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A lot is made about whether one can truly have “friends” on the Internet. It was probably Facebook that really got us talking when instead of using “connection” or some other less intimate word they used “Friend” as the type of connections we made as we connected with someone on the Internet through their site.

I have only known education with the Internet.  My first email address came with my first teaching job twenty-one years ago, and my first Internet access (AOL) was at home that first fall of teaching.  I have been thinking about friendship in the Internet era this week with the sudden passing of one of my Internet friends, Kevin Mowat.

Kevin was a Library Learning Consultant with the Winnipeg School Division.  We got to know each other through Twitter.  We shared a passion for school libraries and the key roles teacher-librarians play in leading learning.  I wrote something on my blog in 2011 that he saw, and we connected from there.  Kevin saw the good in the digital world for teachers – he would share resources and more importantly cheer people on – whether it was a colleague in Winnipeg or a Superintendent in West Vancouver.  When I wondered if people actually read my blog, Kevin would make a comment, or email a link to colleagues.

Kevin invited me and a colleague of mine Gary Kern to work with staff in Winnipeg in the fall of 2013.  What stands out four years later is the thoughtful way he treated us.  Gary and I would joke, can he really be this nice a person – nobody is this nice – but he was.  Some people can be nice online but they are often someone different when you meet them – Kevin online was Kevin in person.  It was a wonderful visit and Kevin’s colleagues clearly fed off his positive leadership.

As is the power of digital connections, after spending time together in 2013, we stayed even more connected over the last four years.  This past weekend wishing each other the best on Facebook as school started-up again.  I often thought Kevin was a great example of how friendship is changing in the digital world.

Another of our Internet friends, George Couros wrote a very nice tribute to Kevin earlier this week:

I got an alert on Twitter last night that Kevin was trending in Winnipeg.  The tweets were amazing – I wondered if it was just me that felt the way I did about Kevin – it wasn’t.  It is worth doing a Twitter search for Kevin – it will make you smile, and maybe cry.  So many of the comments kept using the words kind, generous, passionate, caring.

I spent just a few days with Kevin in-person, but he was a wonderful friend.  He is proof of the power and possibility of the Internet.  When we see others use the technology so poorly, he reminded us that technology can bring us together, build community and support each other.

My best to Kevin’s family and colleagues.  It is terribly sad.  The entire education community has lost one of its leaders.

Chris

I had the wonderful opportunity to share the stage early in the summer with Yong Zhao at the Canadian School Board Association Congress.  Yong was quick to take issue with my friendly views on the PISA results.  Last fall I wrote about the most recent results that saw Canadian students, and in particular BC students excel.

Yong argued, in part, that by focusing on improving PISA results schools and school jurisdictions work to get better at a dated system, one built around standard tests in areas like math, reading and writing.

I have been thinking about the larger idea that focusing on getting better may be an impediment to real change.  I am feeling the tension with our work right now in British Columbia.  Yes, we want to get better – we want more students reading at grade level, more learners with basic numeracy skills and a higher percentage of students graduating.  But we also want to get different – we want to embrace core competencies, give attention to emerging areas like coding and robotics, and have more students prepared to be citizens for an ever-changing world.

In West Vancouver we see the revised curriculum as an invitation to do things differently.  The curriculum and assessment encourages us to work across various content areas, have students produce real work for the real world, and give students ongoing feedback so students have greater ownership of their own learning.

I have been persuaded that there are some areas that lend themselves very well to an agenda of improvement.  I see the precision with which we often teach reading in the younger ages as one in particular.  If, though, we focus on trying to get 2% better at everything every year, and make incremental improvement towards our goal, we will find, even if we meet our targets, we have students prepared for a world of the past.  And likely we will hit plateaus where doubling-down on more of the same will not improve results.  Rather, we need to keep our eyes focused on innovation and transformation, looking at how we can work differently to keep-up with the changes around us.

And here is the big a-ha I would like to share – as we have been committed to doing things differently, and as we have used the curriculum changes as a reason to think differently about how we organize learning, and as we have embraced a range of changes around the large theme of transformation our students actually do at least as well, if not better, on traditional tests and measures.  As we have embraced inquiry, new technologies and self-regulation, test scores have gone up.     You don’t have to narrow your thinking to just try to get better, when you look at being different, the results will come along!

Here is to a year of continuing to be better but getting better while we are committed to looking to do things differently.

When you do a lot of speaking and writing, at some point your own words will come back to bite you.

I have often used a sports coach analogy when speaking about the superintendency.  The argument being that like sports coaches, no matter how good they are, superintendents very often have a shelf life.  And at some point change is necessary and it is far easier to change the coach than the players.  It is an argument that is often made more generally around school administrators as well – that there is a term – somewhere about 5 years which is the right length of service for any school.

It is always interesting to see data around the superintendency out of the United States where in many urban districts the position can turn over every few years.  While I do not have Canadian data, I suspect the tenure of the average superintendents is much longer.   We seem to have less of the “sports coach” mentality north of the border. Perhaps disappointing those on both sides of the argument, the research out of the Brown Center on Educational Policy  suggests neither long-term superintendency nor the hiring of a new superintendent have a link to improved student achievement.

I am writing this post as we are bringing the 2016-17 school-year to an end.  This marks my 10th year in West Vancouver, here in the position of Superintendent that I was appointed to more than seven-and-a-half years ago, and have held for six-and-a-half years.  Along the way I have become the longest-serving Superintendent in Metro Vancouver and one of the longest-serving in the province.

And I have changed my tune.  I am far less absolute about the sports coach analogy.  Maybe this is a case of you don’t know what you don’t know.  I do find a need to ensure we are continuing to have a culture that embraces fresh ideas but there are other ways to do that than just changing the Principal or Superintendent.  I know for us some things that have helped keep ideas current and the challenging of the status quo constant have included:  hiring of a mix of internal and external candidates for leadership position,  using outside experts to provoke our thinking in our district, continuing to visit schools and districts with unique programs and ideas, and staying very focused on the overarching goals of the Board’s Strategic Plan and our own objectives within this larger context.

There is a definite danger in complacency that we need to continually challenge over time.  When a new principal arrives at a school or a new Superintendent in a district, there is a burst of energy.  Whether the predecessor was highly regarded or the community was glad to see a change, the change brings curiosity, which in turn often leads to engagement and excitement.  Of course change is not the only way to bring about this energy.  I often hear from staff at the school and district levels that they can “wait out” any leader as they just come and go.  When the culture of leadership changes, so does this attitude.  I think of several schools of ours where principals have been in the school for five or more years – no longer is there talk about “outlasting” them – some of the cynicism is gone and people are getting down to work together.

In the beginning one of my greatest positives I offered was that I was from outside and came with ideas about different ways of doing things.  Now, 10 years in, I bring the assurances that come from people knowing who I am, what I believe and how I think we can move forward together.  It is also incredibly rewarding to not only start initiatives, but to see them through.  Longevity helps ensure we are committed to short-term and long-term results.

I am a little nervous in writing this, that some will read it that I am about to leave or perhaps I will never leave.  I have no plans either way, but my thinking has evolved.  I have come to realize there are more ways to ensure a district stays fresh than reshuffling the leadership deck chairs.

Finally, on the topic of year-end, here is  a video celebrating the 2016-17 school year in West Vancouver:

Apparently reports of the demise of the volunteer coach have been greatly exaggerated.

The world of youth sports has definitely changed over the last 20 years, and is still in the midst of tremendous change.  I have previously written (here) on how challenges of safety, cost, and the balancing with academics are all providing challenges for our traditional view of school sports.  So, as we prepare to celebrate our coaches in our school district with an annual celebration and thank-you for their time – I have been struck by how many volunteer coaches we have in our district.

In our district of just over 7,000 students we have over 300 volunteer sports coaches.  For colleagues outside of Canada reading this post it is worth noting that public schools do not pay coaches in Canada.  Coaches are all volunteers.  And given all the gas money, post game team slurpee purchases amongst other costs, volunteer coaching costs people money in schools.  And while schools often recognize coaches with Starbucks Cards and school logoed golf shirts, and districts like ours host year-end barbecues, it is really just a token recognition for all the time put into coaching.

At one point school sports coaches were almost exclusively staff members.  And teachers, administrators and support staff are still a huge part of the coaching contingent.  They are joined by parents and other community members.  One particularly noticeable group is former parents, who continue to volunteer well after their children have graduated.  Also students play an increasing role in coaching.  Very often elementary teams get help from high school volunteers, and in high schools senior students support the grade 8 programs.

Connections to the school through athletics are still very important.  They can be crucial for students to build a sense of connection to school and help define a peer group.  Of course, almost universally, the coaches speak about the two-way street of benefits provided by coaching.  Staff coaches talk about how the connections they build outside the classroom enhance their abilities to connect to students in the classroom, and community coaches appreciate the opportunity to help within the positive school environment and share their passions with young people.  I will regularly talk with retired colleagues who tell stories of teams, games and trips as the most wonderful memories of their careers.

And to be clear, there are staff, students, parents and community members volunteering in a huge range of areas in our schools to create opportunities for students, a similar post could likely be written about fine arts, but in an era when many factors are pulling us away from school-centric athletics it is worth noting and celebrating how many people are still contributing.

For another day, there is a post to be written about how we better support and recognize all of our volunteers in school (staff and community).  But this is more about celebrating.  In a world when we often think volunteerism is slipping, and that fewer  people are giving of their time, and the politics of schools over the last twenty years have made people less ready to give of their free time – we have a great story to tell.  We have hundreds of mentors working with thousands of students – building connections and memories.

The volunteer coach is one of the rich traditions of our school sports system.  And one we must never take for granted.

To all those in West Vancouver and beyond who have given time to coach this year – thank you.

There is an absolute rhythm to a school-year. It was more pronounced for me when I was in a school, but I still see it here in the Board Office. There is the excitement of September as students and staff come back fresh off of vacation. There is the reality of late October as interim reports hit in high school. In December – it is a double hit: Christmas Concerts and first-term reports. Then in the new year you can feel this build up towards spring break and then we return in April and the weather (is usually) better, we begin to look for ways to pull the year’s learning together, celebrate achievements and keep and eye on next year.

Of course, during all 10 months (and really all 12 months) we are always asking people to think differently, to push innovation and look for new and better ways of supporting our learners.  I have been wondering if there are specific times of year that people are more curious, more open and more engaged in these conversations.

With only anecdotal data, here are the four key times I find that people want to talk about innovation:

October – By October, the school year has started, and classes are settled.  In high school, it is in October that teachers and departments already need to look ahead to what they might want to offer the following year and begin the approval process.  We are comfortable in what we are doing in October but not to the heaviness of November.

Mid-February – I find January to Spring Break to be the sweet spot for moving ideas forward in schools.  I think students are the most focused during this term.  There seem to be fewer distractions than the first and third term for everyone.  If I was to differentiate this period to the other ones, I see this one as the time when people try new things with their practice.  The other times people are often looking ahead to what they might do next term or next year – in this window of time, people are implementing new ideas – taking what they learned from conferences, workshops or colleagues and trying it in their class.  I would love to see if my hypothesis is true that the most “new stuff” in classes happens in the middle of February.

May –  May feels a bit like October when it comes to innovation.  People are looking at next year but they are not into the field trip / track meet / graduation ceremonies of June.  It seems to definitely be the time when people have one eye on this year and one on next year.  It is the season of teacher postings, administrative changes and also a time when people look at what they might want to do differently.

Last Week of June / First Week of July – I get more emails about new ideas at this time of year than at any other point.  I often say that everyone has some “thinking time” at this point in the year.  School – regardless of your role – is all-consuming so it is finally once report cards are in and classes are being dismissed and before “summer holidays” really kick-in that people have some time to think about what they might want to do differently or put together and email about a proposal they have been ruminating on for a while .

I am sure all jobs have a rhythm.  I do find the seasons in school to be very pronounced.  I see a lot of if it X month, you can be sure that Y will happen.  As we look to move our schools and our system, we need to be conscious of this and look for the windows when people are ready to talk about doing things differently.  I am curious if what I see with the times of year are consistent with others.

 

OK, I picked the blog title largely to share one of my favourite Seinfeld clips:

The title has a little more meaning than that.  In recent weeks, I have had a number of people share this quote with me that has gone viral on social media:

This quote really has me thinking.  I am not sure.  I get this is the popular opinion.  We are quick to want to pile-on that parents today have lowered their expectations and increased the enabling of their children.   These kinds of issues are not simple.  Yes, adults have changed, but so has the world around us.  We need to be careful not to romanticize the return to a past that had its share of challenges and deficiencies.

There is no shortage of parenting books out there with advice for how adults should act with their children.  Last week we had Dr. Shimi Kang speak in our community.  Her book, The Dolphin Parent, is a National Bestseller.  She notes that there are numerous new pressures on parents of the twenty-first century, suggesting issues like tougher school admissions, globalization and in-turn greater competition, the boom in technology and economic uncertainty are causing parents to act differently.  She says, “These uncertainties are unsettling; they unmoor us and make us question some of the basic truths we have lived by.  Even the best-intentioned parents among us are confused and frightened.”

So perhaps it is out of this fear that parents have, which emerges what Martin sees in the changing parents.

The best book I have read on the topic is How to Raise and Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims.  She spent a decade as the Dean of Freshman at Stanford.

She sets the context which she sees in parents today:

Too many of us do some combination of overdirecting, over-protecting, or over-involving ourselves in our kids’ lives.  We treat our kids like rare and precious botanical specimens and provide a deliberate, measured amount of care and feeding while running interference on all that might toughen and weather them.  But humans need some degree of weathering in order to survive the larger challenges life will throw our way.  Without experiences the rougher spots of life, our kids become exquisite, like orchids, yet are incapable, sometimes terribly incapable, of thriving in the real world on their own.  Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?

It is this context that Martin’s quote seems to be speaking to.

Lythcott-Haims outlines numerous steps, small and large, parents can do to change things and allow children to chart their own path.  She says:

As parents our dream was to have a child, but we can’t forget that our children have the right to dream for themselves. There is much more to each precious, unique child than we can possibly know, and that unique person – that self is for each young person to discover.  We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to millstone and by shielding them from failure and pain.  But over helping causes harm.  It can leave young adults without strengths of skill, will, and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.

The more I read about the changing world with greater unpredictability and uncertainty I definitely appreciate urges to want to do more for our children, and not less.  Especially when I am sure our neighbours are definitely doing more for their children – at least it sure looks that way on social media.

As a parent in these times I have empathy for the adults that Martin calls out.  And I don’t think it is simple.  But Kang and her reasoned approach to parenting and Lythcott-Haims and her view that we need to give our children’s lives back to them are important messages.  They are ones we all likely know and agree with but ones we need to keep repeating.

The Hat Rule

I loved the hat rule.

As a teacher it was a great rule – it was so easy to tell which students were not in compliance – “Hey, take off your hat!” What was also great about it was that if a student continued to be non-compliant, I didn’t really have to deal with it.  I would just forward the issue on to the vice-principal of the school for them to deal with. What a great system!

Of course there were debates at staff meetings about whether hoodies were hats, what about toques in winter, or if students were outside but participating in a course if the hat rule still applied. Really, it seemed like everyone on staff liked the hat rule.

Once I became a vice-principal I started to like the hat rule less.  All of the sudden all these teachers were referring names of students to me they saw wearing hats.  Other staff members were getting in confrontations with students over hats.  And the initial reaction I was having with students was not “Good Morning” but “Take off your hat”.

This is not a post about appropriate dress nor am I trying to elicit responses about how much better it would be if students respected authority like we romanticize they used to do.  It is not really about hats at all.

We love things that are simple to think about.  I was recently giving a talk about technology and about how messy it is.  Giving students the same technology is not the answer, nor is there any real prescription about how much technology they should be using or the kinds of tools they should be using.  It is messy.

And this messiness can create anxiety for all of us.  We like things that are simple to think about.

And technology, like many things in education is not simple.  There are no easy right and wrong answers.  There are multiple approaches that can be effective.  The same can be said for literacy instruction, supporting aboriginal students or building a vibrant arts program.

I loved the hat rule because it was simple.  It was easy to tell which students were in compliance.  If I walked through the halls and no students were wearing hats, I could have a sense of accomplishment that I was making a difference.

It is not as easy to walk through the halls of a school and know if all students are learning or being successful.

In retrospect, we spent a lot of time talking about hats at staff meetings – I wonder what it would have been like if we spent the time dedicated to “no kids will wear hats” instead dedicated to talking about “all kids will be successful”.

We would love simple answers in education and unfortunately we selected an occupation that is full of messy, tricky and nuanced challenges.

As I said, I am not trying to pick on those of you who love a hat-free building.  Having some simple rules of manners and civility can be good for students and staff.   It is important though to think about if we are talking about issues because they are the easy ones rather than the important ones.