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Fun times hiking the Grouse Grind with Rockridge Principal Judy Duncan and more than 100 Grade 9’s earlier this fall.

If you are an administrator you have probably been asked some version of “you must really miss teaching and the kids in the classroom?”  It is often said in a way to make you feel guilty somehow, that taking a job as a principal or vice-principal, although may have more responsibility and a greater scope to your work, the insinuation is that you have lost the best part of education.

The official correct answer for “Do you miss the teaching?” is “yes”.  You are supposed to say that working with kids in the classroom is the best and I miss it every day.  Even though it is an unfair question, you are still supposed to answer it in the affirmative.

Well, when I get asked this guilt-inducing question – I say no.  No, I don’t miss teaching.  Teaching is awesome.  Most of my best friends are teachers, my parents were teachers, most of the smartest people I know are teachers.  And I loved it!

I am surrounded by teachers and I still love teaching in a K-12 classroom when I get the chance to do it.  But I don’t miss it.  Just because we love something doesn’t mean we need to do it forever, nor does it mean we miss it when we do something else.  And I don’t define teaching as something strictly with a finite group of students in the classroom over a 10 month period of time.

I have been thinking about why I loved teaching.  It comes down to purpose and satisfaction.

I actually get amazing purpose and satisfaction as an administrator.  Both at the school and district level there are significant chances to make a difference and have a great sense of accomplishment.  It is different, the feedback is far more immediate as a classroom teacher – you know right away from the students how you are doing and the difference you are making.  This satisfaction is not as easy to see, but just as powerful in other roles in the system whether you are working with one student, a group of students, teachers, parents or others in the community.

In many industries as you are successful you move up a ladder – that is far less true in education.  Education is one of those funny jobs around the notion of promotion.  It is not really true that becoming an administrator after being a teacher is a promotion.  They are two different jobs and while some people are good at both, I have seen great teachers become mediocre administrators and teachers who were just OK in the classroom become excellent school and district administrators.

And the suggestion that you are removed from young people once you become an administrator is just not true, at least not if you don’t want it to be true.  I have been in about 30 classrooms so far this fall – working with teachers, learning with and from students, and ensuring I know how the decisions I make are influencing teachers and students.  You can be the administrator who is removed from kids, I guess.  But that would be your choice – we all make choices on how we spend our time in our work.

I love my current job, but I often tell people my absolute favourite job in the system was high school principal.  Being in a school of 1400 students, with over 120 adults coming together everyday – exhausting, exhilarating, challenging and on most days a lot of fun.  And never once did I think I had given up “kids” for a job.  This feeling continues to this day in my current role.

As we finish-up celebrating National Principals’ Month (October), here is to all the great school and district leaders who are working with and for students everyday. I am lucky to work with so many awesome ones in West Vancouver!

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I do spend a lot of time in classrooms.  What I have noticed in recent years, it is often the same classrooms in the same schools.  And often it is just a really quick walk through as part of a tour.  I wanted to do something different this fall.  So here is part the email I sent to every teacher in our district:

I am hoping to be more purposeful with getting into classrooms this fall.  I know to make the best decisions for our district, and to be the best advocate for our students and staff, I should better understand the modern classroom – I have been in district office in West Vancouver for 12 years, and it is easy to lose touch with the changes in classrooms.  Thus, I am hoping some of you will invite me into your classes.  I find I visit many of the same classes over and over, and I am hoping this request will get me into a number of different classrooms.

I would love to come to your class – whether it is to observe something you are teaching and students are learning, act as a resource, co-teach, or otherwise engage with you and your students. It could be for 10 minutes or a full lesson.  Email me directly your thoughts and we can look to set something up.

Of course, I am not sure if 2, 20 or 200 of you will take me up on this offer – but hopefully I will get back to you quickly, even if we cannot set it up until later in the fall.

I know we have amazing things happening in our classrooms and I want to better understand these connections we are making with our learners.

The uptake has been awesome.  I have dozens of classes set over the next several months – performing various roles from observer, to field trip chaperone, to co-teacher, to subject expert, to lead teacher.  Already I have been in about ten classrooms – covering almost all the grades across a number of schools.  Here are a few of my quick takes of things that have stood out as I have spent time with these classes:

Learning is happening outdoors.  Two of the experiences I have been part of have been completely outdoors (and both times in the rain).  No longer is outdoor learning reserved for just PE – in the classes I was part of, students were doing science, math and social studies outside.

Students (at least at elementary)are regularly given breaks to get some exercise.  It might be jumping jacks or doing a lap of the school in-between lessons.  There is a real appreciation that students can only spend so long sitting in one spot.

Cell phones are not distracting.  I know this goes against the conventional wisdom out there.  In the various high school classes I have been in so far, I have not really noticed them.  It may be because of the expectations created in the classes or schools, or because of the high level of engagement in the lesson but I have not seen students on their mobile devices.

Google Classroom just is. I am so impressed with how seamlessly teachers move from their digital spaces to the face-to-face.  And students (at least those in upper intermediate and high school) have all had devices and they are managing their various class spaces.  In three different classes I have seen students co-creating online with shared documents in class.

There is a great sense of independence and guidance.  I have seen a number of classes where teachers have set the learning goals and then students are working at their own pace.  It is true differentiation in class with students at different places and working at different speeds and the teacher acting as a resource when needed.

Students are wrestling with big issues.  Whether it is power and authority as it relates to the History of Residential Schools for intermediate students or math students collectively tackling real world problems, students are getting time to unpack big, hard questions and work through them with other students.

Grade 9 is still grade 9.  I have been with three different groups of grade 9 students so far.  And there have been some awesome things in each of the classes.  There have also been examples of students pretending to work when the teacher comes over, boys responding to a teacher prompt with a joke in an attempt to impress their friends, and a variety of other 14-year-old behaviour.  It is good to know that some things don’t really change.

Self-regulation strategies are everywhere.  I am always interested in what, if anything, is on the walls in classrooms.  In every elementary classroom so far there have been some sort of cues around self-regulation – whether it is reminders of breathing exercises or the zones of regulation, there are visual reminders for students about how to get in the zone for learning.

These are early days, and a side benefit of these visits is probably a lot of blog posts topics to keep me busy this year.  I am so impressed with the confidence of our students and the passion of our teachers.  It is very reaffirming.

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Shocking, but sometimes I am wrong.

Part of the job of the Superintendent, as I have described it, is to be looking around the corner at what is coming next. And I like to think I am often on-point with this crystal-ball gazing, but in case you might not know – sometimes my predictions have not hit the mark. As we start the new school year, let me share six examples of my mistakes:

1) Fencing – I got the idea to write this current post while writing a reference letter for Igor Gantsevich the head of our fencing academy.  I remember when Igor met me five years ago, and said he was going to build a fencing academy.  I was polite, but I was thinking “he is crazy”.  Maybe baseball, soccer, or hockey – but fencing?  Well five years later we have 31 students in our fencing academy and fencing is integrated into schools across the district.  The lesson here was to always invest in quality people.  We gave fencing a try because of Igor – he was a high character person with a great passion and drive.  Almost nobody could have done what he has done – and proved me very wrong. (HERE is a more complete post I wrote in 2014 on The Fencing Phenomenon.)

2)  Blogs – I have covered this one a bit before.  This is year 9 for the Culture of Yes, and I thought when I started, I love writing, and sharing and engaging with a public audience, so everyone else will as well.  Well, sort of.  We do have a lot of staff and students who keep a regular blog, but they have not become the “home base” as I might have thought they would for everyone in our district.  The lesson here was to be careful about absolutes – blogs can be a great way to connect with a larger audience, but they are not the only way, and not the way that make some people comfortable. (HERE is a piece from 2016 where I began to recognize that Maybe I Was Wrong About Blogging).

3)  Portfolios – When the 2004 graduation program was implemented, it included a portfolio requirement for all students.  Despite the initial excitement (I was part of that), within a couple of years, the portfolio requirement was removed.  I still think portfolios were a great idea (and are a great idea), but in 2004 I underestimated two key facts – the technology was not robust enough in schools to allow viable e-portfolio options and people were left to traditional binders which was cumbersome, and too little thought was really given to how best to integrate portfolios into the traditional high school program.  It was felt to be an add-on for students and staff.  Fifteen years later, and I think we are getting in right with elementary e-portfolio solutions like Fresh Grade – and the secondary efforts around Capstone projects. (HERE is a 2015 post on Bringing It All Together).

4)  Letter Grades –  I am more conservative on this issue than many people around me.  When we began to remove letter grades in grades 4-7 I expected a huge push-back.  It has not materialized.  Really, no letter grades has just become the norm.  My mistake here was underestimating the sophistication of our parents, and the trust they place in our teachers and schools.  Parents want timely, relevant feedback from the teacher and ways to support their child at home, and they trust schools are using the best research in making their decisions. (HERE in 2015 I described this conversation as A Healthy Tension).

5) – Discretionary Days –  I heard the push for discretionary days in the last couple rounds of contract negotiations.  I kept wondering where this was coming from.  While there is almost no flexibility in timing, those of us in education, have time at Christmas, Spring Break and in the Summer, which is a luxury many professions do not enjoy.  I thought the option of taking unpaid days throughout the school year is something nobody would take.  I was very wrong.  Apparently a lot of people will take days to attend a wedding, go on a trip with family or otherwise take time at a non-prescribed time of year.  I think I really underestimated the changing nature of our workforce – flexibility is something that is increasingly important – even if it means a bit less money.  As so many other professions are becoming more flexible, that is rarely possible in education, but administrators, teachers, and support staff share a mindset with those outside our profession that flexibility is a key driver for their work.

6)  Price of Computers –  I think it was 2002 when I was saying, within a couple of years you will be able to buy a computer for the price of a calculator.  Well, computer prices have definitely come down, but not to the point I would have hoped.  Most families are still spending at least $300-$400 for a computer that they use at school, and some are spending much more.  I think my error here was getting caught up in the hype around the One Laptop Per Child initiative and saw this as the start of a trend that never really took hold.  I do continue to believe that for students from about grade 4 up we need to find ways to get them regular access to a device whenever they need it, but unfortunately it is a more expensive proposition than I would have hoped.

We can’t always be right.  As I look at these six, it is interesting to see the biases I had as I looked at each of these ideas.

So, here is to another year of trying to look around the corner at what is coming next, and maybe being wrong once in a while, but like the students we work with – hopefully I will keep learning from successes and failures.

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One of the best parts of June is attending all of the graduation ceremonies in our schools. There is such a great energy and these events are full of nostalgia and excitement. I have used this space several times before to share some of the messages I have left with students as I got to address the grad classes. And I want to wrap-up this school year by doing that again.

In all the talk of schools being slow to change, I am struck how students are driving change around two key social issues of our time – that of Indigenous Education and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.  As adults move slowly, students just move and seem almost confused about why we are waiting.

The other topic I come back to this year is the positive choice so many families are making for public education.  In a community where families have more options than in most other places in the country our families overwhelmingly choose public education.  They see what their children get from a public school education, and equally important what they contribute to the system through their participation.

Taking out some of the school specific notes and other pleasantries, here are some of my key notes from this year’s grad speeches I have given:

I began doing the job of Superintendent when this year’s graduates were in grade 4.  And while you may know me best as the person responsible for not giving you any snow days during this period of time, I have had the chance to see our schools really change.

Your graduation looks very different from when I spoke to graduates in 2011.

I want to highlight two key social areas, really where you and your fellow students have shown the way for the adults.

The first area is Indigenous Education.  During your time in our schools we have moved from Indigenous Education being something that is studied in grade 4 and 11 to something that is integrated in all of our work.  We started with cultural projects, but moved to real human connections.  We were guided by the Truth and Reconciliation Report in our country, and students, like you, have led the way.  We are on the way to Reconciliation because of your leadership – helping guide the adults.  I am a Social Studies teacher, and 20 years ago, never mentioned Residential Schools in my classes, we all know now its place as part of our history.

The other area I want to highlight is another issue of social importance, the work around sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).  When you started school, there were arguments in British Columbia around books in schools which showed a range of different families. We have come a long way and again students like you have led the way.   Conversations from washrooms, to gay-straight alliance clubs to curriculum that teaches our diversity have at times seemed hard for the adults, but again not for the students.  When I am told that young people don’t have a huge impact on our values – I see the SOGI work and know they are wrong.  You have made our schools more open, more tolerant and more loving than they were even a decade ago.

And your steadfast commitments going forward will ensure the few loud voices around us who want to move us backwards will not win the day.

So, some things have changed – but others haven’t.  We are so deeply proud of our public schools in our community.

I know families have choices they can make on school – and my thanks to all of you for choosing public schools.  Whether you are going to work, for a gap year or off to college or university we hope you are academically prepared and more importantly prepared to be citizens for our world.

It is cliché, but it takes a community.  In West Vancouver, which is really like a small town, it takes the outstanding staff, committed and supportive parents, and dedicated students to make this system flourish.

My thanks to all of you for doing your parts.

It is a great honour to serve as Superintendent in West Vancouver.  We have the reputation as the finest education system in the country.  And each day I see it come alive in our schools – from academics, to athletics to the arts.  Thank you all for your contributions to this reputation and to our community.

Thanks again for reading, engaging and challenging this year here on Culture of Yes.  I will likely drop in for a post or two in the summer and back at full capacity in September.

Happy Summer.

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It is with great excitement we announce our newest school in West Vancouver –  Soak City Elementary School. We are regularly challenged to build schools that are relevant and future focused, and we are doing just that with Soak City.

At its core, it is a simple notion, we will combine an elementary school and waterpark into a single facility.  One would never have thought a hotel and a waterpark would be one complex but that is just what the Great Wolf Lodge has done with its series of resorts.  We are taking the lessons from this with our first integrated school and waterpark facility.  Soak City Elementary is the first of its kind in the world and the latest in choice schools.

The Research

We have seen a number of movements in education in recent years, from learning with computers, to personalized learning, to most recently strong efforts to get students learning beyond their classrooms and learning outside.  The next logical step from learning outside is learning in water.  Water composes more than half of the Earth, and given what we see with Global Warming, it will be even more dominant for our children.  We think students should have experiences learning in water.  The philosophy is built on the Swedish research of Lipra Loof who believes all students should have the chance to learn in H2O and that the water helps to activate unused “dark” parts of the brain.

The Facility

Soak City Elementary School will be a mix of traditional classrooms and water-based classrooms.  There will be traditional hallways connecting many of the school areas and they will be side-by-side with waterslides allowing students choice in how they travel around the school.  Ensuring that all students are challenged there will be a range of difficulty in the slides at the park, from beginner slides for our primary students to a series of more difficult and challenging slides for the intermediate learners.  Working with our partner groups we have determined the names of a number of our slides, so far we have “Brain Wash”, “Pacific Plunge” and the “West Vancouver Wedgie”.

The Curriculum

Soak City embraces the new curriculum in British Columbia.  Students will have choice in what they learn and how they learn it.  Each year students will complete 4 “dry” units and 4 “wet” units”.  All 8 units will employ an inquiry-based learning approach.    In wet units students might be taking measurements of the speed of riders on slides and then graphing these results.

Specialty Programs

West Vancouver has a long history of academy programs.  And once again we will be launching a new program to fit our new facility.  The West Vancouver High Performance Water Slide Academy will attract some of the top watersliders from around the region and beyond.  The Soak City Nerdy Dolphins will compete in the IWL (International Waterslide League) with the top competitive waterslide teams from Western Canada and the Western United States.  We hope to have our sliders competing with the top watersliders in California within 3 years.  With watersliding a potential Olympic event in 2028, we think our new school can produce future medalists.

The Staff

We are partnering with local universities to help train staff to be comfortable with teaching in water.  Just as local universities train teachers for Montessori, French Immersion or a range of other specialty programs, we will begin to graduate teachers with a specialty in teaching and learning in water.  We anticipate many of our staff will also have a Masters Degree in Waterslide Leadership or a related field.

Additional Costs

There will be a fee attached to program to laminate all the students work (things will get very wet) and to purchase waterproof markers for the students.  It will be expected that students attend in clothes that can dry quickly.

“That Question”

We know parents will be concerned around hygiene and we have taken the science used in the movie Grown Ups and any pee in the pool will automatically turn the water a bright blue (see photo) , singling out the student (or teacher) responsible and shaming them into never doing it again.

Conclusions

We are often told to be bold in education and that is just what we are doing with our latest elementary school.  Soak City Elementary School is not for everyone, but for kids who like to get wet, stay wet and combine academics and tube rides.  And this does carry-on our annual tradition of using this day to make bold decisions!

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.

And today we announce our plans to welcome the Soak City Nerdy Dolphins to our community of great schools in West Vancouver.

Hopefully you are enjoying today as much as me!

 

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Try

Try is a great word.

It is also a vulnerable word.  And vulnerability can be a scary thing as a teacher.

I have been in three classes over the last couple weeks where teachers talked about something they were trying.  Each time, the word really stood out.

In one class the teacher said she was “trying something new with how I organize students in groups.”  In another the teacher said he was “going to try using Google Docs to have students share their work.”  In a third the teacher said she was “trying to include more Indigenous ideas in her math class.”

Try implies uncertainty.  All three of these teachers were unsure how it would go, it was a bit of an experiment, it was their own inquiry just like their students were doing.  The teachers, in all their vulnerability were modeling lifelong learning.  They were trying things, some would work, others won’t, and they will refine and try again.  You can call it a design cycle or an inquiry model but I think of it as culture.  This is exactly the culture that I want us to continue to have.

I want us to have a culture of trying stuff.  We want our students to be fearless learners, so to for the adults that work with them.

Try.

It is such a great word.

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I have been asking students, teachers, administrators, parents and others lately – When you have just a couple of sentences to say something about your school or your district – what do you tell people?

Almost all the younger students I spoke with mentioned their teacher. From being “nice” to “funny” to “caring”, elementary students said that when others ask them about their school they talk about how much they like their teacher.  They also spoke about how fun school was and often referenced field trips, sports or other activities out of the norm.  One young woman shared how she loved when her teacher told stories, like a recent one of the missing “O”.  The story was built around learning about contractions and how “do not” becomes “don’t” – she recited the full story to me.

For older students, many often referenced teachers, but also were more likely to talk about what courses or programs they like.  They also spoke about how their high school program was preparing themselves for university.  I heard from students who said that by taking AP courses, they were more ready for post-secondary.  The high school students also often spoke about culture and climate and how school made them feel.  It was interesting as while some of the comments around care and concern are ones I would think could be heard at almost any school in the country, they felt it was unique in their individual schools.

Adults – whether staff or parents – used words like innovation, leadership and culture (not terms that came up with the students).  Adults also often commented about the size of the district.  West Vancouver, while a large district when one looks provincially, is small by Metro Vancouver standards – and that was a selling point for adults.  Comments like, “we are a small district so we have close relationships” came up.  Another said, “The fact that we are small is a positive.  It’s personal.”  There was also a sense that the smallness allowed for nimbleness.  There were also a number of comments about culture.  I am always interested in these, in trying to pinpoint exactly how culture shows itself.  Culture was often linked to support, innovation, risk-taking and opportunities.

It is the time of year when families are making choices for school for next year.  And I think it is important to always know what our elevator pitch for our schools and our district is.  I love how words like community, opportunity and innovation came through so often.  Of course now I am curious to know if this is what we are about, and these qualities in some way are unique to what we are doing in West Vancouver – exactly what is it we are doing that perhaps others aren’t that is leading to this work.

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