Joy vs Rigour?

I have had the great pleasure or living the past 5 months in a Pre Kindergarten to Grade 4 school. Being the daily home to little people curious about everything and (mostly) excited each day they come to school. In fact, quite literally running to get inside the school.

My time in this school has helped me to reflect on the over-arching idea of achievement and the word rigour.

I am fortunate to work with teachers who are incredibly skilled at their craft. Like most schools, there is a wide dichotomy in the way in which these teachers lead their students. On the surface some might appear to do nothing but play, while other classrooms appear to be very traditional.

Does the “all play” classroom mean that students are not learning anything? Conversely, does the “quiet, orderly” classroom mean that students are not having any fun? In every school I have worked in, I have observed various types of environments and I have learned that the answer to those questions can only be discovered when you spend intentional time in classes.

I have achieved this through planned observations and other times by scheduled learning walks. Either way, by spending time in classes, I have discovered that it is not an either/or situation. The classroom that is loud and may appear wild, can have intentional rigourous learning embedded in those activities. Similarly, I have observed the “traditional” environment instil joy in students through celebrations of learning and achievement.

As school and system leaders, I’d like us to do a better job of separating the idea that a classroom needs to be on or the other. Modelling, who we are in setting the tone for our schools and districts. As Elizabeth Befus highlights in her post, A playbook for new leaders, by coach Ted Lasso, “Be true to yourself.” Don’t try to be something you are not, be comfortable in your strengths as well as areas we can grow. Creating this environment will help to diminish the noise that can fill teachers’ time considering whether they are perceived as not focussing enough on achievement, or being too strict or the “no fun” teacher. This in turn will allow teachers to be comfortable in the setting they want to create for their students and playing to their strengths.

It doesn’t need to be on or the other, as I have learned through the work of teachers that fun and rigour can exist in unison.

At-Home Learning

Over the past 8 months schools across Canada have been forced to re-imagine learning. Most recently, here in Alberta, as a system, we have shifted from face to face instruction, to, what we are referring to as, at-home learning. For some grade levels, this shift took place prior to the scheduled winter break, for the rest of us, it is taking place today.

This current teaching and learning situation has been referred to as remote, online, virtual, and distance (among other things). While none of these terms can accurately capture what is happening for students and teachers, it is important to note: schools are not “closed”, nor has the break been “extended”. It is critical that we recognize the incredible effort that is required for teaching and learning in this way.

Teachers, students AND parents have been, and will be, working tirelessly to support students’ needs because school is about relationships. It is taking a collective effort by all of our partners to make sure the children in our care know how important they are to us, regardless of what is happening in the world around them.

Searching for Words

This is the first post in a long time and it is not intended to impart any wisdom nor is it written with any prudence. It is not often I speak or write with my heart on my sleeve, but for the past 24 hours I have been trying to come to terms with the horrific tragedy in Saskatchewan that has take the lives of so many from the Humboldt Broncos hockey team and forever devastated so many others.


There is no quantifying the magnitude of this tragedy. Without a doubt, there have been others on a global scale recently that have made me reflect on life, but none that have hit this close home for me.

I first learned to skate at 2.5, maybe 3. My first team pic took place when I was 4. My first memory of a road trip – I couldn’t have been more than 6. I remember being devastated at 9 when a road trip was cancelled due to weather. All I wanted to do was get to that rink to play. It was just a little snow. I couldn’t understand what could be more important than getting us to that game. Several years later and this most recent tragedy later, I now know that at Monday Night Hockey, I am going to embrace the brotherhood I continue to have the great fortune to skate with and spend time with each week.


Since those early days, I have been fortunate to travel our country, and a few others, with teams of sons and daughters, brothers and sisters; friends that those trips forged for the rest of my life. We’ve travelled in cars, vans, busses and planes. I have competed with and continue to skate with friends who have given everything just to have a seat in that room and on those busses.

Now, almost every week, I authorize trips of students to pursue their passions. They travel in cars, vans, busses and planes. I can’t imagine having to tell them they can’t chase that dream. My eldest daughter just finished 3+ years travelling with teammates and friends to games and tournaments on the back roads and secondary highways of BC. My youngest is about to begin her first season in team sports. I know she will experience the indescribable bond that comes from the bus trips that are in her future.


There are no words to describe the heavy heart I have as I try to make sense of this. I send my thoughts and my prayers to the families and the entire community of Humboldt. Before putting our 5-year old daughter to bed last night, we had a long family hug. I end this the only way I can think of. I encourage you to hug your loved ones and forgive your grudges. Life is full of the unexpected so capture the happiness even when it isn’t right in front of us.

Peace to those impacted by this event that I still can’t make sense of, and never will.




Inquiry-Based Professional Learning

Nearly 25% of the teachers in our school are actively exploring an inquiry approach to learning. This is something I feel we should be proud of and has prompted me to think about how to use inquiry in our professional growth. Why would we want to model this type of approach to learning?images.jpeg My initial thought is that in order for teachers to employ an inquiry approach in their classes, it will be helpful to understand the full potential of inquiry based learning generally speaking; how it can impact our end results. From my perspective, there’s no better way than to experience it first hand.

If we are going to change our emphasis from schooling to learning we need to not only look at ideas we are passionate about, but also to encourage the active research of new solutions that will make it easier for staff to be more active in larger systemic change.When using an inquiry approach in professional growth our questions need to challenge the basic assumptions we have about learning. By focussing on learning as the underlying basis of professional inquiry, we limit the distractions that come from the systemic processes that are perceived to impede effective teaching and productive learning. What is imperative in this process is to encourage staff to be meaningful with their inquiry.

Any time educators are asked to change practice and approach, it is important to recognize the feeling of risk this evokes. To model taking this risk, taking time out of existing structures is important. At our school we are fortunate to have collaboration time embedded into our yearly schedule. This is one avenue where we encourage an inquiry approach to professional growth. Another example could include regular inquiry learning time during staff meetings. If we want to create an environment where educators take risks in their learning, as leaders we need to model this process.

Pink Shirt Spirit

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Today people are wearing Pink in schools and businesses across Canada as a reminder that we need to practice kindness in our interactions, not just today but on a regular basis. An article in the Globe and Mail summarized the beginnings of this movement which first started in 2007 when a young grade 9 boy was

bullied for wearing a pink polo shirt to school, David Shepherd and Travis Price decided to take a stand. They bought dozens of pink tank tops at a thrift store and announced they would give them out to students the next day. With the word out, many students took it upon themselves to show up for school in pink rather than wait for one of the tops.

As educators we see the effect of this behaviour on a regular basis. While we try to educate our students on the impact of bullying can have, we continue to see ongoing negative interactions particularly in the “Online World” and through the use of Social Media sites.

In the spirit of what Pink Shirt Day stands for, we must also address the role of technology, our online interactions, and guiding youth to be great digital citizens. How do Parents and Educators help our children to make better decisions in their online interactions? NETWORKED YOUTH: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Online Behaviour will be available in March May 2016. Below is a brief summary of the book.



“ Today’s children are often described as digital natives. Most do not know a world without smartphones, tablets and Internet access as common household items. They are growing up in a world where everyone is connected and information about every possible subject is instantly at hand. With countless stories about the dangers of too much screen time, sexting and, of course, cyberbullying, many parents struggle finding a balance between their concerns over the downsides of this connected world and allowing their children to develop independence.

Networked Youth: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Online Behaviour and Raising Digital Leaders provides a roadmap for parents raising children in a technology rich world. Today’s parents weren’t taught how to use the internet, they have learned and continue to learn the skills needed to navigate a world in which people are connected 24 hours a day. Too often, youth publish and post without considering who might see their content and how it impacts them immediately and in the future. By using examples and offering exercises to work through, this book empowers parents and educators to guide children in maintaining positive online behaviour.”

More information will be available shortly on the exact release date. If you are working with a group and you would like to pre-order a bulk order (10 or more) please contact me directly.

In the meantime, keep kindness on your mind on a regular basis. #pinkshirtday #acceptance #kindness

Relationships and Data

Relationships and data are two topics that are often at the heart of conversations around successful educational reform. Can these two be separated? Can you accurately gauge success with only one of these two elements?

Several years ago I attended my first educational conference focused on leadership. The facilitator of a large group session was a well-known and respected educator whose research was data driven and focused on measuring results. As a wide-eyed young teacher I asked, in front of the entire group, Why do we need data? I know my students well, their engagement in lessons tells me how much they are getting from me on a daily basis. He looked at me with a stunned look in his eyes and responded, “we were happy when we thought the world was flat too, how did that work out?” Imagine the awkward silence that followed amidst the 200 or so educational leaders in the room.

I have learned and now speak to the importance of establishing data out of practice to help us understand what is, and what isn’t working for learning. But central to all of this, and before any data is worthwhile, I maintain that relationships are key. This is why I have shared with staff Rita Pierson’s TedTalk Every Child Needs a Champion in which she says, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like”.

Fast-forward to this past week. While working half-way around the world in Seoul, Korea, my phone rang. When I said hello, the voice on the other end was a student I taught nearly 10 years ago. After briefly catching up, we made plans to have dinner. Catching up over Korean BBQ we shared the twists and turns our lives had taken and it was like I had seen him far more recently.


For me, catching up with this student was great for many reasons. While I have come to appreciate the importance of data as it relates to student learning, nothing replaces time spent with students. The fact that a former student not only wanted to say hello, but spend time sharing his stories with me and listening to mine. This reinforced that relationships are the key. It is a privilidge to connect with kids everyday. Meeting this student after so many years reinforced that everyday I have the opportunity to make a difference in students’ lives and when I choose to do so, that is how I can create a life-long impact. I’m certainly not holding my breath for an excel file of data to call and invite me to dinner.

Evolution and Moving Forward

It’s uplifting to me, that collectively, we are looking toward the development of a new BC Graduation program. It’s a process that won’t be necessarily easy; it will take time, a shift in resources and how we approach the way we currently do things. Perhaps we look to how we structure our schools, school days and our own time. These details will be a work in progress and will evolve. But evolve they must – We see kids everyday whom are struggling with the current Grad Program requirements, which tells us that parts of it may not be working. So if evolving parts of the system is going to help our students, we must create ways to make it happen.

Of course with any change, even positive moves forward, there are challenges. As leaders we need to help people move forward; have conversations with them so that they understand we are invested in them because their co-creation in this new program is essential. Actions always speak louder than words so it is our role to help find time so that they continue the conversations we have started with them. We cannot change our practice without work, time commitment, and sometimes shifting priorities. What’s important to keep in mind is that we are trying to evolve because it is good for kids. And for me, that’s a good thing!

Innovation and Change

This weekend I came across a Tweet from David Culberhouse from a conversation discussing innovation and creativity. As teachers in our building are exploring ways in which we can increase opportunities to collaborate this particular Tweet resonated with me.

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Teachers at our school are moving their Professional Development in this direction. Their most recent day was extremely uplifting to say the least. It opened with a very brief presentation to the whole group and then we had EdCamp style breakout discussions. No one came with presentations, and everyone came with ideas and thoughts. One of the moments in the day that stuck out for me happened during the opening preview to the day when one teacher very directly told his colleagues that innovation and change does not mean what you were doing was bad or wrong.

This struck a cord with me because although innovation is a word that is used often in Education (as well as many other fields) there is still a lot of systemic pressure within schools to innovate or change cautiously. I remember a colleague several years ago challenging an idea of mine by telling me that the kids aren’t guinea pigs. She was absolutely correct. And because of this, I agree that we need to give careful thought as we try new things but to me innovation is about trying and learning new ideas. Creating something better than what we have had before. By improving things for learning we are in fact being innovative and in many cases we are making good things better.

There are so many great pockets of innovation in Schools and Districts where amazing new work is challenging past norms. Unfortunately as a system we are still only limited to pockets. So while it is important to move cautiously we should remember cautious does not have to mean slow. We need to take leaps where things are working well. There is a need for us to be creative in how we approach learning and create new opportunities for kids.

Why is there a need to innovate? We know that our system has many demands for a limited number of resources. It is important to continue to advocate for greater support of education. We also know that people can learn anytime and anywhere. Will Richardson shares a great story in a Ted Talk about his daughter teaching herself how to play Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” from watching a video. Her piano teacher was distraught because “she wasn’t ready”. Richardson is not suggesting we no longer need teachers – he is pointing out that teaching and more importantly learning looks very different than it has in the past. If people are learning differently then we need to create different opportunities to meet these changing needs.

The power of connections and professional conversations is helping to spread the great work that is happening within the pockets mentioned earlier but the culture of “can we try this” exists in many schools. We need to shift that mindset to “how can we try this” in order turn those isolated examples into the new norm. To do this we need to provide opportunities for kids to try different things than we tried when I was a kid in school. If you are teaching the same book you read 10, 20 or even 30 years ago – stop and ask why. Maybe there is a good reason, but with an unlimited access to other materials it is unlikely that all 25 to 30 kids in your class all want to learn, think and read the same things.

If we want to make these changes on a larger scale then as leaders we need to think and act more creatively than we have in the past. We need to take measured risks and model an innovative and progressive approach to implementing the changes that our communities are asking for. If we don’t change the way we operate, it will be difficult to see the changes we are hoping for.

Looking Ahead

With the labour dispute in BC continuing, the questions about tomorrow and the future are mounting. One question that’s sat with me over the past few days is, “what will education look like when this is resolved?”.


I can’t speak for the logistics of class size and composition. Nor can I say what will happen to the structure of days, length of classes, or impact on the remainder of the school year. What I do know is that before this disruption took place, there were amazing things happening in schools across the province; Teachers and EA’s were exploring best practices to help each learner achieve success. And many administrators were a taking a lead and assisting to provide the types of freedom necessary to explore new and innovative strategies.

A common theme emerging from parents, educators and children is the reality that we need to prepare today’s learners with the ability to adapt to an ever-changing world. In many conversations with colleagues and parents, I’ve heard the concern about preparing students for a world where we are unsure what it will look like. These concerns are valid. My sense is that this is a concern that has been past through the ages and it is more urgent than ever with the rapid rate of change in the world around us. Through many conversations I am beginning to wonder if it’s possible that this concern comes from looking ahead with too narrow a scope.

The reality is that we are heading in the right direction in preparing learners to be adaptable. Thinking back to June when there was uncertainty about exams and report cards, and more recently over the past few weeks, I’ve had countless conversations with both students and parents around implications of the disruption to the school system. What I have discovered is how adaptable our learners have become. Almost every conversation with a student has ended positively as they discover and see for themselves, options moving forward.

The uncertainty seems to be the most difficult for kids to deal with. After sitting down with students and discussing what options they have, they’ve been working through their personal situations and leaving with a plan. They recognize that there is always going to be change. And in turn, those changes will change. They understand that situations will grow and evolve and that it is up to them to adapt and look for ways to resolve and move forward when they can.

These interactions have been uplifting during these difficult times. In a time when we don’t know what next week could look like, let alone 5, 10 to 15 years from now, it is promising to see so many critical thinkers working together and being creative around problem solving. Whatever finer details emerge when this disruption is resolved, I firmly believe that this type of critical thinking will continue and that we will continue to see more and more learners emerging from our buildings with the core competencies to achieve success, no matter what the world looks like down the road.

The Important Stuff

Whenever a school year comes to a close I like to look back at the things our community did to grow, and equally important, to reflect on the places I wanted us to get to but we didn’t. No matter what either of these reflections bring, I’ve noticed that relationships with others help to frame the impact around what did or did not happen. Without a strong focus on relationships, the learning and growth around whatever it was that we accomplished; new initiatives, new technologies etc., are less meaningful.

Thinking about these issues is normal when making transitions. Typically it’s when there’s a change and in my case, it’s to a new district. It’s easy to think back on the wins and gains, but takes so much more energy to dissect the areas that we didn’t quite get to and why. Leaving, I’ll wonder about what I’m leaving behind; will the steps forward our community took continue or take an entirely new direction?

What isn’t in question are the relationships. Education, like many fields, finds people spending hours together, often more time with your colleagues than your family – they don’t call it a ‘work family’ for nothing! The fun, productive, and sometimes most challenging relationships are the ones that seem to stay with us in transitions. It can be the simplest of things that keeps people connected. The truly important part is to stay connected – relationships are what matter most in our work. Not only because we want the other “productive” stuff to move forward, but because they help to frame the important stuff – the sense of community, the sense of accomplishment, the feeling and knowledge that we can make a difference.

I can’t control whether initiatives I worked on will move forward or come to a grinding halt. And really, I’m not sure that matters. By far one of the best parts of my job is connecting with others! What I can do is to stay connected to those I’ve worked with and continue to grow from their input and the conversations that will come.