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Posts Tagged ‘Superintendent’

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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sculptureIt is interesting what stands out in one’s mind years later.

I was thinking this past weekend about a talk I heard Chris Kelly, the then Superintendent of Richmond School District, give at the BCPVPA Short Course about 15 years ago. The BCPVPA Short Course is generally for new administrators. At the time, I was an aspiring vice-principal.

Chris brought to the podium a kinetic chrome figurine like the one above. I remember these as popular at the time, a regular “executive” gift for one to put on their desk.  They were the kind of figurines that you had to carefully balance one part on the other, or it would fall.   Chris said it was one shared with him by a principal in his school district.

He used the sculpture to talk about the balancing act of leadership.  As someone just entering the school vice-principalship at the time, I am reminded of the phrase, you don’t know what you don’t know.  Chris spoke about the great balancing act of school and district leadership – with so many competing interests – the Ministry, the District, parents, teachers, students, and others.  And the amazing diversity of the work, one minute you can be talking about reading strategies with a teacher, the next you are thrown in the midst of a parent squabble related to custody, then you are off to support the music production, and the next you are disciplining students for smoking on school property.  The good leaders are those who are able to keep it all in balance.

That talk and that notion has stuck with me for fifteen years.  I was used to teaching in my classroom, and there were largely defined start and end times to work – classes were built around a bell schedule and my work was largely defined by lessons, units and courses.  The biggest shift I found moving into school administration is that work was rarely “done”.  At some point one has to leave it where it is, and pick it up tomorrow.  I have found this continue in district leadership.

As a teacher, I could often be very concrete with the answer, “So what did you do today?”  As a school, and now district administrator,  I find this more difficult.  It is not that there is not a lot of work, or that one is not making a difference, there is just a lot that is ongoing.  There seems to be a lot more that does not tie-up nicely.  I find there is a continual ongoing nature of the topics, whether they are parent concerns, budget recommendations, curriculum implementation or ongoing working with the Board.

I look at the variety of tasks that our school administrators complete, and look at what my own days looks like – and diverse would be an understatement.  Chris’ notion of balance is still very much alive for me.  I often think positions like the one I currently have are like being a juggler at the circus, working to make sure all the balls stay in the air.

Our best leaders in schools and districts are able to balance all of these priorities without ever looking “busy”.  They always have time for a question, rarely look rushed or flustered, and recognize that each encounter, no matter how significant it is for them, might be pivotal for the person they are interacting with.

I often think of Chris’ chrome balancing figurine.  It feels like the story of my life – an endless balancing act.

 

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Social-Network-Stock-PhotoThis post is a copy of an article in this month’s School Administrator Magazine

“When you hire me, you don’t just get me, you get my network.”

At least, that’s what I argued four years ago when I interviewed for the superintendency.

An hour prior to the start of the interview with the board of education trustees, I was given a question. And without hesitation, I was on my computer sharing the question on Twitter.

Over the next several minutes, I fielded a dozen responses from my network. There were a few quotable quotes, some links to helpful research on the Internet and a couple of “good luck” wishes. I took their thinking, blended it with my own and put together a presentation. Although the school board might have been curious about what I thought, I figured they were probably more interested in knowing I could find the best thinking, synthesize the ideas, contextualize them for our location and then share them in a thoughtful way — all in a timely manner.

Had I attempted this just a year prior, I may have been asked to leave the interview, or even been accused of cheating. It shows how quickly our world is shifting — what might have been considered disingenuous or even cheating a decade ago is now considered effective professional networking.

Since that interview, I have only become more reliant on my network, both in the face-to-face form and in the digital world.

The Network’s Power
The value of a strong network is nothing new, and social media serves to extend the reach of that network. Now, more than ever, it is not just what you know but who you know.

Traditionally, our personal and professional networks included the people with whom we went to high school or college or with whom we work and engage on a daily basis. These networks now extend globally. Social media allows us to build diverse networks with those in similar roles, across different segments of the community that have an interest in education. We not only get to connect with those we agree with but build a network that transcends the echo chamber we sometimes can detect in our daily connections.

Certainly, traditional structures where we gather in role-alike groups still exist — there are sessions for teachers, administrators, support staff, parents and the community, and sometimes we bring these groups together. Online, the roles tend to blur, and it is the ideas that become the focus, with the most current thinking and range of views. Tremendous power is available in being able to ask a question and engage so many in the answer.

District leaders can (and do) build networks across North America to learn from and with educators, such as Michael Smith, superintendent in Tuscola, Ill.; Pam Moran, superintendent in Albemarle County, Va.; Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent in Burlington, Mass.; and the hundreds of other district leaders who publicly share their ideas through social media.

Model the Way
We are continually encouraging our teachers and students to embrace digital tools. Leaders have a role to play in modeling their use, as well. We want students to take the risks in their learning and not to be afraid to make a mistake. Increasingly, we want them to engage with the real world, to own their learning and to create content for the digital world. We can help by modeling all of this.

True, social media can be daunting for school district leaders — the technology is new, and there are many waiting to pounce on any misstatement. This, though, is the world we want our kids to participate in.

What we can do is model the integrity, honesty, compassion and care in this space that we would want all others in our community to show. Our blogs as superintendents can lead to principals blogging, to teachers blogging and to students blogging. Our participation can model for others in our organization the power of the tools and also serve as the example for others to follow. Our participation does model the engagement we want for our communities in the serious issues of teaching and learning and does so in a respectful and appreciative way. District leaders can move (and model) beyond talking about it and start being about it.

Admittedly, I find blogging scary. I do it every week, but every time I hit “publish,” I worry I may have committed a spelling mistake for the world to see or said something that will be misconstrued or gotten my facts blatantly wrong. I have been in schools as a student and educator for about 35 years; I can only imagine the stress students must sometimes feel when they put themselves out there publicly — and it is also good for me to understand this.

Real and Connected
The superintendency often is seen as a role disengaged and detached from the reality of classrooms and schools. Social media can change that perception.

I clearly recall one angry parent who came to see me with a concern about a decision made about his child at one of our elementary schools. He explained his situation and ended by saying, “And I trust your opinion on this. I have read your blog and know you have four kids in school, so you obviously understand what it is like to be a parent.” In a way, my blog validated my credibility, not because of anything I had said, but because it helped to make me more real.

Social media engagement also allows leaders to keep tabs on what is being said in the community and elsewhere about your school or district. One can follow students, teachers, parents, media, politicians and others and then engage with them. Often, what is in the newspaper tomorrow or the day after is being discussed on social media today. The community wants to know what the superintendent thinks, and blogging lets us do this on our own terms.

Our Own Words
There are many people who are happy to provide a version of what the superintendent thinks and says. The local news media often paraphrase the remarks of the superintendent, as do union leaders and others in the community. Social media allows us a platform to connect directly with the community to tell our story. Instead of lamenting that our stories are not told factually and fully and that the only news reported is bad news, we can change that — by telling our own stories through social media.

The proliferation of social media had led to more public gossiping than ever. By the same token, the use of social media can help us reach our community unfiltered. I know my blog posts — typically two to four a month — influence the watercooler conversations in our schools. When I wanted our district to engage in a conversation about final exams, a blog post on the topic laying out some of the positives and negatives helped guide the conversation.

The profile and political nature of our job and the relationship with the school board and government officials all can give pause. I am careful and clear about the areas I discuss in social media and those I don’t. My focus is on teaching and learning. While I spend time discussing budgets and labour contracts with our board, those are issues for them to speak about publicly.

While others will gladly say what we believe if we let them, social media does help break down some of the traditional barricades to reaching the people we want to teach. It also can humanize us and allow us to share our thoughts and stories in our own words.

Professional Benefits
Professional learning and development for educators used to be scarce. Educators depended on monthly magazines, professional journals and occasional conferences. Now phenomenal resources are available just one or two clicks away.

While school districts’ physical boundaries remain well-defined, when it comes to professional learning, the district geography is blurry and becoming ever-less important. We are finding ways to connect and engage online that have little to do with geography. And just what can you find online? Without question, another superintendent in another school district is wrestling with the same issues you are dealing with.

My digital professional network has enhanced my face-to-face network. At last year’s AASA National Conference on Education, I connected with many colleagues I had known only digitally until then. I have found a common trend that I connect with people online and then meet them and then continue online — the combination of both digital and face-to-face connections has made these relationships far stronger than those I know exclusively online or in person.

Through Twitter and blogs, I have discovered we can connect with others in the field, solve problems, and open ourselves up to new ideas and learning.

Doors to Opportunity
Social media opens up opportunities. It gives space to highlight the work in our school districts. Each week I am sharing the best practices and programs I see in our schools — from teachers using inquiry, to students being able to self-regulate to maximize learning, to schools using digital devices. And then we can connect this work across the district and around the world.

Being engaged also opens up personal opportunities — from speaking and consulting opportunities to first insight on job openings. Social media means you have the power of your network to bring to any future job.

Anyone who sees participation in social media as another demand on an already full schedule hasn’t yet discovered the power that participation can have. None of us is truly too busy to blog, tweet or otherwise engage in social media. If we aren’t doing it, we just haven’t yet realized why it should be a priority.

West Vancouver is a school district of just over 7,000 students in British Columbia, Canada. But through involvement and engagement of our staff in social media, we are known around the world.

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I find one of my important jobs is getting the ‘tension’ right between schools and the district. Tension is often a word with negative connotations, but it provides a necessary balance throughout the system. People look at me questioningly when I acknowledge and even encourage healthy tension between competing interests (but we are all teammates in the bigger picture).  At each hierarchical level, whether provincial government, school district, school or classroom, there needs to be autonomy to be innovative and creative to meet specific needs. But, the work must be connected because we are more than a collection of independent contractors and a sum of ideas. I described some of this in a previous post on flexibility.

When faced with a topic or issue, I regularly consider if something is primarily a school focus or a district decision.  There are many issues that districts should simply stay out of, and leave to schools who are more nimble and quicker to make changes as required.  Further, for new initiatives to take hold, they often come from passionate teachers, schools or communities and not from a district decree.

Schools tend to look at issues through the lens of the school first and foremost; a district takes a more global view of the school district as a whole and, as a district leader, this is the perspective I take, for example, when a school wants to start a new program.  The case is often made “how it is right for the community,” and I then take into consideration the impact the new program would have on other schools and the district as a whole. Some programs that have been suggested would have done very well, but would have also moved student populations and emptied out other schools — good for the school but bad for the district.  It is also very easy in a district job to think we know best and make more decisions centrally (but we would NEVER want the provincial government to do that with school districts).  There are other times where the district can help transform a community by suggesting the consideration of a new program.  The placement of programs like French Immersion, for example, are often crucial ones for a district to make as they look at the larger view of community interests and population trends.

As a principal, the ‘tension’ was in wanting to be encouraging of innovation, but also wanting to ensure, as a school, we were moving in a common direction.  As a district leader, the ‘tension’ is more in trying to set direction for the district but giving the freedom and flexibility to schools to each have their own “signature” one that is informed but rarely prescribed by the District.

I will often talk about our commitment to inquiry, self-regulation, social-emotional learning and digital literacy.  And, at each school, these ideas will take on different shapes and direction. I use this blog and other opportunities to engage, discuss and draw connections between the different approaches to the same larger goals.  All our schools develop their own narrative, but they are part of a bigger story.  Similarly, I feel that our district is part of a larger provincial story – one of a highly achieving system looking towards where it needs to go next.

I have often heard teachers and administrators say of their districts “I don’t know where we are going.” Hopefully, I am finding ways to be clear about where we are going, but not prescribing a single narrow path to get there. I will continue to consider whether we are getting the ‘tension’ right.

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fish

I often speak and write about how the principalship and the superintendency need to look different in the era of social media. And, while it can be difficult to distill  ideas to a few key points, a recent post from Brian Verhoeven does a great job of summarizing what that leadership looks like, and while the post was not specific about schools or school systems, I think the messages are right on for our system.

Verhoeven’s post summarizes a discussion by authors Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant of Humanize:  How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.  The messages and the five key points about what makes a good organizational leader are very straightforward (my own thoughts are added below each point):

1.  They provide clear direction.

This list rings true for our education system.  Districts should set direction for schools, schools set direction for classes, and then leaders should step back and not micro-manage.  This action allows staff autonomy to find their own solutions, with superintendents and principals providing clarity of direction, and not necessarily all the answers.

2.  They use positive language when things change. They embrace change.

Principals and superintendents are often regarded and turned to in times of change, whether the changes are from government, in demographics, or in our understanding of teaching and learning, we always need to be out front and curious, with change not for the sake of change, but for different and better.

3.  They are transparent and share information freely.

The era of control is over, or almost over.  In the era of the instant, spending time thinking about “managing the message” has passed.  There is an expectation of timeliness and that we remove the secretive nature of the work.  Information is just that; the job of leaders it to make sense and direction of that information.

4.  They reinforce the value of experimentation—even failure.

The quote I often use, borrowed from a former colleague in Coquitlam, is that “you don’t have to be sick to get better.”  For us, in the West Vancouver school district, it is the notion and practice of a ‘culture of yes’, of thoughtful experimentation, and risk-taking, knowing we do not move forward unless we leave our comfort zone.  The best school and district leaders are supportive of staff and students taking the risk, quick to give praise when it works out, but just as quick to shelter those taking risks from criticism when it doesn’t.

5.  They talk aloud sharing their rationale and understanding with the team. They leverage the expertise of others to help them solve the tough problems.

Although the final decision is often made by one, along the way there are huge opportunities to leverage the brainpower of the room (whether that be a physical or digital room) to help ensure the best decisions are made. And, with such powerful and accessible networks, we would be remiss not to take advantage of this opportunity to make the best possible decisions.

A very straightforward, five-point list. Yes, but a very effective way of showing what we need today in educational leadership.

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Now how is that for a title?

As a political junkie, it was just a matter of time before I found a way to weave a blog post together linking US Presidential politics to our work (or more specifically, my work).  Recently, a particular column about President Obama spoke to me; it was Michael Takiff’s “Why Doesn’t Obama Like to Schmooze?

This piece, contrasts the current president’s nights at home with his family, and former President Clinton’s, which were often spent meeting with lawmakers and engaging in the “work” of being president, connecting continuously and relentlessly.  In fairness to Clinton, the article also points to his efforts in living a balanced life at home with his daughter.  But, Takiff says about Obama:

While he is America’s only president, he is also his daughters’ only father; his duty to them demands that he take time out from his duty to his country. And so he makes sure that at 6:30 each evening he’s seated at the family dinner table. After the meal, he helps his daughters with their homework.

So, why I am I writing about this?  It struck a chord, because I am questioning if parenting is generation-oriented; has parenthood become different from previous generations, and I am also wonder about the role technology is playing, well actually, more how it can play in changing the “rules” of our work.

Now, on becoming a parent, over a decade ago, when the opportunity of a new job came up, before salary, before potential prospects, before anything, in fact, the first question I asked (and still ask) is, “What do the evening commitments look like?”  For, like Obama, I am not interested in being an absentee parent. I’m not suggesting anyone does,or that previous generations did — I do think the game has changed. For me, I am happy doing “the work” online late into the night, and picking it up early the next day. BUT, I want to make a window of time, on a semi-regular basis — somewhere between six and nine at night, when I engage with my kids.

There is no longer a prize for being the first car in the parking lot in the morning, or the last car to leave at night.  For many, that was (for some, it still is) the sign of ‘hard’ work.  However, where work happens is changing.  No question, there are parts of my job that require being “present” and having face time.  There are other parts that simply need to get done, and they can be done in the office, at home, at 6:00 p.m. or the next morning.

On being superintendent — having been appointed to this position three years ago, and now just completing my second full year in the role, I do find the position is a bit what one makes of it, and there are so many ways to “do it right”. I have seen others in the role who are masters of the community, attending events at arts clubs, chambers of commerce, community centres and many other community events. And, this is important work, because it raises the profile and interests of a school district. One still needs to pick and choose how they will spend their time.

My focus is really getting the learning right in classrooms, so classrooms over community has sometimes been the priority. And, to be honest, I have had no problem with working hard, I do want to be sure that my own family sees me some evenings. Yes, I nod my head knowingly at  presentations to parents where we discuss the importance of family dinners and other similar connections, knowing full well, that at that moment, I’m doing the very opposite this.  I have had to make choices to forgo evening opportunities, and redefining the role of superintendent, aligned with those values.  I also do realize what I attend speaks to what I say is important – so these decisions are always taken carefully.

Now, if the President of the United States has figured out a way to be home most nights by 6:30 for dinner, surely I (and those who work with me, and have jobs like mine) can find new ways to be home for dinner a couple of  nights a week (I am reminded of a previous story blogged about in YOUR CHOICE).  That said, to the credit of those I am working with in West Vancouver, from staff to Trustees, we are experimenting with more online meetings, and looking at doing more of the face-to-face meetings during daytime hours. Our  District Leadership Team of six, all have children in the K-12 system right now, so this issue is very relevent for all of us.

So, if  the President of the United States can have dinner with his family “most nights”,  that’s certainly good enough for me to aspire to!

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It’s the New Year and, with it, a new position.  Having spent the last 14 months as the Superintendent-in-Waiting, I start January as the Superintendent of Schools for the West Vancouver School District.

This past fall, I had the privilege to speak at “Opening Day” — a professional development day for all staff in our district — the week prior to school opening.  At that session, the outgoing Superintendent, Geoff Jopson, shared thoughts on the last decade and I spoke about what is ahead.  As I start ‘for real’ in the role, I want to come back to some of the themes — a collection of beliefs, values and commitments.

On Working in West Vancouver:

It is a great honour for me to serve in this community as a teacher and as the superintendent.   I love that on most days, most people are at least a 9 out of 10.  We love what we do; we love who we do it with, and we love where we do it.  The district and community are large enough to feel part of a greater entity, but small enough to be completely connected.

On Being a Teacher:

It is funny that we often use different words for “Teacher”.  We have teacher leaders, lead teachers, principal teachers, support teachers, helping teachers, mentor teachers, and sometimes we take the word teacher out altogether — and have educational leaders, among a range of other terms.  I am good with “Teacher”.  It is who I am, and it says it all.  The rest is about the different roles we have, but “Teacher” describes who we are.    I don’t think we actually need anything more.  And while teachers sometimes fall victim to profiling in the media, and while our profession is asked to do more and more, it is still the greatest profession in the world — and there are few things better in life than being called a teacher.  What we do makes a dent in our world; it matters, and makes it a slightly better place in which to live.

On My Plan as Superintendent:

And what is it that we do, and will continue to do?   I have often been asked about “what will be your plan as superintendent?”  I know in many places gimmicks are quite fashionable — a particular program or approach that will be the be-all and end-all. We hear this a lot from the United States as they talk about No Child Left Behind . . . if only we all just did Smart Reading, or all had laptops, or used EBS, or played first and then ate lunch, or had a particular bell schedule, then our system would move forward and students would graduate in even greater numbers.  These are all worthy and can be powerful initiatives, but there are no magic bullets.  It is the hard work in the classrooms everyday — the mix of science and art; teachers taking what they know about what works, combining this with their skills, and building relationships with their students — this makes all the difference.  In the end, and more than anything else, it is the relationships that matter.  The relationships we have with each other, and the relationships we build with parents and students.

On A Culture of Yes:

It is the “culture of yes”, we have and will continue to foster — one that embraces new ideas and new ways to look at learning and organize learning; a “culture of yes” that supports innovation and creativity for both learners and teachers, knowing this is how we will continue to evolve.  It is a “culture of yes” that touches on the passions we entered the profession with, and that may have sometimes been lost along the way, but hopefully, found again.

We have an amazing community in West Vancouver — and it is exciting to take on this new role.  As I said at the end of my presentation in August, “Let’s go new places.”

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