With Hearts Wide Open

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” (Brené Brown, 2018). Leading with hearts wide open, showing up day in and day out and courageously doing “whatever it takes” has been the mantra of educators in 2020. “Showing up” has meant figuring out how to teach virtually from home or pivoting from virtual to face to face to virtual; whatever learning had to look like this year. Leading this work are the courageous district and school leaders who had to put their hearts and souls in to ensuring the health and safety of their students and staff. It has not been easy to lead through a pandemic and it isn’t over. As the holiday season is upon us and schools are closing for a much needed break, it is a good time for reflection and consideration of what comes next.

During a school improvement coaching call this week, I asked a principal what she was looking most forward to over the next two weeks. Without hesitation, she told me that she could relax knowing that the responsibility for the health and safety of everyone in her building would be off her shoulders- well, at least not a 24/7 worry as it has been for the past ten months. She admitted that she would still think about her staff, students and families but it would be nice to be on vacation from the brave, courageous, organized and problem-solving administrator expected of her everyday. She reflected that she felt so vulnerable so many times this school year; knowing that behind her mask she wasn’t always smiling and in fact, she was nervous and fearful that she wasn’t doing all she could to keep her building safe from COVID and being closed.

Zooming in with another school administrator, I was greeted with her always pleasant smile and endless energy. I asked her how she was doing that this year; keeping her energy up when everyone else seemed so exhausted. She told me that she was “faking it” and that extreme exhaustion had taken over. And the one thing that really stuck with me was this, “I am mad at myself because I let my vulnerability show too often this year.” You can imagine what a great opener that was for me as her leadership coach. Through our conversation, we explored why she felt that being vulnerable was something others shouldn’t see. We talked about the courage that it takes to truly connect with others by allowing them to see our needs. She told me that she was worried that her staff would think less of her or that she would be seen as weak because they knew that this year was hard for her as their leader. And then the conversation turned to what is the most difficult part for her, the worry she has for students and their learning this year. This is where she feels the most vulnerability and needs the most courage to continue to lead.

It goes without saying, that student learning is why we teach and lead. Ensuring each and every student learn at grade level; in other words, have every opportunity to develop the skills needed in each grade to successfully move to the next grade is what our learning goals are based on. And, I am confident as I write this, educators, school and district leaders are extremely worried about many students who are struggling this year. COVID can not be an excuse but the reality is that learning has been disrupted and for some students, this disruption is creating an even steeper uphill climb. The good news is, when teachers come together to truly understand the needs of their students and collaborate to plan next steps, that steep climb is not so daunting. This has been my experience as a school improvement coach this year; where districts and schools have continued to support a professional learning community model; in other words, focused on collaboration, learning and paying attention to results, it has been less of a challenge to stay the course and focus on the needs of students. In schools that I haven’t seen as strong a commitment to shared ownership that develops through collaboration, schools are less successful in prioritizing learning during this pandemic.

As we move in to 2021, how will you courageously increase your focus on student learning despite the distractors? What can you do to know where your students are, right now, on their learning journey, and most importantly, what are next steps to help them succeed? What action can you take, to engage or reengage them in their learning? Will you find the courage to look at the data; despite what it says the current reality might be, and create a plan to move each and every student along as learners? Can you be vulnerable enough to seek support and guidance when you do not know what to do next in the service of your students?

Improving schools is about saving lives of students. With my heart wide open, I thank you for doing so much to serve and protect students this year. It has been a challenging year to teach and to lead. It is ok to say that you are tired and need a break. It is really just fine to say it is a difficult school year. And, it is admirable to courageously be vulnerable as you go about the business of deciding what needs to be done next. We don’t always know but together can figure it out.

The Pressure of “Normal”

We hear the phrases, “the new normal” or “try to normalize things”. Or, we see operational plans and expectations laid out by politicians, bosses and/or leaders that demand “normal practices”. How can any organization or business manage as if things are normal in 2020? Why could this possibly be an expectation? Especially of schools? How can it be “business as usual” during a pandemic?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “normal” as characterized by that which is considered usual, typical, or routine. What is typical of staying six feet apart from everyone you work with or go to school with? How can sitting with a mask on and never seeing the smile of a friend be “normal”? What is “normal or routine about “virtual hugs” versus real hugs? Of families, who have never gone without food, lining up at a food depot? Of worrying, minute by minute of loved ones who are very ill in the hospital? Or entire families falling ill together?

School leadership coaching in 2020 has open the doors to new challenges and opportunities. During the first few months of the pandemic, principals were creating ways for teachers to reach as many of the students with on-line lessons. Opportunities were found to maximize the time that we were all home and to do what could be done so students finished their school year with as much learning as possible. The 2019-2020 school year ended with teachers and school leaders feeling proud of their ability to be flexible and manage even while they were all home in a lock down situation.

Over the summer months in North America, principals and teachers attended virtual trainings and spent hours and hours preparing for the 2020-2021 school year. Plan A was made for if students could be face to face, Plan B was made if it was a blend of both, Plan C if everyone was home and so on and so on. School started with whatever plan seemed best for the district/state/province and then came fall and a second wave of COVID-19.

And with this wave, I have felt the confusion, exhaustion and stress of leaders who are trying to do the right things. They may or may not agree with the direction being given by decision-makers but are taking steps to take care of the students and adults in the building. They know that it is not easy right now for many to attend school or come to work. They are doing with less staff and they are devastated that so many students are not engaged and participating in learning. However, they acknowledge that, in the homes of many of these students, there is sickness, unemployment, essential health care workers and very high levels of anxiety. Students are not coming to school from “normal” situations right now. COVID fatigue is real however, the pandemic is not giving us time to rest and school and district leaders are well aware that the fight continues.

While decision-makers at every level are dealing with the on-going need to put health and safety first, they are being pressured by outside influences and expectations to ensure school goes on as “normal”. In every coaching conversation, I hear a story of a parent or politician or local leader who makes a demand that just doesn’t make sense right now. What does make sense, always, is keeping the student at the center of all decisions. What is “normal” is student-centered thinking and for right now, the decisions being taken to ensure student learning may not be the usual decisions made.

It might mean that students are not physically in the building every day or that their lessons have to be more self directed. It might mean that student ownership of their learning has to be increased and that they accept more responsibility for participating in learning. It means that teachers have pivoted with every decision made about how they will work this year and they will continue to do this as needed. The worry that students will drop out and a very large learning gap will occur during the pandemic is real. And, I know that every educator cares about this and wants learning to feel normal. It just doesn’t right now.

For my school and district leaders reading this, I challenge you to accept that this is not a normal year. To take a breath and know that your work is important in the lives of students, families and your staff. To take the time to watch a sunrise or sunset, or notice a full moon or rainbow in the sky. To find a way to keep the student as the center of all decisions, especially when health and safety needs must come first. I hear your exhaustion and worry about others; I know that you are trying to take care of every small detail to ensure learning continues and thrives in your buildings. Celebrate your great accomplishments this fall. So many students have learned a great deal despite a world-wide pandemic and under those masks, there are many smiles because of you.

Green or Red?

What will I remember from October 2020? Conversations- both personally and professionally that challenged and caused me to reflect on how important relationships are. We are living in a time when “seeing others” might still mean by video or at least a phone call. It is not possible for me to travel and visit with family and those I work with (yet) and I am missing my people. This is also the time of the year that I would normally say good bye here at home and head south as one of the many, many Canadian snowbirds. All of this feels different. And, there are days that I feel selfish for even voicing what I am missing since so many in the world are suffering with the pandemic and its side effects. Health, death, job loss, financial and housing issues- these exist in real time and I know that my losses are nothing compared to so many. How can I ever complain?

In my school improvement coaching this past month, a very wise principal put it all in perspective for me. She said that she is working hard to keep her thinking, visioning and reflecting in the “green”. As she so beautifully stated, she can see the problems of the day, the worries of tomorrow as green or red. They either present problems to solve, actions to take, thoughts to work through or they stop her in her tracks. Similar to what happens when you quickly come to a red light. You have to come to a full stop and wait. Sometimes the wait is long but once the light is green you move on. Unfortunately, when we let “red” influence our thinking, we often stay stalled or stuck for too long.

As I continue to work in schools and districts, I have seen wonderful examples of “green” thinking. Despite feelings of exhaustion and a sense that this year and pandemic may never end, forward “green” thinking is alive and well. What can we do next to help a student? How can I support a teacher during a particular difficult time? What will it take to keep learning as the focus no matter what? These are my green thinking people and they are a dream to work with. I am so appreciative of their willingness to work through the challenges and ensure learning for each student is the goal.

One of my “green” thinking principals is new to me and my very first coaching session was this past month. Logging on to Zoom, I wasn’t sure what to expect and I was anxious and excited to meet her. When her camera came on, I found a very sick lady in her bed. She was home with COVID and had some severe symptoms. DESPITE this, she wanted to talk about her school. She has a vision, dreams and goals of what her school will become. She knows what the work has to be and she is passionately engaging her staff in authentic school improvement. I am blessed to have the opportunity to meet her and work with her and thankfully, our second session found her much better. Lessons learned- if she can be a “green” thinker despite her situation, I sure need to keep my focus on green.

One other great conversation that I had this month was with four principals who volunteered an hour of their precious time to meet with me. Through video, we connected from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast with two southern belles in between. My goal was for these seasoned principals to meet and hear how each of them were keeping the focus and sustaining the work that they had achieved before COVID at their schools. They are all keeping things “green” and I knew that they could learn a great deal from each other. Most importantly, they all understand the importance of relationships and taking care of their people. They are focused on both the adults and students in their buildings and they understand their own personal impact in ensuring student success. I know that they are tired and I know that they all feel overwhelmed. They are working through daily challenges and the stress of the current reality is real. However, they are not letting the red light hold them back.

My reflective question to you is this- are you able to keep your thinking through a green lens? When you are faced with complications and/or you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, can you see the positive in your life? In your work? What can you do to help see the positive? What can you personally do to find the time and support to help? A constant theme in school improvement this year is self-care. School and district leaders need time and support to be able to stay the course and the first step is to be able to identify when you are spending too much time at the stop light. Intentionally noticing this is a nice starting point for personal self-care.

Thank you for always reading and thinking. You continue to inspire me as a school improvement coach. Have a great week.

In Celebration…

It is all around us. More important than ever. We need it and want it during this challenging 2020 year. We are acutely aware of it. Others provide it or you provide it. Both happen simultaneously. Leadership… that is what this is about and with or without it, we are working through the challenges of a year we will not forget.

As I work with schools and districts, people are stepping up to lead when and where necessary no matter what their “title” is. Positional power we call this, when you actually have a leadership title. We know that doesn’t necessarily make you a leader but it does make you responsible. Day in and day out, those who have the position AND those who might not, are leading in schools and districts. Why? To get the job done. To make sure students are safe and learning occurs despite all the noise and roadblocks to this happening.

It doesn’t matter what country you are in when you read this or what your title is in the education system, you are leading. I am sure you could send me a story of leadership that has warmed your heart this school year. I am confident that that story has impacted the life of a student. You would tell me about a teacher who is not letting COVID be an excuse for his or her students not learning; the expectations are high and instruction is being adapted to meet the needs of the student. That is leadership. Or you might send in a tale of a school administrator who, despite exhaustion and many changing situations, just gets the job done… day in and day out, roadblocks are removed so teachers can teach and students can learn. That is leadership. Or you might want me to know about the district that is collaborating and ensuring that everything stays aligned and focused on the right priorities. They are protecting the schools from the everyday struggles just so students come first and learning is the goal. That is leadership.

Some make it look easy. Others struggle to lead. Many accept the need to be brave and courageous and rise to the challenge. Or… feel so vulnerable that it is difficult to be confident in decisions made. Whatever you are feeling, it is ok. Leadership does not follow a straight line. There are twists and turns and opportunities for success and failure. It is about continuing the journey despite the falls. Transforming a school or district is not a “walk in the park” and many days will feel difficult. Especially this year.

The important path to follow is sharing the load. When we build efficacy and empower others around us to lead, it somehow it seems less challenging to own the responsibility. When our energy is low, we need the synergy of a team; of collaborative efforts to transform. This may not be the year to add more projects or take a different direction, but it definitely is the year to lead. And, everyday that you or someone else provides steady, confident leadership, continuous improvement can happen. Your impact might not be obvious right now or even tomorrow. School and district improvement takes time and this year, more than ever, requires a relentless focus on the right work.

This blog is in celebration of you. Where ever you are and whatever you do in an education system (or in life in general), you lead through example. You lead with your words, your actions and your intentionality. Each new day is addressed with a renewed sense of purpose. Develop your skills, model, practice and honor others through your leadership. You matter. It matters. We need you. Thank you.

Lessons Learned this September

Every September since 1980, I started a new school year as an educator; different roles but it always felt as the best time to have freshly sharpened pencils, clean notebooks and, if I was lucky, a new book bag to carry my treasures back and forth. This past month, was different for me and other educators and, more importantly, for students. In Canada, most students returned face to face to start the school year but schedules are adjusted and not every student is in school everyday. In the United States, it varies from state to state with some schools hosting only virtual classes while others are working through a face to face model. Many schools are boldly trying to hold both simultaneously.

Luckily, I was still able to provide leadership coaching to several schools and districts from my home. It isn’t the same as sitting side by side with a teacher or walking the hall and classrooms with a principal however we are all making the best of it. And, as always, there were lessons learned from the inspiring educators who I am so fortunate to spend time with. Here are a few of my take-aways this month.

First of all, despite the complications of opening schools in 2020, school and district leaders have amazed me with the successful plans and problem-solving that continues to be part of day to day operations. They are building the plane as they fly it and ensuring that students feel safe and welcome in a new learning environment. Classrooms, cafeterias and hallways may look different but the relationships and support to students is what comes first and I am so proud of how they are keeping this at the top of their priorities, no matter what.

Secondly, as the dust has settled in the first few weeks, conversations about student learning deepened. Through collaboration, teachers and leaders are using evidence to ensure that they understand the learning gaps students have come back with and they are working diligently to meet them where they are at, moving learning forward and at the same time, providing interventions to support what is needed. Sounds like quite a balancing act, right? Yes, it is and it is what teachers do! It was so energizing to spend time with collaborative teams and school leaders as they looked at student work to decide what to do next. There were so many conversations about root cause that my heart was singing! I know students are getting the best from their teachers when the conversations are that intentional.

One of my very favorite “lessons” this month actually came from several schools. More than once I heard a principal or teacher say, “COVID may be challenging us and changing how we work, but it is not an excuse! Student learning has to be our priority.” Leaders have the important responsibility to keep this as a focus and at the same time, look after the health and safety of the students and adults in the building (s). All a tall order in 2020 and I am thankful that so many have risen to the challenge.

As we head in to October, I can not help but think that an intentional focus on a few priorities will be the most important task for teachers and leaders this year. In the classroom, this means that teachers truly understand what the most essential learning outcomes are; what they absolutely need students to master in their grade and this is where time and energy must be spent. Leaders have to keep distractors away from this work and support with intentionality. It is not the year for brand new shiny coins; in other words, we do not need new initiatives and programs… just lots of time spent deepening the work of improving schools. It seems to be a great year to really get good at a few necessary instructional and leadership strategies that focus on collaboration, learning and results. These are the three big ideas of the process of professional learning communities and, in my opinion, never has it been more important for schools and districts to be clear on what is important and work together.

In our book, Leading with Intention, we end chapter one with a reflection tool to help leaders stay focused on the right work. Here is the link to the template- https://www.solutiontree.com/ca/free-resources/plcbooks/lwi#. It might be a great time to refocus and clarify your intentions. Thanks again to all who are teaching and leading in these challenging times! I have never been so proud of our profession.

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!



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.