60

Today is my 60th birthday.  For many reasons, it is special.  Family has traveled to be with me for the weekend.  I feel so fortunate with  a strong family, amazing friends, good health, interesting opportunities and beautiful places to live and visit. A year ago, I made a commitment to myself to spend the year doing sixty things that I wanted to do.  I set 60 goals and I am proud to say that I managed to accomplish over 45 of them. It was fun to have a focus and to try some new adventures and have many unique experiences. And, as I write this to you, I am trying not to focus on the few that I missed. It is so easy to let my mind wander to the “I did not accomplish list” rather than celebrating all the things that I did do.

Why is this our mindset? Even though I appreciate my life and work very hard to see the positive in life’s little moments, it is easier for me to tell you what I didn’t do rather than the “done” list.  As the year was progressing, I knew that I was going to miss some. I had an injury that sidelined me for a few months and at that point I knew there were goals that were out of my reach.  There was even a day or two when I thought I should just forget about the list since I wasn’t going to see the whole thing through.  You know the feeling… it is similar to many, many diets that I have tried only to stop when I cheated once!  So, what does this have to do with school improvement? After all, that is what I said that this blog would be about! How can my”60″ list help you  improve your school?

Setting goals is a big part of what I support in my school improvement work.  We have to set direction, know where we are headed and then authentically progress monitor on our way to targets.  I know that anyone reading this who works in business is very aware of targets, goals and accountability.  This has to be the same in our school practices. We use the language of SMART goals and we ask schools to set long-term and short-term goals.  In coaching sessions, I help teachers and administrators think about the evidence that they can collect- daily, weekly, monthly and as the year progresses to know if they are on track with their goals. Sometimes, we have to adjust our goals for reasons that are real.  And, sometimes, we forget to involve the people who really should own the goals… the students.  I was in a school this week that was doing an amazing job of having students self-report. They were tracking their own progress knowing what was expected and having fun doing it with very creative and fun activities and tasks!

I really could have done a better job throughout this year tracking my progress towards the “60”. istockphoto-519362286-612x612.jpg Sometimes I would look at it and make a plan around one or two of them and then I might actually forget about the goals I set.  I lost time when I lost sight of what I said that I would do… what I would focus on. Does this sound like a problem you have as well?

One of the “60” was to publish a book and I was so proud when this book that I coauthored with my amazing, smart friend Jeanne Spiller, was released (https://www.solutiontree.com/products/new-releases/leading-with-intention.html). If you haven’t had a chance to look at it, it really is about keeping your eye on the target and being intentional in your work.  It doesn’t mean being perfect at this. It doesn’t mean that you will never drop the ball or make mistakes. But it is about having a vision of what you want your end results to be and what you will do to get there.

As the end of 2018 draws near, I challenge you to reflect on your approach and mindset.  Do you take the time to set realistic goals and actually progress monitor, adjust and stay the course? Do you get discouraged if you miss an opportunity or take a detour or do you see this as an opportunity to reset your plan?  Are you celebrating what goes well (your 45/60)? What can you do to become more intentional as we head in to 2019?

Thank you for reading with me. This will end my blogs for 2018 and I will look forward to being with you in 2019 (when I will re-focus on the 15 goals I have left to accomplish!).  It has been a pleasure to write and reflect with you and I appreciate you. Have a lovely holiday season and a very happy new year to everyone.

Understanding

At work or home alone, I believe that we set out to be our best selves.  And despite this intention, our days often fall off the rails. We might get lazy and skip that workout that we know we need or just not have the energy to do everything that we committed ourselves to do.  Perhaps, it is more about the distractions that we find in our way; created by others or ourselves.  It doesn’t matter what causes the detour, the distractions are real and often cause confusion and lack of focus.

Visualize a hard-working, dedicated school leader and her staff.  Add a school full of students with large academic deficits, difficult behaviors and some second language needs and consider what might be the distractions for this staff when they are going about the business of school.  They have developed great habits of collaborative planning, they work together to assess student needs and are doing a much better job of finding the most effective strategies to support their students. All signs point to continuous school improvement.  So, why is it so hard for this school to see the growth and feel successful?  What kinds of distractions are taking their energy? How can this work be so hard?

School improvement is not a smooth, straight line. It cannot be accomplished by reading a book and creating a checklist of actions that you can cross off as you do them. It doesn’t happen because someone tells the principal to make it happen.  It is more about taking a few steps forward and then finding that you are stuck, overwhelmed or just confused about what to do next. It sometimes looks like a jigsaw puzzle when you think you are getting close to finishing only to find that you are missing a piece or two.  Teachers and principals often tell me that they are not clear on their next steps or need more clarity on why they are doing what they are doing. Especially when the expectations or directions change.

I was reminded this week of the real issue of outside influences on a school. In this case they came from state  directions and district decisions.  I sensed that despite the common understanding and knowledge by the teachers and administrators of the focused work that was guiding their daily practices, they were constantly feeling that others were requiring more or different.  If it is “different direction” than it is like changing the flight path while the plane is in the air.  If it is just clarifying or expecting accountability on actions that are required, it might just be that the communication of this is new or different.

At the school level, it is critically important that there is a clear understanding of the district and provincial/state expectations.  1*K7xlyFfsYtPc2AKYe3T29QIt is necessary, for example to align school goals to district goals.  It is important that the mission of a district be reflected in the practices of the schools and it is critically important that everyone understands what is expected, why this is the work and how it really looks when we are successful.  A dear mentor and friend, Becky DuFour was often heard saying, “clarity proceeds competence”. How can we expect teachers to get really good at an instructional strategy for example, if they don’t know what it looks like in practice?  How can we expect accountability on result indicators when effective actions are not known or understood?  Where is the leadership in clarifying what this looks like? How can we support the “why” and “how” of the work, not just tell the what?

I believe that there is more work to be done by leaders at all levels to ensure that we understand the needs of teachers and teachers understand what is expected.  I also think that more time should be taken to ask questions of school leaders and teachers so there is clarity on what work is already being done.  In my travels, I do see initiative fatigue, too many new things to try, and not enough time to be clear on how to do that really well. I see opportunities to collaborate around an intentional focus missed because someone might have a different agenda or idea.  It isn’t that the ideas or agendas are misguided but it might be that the timing is off or the conversations have not happened that would bring great understanding of what the school truly needs and how we can best support it.

The first collaborative team has to be the district, state/provincial and school leadership team working together to accomplish the common goal of success for all students. It is a beautiful thing when all adult actions are aligned to this one common goal. And all has to mean all.  In any leadership model, communicating expectations and seeking to understand are transformational skills.  Working in silos will not create success. Consider the “village” that will raise the child and your place in this village.  Thanks for always being with me on Saturday mornings. Have a great week.

 

A Clean House

This week was a week off the road and home.  It was a time for me to do one of my “not so favorite things”, cleaning.  As much as I know how important it is to keep a clean house it isn’t how I want to spend my time.  As I was scrubbing and sorting I realized that this isn’t that much different from the work that I do on the road, school improvement.  You see, continuous improvement of schools requires a constant eye on “sorting and doing” and school leaders are constantly taking care of this kind of business.

As most of the principals who I work with would tell you, it sure isn’t their favorite thing to do.  You see, keeping things well sorted, clean and organized requires a serious commitment to staying focused. fullsizeoutput_fa7It means not letting things pile up and knowing when things need to be removed, discarded, given away or, at least, wiped clean.  In schools, this is about being critically aware of the distractors that need to be ignored.  It can also be about stopping the things that you are doing that are not providing an impact and actually getting rid of these ideas, practices or habits.  You see, “first practice” doesn’t necessarily add up to “best practice” and sometimes, it means eliminating in order to really bring your house in order.

Sometimes, “cleaning” resembles a chance to start over.  Sitting down to a nice clean desk or preparing a meal in a kitchen that sparkles and everything is where it should be. Or, it might mean that we replace worn out clothes or objects or make sure that the car is serviced to be ready for a road trip. In all of these examples, time is taken to look after the details and at the same time, see the big picture of what environment we wish to create.

Clutter, disorganization or a lack of clarity can create negative energy.  Can you work this way? I am sure many of you can and will say that this is how you work best.  I get that as I have been known to model this rather than what I am writing about!  I do believe that schools on a continuous improvement cycle are being led by someone who takes the time to stay organized, remove distactors and understands the need for a clean slate now and then.

As we head in to the busy holiday season and the last few weeks of school prior to the Christmas break, it seems like a great time to consider what needs to be “cleaned up”. Is it time to remove, eliminate and discard what is not working? Should you reflect on your current reality?  Is there a need to better understand what might be distracting you versus what your priorities truly are? Is the right work the work that takes your time?  Or, is it time to throw away a fixed mindset and ensure that you start 2019 with positive energy and a growth mindset?

Have a great week and, once again, thank you for reading my weekly blog intended on improving schools.  Keep it clean and see you next Saturday!

A Million Little Things

I do not watch hours of television, but sometimes a series grabs me and becomes “my show”. For the past couple of years, “This is Us” was that show for me. No matter where I was on the road, I had to watch it on Tuesday night.  This year, the new series by the same producers, “A Million Little Things” is my go to show.  I watched the trailer this summer and didn’t really think that a show that started with a suicide would grab my attention. For those of you watching it, you know that there is much more to it with twists and turns that were unexpected.  That is why it reminds me of school improvement work and so begins my blog for this week…

In the opening show, John eloquently explains what friendship means.  He talks about experiences we share with others that defines a friendship and he ends with “friendship is… a million little things”.  I could easily write this blog about just that; how perfect that description is to me with the amazing friends that I have. I could tell you about the way my friends draw me in and, as we share our lives, it truly does become about what we experience together and how we lean on each other. fullsizeoutput_fa3The energy we get and give our friends, the support and kindness that is authentically there, the people who you can not forget… it really is about a million little things.

However, this blog is not supposed to be about my friends.  I intentionally want to use my writing and this space to support continuous improvement of schools. I want to acknowledge the dedication and commitment to a common purpose that drives schools that improve. I share the experiences of others as well as my work to help you benefit from what is being done elsewhere.  I strive to give you encouragement when you think you are losing sight of your goals and that you are reminded that it is difficult work and you do have to learn and grow together in order to make the biggest impact on students.  In other words, it really is about a million little things.

One of the principals who I work with told me that the most difficult part of school improvement work for her was that there are too many pieces of the puzzle.  She described her stress to me by saying that she always worries about losing a piece or not knowing how all of the pieces fit together.  She takes the work home with her (physically and mentally) and admits that it seems overwhelming at times to really lead this work.

A million little things…yes… this is the work of improving schools.  Addressing cultural issues, getting all staff on one page about the common goals and commitments that it will take to change the way things are done is often job #1.  Being collaborative around what is taught, how it is assessed and how we respond to student needs takes great leadership. Being a skillful communicator who can match a vision for improvement with consistent messages and practices requires great courage, trust and patience.  Creating opportunities for evidence-based decisions to provide guidance is necessary. Sharing leadership with others, empowering and respecting the expertise of staff and allowing for your own vulnerability to be visible are skills that demand your on-going attention.  And, doing all this while students are in the building needing our daily attention (after all, schools do not close while we figure this out!) brings us back to the twists and turns.  A million little things…

The great news is that, in my opinion, the little things add up to the big thing. Sometimes, it reminds me of a complicated book. You read and read and sometimes want to stop because it doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere. You find it hard to stay with it and you might even take a break sometimes because it exhausts you just trying to figure it out.  And, then, one day you turn the page, you start the next chapter and it all makes sense. The little things have finally led you to the big thing.

In the complex world of improving schools, I am so thankful for the teachers and school leaders who will continue the journey. They might close the book but most of the time, that is just temporary.  It is a bit like falling off a bicycle and getting up and back on it again.  We have to stay the course.  We are doing this for our students and they deserve every one of the million little things that it might take to turn a school around.

This is the time of the year when energy levels in schools start to be depleted.  When the rest and rejuvenation from the summer feels a hundred years ago.  It is the time to make sure that we don’t close the book  or stay off the bike too long.  It is a very great time to refocus, revisit our collective commitments and goals and to ensure that we are working on the right work.  Are we prioritizing everything so nothing is really important? Have we allowed the distractors to invade our direction?  Do we stand up for what we believe in when others try to move us off course?  What really is happening right now?  What do you need to adjust? Which of the million little things do you need to focus on? And, lastly, what are you going to do today, tomorrow and the next day to ensure improvement?

Thank you, again, for being with me on Saturday mornings. I appreciate your comments and your support. Have a reflective, successful week and to my American friends, enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving. I am thankful for each and every one of you in my life.

 

 

Prepared

About a year ago I started this weekly school improvement blog. Writing has provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my work in schools and I have tried to make as many connections as I could to life in general.  Some weeks, it has been difficult to put pen to paper and have this ready for Saturday.  The “difficult” part of this is only time and staying on top of things. When a busy week is filled with lots of work and travel, I need to stay organized.  At first, I wrote several blogs and stayed ahead by knowing I had a few ready to go. As the year progressed, I decided that I enjoyed the reflection on the week and wanted to make my writing as immediate as I could.  So now the honest part… this is as immediate as my blog has been. It is midnight on Friday and I am just writing for you now.  It has been a busy week and prior to this week, I had an amazing vacation. So, this week I decided that I would write about something I know first hand…being prepared…or …perhaps not prepared.

As a young girl, I remember learning the Girl Guide motto, “Be Prepared”.  At the time, I knew it was important but I don’t think that I quite understood how much a part of my life that phrase would become.  In both my career and my personal life, there have been times when I was able to live up to that motto and other times when my guide leader would not have been impressed.  I have “flown by the seat of my pants” more times than I want to think about and eventually I learned to prioritize and figure out what I had to do to stay organized and on top of my life.  Two things this week (besides my own late writing) reminded me of the importance of being prepared; one involves my work in schools  and the other is, personally, near and dear to my heart…

Going back to work this week after a great vacation required me to “be prepared”.  It seemed to take a little longer than usual to pack, to organize and to have my work ready.  Once I walked in to my first school though, I was quickly reminded that my preparation was nothing compared to what the school leaders and teachers are doing each and every day.  And this time of the year, what is so obvious is a feeling that there is just too much to do, not enough time to do it all and a fear of failure when the list of tasks continue to grow. In one school, we looked at the calendar and quickly realized that the year is more than half way over.  The urgency of the work is obvious and requires care and attention to the tasks at hand. Staying organized, prioritizing and determining the best use of time requires a serious commitment to doing the right work.  It also means being prepared.  There has to be an intentional focus on knowing what to spend your time doing and taking the necessary time to be prepared; be prepared for class, for meetings, for the unexpected, for safety requirements, and the list goes on.

The second reminder I had this week about the very critical need for all of us to be prepared, comes from my son-in-law. Resized_20181108_152603_6278 As you can see in this picture, he is in the Canadian military and currently on an exercise that is all about “being prepared”.  Throughout the year, he participates in organized field practice to ensure his ability to respond if necessary. This keeps him acutely aware of what he would need to be prepared to do if he was called to action.  The seriousness  of his chosen career absolutely comes in to focus during these trainings.  Just like our work in schools, there are systems, effective actions, skills that can be learned and expertise to develop if we are going to improve.  This improvement does not happen without study, practice and commitment to being totally prepared.

My challenge to you this week is to consider if you are doing all that you can to be well prepared. Are you asking questions, reading, studying and finding out the most effective practices when you are not sure? Are you taking the time to work with others in preparation of meeting the needs of your students so that when you go in the classroom you have done all you can to be ready to serve your students? Does being well planned seem like an “extra” task instead of just part of needed preparation?  As a leader, do you reflect and consider carefully the meetings that you should have, where your time is best spent and how to manage all of the tasks at hand? Or do you go in to school each day with a more “reactive” style of leadership rather than a proactive one? And, lastly, are you spending your time on what matters most to the students? Are your preparations truly focused on saving the lives of your students?

This weekend,  we honor our veterans and share in remembrance of the sacrifices made for us. The commitment that is made when a uniform is put on represents the ultimate “preparation”.  With my sincere gratitude to all veterans and active duty members (including Bryan, who is in the picture and my daughter Elizabeth, who serves as an officer in the Canadian Air Force), I dedicate this blog.

Waiting

I know it isn’t Saturday…yet.  By the time Saturday comes, and it is time for my weekly blog, I hope to be in South Africa.  I am leaving for a two-week vacation and so this blog is early.  To say that I am a little excited is an enormous understatement. To my friends and family, thank you for your patience as I have been talking about taking this trip for at least twenty years.  You see,  I have a friend that I am on my way to meet; someone whom I have been in contact with for close to fifty years… but we have never met.  Yes, you read that correct… we have been writing to each other for several decades.

Because of a “pen pal” exchange in our Brownie/Girl Guide troops we were matched up.  Back then, it was through long letters that we corresponded.  Letters that went in to those awesome “air mail” envelopes and took forever to get to each other.  airmail-envelope-clipartI will never forget waiting for her amazing letters to arrive. We moved to a time when we had MSN chat, email correspondence and then to Facebook and Skype.  We have literally grown up together; knowing about each other siblings, parents and then children, husbands and jobs.

Imagine that a Canadian girl from the small province of New Brunswick is on her way to the country of South Africa to spend time with a ‘long-lost” friend.  We are connected in ways difficult to explain to others and this is just something that we finally are going to do. Meet!

As you know, this blog is suppose to be about school improvement. I am sure that many of you are starting to ask how I will make this connection… my personal trip to South Africa to the subject of improving schools.  Actually, I found a really great reason this week to include this trip in my blog.  Here is why…

First of all, this is only happening because adults, in my life, knew enough about having an impact on a young girl from a family with limited resources.  The fact that I was included in the pen pale exchange, opening my eyes to a world beyond the north side of the city of Fredericton, still amazes me.  So many things happened to me when I was young, because someone at school, at church, at Brownies or in our community took the time to do something with me or for me. The truth is, adults believed in me. They saw my potential and they offered me ways to grow. And I wonder, as adults, do we understand the impact that our small (or not so small) gestures will have on others?

The teachers I worked with this week know what I am talking about. As I left the  high school in Lafayette on Tuesday, I was struck by our last conversation about the impact that we have on our students.  I truly understand that the teachers in the schools that I work in face very challenging times with students who come from difficult situations  and how hard it is to really build confidence and stamina in these young adults.  Sometimes, it feels hopeless. I understand. I was one of those children.

I can still recall each and every adult in my young life that had an impact on me.  I grew up in a loving family but, as I said before, with very limited resources.  I can tell you the exact time that one teacher invited me to be part of a group of students who were able to go to see the New Brunswick Symphony Orchestra perform. I don’t know why I was chosen but I remember every second of that concert, the seat I was in at the Fredericton Playhouse  and I know for a fact, that has had a huge impact on my life. I love live music and artists of all kinds. And, this influenced a decision I made as a superintendent to bring the music program Sistema (www.sistemanb.ca)  to our schools. I appreciate now how this program has grown and impacted thousands of students.

I can also still remember the moment that my South African friend, Felicity’s name and address were given to me. I remember going home and asking for the special air mail paper and envelopes so I could send a letter off to this girl. And, I will always remember seeing the envelopes in my mailbox- the impact of an adult decision felt over and over again. Now, I feel so blessed that we will meet this week and truly close the circle of friendship and love that we have shared over the years.

So, my message this week is short and simple; never undersell your impact as an adult/educator in the lives of your students.  Every second you spend looking at their progress, thinking about their needs, understanding what you can do to support them and taking action is not wasted.  If you are an administrator, it is making sure that your time is spent in the mindset of what is best for students.  If you are a teacher, it is digging deep, even when it is tough to reach just one student.  Saving lives, one student at a time is what your impact is truly about.

Students know about impact. They may not be able to articulate it until later in life, but they know.  And, the students who you think might not appreciate it or notice because they come from less fortunate situations, do notice. They recognize support, they see the smile you give them, they know when someone has expectations of them and pushes them just a little further.  It all adds up to very important and influential impact.

I will leave you with these reflective questions- Do you know your impact on a daily basis? Are you intentionally seeking opportunities to challenge, support, guide and build confident learners? Do you go home at night feeling comfortable with the relationship that you are developing at your school? And, most importantly, do your actions match what you know you should do?

If I could find my Brown Owl now, I would tell her about this amazing story of travel and the impact that she has had on me.  If I could find my fifth grade teacher, I would thank her for taking me to the symphony.  And, mostly, I would want to express my appreciation to every teacher who made me work hard and expected me to learn at high levels.  Someone, someday, will want to find you to thank you for your impact. Trust me, they will. We just have to make it happen.  I look forward to being back with you after a couple of weeks of vacation.  Until then, create the opportunities for success. You do make a difference.

 

Humbled

Living our lives with humility.  What does this really mean?  In a world where we can tell and show everyone our daily happenings and receive feedback on every experience, it can be  easy to forget it isn’t about us.  Without intention, we can make it about us.  I know this from experience.  I write this blog, I post lots on Facebook and I enjoy a life that truly feels amazing most days.  When I talk about my work as a school improvement coach, my intention is to share my learnings with others.  It isn’t to make it about me…however… I fear that we are all guilty of this at times.  Sometimes, we need little reminders about why we do what we do. And, here is how that happened for me this week…

I was given this t-shirt in Arkansas.  As you can see, it says, Remember Your Why. The district I am working in, Dollarway School District, has several different ways of expressing their work and Remember Your Why is one of those messages. fullsizeoutput_f11 As I left the school with the t-shirt, I started thinking about what it really meant and why it was such an important message for the educators in that district.

In the schools I work, we spend great amounts of time discussing practices and processes that we know will make a difference in the school.  Lots of this work focuses on discussions with teachers and leaders about how to create change and opportunities.  There are lots of books to read, Powerpoints to view and data to analyze.  Money is spent and educators give up the most precious thing, time in their classrooms, to learn together.

In most schools, all of this pays off.  Teachers figure out what is best and they do the right work.  They create the school that they want to see and they impact change.  But, sometimes, just sometimes, I wonder if we all forget the why.  The ONLY reason I should hit the road every week to work in schools is to create success for students.  The synergy and commitment of teachers and school leaders has to be because of their students.  The only talk that should matter is about the students. They have to be present with us at all times. The absolute why of all of our work is students.

If we are going to remember our why, what should that look like and sound like in your school or district?  How do you work with this intentional purpose every single day?  Most importantly, what actions do you need to change to realign your work?  If you are being honest, do you work for the students or do we move away from this and make it about the adults? About us?

I challenge you this week to address this head on.  If you work in a school or district, or do what I do as a consultant, reconnect with your why. For a few days, listen to how few times your conversations, your plans, your advice is about students. If they are not part of your discussions, your focus, then it is time to reconsider what your work is about.

I was humbled by the gift of the t-shirt. I recognize that it is a great reminder for me that I must hold dear to my heart. This work is about student improvement not “school” improvement.  It is about moving students, not moving schools. It is about students having great days filled with learning, not you or me, as the adults, having a great day. It doesn’t matter how many posts I make or tweets I send about my work or even what I write here, it really is about what I do when I am in a school each and every day to make a difference. To authentically work in my schools, with humility, I can never forget my why. And, I don’t believe any of us can if we want the very best for our students.  Make it the very best student-centered week that you can! See you next Saturday.