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I may be the most stereotypical teacher ever.

My parents were teachers.  Their parents were teachers.  I met my wife at work – we both were teachers.

I was also born in Canada.  And my parents were born in Canada as well.  

My backstory is that despite some early learning challenges, I was a good student.  I did well at school.  And then I graduated from high school, zoomed through university and at twenty-two years of age I was back at my former junior high school as a teacher.  

And 26 years later, education is the only career I have ever known.

And I think I was (and still am) a pretty good teacher.  But I also know we need to continue to do better to attract teachers to the profession who have a different story than I do.  For too long, too many teachers stories were very similar to mine.  The teaching profession was largely made-up of people who were successful at school, very often spoke English as their first language, were born in Canada, and also often went straight into teaching as a career without other real work experiences.  

We are trying to do better.  Just as we have diversity with our learners, we need diversity in the adults that work with them.  Having teachers who come to teaching after careers in construction or accounting or professional sports gives new perspectives to students and reminds them that for most, their work life will be made up of many different jobs.  Having teachers who struggled in school gives added voice to those in our classes who are struggling now.  School does not come easy for everyone, and adolescence is hard, so having teachers with non-linear life experiences helps.

And we want our teaching force just like our student population, to be culturally diverse, speaking different languages at home, and demonstrating that our schools are reflective of our communities.  And with our efforts around Reconciliation, we need to be better at recruiting Indigenous teachers on our staff.

And now with 75% or more of our teachers female, we need to find ways to ensure men see the professional as valuable.

I know this is all not really controversial.  But it is hard.  Changing the make-up of the adults that work in our schools is not only about who we hire, but also about who is encouraged to go into teaching.  And it goes all the way back to what we show young students about the profession, that representation matters.  

As we close another school year and look ahead, this is a topic I think a lot about.  It is a weird notion but we need to do better to hire and retain staff that are not like me. 

I field a lot of questions about writing. When people read my blog, or see the other ways I write for audiences through my work, they are quick to explain why they can’t do it. In the same sentence they ask about my writing, they also explain “I am not a writer” or “I just don’t have the time” or “I don’t have the patience” or some similar justification for why writing is not for them. And OK, I get it, I have never thought writing for a public audience needs to be for everyone.

But if the conversation goes a little further, I share my number one piece of advice I give to those who write, give yourself permission to write badly.  I have always found the hardest part of writing is to just start.  It is easy to waste away time thinking up ideas.  When we have papers due, all of the sudden we prioritize rearranging the garage because we want to prepare to write well (and procrastinate), and not just start.

I have written previously about my doctoral dissertation.  I just started writing and my first draft of my first three chapters, all 80 pages, was not very good.  But writing badly gave me a starting point and allowed me to write better.  In that case, on the advice of my advisor, I actually started over.  But writing badly, later allowed me to write well.

With my blog, I have hundreds of posts in draft.  I come back to some from time to time, and some will be published at some point.  Having something written down, gives me something to work with.  And even those that make it to publish are often still a work in progress.  This is the beauty of the digital age is that we can go back and still improve already published work.  I have taken a number of these posts and re-purposed them for traditional media – often the AASA School Administrator Magazine.  My version for the magazine is always better than what I publish here.

On a similar vain, I was so interested in Paul Simon’s 2018 album In the Blue Light where he took many of his previously songs and reimagined them.  At the time, I shared more details in My Paul Simon Post, but this is a similar notion that the creative process whether it is written or musical does not need to have a strict end point (though it is hard to argue Bridge Over Troubled Water was not brilliant in its original version).  

I was thinking of this advice on writing badly recently in reading an opinion piece from David Brooks from the New York Times on the Greatest Life Hacks in the World (for now) which included, “When you’re beginning a writing project, give yourself permission to write badly. You can’t fix it until it’s down on paper.”  All of a sudden I feel like I am in really good company!  There are many things from David’s list that I would like to adopt – “If you’re giving a speech, be vulnerable. Fall on the audience and let them catch you. They will.”  Or what was probably my favourite, “If you meet a jerk once a month, you’ve met a jerk. If you meet jerks every day, you’re a jerk.”

So for everyone thinking they can’t start writing because they don’t have the ability to write well, go ahead and write badly and then make it better.  This really works.

There is a lot made about the “C”s in education. Whether it is the three of them or maybe the four of them, or sometimes the seven of them.  Competencies like communication, creativity, and critical thinking are top of mind for all designing modern education programs.  Always on this list is also collaboration.  While everyone agrees in their importance, finding ways to see students demonstrate them can be challenging. 

This leads me to a story of robotics.  

I had the chance to join our elementary school robotics teams at the VEX World Championships last week.  In just a few years West Vancouver has built one of the top school robotics programs in the country (there will be another blog post on that soon). I have watched several competitions, but this was my first chance to be fully immersed in the world of robotics. 

And, one of the five elementary teams we had at the Championships was crowned World Champions in a field of over 500 teams from around the world (and the competition was truly global).  Now different divisions work differently, but this is how the elementary division worked at the World Championships.

In the qualification round, teams are randomly assigned to one of nine sections. In each of these sections are about 60 teams.  You play 11 qualification matches.  How these matches work is that two teams work together to try to score as many points as possible in 60 seconds.  I will link HERE to this year’s game.  I won’t do it justice, but the simple explanation is that you need your robot and your partner team’s robot to pick up small balls and shoot them into a basket (there is a lot more to it than that with multiple other ways to score).  And you are randomly assigned a partner for each match – so you might be with a strong team and then a weaker team.  The premise is that over 11 matches this evens out and the strongest teams emerge as having the most points.  

Then, in the playoff round the top twenty teams advance in each of the nine sections.  And in each section the first place team is partnered with the second place team, and then the third place team is partnered with the fourth place team, and so on all the way to the 19th and 20th placed teams partnering.  And you have one match with this partner team to score as many points as possible.  So, it should be the first / second partnership that is favoured.  

Then, in the final, the nine winners of each section advance to the championship and play one more time – the team with the most points wins and is crowned World Champion.  West Vancouver had four teams make the playoff round and two teams advance to the Championship – an amazing accomplishment.  And then had one of its teams win the World Championship (and got a perfect score!).  They won the World Championship with the Kermit Crafters from the Gateway Science Academy in St. Louis, Missouri.  

Now, West Vancouver’s Team and the team from St. Louis, Missouri were 3rd and 4th in their division.  Here is the moment after the 1st and 2nd team finished and scored were posted that they knew they made the finals.

I find this wild.  It is one of the ultimate tests of collaboration.  In the qualification round you have to quickly make plans with 11 different teams to try to score as many points as possible and then you advance to the playoffs and you partner with a team and you are completely reliant on each other.  Those who can collaborate will succeed.  So like all competitions, there is a heck of a lot of skill, and a little bit of luck and amazing teamwork.   But this is so different than anything else I have seen as you have to build this rapport in minutes not over months like you would in volleyball or soccer.   And for the finals, you compete on stage in front of several thousand spectators.  

In the older divisions top teams get to choose their partners for playoffs and so that adds another element.

We often try to find ways to see collaboration in action.  My three days at the World Championships for Robotics was some of the best I have seen.  Watching teams, people who have just met, plan strategy, talk through strengths and weaknesses and make plans to execute them was awesome (and remember these students are all in elementary school).

It was surreal afterwards as we were walking out of the arena, posing for one last picture with the teammates from St. Louis, and heading off in different directions. Our students and theirs had just shared a moment that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.  I would say never to see each other again, but they were all connected by social media.  

Championship Teams

It was one of the most powerful learning experiences I have seen on display and these young students did it in front of thousands of people who were cheering each of their moves.

I have always been a fan, but I am fully converted to the power of robotics – yes the technical skills are important, but the human skills it teachers are all those we need for our world.

For more on robotics, my colleague Cari Wilson, who is one of the lead teachers in the program, wrote a great post on the Worlds experience HERE. And congratulations to the full team of teachers including Cari, Todd Ablett, Braydan Pastucha, Mahesh Chugani , and Jeff Huang. And to the administrator team of Diane Nelson and Paul Eberhardt.  

There is an interesting contrast happening right now in schools.  In some ways, they look very different than they did in 2019, and this shift is being met positively, and in other ways there is a desperate push to return to rituals that we used to have, that have been on hold for more than two years.

The simple view I take of this is that with so much different in our world, there are some rituals that people are looking towards to be simply as they remembered them in the past, a reassurance that the world has not lost all its good parts.

I am seeing that, for example, with graduation events.  There is more interest than I can ever remember.  And particularly from parents who want to be sure that this year’s students have experiences just like students used to have.

And at the same time, there are new structures and experiences, completely different from pre-pandemic.  I can’t go to an elementary school now without seeing some outdoor learning experience going on – no matter the weather!   And I can’t go to a high school without some new way that time is being organized to give students greater control over their learning. And throughout the system, it is clear everyone has a new set of digital skills that they are using.

So, we have these seemingly contrary narratives at play.  The world has been turned upside down, and we are desperate for the rituals of schools – the ones that are like those of our parents and grandparents to return – as a reminder that everything will be ok.  And we have lived through the last two years and learned we will forever want to do some things differently, the pandemic has exposed issues of equity, made us question what we value in schools, and given us brand new skills and outlooks that are making schools so different from a couple years ago.

The trick of leadership over these next few months  is to not see these different views as actually in opposition.  We can, and should, live with a foot in both worlds.  In one world, we have rituals we all remember and reassure the community of the stability of school, and in the other world, we are shifting for the changes we have seen and continue to see in our world, ensuring our schools remain centres of relevance.

The importance of the next few months in our schools cannot be overstated.  A narrative will emerge – one based on going back to good times of the past, or one that says we know better and we are going forward to a new way.  Or maybe a third narrative, which might disappoint some in both camps, that holds onto some of the practices and customs of pre 2020 schools, but still creates space for the new ideas of the last two years to flourish.

As I often say here, it is an exciting time in education.

There has been a lot of attention around school nicknames in recent years.  You will have seen the controversy in some communities as schools have looked to update their nicknames.  If you want a complete look at all the high school nicknames in British Columbia, my friend Howard Tsumura did an exhaustive list HERE

As per usual when others Zig, we Zag in West Vancouver Schools.  We are not going to look to update one or two nicknames, we are today announcing new nicknames for all of our schools.  We know that nicknames are important for branding, so we want all our schools to have modern up-to-date nicknames that are relatable for our students.  We are also committed to updating them every 10 years.  We are absolutely committed to staying hip in West Vancouver.

As a side benefit, we think we are going to sell a lot of school merchandise as everyone will want to represent their schools and our modern new nicknames and logos will appeal to the masses beyond our schools.  We are also launching our district-wide online store today so you can buy your favourite swag from any of our schools.  So without further ado we are pleased to announce brand new nicknames for all our schools today.

Bowen Island Community Pokemons

Caulfeild Mini Millennials 

Ecole Cedardale Cobra Kai

Chartwell Crypto Cheetahs

Cypress Park Virtual Vultures

Eagle Harbour Emojis

Ecole Pauline Johnson Peloton Pirates

Gleneagles G.O.A.T.S.

Hollyburn Zoom Bombers

Inglewood Jumpin JOMOs

Irwin Park Snapchatting Sharks

Lions A. I. Bay

Ridgeview Podcasting Penguins

Rockridge Tik Tokers

Sentinel Selfie Squad

West Bay Bitcoin Ballers

West Vancouver Wandavisioners

Westcot Wild Memes

Today’s announcement is the latest in the long line of innovative actions from our school district.  Here is the list of those from recent years:

In 2012 I launched my FLOG.

In 2013 I made the announcement of Quadrennial Round Schooling.

In 2014 we formalized our System of Student Power Rankings.

In 2015 we created our Rock, Paper, Scissors Academy.

In 2016 we introduced the Drone Homework Delivery System.

In 2017 we introduced the Donald J. Trump Elementary School of Winning.

In 2018 we announced the construction of Soak City Elementary.

In 2019 we went back to the 80’s with the launch of the Belvedere Learning Academy.

In 2020 we embraced the latest in learning styles with our PBL (Pajama-Based Learning) Program.  

In 2021 we announced we were going out of this world with our Galaxy High Program.

We know COVID can easily make us not look for ways to innovate, but sometimes we need to keep looking for new ideas.  You can look for all our new school clothing to be available just until noon today and also, happy April 1st.

From about 2002-2014 I was regularly on the rubber chicken dinner circuit speaking about technology.  From blogs, and wikis, to personal devices in classrooms, to the use of social media in schools  – technology discussions were front and centre everywhere. You couldn’t go to an education conference without someone talking about innovation and technology – like they were one thing. All eyes were on how the emerging web tools were forever changing teaching and learning.

And like with most trends in education, our hyper attention moved on. Look today and you can’t find a conference that is not about equity and diversity. This is not a criticism of this previous time or today. Our schools and our system both lead and reflect our world around us, and topics of social justice are front and centre right now in our world.

Now part of the reason for this shift in attention is that technology was no longer seen as something separate from learning.  Just looking at the last two years, we see how Zoom, Google Workspace, Teams and a suite of digital tools have become common for everyone.  It was a novelty three years ago for students to have a video conversation with other students, and now it is just another day. 

There is a bit of a sense that we have now embraced technology in schools so we are “done”.  This is a huge misread on the world around us.

To think because technology is no longer at the front of as many discussions as it was earlier this century that somehow technology has stopped changing, morphing and evolving would be a major mistake.  The speed of the digital changes in our world around us are, if anything, accelerating.  

I wrote recently about NFTs and crypto currencies and their potential impact on our schools.  And this is just a small example of how the digital landscape around us will likely have a major impact on not just the “what” of school, but also the “when”,  “where” and “how” of school.   It is hard to imagine the increasing use of wearable technologies, the coming normalcy of driverless cars, higher quality virtual reality experiences, and a boom in 3D printing around us will not impact how we operate schools and structure learning for students.  My West Vancouver colleague Sean Nosek gave a primer of what this might be in his recent post on school in the metaverse.  

We have a habit to get narrowly focused in education, and lose the interconnections. We need to think about the important equity and diversity work, the still foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, the ever changing digital landscape and many other big rocks in education as one conversation and not siloed discussions that can only be focused on one at a time.

For the person that told me “educational technology is so 2010”, I think you are missing the plot.   I appreciate the challenge, in a world when we just wish some things would stay the same for a bit and we could catch up, technology is not a willing partner.  

We might not be debating if Facebook has a role in our schools, or if iPads are appropriate for primary aged students, but the amazing shifts in the tools that will impact our lives and our work continue.

Our schools have always reflected the world around them and as educators we have helped make sense of that world for students.  No matter what we wish, we will continue to help bring our teacher values to the ever changing digital landscape.  

There is a lot of discussion in education around motivation, with intrinsic motivation being the nirvana we are all seeking. Of course, we can all use some nudges on the way.  I always think those of us trying to motivate students should be looking at how we are motivated ourselves. to give an honest view of what makes us do the stuff we know is good for us, but we sometimes struggle to do.

When it comes to my fitness I am quite obsessed.   There are three apps that are hugely influential on me:  Fitbit, Strava and Participaction and each push me with very different motivators. In combination they have made be a bit (some might say a lot) obsessive, but also pushed me to health goals which I always knew were what I wanted theoretically, but never could really keep beyond a few weeks or months.

Fitbit – Since January 1st of 2014 I have taken at least 10,000 steps a day – through rain, snow, travel, illness – sometimes at 11:45 PM, but always hitting the target.  Steps are just one of the things I track obsessively on Fitbit.  I keep track of my nightly temperature to see if I might be getting sick, I follow my heart rate and try to look for behaviours that are leading to even a couple beat difference in my resting heart rate.  I also feel the buzz on my wrist 10 minutes before every hour telling me to finish getting my 250 steps for the hour.  And I see my sleep scores and I try to reverse my pattern I have of always having the poorest sleep score on Sunday nights. And in our house we also have Fitbit connected to our scale, so weight and body fat are regularly measured and tracked over weeks, months and years.  The metrics give perspective and motivation.  

I know many people who have got rid of their smart watch.  As all these things that I have listed as motivators, they see as the opposite.  The joy, they say, is gone from working out when you are driven my your watch.  They say they are happier and fitter without being tethered to the data – but for me it works.

Strava –  I became a daily Strava user about a year ago and it has made a massive difference in my life.  Strava has some of the metrics of Fitbit, but it is more the system of badges which motivate me.  Now, I know this seems silly.  While Strava is a social app, I am connected to maybe a dozen people.  I am definitely not collecting badges to impress anyone.  But I do love to collect them.  There are badges for doing a 5 km, 10 km and half marathon each month.  There are also badges for reaching 100, 200 and 300 km of running distance each month.  And a series of other badges for various accomplishments over periods of time.  I will think, when am I going to get my half marathon badge in February?  I don’t think I would have thought – when am I going to run a half marathon in February if not for this gently nudge.  Strava has a series of other features – including the ability to track best times over segments of a run.  And yes, when I am out a 5 AM running a 10 k, I will think, I am going to sprint the segment between 4 – 5 km mark today to try to record my fastest time ever.  Again a gently nudge,  a way to break up the monotony of the run and a chance to share a “gold medal” for my fastest time with my dozen followers.

Again, it is not all that logical.  While Strava is a social app, for me it is not.  It is a personal app.  I think the motivation on the segments help me realize that I can get older and still get faster – it makes me feel good!  And the badges are silly – I get it.  They are meaningless but take February, there are only 28 days, so I have 3 fewer days than January to finish my 300 km and earn the badge – I am planning now my running schedule for the month – crazy, but it works for me.

Participaction –  I am probably most embarrassed about my motivations in using Participaction.  You remember Participaction?  The people that brought us Body Break with Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod in the late 1980’s now have an app to get Canada healthy.  The app takes data from your fitness tracker (in my case Fitbit) and tracks steps, moving minutes and active minutes.  But why do I come back?  I come back for the prizes.  They have weekly draws for people who use the app, read the articles and watch the videos.  So, when I have a couple minutes I do these things.  And finally after using the app for a couple of years – just a couple weeks ago I won a $10 Amazon Gift Card.  In terms of value for return based on time spent, it isn’t great – but prizes, even small ones, can be a motivator.  And, I have learned a lot from the articles and videos – content I would likely have never engaged with.

Now, I know, I keep thinking about how bad it is to pay our kids for good grades, but here I am learning about health and fitness for the shot at a small gift card.  We all do like to win things, and the chance of winning a prize helps bring me back to Participaction.

So, that is my oversharing for the week.  Am I intrinsically motivated to be fit?  Sure.  I also find that technology helps nudge me along – it gives me data that allows me to feel ownership of my health, it gives me a sense of competition and of ongoing improvement, and it rewards me with prizes.  And through this, I better understand myself and my motivations and know there are lessons in all of this for the work we do in schools as well.  

 

It is always dangerous to write about something you know only at a cursory level – but here we are – writing is a great way to work through ideas. I have been reading, listening, and watching a lot about NFTs lately, soaking in all I can about them.

It is probably worth starting with a definition – what are NFTs? Non-Fungible Tokens take digital works of art and other collectibles into one-of-a-kind, verifiable assets that are easy to trade on the blockchain.  They are unique cryptographic tokens that exist on a blockchain technology to verify ownership and value which cannot be replicated or hacked. 

I know for many that read this blog, you will now ask what is blockchain?  Again, this is all beyond my expertise, I am only about 10 pages ahead in the book than the rest of you who are learning these new terms today.  Blockchains are distributed databases that store data electronically and simultaneously in a way that both maintains a verifiable public record while enhancing (at least in theory) individual privacy and security.  A quick Google search can probably give you all you need to better understand blockchains and how they connect to cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin and all these other entities that are quickly becoming a part of our language.

But back to NFTs.

For many in the mainstream, it has been the Bored Ape Yacht Club that has brought NFTs into their discussions.  They have made news lately with owners like Eminem and Jimmy Fallon and the stories of their prices – starting last April at about $190 USD and now the cheapest ones over $200,000 USD and some much, much more expensive.  As with any new digital advances, I think it is important to look at what might be school connections.  It is easy to roll your eyes and tag this a fad like Beanie Babies, but there is something bigger going on. 

For schools to be relevant, we need to keep our eye on the world around us and always be asking what impact could this have for schools and how could we leverage or connect with this shift in our schools.  Our history with technology teaches us (think our recent history with social media) that if we don’t supply our strategic input in the beginning, the technology may likely envelop our classrooms without our guidance.

So, here are few thoughts on NFTs:

Transcripts and Credentials – My first thought of an easy entry for NFTs would be that students’ records and transcripts could be tokenized.  So rather than being something owned by the school or district and shared with the student, the student owns the record on the blockchain.   Some questions we should consider:  How will such tokenized transcripts be used?  How will universities and employers utilize the entire record of a student’s learning?  Do we want every ‘mistake’ in learning to be memorialized forever?  Are traditional letter grade style reports appropriate for this medium?

A Unique Grad NFT – What if every student that graduated from a school or district in a particular year got an NFT for that class.  This token might then be used for special opportunities like alumni events or partnered with local businesses that give them discounts or other advantages.  For many, the diploma on the wall is dated, so this new way of recognition might be a replacement.  I imagine a unique NFT for each year. Some questions to consider:  Can this move foster greater community / resource access for those historically disenfranchised?   Can NFTs be used to motivate students?  Do NFTs potentially create a more productive interaction between schools, businesses, students and families? 

Producing NFTs in art and other classes – I am sure this is already going on, but we should be creating NFTs in schools (If you are, let me know).  What a great opportunity to do some cross-curricular learning linking technology, business, economics, and art.  From time to time, we have student artists with works on displays in local galleries for sale, and this innovation seems like the modern next step.  Here is a story from last fall on teenage artists making millions of dollars on NFTs.   

Just a couple weeks ago, a Texas based company launched a business that will sell high school athletes NFTs – allowing these athletes (it is a bit tricky because of eligibility rules and making money) to profit off of their excellence.  And for considerations:  Who will own the NFT?  Do we want to commodify student art and athletics?  Can students and districts utilize art and sport NFTs for the school community?  How do districts find and develop the expertise to help teach students?

Modern Portfolios – Portfolios have been intended to be ways to capture learning as a set of experiences rather than just a reflection of content knowledge.  One of the challenges has been the storage of these items – like a child learning to read, or hitting a shot in a basketball game or making blueberry muffins.  The NBA has been selling moments through their Top Shot Digital Collectibles.  This idea could be replicated for students in school who collect their own learning NFTs.  I wrote a few years ago about digital badges and the NFT seems like the logical next step in creating a modern trophy case of your experiences.   And to think about:  Can NFT portfolios help enhance a collective meritocracy?  Will these portfolios help universities overcome  their admission bureaucratic challenges?  Can they accurately reflect a student’s learning journey?  Can such portfolios be created by districts and Ministries of Education instead of corporations to ensure their use and longevity in the K-20 system?

NFTs are really in their infancy and much is being made of the crazy economics around some of them and their role in the new digital economy.  There may also be a place for them in schools as these tokens become more widespread. 

As someone who was obsessed with trading cards growing up (OK, and maybe still am) this seems like the digital version plus so much more.  We are only just at the beginning, but that is often the best time to get involved.

Are any of you out there using NFTs in schools?  

Special thanks to Sean Nosek and Jason Buccheri who have been getting me up-to-speed and helped with this post.

How is that for a title?  It feels a bit like my effort at click bait.

Promotions are very different in education than many sectors.  It is strange when I hear people say that someone got “promoted from teacher to vice-principal”.  Teaching and administration in education are such different jobs, it is not as though you are the best teacher and then become the vice-principal.  When speaking to perspective vice-principals I talk about the multiple paths for leadership in education.  For some, it is the route of school administration, for some it is growing and expanding influence as a classroom teacher, and for others it is moving into the realm of union professional development or staff rep and advancing in the union leadership.  And all are amazingly important and influential – and at times people crossover between them.  

Over my 25 years I have had a chance to see a lot of excellent school principals, and a lot of great teachers’ union presidents (and staff reps) and they share many qualities.  Some of the best union reps I have seen have later become great administrators.  And in education, leadership is leadership – so here are some qualities that I have seen true for both groups:

They are good teachers – If I could only know one thing about someone before they were to become a principal or a union president, I would want to know what kind of teacher they are in the classroom.  Now, not all good (or great) teachers excel as union leaders or school leaders, but if they have just been mediocre in the classroom, and haven’t lived the great power of being a difference maker for young people I don’t want them leading the profession.

They listen well –  We all know those people in our lives who will let you speak, but they are not really listening, they are just waiting for their turn to talk.  Leaders in education truly listen.  And they need to do a lot of it.  People turn to their union leaders and their principals most often when they have a challenge.  And they usually don’t just want you to fix whatever is wrong, but to listen to what is going on.

They change – Our profession is forever changing and the leaders heading it must change too.  Some of the skills that made a teacher great 25 years ago, are no longer relevant.   We see changes in society, and we particularly see the influence of technology on our work and our students.  And we see issues emerge.  Nobody asked educational leaders about diversity or reconciliation even a decade ago, but this is now part of our daily work.  And modeling this change and growth sets the tone for those who we work with.

They have a presence but it is not just about them – When it comes to principals, I can usually tell 2 minutes into an interview if they have the presence needed to be an educational leader.  Like union leaders, they don’t need to fill the room with this personality, but they do need to be able to capture the room with their words, their manner and approach and their vision.  And look for those using “we” instead of “I” statements, it is usually a sign of what drives them.

They work a lot invisible hours – The impetus for this post was really a text I got from our teachers’ union president – it was just after 9:00 PM last Wednesday – his closing line was “I’m available 24/7.”  We were looking to support someone who was needing some assistance.  It is not the type of thing that will go on a resume, or really that anyone will ever know – but he, like the other good ones, know it is not a clock-in and clock-out job.  The same is true of the best principals.  The best ones I know often work long hours, but act like they always have nothing but time. It is the magic of leadership – like the image of the duck calm on the water but swimming furiously below the surface.  

They are always open to a deal – You don’t need to compromise values and principles to be open to deals.  You have to be flexible.  Principals cannot get dug-in on a position that they don’t allow themselves to move.   And not everything is “the hill” on which to take a stand.  Sometimes a deal in either role, gives someone else a win which might seem like giving in to the naïve, but it actually shows strength and sets you up better for next time.

They separate issues and people – We need to be able to talk about ideas, debate directions and let us think either of these things lead to us putting people into boxes as “good people” or “bad people”.  In education we have different roles, and there is a need for a healthy tension – a healthy tension between union leaders and management, between principals and staff, parents or students.  We don’t need to see the world the same way, but when we disagree – it doesn’t mean the others are bad people. It seems like politics, especially in the United States, struggles with this idea.  We still largely have it intact but I admit that COVID has strained it at times.

They want to leave things better for the next person – How do you know if a principal was successful?  Check-in on their school 10 years after they leave.  I have seen principals be “a hero” with staff for how they spent money or supported initiatives, but then leave the school in financial ruins with dozens of “special deals” for favoured staff that could only be undone after a litany of hard feelings.  While the good ones in leadership are always thinking about their time as being on a continuum, whether in the union office or the principal office.   They want to do the best for students, staff and parents during their time, but they also want to be sure it is well set up for the next person who comes in.  One piece of advice I give to those new in these jobs is to start the job thinking about how you will leave it when you are done – whether in one or ten years.

We need good leaders in all aspects of the school system.  School communities, I argue, get the principals and union leaders they deserve.  If there is a culture of learning in place, where people work together and keep students at the centre of decisions these are the people who aspire to leadership.  I count myself lucky to work in a place like that right now.

I have written a lot about high schools in the times of COVID.  There is tremendous energy locally and beyond to hold some of the new structures from the last eighteen months, as we have found some new models that connected with students in powerful ways.  But what about elementary schools?   There have been far fewer conversations about the lessons of COVID coming out of schools for our younger learners.  

I am left with the general impression that COVID has been an accelerant for changes in high schools, in elementary schools, the dominant feeling is that we want to return largely to how things were before the pandemic.

This really should come as no surprise.  Pre-pandemic there was general satisfaction with elementary school education.  Most jurisdictions had made great strides to adopt a play-based approach in K-3, there were efforts to better connect with pre-schools and pre-K education providers, and assessment and evaluation had evolved.  Most elementary schools, at least in British Columbia had moved away from letter grades, and real conversations on the necessity of homework have been happening.  Now, not to make this picture too Pollyanna, there are always opportunities for change and growth, and shifts are not universal, but the calls that we see in high school for more flexibility, greater access to online learning, more relevance in courses, and changes to assessment practices have just not been as loud in elementary schools.  One exception to this overly broad summary would be the move to more outdoor learning which has happened at K-7 seems destined to stick.

Of course, this is all kind of a gut feel.  That is why it is interesting to see some of the research coming out in British Columbia on experiences during the pandemic.   I have written before about work that Dean Shareski pulled together with secondary school administrators from across Metro Vancouver – Pandemic Shifts – Considerations for British Columbia Secondary Schools and a more system approached paper from a national perspective – School Beyond COVID-19 – Accelerating the Changes that Matter for K-12 Learners in Canada.  A third piece of research that came out in December comes from a partnership between the University of British Columbia and the BC School Superintendents Association – District Approaches to Learning in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.  It is this third piece of research that I want to focus on.  

While most of what I have seen written on pandemic experiences looks at school systems or focuses specifically on high school learners, the UBC / BCSSA project focused primarily on the elementary grades in the 2020-21 school year.  To give the context of BC during this time, the majority of students were learning in-class, with students engaged in blended and online learning as well as transitional learning (students who were moving back to full-time class instruction but not immediately at the start of the year).  This research looks specifically at this transitional program experiences.

So, what were the relative strengths across districts?

  • Leveraging already existing structures and platforms (Microsoft Teams, Canvas)
  • Transitional learning provided a sense of safety for families amidst the pandemic (flexibility of choosing when to return to school)
  • Ability to adapt to the demand of the pandemic (exceptional admin leadership, and responsive and supportive orientation of all staff)
  • Support for vulnerable groups of learners (programs to ensure access with technology and food security, unique supports for students with diverse learning needs)
  • Professional development (increased opportunities for collaboration)

And what were the relative challenges across districts?

  • Parental Support (multiple students per household, daycare, software literacy)
  • Student (lack of peer and teacher connections, online engagement, mental health concerns)
  • Teachers (new teaching modalities, varying levels of acceptance, increased workload)
  • Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (increased demand for food services, online challenges for ELL learners, limited supports to vulnerable learners, more challenging for low-SES students and families)

In checking with those who led the transitional learning option in our district, they highlighted the amazing flexibility of the staff and willingness to to take on new and somewhat foreign roles.

What strikes me about the research on the elementary experience is that there is not the same sense of building on leveraging the learning of the pandemic for a changed system going forward.  The stronger feeling is trying to return to pre-pandemic.  It is an interesting contrast and speaks to differences about flexibility, choice, technology use among other topics between younger and older learners.  While the pandemic was a test-run for some ideas that may guide the future of our high schools, in our elementary schools it was truly emergency remote and transitional learning, and the more widely held goal is to return to a pre-pandemic system with fewer changes than most hope for in our high schools.

Of course, I am sure some of you might see it differently.