how tired or frustrated we feel because we know it is what our students deserve everyday, is that moral compass.

Digging deep every single day in a school means we never lose sight of why we are there. We know our purpose, our why and it always about the students. Integrity means that we get that and we know that we fairly and purposefully will take care of their needs.  And, we know that, as challenging as this is on us personally… we don’t come first… they do. That is what I saw this week in all the schools I worked. I appreciate the constant reminders of how necessary school improvement is and why I still pack a suitcase and leave home so often.  The bumps in the road can challenge our core values and cause us to pause. The fork in the road is always there. It is up to us to make the best and right decisions. Thank you to all the educators this past week, and every week, who allow their moral compass to lead them to what is best for kids.

 

 

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Relationships

On the road the past two weeks, I had several reminders and conversations about the importance of relationships in our education work. How critical is it for students to know that adults will connect with them AND how meaningful it is for administrators to build relationships with teachers?  I saw some great examples of trusting, respectful relationships and saw student faces light up because adults demonstrated their love and care for them.  Here are a couple of examples that I want to share…

I had an very thoughtful discussion with a superintendent about the qualities that he was looking for in a new administrator (he remains nameless only because this position is not filled yet).  As we talked about what the school needed and what he felt was most important, we circled back (actually, several times) to hiring someone who could truly take the time to build relationships with the staff.  He understand the value and need for a new principal to take the time to get to know staff and to truly listen.  Productive listening skills are a necessary leadership skill and finding ways to ensure that staff know we are listening and will respect and value their opinions goes a long way in building a positive school culture. We call it taking care of the staff so that they can feel good about taking care of the students.  We want teachers and support staff to come to work feeling valued and cared for and too many times, in my opinion, we do not pay enough attention to the culture that a leader does (or, unfortunately, does not, create). This superintendent is on the right track to make his district great… as he said… he wants to move from good to great because good isn’t good enough for his students.

In a second school in Arkansas, I had a chance to observe another school improvement coach in action.  Paula Maeker was working with teachers at an elementary school.  In every conversation,  the relationship of mutual trust that Paula had built with the teacher in her few short visits there was obvious to me. 9fVVRVL8QDyPInKWuxChngAmazingly enough, she had the same with many students in the school. One student in particular was misbehaving in class and Paula took the time to talk with the student and have him do some school work for her. His behavior quickly changed and he was fully engaged in his lesson…and it was good work. This kid went from the class problem to someone who could really perform.  Just like in this picture taken at the Beyer Watch and Clock Museum in Zurich, the parts that make up our students are complex and many.  Teachers who figure out the workings of their students, have much more success at meeting their learning needs.

My last stop on this two week road trip brought me tears and smiles. At Robert F Morehead Middle School in Arkansas, I was able to attend the Black History Month Program. Students performed dance, songs and read poems and several times I had tears in my eyes. There were beautiful, thoughtful and meaningful moments created by the students. The staff demonstrated their faith in these students by having them be the program. Several parents were there to watch and the smiles of pride and joy in their faces were priceless. I also had a chance to be at the school book fair and watch a young boy’s absolute excitement in picking out two complimentary books to take home to read. Adults were showing their belief in him and wrapping their arms around him with support and encouragement. His joy was our joy!

This week’s questions for reflection- How important are relationships in your work with staff and students? Do you need to think about your communication skills? What message are you sending with your interest (or lack of interest) in the people you work with? What might be a first step in improving your working and learning culture? Have a great week. I will see you in two weeks- this weekly blog is now a bi-weekly blog! Thanks for reading.