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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:

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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.

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longshot

It was one of those magical nights.

Last Friday night I joined a sold out crowd at the Kay Meek Theatre (one of two sellouts of close to 500 people each that night) to see the premier of Longshot: The Brian Upson Story.  It was like a community reunion – for one night our community was transported back in time to 1982.

The Brian Upson story is hard to believe.  It feels like a script for a Hollywood movie, the kind that people would read and say, this is not believable enough.  With the premier of the movie, it has been told several times recently.  The short version of the story is that the West Vancouver Highlanders won their only provincial basketball championship in their history in 1982.  They won the final game defeating their league rival Argyle by a single-point, after losing to them three times earlier in the season in-front of a capacity crowd at the Agrodome in Vancouver. And it is far more than just a story of winning a basketball title, as the Highlanders were coached by Brian Upson, who, battling colon cancer had not been expected to live long enough to make it to the championships. He coached the team to the title, and passed away two weeks later.  This does not fairly tell the story – it is worth reading the full story.  In 2012, Len Corben described it as the most memorable sports story in the 100 year history of West Vancouver.  Recently, in anticipation of the film Rosalind Duane did a wonderful feature in the North Shore News and Steve Ewen did a feature that ran in both the Vancouver Sun and Vancouver Province.

This post is not about retelling the Brian Upson Story – others have told it far better than I ever could.

I have seen many student films.  This was different.  I thought I was watching an ESPN 30for30 documentary.  It was a professional film.  I have a vision in my mind what a school project film looks like.  But this blew me away.  Teacher Dave Shannon and his students had taken on an incredibly challenging project and done an amazing job.  And what a great reminder – when students do real work for a real audience they will rise to the occasion.  I realize they didn’t have much choice – they had to do a great job.  They were telling the story of the greatest sporting event in our community’s history.  They had interviewed Upson’s wife and children and the players from the team – they were all going to be in the audience.  And the students delivered.  This is one of those great reminders about school.  We too often don’t do real world work, but when we do it is magical.

And the power of real work was not the only reminder from the movie.  The movie reminded us of the power of high school sports.  All of the players, now 35 years later, spoke to the impact of the team and being part of the experience.  The crowd footage from 1982 was amazing – as 5000 people cheered on the teams in the final – many of them students.  It was something that connected the school.  Schools are more than just taking courses in the same room together, they are communities.

And the film also reminded us of the power of a teacher.  The players spoke about the profound impact Mr. Upson has had on their lives.  He helped make them who they are today.  Teachers and coaches have an enormous impact on young people and the movie serves to remind us of that.  It also reminded us that it is very often those connections outside the class that are most significant – for teachers and students.

Even though everyone in the room knew how the story would end – they cheered along.  When the buzzer sounded and the game ended the crowd in the theatre madly applauded.  We were all transported back thirty-five years.  Thanks to the students of the Rockridge film program.

Friday night was one of those special nights.  It showed the best of community.  And reminded us of the power of teachers, coaches and schools.  Pretty impressive.

Here is the Official Trailer for the movie:

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joyIn my 2006 interview for Assistant Superintendent of West Vancouver Schools I was asked to select two of the district’s values that stood out for me and talk about why they were important to me and my work. I had scanned the list as part of my preparation – it was a fairly typical list of school values: community, excellence, innovation, accountability. The last value stood out and it was one that I spoke about – it was joy. I thought that was such a funny word to be a value in a school system, but I liked it.  It is a word that speaks to the contentment we want in our work.

I was reminded of this story in reading Dean Shareski’s new book, Embracing a Culture of Joy.  I listed this late 2016 published book as one of my “Top 3” reads for last year.  It envisions a wonderful state:

Joy isn’t about being happy all the time.  It isn’t a fleeting emotion that comes and goes depending on changing circumstances.  It is about contentment and satisfaction and expressing those feelings.  Sometimes the expression is visible, and sometimes it’s not.  But joy requires an awareness that things are right.  While it’s a deeply personal state, it’s also something that, when given the opportunity, will spread.  Creating a culture of joy applies to both the environment and the learning itself.  As it relates to learning, it’s the outward manifestation of success, achievement, and being.  It’s learning for the sake of learning, not because of grade or compliance.

Shareski makes the strong case that community and gratitude are powerful notions in our schools and gives ways that schools can infuse themselves with joy.  He rightly argues that none of us pursued our passion for teaching and education because we were driven by rigor and student achievement.  We all know of those moments in our life when we were in the flow with learning, they are the ones that stick out days, weeks and months later.  A little bit of joy can go a long way to ensuring more of these moments.

Shareski shared one of my joy examples in his book:

Each year during the week before Christmas, our entire Executive Team loads up our sleigh and visits every classroom delivering a cookie to each staff member in the district.  One year we were Santa and his elves, another year we wore our tacky Christmas sweaters and this year we wore our Christmas pajamas.

It is great and people are expecting us now and wondering when we will come and what we will wear – it helps build community.  One teacher said to me “It is the second last day before Christmas break, I was worried you guys weren’t coming this year.”  Another teacher said, “Now I have something to dream about tonight – our leaders in their pajamas”

Here was our photo from this past December:

Cookie Tour 2016

I know some people see this and think, must be nice to have that kind of time.  These are the choices we make every day with how we spend our time.  We all know how to “look busy”.  We walk really fast with our head down, carrying a file folder like we are transporting dangerous cargo.   I always think the best leaders don’t look busy, and have time for joy.  I loved to see photos and stories of former President Barrack Obama joking with kids, or playing basketball.  I figured if he had time for joy, it was hard for the rest of us to have any good excuses.

I often think one of the nicest things anyone ever wrote in a reference letter for me – it was my first principal in a letter she wrote recommending me for a vice-principal position – she wrote, “he is a very serious thinker, who knows not to always take himself too seriously.”  I use this notion as a regular reminder.

Just this week, there is a video making the rounds on the internet of a North Carolina teacher who shares a unique handshake with every student (it is a must watch!):

It is this kind of joy, the kind that Shareski writes about, that this teacher from North Carolina exudes, and we see in classes, and serves as many of the greatest memories of our school experience that must be as much a part of the modern school as so many of the other objectives we often obsess over.

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5-reasons-why-blogging-is-so-important-to-your-website

It was about six years ago they started.

And here we are, as we are approaching the mid-point of the 2016-17 school year, and so many of our school leaders continue to share their thinking through their blogs.  While the internet is littered with well-intentioned and abandoned blogs from educators, and education blogging may have lost some of its excitement from just a few years ago, so many in West Vancouver are using their blog to tell stories to their community about their school, tackle big issues in education, and let people know a little bit more about themselves.

Here is just a sampling of what is being shared in West Vancouver:

One of the district’s most regular bloggers, West Bay Elementary Principal Judy Duncan took on the #oneword challenge in her latest post and her focus on voice:

One of our intangible objectives is for students to appreciate and to become accustomed to having and exercising their voice.  As adults that will benefit them individually and, in turn, all of us collectively. This should move us to ensure that whether through sport, music, language, drama or art, every child and every person has a voice in 2017.

In his latest post, Caulfeild Elementary Principal Craig Cantlie shares some of his thinking with parents as they make the often stressful “what school should my child attend” decision at this time of year:

Does the learning at Caulfeild Elementary (iDEC) look like it did when you were growing up? Probably not, but neither does the world. Our students learn the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, but more importantly the relevant and purposeful use of those foundational skills. Taking those skills and connecting them with the conceptual understandings behind our science and social studies work makes for powerful learning across the grades. Our students are creators, collaborators, communicators and critical thinkers – all of which will serve them well, whatever their future holds.

Scott Slater, Principal at Bowen Island Community School tackled communicating student learning with his recent post, a topic that is one that is being widely discussed among students, staff and parents and Scott asked the important question about whether the changes are just different or if what is being done is actually new.  He looked at a number of areas including core competencies:

The reports continue to include information on a child’s social and emotional development. In the opening comments, in Core Competencies (for intermediate reports), and in other fields, teachers share information on the child’s social and emotional development. Schools share the role with parents of supporting a child’s well-being and development of personal and social skills. In the opening comments, teachers also refer to an aspect of our school goal of students developing their learning character so parents will find comments related to a child’s development of Responsibility, Openness, Ambition and Resilience (ROAR)

Communicating student learning was also on the mind of Chartwell Principal Chantal Trudeau and she focused on the importance of the student reflection:

One of the most important changes this year is the addition of the student reflection piece. Teachers have a few different options to include their students’ reflections into the report card. At the primary level, it can look like a “happy face” worksheet or a few sentences in the student reflection box on the report card itself. At the intermediate level, many students have written a reflection letter which is an insert added to the report card. I have enjoyed reading the students’ self-reflections whilst reviewing all the report cards going home today. I am very impressed by their meta-cognitive ability, thinking about their thinking and learning. Knowing yourself as a learner is a great thing, at any age. It is wonderful to see that our students know how they are doing, and what they need to do to improve and why.

Also looking at communicating student learning is Cedardale Head-Teacher Jessica Hall.  Her post collected feedback from students on the new reports:

The range of experience with new reporting practices amongst my students is broad and in trying to bring about some collective understanding, I sparked up a conversation about the “new” report cards. I wanted to know how students have perceived this change of not having letter grades listed on their report cards. Grade 6 students immediately expressed a sense of relief over not being labeled with a single grade. In a conversation with one Grade 6 student, he explained that the language in the new Communicating Student Learning Document was more descriptive than a letter grade. He stated that in general, the word “developing” has a less negative connotation and that he liked how the Core Competencies provide explicit examples on how to improve learning skills. A Grade 5 student articulated the first moment she understood that ‘communicating ideas’ is a learning skill. She explained that the Core Competencies have helped her identify and value her personal learning style as the “presenter” and that she prefers working in groups, where she has the opportunity to “share her ideas in classroom discussions”.

Hollyburn Principal Kim Grimwood focused her most recent post on executive functioning and ways that parents can support these skills.  She reminded us of the important of the eight executive functioning skills (and then what they had to do with making waffles):

Impulse control: helps us to stop and think before acting.

Flexibility: allows us to adjust to the unexpected.

Emotional Control: helps us to keep our emotions in check.

Initiation: allows us to take action and get started.

Working Memory: the ability to hold information in mind to complete a task.

Planning and prioritizing: helps us decide on a goal and make a plan to reach it.

Self-Monitoring: allows us to evaluate how we are doing.

Organization: helps us to keep track of things both physically and mentally.

Rockridge Principal Jeannette Laursoo used a recent post to update the community on the various ways students have been contributing:

Rockridge’s students have been busy contributing to both the local and global communities. To highlight just a few of the initiatives, the Blush Club collected warm clothes and blankets for those less fortunate,  the Umoyo Club fundraised by selling cookies to benefit Nyaka Orphanage in Uganda, and our community made a difference in the lives of teens by donating backpacks filled with essential items to Convenant House.  We thank everyone for their generosity and support.

And a final sample of the recent posts comes from West Van Secondary Principal Steve Rauh who paid tribute to retiring teacher Bruce Holmes, and included a number of comments from students in his post:

“A student once came in crying; Mr. Holmes took the time to cheer them up and help them.” – Madison Duffy

“I have been in Holmes’ class since grade 8. Not only has he taught me woodwork, but he has also taught me a lot about life.” – Gabriella Langer

“He likes to take you out of your comfort zone.” – Ashley Kempton

“We really like his sense of humour; he loves to gossip and threaten to give wet willies.” – Nicole Torresan & Alexa Harrison

“I appreciate how he never turns down any student ideas no matter how absurd or impossible they sound. He will always stick with you to help you see your ideas come to real life.” – Jesse Diaz

In re-reading these posts, and others from across the district I am reminded there is no one model for blogging.  I find that the range of topics, and approaches is reflective of the various leaders in our schools.  Selfishly for me these blogs are a great way to stay connected to the thinking and work in our schools.  And I know, especially in an era of fewer print publications (an issue I have lamented in the past) these posts are a great window into the work of public education.

Whether you are a current student or parent, or a perspective one, or someone interested, curious or passionate about education, we have so many great leaders publicly sharing their thinking and acting as great models for students in the modern world.

HERE is a link to all the West Vancouver Schools websites that host the school blogs.

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world-teacherSo, just how many of your teachers from grade school can you name?

I was struck by a story shared by Dean Shareski on Opening Day about The Amazing Miss A and Why We Should Care About Her.  The study comes from McGill Faculty of Education, Professor Eigil Pedersen.  The study initially looked at how students who had Miss A for grade 1 showed an increase in IQ scores between grades 3 and 6 while those in other classes were stable.  There was nothing unique about Miss A’s class but something was going on.  Students were again studied years later and given an “adult status” score  including factors such as the highest grade of high school completed, the type of housing they occupied, their personal appearance and their occupational status.  And again it was those in Miss A’s class that stood out.

And what else was true, every single pupil of Miss A’s could remember her as their grade 1 teacher.  So what was it about the magical Miss A?

lt was reported that she never lost her temper or resorted to physical restraint, and showed obvious affection for the children. She generated many lessons on the importance of schooling and why students should stick to it. She gave extra hours to pupils who were slow learners. She believed every pupil could learn. That surely explains the one characteristic that emerged as a steady pattern, illustrated best by the comment of one respondent, “it did not matter what background or abilities the beginning pupil had there was no way that the pupil was not going to read by the end of grade one.”

The entire story is worth reading and a good reminder that we need to be careful to buy into simple explanations of socio-economic conditions as being the sole determiner of students’ success.  It also is an excellent reminder of what are truly the characteristics of a great teacher.

The story got me thinking, when I look at my K-12 school years – how many of my teachers could I name?  I actually did pretty well and have really nice things to say about virtually all of them.  So, on this World Teachers’ Day I would like to thank those who I remember:

K – Mrs. Groening

Grade 1 – Can’t remember name and don’t have good memories

Grade 2 – Mrs. Caffrey  (Read all about her)

Grade 3 – Mrs. Caffery

Grade 4 – Mrs. Caffrey

Grade 5 – Mr. Nakanishi

Grade 6 – Mr. Whitehead

Grade 7 – Mr. Taylor

Grade 8 – Mrs. MacDonalnd (Science), Ms. Bourne (English), Mrs. White (Social Studies), Mr. Inglis (Math), Mr. Paquet (PE and French), Mr. Hobson (Band), Mrs. Hicks (Food and Clothing) 8 out of 8

Grade 9 – Mr. Carroll (Science) Ms. Ball (English), Mr. Bryan (Social Studies), Mr. Loader (Math and Computer Science), Mr Milholm (PE), Mr. Hobson (Band) 7 out of 8

Grade 10 – Mr. Carroll (Science),Ms. Bourne (English), Mr. Bryan (Social Studies), Ms. Blaschuk (Math), Mr. Hirayama (PE), Mr. Hobson (Band and Consumer Ed) 7 out of 8

Grade 11 – Ms. Carey (English), Mr. Brown (Social Studies), Mr. Turnbull (Math), Mr. Gresko (Biology), Ms. Hurley (Computer Science), Mr. Spearman (Law) 6 out of 8

Grade 12 – Ms. Carey (English), Mr. Brown (Western Civ and Literature), Mr. Commons (History), Mr. Topping (Geogrpahy), Mr. McCallum (French) 6 out of 7

It is an interesting exercise.  I have strong memories of almost all the teachers I remember and they are almost exclusively not about what I learned, but how their class made me feel.

To all my teachers, and those in the profession past and present – Happy World Teachers’ Day.

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Doing Good Locally

free-kicks-sign

The world of charity giving and service learning is ever-changing in schools. In the schools and districts I have worked in, the pendulum has swung back and forth between localized, very school-centric initiatives and global initiatives as part of a massive network of young people around the world.

My first memories of giving in schools is tied to UNICEF boxes at Halloween. The program, which was discontinued in Canada a decade ago, had children collect coins along with candy when they went out for Halloween.  In today’s schools it is hard to find young people not familiar with WE Day, We Charity (formerly Free the Children) and their related entities.  It has been an incredible model to watch grow.  It has combined star power, amazing energy and a huge infrastructure and organization, to help engage young people in service learning and charity.

While my first memories are of the orange UNICEF boxes, and the WE opportunities are dominant in many schools, there have forever been and continue to be amazing smaller organizations doing thoughtful work, that are worth celebrating.  I want to tell you about one of them – Freekicks.

It is a professional development day in West Vancouver and the local soccer fields are humming.  When I get there the rain is coming down pretty good, but nobody really notices.  The fields are full of elementary aged boys and girls playing soccer.  The players have been assigned to represent a variety of nations for the day – from Canada to Cameroon.

spirit-of-togetherness-tournament playing

The teams are made up from a cross-section of students from schools – the tournament features students from across West Vancouver, as well as from a number of inner-city schools in Vancouver.  Of course, you would never know as all the students are wearing the same new uniforms.  In talking with founder Adam Aziz and other organizers, I learn some of the students who came today had never been over the Lions Gate Bridge.  Soccer is a vehicle to connect students – it is the “Spirit of Togetherness” that is being celebrated.  There is no class system here, everyone has the same uniforms, the same pancake breakfast, the same lunches and the group is united around sport.  Local businesses have come together to support the event, high school students were volunteering as coaches and officials, and already plans are in the works to make it bigger next year.  What a great way to use the common language of soccer to bring young people together as teammates who may not normally ever connect – and realize just how much they have in common.

This wasn’t my first experience with Freekicks.  I  learned of them a couple years ago when our then-principal, Scott Wallace, invited me to visit Gleneagles Elementary School.  And what I saw was pretty amazing:

Two inspired soccer players Lucas & Trevor Robertson started their own Freekicks Academy in their local community. They were inspired by what Freekicks had achieved and wanted to be a part of the team. Their vision is to help other kids play soccer.  The boys started in the backyard of their home, they set-up drills, exercises and created activities and sessions for the local players in their neighborhood. They have raised over $850 to date through raffles and donations to support children around the world. (Source)

We need organizations like UNICEF, the United Way, WE, and others who tackle changes on a large scale across our communities and around the world.  And we also need to celebrate all of the organizations like Freekicks and the power that one person, or a group of people with a big idea can make a positive dent in our world.

We need to foster these opportunities – built often around individual passions and a commitment to make change.  As Freekicks shows, and as we see all the time, Margaret Mead is continually proven correct, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

spirtoftogetherness

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