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.

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.

Are we Ready?

We recently offered an opportunity for Department Heads to discuss innovation, technology and the future of education with a well-known educator visiting our district. In follow-up to this successful event, we put out a call to solicit interest from the rest of our staff for a second visit in the spring and I was expecting a similar level of interest.

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Having read his work, followed him on Twitter and seen him speak, the response I expected was an avalanche of RSVP’s especially given that our school has recently taken on an integration of technology initiative. The first phase has included teacher’s receiving new devices and with those, a commitment to dedicated time learning how to use them. That said, the response and feedback we’ve received was surprisingly underwhelming. This move toward technology combined with the invitation and endorsement of his work left me wondering, what did we miss?

Whenever something like this happens it’s important to pause, step back and reflect on why things didn’t meet our expectations.  As I was reflecting on some possible reasons, one response came in that questioned whether “we were ready for this”.  It’s an interesting question.  My first thought was, if we are not, then why did we agree to embark upon our
technology plan? My next thought was, if we aren’t, then wouldn’t this event help to move us to a place where we are ready? Again, my question, ‘what did we miss’?

The question has me thinking about different ways in which we can help people to feel more ready. I wondered if one reason for hesitation is around comfort zones – technology certainly has a way of pushing some to the boundaries of their own comfort levels. But technology isn’t going away. And so if that’s the cause, then we need to try and address these fears. Moving forward is an expectation within the realm of life-long learning – an expectation for educators.

In an effort to try and ease concerns we’ve taken a few small steps.  The first is to offer additional information about the presenter, including showing his TedTalk at an upcoming meeting. Hopefully this will help to generate excitement, a first step toward warming to the unknown. The second is to buy each person the presentor’s eBook (also an opportunity to see some of the diversity of their new devices). We’re making an assumption that people will read it, but given we still don’t know what we missed, are taking a gamble that this will be a solution.

Probably the most important, is to talk about the ‘why’ of this event and expectations. To let people know that there is no caveat or expectation to come out of the presentation with a task to do. To let them know we are moving forward, but that our hope is to do it in a way that eases learning fears and to help each person embrace and move forward with technology in a way they may not have thought about previously. To show them how it can help rather than be a hindrance. That the unknown doesn’t have to be difficult. That technology can be fun and not as overwhelming as it may seem.

This is all fine and well, but it’s a multifaceted dilemma. If we succeed in any of these, then we are a step closer to success. Without knowing what we missed, we don’t know if our solutions will help to resolve the problem. So then I guess one of my final thoughts is this: As leaders we always need to step back and carefully consider the feedback we are given. While considering this, it is sometimes our role to continue to push our organizations forward. Letting people know that we trust they are ready, even if they don’t know it yet themselves. Sometimes we all just need to be pushed a little. Ready, or not.

Meet the Teacher Night

Meet the Teacher Night. My own memories as a (very) young student are of excitement, especially if I believed my teachers had something great to tell my parents, to trepidation  for reasons that belong in another blog!  In my professional experience, meet the teacher night is meant to be an open showcase where parents can put a face to the name that they’ve (hopefully) heard in response to the daily question, “what did you do at school today?” What most kids don’t realize is that this is a night that can also be filled with a great deal of anxiety for both parents and teachers.

Having a daughter who has transitioned to High School this year, I attended the open house at her school. I have been to many previous open houses throughout her Elementary days and although I would occasionally walk away with questions about things that the teacher said, I always told myself that Elementary was different and that I should wait and see how things unfold.

This year I walked away from her open house and found myself questioning things that don’t align with what is considered best practice and I am struggling with the best way to approach her teachers about these concerns. As a Vice-Principal, these types of conversations  about moving learning forward happen on a regular basis. Sometimes teachers approach me and other times I initiate, so I know how to talk about this topic – from a parental perspective, I’m now struggling with the ‘how to approach’ the conversation that seems to be problematic. Having talked to others, I don’t appear to be alone in this.

If parents who are educators have a difficult time raising concerns with their childrens’ teachers, then how can we make it easier for the parents who may be less familiar with the system? Are we doing enough at our Open Houses to welcome questions and does our community leave with the understanding that we are always open to questions in the future? If the answer to that last question is no, then why do we continue the practice of the Meet the Teacher Night? Is it because we have always had it? As a parent myself, I feel there is value in the ‘face to a name’ exercise. So then, what changes do we need to make moving forward?

A New Learning Experience – ADE Institute 2013

It’s  been just over a week since I returned from the Apple Distinguished Educator Institute in Austin, Texas. Many family and friends have asked me how the experience was and what I learned while I was there.  The challenge has been that I haven’t felt like I’ve been able to articulate everything that I experienced.

Jenny Grabiec (@techgirljenny) curated a collection of reflections written by other ADE’s and Alumni, who have described the events of our week together.  This was a good summary for some of what I’m trying to process, as this collection of blogs describe exactly what the week looked like.

While the Institute certainly shared characteristics of conferences I’ve attended previously, it was far more than even my best experiences to date; The facilities were a hybrid of hotel conference and post-secondary seminar rooms. The break-out sessions were collaborative with time to learn from presenters as well as share with other attendees. And every day there was flexible time to work with others on shared interests.

There was a great deal of training on how to better and best integrate technology, specifically Apple technology, to create better learning for students, but it was not about training any attendees. It was about making connections and finding others with shared interests based on people’s personal expertise and experiences.

I guess the best way to describe my week is an experience. A professional learning experience unlike any other I can remember, because the entire week focussed on our individual creations; Each member was challenged to produce content to be shared with others. This content is not just anything – it is narrowed to what we believe is our “One Best Thing” in education. We spent the week fine-tuning what we would produce and this led to conversations with others, including experts, ranging from photography to design. I experienced the feeling of being treated like a Rockstar for the week with personalized service and a team of support that ensured I had everything I needed. And perhaps the most important experience was that of the creation of new friendships – the kind that unite people with a unique connection instantly because of what they share in common.

It’s difficult to put into words all of the things we did during the week. The best example of how powerful this experience has been can be summarized by the fact that a full week later I find myself awake in the middle of the night, head swimming, still trying to process all of the learning and further narrowing my “One Best Thing”.

Having Great Days!

Friday morning making a cup of coffee, the blinds were opened to another wet and grey Vancouver day.  I was tired. There were a lot of meetings scheduled and it was the end of a long week at a time when stress in schools is high. For staff, it’s the feeling of pressure to cover the material they want their students to explore, coupled with the uncertainty surrounding budgets and planning for next year. For students, they are well into their final term of the school year – for many kids the stress is from the uncertainty of leaving the K-12 system which can drive some to make interesting choices; ones they may not normally make. For me, my fatigue was also compounded by my teething 6 month old daughter and her restless nights.

Before heading out the door I caught one more smile from my little girl and it brightened what had felt like was going to be a dreary day ahead. Going through the mental checklist of things I needed to do, it occurred to me that I had until the time I arrived to put my best, most positive self forward and I questioned why? Others would understand if I responded to their inquiries/pleasantries with “I’m okay”. People can’t be “great” every time you ask them can they? By not responding honestly, or by “forcing” myself into a good mood, am I being fake and presenting as someone I’m not? The more I thought about why it’s important to be a positive person, the more I was reminded that this is part of my role as a leader. If I can’t find the great in every day in our building, how can I expect others to? As leaders, we’re expected to lead by example where possible and a positive attitude is an important part of the culture we want in our schools.

Many years ago working for a resident hockey school we would get to the 9th week of the summer and remind ourselves that although we had been there for 8 previous weeks, it was the first week for the kids. This sentiment has not escaped me as I see the ebb and flow of a school year. There are times when stress rises, behaviours spike and the understandable response would be “Is it Friday yet?”. As I drove to work Friday I was reminded that this is not who I am nor who I want to be. Adults and students alike deserve a happy workplace with a positive culture.  As leaders, if we don’t recognize what a great day it is to be at school – we can’t expect others to and really, every day should be the best day to be there.

IMG_1146When I got to school and that first question came to me – it was easy to answer – I was great! And then at the end of the day, when I arrived home, after I had unpacked my day, got through the meetings and laughed at a few of the situations that required my intervention I walked into the house. I was greeted by my wife and our daughter, cranky as that first tooth is cutting and she was still smiling. I didn’t need to fake anything – it was a great day.