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Chalmers1

“Just what is it that superintendents do?”  is a question I am asked a lot by my kids as I try to explain to them what it is exactly I do. I have also written before the job looks quite different district-to-district, person-to-person, and  like many professions, there are many ways of doing the job right. There are the very public parts of the job including running the daily operations and working with the elected Board of Education. Then there are the other tasks — we all have them in our jobs — items that aren’t bulleted points in a resume, but are often the very best part of the job even if they do take up a lot of time.

The superintendency is such a wonderful role and for many reasons.  Here are just five of the things I get to do that, for me, make it such a great job:

Taxiing Guest Speakers – On a fairly regular basis we have speakers who present to staff, parents or students in our district.  Quite often I get to pick them up or drop them off at the airport. While everyone can listen to the speaker and maybe have their questions answered, I get to have 30-60 minutes of one-on-one time with an amazing thinker.  So, whether that is talking with cultural anthropologist, Jennifer James, about US politics or with self-regulation guru, Stuart Shanker, about the effects of video games on our kids, it is such a treat.

Greeter of Principals for a Day – Most of our elementary schools have a student who is”Principal for a Day” at some point during the year. It is an opportunity for a student to make some one-day rules in the school and get a sense of what it’s like to be “the boss”. Part of the culture in our district is that the Principal for a Day comes to the district board office to meet with the superintendent. I give them a small gift and a set of business cards. I also enjoy the 10-15 minutes I get to talk with them. While I spend a fair bit of time in classrooms, these interactions are some of the only sustained one-on-one time I have with younger students, and I hear some great insights about our schools, what students are learning and what they value.  And, yes, they are each a sample size of one and they keep the work real.

Graduation Dinner Guest – Every year, I make an effort to go to each high school’s graduation dinner.  I love graduation. I think it is great that I have gone to at least one high school graduation for the past 22 years; first as a Grade 12 student and then in a variety of roles leading up to and including the superintendency. I love the excitement of the students, the pride of the families and now, over time, the changes in what people do and say at the events, like how they dress and how the events are organized. I find graduations are the reflection of communities; ours are all different and all reflective of the communities in which the schools are located. For me, it is always special and a way to connect with all graduating students and families on their biggest night of the year.

School Traveller – There are very few people who spend time in all our schools — I am one of them. This Fall,  I have been in just over half our schools and will be in the others soon. It is so great to see what is happening at one school and connect that work to another. There is amazing work and vibe in our classrooms, and I can help be the connector of this work between our teachers and schools. I get to see students of all ages — again a pretty special opportunity.

Receiver of Good News – Okay, sometimes I am the receiver of challenges, but I also receive a lot of amazing emails; emails from parents who want to be sure someone knows the difference a teacher has made for their child. I receive emails about principals who went above and beyond to help a student get the courses they wanted, and emails that celebrate the amazing learning culture created in our schools. In education, it is often not apparent to us if we are really making a difference, but I do get to hear many of the stories first hand — either with notes sent directly to me or very often cc’d in an email about just something that someone thought the superintendent should know.

It is easy to find the challenges in our jobs, but in mine, it is easy to find the many great joys. I am curious to know what unique tasks people have or do that bring them similar happiness.

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waves-15

About five years ago we started discussions in our district about modernizing the classroom. At that point it was really a discussion about creating a level playing field with technology in our schools.

The First Wave

What emerged from the discussions was the view of a modern classroom starting with wireless access across all schools. At the classroom level all teachers were provided with digital devices. We took a different approach from the past and elsewhere when staff were given a choice about what devices they needed — some selected iPads, others MacBooks and still others chose PC netbooks or tablets. In addition, each classroom, from Grades 4 to 12, was also equipped with a projection device. These were not huge shifts, but they created some equity and it also built the groundwork for the student bring-your-own-device program. This program has taken hold throughout the district, in some schools as early as Grade 4, but largely implemented in Grades 6 to 12. Currently, most schools have a plan for students bringing devices and engaging them in the classroom.

The Next Wave

The next wave will continue to have a digital influence, but the modern classroom is far more than a ‘digital’ classroom. Of course, these are not things with clear start and stop timelines, so in some schools the final projectors are still being installed and student device programs are being finalized.  As schools have more students with devices, we will need to revisit our work and make further improvements to items like Wi-Fi access. So, for the next wave, I see four trends emerging:

1)   Rethinking the common spaces. Most notably, rethinking libraries as learning commons areas. Schools see these areas as places that can symbolize and epitomize some of the changes we are seeing with how we access information and organize learning.

2)  Refreshing the web environment.  The portal of 2010 has become clunky and dated.  We are looking to create secure spaces to make student publishing easier, and we are looking for ways to ensure the web tools our students and staff are working with outside the school day are available during the school day and part of our core systems.

3)  Self-regulation is influencing our classrooms.  I have written often about Stuart Shanker and the influence he is having, as well as the self-regulation work in our school district.  This can translate into fewer posters on the wall, different kinds of lighting, quiet areas in the classroom for some students and a variety of desks and chairs to improve  environments for learners — another important understanding about how young people learn.

4)  Outdoor learning spaces.  We now see many school and community gardens connected to curriculum, as well as schools interested in outdoor shelters or other structures to allow for more formal teaching out-of-doors. Combined with outdoor learning programs, these shifts are definitely altering how we view classrooms as strictly being an indoor activity.

The modernized classroom is a digitally rich classroom and as this first wave continues alongside the second wave, we will see more students with devices and more technology benefiting student learning.  As mentioned, the modern classroom is much more than kids with computers — from common spaces with less of a library look and more like Starbucks, to flexible classrooms with different furniture to ‘classrooms’ being outdoors, the modern learning environment is an evolving and dynamic place.

It will be exciting to be part of this shift.

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Calling all bloggers  – Leadership Day 2014   Dangerously Irrelevant

When Scott McLeod asks you to do something, it’s difficult to say “No”.  He is one of those connecting leaders in education.  The following tweet showed up in my feed this week:

Scott M

So, this is my first time participating in #LeadershipDay14 discussing leadership with digital technologies in education. It has been, and continues to be, a journey that takes me to different places on many levels. The following is a list of 10 things I have and continue to learn as a teacher, principal and now superintendent:

1)  More and more it is not digital leadership, it is just leadership. Just as digital literacy is giving way to literacy and digital citizenship is becoming simply citizenship, digital leadership is really just leadership. We live in a digital world, so it would be virtually impossible for educational leadership to not embrace the role technology is playing in our learning, teaching and in our schools today.

2)  You are never done.  There are many leaders, schools and districts that mistakenly embrace technology plans with the belief that one can implement technology like it is a thing — some sort of program.  Digital is a journey — the educational tools we use on that journey continue to evolve.  So, there will always be something else or new to learn.

3)  Digital doesn’t make things easier. I have said this before in different contexts, but there is still a belief digital technologies make teaching easier, or learning easier. They don’t — they make it different. However, when everything connects, digital tools allow learners to do things that could not be possible without digital tools.

4)  Listen carefully to the skeptics.  Those who question and challenge are an important part of the process. Yes, some will challenge for strictly political reasons, while others enjoy being the dissenting voice. My experience with those most closely involved in education, particularly teachers, is they will do amazing things if they think they are the right things for kids.  The culture needs to be developmental not judgmental.   If you have many skeptics — come back to why the effort is good for kids.

5)  Always start with learning goals.  Please don’t set out to have an iPad in the hand of every student as your ultimate goal. We want students to be connected learners. Now, let’s figure out how to make that happen.  And while you are doing this — also be sure you have a plan for equity. If digital tools are the answer for the learners who can afford them, we better figure out how we can put them in the hands of all learners.

6)  Make sure teachers have the tools.  I think almost all districts across North America are at least thinking about a plan to include personal devices in the classroom. This is great news.  But, before students walk into classrooms with devices, make sure you have a plan for teachers to have devices as well. We have the responsibility to ensure our staff have the tools they need to go where the kids are.

7)  You can’t microwave change.  All teachers, all schools, and all districts must go through the process. Yes, it can be frustrating that change is not happening as fast as a leader might hope for, or that the digital transition is lagging.  There are ways to support and encourage it, but trying to force the change will ruin it.

8)  Embrace the uncertainty.  I never trust people who speak with certainty about what schools will be like in five years, or what role technology will play. Same, with those in education who self-gloss themselves as technology or social media gurus.  I think we can be pretty sure about the skills our kids will need, but the rest is really uncertain and that is okay. Technology will not ensure our kids are prepared for the future, but we can be sure that in five years technology will play a greater role, not a lesser one, in our schools and in our world.

9)  Whatever you do — model it. If you want kids to blog, then the leaders need to be blogging. If you want schools to go paperless, then the district office needs to go paperless. And, if you want classes to be more learner-centred, the same should be true for staff meetings.

10)  For leaders — surround yourself with people who will push you and make you uncomfortable. There is nothing worse than being satisfied with status quo. Finding leaders who will take risks is not easy, but they are out there. We need them in our district offices and in our schools.

Community is the greatest part of the educational journey. From those who I work with everyday, to the amazing digital community, there are so many of us trying to figure out the way forward — part of that is doing our best for all of our kids in this digital world.

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Dad Updated Photo

I have been stuck.  This is my first blog effort in about a month.  It is, by far, my longest time away from public writing and it has been challenging to write.  While I know some might have hoped I would write about the job action that has cast a cloud over the BC public education system, there is little I could add that would not just be more noise. So, with less writing, I have been reading more.  And, something I read finally gave me the momentum to become unstuck.

I stumbled my way to the blog You Suck, Sir from a local Vancouver teacher.  As he describes the blog, “My students are funny.  Sometimes, it’s intentional.”  The blog is a collection of stories from the English teacher’s class over the last two decades — some absolutely great writing.  He recently wrote a post  answering a question about having a teaching philosophy.

He starts:

Great question.  And I was reminded of it tonight when I got in touch with my sponsor teacher from 1995.  He’s well into his retirement now but he was a legendary teacher in his day and head of the English department in our city’s largest high school.  He took me under his wing and I got to observe how a master teacher runs his class.  And I’ll be honest: I didn’t see anything.  I had to report back to my faculty advisor all the things I’d noticed in terms of methodology and classroom management.  But I didn’t “see” anything.  It took me a while to realize why:  he made it look easy.  He had internalized everything a teacher is supposed to do.  I even confronted him about it one day to ask which educational philosophy he abides by, and he answered: “Listen to what they’re saying.”

This IS the challenge of teaching.  Maybe other professions have similar challenges, but it is difficult to define powerful teaching.  It is this blend of art and science the masters weave so effortlessly.  I grew up in a house of teachers. I can remember from a very young age watching my mom and dad prepare lessons. I knew they were good at what they did — I would hear it from my friends on sports teams and others in the community about how much they liked having my parents as teachers, but it was difficult to really understand exactly what they did that made their classrooms work. As I started my teaching career I would try to emulate how I thought they would teach; it was tough because there is just no ‘how-to’ recipe for our profession.

Returning to the blog, the author distills three main ideas:

1)  If you can’t address a student’s immediate needs, he won’t be available to your teachings.

2)  Do not compromise a young person’s dignity.

3)  Do not take anything personally.

Continuing his observations about his sponsor teacher:

The teacher I mentioned at the start of this, my sponsor teacher, said something that I’ve carried with me to this day: “I would do this job for free if I didn’t need money.”  At the time, I found this statement disturbing because there was no way I’d do it for free.  But I see now that he was talking about joy.  There is joy to be had in this career.  There is nothing more exhilarating than seeing a student suddenly “get” a concept she’d been struggling with. There are few things more smile-inducing than watching your grade eights help each other out with assignments while joking around with each other.  And the pure happiness of watching them really, truly enjoy learning—man, that’s the reason I returned to teaching after an eight-year break.

It is interesting the conversations I would have had/still do have with my parents about our profession.  They love the craft.  The would shun any attention for what they were doing — they weren’t doing it to be noticed, they were doing it for the students and their commitment to teaching.  It IS a pretty special profession.

The author finishes with words that are so true, “Teaching is about being a learner yourself.  That’s why, when it comes to being an effective teacher, we have to listen to what they’re saying.”

I have tried (and will continue to try) to use my blog to tell the many stories of students, teachers and others in our system trying new things and making a difference. And, like my parents, most are not looking for any attention, but it is still kind of nice when someone notices.

I guess I saw that firsthand this past week. I have spent a lot of time with my dad recently, he hasn’t been that well and we got to talking about the blog post on teaching philosophy.

It was pretty special because the sponsor teacher that the author, Paul, was writing about was my dad.

Thanks Paul.

Thanks Dad.

Keep Well Teacher Friends.  The joy will be back.

 

 Update – August 11 

My dad died last week, just a few days after his 72nd birthday.  You can read more about him here.   I am so glad that I got to share this post with him and I am so appreciative of all of the comments.  It is nice to know his story connected with so many of you.

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The_real_world_title_card

It is a real honour to speak at many spring graduation celebrations and, while I realize usually nobody is really there to listen to the superintendent, it is a chance for me to share some of my thinking on education, life and the real world.

So, in addition to congratulating our graduates, acknowledging our passionate and giving teachers and thanking our parents for supporting public education in every way in our community, I also tackled the issue of the ‘real world’ this year.  Here is an excerpt from the comments I shared at our graduation ceremonies:

Starting with my own high school graduation in 1991, this is the twenty-fourth consecutive year I have got to attend at least one graduation ceremony.  And, as much as our world has changed over the last 24 years, from MC Hammer and Sony Walkmans to Pharrell Williams and selfies, graduation is still quite similar – still relevant, still an important mark in life.  It is part congratulations, part acknowledging a transition, and a time to pause and take stock – to be thankful for what has come before and look forward to what is ahead.

I think people who say our job in schools is to prepare you for the real world are wrong.  If we have done it right this year and over the last 13 years, your school experiences have been very much the real world.

There is a notion that school is all about preparation. It really starts early – kindergarten is to prepare you for Grade 1 and it just continues from there.  We start giving you tests in primary grades because you will get tested in older grades and you need to be ready.  Some see school as continuing to prepare you for what’s next and, ultimately, the job of school is to prepare you for life after school.

Actually, when you are in kindergarten you need to be in kindergarten – it is its own thing and not just a preparation for something else. And Grade 12 is also its own thing.  And so, as Grade 12s, I know particularly, in recent months, you have kept one eye on what is next – acceptance letters for university, travel opportunities and job offers that have come forward – sure our job is to prepare you for the real world, but hopefully school has been the real world.

The real world is about community.  The real world is about working with colleagues, making mistakes, learning, trying again – hopefully, that has been your year and your school career.  The real world is the collaboration that leads to the amazing arts performances at your school, the tremendous results in athletic competitions and the determination that leads to outstanding marks in the classroom.

The real world is about learning from wise mentors – and, we are so blessed with amazing, passionate, giving and talented teachers.

So, tonight is less about stepping out into the world, but more about celebrating your place in our world – a wonderful school career and the optimism of what is to come.

It is great to work in the West Vancouver system  — an education system that is not only committed to preparing students for the real world, but is the real world.

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links

This past week I participated in the  Network of Inquiry and Innovation (NOII) Symposium:  Stories of Change: Pictures of Possibility.  My presentation was entitled Innovation That Sticks – Real Examples from Real Schools.  I think we can easily get caught up in the theoretical of what schools could be and fail to recognize the shifts occurring right in front of us.  In our district (and I know of others), teachers and administrators are finding new ways to connect to students.  The experiences for our students are quite different from even five years ago.

One notion that seemed to particularly resonate with those in attendance was my latest thinking around scaling.  I openly admitted, over the last seven years in West Vancouver, I have often considered the idea of “scaling” — how do we take an idea from one school, which is clearly making a difference for learners, and replicate it in our other schools?  The following two slides from the presentation reflect my most recent thinking on this:

innovation 1

 

innovation 2

 

I have moved away from the language of “scaling our work,” to “networking our work.”  We are not trying to create ‘sameness’ in our classes and schools; rather, we are trying to support the good work in one site by connecting it to the good work in another.  I have written before about the power of networks in West Vancouver and British Columbia and I believe this is one of the characteristics that differentiates B.C. education from so many other regions — it is the connection across schools, districts, levels and disciplines — all focused on improving student learning.

So, rather than seeking to scale work, our focus is on diffusion.  At some point, there are so many connections with the ‘new’ they become the ‘normal’.  We are seeing this with our inquiry work in West Vancouver on all levels — we have teachers embracing the PYP / MYP International Baccalaureate approach; others, use the Spirals of Inquiry as a basis of their work, while others use Understanding by Design to ground their approach. They are all taking similar approaches to learning and connecting to each other as inquiry-based learning has taken hold in all of our schools. The learners are as diverse as the learning, and while I know some would appreciate the simplicity of  “just doing it all one way” we are finding huge power in the autonomy of teachers and schools as part of the new learning network.

The work of innovation in our schools is not a program, it is not something we can announce, proclaim or implement.  It is an ongoing shift to adjust our system to meet the needs of students in a way that is reflective of the world they are living in.  The power of networks — connecting people and ideas as part of a community — is key to our story of success in West Vancouver.

The full slide deck from my presentation is below (if you receive this post via email you will have to open it in the site to view):

 

 

 

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Photo Credit - Tara Zielinski
Photo Credit – Tara Zielinski

Really?  Twitter with Kindergarten students?  That was my first reaction.  While I think Twitter is a great way to connect and share ideas, I didn’t really see it as a tool for our youngest learners.

So, I have learned something.

I first learned about the project via Twitter (of course) last Friday. From the Hollyburn Elementary School Twitter account came:

First Tweet

This tweet is a great example of why all superintendents need to be on Twitter.  It is such a great way to see a sampling of the work going on in the district.  It is such a wonderful way to ‘drop in’ on the learning in various classrooms and schools across the district.  It was this tweet that led me to be in the class three days later — a great way to take advantage of our connected world.

So, back to my reservations.  When I first heard a kindergarten class was tweeting, my mind jumped to all that could go wrong instead of all that could go right. In a controlled environment, guided by the teacher, these young students are learning about digital literacy. Their parents, many who are also new to social media, engage with them in the class and the students can connect to the world!

When I visited the class earlier this week, I learned of parents that were now following the class, and a great home  / school connection.  It was wonderful to learn with the K students about their Happiness Project and how they were sharing it through Twitter with the world.  On day two of the project, the lessons were already very impressive.

why what

So, what do K students tweet about? They are tweeting because they are happy; to spread happiness around the world and to communicate and connect with people outside their classroom.  And, they have adopted a simple rule when deciding to tweet, one everyone can learn from: “if it is helpful, tweet it; if it is hurtful, don’t tweet it.”

The students were completely engaged in their Happiness Project, and the use of Twitter was part of the hook and a great introduction to social media.  If we want students to engage ethically with social tools, we need to teach and model and that is just what I saw happening in the classroom.

Makes Happy

 

I look forward to virtually following the Hollyburn Happiness Project and the many other classes and schools sharing their learning beyond the classroom walls through Twitter with a range of other social tools.

The Hollyburn story is another fine example of a teacher taking a risk and being a learner herself!

It is always great to see what is happening in our classrooms.

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