A Conversation

In a few words, we learn so much. We experience the lives of others through their words and often these conversations cause us to reflect on our on days. This is how I would describe the past two weeks for me… full of connections and conversations that had and will have impact on me for a very long time.

I had the wonderful opportunity to work in five different schools (4 districts) in Arkansas. Each of these schools has teachers and administrators working diligently to improve so that their students will be more successful. They are all involved in implementing the Professional Learning Community at Work (PLC) process… in other words, they are focused on collaborating to use evidence to meet the needs of their students.

They are having intentional conversations about what they want students to learn and how they will know. They are taking great steps to collect evidence of student learning and collectively figuring out what to do for students who are not learning or are ready to move on. Leaders are honing their leadership skills so they can support and coach these effective practices. And, while this may all sound systematic and easy to implement, it requires true commitment and deep understanding of why we do what we do.  And, what really plays in to whether a school or district implements with fidelity, are the values and beliefs of the adults that I work with.

If I was to establish a time line or continuum of where each of these schools are in their implementation of the PLC process, there would be  five very different locations. One school recently celebrated its “B” school rating ( moving from a C) because of their hard work over the past two years, another is also on the move with their practices (celebrating being just a point away from moving from a C to a B school). I know that grading schools in general is a hot topic but in these cases, it does tell me that the teachers and leaders are working on the right work. They are paying attention to the students. The other three schools are not as far along but the real celebration is what I heard in these three buildings- adult talk more focused on students and learning. That is what I really loved about my school visits… collective thoughts and actions around what students need.

As I started off by saying in this blog, the conversations of the past two weeks are what really inspired me and made me reflect. iStock_64493419_LARGE-cropped-1080x675 had a chance to meet a young teacher who is very gifted and has experienced living and working in very successful school systems. It seemed to me that he could pick any state to work in and he would have a teaching job. What I love about him is that his decision is to work in a very low performing school and district because of his commitment to the students.

In a twenty-minute conversation with him, he talked mostly about the students. We were in the cafeteria and he called every student by name and was able to share so much about their needs and his dedication to making their world a better place.  He would stop the conversation with me whenever a student passed by us and talk with that student.  His eyes were often wandering the room, looking to make sure that the students were doing ok. When I left the school that day, I continued to reflect on one thing that he said to me, ” These kids deserve great teachers too.” How simple a statement but so impactful in our work.  Without this kind of dedication, it will be very difficult to lift this type of school out of a cycle of low performance.

Sandwiched between my two weeks of work was a chance to connect with my work family. We had a learning retreat and many, many powerful conversations happened there. I always appreciate the opportunity to be a learner and thankful that I can do this with so many people that I love and respect.  Besides being inspiring, it can also be difficult and I had one of those moments as well when my own vulnerability and ability to accept constructive criticism was challenged.  It is one thing to say that we are lifelong learners but it is another to truly model this.  I am so thankful that I have thought partners and critical friends who will always be honest and supportive despite the lessons that we might be learning from each other. You know who you are in my life and I thank you for this.

So to end on a lighter note, I also learned through conversation that I am getting on in my years of experience. Well, I knew this without this reminder but let me tell you what happened. I was doing leadership coaching with a superintendent and sharing some of my past experiences with him. I talked about when I was a principal of a middle school in 1995. He grinned when I said it and then said to me…”Oh Karen, I was in middle school in 1995 too… as a student!”.  The comment stopped me in my tracks for a minute and immediately my thoughts were… oh dear, it must be time to retire.  In the end though, I know that age isn’t the most important thing here- it is the work. What expertise can I share, what knowledge can I bring to the table, what can I observe and coach from and how can I support leaders and teachers make things better for students?  When I stop feeling that I am contributing to this, I will know it is time to retire.

My challenge to you this week is to notice your conversations with others.  What can you learn when you listen? What one thing can you do to take action from something that you learned this week to have impact? Have a great week of reflection and learning through conversation.

In Service of Others

Remembrance Day or Veteran’s Day… it doesn’t matter what we call it in the two countries that I live and work. Monday, November 11 is a day to remember.  We honor and celebrate the men and women who have provided us with the freedom to live our lives as we wish.  For both world wars,  it is very difficult now to speak to a veteran. We have to rely on the artifacts, the stories, the documents and pictures that have been preserved.    There are veterans, service men and women from many other battles living among us. This blog is dedicated to you…

On Monday, cities, towns, schools will remember.  We will hear the last post, stand in parade, read the poem, In Flanders Fields and we will take time to reflect. It is hard for some of us to understand what it felt like or truly meant to go off to war.  How do we connect this in our current reality? images I have the opportunity to know, love and respect people who spend their days doing all that they can to make our world a safer place for us to live. I know that in offices, on military bases, in remote parts of the world, there are women and men who work unselfishly, diligently,  in the service of others. They are not in the “limelight” or get the accolades but they go to work, day in and day out, to do all that they can to help make our world a safe place to be.

They might be on a front line of military action, or in a support service role or even in a position that isn’t really understood by most of us. They might not physically be in the trenches of World War I, but they are in the trenches as we know them today, examining systems, communication, decisions and patterns to understand how others view our world to prevent disasters; to keep us safe. They might be visible to us in uniform protecting our neighborhoods, fighting fires, in security details or working all night in an emergency room. Service to others means that we are being protected and this dedication gives the rest of us peace of mind.

On Monday, as we remember the brave men and women who fought on our behalf, we have to also think about what it takes to keep our communities, our schools safe.  There are decisions and actions taken, big and small, understood, not understood, known and not known to create safe environments for us all to work and live.  This on-going commitment to a safe world is the most authentic way to honor those who fought and gave their lives for us.

When I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp, Flanders Fields, the site of the Berlin Wall, or even pass by a monument or memorial in any town or city, I am reminded of the pleasure that I have to live with personal freedom.  I also know that this freedom is treasured by many, many people in our world that do not have it.  And, I also know that this freedom came with a price and that it can not be taken for granted.

When you meet a veteran of any battle or have the opportunity to thank anyone who is in service to protect us, tell them what this means to you.  They may have a uniform on or they may not but if you know that they are working in some capacity to make our world safe and a better place to live, let them know that this is absolutely appreciated by you. It is the purest, most significant way to remember the past and hold on to our future.

Over the past few days, many schools held programs and assemblies to recognize the sacrifice of war.  Educators have a unique opportunity to impact their students by modeling respect and understanding and helping our youth understand the significance of a safe world.  We know that school safety is a priority and we also understand that the bigger picture is the safety of cities, countries, our world. It all trickles down to each of us feeling secure and safe where we work, live and play.

Let us not take this for granted, appreciate and be aware of the sacrifice and service being provided on our behalf. And, most importantly, what can we each do to help others? How can we enrich our own lives by being in service to others? What can we teach our students about giving of ourselves?

For those of you in my life who are in service of others, I appreciate you.  Have a wonderful week.

 

 

Head, Heart, Hand

For many reasons, I sometime find myself wondering about the journey that I have taken in my life. Decisions that I have made, both personally and in my work – good or bad- have made me who I am today.  For example, when I finished high school, for very personal reasons, I did not pursue the career of my choice and entered an education program in my home town.  I lived at home and elected a vocational track, studying Home Economics as a teaching discipline.  Despite that not being my first choice, I have never regretted my decision and I know that having this vocation background has served me well throughout my life. Sadly, I didn’t always feel that others saw it this way.

I recently visited the city of Zurich.  On a tour, the young tour guide was very proud to tell us all that Zurich is second in the world for quality of life and that the education system in the city is very important.  He went on to explain that the Zurich education system followed a belief in educating the head, heart and hand, based on the theories of  Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who was born in Zurich in  1746.

Pestalozzi wrote books based on the theories that he had about education. “Children should learn through activity and through things (hands-on tools). They should be free to pursue their own interests and draw their own conclusions.”8873652-3d-illustration-of-a-measuring-scale Pestalozzi argued that there was a need for balance, that the three elements of head, heart and hands were most important to children receiving a great education. In Zurich, and in many other European cities,  apprenticeships and experimental-learning opportunities are a strong component of education systems and are part of the overall expectations of a balanced education program.

Over my career as an educator, I experienced a strong focus on vocational programs.  Sadly, I also witnessed most of the vocational labs removed from schools only to see the need later to have them restored.  As a Superintendent, I was part of a great project that saw students able to go out in the workforce and experience an “apprenticeship-like” program; although not to the extent that was described to me when I was in Zurich. I also had many conversations with educators, parents and students and know that, it was often seen as a less than favorable decision to select a vocation training course.

Personally, I can remember many times when someone would find out that the superintendent had a home economics degree.  And then the surprise would continue when they discovered that the assistant superintendent had been an industrial arts teacher. Imagine two vocationally trained teachers leading a school district?

As I continue to work in schools that want nothing more than to make students successful, we focus many efforts on engaging students in their own learning. Teachers know that students will be more interested in what they are studying if it is relevant to them and especially when their is a hands-on experience attached to the learning.  It is not always possible, especially in small schools, communities or districts to provide a large buffet of programs to offer,  however, in each and every classroom, teachers have the choice of how they will present the learning.  Considering ways to engage through project-based learning, exploratory lessons and opportunities for students to have choice when it is possible can go a long way in sparking an interest.

My home province of New Brunswick, Canada is reviewing the current education plan and inviting input from all New Brunswickers.   I was part of the research and recommendations for the ten-year plan in 2015-2016.  I clearly remember the conversations that were had throughout the province as we were asked to make sure our recommendations included a focus on vocational, cooperative learning and hands-on opportunities. Business leaders, community members, parents and students discussed the need to make sure that essential non-academic skills were seen as important as literacy, mathematics and science.

Please do not misunderstand this blog. I would be the first person to tell you that if we do not ensure that children have strong literacy skills then we are not going to succeed as an education system.  Ensuring that youngsters learn to read and then read to learn is critical to the success of any community or country.  Once this is done however, we can look at the opportunities that support the balance of head, heart and hand.  It is a balance; not one or the other.

In school improvement work, it is about each student – student by student/skill by skill.  How important is it for us to know more about these students and the skills that would truly turn them on to learning? How valuable would it be for us to have opportunities for more experiments, more hands-on projects, more music, more art, more drama and more vocational programs?  However small or big we can make these offers, they will be appreciated. Have a great week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October Blues

Why is October referred to as the month of the “teaching blues?  Why is this month so difficult, especially for beginning teachers?  What makes school and district leaders feel so overwhelmed? What happens to cause overload, frustration and most importantly, zap that energy that happened when the pencils were newly sharpened?

Teaching is hard.  Let’s not ignore this fact.  Working every day to inspire, engage, support, encourage and create learning opportunities for every student is hard work.  imagesBuilding relationships, making connections and balancing all of this with the demands of curriculum and assessment expectations can take its toll. As the year progresses, the demands increase and the reality of this demanding work is felt in every hallway and classroom. Especially, when this is a new experience.

In a conversation this week with a school principal (Ross) we talked about how he could support his new principals.  In his school of sixty teachers, fifteen of them are new teachers and for the first time this school year, he feels that they are struggling to find the balance of all that is expectedWe talked a great deal about going back to the basics and really looking at the systems and practices in the school that might be causing some of the overwhelm and how to best keep distractors away from the teachers.

Ross knows that he has to continue to build a culture of trust at his school and he is working hard to do that. He communicates clear expectations for his staff and students and he asks staff (authentically) for their input. When I started coaching Ross, he admitted that he struggled with explaining the why of decisions and actions and spent too much time assuming that others understood why things were happening in his school. He is working on his listening skills and I reminded him that October might be a great time to take the pulse of the staff? Find out what is causing the lack of energy he is feeling in the building and actually talk about the struggles that are real to the teachers.

One thing that I often see in schools this time of year is a lack of confidence in our practices. I notice that leaders and teachers seem to question their own abilities more frequently when they are tired and overwhelmed.  Continuing to build our own sense of competency is necessary.  How do we do this when being busy is taking on a life of its own? It is important to accept that we can’t do it all and we have to prioritize what is truly important. What does this look like in a school?

I always see a level of confidence and belief in oneself improve when we focus on a few things and celebrate our accomplishments around these few things.  For example, if you are a school principal reading this, when was the last time that you took time to check in on your priorities? What are you doing to be accountable for what you said, at the first of the year, would be the most important things to accomplish this year? Have you celebrated? Is it time to refocus?

Personally, it seems to take New Year’s Resolutions for me to reset my priorities and get focused on the important things in my life.  Maybe October is our New Year’s in education… a great time to look at what we can do, what we can’t do and what we have to do.  Current reality and focused, intentional actions instead of just spinning our wheels.

And, if you are a teacher reading this, what do you know that you are really, really good at? What classroom practices are your teaching strengths and how much time, right now are you spending connecting with your students?  Have you asked for help from colleagues? Are you part of a collaborative team and benefitting from the expertise and experiences around you?  Can you refocus in your classroom with goal-setting so that you and your students can feel successful in smaller chunks of time?

In our book, Leading with Intention, (https://www.solutiontree.com/leading-with-intention.html), chapters one and two offer a great many tools to help you refocus, redirect your energy and set those priorities.  We also have a one-hour free webinar that is focused on this as well, https://www.solutiontree.com/leading-with-focus-and-intention-webinar.html.

Be well, be happy and refocus. Your personal energy is important to the students and staff that you serve.  Have a great week.

The Sky is the Limit

About a year ago, I visited South Africa for the first time. I met my beautiful,  long time pen pal, Felicity Zwart and went on safari. I  visited townships, beaches and cities and learned about the history and wonderful, resilient people of the country.  DefaultTeamBanner I was introduced to the national rugby team, the Springboks and for the first time watched the movie “Invictus” which tells the story of how President Nelson Mandela saw the benefit of sport to unite his country.

This Sunday, the Springboks play Japan in the quarterfinals in the World Rugby Cup.  I came across a link to a South African video created to inspire the Springbok.  It was created by the Ndlovu Youth Choir, https://www.goodthingsguy.com/lifestyle/ndolvu-youth-choir-bokke/ . As I watched the energy and enthusiasm of these young people I felt I had to know more. I remembered that they had made an appearance on America’s\ Got Talent but what I really found interesting are the messages and wishes that this young choir shares with the world.

The choir forms part of a larger project, the Ndlovu Care Group which was founded in 1994 to provide healthcare, childcare, education and  community development in rural villages.  The choir was created in 2009 and has successfully demonstrated the potential that each and every child has despite backgrounds, birthplace, economics or education.  The choir takes young South Africans from rural towns and villages and builds their confidence and self discipline through music.

These young people represent their country with dignity and grace and share two very important messages with the world as part of their work.  The first one reminds me of the school improvement work that is so important to me- “Just because you are born into poverty doesn’t mean you are poverty.” So many times, adults need this reminder as we work with children from disadvantaged backgrounds.  It can become too easy for us to make excuses that not all students can learn or that it is too difficult to overcome the barriers of poverty. If “all means all” truly is our authentic belief then poverty is not an obstacle.

The choir also hopes to inspire others to follow their dreams and believe that “sky is the limit”.  It is another great reminder of why believing in our students as educators is job number one for us.  We have to see potential when it is in front of us and we have to engage and inspire when it seems to be the most challenging of situations.  If we don’t do this, then who will?

In 2009, when I was a school superintendent in New Brunswick, Canada, I was asked to take a risk and believe in a program like the Ndlova Youth Choir. It is called El Sistema, an after school music program from the streets of Venezuela where any child who wants to learn gets a musical instrument of their choice and free instruction every weekday afternoon and Saturday mornings.  When Ken MacLeod asked if my school district would consider partnering with the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra to pilot a Sistema program in NB, I knew that it was the right decision.  In an elementary school neighborhood with low socioeconomic  conditions, Sistema NB was born with 50 students beginning to play stringed instruments. Here is the link to can read more about the last ten years of growth and the success of the program: http://sistemanb.ca/ .

Just like the messages from Ndlova Youth Choir, Sistema NB has seen the following benefits for students in its program:

  • Improved literacy and better overall school grades
  • More self-confidence and self-esteem
  • A feeling of belonging and worth
  • The knowledge of how to work as a team, and how to help others
  • A solid foundation for the future

These skills are hard to argue.  Programs like the choir and Sistema are about “all means all” and believing in the potential of students, no matter what they experience before or after their school day. As educators, we have the power and influence to create these benefits for students each and every day.

This is a great time of the year to consider the relationships that are being built (or, perhaps, missed) in your building or classroom. What can I personally do to develop stronger connections and ensure that each student is engaged and is given ever opportunity to learn?  What do I need to do differently to make a difference?

What a great feeling for the Springboks to know that this choir and their country is behind them as they play this Sunday.  How awesome would it be for every child to feel this supported as they head in to their classroom each morning? The sky is the limit when we truly believe.  Have a great week.

 

 

Gratitude

Yesterday, I visited the site of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Germany. It was a moving, reflective, learning experience.  Even though I am in Europe for “vacation”, I felt that it was important, for two reasons, to visit Dachau.

The first one is because of my dear friend, Holocaust survivor Philip Riteman  (https://wordpress.com/post/karenpower.blog/316) who had survived both Auschwitz and Dachau. Mr. Riteman passed in August 2018 and my biggest regret is that I can not have a conversation with him again; knowing what I know now and feeling what I feel after the visit to Dachau.  Secondly, I am a life-long learner. I don’t think that I could come to Germany and not take the opportunity to learn more about the history that has given us the life and freedom that we have today.

I know that that I write this blog every week with the intention of supporting the district leaders, principals and teachers whom I work with in the business of school improvement.  I also acknowledge that this may not directly give any advice or wisdom as you consider what to do next in your work as an educator.  I will do my very best to make an connection for you as I reflect on what I heard, saw and experienced at the memorial site.

Merriam-Webster defines “memorial” as serving to preserve remembrance/something that keeps remembrance alive. As each generation moves further away from World War I and II and the last veterans and survivors are among us, remembering is going to be up to each of us. IMG_0350What knowledge that is understood and passed on to the next generation is going to depend on the respect that we have for educating one another- for taking the time to learn, reflect and consider how the past impacts the present and certainly, the future.

The students in front of us each and every day are our future. We hear and say this often and we have great opportunities to watch them lead and take their place as “influencers” in the world.  Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier come to mind as two young adults who have taken risks and are speaking from their hearts to help us all understand our current reality.  Greta and Autumn were the same age as Philip when he was captured and taken to Auschwitz. His voice and influence on us may not be through the platform that Greta and Autumn can have but he and other survivors have worked hard to help us understand.

Philip spent many years going from school to school, sharing his very difficult and emotional story, hoping that students and adults could understand the need for us to “love not hate”. This was a simple but, tremendously important message, from a horrific life experience. Any time that I had a chance to talk to him, this was his mantra. He was a forgiving, loving man despite what he experienced and he wanted us all to understand and appreciate the lives we lived.

We can not erase history and what happened in the past.  With knowledge, wisdom, guidance and love, generations to come will make sound decisions. These generations are influenced everyday by the educators in front of them; sharing experiences, allowing discovery and freedom of speech and acknowledging their opinions and beliefs.  We can not and do not need to take every student to Dachau but we do need to continue to build understanding of history and our world.

Educators  do so much to help students see beyond the four walls of the classroom and this must always be part of the relevancy of teaching and learning. It is wise and necessary, as an educator, to never underestimate your power to impact and influence. Recently, I overheard a teacher telling a class that he cared so much because he never knows who might be sitting in front of him- the next leader of a country, a scientist or doctor who will save lives, or, a young person who will experience great adversity like Philip did and go on to influence hundreds of thousands by sharing his story.

This is Thanksgiving weekend in Canada.  A time to reflect and be grateful for the richness in our lives.  A time to remember and appreciate what has shaped our stories. A time to celebrate the privilege that we have to be educated and to live in a world that we can experience and share with others. With gratitude, I say good bye for another week. I appreciate you and the opportunity that I have to live and work freely; it has never had more meaning then it does this week.

 

Making a Difference

The sound of your own footsteps echo as you walk.  You relish in the quiet early morning moments. Doors are unlocked, lights turned on and soon the hustle and bustle of the school day begins.  It almost takes your breath away how fast the atmosphere in a school can change when the doors open and the students come in.

Every morning, in schools across Canada and the United States, about four million teachers  have the amazing potential for positive impact. It might start with a warm, genuine greeting or end with positive affirmation and celebration. Sandwiched between the beginning and end of the day are all “teachable moments”, when learning truly happens.

This week, I happened in one of these classrooms where you just know that students are being positively impacted. Ms. Byrd teachers at Robert F Morehead Middle School in Dollarway School District in Arkansas.  I spent a few minutes in her room and I knew right away that it was someone that I would want my child to spend time with if she was in middle school.  Ms. Byrd was having a conversation with the students; that was what her instruction felt like to me. She was interacting with them in a way that they were engaged. And her room told a story of what was the most important thing that she was teaching- I should say “who” because it was all about the student.

This bulletin board truly represents what  Ms. Byrd believes in her students.  The center part (it is hard to tell in my less than professional picture) is a mirror. IMG_0289 Imagine having an opportunity to look in to a mirror every day and see yourself and these reminders of what you are responsible for and control. Imagine having a teacher that expects this high level of responsibility from you and is helping you understand that you are and must be accountable for your own actions, words, choices, grades and success.  How important are these messages in building a sense of student ownership of their learning? Of their lives?

In our world of education, we talk about essential learnings for students, how we will instruct, assess and intervene on these learnings and we face many challenges and differences in opinions of what and how we improve schools.  It doesn’t matter where I am or what school I am in, the most critical factor, in my opinion, is whether or not  teachers believe that all and each  student can learn and like Ms. Byrd does, creates an expectation that the student must also have this belief.

I have been writing this blog for almost two years now. I am sure if you read back through the blogs, this will not be the first time that my weekly message is about the student.  Sometimes, I need the reminder when I am on the road and in schools and districts that this is what our work is about. Sometimes it is easier for me not to stray from this as the priority and other times, like everyone else, I get caught up in all the other factors that we know to also be true about improving schools. Ms. Byrd did a great job of being my reminder this week of what our business of education is all about.

Thank you, Ms. Byrd and thank you to all of the teachers who work tirelessly to be there for students. To not give up on them and continue to confront the excuses and self-doubt.  To make lessons relevant and engaging. To raise expectations and give students the autonomy and responsibility to direct their own traffic on their learning journey. As this week comes to an end, I invite you to reflect on your own beliefs and actions. Are you modeling an authentic belief in the ability of students to learn, no matter what? Does all mean all in your school or district? What does that look like and sound like in your halls and classrooms?  What are the messages that are being given intentionally or unintentionally? It might be a great time for self-reflection as a staff or individually. There is no time like the present to make a difference.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to being back with you next week.