Happy New Year

Over the past two weeks as I prepared for the start of a new school year, at a new school, I could feel the sense of excitement building inside me.  On Friday, as were putting the final plans in place for “Opening Day”, it struck me that I see Labour Day weekend as my practical New Year’s Eve.

Having spent the majority of my life either in school as a student, or working at school’s, this time of year is filled with so much optimism.  It can be a time for a fresh start for some; others will come to our building tomorrow with an opportunity to build on successes they realized last year.  And there are others coming through our doors with no expectations because they have never attended a school in Canada before.

I think that one of the things that makes tonight so much better than the traditional calendar’s New Year is that beginning tomorrow, people can literally see the new opportunities in front of them.  Students will likely be in classes with at least some new classmates, not to mention new teachers.  Teachers and staff will in turn have new students and see first hand, how former students have grown and matured over the summer. As an Administrator we see the excitement (and yes sometimes trepidation) of this new year on the faces of everyone in our building.

Whatever tomorrow brings you, I hope that you can take a moment to watch and enjoy the energy that this New Year’s brings.

Happy New Year!

Failure, Something to Ponder

Earlier today I Tweeted this:

For contextual purposes I include a dictionary.com definition of failure:

“fail·ure [feyl-yer]

1. an act or instance of failing  or proving unsuccessful; lack of success.
2. non-performance of something due, required, or expected.
3. a subnormal quantity or quality; an insufficiency.”

This tweet led to an exchange of messages that centred around my choice of the word “failure”.  Most of the responses agreed with the sentiment as defined above, that in education, in order for us to learn, we need to experience setbacks en route to achieving greater success.  In fact, some have even retweeted my original message (even with my missing word error!).

However, even when people agreed with the sentiment, several messages challenged  whether we should use the word “failure” in Education.  There were a lot of compelling arguments for why we shouldn’t use this word and many of them were rooted in what the connotation meant to the responder.  For many the concern with using this word is the fact that it can evoke a sense of completion, an end point (and not a positive one).

A consistent theme evident in the arguments against using the word failure is a concern that those who are not actively engaged in discussions about education won’t have the experiences to make the connection of the word with the sentiment intended when it is used today.  I certainly agree that this is a valid concern.  I also agree that we need to be careful which words we choose.

There is a lot of dialogue around the evolution of education. This growth is not limited to what is happening in schools but extends to our conversations about school.  If the concern is that some, even many, people may misconstrue the sentiment of a word like failure based on their past experiences, then I see this as an opportunity for those people to learn.

In our attempts to move education forward, we need to challenge the thinking of those rooted in the past. In education we know what we mean when we use the word fail.  It is commonly accepted that we fail all the time, in fact I recently wrote a Blog about a failure  of my own. When I re-read it (you can read it here), I never used the term – probably because at the time of writing it was easier to use softer language but the reality is I fell short, I failed and just as I wrote, that was okay.

I am happy to see the dialogue that my Tweet has inspired.  In our attempts to evolve the way people think about and view education, we also need to address how people speak about education.  To do this, we can’t avoid words that carry connotations from the past, we need to use them – when appropriate – and teach to them.

Be yourself…better

Very recently I have been fortunate enough to attend two conferences; one that focused on Targeting Technology, the other at the BCSSA Winter Conference.  It’s such an opportunity to participate in events like these as they are opportunities to move my thinking forward. I leave with my head swimming in ideas and it takes some time to filter through these thoughts (probably the reason I never seem to get a good night’s sleep – picture the hamster spinning in the wheel).

While there were many, many worthy ideas put forward, there was a common message  by Chris Kennedy, echoed by Bruce Beairsto; Both spoke of the merits of systems like Finland and schools like High Tech High.  Both acknowledged the success of others and both encouraged us to have our own goal:

This resonated strongly with me because it is at the core of what I believe education is about.  As we collaborate, whether as a Student, a Teacher, a Parent or an Administrator, we are coming from a point in our own continuum of growth in that role.  None of us participates in these conversations consciously trying to be someone else. In the end, we don’t want to be considered as good as someone else, we want to be ourselves…only better.

This is particularly relevant in light of the current BC Education Plan.  As Beairsto points out, this is not a plan yet.  This is a blueprint to create a plan.  The key to the evolution of this plan lies in collaboration.  Making education better in BC lies in our collaboration of what is important to us now and what we believe will be important in a future we cannot predict.

As education evolves across the Province, we aim to improve upon the areas identified as needing growth, while keeping all of the things that we do so well.  Narrowing this focus and applying this thinking to my own experiences, I believe this is something that helps me to grow and expand my thinking.  When collaborating with others, discussing, planning, debating, sharing, I move forward. When participating in these experiences with others, I am being myself, sharing what I have to offer. I want to walk away saying “hey, that conversation really clarified my thinking, I have a better understanding of the issue now.” Walking away myself…only better.

What does Bikram have to do with it?

I have just returned from my first Bikram yoga class, where I was inspired to write this post.  As I usually connect my posts to learning and education, I can understand you may be wondering how I am going to connect detoxifying my body in 140 degree heat while holding, what are often painful poses, with our school systems.

To begin, Angela has been encouraging me to try a Bikram yoga class for many weeks after discovering the benefits of this exercise regime.  I rebutted these requests, insisting that playing hockey once a week and the universal gym in our garage are all I needed to keep fit.  Her persistence paid off today; I relented to try.

As I lay there in the room on my mat and towel before the class, my mind wandered to school and a conversation I will be having with a student tomorrow.  I know I will be saying one of the things I find myself repeatedly saying to students in a variety of circumstances; that they must try things in order to make an informed decision. As the class began and I lay there really beginning to sweat, I realized that I had been guilty of not living up to my own advice.  I had been refusing to go and I never really knew what I was turning down.  This was the moment I started to think about this post (in between torturous poses of course!).

Despite the heat and the pain of contorting my body in ways that it hadn’t moved previously, I lay in the room at the completion of the class and realized something else. As I looked over at my wife I realized that my motivation was far greater than the ethical drive to “walk my talk”.  I went because it was important to her that I give this a try.  I went because it was about my relationship with her.

In so many ways, schools are all about relationships.  I consistently discuss with students the conflicts they have with other students and teachers.  We talk about ways to approach these conflicts and how different approaches can impact the relationship with the other party.  In my experience, I have found that students are more likely to be engaged in the topics where they feel they have a strong relationship with the teacher. Further, students who have the support of their peers are often more engaged in being in our building than those who feel isolated.

Lying there, after losing about 5 lbs of body weight from water loss, twisting my body until the pain would not let me go any further, I thought about the connections that my personal experience today had with the importance of the decisions I ask students to make everyday.  Today for me this experience was all about reminding me of two things I hold close:  1) Life is about choices – always make your choice with as much information as possible.  2) Relationships are key in our lives – so do whatever it takes to make them as strong as possible.

And that’s what Bikram has to do with it.

What Will You Leave Behind?

On a business trip to New York, my wife Angela took photo’s of the tribute to Steve Jobs that was emerging at the Apple store. She was awestruck at the building memorial before her and of the sadness felt by those whom had gathered.

5th Ave New York

In the days following his passing there were many other Apple locations that became memorials for those that felt loss.  Photos like the one I have included here, coupled with the recent release of the eulogy his sister delivered have left me reflecting on the impact Steve Jobs had on so many people.

Steve Jobs was an organizational leader; he lead a community of people and developed communities through his work.  I must note that I am not trying to compare my personal life to that of Steve Jobs, nor am I holding my professional life up to his. Rather, what this has made me think about is the impact that he had on so many people.  It left me wondering, as an organizational leader what did he do that built a level of trust in his community of followers that endeared them so deeply to him?  This has led me to ask myself; as an educational leader, of my actions, which will have the greatest impact on the community I work with?

This question has led me down many paths to an answer.  I do not believe that there is any one answer for me.  In considering this, I do know that I will continue to consciously act with integrity. I will continue to focus on relationships and I will continue to reflect on each days’ events looking for ways to improve.  While I don’t believe these actions will lead to impromptu memorials at various schools in which I have worked, I do know there is a personal impact I hope to leave on each of those with whom I have worked. Perhaps one of the best tributes we can offer to someone of the likes of Steve Jobs, and in turn one of the gifts he has left for us all are moments of inward reflection that cause us to look inwardly upon who we have been, who we want to be, how we want to impact our environments, and how do we measure up at this moment in time?

Now I ask you, what impact will your actions leave behind?

What do you see in the forest?

There is an idiomatic expression “can’t see the forest for the trees” that is defined by wiktionary.org as:

To discern an overall pattern from a mass of detail; to see the big picture, or the broader, more general situation.

I am not sure if it just a coincidence that I have heard this expression several times lately, but it seems oddly appropriate for an observation I have made.

I am extremely interested in creating opportunities for students to make their learning personal.  Personalized Learning has become a main topic of many professional development sessions over the past year.  One of the things I hear consistently is that the idea behind this educational approach is brilliant BUT…after this comes a series of reasons why it is difficult for us to create opportunities for students to personalize their learning.

I have heard how we need to change before we can create a system that allows students these opportunities.  Other things I have heard include: A systemic change from the Ministry level down.  Change the way post-secondary institutions admit students.  Change the way teachers view their roles.  Change the way we organize classes.  Change the way parents see education.

When I hear how many people believe in the importance of creating personalized learning opportunities, I am stumped at how many see the obstacles to achieving what is perceived as a good thing for students.  I have heard educational leaders, whom I respect as fantastic teachers and leaders espouse the same objections to these challenges.  In many settings with many people, I have heard comments and observations that focus on the challenges to implementing these changes.

I agree that much needs to change, but isn’t that our role, to promote positive change, especially in the face of adversity?  We could easily be mired in details, but I see it as my role to push the envelope when it means a positive, better outcome for our students is possible.  I believe that making learning personal to each student is important to help each of them be successful.  Therefore, I believe I need to create an environment where this can happen.

I have heard many say that it is okay for students to be wrong, to fail at certain tasks in order to discover how to be right, how to find the answer.  In this instance, even if I am wrong about how to personalize learning, I think it is my job to try something, anything to give them a chance.

We cannot ignore the details, but it is important to keep our eye on the big picture.  We need to try new and different ways for students to achieve personal success. I have tried to achieve this by creating opportunities for students to get credit for pursuing what they are passionate in.  When you see the forest, what do you see?